Sunday, 27 September 2009

Final thought for the weekend

All this week I have been talking to people back home in the UK who are already being asked for serious tightening of belts. From firefighters to universities.

Tomorrow I will go back to Brussels and into the bubble that seems to pretend that the real world simply does not exist. Over recent weeks each EP committee has proposed amendment after amendment of UPWARDS revisions to budgets.... with UK Tories usually in the minority saying "NO!".

Would the European Union just notch in its own belt a bit please.

A week at home....

Even though my journeys to Brussels are by Eurostar the carbon footprint of a travelling MEP is frightening - so its been good to spend a week back in the UK. Just before you believe that our "green weeks" are a total waste of time here are some of the things I've been doing.

Universities - I followed up on invitations to visit both Hertfordshire and Cambridge Universities - the former is an outstanding example of skills led education: close relationships with leading local and national businesses help them to direct courses towards real employment opportunities and students talked of the desire for close ties with its community. Cambridge University retains its world leading academic status. Its graduates are still sought after across the world (Indeed a Cambridge student will be joining my team for an internship next week). I heard their deep concerns over years of declining UK exam standards, and the need to raise funds especially to encourage world class PhD students to study in the UK.

Small businesses - the Federation of Small Businesses hosted 5 of the region's MEPs for an evening discussing many different issues. We all signed up to their campaign to stop French blockades of Channel Ports. I encouraged them to work through their members to help us highlight examples of EU red tape and UK gold plating - we need the ammunition from real companies to help us fight the battle on bureaucracy. Another issue raised was a case of the EU being slow paying amounts owed to small businesses for research grants. This is the second time I have been asked to help with this sort of problem (I suspect there are many more?). I spoke to the company concerned and have offered to help follow up their case when back in Brussels next week. I also visited a small medical research company hoping to get a grant for development of a Motor Neurone disease treatment. It was very useful for me to see a real example of the bureaucracy involved.

Public Services - again in Hertfordshire I visited the fire service's training facility. I was extremely impressed to hear that Herts Fire Service is to lead the first cross European major disaster training exercise for Urban search and rescue. They will lead emergency services from the UK, Germany, Ireland and Denmark in exercises across cities and urban areas in the UK. 120 UK firefighters went to Holland this week to take part in the "storm surge" exercise to learn how they may attempt to deal with a North Sea flood disaster - if such an event were to occur it could be devastating for parts of East Anglia.

Financial matters - The next few months will see a plethora of legislation regarding financial services coming in front of the Economic and Monetary affairs committee that I sit on in the parliament. I have spent large parts of this week joining commuters from across the East of England on their way to the City of London. Meetings with industry players like the Stock Exchange and British Bankers Association are helping me to understand some of the details of the proposed legislation - its vital we focus on the impact of legislation on the end user. I'm not convinced that the UKIP heckling of the head of the FSA from behind my right shoulder at the Mansion House dinner on Tuesday evening really helped to move forward the complex debate about balancing the need for new regulations with assisting the real economy to get back on it's feet!

Fighting for jobs back at home - This week we have heard very worrying rumours of potential layoffs at the Vauxhall works in Luton. Robert Sturdy MEP, Geoffrey Van Orden MEP and I wrote a strongly worded joint letter to the Competition Commissioner back in Brussels reminding her that UK jobs should not suffer because of potential government cash sweeteners elsewhere on the continent. EU rules on "state aid" are there to prevent anti-competitive state subsidies and should be enforced!

Back in the office we've been debating the finer details of the Energy in Buildings Directive that I am now shadowing and helping with a tragic story about the difficulty of repatriating loved ones lost in accidents overseas. Meanwhile my mail box is filling up with voters' concerns about horse transport on the continent - thank goodness Newmarket is in my area so I have been able to get some helpful advice!

A varied week but I do admit that I took my birthday OFF (well mostly).

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Five good reasons to leave Strasbourg scaffolding behind us

It's Sunday night after living in the bubble of a Strasbourg week and my sanity(?)has begun to return.

Here are my five reasons why we must work to reform not only the macro problems of the EU but also continue to fight the micro issue of the Strasbourg parliament itself.

1. Waste of taxpayers money. Much has already been written by previous members from all parties on the waste of money, see here, here and even here. In today's austere times when public spending is under the spotlight it is even more unacceptable for elected members of any chamber to put up with such a symbol of waste.

2. Waste of time. OK this might sound a bit of a whinge but its a nightmare to travel to for work. Strasbourg is an outstandingly beautiful city and steeped in history. I would recommend anyone a visit. Most MEPs can to get Brussels by direct trains or flights but not so Strasbourg. Unlike many others I spent only 11 1/2 hours travelling this week and was able to squeeze in some constituency and office work on Monday morning and Friday. Many members spend both the Monday and the Friday just getting to and from the parliament, let alone staff and assistants.

3. The political frenzy. I hadn't realised before becoming elected how the Strasbourg session takes possession of the political wheel. When Westminster sits votes are spread out over many weeks. In the EP a month's worth of negotiations get squeezed into a tiny number of voting days. This week I have seen that reasoned negotiating positions that had been listened to in Brussels can suddenly find themselves fighting against the short term newspaper strapline or TV headline. Yes a week is a long time in politics but the cameras run dangerously faster in Strasbourg - It's only my second Strasbourg session and already I have seen that good sense can disappear to short termism.

4. The impact on the city itself. On my way back to the airport I shared a car with a new Swedish Socialist MEP. We discussed the circus of the parliament. She was eloquent in her concerns for the city itself. "Why does the city need to live with this?" she said "Would it not be better for them to have stability and a permanent public service institution, instead of the 40 odd days a year the MEPs are present." Looking over the headrest I could see how uncomfortable our driver felt with the conversation. His income no doubt reliant on our few days. In his face I saw why it would take a brave French politician to concede ground in the Strasbourg debate - but they would have a united political front from all other countries behind them.

and finally
5. Is the building still falling down?... The Houses of Parliament were built by the Victorians, construction of the US Capitol began in 1793 so the Strasbourg parliament buildings are mere babes. Last year the roof fell in. My own 11th floor office is in a building opened only 10 years ago. I'm not spaced out by tall buildings - I used to work on a 46th floor but I wont get into the far right lift. I doubt if the drop and recapture exercise it performs between floors 10 and 6 wouldn't get through the laxest of health and safety officers in the UK .. Interesting scaffolding has begun to appear. Even my children's school writes a long letter to parents when practically a single pole of scaffolding is erected. But here it has arrived without a word. UMMMM

Saturday, 12 September 2009

A run in with the military police

When I left home yesterday I really wasn't anticipating a confrontation with the anti terror squad.

The invitation was to visit Happisburg in North Norfolk to discuss coastal erosion with 3 teenagers who are gradually watching their village disappear under the sea. It's important. I threw out some ideas, they threw out others --- we discussed their frustrations (those with responsibility have no budgets, those who have budgets appear to have no responsibility). I gave them some ideas on campaigning tactics. We concluded that they need to get local people and the local council to come up with a practicable local plan. If they get a plan I will do what I can to see if they can unlock some EU funds. Its a bureaucratic nightmare but my colleagues' experiences is that sometimes local residents' solutions are far more affordable than top down ones.

As we left the village I realised that we were only down the road from Bacton, where the UK's main gas refinery is located on the North Sea. As one of my committees in the parliament includes energy I had wanted to visit this facility anyway - but its is miles away from just about anywhere. As we were nearby I thought it would be worth a detour.

Turning up a the main gate I called security on their intercom and explained I was a passing MEP. I was politely told to make an appointment. My assistant took a couple of photos from the public road for the album and we drove off.

We'd only gone about 200 yards when suddenly two (armoured?) police 4x4s appeared with sirens blazing and trapped my trusty Astra in their pincer movement. Suffice to say that the military police are a formidable force and I had stirred the hornets' nest. I would not advise others to do the same. It took a lot of IDs, business cards, numberplate searches and general interrogation before they conceded that I probably was who I said I was and this might not a bad thing for an MEP to be interested in. Eventually I left on friendly terms.

Though it was pretty frightening, in retrospect, I am pleased that the MoD did demonstrate their strength. Energy secruity is an extremely serious issue. I'm also extremely glad that my colleague (and former Brigadier) Geoffrey Van Orden MEP will be making a more official trip to Bacton in a few weeks. I will certainly be arming him with some questions.

Next time I'm on the coast perhaps I will use up my freetime with a paddle and an icecream..... beats Brussels anyday!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A dog has 4 legs.... latest update from the EP

“A dog has four legs, my cat has four legs – therefore my cat is a dog”.
I started writing this 30,000 feet up on the Easy Jet from Prague to Stansted which reminded me to try to look at the big picture.

I was reading Jose Manuel Barosso’s paper on the “politicial guidelines for the next Commission” - His vision for the next 5 years as president of the European Commission. Like many pieces of Euro literature it is full of wonderful intentions (get the economy going, stem unemployment, upgrade skills, lead on climate change, thriving rural economies, innovation revolution) but the tangible actions are much less evident. My colleague Ashley Fox summed up Euro-logic with the description of his four legged cat/dog friend.

As an MEP I have found that one rapidly gets caught up the silo of committee work. There are so many issues that perhaps it is best to keep focused but I am beginning to bore for Britain about money – but especially in a recession that is important. We started the week in Brussels quizzing Mr Barosso on his paper – he is seeking our votes to retain his position. I asked how is he going to pay for this? Where are savings coming from? I see a commission aide has just filled my email inbox with his “detailed” answer.... more numbers... serves me right....but reading the email no more answers.

My second question was rather more complicated. A Federation of Small Business survey in the UK recently showed that access to bank capital remains a huge concern. Mr Barosso has promised that businesses in Europe will have “ a level playing field” with the ability to be globally competitive. But the more I meet financiers or dig into the detail of the mountain of papers on my desk I find examples of where the EU (through the commission) are getting ahead of the rest of the world with legislation and regulation. I have no problem with regulation if its good regulation, but I don’t want our businesses to be kicking up hill.

I went to Prague to join other MEPS from across Europe for the first of our “working days”. The big picture. Listening to members from other countries – especially our Eastern European countries about their priorities helped me to understand just some of their issues. Their history, why they joined the EU, why their relationship with Russia matters, how important their relationship with the West and the US are, their concerns about to energy security (yes it does matter to all of us if the gas is switched off but they are in the front line)... it has reminded me how different each member’ s problems are. . They don’t need cat=dog solutions.
Dirkjan Eppink MEP has summed up his vision of the ECR. We don’t want a United States of Europe but a United Europe of States.

... meanwhile the day to day challenge of running the MEP’s office continues. Whenever someone complains about any group/ their voice/ their role always ask if this was because they really just want a bigger office. For various reasons we have had to move office. Tom, my assistant carefully packed all his hard won forms of” work contracts”, “flat contracts”, “health contracts” and a lot of my diary into the “office move” boxes provided by the bureaucrats. The removal men moved them over night. In the early hours of the morning the cleaners came in removed the boxes to the shredders . I later found out that Charles Tannock MEP lost 10 years of carefully kept files on over 250 countries in exactly the same manoeuvre.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Business, Brussels and Boris

Today has been one of those Brussels business days when suddenly everything happens at once. It was the first major meetings of the "committees" of the new parliament. My own committee, "Economic and Monetary Affairs", has had a packed agenda - discussing need for a global regulation of financial markets with US Congressmen, setting the agenda priorities for the months ahead and opening the debate on the first major piece of legislation to hit the desk (The Alternative Investment Fund Management Directive.

In the midst of this I was able to welcome Boris to Brussels. Hotfoot from the Eurostar the Mayor of London arrived to make sure that every possible parliamentarian understands the implications that the plethora of financial services legislation passing through Brussels would have, not just on the City of London but actually on UK and European businesses trying to raise capital and on the pensions or future savings of our voters back at home.

In the parliament it is often tempting to make sweeping statements for headlines but with so much of this legislation the devil is in the detail. In the back of my mind today I have been thinking about some of the companies back at home that I have been able to meet over recent months. Companies in inovative industries like hi-tech, software, bio-tech. Businesses that (if we get it right) will be the drivers of new economic growth, jobs and prosperity. If we get it wrong, these inovations will either not happen or happen overseas. Little tiny details in the single directive that we discussed today could make it much, much more difficult for those companies to access the capital they need to survive let alone grow. Putting our real economy at a global competitive disadvantage is not a decision that should be taken lightly.

Of course we need regulation of financial services but it must be better regulation - Over the past few weeks working with my colleague Kay Swinburne MEP I have been given many example of how "little" details in the vast wadges of legislation would have unintended consequences not just in the City of London but in the real economy too. Boris helped make those points today. It has been helpful to hear others from across the political spectrum make similar points.

A busy day, on the whole a good day, but its early days...