Sunday, 25 October 2009

Another Strasbourg Week

I have been told by some of the older MEPs that we new kids on the block have it lucky. "Just wait until the new Commission arrives, then you'll really see a Strasbourg voting list". They say.

Given that this week I have been asked to vote on everything from the death penalty in Iran - to coercive abortion - to dairy subsidies - to increased funding for EU embassies - to how many vehicles should be in the parliament car pool... I almost can't believe that it could get more varied.

The big vote of the week was to be the EU budget. I understand that every year the same charade is played out. The Commission proposes a budget, our national governments through the Council of Ministers reduce it and then the various committees of the European Parliament put it back up again. Many of the increases seem for very worthwhile causes, but at a time of economic crisis when our own workers are facing very constrained times I just could not bring myself to back the EU's bulging budget. Sadly the majority of MEPs didn't think the same way. We now go through another round of haggling before coming back to a second vote.

Just in case you want to know where my thoughts lay this week: I don't support a death penalty; I don't think women should be forced to have abortions against their will; I am very concerned about our dairy farmers (but we need to find a long term solution); I think it is shocking that the UK is reducing its embassies around the world while the EU is opening up its own (without giving the British people their vote on the Lisbon treaty); I don't think we need any more cars in the pool (the majority of MEPs agreed); I also voted to reduce MEP travel allowances by 25% (the majority disagreed).

This week constituents have been writing to me regarding shocking disclosures of how horses are treated on their way to slaughter (I agree that something must be done) and whether MEPs should have passes to the House of Commons (ideally yes, because we need to co-ordinate closely with our colleagues in the House of Commons and therefore have a great deal of business in the Palace of Westminster) but I pray that the BNP never get a vote in that parliament).

This week we have seen the UK entering its longest period of recession ever and across Europe unemployment is still rising. In the meantime the parliament is still arguing a lot about what caused the recession in the first place and spending tax payers' money like never before.

Sometimes its easy to understand why voters are disillusioned.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Damage limitation and a bit of match making...

"Its 95% damage limtitation and occasionally a bit of match making." These were the words of one of my experienced MEP colleagues when describing the work in his brussels office. As we travelled back towards London pouring over thick drafts of potential regulation and covered them with red ink it was very clear what he meant about the damage limitiation part of the work. MEP's can and do put forward ammendments on individual pieces of legislation. So we are often checking the fine detail of directives.

The match making part of the role is very satisfying. One meets so many people doing this job that sometimes it may be possible to introduce those with a problem to those with a potential solution.

Last week the Chambers of Commerce leaders from around the UK arrived in Brussels. Over a coffee a representative from the Midlands explained that some of her member companies in the building ceramics trade are being asked to pay for gas and electricity up to 6 months in advance. I understand that the recession means that utility companies could be wary of customers making bricks and tiles but this did seem an excessive payment to me. Later in the week a delegation from RBS arrived. They were very keen to tell me that RBS is trying to lend money to businesses that need it - and I told him about the brickmakers dilema. I was impressed that the gentleman from RBS was aware of the problem and that they were working on ways to help these companies. So I have swapped the business cards and hope that the matchmaking will find a solution to the problem.

Also in Brussels I learnt about plans to restructure the dreadful EU fishing quota system. Emails are now pinging back to friends in some of our Eastern ports to make sure that they get involved in the consultation.

Compassion in World Farming turned up to discuss long journeys taken by animals en route to slaughter. They make some excellent points. I hope their campaign for better "origin" labelling for meat products is sucessful. They explained that they would like a 8 hour maximum for all animal journeys - However a few hours later I met representatives from the thoroughbred breeders and racing industry. They explained that rules regarding transport for horses en route to slaughter would be totally inappropriate for thier mares, foals and racehorses. As there are around 7,000 people employed in horse related industries around Newmarket I do always try to understand their concerns.... yet another bit of red ink may be needed.

I find that these sorts of meeting make a welcome break from discussing banking and financial regulation - where my drafts of potential directives are now covered in red ink, comments and question marks.

Monday, 12 October 2009

A tale of two conferences

My carbon footprint has taken a bit of a battering over the past fortnight. Last week, in the middle of Conservative Party conference I left Manchester at 5am to hop back to Brussels for a debate on alternative investments. The week before I flew from Brussels to join a conference in Gothenburg (Sweeden).

In Gothenburg the masters of the European finance universe mustered. Central bankers, finance minisers, economists, regulators, "wise" men. We were locked in a complex outside the city from 8am 'til 11pm. So what did they debate? At no point did I hear employment or indeed unemployment mentioned, there was a (very) occasional cursory glance to Europe's ageing demographic and the pensions deficit, a few voices flickered on the public sector finances burden. BUT The weight of debating time surounded the proposed "Supervisory Architecture" of the EU banking system - committees of European central bankers and regulators that will meet to (perhaps) help pinpoint financial risks in the future. I returned home frustrated that so much energy had been spent on bureaucracy of the future rather than addressing the problems of today.

What a contrast then to Conservative Party conference where employment and debt was the key focus. George Osborne's speech was described by some comentators as brave - but no one doubts it was full of reality. Over the weekend I have had the chance to discuss with doctors and teachers George's policies on the public sector pay freeze and increasing the retirement age. Even the most left leaning doctor told me she thought these were acceptable suggestions if they help maintain jobs.

Back to Brussels today - by train this time - so at least I will feel a little less guilty for the planet.