Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Gordon's policy u-turn on cluster bombs

The Guardian is reporting this morning that the UK government is about to sign the international treaty that is being negotiated in Dublin to ban cluster munitions. Gordon Brown’s policy u-turn is long overdue and one I welcome. Cluster bombs remain immoral but what we now need to see is their removal from US bases in the UK.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Strasbourg round up

With the end of another plenary session down in Strasbourg I thought it might be useful to try and summarise some of the key decisions taken by the Parliament this week:

MEPs adopted an own initiative report on a new integrated maritime policy for Europe which coincided with the first European Maritime Day on 20 May. The aim is for Europe to bring together the various sectors that are currently treated separately, such as fisheries, shipbuilding, port activities, tourism, coastal management, environmental protection and maritime safety and which will both deliver on growth and jobs and set high standards of protection for the marine environment and respond to key challenges such as climate change, energy security, migration and drug trafficking. There was a clear view that the Commission's Action Plan for an Integrated Maritime Policy needs to be much more ambitious and as it stands includes too few practical measures.

Of particular interest for Scotland is that MEPs are keen to see that a comprehensive European Strategy for Marine and Maritime energy is financed properly. The importance of wave power is highlighted as an alternative clean energy source and the Commission is called on to take this form of renewable energy into account in future action plans. While the Common Fisheries Policy came in for some criticism in that neither the sustainability of marine resources or the economic viability of the EU's fishing fleets and coastal communities has been well served by it there was clear recognition that any future integrated maritime policy for the EU should be developed in such a way that it avoids the failings of the CFP - i.e. the issue of overcentralisation and the failure to take account of the regional diversity of the EU's waters.

MEPs also voted to ensure that the framework directive on an EU marine strategy which was adopted on 14 May has a key role to play within any joined-up EU maritime policy.

In an interim report on the scientific effects of climate change, MEPs said that current mitigation efforts on climate change are “insufficient” to stem global warming in the long run though as Alyn Smith MEP stressed this week the EP should look to put its own house in order first given the amount of carbon emitted and money wasted with the monthly trek from Brussels to Strasbourg. Talking of which, the EP's travelling circus madness continues with the Parliament's adoption of the calendar of meetings for 2009.

The Parliament reached a first reading agreement with the Council on proposed European legislation which if adopted by national governments on 5-6 June would see seriously damaging the environment made a criminal offence in all 27 EU Member States. Currently, not all EU countries have criminal sanctions. MEPs agreed that in principle national governments should apply criminal measures to punish any illegal behaviour by people and companies likely to harm the environment (damage air, soil, waters, plants and animals), when committed intentionally or with serious negligence. This would force those countries that currently only fine offenders to apply "effective, proportionate and dissuasive" criminal penalties and would also mean that polluters could no longer benefit from differences in national law. It is supposed to be aimed at ensuring stronger enforcement of existing EU environmental standards.

The agreed legislation is limited to areas where the EU has competence, leaving national legislation intact in other areas. The approved list of offences that would be deemed crimes includes environmental damage caused by the emission of radiation into air, soil or water, the disposal and shipment of waste, and the production, storage and transport of nuclear materials, and the manufacture and distribution of ozone-depleting substances as well as penalties for trading in protected fauna and flora species and the deterioration of a habitat within a protected site.

This brings to an end a long running battle over the past 8 years between the Commission and national governments about the legal basis of the proposed legislation and whether the Commission had the right to intervene in criminal matters. This ended up in the European Court of Justice which ruled last October
that the EU has competence to require Member States to introduce criminal penalties for environmental damage but it does not have the authority to decide on the type and level of criminal sanctions. It is up to each Member State to decide on penalties.

MEPs called on the Commission to stick to its commitment to propose comprehensive legislation to combat any discrimination in access to goods and services on grounds of sex, race, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation.

On Burma, MEPs condemned the slow response from Burmese authorities to the grave humanitarian disaster following the cyclone and asked them to open up cyclone affected areas to international aid operations and to immediately grant visas to aid workers.

In passing a resolution on soaring food prices, MEPs want to see priority given to investment in agriculture, aquaculture, rural development and agribusinesses in developing countries. Fairer international trade rules and an assessment of the effects of speculation on food prices are also underline. On agro-fuels, the Parliament wants production to be linked to strong sustainability criteria and to see second generation bioenergy developed.

The Parliament backed a common animal health strategy for the EU which in today's globalised world where diseases don't respect borders it is all the more important to ensure there is concerted action.

The report also called for "action covering the compulsory electronic and DNA-based genetic identification and registration of animals at EU-Level and the introduction of a comprehensive and secure animal movement monitoring system, but draws attention to the cost of such a system, particularly for farms working with economically unfavourable farm structures; calls on the Commission to help farmers cope with the high costs incurred through the procurement of the required equipment, by creating the possibility for Member States to incorporate such measures within their rural development programmes - i.e. electronic sheep tagging. Given the significance of this issue for Scotland's sheep farmers where the Commission's proposals are proving to be unworkable and where Scotland's National Farmer's Union and the Scottish Farmer currently have an ongoing petition against the Commission's electronic sheep tagging proposals, the SNP voted against this offending paragraph as did the Scottish Liberals. In the end this paragraph got through backed as it was by the Tories and Labour.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Morality and cluster bombs

In their letters to the Herald this week Kenneth MacColl and Alyn Smith MEP are quite right in their highlighting the contradictions in Gordon Brown's speech before the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by way of his failure to make any mention of the Oslo process on cluster munitions which is culminating in the Diplomatic Conference currently taking place in Dublin.

While the UK government grapples with finding ways in which it can seek exemptions for some types of cluster munitions, let it not be forgotten the damage and destruction that these very same cluster munitions cause for so many innocent lives, particularly those of children, and for livelihoods.

10 years ago the UK government backed an international treaty banning landmines, why won't it show moral leadership and moral courage in supporting an outright ban on cluster bombs?

Across in Brussels the European Parliament has been an active and strong supporter of the Oslo process that was launched in February 2007. Last October the European Parliament adopted a motion for a resolution, "Towards a Global Treaty to ban all cluster munitions" which reaffirmed the need to speedily adopt at the international level a comprehensive ban on the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions.

The resolution also called for an immediate moratorium until a binding global treaty has been negotiated and for all 27 EU Member States to adopt national measures that fully ban the use of these weapons. Those Member States that have used cluster bombs are also called on to accept responsibility for the clearance of these munitions, to keep accurate records of where they have been used and for assistance to be provided to local populations that have been affected by these deadly weapons. This resolution was passed overwhelmingly across all political parties and sent to the national governments and parliaments of the EU Member States.

This is yet another example where Europe's thinking resonates more closely with that of the people of Scotland than does the current policy of the UK government.

The campaign to ban cluster bombs can be accessed here:

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

European Maritime Day

Today sees the launch of the first European Maritime Day to celebrate Europe’s maritime heritage and marine-related issues. The idea behind it is to help raise awareness of Europe’s maritime heritage, the importance of Europe’s seas and coastal regions and the economic importance of our maritime industries and sectors and to try and reverse the decline in the number of people taking up jobs in the maritime sector.

The day was marked by the signing of a declaration in Strasbourg, a debate in the European Parliament on the Commission’s proposals for an integrated maritime policy for Europe and in Brussels by a conference with stakeholders. I went along to some of the conference with much of the focus of the discussion on the regional approach in implementing the EU’s maritime policy. Also speaking was Scotland’s Rural Affairs and Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead who arrived straight from his meeting in the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council

Photo: European Maritime Day at the European Commission, Brussels

I hope to see Scotland playing an active part in Europe’s annual maritime day in the future, not only by marking it with a programme of events across Scotland’s coastal communities and linking it in with those of other European maritime nations but also using it as an opportunity to showcase the vital role the marine environment plays in the past, present and future of Scotland and as a way in which to revitalise Scotland’s port towns and cities, and encourage more people into the industry.

Scotland’s contribution to Europe’s maritime sector over the years cannot be overstated with our shipbuilding skills, fishing, marine energy (oil and gas exploration) and even now as we look to the future with the development of marine technologies (through innovation and research), protection of the environment and biodiversity and the development of and investment in coastal tourism. According to the first ever report on the state of Scotland’s seas, the seas around Scotland’s coastline generate around £2.2 billion of marine-industry activity (excluding oil and gas) and provide approx. 50,000 jobs in Scotland.

Given our past and present maritime experiences, there is much Scotland can contribute to these ongoing discussions about the future of Europe’s maritime sector and the challenges it faces when it comes to energy security, climate change, protecting the marine environment, etc. I want to see Scotland at the forefront of these discussions, sharing experiences and best practice and leading the way.

Photo: With Rob Gibson MSP at Avoch Harbour

Commission CAP health check proposals

The Commission published its long-awaited legislative proposals on the CAP "health check" on 20 May. The proposals were presented by the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, at a special meeting of the European Parliament's Agriculture Committee in Strasbourg. Given that these have been so well trailed since last November when the Commission published its health check, there were certainly no surprises. As the Commission makes clear in its explanatory memorandum, "the proposals are not a fundamental reform, but rather are a “contribution to future developments of the CAP”.

If you want to read Commissioner Boel's speech at the Committee, click here.

So what do the proposals actually seek to do?

Firstly, the Commission wants to simplify the Single Payment Scheme by introducing a number of measures:

More decoupling. As part of its pursuit of the decoupling of aid (single farm payments), the Commission proposes eliminating the supports which are still partially coupled to production (cereals, arable crops, olive oil, meat production), with two exceptions: the suckler cow premium (the only aid which could remain fully coupled at the current level or at a lower level) and the aid to sheep and goat farmers (50% of premiums could be granted as coupled payments).

Greater uniform support. The Commission also gives countries the choice of abandoning payments calculated based on historical receipts in favour of a more flat-rate system to make the single payment scheme simple and more effective and efficient. Changes should be notified by 1 August 2009 at the latest to apply the single payment scheme from 2010. Finally, it advocates extending the period in which the new Member States can use the single area payment scheme from 2010 until 2013.

Ex-Article 69 (new Article 68). This article currently gives the Member States the possibility to reserve specific support up to 10% of the national direct aid envelope with the aim of promoting environmental protection, quality or the marketing of products. The Commission intends to propose strengthening Article 68 by widening these provisions to provide: measures in favour of farmers in certain regions which specialise in dairy products, cows, sheep and goats; the granting, under certain conditions, of support for certain risk management measures; crop insurance schemes for natural disasters and mutual funds for animal diseases (level of public financing limited to 60%, of which 40% for Community loans); the possibility of using the amounts retained to top up entitlements in areas subject to restructuring or development programmes; doing away with the restriction according to which the amounts released must remain in the sector from which they originated.

However, specific support for the above measures must ensure that it is consistent with other existing policy measures. For example, any contribution to insurance premiums should not constitute a barrier to the internal market for insurance services.
To avoid misallocations of Community funds, Member States may also decide "in an objective and non-discriminatory manner" not to grant direct payments to applicants whose "principal company's objects do not consist of exercising an agricultural activity (Article 30 (2)).

Modulation. Under the CAP reform of 2003, the compulsory modulation rate went from 3% in 2005 to 4% in 2006 and 5% in 2007 and subsequent years. These rates are only applicable to farms which receive more than €5,000 in direct aid annually. Under the new legislative proposals, the current modulation rate would be increased by 2% per year from 2009 until 2012 (with a rate of 7% in 2009, 9% in 2010, 11% in 2011 and 13% in 2013). These significant transfers of funds to rural development programmes are to enable Member States to respond to new challenges such as climate change, agricultural risk management, bioenergies, water management and biodiversity. The countries which joined the EU in 2004 would be affected by the modulation in 2012 (at a rate of just 3%, compared to 13% for the others).

Capping of aid. In addition to the 2% increase in the compulsory modulation rate, the Commission has proposed the gradual reduction of payments related to the size of farms. Direct aid will be reduced by an additional 3% per year (from 2009 to 2012) for farms which receive between €100 000 and €200 000 annually in aid, 6 % per year for those which total between €200 000 and €300 000 annually and 9 % for farms which earn more than €300 000 annually.

All receipts resulting from EU modulation are to remain within the Member State in which they originate. Money released would be redirected to rural development programmes. Any Member State concerned shall receive at least 80% of the total amounts which modulation has generated in that Member State.

Minimum level of support. In order to reduce administrative burdens, the Member States will have to set a minimum amount of payments (€250) and/or a minimum size of area eligible for aid of at least one hectare.

Cross compliance. The Commission plans to introduce requirements that retain the environmental benefits from set-aside. It includes a new declaration about the importance of water management in the context of ensuring that all agricultural land is maintained in good agricultural and environmental condition.

Secondly, the Commission wants the least possible intervention via:

Market intervention instruments. The Commission believes that market supply control should not serve to slow down the ability of farmers to respond to market signals. In the cereals sector the Commission proposes to introduce a tendering system for bread wheat; the reduction to zero (as for maize) of the quantitative ceiling for feed grains; the abolition of intervention for durum wheat. Furthermore, the Commission wants to abolish intervention in the rice and pig meat sectors. Finally, the tendering system will also be applied to butter and skimmed milk powder.

Abolition of set-aside. According to the Commission proposals, set-aside is no longer an instrument of supply control. Nonetheless, in order to maintain the environmental advantages of set-aside tools will be made available to the Member States as part of rural development measures and under conditionality (payment of aid on the condition of respecting certain criteria).

Expiry of milk quotas. The Commission has already proposed a 2% increase in the EU's milk quotas for 2008/2009 (the Agriculture Council reached an agreement on this on 17 March). In its legislative proposals the Commission advocates an annual increase of 1% for the quotas from 2010/2011 to 2013/2014. Quotas are to be abolished in 2015. Member States will have the possibility of recourse to new Article 68 to support the regions, and in particular mountain regions, which risk having problems maintaining a minimum milk production.

Specific aid for the dairy sector. The Commission proposes the abolition not only of the private storage aid for cheese, but also the aid for butter for pastry and ice cream and for direct consumption. But if market conditions justify it, the Commission could apply private storage aid for butter, aid for skimmed milk in animal feed and aid for casein production.

Other support schemes. The Commission proposes extending the single payment scheme to small sectors: immediately for hemp, protein crops and nuts and gradually for rice (with a transition period until 2012), starch potatoes (2011), dried fodder (2011) and long fibre flax (2013). The Commission also proposes abolishing the (45€/ha premium) support schemes for energy crops.

Thirdly, the Commission wants to respond to new challenges facing agriculture, such as climate change, etc through rural development policy:

The increase in compulsory modulation in the Commission’s proposals will see just over 2 billion euro of direct aids shifted from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 of the EU's Rural Development budget, strengthening the second pillar to respond to new challenges of climate change, bioenergies, water management, biodiversity, etc. Member States' rural development strategies and programmes will be amended over the period from 2010 to 2013 to fund measures in these areas.

The 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development will also contribute to addressing these challenges by providing support for innovation in the farming sector.
These proposals are to be welcomed and certainly are a good starting point for discussions over the coming months. However, issues remain with the progressive rate of modulation and how this will play out. On the issue of compulsory modulation we will certainly be working hard to ensure that for every increase in compulsory modulation this is matched by a corresponding decrease in Scotland's voluntary modulation. This would enable Scotland's farmers to compete on a level basis with the rest of Europe's farmers by 2013. Equally, it will be interesting to see how the new Article 68 pans out in the discussions and is something that will need to be tested rigorously.

Next Steps
The first formal discussion of the proposals will be at the meeting of EU farming ministers on 23 - 24 June in Luxembourg, although farming ministers are likely to have an initial discussion at the informal EU farm Council meeting in Maribor on 25-27 May. Much of the negotiation will take place during the second half of 2008 when France holds the six month Presidency of the EU.

The European Parliament's Agriculture Committee will play a key role in scrutinising the Commission's proposals and will take a formal position on them in November.

With the debate now getting underway in Brussels there is a clear opportunity for Scotland to engage with these crucial discussions and ensure Scotland's voice is heard and our distinctive farming interests represented and reflected in the final outcome.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Strasbourg...the bain of our lives

This week is marked in the diary as a red week - which means "Strasbourg". Thankfully I am one of the saved ones in that I don't do the 'Strasbourg run', not least because for me I don't relish the thought of spending 5 hours on a train from Brussels to Strasbourg and then 5 hours on a train back but also because it is a complete waste of money when we have a perfectly good chamber in Brussels.

It remains one of the most bizarre elements of my job and the one that bemuses people the most when I try to explain the unexplainable. For me, my office is Brussels, it's where all the files are and eveything I need is here. The Council is here and the Commission is here. But in a red week everyone ups sticks to Strasbourg and trying to contact Commissioners and their cabinets becomes much trickier as they are down there too.

The Parliament in Brussels becomes a ghost parliament with the forgotten few stalking around the building. The buzz and chaos has shifted to Strasbourg.

Every Friday before Strasbourg I have to remember to put out the canteen - a large non descript box - into which is packed the office and then the canteen guys come and pack up the canteens for 785 MEPs plus those of parliament officials into huge lorries that take them down to Strasbourg and back. Every Monday of Strasbourg the Inbox is dead as everyone is en route down there and come 17.30 when the Brussels train arrives the Inbox has exploded as folk try and cram 5 days of work into 3, then the system crashes with overload - it is the craziest thing. Thursday afternoon nothing happens as everyone is back on the train up to Brussels and then come 19.00 when the train arrives in Gare Luxembourg the Place is awash with thousands of suitcases trundling across it.

We have long campaigned for a single seat for the EP (and continue to do so) and signed the petition organised by the campaign (which now has some 1.2 million signatures) calling for an end to the EP's monthly gravy train to Strasbourg. The lack of a single seat costs €250 million a year. The Campaign for Parliamentary Reform has calculated that in terms of C02 emissions, the trips to Strasbourg create 18,900 tons of CO2 emissions - the equivalent of 13,000 transatlantic flights.

The EP is the only parliament in the world that does not have a single seat, meeting in 3 different cities (Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg) in 3 different countries. The trouble is the EP has no power over where it sits since the final decision rests with the national governments. It is legally obliged to maintain facilities in all 3 cities. The arrangements surrounding the EP's location were formalised in the 1992 Edinburgh Council Agreement and added as a separate protocol to the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty at the instigation of the French government, which confirmed Strasbourg as the seat of the EP. This is confirmed again in the new Lisbon Reform Treaty.

I want to see all parliamentary business conducted in Brussels where there is a perfectly good parliament and where we can hold the Coouncil and the Commission properly to account and when elected next June is certainly something which I will continue to campaign for.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

UK blows the gaffe on its own CAP bashing

The Commission is set to publish its proposals for reforming the Common Agricultural Policy next week and already the various stalls are being set out as to how far such reforms can go and in which direction. Once again the arguments of old by the French, Germans and the British are being replayed.

In this week's European Voice much is made of the "Franco-German threat to CAP health check" and their opposition to any real radical changes to the CAP. In April the French Farm Minister, Michel Barnier, said EU farm subsidies were in no way to blame for the current rise in food prices - ""What we are now witnessing in the world is the consequence of too much free-market liberalism....we can't leave feeding people to the mercy of the market. We need a public policy, a means of intervention and stabilisation". He also recommended that rather than radically overhauling the CAP, the EU should instead look to export the CAP as a model for the countries of Africa and Latin America to adopt as a response to rising demand for food, i.e. developing countries should be supported to create similar regional farm aid systems. In addition, France has proposed a tightening up of the EU's quality and health regulations for food to restrict imports from countries outside the EU that do not meet European standards - thereby introducing a "new policy of European preference".

The German Farm Minister, Horst Seehofer, has made similar remarks about retaining the status quo and EU farm subsidies in light of the current global food crisis

Over in the UK camp Alistair Darling blew the gaffe in his letter to EU finance ministers calling for the abolition of all import tariffs on agricultural commodities. EU Finance Ministers are meeting in June to discuss how to tackle rising food prices. The UK used this as an opportunity to bash the CAP. Once again the CAP is blamed for all the ills of the day with the Chancellor calling for an end to all direct payments to EU farmers and focusing on ensuring EU and global food security and that the EU's " own policies do not inflate the cost of food within the EU".

For the UK government to say they want to scrap the CAP before any real discussion has taken place was not a credible position to have taken and can only but undermine the UK's credibility in this crucial debate. The CAP health check offers an opportunity to start a discussion about the further reform of Europe's agriculture policy. Bashing it without any concrete proposals for the way forward achieves nothing and tells you a lot about why the UK ends up in the EU corner sulking. Its also all the more reason why Scotland needs to have a stronger voice in the EU.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Europe Day contd.....

The EU has today finally published a consolidated version of the EU Treaties in the Official Journal of the European Union. This incorporates the amendments introduced by the new Lisbon Reform Treaty, which may or may not enter into force on 1 January 2009 depending on whether all 27 EU member states manage to ratify it. So if you have longed to read the Lisbon Treaty but couldn’t find a consolidated version of it, then now’s your chance by clicking here.

It also includes all the various Protocols, Declarations and Annexes.

The House of Lords EU Select Committee has recently published a useful assessment of the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on the EU and the UK in particular, which is worth a look at and can be accessed by clicking here.

Europe Day

Today marks the anniversary of the day when the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman presented his proposals calling for European countries to pool together their coal and steel production within a single European Coal and Steel Community.

The Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 led to the establishment of the first European Communities and became the foundation for what is today the European Union.

The European Union remains an ongoing project and despite its shortcomings it is a remarkable feat when you consider that 500 million people are now part of a single internal market between 27 member states that has become the world’s largest economic trading bloc. Enlargement demonstrates the huge success of the EU than everything else when you think of the number of countries seeking to join.

While war among the EU countries is now unthinkable, there are new challenges confronting today’s Europe of 27, such as climate change, energy, immigration, globalisation, which still require concerted efforts to ensure security and prosperity.

I want to see Scotland very much a part of these efforts, playing a full part as a full member state of the EU, able to influence and shape policies in its own right with a much stronger and more effective voice and working together with its friends and neighbours in a relationship of mutual respect to tackle common problems like energy security, climate change, international development and sustainable economic growth.

It is worth recalling some of the Schuman Declaration:

World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it. The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations. In taking upon herself for more than 20 years the role of champion of a united Europe, France has always had as her essential aim the service of peace. A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.

Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity. The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries”.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

New energy rights for consumers

With so much attention on the issue of full ownership unbundling one other aspect of the Morgan report on the internal energy market which does deserve greater focus is its push for stronger consumer protection measures.

During yesterday's vote MEPs backed amendments that want to see customers having:

  • the legal right to withdraw from contracts with their electricity providers without charge,
  • the right to compensation if service quality levels are not met (as with, for example, inaccurate and delayed billing),
  • access to information on their rights through bills and electricity company web sites,
  • access to information on procedures to be followed in the event of disputes,
  • the right to change suppliers within two weeks,
  • the right to be informed, at least quarterly, of actual electricity consumption and costs, access to smart meters within 10 years of the entry into force of the third energy liberalisation package,
  • the right to have their electricity provided by a supplier regardless of the Member State in which the supplier is registered,
  • access to information on the environmental impact (CO2 emissions and radioactive waste) resulting from the electricity produced by the supplier, and
  • the right to protection against market abuse: national authorities must be able to impose "price caps in uncompetitive markets for a defined and limited period" in the event of sudden hikes in energy prices.

The Energy Committee also gave its support to a number of measures aimed at tackling the important issue of energy poverty. Given the ongoing rapid rise in energy prices MEPs urged Member States to cut the cost of energy to low-income households and to guarantee the same conditions for those living in remote areas.

In addition, Member States "may require that a minimum of 2% of all electricity revenues from domestic consumers is spent to fund energy efficiency".

The Commission is currently preparing a new online database on the rights of energy consumers. The European Energy Consumer Checklist will set out information about local and regional energy markets based on responses by the member states concerning various aspects of retail energy markets.

A new Citizens' Energy Forum is also being established by the Commission as a platform for debating consumer protection issues between key stakeholders including energy regulators, competition authorities, national bodies competent for enforcing energy consumer rights, member states' energy and consumer authorities and industry and consumer associations from both European and national levels.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

That issue of ownership unbundling again....

The Parliament’s Energy Committee voted this afternoon to back the Commission’s plans for breaking up Europe’s large energy companies in the electricity sector through full ownership unbundling. While the Commission had made clear its preference for full ownership unbundling it had also proposed an alternative – this was for the appointment of an Independent System Operator (ISO) to which energy companies would hand over control of their transmission assets, investment and commercial decisions. This was rejected by MEPs for being too bureaucratic and too costly and in the process it killed off amendments for a “Scottish model” of the ISO to be adopted as a compromise solution.

Also rejected were proposals for a third alternative put forward by a number of EU member states including France and Germany which sought to allow member states to choose between ownership unbundling, ISOs and legal unbundling (whereby energy companies could retain their network assets so long as there was an effective separation of interests via rules on assets, equipment, staff, identity and compliance control (i.e. Effective and Efficient Unbundling).

The report drafted by the Welsh Labour MEP, Eluned Morgan, on the internal electricity market was adopted by 31 votes in favour and 17 against, though the amendment setting out the third alternative was narrowly rejected with 25 MEPs voting against and 22 in favour and 3 abstentions.

While the Parliament is set to vote on the Morgan report in Strasbourg next month, all eyes will be on the meeting of EU Energy Ministers in Luxembourg on 6 June when a political agreement on the energy liberalisation package will be sought.

Ultimately what we want to see is greater competition in Europe's energy markets and our consumers benefiting from greater choice and most importantly lower energy prices.

The difficulty for Scotland is that energy regulation is a reserved matter for Westminster. Certainly for Scotland it would be much easier if we were independent and able to defend our own energy interests in our own right at the Energy Council meeting next month. Yes, it is for Scotland to have a view and then convey that view to London and Brussels to try and win support for our arguments but when it comes to the negotiations in the Council we have to rely on persuading London to ensure Scottish interests are part and parcel of the discussions.

Whats happening in Brussels this week

This week in Brussels is hectic to say the least with both the committees meeting and a mini plenary session on Wednesday and Thursday.

The EU Farm Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, was at the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee in which she set out her priorities for the forthcoming year.

These included:

  • The proposal for an EU School Fruit Scheme that is to be adopted in November as a way in which to tackle the problem with the growing number of overweight and obese children across the EU. The Commission has been consulting widely on this over the past year and looking at different schemes in the member states.
  • The publication of a public consultation (a “Green Paper”) on agricultural product quality policy in October 2008 with the aim of increasing consumer awareness of the efforts made by EU farmers in following the highest production standards in the word when it comes to animal welfare, food safety, traceability, etc, putting the spotlight on the EU scheme for Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) and Protected Geographical Indications (PGIs) and whether or not EU-level certification schemes are necessary for covering, e.g. animal welfare and environmental claims. Following the Green Paper the Commission intends to publish a Communication in 2009.
  • A Communication in 2009 on the adaptation of agriculture to climate change.

While these are all important issues for Scotland, one issue which is set to dominate the agenda is the Commission’s proposals on the CAP health check, which are set to be published on 20 May at a special meeting of the Agriculture Committee in Strasbourg. The Commission wants to see this adopted during the course of 2008 and with France taking over the helm in running the EU come July this should make for an interesting 6 months.

On the issue of rising food prices, the Commissioner’s view was that biofuels were being used as a scapegoat: “the EU biofuel policy only has a rather limited effect on prices given the less than 1% of cereals production is used for bio-ethanol production”. This was in complete contradiction to comments made by the special adviser to the UN Secretary-General, Jeffrey Sachs, who had been at the Parliament’s Development Committee yesterday and said EU and US policy on biofuels had to be rethought as they no longer made sense in the current global food shortage climate.

The Commission argues that it expects farmers to respond to market signals and to increase production in response to higher prices. To help boost production, the EU is abolishing set-aside, increasing milk quotas (with a 2% increase on 1 April 2008), suspending cereal import duties. The Commissioner also said that as part of the CAP health check proposals she was intending to scrap the 45 Euro per hectare subsidy for renewable fuels and re-investing it in R&D for second-generation fuels.

We await the health check proposals with keen interest and will certainly be working closely with Scotland’s farmers, the farming communities, the Scottish government and various other key interested stakeholders to ensure Scotland’s farming interests have a strong and effective voice in these crucial discussions.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

First year in government...

One year on…! And what a year of achievement it has been for the SNP and for the Scottish Government - delivering on the key issues of concern for the people of Scotland and showing them what the SNP can do on their behalf while the Scottish Labour party disintegrates into complete disarray.

Photos: In Central Fife with MSP Tricia Marwick (top) and local Councillors and key activists (bottom) celebrating our one year anniversary

The "Where were you when the SNP won its historic victory in May 2007" is one of those questions that will be asked for years to come.

For me, I was sitting in Tricia Marwick’s living room having spent most of that Friday at the count for the local elections in Fife and watched every one of the SNP Councillor candidates come home as elected Councillors – that in itself was a fantastic victory and to see Tricia Marwick win the constituency seat for Central Fife. I had spent most of the campaign actively out an about between Stirling, the Ochils, Fife and Edinburgh and can honestly say I had a great time working within those different campaigns with a fantastic and extremely hard working group of people.

With the ongoing fiasco from the night before, the Scottish Parliament results were still coming in as we stood in Fife Sports Centre and it was breathtaking to hear Jim Mather had taken Argyll and Bute and then Kenny MacAskill, Edinburgh East - both well deserved and fantastic victories in themselves. When we levelled with Labour at 46-46 the tension was immense and then the infamous text that landed on Tricia Marwick's mobile to say we had won with Dave Thompson through on the Highlands and Islands list in addition to Rob Gibson - what a feeling. Then it was off to the local curry house in Markinch for a celebratory dinner before heading back down to Edinburgh to join the celebrations there where there was still very much a sense of shock at what the party had just achieved.

One year on and I was back in Central Fife at the invitation of Tricia Marwick for a celebratory dinner last night at the Plough Inn in Star, on the outskirts of Markinch and what a great night it was with Tricia, some of our local Councillors and key activists who worked so hard and who continue to work hard on behalf of the people of Fife.

As a reminder, here are some of the things which the
SNP Government has delivered in its first year governing Scotland:

  • abolished road tolls for the Forth and Tay Road Bridges

  • no more proposals for ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Firth of Forth

  • a freeze on Council Tax for 2008/09

  • reversed the previous Labour/Lib Dem Executive decision to close A & E departments at Ayr and Monklands hospitals

  • signed a historic concordat with COSLA, setting out a new relationship with the local authorities

  • ended the £2,289 graduate endowment

  • reduced prescription charges by 25% across Scotland, moving towards their abolition by 2011

  • launched a discussion on a new National Food policy for Scotland

  • launched consultation on a Scottish Climate Change Bill with a proposal to reduce Scottish emissions by 80% by 2050

  • introduced first phase of a Small Business Bonus Scheme

  • free personal and nursing care payments to older people in care homes rising in line with inflation

  • secured historic deal at the annual EU fisheries talks in Brussels giving Scotland control over its own days at sea as well as international recognition for our conservation credit scheme

And that's just for starters....