Saturday, 27 September 2008

Campaigning in Markinch

Having come back from Brussels yesterday I spent the day back up in Markinch helping the Glenrothes by-election team. The rooms were a hive of activity and I was promptly sent out with group to canvass at the back of Markinch.

It was interesting to hear the varied views on the doorsteps with a couple of folk telling me how much they see the SNP as Scotland's party and one of the best things the SNP government has done was to get rid of the tolls on the Forth Bridge and how this had been seen over the years as an unfair tax on the people of Fife and their local economy.

The thing that still encourages me is the extent to which people do want to talk to you on the doorstep and the opportunity for me to be able to get out from behind my desk in Brussels and be back at home talking with folk is something which I enjoy immensely.

All in all I think it was a good day's worth of canvassing as I headed back to Lanark via Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Making the CAP work better for Scotland

Discussions on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy after 2013 are now beginning to get underway across in Brussels with some countries already setting out their stalls and looking for common ground with others.

EU farming ministers met in Annecy yesterday for an informal meeting for a broad discussion on how best to prepare for the CAP for the future. The French are keen to get this debate going not least since according to their Farm Minister, Michel Barnier, "there is no shared vision" among the 27 EU countries and with discussions underway about the future funding priorities of the EU's budget for 2013-2020 (not least in terms of the size of the future CAP budget) strategic reflection on the future shape and direction of Europe's agricultural policy is fundamental.

The paper produced by the French Presidency sets out the broad outlines for such a discussion. It recognises that European agriculture will have to meet a number of challenges, such as high prices of certain raw agricultural products especially cereals, oilseeds, butter and milk powder which not only raises issues for consumers by putting pressure on food prices but also makes it more expensive for farmers to raise livestock. Other challenges for the future include sustainable food production and ensuring the food security of the EU as well as food safety which is linked to rising health risks, maintaining the diversity of European agriculture and rural life and encouraging farmers to innovate and adopt more new environmentally friendly production techniques to help tackle the challenges of climate change.

From these initial discussions, it's clear where the dividing lines are already beginning to emerge. Countries such as the UK, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands want to see the market at the centre of the CAP with greater priority given to pillar 2 - rural development. While Spain, France, Italy and Belgium want to see a strong CAP maintained with a strong first pillar - direct payments for farmers. The new member states were extremely clear in their demands for a fairer system for the distribution and allocation of direct support (pillar 1 funds) as from 2014. This essentially concerns the single farm payment which involves a flat rate per hectare payment for all farmers.

While discussions will continue under the Czech Presidency the real debate on the CAP future will however come after the EP elections next June and the appointment of a new Commission and a new Farming Commissioner in November 2009. The SNP's team in Brussels has been working extremely hard alongside the Scottish Government and Scotland's farming communities to safeguard Scotland's farming interests within the CAP health check and beyond.

Unlike the UK government which wants to see an end to payments for farmers, the SNP wants to make the CAP work better for Scotland’s farming and rural needs. Already it is clear that the views of the Scottish Government are finding much support with many of our European partners.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Boosting Scotland's green energy potential in Europe

Between now and the end of the year we are set for a bit of an energy tastic time as the negotiations between the Parliament and the Council on the Commission's proposed energy and climate change package reach a critical point - the French Presidency is pushing for a deal to be done by Christmas, primarily because it wants the cudos of having such a key dossier agreed under its watch so it is all a bit gung-ho.

First off the starting block from the Parliament's side was today's vote in the Energy Committee on the report drafted by the Luxembourg Green MEP Claude Turmes on a proposed new EU-wide legal framework for actively promoting renewables targets - 20%
There were over 1100 amendments plus compromises

Altogether the end result was a good one for us with a number of our amendments, which sought to strengthen Scotland's renewable energy potential, adopted.

Scotland's Gains:

- the inclusion of a North Sea marine energy grid as a "project of European interest", which will mean priority for funding. Scotland stands to benefit massively from the increased capacity for renewables this grid will enable. Developing cross-border super grids will enable Scotland to become a major exporter of clean, green energy to Europe.

- encouraging priority access to the grid for renewables and seeking to ensure that the non-discriminatory nature of Ofgem’s transmission charges for remote renewables connecting to the grid is now made “mandatory". The Commission is also now mandated to investigate such abuses and act on them.

- encouraging the exchange of best practice in the development and deployment of green energy and pushing for extra funding for cutting edge research to develop the next generation of clean energy technologies.

- seeking to ensure Scotland is at the heart of the EU’s research efforts into renewables by requiring the Commission to produce a plan by 2010 to co-ordinate funding and support for renewable energy and energy efficient technology research centres, particularly those that cooperate with Universities and enterprises in applied and innovative research to commercialise research quickly. This will have positive implications for our Marine Energy Research Centre in Orkney.

Other key amendments adopted include a compromise on the 10% binding biofuels target on transport: the 10% target for 2020 remains, but 40% of the 10% must come from "acceptable" sources of renewable energy, like fuels made from waste, residues, or electricity from renewable sources. This target is to be reviewed in 2014 based on an impact assessment.

The target is supported by stringent sustainability criteria for biofuels that wish to be included in the scheme. These biofuels must achieve a 45% greenhouse gas emissions saving, and at least 60% from 2015. Other criteria include no biofuels production on high carbon stock land (peat) and adherence to water and soil management criteria as well as social sustainability criteria (respect for the land rights of local communities and the fair remuneration of workers).

The Committee also backed amendments which called for energy efficiency in transport to be improved by at least 20% compared to 2005. Various other energy efficiency measures were adopted not least retrofitting old building stock and making public buildings have an energy surplus as well as biomass based heating and cooling systems.

With Member States required to adopt national renewable energy action plans setting out their national targets for their share of renewables in transport, electricity, heating and cooling, the Committee did introduce greater flexibility mechanisms in how these EU targets are to be achieved.

Once again what this shows is how the SNP in Europe have sought to ensure Scotland's energy interests are central to the ongoing discussions in Brussels and that renewables are firmly at the heart of the energy debate in Europe and in Scotland. With many of the SNP's objectives for a greener Scotland taken on board, this will do much to realise the SNP's vision for Scotland as Europe's green energy powerhouse.

MEPs will vote on the Turmes report in Strasbourg on 16 December so we will be working between now and then to ensure there are no attempts to water down what has been achieved thus far.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Euro Hustings in Biggar

This afternoon Clydesdale CA had organized a Euro hustings for all the European candidates in the Gillespie Centre in Biggar. It was a good opportunity to spend some time there and get to know some of the members in the CA, not least because I am just about to move to Lanark from Edinburgh having recently bought a house there with my partner. I’m very much looking forward to becoming an active member of the Wallace Branch and getting out and about campaigning whenever I’m home and am already looking forward to being in Lanark for next year's annual William Wallace parade which will be of particular resonance with 2009 earmarked by our Scottish Government as the Year of Homecoming Scotland.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Back in Glenrothes

Having just got back from Brussels I headed up to Markinch to offer my help and ended up spending the afternoon with a couple of our members from Edinburgh West, one of whom had just recently joined the party. I was delighted to spend some time with them campaigning around one of Fife's many former coal mining villages, Coaltown of Weymss. The miners' cottages are still there along Plantation Row and now form part of a conservation area. It certainly was a village with a history on every door.

With Scotland playing Macedonia that afternoon there were few folk around with the one exception of a woman in her 60s who came to her door as I was putting one of the latest leaflets from our candidate, Cllr. Peter Grant, through her letterbox, to tell me of her disappointment with Labour and how she had voted SNP at the Holyrood election last May for the first time. There was much chat about the unfair Council tax and our plans for introducing a local income tax before she started telling me what could have happened in Scotland had we had our share of the oil revenue. I left her doorstep feeling that even if she was the only person I spoke with it was definitely worth it in the hope that she would speak with her friends and neighbours.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Strasbourg in Brussels

With the Parliament almost through its so-called "exceptional" plenary in Brussels this week the news came through this afternoon from the Secretary General that there are further safety concerns down in Strasbourg to the extent that the session scheduled for the week of 22 September will now also take place in Brussels.

As I have said on a previous blog on this website the SNP has campaigned long and hard for the European Parliament to have its seat in Brussels and for the Strasbourg building to be ditched. This week's session in Brussels has shown how much more effective the EP is when it meets in Brussels - the Commission and the Council are just up the road. To be honest in all the fours years I have spent working in the European Parliament in Brussels I have never seen the Parliament quite like this. Everyone just seems much more relaxed and happy with staff not spending two days travelling back and forth to Strasbourg on a 5 hour train journey and trying to cram 5 days work into 3 days.

Being in Brussels is definitely more cost effective than the 200 million euros it costs the taxpayer each year for a wasted journey no one wants to make. This week the chamber in Brussels has shown it is more than capable of withstanding the pressure of a plenary session and with the necessary infrastructure put in place Brussels can well cope. If elected to represent the SNP and the people of Scotland in the European Parliament next year this is one issue I will continue to campaign for - to bring the EP back to Brussels.

As I have said before the EP is the only parliament in the world that cannot decide for itself where its seat should be. That decision rests with the Member State governments and it requires a unanimous decision of all the national governments in the Council of Ministers to agree. The French government remains against any such move to Brussels so it is ironic that the collapse of the ceiling should happen under their Presidency.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Campaigning against compulsory sheep EID

Our campaign against the Commission's plans for compulsory electronic identification of sheep (EID) continued today with the launch of a cross-party and cross-national written declaration. Over the past while we have been working together with 3 other MEPs - Mairead McGuinness (Fianna Gael), Jim Nicholson (Ulster Unionist), Neil Parish (Conservatives and chair of the Agriculture Committee) and Jill Evans (Plaid) in putting together the written declaration which calls on the Commission to halt its plans for compulsory EID.

With the publication of the written declaration this means we now have until 4 December to gather as much support as possible from other MEPs across the EU in backing our campaign. If the written declaration is adopted by a majority of MEPs it becomes the official policy of the EP and the declaration is forwarded to the Commission, the Council and to the governments and parliaments of the 27 EU Member States.

The written declaration follows a delegation Alyn invited from Scotland's National Sheep Association and the National Farmer's Union of Scotland to Brussels to present a 7,000 signatures petition to the EP's Petitions Committee. Next month the NSA and NFUS are back in Brussels this time to give evidence to the EP's Agriculture Committee on the implications of the Commission's sheep EID proposals on Scotland's sheep sector.

Below is the text of the written declaration on electronic sheep identification scheme.

Written declaration on
the electronic identification system for sheep (EID)
The European Parliament,
– having regard to Rule 116 of its Rules of Procedure,
A. whereas sheep and goat farming is important to the social, environmental and economic fabric of the EU,
B. whereas the sheep sector is in decline owing to lack of prosperity; whereas the next generation is reluctant to enter sheep production; and whereas, if this is left to continue, the skills base will be lost,
1. Calls on the Commission to recognise that batch recording and movement standstills of sheep are more cost-effective forms of protection from disease spread than EID and individual movement recording;
2. Calls on the Commission to recognise that producer incomes in the sheep sector are characteristically low and that the implementation of EID will result in a significant cost to a sector that can ill afford a further regulatory burden;
3. Calls on the Commission to make sheep EID voluntary but not mandatory;
4. Calls on the Commission to recognise that the implementation of EID and individual recording of sheep will affect the competitiveness of the EU sheep sector on the world market;
5. Calls on the Commission to recognise that there are significant practical problems that prevent the effective operation of EID in extensive livestock systems and within climatic conditions commonly experienced in northern Europe;
. Instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories, to the Council, the Commission and the parliaments and governments of the Member States.