Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The buzz of hyperbole once again fills the air in the debate over what the tabloids have dubbed ‘the bra wars’. As usual, politicians on all sides have been quick to leap on the bandwagon, with Tory MEPs trying to pin the blame entirely on Peter Mandelson and the Telegraph pretending that it’s all the fault of “the EU’s protectionist camp”, an invented conglomeration of countries that apparently “compelled the European Commission” to impose this “botched policy” on the rest of us.

While it’s nice to see the hideously eurosceptic Telegraph admit that the Commission can be “compelled” to do anything by EU member states — it usually likes to paint the Commission as a maveric dictatorship bullying governments into submission — unfortunately it’s still managed to get it wrong. In fact, I was astonished to find that it’s the Daily Mail (admittedly via Reuters) that gets closest to the truth of what’s really going on here:
“The June deal, which capped growth in 10 lines of Chinese textile exports at 8-12 percent a year, was hailed at the time as a sensible response to a deluge of low-cost clothes from China following the scrapping of global textile quotas on January 1.”
The essence of the problem is this. With the end of the so-called multi-fibre agreement this year, we all knew that China would quickly come to dominate the world textiles market with a big rise in its exports. To address these fears, the EU agreed a transitional system of quotas, increasing gradually year-on-year, which would make these changes manageable. The system was neither particularly protectionist nor ultra-liberal, but was agreed by all and sundry, including by EU countries and by China itself.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can indeed debate whether the levels agreed were too strict or too lax. But that has little to do with the problem which has now landed in Peter Mandelson’s lap. This problem arises primarily from the problem of what to do with stock which was ordered from China before the new quota came into force but wasn’t delivered until afterwards.

With Mr Mandelson promising to sort this out by the end of the week, I’m doing my best to keep concerned constituents up-to-date on the situation.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development is currently being considered by the institutions. Research is, of course, an area where it makes sense for all our member states to pool their resources: a common research programme on subjects of common interest is far more effective than duplicating each other 25 times over!

Part of the programme relates to medical research on public health issues. That has come under pressure from those who argue that it does not meet the priorities of economic competitiveness as defined in the Lisbon Agenda.

But this is a short-sighted view which should be refuted by ministers and MEPs who are currently deliberating on the programme’s priorities. Health research is not only worthwhile in its own right, but it is also worthwhile in terms of its economic merits.

Take, for example, respiratory health, which is currently missing from the programme. Respiratory health problems are Europe’s second biggest killer, accounting for one in four deaths. That costs our health systems EUR 102 million per year. It is also the major cause of absenteeism from work. It gets far less media coverage than cancer or cardiovascular diseases, but it ranks alongside them both in scale and in needing further research on countering the growth of lung diseases, asthma and so on. We must make sure that area of research forms part of the 7th programme.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Many people like to use breaks from work to travel abroad. Since I spend most of the year doing that, however, it was nice this month to spend some time with the family at home in Yorkshire, complemented by occasional forays to the Lake District.

It was particularly good to be able to explore the region at a more relaxed pace than that which MEPs are usually forced to adopt when they’re working, due to the vast size of their constituencies. The weather has also been wonderful, and I’ve ended up at least as tanned as those people who’ve flown to Spain at great expense!

Anyway, MEPs are back to work today (despite it being a bank holiday in the UK!). Without wishing to make too much of a meal of this point, our summer recess is a whopping five weeks shorter than Westminster's…

Friday, August 05, 2005

Responding to my discussion of the European arrest warrant, I received the following e-mail from a somewhat regular eurosceptic correspondent (reproduced in full, minus the writer's name):
"Your latest blog offering - European Arrest Warrant.

"You wrote:-

"'Without the European Union, fleeing to Rome might have been beneficial to Osman Hussain. But thankfully, we live in a world where there should be no hiding places for terrorists - especially not in our neighbouring European countries.'

"Mr Corbett. Are you being deliberately obtuse? Or is all this tosh merely wishful thinking?

"You know as well as I do that Osman Hussain won't be extradited from Italy for years.. if ever.

"So much for 'EU Co-operation'!!"
It's good to know that this blog is prompting discussion. My reply was as follows:
"Dear [name],

"Thank you for your e-mail.

"I think it is best to wait until due process has run its course before we judge whether Mr Hussain will be extradited. That is why I avoided speculating on that in my blog entry.

"In the meantime, I note that this seems to be the first time you have complained to me about a lack of EU co-operation. Surely you can't have it both ways?

"Either the European arrest warrant facilitates rapid extradition from one EU country to another, or it does not. If the scheme works, then eurosceptics complain that it infringes our civil liberties (as in the Bruges Group piece I linked from my blog). But if it doesn't work, then eurosceptics complain that European co-operation is not what it should be and we are powerless to extradite suspects quickly (as in your e-mail to me). These two complaints are mutually incompatible. Which is it to be?

"Best wishes, Richard"

Thursday, August 04, 2005

One of my biggest bugbears about the way European issues are debated in this country is the way both politicians and the media deliberately avoid discussing the issues themselves, instead deflecting attention onto bogus stories which aim to make the EU look silly.

Nowhere is this kind of deflection more prominent than in the reporting of health and safety legislation. In 2002, when we considered ways to address the growing problem of occupational exposure to noise in places such as factories and airports, the Tories and the media had a choice between joining the debate as adults or inventing childish stories to shout from the sidelines. The adult option would have been to make a contribution, perhaps suggesting ways in which the huge problem of occupational deafness—the most common occupational disease in Europe—should be addressed. They could have debated what kind of industrial noise levels are considered safe for how long, and who should be responsible for ensuring that workers in more dangerous conditions are offered adequate protection.

But they didn’t. Instead, they went for the childish option. The Tories put about all kinds of ludicrous lies which were lapped up by the media, including the claim that bagpipes would be banned (Times), clubbers would have to wear ear-plugs (News of the World), football fans would have to keep their voices down (Sunday People), and Beethoven symphonies could never be played in the EU again (Times again). All of these were bare-faced and screamingly obvious fabrications, of course, but when the laughter had died down the fabrications had done what they were intended to do: reinforced anti-European prejudices and distracted attention from what was really a very serious debate.

Exactly the same thing happened two years later when we discussed what should be done about the frighteningly large mortality rate of workers falling off high scaffolding. Rather than making a grown-up contribution, the Tories dubbed the proposal ‘the ladders directive’—suggesting that Brussels would force manufacturers to emblazon warning messages at the top of ladders. And they even suggested, via the BBC, that bureaucrats would have to scale mountains:
“A Euro MP claims new EU laws to prevent falls at work will mean UK mountain pursuit centres having to warn people that they are ‘high up’… Welsh Tory MEP Jonathan Evans said…’This is madness—most people know that when they climb a mountain they will be up high!’”
Same childish reaction; same damaging result.

Finally, we can thank The Sun for the most recent example of health and safety issues being ridiculed rather than discussed:
“The EU has declared a crackpot war on busty barmaids – by trying to ban them from wearing low-cut tops. Po-faced penpushers have deemed it a HEALTH HAZARD for bar girls to show too much cleavage. And in a daft directive that will have drinkers choking on their pints, Brussels bureaucrats have ordered a cover-up.”
As ever, the European Commission tried diligently to stem the tide:
“New EU rules on optical radiation, due to be voted on by ministers and MEPs (including those from the UK) in September 2005, do not tell people what they can wear, or ban low-cut tops or, heaven forbid, dirndls.

“They instead require bosses to assess the risk of skin and retina damage for employees who work in the sun all day. This is a pressing concern, given that in the UK alone there 69,000 new cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year. How the risk to employees will be assessed, and what measures should be taken if there is deemed to be one, will be decided at local level – in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive. Of course, bar managers can always use their common sense by handing out sun cream.”
But what made this particular euromyth extraordinary was the reaction of The Sun to being corrected. We all know not to expect an apology for such inventions — or the tabloid press would contain little else — but it takes a particular species of bare-faced cheek to try this one:
“The Sun has saved Britain’s busty barmaids. EU killjoys have backed down over plans to make our girls cover up by banning low-cut tops. The Brussels bureaucrats surrendered in the face of The Sun’s double-barrelled attack... We vowed to give big-boobed barmaids all the support they would need to beat the ban. It was due to be rubber-stamped by the EU parliament next month under the Optical Radiation Directive.”
In other words, The Sun is taking credit for forcing the Commission to “back down” over something that was never in the pipeline in the first place! Now that tactic really is straight out of the junior school playground.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The debate about the type and extent of regulation we need in the EU is an important one - important enough that we should be careful to avoid scoring cheap party-political points, or over-simplifying arguments for rhetorical effect. We can get regulation right or wrong; it can be good or bad, restrictive or liberating – at European level just as at national or local level.

Yet eurosceptics portray EU level legislation as Brussels bureaucrats imposing burdens on businesses. This is wrong on two counts.

Firstly, on the “bureaucrats”. The European Commission does not decide on EU laws – it merely makes proposals. All European legislation has to be approved both by the Council and the European Parliament. The Council consists of national ministers from each Member State, members of their national government - and these are not people with a vested interest in limiting their own margin of manoeuvre through commonly-agreed rules! No European legislation can be adopted without persuading a hefty majority of them of its necessity: even a qualified majority is well over two-thirds of the votes in the Council. European legislation simply is not adopted against the will of the member states.

Second, on the “burden”. When we get it right, European legislation is an exercise in cutting red tape. One patent instead of twenty-five; one trademark and registration form and fee instead of twenty-five; one administrative document for our lorries at frontiers instead of the forty-something there used to be; one single set of standards for the single market instead of having to adapt production lines to twenty-five divergent ones.

Of course, as at every level of governance, mistakes can be made - and, as with all mistakes, the response should be to correct them. The idea that Britain (for example) should withdraw from the EU because you don't like a particular EU agreement is as silly as saying that, say, Yorkshire should withdraw from the UK because you don’t like the Education Bill.

Besides, it's important to look at the big picture. The total economic benefits to European citizens of the existence of the European common market, created by having common regulations for that market in many fields, is (according to pre-enlargement studies in 2002) some extra €164.5 billion to our collective GDP – approaching €2000 per family every year.

So let us unite on getting EU regulations right. Let's focus on the reality, not the theology - and certainy not on the fantasies conjured up by eurosceptics!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The EU's Common Agricultural Policy re-emerges into the public arena every few years for a heated discussion. This year's most-quoted fact is probably the intended "shock statistic" that nearly 40% of the EU budget is spent on agricultural support.

For all their usefulness, statistics are often misleading or downright devious. 40% of the EU's budget sounds a lot, but here's another statistic: that 40% is only 0.4% of the EU's GDP, less than we spend on most other key policy areas which are dealt with at national and European level.

There are two reasons why this tiny proportion of GDP seems to be such a large proportion of the EU's budget:
  • The first reason is that the EU's budget as a whole is itself only a tiny proportion of GDP - around 1%, which is mere pocket change in international terms, despite regular attempts by UKIP and the BNP to suggest that the EU budget is massive.

  • The second reason is that agriculture is just about the only policy area which is financed entirely out of the European-level budget; other areas of spending are drawn from national-level budgets or jointly. If this were not the case, agricultural spending would be much more comparable to other areas.
Add to this the fact that CAP reform has already brought the figure down from 70% to the current 40% (and this is projected to fall still further) and the situation suddenly looks a lot less pessimistic.

And incidentally, guess what proportion of EU land is used for agriculture? You've guessed it - about 40%.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Not one, not two, but three EU stories made the national headlines this morning. I wish I could be confident that the trend will continue, but sadly, it's more likely that the summer lull has temporarily reduced the availability of what the BBC usually sees as "proper" stories.

The first is tobacco advertising, which I discussed here; the second is vitamin supplements, which I discussed here (though it was most interesting to hear a spokesperson for the Alliance for Natural Health on the news this morning forced to retreat from the substance of the issue and fall back on the absurd myth that this is the EU forcing Britain to do something it doesn't want to do); and the third is the EU arrest warrant.

The arrest warrant is something that has gone the whole distance in the UK, from something dreadful that threatens to undermine our way of life (because, of course, it comes from Europe), through to an essential mechanism by which we can catch suspected terrorists and bring them to justice on home soil.

In 2002, the Telegraph published Frederick Forsyth's predictable insistence, in the best tradition of eurosceptic hyperbole, that the new arrest warrant would "abolish habeas corpus, presumption of innocence, the Magna Carta and half of the Bill of Rights of 1689". Yet so great has been its transformation in the eyes of the public since then that the legal affairs editor of the very same Daily Telegraph was this morning explaining to Radio 4 listeners, in calm and measured tones, how the scheme will greatly speed the extradition of a terrorist suspect from Italy.

As he explained, the truth is simple and, until the eurosceptics got hold of it, uncontroversial. Normal extradition proceedings between countries take years because the domestic courts must establish all kinds of basic facts about the foreign country that's requesting the extradition: whether its laws are compatible with the domestic country's laws, whether the suspect will get a fair trial, and so on. The arrest warrant is a recognition of the fact that EU countries already trust one another to provide such guarantees; in fact, the mutual acceptance of such basic principles is a cornerstone of the Union.

Without the European Union, fleeing to Rome might have been beneficial to Osman Hussain. But thankfully, we live in a world where there should be no hiding places for terrorists - especially not in our neighbouring European countries. Funnily enough, the eurosceptics have fallen silent on this now their rhetoric has been exposed.