By Martha Moss - 17th May 2011
Parliament is much stronger and we are being watched much more
Michael Shackleton, the head of the European parliament’s information office in London
Do not underestimate the critical importance in securing the eurozone
Andy Lebrecht, the UK’s deputy permanent representative to the EU
I think MEPs are an underused resource
Jonathan Evans, an ex-MEP and former leader of the Conservatives in the European parliament
A lot of what we are doing is frankly rather boring – it sure as hell isn’t sexy
Jonathan Scheele, the head of the European commission office in London
The eurozone crisis and growing concerns over migration are likely to result in significant gains for Europe’s nationalist parties. That was one of the messages to come out of the Parliament Magazine’s ‘Brussels spring briefing’ conference earlier this month, which brought MEPs, MPs, public affairs professionals and business representatives together for a UK debate on EU policy. From CAP reform to fisheries, SMEs to health policy, participants looked at the key items on the EU agenda, and the impact these would have at national level.
Martyn Bond, the former chairman of the UK’s European parliament office, told participants that Europe is “going to go through a terrible period”, warning that “it will be nationalist parties all over the place that make gains”. “Even before the crisis, the right was on the rise in Europe, but the far-right has increased its role in recent years incredibly,” he said. Bond’s comments came as Finland’s nationalist True Finns party, which took 19 per cent of the vote in the general election last month and
could enter the Helsinki government, vowed to oppose an EU-IMF bailout for crisis-hit Portugal. Elsewhere, in Europe, a recent poll suggested that far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen could beat Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential election.
Highlighting the “political consequences” of turbulence in the world economy, Conservative MP Jonathan Evans, an ex-MEP and former leader of the Conservatives in the European parliament, warned that “the Finnish experience” could be repeated elsewhere. Burson-Marsteller CEO David Earnshaw predicted that these “very difficult times” will undoubtedly cause problems. Calling on participants to fight growing xenophobia, he said, “Today’s anti-Europeanism is a fear of foreigners and a hatred of foreigners and we should all be against that. Andy Lebrecht, the UK’s deputy permanent representative to the EU, said the global financial crisis was at the top of the agenda for policymakers in Brussels. “The primary context in which the EU finds itself is the turbulence in the world economy and the impact that is having,” he said. “The eurozone crisis continues to require immense amounts of attention and energy. Do not underestimate the critical importance in securing the eurozone.”
Lebrecht also spoke of discussions on the EU budget post- 2014, which are set to begin later this year. “The EU’s budget negotiations are never easy and always messy,” he said, warning that this time they would be “even messier and even harder”. And he addressed the thorny issue of the 4.9 per cent increase in the 2012 EU budget, which UK prime minister David Cameron has been campaigning against, along with France, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands. For Bond, the budget is “ludicrously small”, accounting for just one per cent of GDP. “The nature of the budget is minute, and the way it’s structured is not fit for purpose,” Bond said. “It is lousily administered, half the rules are wrong and it needs a thorough overhaul.” Bond later raised the issue of Turkey’s EU accession, which he said “will be paramount” in changing the way the EU operates. The country’s membership “will change the mechanisms inside the EU”, he said, adding, “You cannot avoid constitutional change if Turkey is there.” Jonathan Scheele, the head of the European commission office in London, said the 27-nation bloc was likely to increase to up to 34 in the coming years, with the accession of Iceland and the western Balkans. This could present a problem in distributing work, he said, adding, “There isn’t enough for them to do if all members of the commission are equal. We will need to do a lot of thinking about how to make it work in practice.”
Asked about how to communicate Europe, he acknowledged that the EU “is not central to people’s thinking”. “A lot of what we are doing is frankly rather boring - it sure as hell isn’t sexy,” he said. Michael Shackleton, the head of the European parliament’s information office in London spoke of the “notion that enlargement drives constitutional change”, but added, “Inside the European parliament there are still people who would like to drive constitutional change. There is a sense in which parliament can influence things a great deal because of the Lisbon treaty. The reverse side of that is that pressure on parliament is much stronger and we are being watched much more.” Evans also reflected on the need for a “better and more effective interface” between the EU institutions, and national and European politicians. “We all like to think we understand every aspect of the EU but there needs to be a better understanding of the difference between being an MP and an MEP,” he said. “Since returning to Westminster I often have to point out how MEPs are specialists: they are generally on one committee for five years. I think MEPs are an underused resource on this.”
Breakout session 1: EU and the city
The UK's financial services industry needs to "develop a more proactive approach" to the current round of legislative developments emanating from the EU, rather than "merely reacting" to policies, warned MP Jonathan Evans. The former leader of the Conservatives in the European parliament suggested that the approach of the UK's financial services sector to the raft of initiatives from Brussels, in the wake of the financial crisis, had caught the City of London on the back foot. The insurance industry, he suggested, had managed to engage well with the EU institutions, but many of the other financial industry sectors were "nowhere near as active as the insurance lobby", in their approach with Brussels. Jonathan Scheele, head of the European commission office in London agreed, arguing that in many cases such as the recent and controversial AIFM hedge funds directive, the industry's response was "too little, too late". We all know that London's position as a centre for financial services is being challenged; the industry needs to get around that issue and engage better with the EU institutions," Scheele stressed. Helena Walsh of Cicero Consulting’s Brussels office, who chaired the session, agreed, and advised the industry to “put the hours in” and use its "extensive knowledge and experience” to increase its engagement with the EU institutions.
Report by Brian Johnson
Breakout session 2: EU and the countryside
With the debate on the common agricultural policy (CAP) post-2013 expected to heat up this autumn, Gwilym Jones, member of the cabinet of European agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos, said the new policy must help tackle Europe’s food security challenges. “Food demand is rising and is projected to rise further in line with demographic growth,” he said. Conservative MP Neil Parish, a member of the Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee, said Europe’s agriculture policy should focus on food production as well as the environment. “We want to make sure we have a countryside that is green,” he said. Parish, who is chairman of the allparty animal welfare group, also called on the European commission to put pressure on member states to ensure that laying hens are kept in “enriched cages”, ahead of the 2012 EU-wide ban on conventional cages. British Conservative MEP Richard Ashworth, a member of the European parliament’s agriculture and rural development committee, warned that a failure to do so could result in millions of ‘unlawful’ eggs being smashed, and an increase in prices for consumers. “It’s a question of if people are prepared to pay for animal welfare,” said Ashworth. Tracy Worcester, the director of the film Pig Business, argued that CAP post-2013 should help farmers move towards better welfare standards for pigs. She said, “The CAP should remove all direct and indirect subsidies to large scale production and increase payments to small farmers.”
Report by Martha Moss
Breakout session 3: EU and the NHS
Speaking at the EU and the NHS breakout session, former British MEP John Bowis said that the idea that health policy is not an area of EU concern is “nonsense”. Bowis said that, though it may frighten governments and policymakers, health is definitely on the EU agenda and is likely to grow in policy over the coming years. The EU has a whole raft of legislation in other policy areas that impact on health. “The EU is not responsible for running health services, but does have an influence in issues germane to health, such as food safety and soil quality”, he said. Elisabetta Zanon, director of the NHS EU office, said that as healthcare organisations are service providers they also come under EU market law. Zanon said that the NHS EU office operates under a “broad mandate” to engage on any legislation which could impact on the NHS. “EU funding programmes are very relevant to the NHS”, she added, as the UK national health service is facing efficiency targets of €20bn over the next few years. Despina Spanou, the commission’s principal adviser to the director-general for health and consumers, said health could play an integral role in achieving the EU 2020 strategy, helping to meet the EU’s 75 per cent employment objective and the three per cent of EU GDP target for research and innovation.
Report by Desmond Hinton-Beales
Breakout session 4: EU and small businesses
EU regulations governing small firms could result in the “death of new businesses”, participants in the breakout session on small businesses heard. President of the European Small Business Alliance Tina Sommer called on the EU to improve the legislative environment for SMEs, warning that a failure to do so could result in businesses becoming “lost in the detail”. Sommer called for Brussels to understand the effect its legislation has on the business landscape as a whole. Albert Bravo-Biosca from the national endowment for science, technology and the arts said that SME growth in Europe is difficult as the EU has a large share of “static” firms which neither shrink or grow, and as a result hinder SME expansion, while Oriel Petry, from the better regulation executive, criticised commission policies regarding small businesses. “For every €1 per employee spent on regulation by big companies, medium companies spent €4 and small companies €10,” Petry said. EU SME envoy and deputy director general for enterprise and industry Daniel Calleja Crespo underlined the commission’s commitment to “think small first” on any new legislative requirements, adding that simplification, access to finance and markets are the EU’s three SME priorities.
Report by Desmond Hinton-Beales
Breakout session 5: EU and fisheries
Business as usual is not an option when it comes to securing sustainable fishing practices. That was one of the messages to come out of the breakout session on the EU and fisheries, which brought together European officials and stakeholders from the fishing sector to discuss the key priorities for reform of the much-maligned common fisheries policy (CFP). Joost Paardekooper, policy officer for CFP reform at the European commission’s fisheries directorate (DG MARE) said the industry was experiencing many challenges as a result of the economic and budgetary crises gripping Europe. This, combined with higher fuel prices and the need to improve the environmental status of the seas, meant that the “status quo is not an option”, he said. Ian Campbell, the UK coordinator for Ocean 2012 called for the policy to do more to encourage sustainable practices. “There will always be fish without fisheries, but there will be no fisheries without fish,” he said. Joe Horwood, the former deputy chief executive at the centre for environment, fisheries and aquaculture science, told participants that the “key reason” for the high level of fish discards “is the European commission”.
Report by Martha Moss