Friday, July 29, 2005

Monday will see the end of tobacco sponsorship for major sporting events right across Europe.

This is a blow not only to the tobacco industry, but also to those people who like to pretend that passing laws at EU level is a bad idea. The usual argument is that we could just as well take these decisions at national level; but the issue of tobacco sponsorship is a lesson for eurosceptics about the benefits of taking decisions collectively with our neighbours at European level.

For years, many governments have been convinced of the need to end tobacco advertising, but ran into a problem when it came to big sporting events: Unilateral action banning sponsorship in one country could easily lead to the sport in question simply relocating elsewhere. We all remember the saga of Grand Prix sponsorship, when Formula 1 responded to the first countries to contemplate banning tobacco advertising by saying they would pull the Grand Prix out of that country and hold it elsewhere. The same potential problem applied across many sports.

But by agreeing to act at EU level, governments have ensured that European countries cannot be played off against one another in this way. Standing together, EU countries have enough clout to ensure that international sports federations have to comply with our decision, rather than looking for cynical ways around it. Another one in the eye for the europhobes!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

How gullible are you? Do you know your Brussels bureaucrats from your bendy bananas?

Find out how much tabloid mythology you've swallowed with my new euro-quiz!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Digging back through my archived press clippings, I discovered this little gem from the Huddersfield Daily Examiner in 2002: a letter to the editor which neatly parodies much eurosceptic argument. (Depressingly, it's only very slightly exaggerated…)
I feel I must add my voice to the current debate on Europe. It strikes me that there are far too many foreigners there and that we should have no part of it.

I proudly served my country in at least three world wars and can honestly say that I did not do so for the benefit of greasy long-haired types with a liking for smelly cheese and the over-use of perfume.

Our so-called leaders should take heed before our national heritage disappears under the jackboot of Belgium. I can foresee even our weather being taken over by the warmer and sunnier climes of Europe. Where would we be then, Mr Blair?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Another interesting case-study in perception-versus-reality in the EU.

I recently picked up a copy of the papers from an international conference which took place in Spain earlier this year. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the Lisbon Strategy, a plan agreed by all EU countries which aims to make the Union the most dynamic, competitive, sustainable, knowledge-based economy in the world.

The Lisbon Strategy was agreed in the year 2000, so this year, halfway through, is a good opportunity to ask how we're doing. That was the aim of the conference.

The conclusions drawn by the conference were what interested me most. Gerhard Stahl, secretary general of the Committee of the Regions, pointed out that the perception of the EU’s competitiveness is far more negative than the facts. In fact, economically speaking, the EU compares positively with the USA. But people don’t see it like that.

Mr Stahl described the perception as “bloated bureaucracy, collapsing welfare systems and an economy which is neither competitive nor innovative”, but then went on to point out that the reality is quite different. Of the hundred biggest companies in the world, more have their headquarters in the EU than in the USA. And countries with the most developed welfare systems are also among the most competitive ones. By any measure of competitiveness, the EU’s Scandinavian countries score as high or more highly than the US. In the US, by contrast, there are 40 million people excluded from the health insurance system.

But, of course, what matters when it comes to attracting investment is not necessarily the reality but the way potential investors perceive it: “the USA is in a healthy state because people believe in the future of the USA”. While it would no doubt be true that an impartial observer would choose to invest in the EU rather than the US, as pointed out by The Economist earlier this year, it’s not impartial observers we have to convince—it’s European and American companies.

The US economist Jeremy Rifkin has an interesting diagnosis of this problem:
“To begin with, Europe, with its 455 million consumers, is now the largest internal market in the world. It’s also the largest exporting power. And the Euro is now stronger than the dollar—a reality few American economists would have thought conceivable just four years ago. We Americans, and many Europeans, still compare individual European nations to the United States when it comes to relative economic power. But in the commercial arena, such comparisons make less and less sense.

“Most companies I am personally familiar with in Europe increasingly think of themselves as European—if not global—companies, just as in the United States, companies long ago stopped thinking of themselves as New York companies or California companies, but rather as American and global companies.

“What this all means is that we have to begin to reframe our very concept of European states and begin thinking of them as part of the European Union, just as we think of the fifty American states as part of the United States. This fundamentally changes the way we make comparisons. For example, rather than thinking of Germany in comparison to the U.S., we should think of it in comparison to California—Germany being the largest state in the European economy and California the largest state in the U.S. economy. When we begin to shift the way we make comparisons, everything suddenly changes and we start to grasp the enormity of what’s unfolding and the potential consequences for America. Germany’s economy is significantly larger than California’s. The U.K.’s economy is nearly twice as large as our second largest state, New York. France is nearly 50 percent larger than our third most powerful state economy, Texas. Italy is more than twice as big as our fourth most powerful state economy, Florida. Spain edges out our fifth biggest state, Illinois. The Netherlands boasts an economy larger than New Jersey’s. Sweden’s economy is bigger than that of Washington State. Belgium’s economy eclipses Indiana’s. Austria’s GDP exceeds Minnesota’s. Poland’s economy is larger than that of Colorado. Denmark’s is bigger than Connecticut’s. Finland’s GDP exceeds Oregon’s. Greece’s GDP is dead even with South Carolina’s.

“While it may be painful for Germany, the UK, France, Italy, and Spain to have their economies compared to California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, this is the reality that’s emerging as European nations metamorphose into a larger transnational political space with a single economy. The EU is, indeed, a new superpower that rivals the economic power of the United States on the world stage."
If we took Mr Rifkin’s advice, we’d realise that the European chemical industry is in a strong position, the European car industry is by far the most competitive in the world, the European aviation industry is competing well with American companies, and Europe is at the top in the market for business software.

Making a success of the Lisbon Strategy depends not only on building on our strengths and addressing our problems, but also doing our best to make sure that the rest of the world recognise that we’re doing so.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The curiously named ‘Nosemonkey’, a pro-EU blogger and freelance journalist who is kind enough to link to me now and then, wrote a while ago on how, in his words, “Europe” (or, specifically, the new constitution) “is not ambitious enough”:
“The Treaty of Rome covered just six nations, yet each required opt-outs for varous clauses. The same has been the case with most subsequent treaties. Now that the Union has expanded to 25 members - including a number which have yet to recover from their decades of poverty and pillage under Soviet rule - how can anyone think that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is the way forwards?

“The coming of the Eurozone is the ultimate proof that the EU can function without everyone participating in exactly the same way. Why did the Convention which drew up this constitution not notice that?

“If some EU states want to push ahead with political integration, and turn into the federal superstate of eurosceptic myth, why shouldn’t they? There’s no real practical reason why they have to take less keen nations along with them. So why can’t there be an ‘A-list’ membership, with various affiliate members at lesser stages of integration scattered around the edges?”
Unusually for this blogger, Nosemonkey appears not to be aware of the significant new chunks of the constitution which provide for exactly that kind of multi-layered integration. How about the improved ‘enhanced co-operation’ provisions, which make it easier for groups of countries voluntarily to integrate more closely without upsetting other countries who would prefer not to do so? How about the new ‘emergency brake’ formula, which in many cases allows a country to opt out entirely of a new measure about which it has serious doubts?

In fact, that’s often how the EU works. There are always minimum standards and basic levels of co-operation which all members agree to adhere to, but beyond that, countries are free to go their own way. Underlying this is the principle of proportionality: action taken at EU level should be no greater than the minimum required to achieve agreed joint objectives.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The sixth edition of The European Parliament, co-authored by myself, Francis Jacobs and Michael Shackleton, has just been published.

Since its first appearance in 1990, this has been the standard work of reference on the European Parliament, an essential tool for those who work at the Parliament, have dealings with it, or wish to understand its ever-growing importance within the Union. This new edition is fully updated to cover developments such as the impact on Parliament of the May 2004 enlargement of the EU and the June 2004 European elections, the implications of the constitutional treaty if ratified, and a range of significant changes in the Parliament's procedures.

Tribune:
"The definitive handbook"
Agence Europe:
"A great classic... Essential reading."
European Information Association Focus:
"The now classic and definitive text on the European Parliament"
Josep Borrell Fontelles, President of the European Parliament:
"Over more than 15 years this book has proved its worth as an invaluable guide to the only directly elected institution in the European Union"

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Can't really say I'm sad at the death of BNP founder John Tyndall, except that he won't be able to appear in court to answer for his most recent racist rantings.

But I must confess that I didn't realise just how prolific an extremist Mr Tyndall was. His obituary in our local Yorkshire Evening Post is well worth a read:
"Tyndall operated on the far-right fringe of British politics for five decades, espousing policies based on racial hatred and Aryan superiority. A Hitler-admirer, he was photographed in front of a portrait of the leader of Nazi Germany."

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

There's some hoo-hah in the press today about the new directive on vitamins. I'm all for public debate about EU legislation - in fact, I think it's crucial to the democratic life of Europe - but, as usual, the UK's debate is too much, too late, and painfully ill-informed.

First, a letter from a QC in The Times:
"The judgment of the European Court of Justice to uphold the Food Supplements Directive (report and leading article, July 13) highlights the way in which the EU’s law-making intentions are easily distorted by an inbuilt addiction to over-regulation.…

"Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, says that our Government will “continue to press for the lightest touch possible in carrying out the directive”. This pitiful acknowledgement of inability or unwillingness to protect our economy and interests demonstrates the need for fundamental change in the objectives and law-making procedures of the EU."
Why is it that the stock response to any decision we take at EU level is to invent spurious objections to the way we take those decisions, rather than actually discussing the quite important issues that surround them?

Firstly, all decisions on new EU-wide laws are taken by the governments of EU member countries and by elected MEPs. If there is praise or blame to be apportioned for any democratic decision, let it at least be apportioned correctly.

Secondly, the charge of "over-regulation" here is outrageous. Setting aside the fact that more than 99% of vitamin products are unaffected by the new rules, the UK's decision to press for this directive was based on conclusive medical advice. As another correspondent pointed out in The Times on the same day, measures that save lives are not self-indulgent over-regulation; on the contrary, they are our solemn duty.

The very same points can be made in response to the ignorance of a still more reactionary letter in my own local York Evening Press (the letter itself isn't available online):
"Once again our lords and masters in Brussels have decreed that all members of the European Union must obey their latest idiocy."
(With a first paragraph like that, I hardly need go on, but let's indulge.)
"And, lemming-like, the British government immediately brings out legislation to enforce it rather than raising a metaphorical second finger right hand skyward, and advising the mandarins in Brussels to 'rotate!'."
Sigh.

What's particularly curious is that, in this case, it was our very own UK government that pressed for the directive - successfully. So, far from showing the blind adherence of our "lemming-like" government to the whims of "mandarins in Brussels", these new rules show just how much Britain can achieve when we work together with our European neighbours.

As for the directive itself, let's not lose sight of three simple facts:
  1. More than 99% of vitamin products are unaffected by the new rules.

  2. The directive is based on conclusive medical advice already accepted by all 25 EU countries.

  3. The measures are strongly supported by the British Dietetic Association.
Surely we should welcome health measures that save lives - not use them as an excuse to invent anti-European arguments?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I don't agree with everything I read in the Telegraph, but as MEPs have to cope with an increasingly diverse range of languages in the European Parliament, I can definitely sympathise with this:
"You'd think that after four years as Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw would be used to dealing with exotically named politicians around the world. Yet, visiting Strasbourg yesterday to address the European Parliament for the first time, he became somewhat tongue-tied.

"'He referred to some work done on Iraq by a Greek MEP by the name of Giorgos Dimitrakopoulos,' I'm told. 'He made three valiant attempts to pronounce it, but then gave up and settled on calling him plain George. He should be grateful he didn't have to refer to his Polish colleague, Janusz Onyszkiewicz.'"

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Council of Ministers today formally approved our reform of MEPs' pay and expenses (more details here).

Friday, July 15, 2005

It must have been a painful dilemma for eurosceptic newspaper editors when they were faced with a choice between having a go at the EU and having a go at Tony Blair. When the Prime Minister made a slip in an otherwise excellent speech and said that a seesaw had been dismantled because of spurious EU regulations, there was no clear line from the right-wing press about how to report the error.

The Evening Standard went one way, sacrificing accuracy at the altar of reactionary euroscepticism:
"Tony Blair today launched an unprecedented attack on Brussels… [Mr Blair] raised the case of a Cotswold village required to pull up a seesaw because it was judged a danger under an EU directive on outside playgrounds."
Meanwhile, you can almost hear the teeth grinding in the editor's office as the Telegraph decides to point the mistake:
"Tony Blair was caught out yesterday for falsely claiming that a European Union directive had forced a Cotswolds village to rip out its playground seesaw - when no such directive exists. Playgrounds are, in fact, not regulated by the EU."
Fortunately, the European Commission is on hand to break the deadlock.
"This little tale first surfaced in 2000 and found a home in a number of newspapers willing to peddle it. Now the Evening Standard has jumped on the merry-go-round [boom, boom] of blaming non-existent EU rules for depriving children of their seesaws, while the prime minister appears to have, albeit unintentionally, recycled an old euromyth.

"There is no EU Directive on Playground Equipment for Outside Use. No village in the Cotswolds has been forced to take down its seesaws, or swings or slides.

"The prime minister may have been referring to European Standard EN 1176-5, drawn up by the European Committee for Standardisation. This is a non-EU body made up of standards institutions from 28 European countries, including the British Standards Institution. It sets guidelines for products in order to improve consumer safety. But these guidelines are entirely voluntary."

Thursday, July 14, 2005

I never cease to be impressed with Dan Hannan MEP's ingenuity. He is a master at twisting any subject, no matter how esoteric, into a platform for his anti-European prejudices.

Reviewing a book on ancient Rome in the Telegraph, he draws a strained parallel between the fall of the empire and the modern-day European Union. Of course, the attempted analogy is gloriously silly, and he knows it.

Even setting aside the obvious differences between a voluntary union of sovereign countries and an empire established through military might, it seems Dan Hannan's politics are as shaky as his history. His comments about an over-centralised bureaucracy are wide of the mark: the European Commission is a tiny body, with fewer employees than Leeds city council in my constituency.

And no "large foreign populations" have been imported, although last year we did welcome into our Union eight fledgling democracies, all of which were under totalitarian rule until only a few years earlier.

Anyway, if Mr Hannan wants to push the analogy, no doubt he will remember what happened when the Pax Romana finally collapsed? There was no glorious era of self-government; instead, Europe was swamped by the barbaric Dark Ages, an era from which it took centuries to surface.

Now, who says we have nothing to learn from history?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Something I missed last week: tobacco advertising became illegal across the EU on radio and television, and in print. The UK has also managed to convince its European neighbours that the association between perceived "sexy" sports like Formula 1 and the tobacco industry is doing more harm than good, and so the new law aims to ban tobacco sponsorship of such sporting events, something we did a while ago in this country.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Great quote from Yorkshire Tory MP David Curry in the Yorkshire Post last year (I've just had it drawn to my attention:
"The eternal mantra about the imminent arrival of the European superstate in some political Armageddon sounds more like Lord of the Rings than European reality. … The [Conservative] party will get nowhere by competing with UKIP; it needs to contest it, challenge it and confront it."

Monday, July 11, 2005

More on the intensive lobbying that preceded the software patents vote last week (previous blog entries here, here and here).

Sifting through the piles of communications I received last week on the software patents directive, I found a pro-patent letter from Astron Clinica, a skin imaging company based in Cambridge. The plausibility of the letter's impassioned arguments in favour of intellectual property rights for philosophical and ethical reasons abruptly self-destructed in the very last ill-advised sentence, which read:
"Software patents are not a big versus small company issue, they are about investment, marketing and making money."
How not to lobby an MEP!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Britain, the EU and indeed the whole world are still recovering from the shock of yesterday's terrorist outrage in London. There is not much I can add to the words that have been spoken by Tony Blair and the G8 leaders, Ken Livingstone, Josep Borrell and José Manuel Barroso, and the Muslim community of the UK [links updated].

One thing that this horrific event has brought home to me is just how inconnected we all are - and the degree of solidarity we share in these situations. Around the European Parliament yesterday and today, there was barely anyone who didn't have some connection with London: some friend or relative whose safety needed to be confirmed, or some recent experience of the city to put the whole thing into perspective. With the bonds we share, an attack on London is a personal attack on all of us.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Following yesterday's vote on software patents, I've now had a total of 36 e-mails into my Leeds office from constituents expressing their delight at the way we voted in Parliament. I can't remember having ever received such a message of support about any single issue before - just as I can't remember ever having received so much lobbying from private individuals in advance of a vote.

A particularly enthusiastic e-mail made me smile:
"Dear Richard,

"What can I say? This is truly marvellous news - and with such a majority! I am so delighted I can't quite express myself properly! Thank you so very, very much for notifying me of the outcome and for voting against the software patent madness.

"Through having to face up to the threat that this proposal posed, I have gained a better insight into the political machinations of the European Parliament. More importantly, I have greater respect for the elected individuals that comprise the European Parliament, and also for the power of the individual in lobbying for change.

"What more can I say?"
Another constituent, who represents a Linux users' group in Scarborough, wrote to let me know that he'd blogged the result, and seemed to be quite enthusiastic about it:
Fantastically, awesomely, tearfully, happily, wonderfully, we appear to have won the software patents argument. I got this at 12:07 today from Richard Corbett… How absolutely fantastic is that! The people won over the corporation.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Shortly after 11am (UK time) today, we rejected a proposed law on the patenting of software by a huge majority. This proposal is now dead.

I've received more e-mails, letters and calls on the issue of software patents than on any other issue in recent times. I'm immensely grateful to the hundreds of constituents who have taken the time to explain their views to me.

Labour colleagues and I have taken on board their advice and rejected this proposal, so my thanks go out to constituents for their participation in good lawmaking.

More information here.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The New Politics Network is an independent political and campaigning think tank, concerned specifically with issues relating to democratic renewal and popular participation in politics - and it believes that people in the UK know less about the European Union than voters in any other member country.

The full report is here.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The European Parliament discusses tomorrow whether to amend or reject the proposed Directive on the Patentability of Computer-Implemented Inventions, or 'software patents directive', as it's commonly known. (Lots more information, and a history of this directive, is here.)

For an issue which is so important to my constituents - I've had more lobbying messages on this in the past few months than on any other issue I can remember! - it got no mention at all on the BBC news this morning. To be fair, it does coincide with the G8 build-up and the Olympic bid, but you'd think they'd find space for a mention of such a crucial vote which will effectively determine the future of software development in Europe.

But the debate is certainly hotting up in Parliament, and I've noticed that two myths are circulating about this directive. They threaten to make it sound innocuous when in reality it's very far from innocuous.

Myth 1: This directive is just about "computer-implemented inventions" like washing machine programs and automatic braking systems. What harm can there be in that?

This is not so. Although the directive does cover washing machine programs and automatic braking systems, the draft before Parliament in fact also covers all kinds of computer-implemented inventions, including software designed for PC programs or for the internet.

The Council's current position defines "computer-implemented inventions" very broadly and very vaguely, but one thing that almost all commentators agree on is that it will open the door for software concepts to be patented. That is, under the current proposal, any software concept - an on-screen progress bar, an internet shopping trolley, a resizeable icon, anything - will be patentable and will therefore be protected by law as soon as a company applies for a patent. The only requirement will be that the software implements a "technical invention", which is a disturbingly vague phrase.

In fact, Parliament's original first-reading position redefined "computer-implemented inventions" much better. It specified that only programs which had a physical effect on the real world could be patented. That definition really does refer only to things like washing machines and brakes. It makes it clear that 'pure' software concepts - that is, programs and bits of programs which have no physical effect on the real world because they don't control a spin cycle or drive a car - are not patentable.

That first-reading position was welcomed by the anti-patent lobby because it outlined a very reasonable (albeit arbitrary) limit to patentability. But that position has been reversed by the Council's second-reading position.

Myth 2: The people who oppose software patents are just "open-source supporters", a bunch of pie-in-the-sky lobbyists with no connection to modern commercial reality.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Software patents are opposed by small software companies, businessmen and individual developers, as well as academics and the open-source community.

Small software companies and individual developers fear trampling by large corporations, who will be able to register vast numbers of patents and then defend them in court against their rivals, or use the threat of legal action as leverage against them. Small businesses and individuals will not have the legal or financial resources to fight back effectively, or to patent their own ideas.

Even if a given concept is not actually patented, small businesses will be very wary to use that concept in their own work because they won't be able to afford to check the patent situation. Software patents will therefore stifle creativity - as well as being painfully anti-competitive.

Only a small proportion of our constituency lobbying has come from "open-source supporters". These are people who believe that software concepts should be free in principle, so that amateurs and the software community can gradually improve and distribute them.

Friday, July 01, 2005

A common complaint about the new EU constitution is that it's too long.

Admittedly, it could be shorter. Part III of the constitution, which is drawn directly from the current treaties and was never really examined properly by the convention, is most of what makes the constitution both long and (in places) impenetrable.

But some of the sweeping estimates I've seen about the document's length are quite outrageous. Eurosceptic MEP Jens-Peter Bonde thinks that it's 600 pages (warning: very large PDF file). Someone on a Tory party chat forum thinks it's 300 pages, which is closer to the mark. More accurate still is an editorial on the US Financial Sense website, citing 200-300 pages, "depending on the language and printing and the source".

So how long is it really? Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, reports "over 60,000 words in its English version", though that includes the technical declarations and protocols (which are a necessary part of any complex international treaty, and don't form part of the constitution itself). I haven't counted. But as for the page count, I have in front of me a copy of the treaty that was sent to every French household before their referendum. The text isn't small and the language, French, is infamously flowery; yet, including title page, contents page, preamble, main treaty, and every protocol and declaration, it comes to no more than 108 pages. There's even space, in this lightweight paperback brochure, to include a copy of my European Parliamentary report on the constitution, setting the whole thing in context.

By the way, flicking through that Financial Sense editorial, it turns out to contain quite a lot of interesting analysis of the constitution, the euro and the EU in general. It makes the typical American mistake of assuming that, here in Europe, we're trying to build a clone of the US - centralised, federal and powerful - which could not really be further from the truth. But despite this rather basic misunderstanding - which means the whole thing comes with a bit of a health warning - the piece does still make some interesting points. For instance, commenting on the screaming reactions of some tabloid presses to the no votes in France and the Netherlands, the author points out:
"Is the EU destined for collapse? The answer would have to be no.… For a good history lesson, read of the writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Had one opponent, a true gentleman in all the meanings of the word, not left the room during the vote, it might have not been approved. The Articles of Confederation was a non starter even as the ink dried. Any reading of the local news of that era would have suggested that the U.S. was bound to collapse. Imagine the wisdom and results of shorting the U.S. in 1799.

"The popular press keeps being misled by a few ostriches which teach economics in modern academia. A recent Business Week article "Squeezed by the Euro" is a good example, 2 June issue, One of their delusions is called Optimal Currency Area(OCA) theory. Do not waste any time reading articles on the matter. In short, the theory says that only those people with perfect correlation of their economic activities should have the same currency. Applied strictly to the U.S., the nation would still have a minimum of 13 currencies. Good idea?

"Applied to Europe, the theory says that the Euro should not have been introduced until all and every possible improvements in the laws, regulations, labor relations, and cultural differences in Europe had been achieved. Canada and the U.S., under the application of their thinking, would still be waiting for one common currency for their nations. Good idea?"