Thursday, 8 December 2011

Eurozone politics

This week I have been in negotiations on bank deposit schemes (where France and Italy disagree with Germany), on mortgage agreements (where Spain disagrees with Italy and Netherlands) on energy efficiency measures (where Finland disagrees with Germany and they both disagree with France), Eurozone countries even disagree about how chickens lay eggs. The crisis may lead the Eurozone to share decisions on National deficits and debts, perhaps they will allow the ECB to transfer bad debts from banks to governments, possibly even to guaranteeing each others debts, but it seems very unlikely they would agree to vote as a block on EU legislation.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Fiddling whilst Rome can't Borrow

Here is my speech from last nights European Parliament meeting.

Last week Germany could not sell one third of its bond issue, yesterday the Italian Government paid nearly 8% interest and today two million people are striking in Britain even though the UK public pension black hole is the biggest in Europe. Right now this Parliament and every parliament should be looking at how to help growth, remove red tape and get businesses moving, but instead we have been in back rooms arguing about just when an economic dialogue would fit into Parliament’s timetable and who should be on the guest list.

Of course countries should consider how their economic policies affect others, but MEPs are now asking for a new treaty to give the European Parliament a vote on economic guidelines. This will not decrease the resentment of many of our citizens when they see decisions being taken in faraway places, and it will not help our businesses to grow. Members, we really must stop fiddling whilst Rome cannot borrow!

It was late but there were almost more than the usual handful of MEPs in the room. A the end of the speech I was applauded by members of MEPs from Europe's largest centre right party the EPP, but Othmar Karas pulled me a sad smile from their front bench. He knows just how hard we have been working together in the back room negotiations to tone down the language of deficit deniers from the left. I can't support the final report but its much less bad than it could have been. I knew Othmar agreed with much of what I said about unlocking bureaucracy, helping growth. Thats where we really need to work together. If you want to see the videos or speeches there are all here

A week in the life of...

Last week I was asked to keep a diary for a website called Public Service Europe (probably funded through EU budget propaganda). To be honest the beginning of the week was so busy I didn't have time to spend a penny let alone type up my days, so Sunday was catch up day.

If you are interested in what an MEP does hereit is! Though I have noticed that they edited out my entire Monday morning meeting in Ipswich with Ben Gummer MP where we were trying to help sort out the waterfront development mess in Ipswich which is tied up with the Irish banking crisis. We were meeting the receivers, the local council and those from Dublin responsible for "managing" the bad bank assets. Typical Brussels to edit away the real bad news.

The Conservative MEP questions commissioners, meets banks and businesses and interviews for a new assistant – before treating her daughter to a performance of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna


On the way to Brussels I read through the commission's latest proposals for a new regulation on offshore oil safety. I took on the role of drafting a report for the European Parliament on offshore oil drilling after the Gulf of Mexico disaster. It's vital to the United Kingdom, which has more offshore oil than the rest of the EU put together. The new proposed law leaves me with many questions, not least: will it result in having to dumb down the UK's own safety legislation? This week the commissioners have annual hearings with MEPs on upcoming legislation and I want to quiz energy commissioner G√ľnther Oettinger on this.

I arrive in Brussels at 6pm, to meet Westminster MPs Chris Heaton Harris, George Eustace and Andrea Leadsom. They are looking at suggestions for EU reform and I wanted them to be up to date on the parliament's suggestion for improving" economic co-ordination. Basically this would involve the parliament having a vote on economic guidelines for member states. I think it would be a disaster. As a result of the eurozone crisis, countries have now agreed to share information on budgets between different national governments. There has already been great resentment, for example when the Irish people learnt that German lawmakers had seen the country's budget before Irish MPs. Giving the parliament a vote which might directly influence the economic policies and decisions of individual nations would risk even greater resentment.

I also told the MPs about the upcoming negotiations on EU research funding which is critical to many scientists and businesses in the UK. Over dinner we were joined by cabinet minister Francis Maude and many other British MEPs. It was a feisty discussion. Some of us pointed out that it is not only the UK which is concerned about the impact of many EU regulations on businesses and growth.


At 8am I was joined by Patrick Jones, a research scientist in bio-fuels from Finland. He is going to shadow me for the next two days as part of an exchange program between scientists and MEPs. I had invited Douglas Flint CBE, chairman of HSBC, to breakfast with a group of MEPs and the turnout was good. We have leading MEPs from four different political groups: three from the centre-right European People's Party, as well as the Liberals and Greens and our own European Conservatives and Reformists. Douglas urged us to look beyond the eurozone crisis and economic malaise, and to understand the risk that Europe and smaller European banks could become uninvestable. Chinese investors, he said, see Europe as a fundamentally easier place to invest than the United States, for example, but they also see the inability to take political decisions as a major downside. We need to look at how to encourage long term investors to invest in infrastructure. One MEP asked if Europe over-regulates. The answer is immediate: the burden of bureaucracy on businesses is too high. I asked the other political groups whether they would support us in a campaign focusing on reducing the burden of regulation. I learnt that "deregulation" is a toxic phrase in certain countries where it is linked with the financial crash, but that there is support for cutting bureaucracy and reducing red tape. We agreed to propose a major drive on this. If we can achieve cross-party consensus there may be a real opportunity.

Following a meeting of industry, research and energy committee, which was debating long-term investment in infrastructure, I met Lloyds Bank, the European Association of Co-operative Banks and representatives from the Loan Market Association to discuss different details of new regulations on bank capital, lending and liquidity. I try to agree to meet as many businesses, consumer groups or regulators who contact me as possible, and of course I disclose all these meetings. Each of these organisations' concerns is quite technical, but could have a significant impact on lending to companies and mortgages. At the moment I am in listening and questioning mode. Some of the lenders or their borrower clients may have a reasonable point, but I am sceptical about others.

At midday I broke from meetings to go to a lunch organised by the European Parkinson's Disease Association. We heard first-hand from younger patients of their experiences living with the disease, and from a Dutch doctor about how their reorganisation of specialists has helped. I asked what their thoughts are on how the European Court of Justice's recent ban on patenting discoveries from stem cells could affect future treatments. We were told that research into new treatments is vital as is access to current ones. Then, I grabbed a coffee with Paul Laffin from our East of England office to discuss the 2012 Olympics. Not all the events are happening in London: canoeing and mountain biking will be in Hertfordshire and Essex so I've recently been to visit the sites. We want to arrange a reception showcasing the non-London venues next year and hopefully find some partner projects in different parts of Europe to help with the legacy.

By 3pm it was time for MEPs to quiz Barnier in the Economic Affairs Committee. I asked him why his proposals for bank capital are set as maximum levels across the EU not minimums. He implied this was a UK concern – but given that the head of the European Central Bank, the previous head, and the European Systemic Risk Board are all warning against his approach I believe this should be even more of a concern to those in the eurozone than those outside. But I don't think he got my point, and he certainly didn't answer the question adequately. His announcement that he would review whether to introduce a split between retail and investment banks, as the UK is considering, sent all the journalists scribbling.

After a 5pm meeting with Santander, I headed with Patrick the scientist to dinner with the European Energy Forum. Before dinner, oil giants ENI and Total talked to me about the offshore oil proposals. They worry that the European Union safety standard focusing on 'major hazards' is going to be lower than the UK's 'as low as reasonably practicable' standard. It's not often that industry worry that laws are not strong enough. Over dinner the president of GDF Suez told the audience how gas can help Europe reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent. Patrick whispered in my ear to question where the numbers come from, and we worked out that half the saving is proposed to come from carbon capture and storage. Given that investors have recently been questioning North Sea proposals for underground CO2 storage I am concerned that this may not be realistic.


Wednesday involved interviewing potential new assistants, as my current economics assistant is moving off to work for an insurance company. After voting in the industry committee I went to a meeting with a German Liberal MEP and the European Commission on financial prospectuses. Last year we had agreed that smaller companies should not need to produce so much information when trying to get their shares listed. It was part of an effort to reduce bureaucracy for businesses that can often spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on legal fees for a flotation – but the political agreement risks being de-railed by 'experts' who are suggesting that small and large companies should be equal. I wonder how many of those so-called experts are the lawyers and not the companies or investors. We made some suggested changes and agreed to stay in touch. Later, Investor AB came for a meeting. They are one of Sweden's biggest long term strategic investors in companies and are concerned by the proposal that non-execs should never sit on more than four company boards. Sometimes they want to place somebody with expertise on more companies. We discuss potential amendments which might benefit long-term investors.

At 3pm, Oettinger came for his annual public hearing on energy with MEPs. I asked him whether his proposal for oil regulation was really meant to be a maximum standard for safety, or if individual member states would be free to set higher standards. He said it's just meant to be a minimum, which is interesting, since the commission has written it as a maximum harmonisation 'regulation' not a minimum level 'directive'. I immediately notified the UK negotiators in the European Council who will be looking at the implications for UK oil security.

Commissioner Olli Rehn is the economic affairs expert and his hearing was next. I asked him about the UK, pointing out that our annual deficit between spending and income is double that of the eurozone and more than double that of Italy. I reminded him that the UK is the second largest net contributor to the EU budget and has contributed roughly 5 per cent to the eurozone bailouts so far, despite not being a member. "Commissioner", I said, "is the UK being selfish?" The entire room laughed, as the accusation by a German MP of the UK's selfish nature was front page headlines last week. Many MEPs from other countries nag us when we ask to reduce the budget, and they try to demand the UK puts in more. I don't think the UK can afford to continue this level of contributions, so it's important to lay down some markers. Rehn certainly didn't accuse the UK of being selfish and indeed offered his gratitude.

Then I raced into a meeting of European ceramics manufacturers, a crowded room with over 100 delegates. Ceramics is an energy intensive business and they are concerned about upcoming legislation on energy efficiency. I described some of the 1800 proposed amendments, including ones by my office on reducing some of the energy audit bureaucracy: each of these companies monitor energy very closely, it is their largest cost, and they don't need a public audit statement to encourage them to save energy. As with much EU legislation this one starts with helpful intentions. But the top down one size fits all approach has raised concerns from industry, public authorities and consumer groups.


In the morning I visited the Red Balloon charity which works to help children and teenagers who have dropped out of school due to bullying. Carrie Herbert set up the first school fifteen years ago and now has 10 across the country. It is incredibly moving. Teenagers come to them often in deepest depression and within a year of counseling and teaching are usually back into main stream schooling. With youth unemployment such a top priority it was great to see a project that really can turn lives around. Carrie explained that it's relatively easy to raise money to build the schools but much more difficult to get ongoing revenue funding. I can't understand why these schools can't qualify for the government free school program and have promised to write letters of support.

At the office just outside Cambridge I interview three more candidates for the assistant role. I then went with my assistant Jess Cole to meet Professor Austin Smith at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge. He is one of the world's leading stem cell researchers. I have seen letters in erudite publications from Austin and many of his colleagues around the world worrying about the ECJ ruling but none of them had written to MEPs on the research committee. The ruling is based on a piece of EU legislation that dates back to the 1990s when stem cell research was in its early days. Austin spoke about the trials that are now happening to cure blindness and the project he is working on for early onset diabetes. I offered that if he wanted to bring colleagues from across the field to Brussels I would see if MEPs would come and listen to what he has to say. I think they should understand the consequences of this ruling, and what it might mean for medical research. I don't believe that membership of the single market should mean that all countries must have identical ethical positions on issues like this. If the underlying law is unclear then politicians should look at clarifying it, not leave lawyers and judges to make far reaching judgements based on outdated legislation.

On the way home I picked my daughter Lizzie up from school and we went to the iconic Fitzbillies tea shop in Cambridge. Lizzie's godmother Lucie has always worked in local government, but she and her cookery writer partner Lucas have long dreamed of running their own food shop. Lucie was spending a week learning the ropes pouring tea and making cakes. We discussed the difficulties of setting up a new business. The new owners of Fitzbillies have taken a loss making shop and hopefully turned it profitable – if they can make it work in this economic environment they must be doing something right.

On Thursday nights, if I can, I try to get to rehearsals with my local choir. I usually make about every third or fourth rehearsal and this was a lucky week. Singing forces me to switch everything else off. We are working towards our Christmas carol concert with lots of old favourites and some new challenges.


I usually spend Fridays visiting companies or other groups across the east of England but this week I had set it aside. I signed a mountain of Christmas cards, worked through some of my emails and decided to offer the job to the one candidate whose eyes lit up with glee at the idea of piles of complicated legal documents. At lunchtime I disappeared for an hour of riding across the beautiful north Essex countryside. I've been trying to do this about once a month or so and feel so much fitter. In the evening I collected Lizzie from school with two of her friends; she has just had a birthday so for a treat we headed to Wembley Arena where we were joined by family. The show was the Spanish Riding School of Vienna who visit the UK just every five years. Not everyone is into horses dancing to music but the moves date back nearly 500 years and it is breathtakingly beautiful. As an added bonus we were treated to displays by Carl Hester, who has recently been in the UK's world champion equestrian team and Lee Pearson, nine times Paralympic gold medallist – great work by Team GB to get us all excited for 2012.


Today was a very quiet day as we were shattered. We had planned to go to see the thousands of swans that migrate to Welney in Norfolk, but the warm weather means the Bewick swans have not really started to arrive from Russia yet so we will leave it a couple of weeks. Instead I went to Newmarket racecourse to the Christmas craft sale in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. As parliament doesn't break up until December 23, it was great to make a start on some Christmas shopping and see some friends. I came home armed with gadgets for godsons, a special widget to help find my brother's permanently lost car keys and slip-on studs which I hope might stop my stepfather slipping on the ice.


After a brief respite to read the Sunday papers, today was spent taking my daughter for a ride and ferrying my sons to birthday parties. Then, a family supper, which is usually the time of the week we all manage to sit down together in relative peace: I have to catch the Eurostar tomorrow, when it all starts again.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Belgium or Britain

A colleague texted me over the weekend worried that the press were suggesting Belgium could be next point of focus in the Eurozone crisis. I told him to stop worrying about his handful of cash in a Brussels bank, spend it on chocolate - I'm much more worried about Britain.

A quick look at the table on the back pages of the Economist is a brutal reminder that the UK budget deficit is twice that of the Eurozone and more than double that of Italy. Our pensions "gap" i.e. unfunded pension expectations, is the highest in Europe.

The only good news is that the UK government is still able to fund at a low level, not the 7 per cent plus faced by Italy and Spain. This will only continue so long as financial investors believe that the government is trying to sort out the mess. Financial investors include your pension fund and my pension fund and the place where we both put our insurance premiums.

Despite this it sounds as if the Unions really have not got the message that we can not carry on as before. Yes we should value teachers and nurses and doctors - my husband is one. But Wednesday's threatened strikes really do threaten us all.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

White Water, Supermarket Shopping and Science

It is November 5th. When I grew up in Northern Ireland during the “troubles” we were not allowed fireworks as they sound frighteningly like gunfire. I was ten before I saw my first rocket. I always enjoy fireworks displays, and remember me how lucky we are to live without terror.

As the European Parliament has been closed this week I spent a very busy and varied couple of days across the East of England this week, starting with a visit on Thursday to Ocado, the online supermarket. They employ 2,000 people at their base in Hatfield. Ocado reckon that that there is less than half the food waste and less than half the CO2 omissions per £ spent with them than an average UK supermarket. They were one of the highest profile stock market floatation’s in 2010 and would like to know whether the “short” positions in their shares are held by competitors who would like to see the back of them. We are in the process of finalising EU legislation which will give equivalent disclosure from people who sell "short" positions in company shares as that given by those who invest in the shares.

My next stop was the Lee Valley white water site which will host the Canoe events for the Olympics. En route a quick conversation with the BBC - I think they were rather surprised hear that I was not particularly phased by the suggestion that the Greek people might be offered a referendum. The situation in Greece was pretty chaotic last week even before this week's political to and fros. And last nights vote of 153 to 145 feels far from decisive.

The White Water site though is fantastic. They had expected 20,000 visitors this summer but the total was over 130,000, with many many people enjoying the white water rafting experience. This was a great chance to see first-hand how plans for the Olympics are coming together and not just in London. This facility feels as it if will be a long lasting, fun and profitable legacy. It supports local businesses and employs many multiples of the predictions.

I have been asked to help host a European Parliament briefing in Brussels early next year to remind people that the legacy of the games will be felt across the Eastern region beyond next year, and this is a great example of that in practice. I am also looking forward to visiting the mountain bike venue in Hadleigh, Essex, later this month. The total value of contracts for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games won by businesses in the East of England now tops £1billion, with over 400 contracts awarded to businesses for services varying from providing concrete for the construction of the aquatics centre to providing coaches for transporting athletes.

The afternoon finished with a tour of Johnson Matthey who are a speciality chemicals company focused on producing catalytic converters to reduce emissions in car exhaust fumes. From the Royston factory they export all over Europe. They follow EU legislation on car emissions very closely.

Over dinner in Cambridge I was able to pick the enormous brains of leading scientists on EU and internationally funded projects in Nuclear Fusion, Space telescopes, Satellites.

On Friday I joined Geoffrey Van Orden MEP and Andrew Duff MEP to meet with Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University. We discussed the current proposals for the restructuring of EU grants for science and research. As the only East of England MEP on the Research Committee, this is something I have been following closely. Well over 10% of research at Cambridge University’s is funded by EU grants. Many many other researchers at businesses and universities in the East of England also take part in EU funded research and it is one of the very few parts of the EU budget where the UK currently gets back more than it puts in. The latest proposals on the proposed restructuring from the European Commission appear extremely vague and could lead to more bureaucracy and uncertainty for scientists in the region. I will be meeting senior advisers from the Commission next week so this discussion could not have been more helpful.

We also discussed the recent ECJ ruling on stem cell research which not only could have a very negative impact on medical research in the UK but could also put back finding solutions to diseases like Alzheimer's.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Getting out of Deep Water

Whilst the rest of the world discusses whether the Greek people should have a referendum, the European Parliament has been closed for bank holidays.

I spent Monday and Tuesday with members of the Army, Navy and RAF training program in Cornwall teaching future pilots the basics of survival should they ever have to land at sea. This was part of the Armed Forces Parliament Scheme which aims to help politicians to have a slightly better understanding of the military. Most of the days I have spent with them have been "briefings" so this was a bit different.

The equipment is basic but it would save lives if disaster was to occur, and all the trainees were keen to know how to use it well. The first day was lectures and a pool trial. The second day was repeating the same at sea - we were all much better the second time despite the much more difficult conditions.

The final exercise involved being sent off the end of a boat to swim to an upside down life raft, right it and then make the raft "safe" and secure, send out signals to help rescuers find the raft and eventually be rescued.

The trainees were extremely brave, despite many of them not having a great deal of experience of the sea. My trainee partner got tangled in some loose ribbing whilst performing the exercise. I gave some suggestions of how to prevent this, which the trainers have promised to look into.... though I was worried by the chain of bureaucracy that I may have set off. I was very surprised that there was little comment from trainees on how to make improvements to their equipment.

Despite having done a bit of offshore sailing in my past I had never thought about how exactly one activates a distress flare. Its not as simple as it says on the packet - so it was definitely helpful to be allowed to try one out..

I have been given a little eyeopener into how important time in training is. Thank you.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Wood for the Trees

Strasbourg week is always a busy time for the European Parliament but last week's diary was just crazy busy. At times like this it is hard to see the wood for the trees.

On Monday and Tuesday we were racing around finalising my Offshore Oil Safety report. Which was voted through the Parliament on Tuesday. We beat off a last minute attempt from the Greens to put in place a drilling moratorium. Given that offshore is 90% of EU/Norway oil production this would have been pretty dire for energy security issues. Like many European Parliament reports its has been subjected to numerous amendments from many different committees with varying degrees of knowledge ... it is not perfect. However, I hope we have laid the grounds for a strong safety approach that is not box ticking. We took a basic premise to leave to national regulators what they can do well, to share expertise bilaterally/multilaterally where that makes sense between neighbouring countries and pool resources at the EU level where that can add economies of scale (in this case in using clean up equipment most effectively). Devolve down where possible and up where needed is my new motto. We will need to fight to keep this approach through the actual legislation that will follow.

On Wednesday and Thursday I was in trialogue negotiations regarding the new arrangements for Deposit Guarantee Schemes. Remember the massive flight of bank accounts to Ireland during the crisis when the Irish government announced a 100% guarantee for all personal accounts? Clearly there needs to be international agreement on guarantees but this does not mean every detail needs to be harmonised. I also kept being dragged back into final negotiations on the Economic Governance package - my own report on how countries should provide transparent forward looking budgets has been agreed by all countries. But mine is only one of six pieces of legislation - some of the others have not been as explicitly sensitive to the differences between Eurozone and non Eurozone countries. If the Eurozone move closer together, the issue of Euro vs non-Euro countries is going to get even more sensitive in months to come.

On Thursday night I went with a group of MEPs from Strasbourg to Poland, to join a major conference of financial service legislators, regulators and providers. I had been asked to speak on Friday about a technical aspect involving the implementation of the highly politically sensitive Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive which was passed by the Parliament finally at the end last year. During many debates on this directive I and a few colleagues had raised concerns about the potential impacts of the directive, one of which was the impact for investment in developing countries. We UK MEPs thought that we had won a compromise that would work but a year on this it is still not settled. Mental note we should all be forced to look back at laws that have been passed and check regularly whether they actually work in practice.

Friday, 26 August 2011

End of Summer thoughts....

On August bank holiday Monday the European Parliaments Econ committee has been recalled from recess for an “emergency” debate on the state of the Eurozone. MEPs have put Brussels on hold August period and as one of my colleagues described it the problems have been allowed to “summernate”.

It will be interesting to hear what colleagues have to say after their five weeks back in their own parts of Europe. What are the stories from Greece and Portugal, Italy and Spain. What are the Germans thinking - do they side with those who believe the bailouts are illegal and are bringing a challenge to the constitutional court? or do they see the only way to defend a “strong euro” as more fiscal consolidation? What are the views of the other AAA countries, like the Dutch and the Finns.

Every summer for many, many years I have spent a fortnight in the calm of the West of Ireland. It is like having a window into another country. When I used to go there as I child I remember the total poverty with dire roads and working donkeys, then overtaken by ancient tractors. I remember the complaints about inflation when Ireland first joined the Euro and then the boom years, with new roads opening and building bonanza. Every year when returned the property prices had hiked again. The last year when the crisis had started to hit I was told of the exodus of young people; a generation leaving the country because of the lack of jobs at home.

This year I was almost dreading going back, expecting to feel deep depression and boarded up shops. However instead I came away with an impression of stoicism and realism. When ever we asked how things were we were told that yes it was difficult, takings were down - but this was usually blamed as much on the very wet summer weather as the general economy. However, property prices are back down to the levels of probably 6 or 7 years ago, but with a holiday cottage still costing the best part of €300,000 they are still well out of my league. Those who took out mortgages in the boom years are stuck.

Returning home this week I was taken by Ben Gummer MP to see the impact of the Irish banking crisis in Ipswich. The waterfront is buzzing with new restaurants, bars and a hotel. The marina has had its busiest year. But it is towered over by a 17 story high skeleton of a building now frozen by the wind down of the bank that had lent tens of millions to the buildings developers. Ben has been told by the administrators that they can not sell the building at current market prices without approval from the European Commission. If the building continues to be left the concrete shell will start to rot and will need to be demolished. Just one of the problems that I will be taking back to Brussels next week.

Later I went into Newmarket. I’ve been told before that there are over 6,000 working in horse related businesses around Newmarket. I went to see the Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the National Stud. Its been a difficult year. The Stud stables mares en route to meet up with the various Stallions across the area. They reckon they have seen 100 fewer mares this year. The direct affect of fewer (mostly Irish) buyers.

These are just two visible examples of how our local east Anglian economy is related to that of Ireland. But the relationship with other economies is often less visible. If the Eurozone crisis deepens into another bank crisis it will affect the UK too. I will be listening hard to the thoughts from colleagues across the continent on Monday.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Confusion from the Commission....

We have bitter battles every year trying to rein in EU budget, but these are minor compared to the battle over the next Medium Term Financial Framework. This 7 year plan will fix the EU spending parameters from 2014 to 2021.

The good news is that David Cameron has found friends with 8 other leaders who want to keep the budget down.

The bad news is that the European Parliament voted this week to take an opposite approach, MEPs voted to limits on EU spending by 5%, to stop the rebate and for “own resources” ie EU taxes. Furthermore the European Commission is arguing for a 4.9% increase in the 2012 budget and no doubt will be weighing in with demands for more in the following years

For months we UK Conservatives have been trying to persuade MEPs that whilst national governments are forced to reduce spending at home back it seems only reasonable to also reduce. or at the very least contain, the EU budget.

It appears the Parliament is full of deficit deniers. One of my colleagues even heard the President of the Parliament claiming that only 4 European Countries are cutting back.

This week another part of the European Commission published its advice to Member States on their fiscal plans. On the long slow train back from Strasbourg I decided to read what they said.

There are 27 countries in the EU, 24 when you strip out those that have needed bailout countries (Greece, Ireland, and Portugal). The commission has not categorised the others but this is my interpretation of their words.

Seven Countries are correcting excess deficits and the Commission thinks they need to reduce yet more (Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia),

Four Countries are correcting excess deficits and the Commission thinks they may need to do more or are exposed to some element of high risk (France, Poland, Spain, UK)

Nine Countries are correcting excess deficits but the Commission thinks that they should be able to meet their correction targets (Belgium, Czech, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Malta¸Netherlands and Romania)

Indeed there are only 4 countries where the Commission seems quite relaxed about the public finances. Estonia, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden.

To conclude, the European Commission, which is asking for higher EU spending, is also arguing that 23 of 27 European Countries are already spending outside their means. No wonder people are frustrated and confused.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Brussels Brief - Euro, Fish and Property

Money issues and The Eurozone
Travelling out to Brussels on a UK bank holiday always seems a bit rough, especially given the longer journey with the holiday timetable – but I was not prepared to miss another round of negotiations meetings this Monday and Tuesday on Economic Governance.

The complex package of six pieces legislation is now in its final weeks of negotiation between the European Parliament, European Commission and National Governments. It has taken nearly all my time over the past few months. The crisis in the Eurozone has resulted in those countries governments deciding that they must
more shared decision making over budget making to prevent national debts and deficits. However the UK and 9 EU member countries are not in the Eurozone, and the UK has a specific carve out under the European Treaty recognising that it does not intend to join the Euro. This needs to be recognised in the legal text.

I’m the only one of the 6 lead MEPs on this legislation whose currency is not the Euro and my colleagues have been very patient when every few hours I pipe up pointing out the differences and asking for language to be clarified for non Euro countries. We will probably vote on the final text before the end of June.

Fish Discards
This week I met with the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall when he brought his “Fish Fight” Campaign to Brussels. He has successfully helped to raise awareness of the outrageous result of the current European fishery policy whereby at least a million tonnes of perfectly health fish are chucked dead into our seas each year. I am pretty convinced that this summer’s review of the policy will not only mean all fish caught must now be landed but also recommend an end to Brussels based quotas and a return of responsibility to local decision makers.

I had already written to Hugo to ask him to raise public awareness for the sustainability benefits of different fishing methods. In Lowestoft, Suffolk for example we don’t have massive trawlers with nets but small boats who use lines to catch their cod. This means the fishermen can target their species and no fish are discarded. I would like to see any new local system of managing fish stocks to take account of the fishing method as well as the amount of fish caught, and support our small local boats.

Spanish Property

I may not be very popular with Spanish Property dealers at the moment after a letter I arranged for me and my other East Anglian Conservative MEPs to sign appeared in local papers and the Daily Mail. The fact is that as MEPs we frequently have constituents coming to us with issues they have had regarding owning property overseas and a disproportionate number of these complaints related to Spanish issues. Recently I was contacted by a constituent whose house in Empuriabrava is one of 5,000 facing demolition. In the European Parliament I have signed a Written Declaration asking the Spanish Government to respect the rights of property owners. Unlike some of my MEP colleagues I do not advise constituents never to buy a property in certain EU countries just to think very, very carefully. Research well and use the best possible legal advice.

I am taking today off – or at least I’m at home. It is Ascension day and a Brussels bank holiday. Tomorrow I will be visiting various researchers, scientists and academics in Cambridge with my colleague Malcolm Harbour MEP

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A new hand on the deck

Question: What happened today?

Breakfast hosted seminar on "crisis resolution in financial services"; i.e. how to prevent bank bail outs.
Lunch spoke at seminar on responsible lending in mortgages (learnt lots but didn't get lunch)
Dinner spoke at seminar on research funding for science and innovation.

Also joined seminar on Energy with National MPs (discussed blocks to long term investment), quizzed EU Commissioner Barnier on bank stress tests (please not a repeat of last year's farce), met Andrew Mitchell MP on whether EU development aid well spent, bilateral meetings with 3 other MEP groups re Economic Governance (eurozone crisis). Voted in committee on derivatives legislation and deposit guarantees.

Today David Campbell Bannerman MEP switched from UKIP to Conservatives. We do need all hands on deck to help get the UK voice across in Europe.... provided they also work hard!

p.s. the photo is the hydrogen fuelled black cab prototype that I drove at Lotus in Norfolk a few weeks ago. They are hoping to secure grants to have a fleet of 13 similar cabs transporting sporting stars at the 2012 Olympics. Great Norfolk engineering with international partners on a global stage.

Friday, 6 May 2011

feels good

I will always remember my school biology teacher concluding a lesson on the facts of life with a plea to the girls to "JUST SAY NO". It appears that the majority of the country agree with her.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Brussels Budget and the local elections in Bedford

Thank heavens for a week away from Brussels. I've been helping in local elections in Bedford today. We had a healthy canvas in a ward that felt far from safe Labour (though its been that way for 25 years).

John Guthrie, the candidate for mayor of Bedford, had gathered some of Bedford's deep thinkers together for a pub lunch. He is the candidate for Mayor of Bedford and said many wise words.

"the EU budget is a bit like a ward funds for councillors, they shouldn't exist, the money often wasted but as long as it does exist I'm d*mned if some other country is going to take their share and not us." said John.

The team I met over lunch have been knocking on doors for local elections for many weeks. They told me what they pick up on the ground about Europe: the growing anger with the European Court of Human Rights (prisioner's votes etc), the ECJ ruling on women's car insurance.

We went on to discuss how the Germans and the Finns feel about bailing out their southern neighbours, the role of Poland and the Czech republic in keeping an ever closer relationship between Germany and Russia in balance, which way the Eurozone will go next.

John and his team also picked my brains over who I think does a good job promoting their town or city. They are thinking locally about Bedford's problems but looking to learn from others as well. A good team.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Running a Marathon of Legislation

I´ve never run a marathon. It would take me a long time and I take my hat off to those who trained for months and then struggled exhausted over the finishing line after 5, 6 or 7 hours yesterday.

Last week I counted up that I have spent over 120 hours since September in meetings with five other MEPs on the so-called "economic governance" package. This is the new legislation that seeks to enforce control on government debt and deficit levels. Tomorrow we will vote.

The socialists are still holding on to their line that money governments borrow for "investment" is not really debt. I disagree, unless there is movement this afternoon it will go to a vote.

As the panic across the Eurozone has increased so has the panic to find a solution. The other five MEPs all use the Euro as their currency. Every couple of hours into our marathon negotiations I have found myself reminding them that ten countries in the European Union do not use the Euro. Other countries will be able to comment on each others´ budgets but cannot dictate them. Countries within the Eurozone can be fined for running up excess debts - but not for those of us outside.

My own report will call for much greater transparency and independence of budgets and forecasts (similar to the OBR in the UK). I have tabled a suggestion that the EU budget should be presented annually and discussed alongside that of individual countries. If countries are expected to be transparent with their money so should the EU. I hope I win this vote.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Review of the Week, Cash for Amendments, Broadband and Oil

Review of the Week

Money to build our Rural Broadband

Every few months a group of Conservative MEPs meet over dinner in the European Parliament to hear from business leaders. This week my guest and sponsor was Richard Moat joint CEO of “Everything Everywhere”, the new company formed by the merger of T-mobile and Orange.

I first met Richard back in 1995 when, as a banker, I helped raise £1.2 billion to finance the buildout of Orange’s first mobile phone network. We all hear complaints about how hard it is to get banks to lend today but Richard told us that it is a struggle to raise the same amount of money today as we raised back then. This is a very alarming statement - yes we do need stronger banking rules so that they can’t go back to the credit bubble of 2007 but to have turned back the clock by 16 years must be to far.

In coming months the UK will hold its next auction of radio spectrum for mobile telecommunications. This is a one off opportunity to improve mobile and broadband communications especially for rural areas. In many parts of East Anglia you cant get a signal for a phone call let alone link to Facebook. I would like to see an obligation to “light up” rural areas as part of the new licenses. But if the companies cant raise money for their infrastructure then this may be a pipe dream.

Cash for Amendments Scandal

Readers of the Sunday Times will have followed the stories of MEPs being paid to submit amendments to EU laws. I’m glad that these MEPs have been sacked by their groups and are going to face criminal investigations in their own countries. I have never been offered money for an amendment nor would I accept it. I do consult companies, consumer groups, charities and others. I list all those “lobbyists” that I have met. I have submitted many amendments.

This week I tabled a number of suggested amendments to the new rules for “Deposit Guarantees”. Those who remember the Northern Rock crisis will also remember the flood of cash that went from UK bank accounts to Irish ones when Ireland announced it would guarantee unlimited deposits. There does need to be cross border agreement on the level of amount guaranteed but my amendments suggest that each different country should be allowed to chose how it will fund the payout. The proposal from Brussels is that a penny in every pound in a bank account is set aside in a slush fund just in case a bank fails - I’m not convinced that the UK economy can afford the side affect this “pre-funded” arrangement could have on lending capacity of banks. In the UK for example our banks are forced to contribute only if, or when, the money is needed. This should be a national decision not a Brussels one.

Putting an amendment on the table does not mean that it will come into law. First it needs to get majority support from MEPs across the parliament. Then it also needs to be accepted by a majority of the 27 national governments in the EU.

Offshore Oil Safety

This week I also hosted a 3 hour open meeting to hear from experts on the Safety of Offshore Oil. Given the importance of this to the UK I have volunteered to lead the Parliament’s report into this. We heard from industry players. Given the European Commission’s concern started during last years Gulf of Mexico incident I thought it was only appropriate that BP were asked to start the debate. We then heard from ENI of Italy regarding the Med - and especially interesting their North Africa experiences including in Libya, Statoil of Norway also spoke about the North Sea safety regime - which is in a totally different league to that which had existed in the USA. We heard from regulators including the UK. We learnt about the disaster response capacity that a European funded Agency has to help countries cope with spills from Oil tankers - including a fleet of clean up vessels and advanced satellite monitoring. I also invited environmental campaigners to tell us their views. It is clear that if a Gulf of Mexico type incident happened in a closed sea, like the Med, the impact would be much more severe.

We do need to continue to access our own oil resources but preventing a disaster from happening is a top priority. There seems to be consensus that the North Sea regulatory regime which looks at the risks involved in each individual well is a “gold standard” that other Seas should adopt. As an oil spill would obviously not respect territorial sea borders before washing with the tide, there is interest in working with coastal neighbours to ensure high standards are respected. I think the idea of an EU super regulator is waning (fortunately) but networks of peer reviews should help raise standards. I was invited to attend a meeting of the North Sea Offshore Authorities Forum where regulators from North Sea were joined by those from Italy, Cyprus, Spain and France (interesting as not a lot of offshore oil in France). They were having a healthy discussion on the challenges of extending the lives of older Oil platforms. I was pleased to hear that the Med is now going to start their own Authorities Forum, helped by the experiences of the North Sea and perhaps some North African countries will eventually join in.

There is also consensus that there needs to be much better equipment available to stop any leak as quickly as possible. The UK operators have already ordered a capping device which will be available for the North Sea and there may be room to use the European Agency to help pool clean up resources. We are also discussing ways to try to ensure that information regarding disasters or potential “near misses” is shared much more quickly across the globe - like, for example in the airline industry, so that there is the ability to learn about technical problems.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Some recent visits

I've just been looking at some photos of recent visits.... Its been a bit of a busy time for hard hats and hair nets.

Last Friday, at Lowestoft discussing reforms of EU fishing quotas with local fish dealer Sam Coles. We want an end to discards, all fish to be landed, to move decision making from Brussels to regional boards and a fair deal for our local small fishermen.

Two weeks ago, visiting Norfolk's state of the art waste sorter. This vibrating machine sorts plastic bottles from cans from paper.

The resulting waste is packaged up and resold. Behind me are milk containers. A proportion of the profits are returned to local councils thus covering the costs of doorstep recycling.

This week visiting CMAC in Great Yarmouth - one of only two European companies that supplies the North American Space Program (NASA) and makes circuit boards for communications satellites. Each minute electronic circuit board can withstand temperatures down to -50C and +125C. Before being sent off into space they are individually inspected through a x20 microscope. It is incredibly clean. I hope to help them with exchange programs for scientists.

Last week on the control centre of a North Sea Oil Drilling Rig. I am reaching out towards the red button of the "blow out" preventer. This is the button that operators failed to push when all was going wrong in the Gulf of Mexico and resulted in BP's Deep Water disaster. I hope that safety lessons from the North Sea will now be mirrored in other countries.

And yes I did need to go in a helicopter - which meant that I had to be spun upside down in a submerged helicopter and escape by pushing out the windows.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Pensions - are there lessons from other Countries

Meeting the pensions gap - both for public and private sector workers is one of the thorniest issues that my generation faces. The UK is not alone in this - its a huge debate in many countries.

Whilst I don't want Brussels setting minimum pensions ages, I wonder if there are ideas that we in the UK could borrow from other countries?

For example, I understand that in the Netherlands it is possible to go on a public website - enter ones own personal details (e.g. National Insurance number). It is obviously password protected. The website then pulls up a set of personal information that shows ones individual pension proposition - collating that persons pension benefits from state, employer and private savings all in one simple format, allowing the individual to predict what they may get in retirement and reconsider their own saving strategy. I'm told Sweden has a similar scheme.

Cutting Strasbourg

My West Country colleague, Ashley Fox MEP, has just led an iconic victory through the European Parliament to cut visits to Strasbourg. MEPs are obliged to hold 12 plenary session in Strasbourg each year under the European Treaty. Changing this needs unanimous consent of all 27 national governments across the EU and is not in the hands of MEPS themselves. The monthly migration from Brussels to Strasbourg costs tax payers 15 million Euros each month.

Last year, Ashley proposed an amendment to the Parliament´s annual calendar which would allow for two of the Strasbourg sessions to be combined into the same week. MEPs voted down the suggestion. However Ashley believed that some MEPs from the larger S&D and EPP groups, who would have liked to support the amendment, were being leant on by colleagues from some of the countries closest to Strasbourg.

Last September Ashley tasked his Conservative colleagues to "find a friend", each UK conservative was asked to find 3 MEPs from those that had voted against the original ammendment and persuade them to change their minds. The campaign posters urging MEPs to "Save money, time and CO2" in 21 languages have been appearing in lifts and loos.

Today MEPs voted on the 2012 and 2013 calendar - this time Ashley´s amendment to roll two weeks into one was co-signed by 216 MEPs from across the parliament. He also asked for it to be a secret vote to stop bullying by larger delegations. The result was 356 to 255 in favour of reducing trips to Strasbourg.

This all matters because it is the first time MEPs from across Europe have come out so clearly in a vote against the two seat parliament. We hope that this will give national governments the change to re-consider their position regarding Strasbourg altogether. Its a beautiful City - but we we must stop this travelling circus which is such a waste of taxpayers money.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Weekly Brief on Greece, Commodities, Long Term Investments, Fuel for Van Drivers and Pensions.

Last week, I travelled out to Strasbourg via Frankfurt to spend a morning with the European Central Bank (ECB) and back via Paris for a conference of politicians, central bankers and financiers discussing priorities for France’s presidency of the G20.

Not surprisingly much of the conversation with the ECB was about the situation in Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The ECB has been buying debts of these countries over the past year and now owns 17% of the total but, when asked, they would not disclose what average price they have bought the debt at. They say that Greece should be able to reduce its debt burden by selling off government owned real-estate. I then leant that the average Greek household already owns more than 1.5 properties and the two Greek MEPs present were rather more skeptical about the state of their property market.

In Paris the big debates were on commodity prices and trading, the impact the new rules for bank capital and liquidity will have on the wider economy including long term investment, whether this will create a larger “shadow banking” culture and what to do about systemically important financial institutions. There are some who thought that the new banking rules were done and dusted when agreed at previous G20 meetings and then finalised during the debates at the international Basel committee - but it is actually very clear that the ink is far from dry on the detail.

Commodity markets will be in the spotlight during the French G20. There was a very divergent view between those who would like to see all commodities derivatives markets closed down and others who believe that these are useful for hedging risks for manufacturers and food producers - most East Anglian farmers I know have sold their grain long before they harvest it. Everyone agreed that there is a lack of transparent information in commodity markets, both on production levels and traded markets, as well as a need to address long term shortfalls in food supply and raw materials.

It was helpful to listen to a discussion on long term investment, in the UK as well as across Europe there is a desperate need for investment - for infrastructure and especially energy infrastructure. UK and European companies are much more reliant on bank lending than for example their US counterparts with 75% of EU capital coming from banks as opposed to 25% in the US. There is little doubt that if we push banks to hold much more liquidity we will reduce their long term investments. Pension funds which should be longer term investors are also being forced by regulation to hold more liquid shorter dated investments.

In Strasbourg this week we voted on long term targets for fuel emissions from vans. A big issue in the East of England not just for the thousands of tradesmen and delivery drivers who drive vans, but also because the Vauxhall factory in Luton is General Motors main European production facility. The new targets have taken a year to negotiate and we probably a sensible compromise to levels that the manufactures may be able to achieve. Having spoken to many van drivers during the year its clear that fuel consumption is a major business expense - they would like to see more fuel efficient vans but not if the price of the vehicle itself starts escalating. As ever EU targets won’t be the driving factor that create change this will happen because of the consumer pressure to force manufacturing innovation.

We also voted on a report on pensions. Funding pensions is a huge concern in all 27 countries but conditions such as life expectancy, demographics and savings differ significantly. A lot of MEPs were worried that the EU would try to introduce a standard pension age and minimum pension level. Actually the report says these decisions should stay with individual countries. During my work on this report I discovered that the first state pension was introduced in 1889 in Prussia by Bismark. The life expectancy then was just 45 so really very few people ever got to pensionable age at all.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Weekly brief on Environment, Pigs, Bank Accounts and Economics...

This week saw a high footfall of visitors to the European Parliament - a large crowd gathered to see Prince Charles, lots of people turned up to support pig welfare, but the bankers came unaccompanied.

Many more MEPs turned up to listen to the Prince of Wales than would turn up to listen to the Presidents of the European Commission, European Parliament or the European Council. Indeed all 3 presidents turned up for the Prince. In my notes on the Prince’s speech I have written that HRH argued that to have a sustainable economic system you need a sustainable eco system -for long term economic growth one needs long-term environmental sustainability. I’m glad I wrote this down as a fellow MEP, who had not been present told me later that the Prince had said we should stop economic growth altogether.

In another meeting room down the hall there was a well attended screening of the film “Pig Business” ( which shows some horrific footage of pig factory farms in Poland and the environmental damage that is associated them. My email box has been full of notes from residents of the East of England asking me to attend – so I joined the following debate, having seen the film on an earlier occasion.

This is a particularly important issue in East Anglia because so many of England’s pigs are in this part of the country. A few years ago the UK imposed higher welfare standards than across the EU which the caused many British farmers to find they could not compete against imports and they stopped production altogether. The EU is now looking at pig welfare, I would like to see the playing field moved upwards to UK standards - as well as clearer labelling to give consumers choice. I have long been a supporter of Country of Origin food labelling. This went through the European Parliament by a narrow majority last year - it will happen but will take time.

I met the consumer rights group Which?, who wanted to talk about whether your money is safe in a bank. As you remember, after the Northern Rock crisis there was a flight of money from the UK to Ireland when the Irish government said they would guarantee all the cash in personal bank accounts. This race for which government would guarantee the most clearly distorted free competition, jeopardising otherwise healthy banks. As a result there is now an agreement that there should be a standard guarantee of €100,000 (about £80,000) across the EU. In each country banks should set aside money to fund this, rather than taxpayers. We are now negotiating the finer details. “Which?” asked what happens to the person who has just received the insurance money because their house was burnt down - we need to make sure that one- off extraordinary bank balances are still covered.

When asked by “Which?” - what happens if you have some money in for example HSBC and other money in First Direct - a brand of the same bank? I’m afraid I did not agree with their suggestion that the two bank accounts should be covered separately. I don’t want to see life savings wiped out but if you are in the lucky position to hold more than £80,000 in bank accounts you need to be able to take responsibility for checking who guarantees it - better consumer labelling may be helpful here too.”

A delegation from Norway also came to talk to me about the deposit guarantees - Norway is not part of the EU - they have no vote and no say - but their trade agreement with the EU obliges them to apply all EU rules. They are extremely concerned how new rules on bank deposits could affect their own domestic banking system.

During the week I joined a group of 6 British MEPs from 3 major parties and a German MEP in a meeting with a senior management team from Barclays bank. I also attended a dinner with leaders of insurance companies, pension funds and banks. There is a plethora of legislation on financial services and economic matters working its way through European legislation- some of which is as a result of global discussions following G20 agreements. Senior management from other banks from Germany and the US amongst others have been regular visitors to Brussels, UK banks less so.

“A balance still needs to be achieved between requiring banks to put aside money to prevent further collapses versus lending money to the wider economy, helping save for pensions etc - as well as achieving a global level playing field. I still believe that there is much more that the financial services industry could do to help ensure that a correct balance between safer finances and funding growth is achieved.”

Sunday, 6 February 2011

why do british companies not borrow from Europe? Should the UK be like Norway? and other questions

Weekly view from Brussels

This week was a “mini-plenary” which means we have a selection of committee meetings, group meetings and then on Wednesday and Thursday some debates and votes. So it can be quite busy.

Outside the public meetings I met with new representatives of the CBI in Brussels. We have been working quite closely with the CBI over the past year when looking at the impact of new rules on financial services on the wider economy. Their new boss John Cridland has said they will keep the UK government “on their toes” when it comes to decisions that could affect growth. One of the questions I would like them to help answer is why so few British businesses take advantage of loans from the European Investment Bank. These loans are meant to be one of the ways to help innovative businesses Looking at a recent presentation I saw that of the E6.3 billion loans issued between 2007 and 2009 nearly a quarter had gone to German borrowers, 14.3% to Spain, Sweden 10.3% but the was UK down at 8.4%. Lending to businesses has been a big concern since the financial crisis and the European Commission suggesting large increases in EIB loan availability. I want to understand why companies in the UK don’t seem to apply for them - are they too expensive, poorly administered, poorly advertised?. I’m also writing to my local chambers of commerce across the East of England to ask their members’ thoughts.

I had a long discussion with Statoil the Norwegian Oil company regarding Offshore Oil drilling. The European Commission has said they are considering new legislation in offshore Oil production - this is an interesting situation for Norway who are not in the EU, they implement EU rules but have no votes on the legislation. They have more offshore oil production than the 27 members of the European Union put together. We talked about the safety regime that has been established in Norway to prevent spills and how the industry is working to be better prepared to cope with them should they occur as well as the discussions they have on safety and environmental issues with countries outside the EU like Russia. I hope to hear more from the Norwegian authorities in the weeks ahead. I have also invited Statoil to a public hearing I will organise in the European Parliament next month.

Along with the other 5 MEPs who are leading the scrutiny of the “economic governance” package we had various meetings with the European Central Bank, the European commission, social partners - including business, unions and voluntary sector representatives as well as a rather full press briefing. One journalist asked if we had any “red-lines” which is an interesting question as to be honest there are still may fluid issues which will be debated in months to come. My “red-line” though remains to ensure that there is a sensible and practical distinction between those in the Eurozone and those outside - if countries outside the Eurozone wish to “opt-in” to higher levels of scrutiny and the potential fining mechanism that should be permitted. But fines designed to protect Eurozone stability should not be imposed on those who are not in the zone. The ECB was quite interesting on to this issue as well - pointing out that issues such as “macro economic imbalances” are sensitive in all countries but even more so in areas where there is a common currency.

Back in the region last night I joined representatives from the Bio-science research community. We had a long discussion about the issues accessing EU funding for research, last year I worked with the European parliament on a paper suggesting 71 different ways of simplifying the process and cutting red tape but so far the commission has announced action on just 3.

Monday, 31 January 2011

weekly brief on super cars, pensions, and gold

I meant to post this on Friday but it was a bit of a busy time.... here were my highlights of last week.

Lotus I met representatives from Lotus Cars who were in Brussels to meet with the European Commission to explain their new business plan. Lotus are intending to move into the “super car” market. EU legislation on co2 emmisions will to set targets for each manufacturer. This was agreed a couple of years ago before I became an MEP but in the following months the actual targets will be set. .

Lotus is a Norfolk based company. This was a very helpful update. It is important that we focus on how legislation affects local companies when rules are implemented as well as during the initial negotiations.

Pensions My amendment calling for a review of the EU’s own pension scheme was passed - at least at the committee stage.

Pension costs are a large and growing element of the EU budget so I have been calling for a review of the pensions policy of EU institutions. The EU pension scheme has a retirement age of 63 and was last reviewed in 2004. Given that in many EU countries people are being asked to work longer I thing it is only right that the EU should take a fresh look at its own policies. Last Autumn my Group didn’t get support from the rest of the Parliament on this in a similar vote - but this week in the Economic Affairs Committee we (just) got a majority. This will now go to another vote of the employment committee and then hopefully full parliament in upcoming weeks.

raw materials and recycling this week I went to a “hearing” in the Parliament on raw materials - these events often bring in experts from industry and others. We learnt about the importance and value of including precious metals in recycling - especially as these become rarer. For example one tonne of ore in a gold mine will on average produce just 5g of gold - but a tonne of mobile phones contains around 300 -350g. Yet less than 2 percent of mobile phones are recycled. The phrase “urban mine” was a new one to me but one I expect to hear more of.

Banks and Finance - I’ve had a series of meetings regarding banks and finance this week. Including listening to Danish bank, Nykredit, telling MEPs about their unique system for financing mortgages which gives the house buyer direct access to market prices. I also joined a group of German, French and Austrian MEPs on a trip to London meeting MPs, members of the house of Lords, the Treasury and the Bank of England. The MEPs were given clear messages about needing to work on better thought through regulation not just at a European level but globally too - as well as the importance of getting lending working for the wider economy.

Economic Governance - As one of the 6 MEPs working on the “Economic Governance” package I took part in the debate on these reports. An other MEP are called for countries to have to have their economic budgets audited by the European Court of Auditors - and for them to have to pre agreed economic forecasts with the European Commission. Whilst it is perfectly reasonable to expect countries to provide clear transparent information and listen to concerns of their neighbours, in my view national budgets are a national decision.

Finally - Sharon Bowles MEP, chairman of the Economic Affairs committee kindly let me sit in on a meeting with Jamie Dimon, head of JP Morgan. He had come from Washington via Brussels en route to the World Economic Forum in Davos. At the European Commission he had been given the red carpet treatment but on arrival at the European Parliament there was such a huge queue for visitors he couldn’t get through security - so we had the meeting very publicly in the entrance lobby! We discussed issues from bank capital to derivatives to market transparency to the global economy. Now thats not being lobbied behind closed doors.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Weekly Brief - from Strasbourg this time

Well there was a bit of interest from last weeks email to local journalists telling them what I´m up to so. Mostly on fish - I´ve been asked to be a "sofa guest" on Radio Suffolk. Sounds interesting ... I wonder if its a real sofa? Therefore I am continuing with my new years resolution to send a weekly brief for at least one more week.

Here is the message that is going out this week.

This week the European Parliament moved to Strasbourg for its monthly Plenary session. This is the time when the Parliament meets as a whole to debate and vote on proposals that have been submitted from the Parliaments numerous committees.

For many years UK Conservative MEPS have voiced their discontent with the "two seat" parliament pointing to the waste of time and tax-payers money. The UK Coalition government is also opposed to this . However resolving the situation does not lie in the hands of the European Parliament but requires a unanimous agreement across National Parliaments in all 27 EU Countries.

The main piece of new legislation voted on this week was a directive on cross border healthcare. From 2013 this will allow UK patients the option of seeking treatment for planned procedures (such as planned operations) in other EU countries, provided they have the prior approval of the NHS to meet the costs (usually from their home GP and specialist. It will also mean that the NHS will not need to treat patients from other EU countries for such planned treatments unless there is prior agreement from the patients home health service to repay the NHS.

"I hope that this new directive will clarify the position both for patients and for medical professionals, give patients more choice and protect NHS budgets."

In the Parliament´s question time hour Vicky quizzed the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, regarding cutting red tape on EU funding for Scientific Research. Vicky reminded President Barosso that research and innovation is critical to maintaining a competitive economy and that for the first time a university in Europe topped the global league tables for Scientific Research - Cambridge University. She said that European funding for research also supported research in many less well known universities as well as businesses large and small. However she is concerned that plans to unlock bureaucracy may be stalled.

"The EU budget for Research is huge - over E50 billion for the 2007-2013 period. This is a very significant source of funds for UK universities and innovative businesses. It is one of the areas where the UK gets back as much cash from the EU budget as we put into it. I have seen some cutting edge research in the East of England funded from this pot of money. However, it also has a reputation for being the most bureaucratic funding system on the planet. Last Autumn after long conversations with science and industry, the Parliament voted almost unanimously on a wide range of practical suggestions to speed up the grants process and simplify the system. Whilst the Commission President voiced his support for simplification I am concerned that very little may actually be happening"

In a debate on EU competition policy Vicky Ford raised the issue of hikes in domestic heating oil prices.

"The European Commission has massive power to investigate and take actions, including levying fines, if they believe that companies are price fixing or acting in an anti-competitive manner across EU national borders. This year the Commission will be looking at the Energy market. However they tend to focus on just Electricity and Gas Prices. In the East of England nearly a quarter of households do not have access to mains gas and the vast majority of these rural homes rely on domestic heating oil. Between November and December´s cold period residents experienced price rises in some cases over 50%. I know that suppliers worked incredibly hard to try to meet the very high demand in treacherous conditions however various MPs in the UK have called for an Office of Fair Trading investigation to check whether there are cartels operating to fix prices. It is right that if this is purely a UK National issue then it should be investigated by the UK regulator but there have also been price hikes in other countries including Ireland. I wanted to ensure that the Competition Commissioner is aware of the issue. In their review of Energy markets they must recognise that different countries have different energy supply systems and they should not forget rural areas."

Vicky met with ENI, an Italian Oil company and spoke to Statoil a Norwegian Oil company regarding Safety of Deep Sea Offshore Oil Drilling.

"After the Deep-Water Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico Italy immediately put a moratorium on all offshore drilling, but is now considering lifting this. The UK did not impose a moratorium but has taken numerous actions including increasing safety inspections. I have been reading about the UK´s own rigorous safety procedures and the recommendations from both the UK Parliament investigation and US investigation. Poor legislation contributed to the events that led up to the Gulf disaster. It is important that lessons are learnt and best practices are upheld."

Vicky has had various meetings with outside experts and other MEPs regarding Economic Governance. She is the Parliament´s Rapporteur on a new directive on fiscal frameworks that discusses how countries set national budgets.

"this Directive will NOT give Brussels bureaucrats the ability to reject British budgets. It calls for national governments to have at least a 3 year forecasting horizon when looking at tax and spending policy. The UK already does this. Some in the Eurozone wish to give more centralised powers to Brussels following the Eurozone crisis, this should not be automatically applied to those countries who have chosen to stay out the Euro. The UK government has agreed to take part in a new annual "European Semester" when national governments can discuss and comment on each others budget forecasts - I believe it would be more transparent if the EU´s own budget was also discussed at the same time".

Pensions Vicky took part in a debate on pensions in the Committee of Economic and Monetary Affairs. The European Commission has recently launched a consultation on pensions and the Committee will vote on a series of recommendations from the Parliament next week. Vicky has submitted an amendment requesting a review into the pension schemes of EU institutions. The issue of an ageing population and how to fund an ever growing pensions gap is faced by many countries across Europe.

"I was glad to hear many MEPs saying that pensions policies should remain with National Governments not with European Institutions. However there could be improvements by sharing best practice on for example information that is provided to savers on their pensions options. In addition more could be done to make sure that pension savings from one country can be moved to others."

Sunday, 16 January 2011

New year - New transparency

I've started 2011 with two new year's resolutions. One is to try to be on time for meetings (not great so far but better) the other is to send local and regional  press organisations a very short weekly debrief on some of the  meetings or discussions that I have had each week. 

Below is what went out on Friday with issues including Offshore Oil drilling, Bank reform and bonuses, Female only car insurance, Economics of the Eurozone and governance reforms as well as fish discards and mobile broadband. The press release offers that any local journalist can call me or the office in Brussels or the UK for follow up details if they are interested to know more. So far Radio Norfolk asked me to speak about the outrage of fish discards, one local paper has put it on its website and another journalist has emailed a "thank you".

My husband hates the "Vicky is" "Vicky said" format - and I agree - so if anyone has a better format idea let me know.

Journalists and others often complain about lack of transparency from Europe - this is my attempt to help but if there is not a lot of interest in weeks to come then I will break the resolution and perhaps try something else.

-   Vicky has been tasked by the Parliament's Industry,  Research and Energy Committee to draft a parliamentary report on the safety of deep-sea offshore oil and gas drilling. Vicky is looking to prepare a first draft of her report by March to influence the Commission's thinking on any new potential legislation at an EU level.

"Offshore oil and gas in the North Sea is extremely important to  the UK. We have more experience in this area than all other EU  countries so it is a huge honour as well as a responsibility to be  given this role.   Post the Gulf of Mexico "Deepwater" disaster there are  serious questions that deserve an answer.  I will be consulting the industry, national regulators and environmentalists in  the weeks ahead.  I hope the report will allow MEPs from all countries  to come to an informed and well-considered view."
- Meeting with many representatives of European and International banks regarding new global rules on bank capital and liquidity.    During recent months Vicky has been one of 5 MEPs from different  parties and countries looking at how these rules can be introduced in  the UK and Europe in a co-ordinated manner.  Vicky is a former banker  and was invited as a key note speaker  alongside representatives from  the British Banking Association and the European Commission.
"As we saw in Ireland the banking crisis in Europe is still not  resolved, there needs to be stronger, more stable banks. Taxpayers  should never have to bail out banks.  The UK has already ensured that  all our banks are well capitalised but new rules need to be brought  into place across the globe. Whilst we need strong banks we also  need banks that are able to lend to fuel the economy. Globally all  countries have signed off on high-level agreement but the devil is in  the detail - it is right that certain countries try to ensure that good  local practices are not disadvantaged (like the UK Building society  model) - but MEPS must not try to protect not poor local practices-   especially given the Eurozone crisis. This meeting involved issues  from domestic lending and mortgages,  to trade finance (important when  exporting to emerging countries).  I have had subsequent follow up  meetings this week with asset managers on  to  the unintended (but  potentially very costly) impact on insurance rates and pension fund  returns of other new rules on financial services, especially hedging."

 -meeting with ESure - owner of "Sheila’s Wheels"  an insurance company aimed exclusively at women.  The  European Court of Justice is currently deliberating whether it it  discriminatory for insurance companies to offer cheaper rates to women  drivers than male drivers.   
"The European Court is a totally separate body from the European  Parliament but I am worried by what precedent could be set.  As a  mother of two boys it is of course alarming  to hear that young male drivers still have far higher accident rates than their female counterparts - but facts show this is the truth.   That is why women are offered cheaper car insurance.    Where could this end? - should everyone have to pay the same household insurance even if living in lower crime areas? - whats the incentive then to have a watch-thy-neighbour approach to crime prevention?- this does open a Pandoras box.

- meeting with  Struan Stevenson MEP, vice chairman of the Fisheries  Committee of the European Parliament regarding fish discards. 

"This week UK TV viewers have been able to see an excellent and informative  program by  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtstall that demonstrated the  outrageous effect that of EU Fishery Policy leading to a million of tons of healthy fish being caught but then dumped overboard.   We have been fighting this for many years but are seeing hopeful progress for reform."

- meeting with Chief Executive of Ofcom Ed Richard regarding broadband access and other issues.

"It was extremely helpful to quiz Ofcom on many issues - especially on broadband roll-out where he believes that the UK is set to be well ahead of other countries in just a few years.  However, I had a lot of questions regarding the issue of rural broadband."

  - meeting with other MEPs regarding Pensions.  Vicky is one of 5 MEPs looking at a parliament report on pension policy.  MEPs have  submitted amendments.

 "The issue of how to fund our lives as we all live longer is a common  issue across Europe and I  have nothing against sharing best practices  - but all countries are different and should  not be forced to be the  same.  Fortunately many other MEPs from other countries seem to agree on this.  Public sector pensions are a huge issue in many European Countries including the UK and  I have submitted a suggestion that the  EU institutions (including the European Commission) should review its own pensions scheme that they themselves are following best practice.   it could be controversial but in my view is only right.

- various meetings regarding the Eurozone situation and "economic governance".  Vicky is one of 6 MEPs leading the Parliament's review of new proposals regarding national government's budgetary planning and excessive deficits.

 "This is a huge work stream which I have been involved in since last  summer - as we have learnt in the UK ballooning of government debt  carries an extremely painful price for all - but this is multiplied in many parts of the Eurozone during this crisis.  In the UK the government prepares 3 or even 5 year forecasts before setting taxes  and deciding spending - and we still got into difficulties.   Many other countries don't do this even though they have continually  promised to do so.   My report does not give EU officials the right to  set UK budgets but does suggest that best practice in setting national  budgets should be followed. It also suggests that the EU's own budget  should be equally scrutinised.  Other parts of the Economic Governance package refer to specific actions to be taken within the Eurozone following the crisis, such as applying fines and other sanctions to countries that breach financial rules. These fines will not apply to the UK.  

- Bankers' bonuses - Last year Vicky was one of the the leading MEPs setting new rules on bankers’ bonuses. The Coalition government has chosen the toughest line to take within the framework of the European rules. These are now amongst the strictest bonus rules across the globe. At least 40% of bonuses for senior risk takers must be deferred and no more than 50% can be paid in cash.

"Banks must moderate their remuneration and act responsibly. One of the causes of the financial crisis was that risk takers were paid large amounts of money upfront but long term risks of the positions they had taken remained with the bank.  New rules do need to be agreed internationally as we all know that banking is an extremely mobile and global business.