Monday, October 31, 2005

A letter to the Lancashire Evening Telegraph on the Yorkshire feta court case from my colleague, Gary Titley MEP:
Judy Bell lost her case in the European Court of Justice to call her Yorkshire cheese "feta" but she was fighting on the same premise as the Lincolnshire sausage campaign, which came to Brussels last month asking for their name to be safeguarded by European law.

Commentators have said that Europe's restriction on "Yorkshire feta" was unnecessary and "Europe gone mad" but I guarantee they would feel the same outrage if Spanish and German butchers branded their chorizo and bratwurst "Lincolnshire sausages."

The rule to protect the origin of food works just as effectively to safeguard our British produce as it does for other European countries.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The BBC has just posted a very interesting set of data about migration in the UK.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

As I've pointed out before, 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. In an attempt to encourage some of my colleagues to recognise the positive side of regulation in our single European market, I recently put this question to the European Commission:
"What are the latest figures available to the Commission on the total economic benefits to European citizens of the existence of the European single market?"
The reply came back today:
"A comprehensive study on the total economic impact of the Internal Market was carried out in 1996 and published in 1998. It concluded that in 1994, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was between 1.1% and 1.5% higher than it would have been if the Internal Market did not exist. For the same year, the employment gain was estimated to have accounted for over 300,000 jobs.

"Since then, there have been partial assessments. Among the latest are:

  • "The Communication on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Internal Market included a new round of macroeconomic estimates of the impact of the 1992 programme. According to these estimates, EU GDP in 2002 was 1.8 percentage points, or €164.5 billion, higher thanks to the Internal Market. In addition, about 2.5 million jobs had been created in the EU since 1992 as a result of the opening up of frontiers between Member States;

  • "A study by Commission services based on accounting data of EU firms has found evidence of a significant impact of the Internal Market programme on productivity. Efficiency, as measured by the productivity of assets, increased by approximately 25% between 1993 and 2001;

  • "In the field of Public Procurement, a study for the Commission estimated the economic benefits from the application of EU Directives. Results show that the application of the transparency procedures required by the Directives could reduce prices of goods, services and works contracts by approximately 30%. The study also showed that the success rates of foreign firms operating in other Member States to win contracts are actually comparable to those of domestic firms bidding in their home countries."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Blair's visit to Parliament today once again managed to set the cat among the pigeons. Conservative MEPs actually asked to have a private meeting with him, while the Lib Dems didn't and organised what appeared to be some sort of demonstration instead. The Tories' meeting left several of them muttering audibly about how none of their leadership contenders could ever match him for ability. Others wondered what the point of their meeting was (as, no doubt, did Blair) and speculated that Tim Kirkhope, their leader in the European Parliament, was after a peerage!

Meanwhile, Blair's speech to Parliament had to be seen to be believed - just like last time, you certainly wouldn't know who to believe in the press! Remarkably, even eurosceptic newspapers with the same ownership couldn't agree on how to handle it: the Sun said he was “heckled and booed” whereas the Times reported that his speech was “punctuated by frequent applause”. Take your pick...

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Wise words from Jack Straw on the bird flu threat:
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he hoped that the co-ordinated action being taken across the EU would allay public concerns.

"It's on issues like this that the EU comes into its own," he said.

"Without the resources of the European Union, the co-ordination and funds that the European Union can bring, Europe would face much greater anxieties about the potential effects of avian flu than are there now," he said.

Monday, October 17, 2005

All the talk of the new Tory leader taking the Conservative MEPs out of the Christian Democrat group in the European Parliament seems to ignore the fact that most of their MEPs want to stay. And I was told recently by one of the Tories that the decision is a joint one. The new leader will find his authority challenged right from the beginning if he tries to impose it from above.

Most Tory MEPs realize, of course, that they have far more power and influence (and money!) as one of the largest components of the largest Group than they would as a small maginalised fringe Group with few allies. But don't underestimate the death wish of the modern Conservative party!

Friday, October 14, 2005

I was the keynote speaker at a regional conference today on Europe. I stayed on for the rest of the conference and was struck by the strength of support for the European Union expressed by a wide variety of participants.

A local government leader from a South Yorkshire district spoke of how, when the coal mines closed and his area was hit by mass unemployment, only the European Union seemed interested in doing something to turn around the situation with its regional funding – something the people in his area would never forget.

A council leader from a West Yorkshire district (not Labour) praised EU programmes to alleviate poverty and regenerate her patch - and even a Conservative leader of yet another Council praised the economic benefits of belonging to Europe. Similarly, speakers from business, universities and others were positively gushing in their praise for the EU.

This underscored something I have been struck by in the past: outside the arena of national politics and the media, those who actually deal with the European Union tend to have a positive view of it. Those who don’t, and those whose views of the EU are shaped only by what they read in the newspapers, tend to be more negative.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Yesterday, Geoff Hoon MP, Leader of the House of Commons, kindly hosted an event in the Jubilee Room of the Palace of Westminster to mark the publication of the 6th edition of the book The European Parliament that I co-authored with my friends Francis Jacobs and Michael Shackleton. A number of MPs and Lords turned up, and Geoff gave a glowing endorsement of the book which he recommends all MPs to read to improve their understanding of the European Parliament.

In turn, I endorsed Geoff's plans to upgrade Commons scrutiny of EU legislation by involving expert MEPs in the Commons committees.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Today I went to Canterbury, where I was invited by the University of Kent to attend the launch of their new Centre for Federal Studies. Professor David Marquand gave an interesting lecture and I made the first comment.

Marquand pointed out that Britain has bequeathed numerous federal systems to countries across the world: Canada, India, Malaysia, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Nigeria, and so on. Yet the idea is still seen as alien to Britain, notwithstanding some federal aspects of devolution and the EU.

Marquand described this anti-federalism as a neurosis. He pointed out that Britain's objective in promoting federal systems in the above countries was to avoid a powerful centre and to protect separate identities - exactly Britain's objectives in the EU! The trouble is that most of the public here thinks federalism equals centralism.

But curiously, Marquand then went on to blame this state of affairs not on our press or the eurosceptics, but on Tony Blair! Prof Marquand is a Lib Dem. It's a shame that he wanted to bring party politics into an academic lecture in this way. Of all the targets for a pro-European to attack, the most pro-European Prime Minister in a qiarter of a century, who has actually negotiated and signed three European treaties, is a curious one to single out.

Anyway, good luck to the University of Kent in their attempt to raise the level of knowledge and understanding of federalism in Britain!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Football is the theme today in Brussels. First, MEPs join with disabled players in a mini-tournament next to Parliament to promote the Special Olympics.

Second, the FA Premier League are out to discuss the question of whether the way they sell their TV rights is in conflict with competition law. I have been involved with this issue despite the fact that Yorkshire & Humber has, sadly, no Premiership teams any more! The Premier League is having difficulty in convincing the European Commission that it's now in compliance with the law, having split its package into several bite-sized chunks for which different broadcasters can bid separately. I agree to help them.

Above all, it is crucial that TV rights remain a collectively marketed item - if each club were able to sell its own matches independently and keep all the revenue to itself, the domination of a few rich clubs would become even more acute than it is already.

Monday, October 10, 2005

It's inconceivable that the expert political journalists who work for the Daily Express should make such an elementary error as to confuse the European Court of Human Rights with the EU. I have no doubt that its writers – if not its readers – are perfectly well aware that the Court is an entirely separate institution which has nothing to do with Britain's EU membership.

So how are we to explain the brazenly inaccurate headline on page 2 of Friday's Express: 'EU gives convicts in British jails right to vote'?

Every other news source in the UK managed to recognise that it was the Strasbourg court, not the EU, that made the ruling in question. So I suppose we must conclude that this was a simple slip of the Express pen which will soon be corrected.

After all, I'm sure it couldn't be, oh, I don't know, an attempt to spread further inventions about the insidious bureaucrats of Brussels interfering in our daily lives? Such inventions would surely not be in keeping with the standard of political journalism for which the Express is rightly renowned.

Off to London for a seminar to mark the mid point of the British Presidency of the EU Council. Denis McShane, the previous Minister for Europe, and myself were invited to speak.

Of course, we agreed on much: the Presidency is right to focus on major issues of concern (economic reform, the future of the European social model, the medium-term budget, CAP reform etc) rather than trying, at this stage, to pre-empt the 'period of reflection' on the constitution by proposing to renegotiate the text. Tony Blair's speech to the European Parliament at the start of the presidency was extremely successful in refocusing the agenda.

We also agreed that the presidency affords only limited opportunities. It's not an executive office, but merely the chairmanship of one of the EU institutions for a short period with a largely inherited agenda. One of its pitfalls is exaggerated expectations of it.

To liven things up, we did our best to disagree on details! Denis couldn't resist a few populist digs at MEPs, moaning that a few “out of touch” MEPs consider the EU constitution to be still a live issue - in which case a fair number of national governments must also be out of touch!

He also raised yet again an idea that failed to get any support in previous discussions on EU reform, namely that a 'second chamber' be added to the European Parliament composed of delegations from national parliaments. When I pointed out that we already have a two-chamber system in that EU legislation has to go through up to three readings in both Parliament and the Council, he says that there is no way Tony Blair would consider himself to be a mere senator!

No doubt - and as Prime Minister, Tony is a member of the key EU strategic decision-taking body, the European Council. But ordinary departmental ministers dealing with routine legislation in the normal Council are indeed part of a bicameral legislature in that legislation must be approved both by the Council and the European Parliament. To change that into a complex three-chamber system, with a new body composed of national parliamentarians, would scarcely make EU decision-taking procedures easier or clearer. Many people already now find the system too complex, so what it would be like with a three institutions having to agree, heaven only knows.

Besides, the pre-1979 European Parliament was composed of delegations from national parliaments - and it didn't work! The MPs found they couldn't do two full time jobs simultaneously, and majorities depended on which national delegation was missing due to a key vote in their national parliament. That is why the original European Parliament was changed into a full-time elected Parliament.

There is no doubt that the institutional structure of the EU will need revisiting. But this is one idea that won't float!

Friday, October 07, 2005

The UK Independence Party's latest scheme is to try and convince us that the great British public hasn't been consulted on our membership of the EU for thirty years — because the last referendum was in 1975.

This is peculiarly twisted logic. According to UKIP's reasoning, we have also never been consulted on the NHS, education, housing, taxes, the environment or anything else.

But of course this is complete rubbish. We live in a parliamentary democracy, and we have a general election every four or five years. If we don't like a government's policies, we can kick the government out of office and replace it with a better alternative. If that's not consultation, I don't know what is!

As every general election since 1975 has produced a pro-European government, maybe UKIP should take the hint?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Together with Jo Leinen MEP, the Chair of the Constitutional Committee of the European Parliament, and a few other colleagues, I have been invited to give evidence to the EU Affairs Committee of the Czech Senate and the Czech Chamber of Deputies on what to do about the unratified EU constitution.

Prague is one of Europe's most beautiful cities, and I managed to take a quick stroll around before the meetings begin - and another one late at night. I was last here in 1978 - and how it's changed! Prague is now far more lively and bustling. Buildings have been restored and cleaned up and there is a general air of oozing prosperity, at least downtown.

Still, the most tellingly symbolic change I saw was a 'Museum of Communism' now located above a McDonalds!

As ever, not all the changes are favourable. Glaring neon light advertising was mercifully absent in the communist period. Plus, there is now a proliferation of fast food joints and sleazy bars and a striking number of beggars. Does this explain why the communist party still gets 20% of the vote?

I ask one of the communist MPs how on earth a party such as his still gets such a high vote. His answer was: "Very simple! We've remained in opposition since 1989, whereas every other party has been in government". The striking similarity between the Czech Communist party and the British Liberal Democrats had never struck me before…

Since 1978, the country has changed in other ways too. Since the 'velvet divorce', it's no longer Czechoslovakia, simply the 'Czech Republic'. A Czech journalist explains to me how this has affected the language: previously everybody could understand both Czech and Slovak, not least because TV programmes used both interchangeably. Newsreaders alternated between the two and even children's programmes swapped around. Now that's no longer the case, so the Czechs are totally unused to hearing Slovak and have difficulty understanding it. Meanwhile, the Slovaks still see a lot of Czech films (it's a larger country with a bigger film industry), so the decline is asymmetric.

Anyway. On the EU constitution, there is a wide range of views. The President of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, is an adamant opponent not only of the constitution but of the EU itself. The day that the Czech Republic joined the EU, he made a pilgrimage to the mountain where good King Wenceslas lies, according to legend, buried with his army waiting for the Czech day of need. This over-dramatic visit caused much derision - after all, the good King had not emerged after the 1938 Nazi takeover, the 1948 Communist coup or the 1968 Soviet invasion. If he had not defended the Czechs against these incursions by foreign dictatorships, why on earth should he emerge when the Czechs themselves have decided by referendum to join this voluntary association of neighbouring democratic countries co-operating together?!

But the Presidential position is honorary, and power lies with the Social Democratic Prime Minister and his government who are pro-Europe. At least in the Czech Parliament, a large majority supports EU membership (including most MPs from Václav Klaus's own party).

During our visit, we were treated to an impassioned plea in favour of salvaging the constitution from the President of Parliament, Lubomir Zaoralek. We also had meetings with journalists (interestingly, one is a reader of my blog!) and academics.

One final tale from Prague. We've all heard the stories of mangled English (indeed there are a few on my own website), such as the hotel offering "French widows in every bedroom", but I came across a new one at my hotel in Prague. A noticeboard informing customers of nearby church facilities was headed 'DIVINE SERVICES'...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

In the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph on 26 September:
The EU 'parliament' is a smokescreen. It is there to create the illusion of democracy. Unlike British Parliament, the MEPs have no power whatsoever in the running of the EU. No power to make law or amend law and no power to elect a government or dislodge the members of the unelected commission, who themselves are put into place by the powers behind the scene, unelected, unremovable, unaccountable figures who really pull the strings in Europe.
This bizarre and obviously ill-informed diatribe has provoked a series of responses from first Bernard Regan:
The image of Paul Potter quaking in a corner about the 'hellish picture' of the EU, which he conjures up in his letter (Viewpoint, September 26), is an amusing one, but I can assure him it's quite all right to take off his gas mask, invasion is not yet imminent.
…then a J Donaldson:
Like most opponents of the EU, Mr Potter outlines and complains of a number of issues of what is wrong with the community and some people can agree, but so what? That is what we have MEPs for, to correct and change. But like most opponents who try their best to blame Brussels and faceless civil servants for all the ills and problems an organisation like the Community has, they conveniently forget to mention this is controlled by elected members of the European Parliament.
…then Simon Duffin at the European Parliament:
Only recently, the European Parliament threw out a proposal which said workers exposed to natural sunlight should be covered by new health and safety legislation. In July, the European Parliament rejected outright a proposed law on computer patents. Indeed, writing in the national press last year, Boris Johnson MP bemoaned the fact as a backbench member of the House of Commons, he has less influence over the laws of this land than does an MEP.
…and finally myself!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Regular readers may recall that the European Parliament voted yes (overwhelmingly, I might add) in support of the proposed EU constitution about a year ago. Regular readers may also recall that some eurosceptic MEPs - mostly UKIP and some Tories, plus their assistants - tried to kick up a bit of a fuss by accusing Parliament staff of "manhandling" them when they tried to wave "Vote No" banners. (The Telegraph also joined the fun with this report.) At the time, the Parliament authorities took it seriously and appointed Jim Nicholson MEP to investigate. Jim is himself a prominent eurosceptic and member of the right-wing EPP/ED, the same group as the Tories.

Well, I'm pleased to report once and for all that there wasn't a grain of truth in the eurosceptic stories. I spoke to Jim Nicholson today and he confirmed that, after a thorough investigation, he had been unable to find any evidence whatsoever to substantiate the allegations of mistreatment. Jim's report was made to the President of Parliament, and since it found nothing amiss I suspect nothing more will come of it, so this is just for the record. Oh, and it goes without saying: don't hold your breath for an apology from those indignant eurosceptics who invented the tales in the first place!

Add to this the disproven invention that Parliament threw a big party after the vote - utterly unfounded - and it's a fairly sorry reflection on the tactics chosen by eurosceptics to complain about Parliament's endorsement of the constitution.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Lib Dem MEPs are back from their Conference aglow with the victory they scored over their party leadership after the latter tried to shift the party into a more eurosceptic position.

It was sad to see Nick Clegg, until recently an MEP but now a Yorkshire MP, opportunistically aligning himself with the leadership to prove he hadn't 'gone native' during his stint in Brussels. But the grass roots delegates voted for the line taken by the MEPs rather than that of the party leadership. Not something that happens in every party!