The profile of the new European Parliament
Whatever your views are on the European Union there can be no denying its increasing role in global affairs, as a day does not go by without the major news networks mentioning it in some context or other. The last few months has seen a catch-up phenomenon as the traditionally junior of the three principal institutions, namely the European Parliament, flexes its muscles to exert more influence vis à vis the better understood Commission, (the so called EU executive and guardian of the Treaties) and the Council of Ministers representing the member state governments and theoretically answerable to the 25 national parliaments.
It was always predicted it would be so and that eventually the only directly democratically elected EU body would do as such. Perhaps the earlier 1998 sacking of the Santer Commission was a foretaste of things to come but the enhanced powers of the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties over the Commission invited the Parliament to challenge the member states nominees on both the calibre as well as the political views of the designated Commissioners. Therefore perhaps the whole regrettable "Buttiglione story" should not have come as such a shock to political pundits after all. I believe that new Commission President Barroso has had a rapid learning curve, but will now tread more gently before confronting the wrath of the Parliament and we will see much more of Commissioners reserving their key policy announcements for the ears of Parliament first rather than the previous practice of telling the daily Commission press conference first.
As in all professions, the more of a reputation you develop in subject areas the more the work comes to you. At the start of the previous Parliament, I was known curiously as the champion of exiled Royals after my successful campaign for the exiled Italians and I am still involved helping a branch of the Romanian Royals resident in London, which dovetails neatly with my work monitoring Romanian EU accession. Later I made a name over the issue of EU funding to the Palestinian Authority (an issue I was able to raise two weeks ago with the new PA Foreign Minister Shaath) and will explore hopefully further on a planned trip to Israel and the occupied territories, perhaps in January 2005 as an election Observer at the Palestinian Authority Presidential election.
Three years ago I started taking a serious interest in then future EU neighbour, Ukraine, by travelling and writing articles about it. Therefore when I was asked to be deputy leader of the official EP election observation mission in late October I was not surprised. However I had little inkling on how the report I helped prepare with the OSCE, Council of Europe and NATO Parliamentary Assemblies (which slammed the 2nd round election of 21st November) would trigger a mass popular revolution to shake-off the remains of the corrupt post Soviet regime which was determined to hang-on to power at any cost. The government there, in collusion with wealthy oligarchs who are often relatives or friends of President Kuchma, made gigantic fortunes by acquiring state assets at huge discounts, were even prepared to steal the election by ballot rigging and with the connivance of Moscow. President Putin is understandably keen, having lost Georgia in last year's Rose revolution, and suffering setbacks in Chechnya to rebuild a greater Russia. He hoped Ukraine with 50 million highly educated people and the huge military industrial complex in the East would become again Russia's jewel in the crown. The matter is not yet settled but I was with both Mr Kuchma and Mr Yushchenko and had the unique experience of addressing a crowd of over 100,000 in Kiev's Independence square and I believe that western style democracy, freedom and justice through raw people power will ultimately prevail. I have certainly never been in such demand by international media on this issue, and was even asked to brief the shadow Foreign affairs team in London.
The other main issue I have focused on is the Turkey report going through Parliament in advance of the expected green light from the Council of Ministers on 17th December. I was the author of a number of amendments which were adopted. In particular I slammed the new Turkish penal code, which makes it a criminal offence to even criticise the presence of Turkish troops in Cyprus or raise the issue of the Armenian genocide. I also amended the report to increase the awareness of religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey traditionally discriminated against such as the Assyriac Christians and the Jews and Armenians, whose diasporas are well represented in London. Three weeks ago I presented in the Brussels US Embassy a personal paper to the visiting US-China Commission of the Congress on the issue of Human rights in China and why I believed the French campaign partly supported by the UK to re-export arms to this brutal albeit economically gigantic Country not to be in western interest. Until China stops repressing human rights including our peaceful Tibetan friends and stops menacing Taiwan we need to maintain the 1989 EU and US embargo imposed after the killing of peaceful demonstrators in Tiananmen square.
As usual I have been busy with my written parliamentary questions. Most of these relate to human rights questions as Vice-Chairman of the new Committee, ranging from detention of Christians and Buddhists in Vietnam to the ongoing imprisonment of an opposition MP in Burma. However Theresa Villiers and I have taken-up the issue of London residents suffering discriminatory local taxes on their holiday homes in southern Spain compared to local residents and also the risk of Luxembourg reaping the benefit of VAT applied to digital services as all non EU companies, mainly American, now have to register for VAT purposes in one member state if they are to legally sell music and software in the EU over the internet. On the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee we had argued for zero VAT everywhere on internet e-commerce, but if must be applied its takings should be redistributed according to where the buyer lives, in our view. I am also taking-up the issue of the British horse breeding industry who have seen their Indian export market shut-off in retaliation for quarantine measures applied against India by the Commission whereas neighbouring Ireland has escaped these sanctions.
Future Direction of Europe
Already Lithuania has ratified the EU Constitution without referendum and the French socialists after heated debate have decided to back it making a yes vote more likely. We however remain confident it will be rejected in Britain. First however we must overcome the flat-lining we suffer in the polls and get our credible message across for the general election most likely taking place on 5th May. I have recently been guest speaker in Beckenham, Hammersmith and Westminster doing my bit to fire-up our activists for the challenge that lies ahead. You can all count on your three MEPs to do their bit come campaign time.
In the meantime I wish you and your families a very Happy Christmas and Prosperous New Year.