Graham Watson MEP
Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar
A local champion with an international reputation
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News from the Lib Dems in Government
Every week Graham writes a newsletter letting you know what has been happing in Europe over the past week. You can subscribe to receive this by email here. Below are the last editions.
The situation in the Ukraine again dominated the week in Brussels. Foreign Affairs ministers met on Monday, EU officials met Russia's Foreign Affairs minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, the European Commission agreed an aid package on Wednesday and on Thursday theheads of state and government held a special meeting with Ukraine's new prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to discuss the situation. They agreed immediately to suspend talks on a new EU-Russia agreement and talks on visa liberalisation. If Russia does not withdraw its armed forces to their normal stations and negotiate peacefully with Ukraine, additional measures such as travel bans and asset freezes will be taken; and if Russia further destabilises the country there will be 'severe and far reaching economic consequences', our national leaders agreed, dismissing plans for a referendum in the Crimea as illegitimate.
The failure last week of the Council of Ministers to approve or reject the authorisation of Pioneer Dupont's genetically modified maize TC 1507 continues to make waves. Under an ancient and unsatisfactory procedure called comitology, the Commission's proposal to authorize the placing on the market of a product is adopted if not approved, amended or rejected by the Council. But for such a sensitive decision to be made in this way fourteen weeks before voters go to the polls in the European elections seems hamfisted at best. Member states can decide not to allow the sowing of the seeds on their territory, but in view of the approval by the EU's Food Safety Agency such a decision cannot be made on grounds of harm to human health or the environment.
A group of school students from Thomas Hardye school in Dorchester were my first victims this week, when they visited the European Parliament on Monday. Others who had to suffer me were TV viewers in Switzerland (Monday), Gibraltar (Tue and Wed) and Austria (Thursday).
The Swiss people's vote in a referendum on Sunday to pull out of free movement treaties with the EU, by the narrowest of margins (50.3%), will cause their government a major headache: they have three years in which to try to renegotiate their treaty agreements with the EU which will involve abrogation of almost all existing agreements, unless the government finds a way out.
After chairing last Saturday's EU-wide Liberal Democrat conference in Brussels to select our candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission I spent Sunday and Monday morning there and travelled to Strasbourg on Monday afternoon. It was not a particularly busy week by Parliament's standards, but provided me with a number of opportunities.
I spoke in a debate that evening on 'smart' regional electricity grids, the day before the launch of a new electricity trading agreement involving fourteen EU member states, and followed up the issue at a meeting with Nick Winser, the head of the National Grid and current president of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E). I chaired a meeting of representatives from the other political parties to forge agreement on my draft report on the use of broadcasting policy in EU diplomacy, which comes up for approval in committee this month and on the floor of the house in March.
Finance ministers from the 18 countries in the eurozone met on Monday. The biggest item of discussion was the sustainability of Greece's debt, though they also discussed recapitalisation of banks. A €60 bn recapitalisation fund - part of the 'European Stability Mechanism' - will be launched in November under the aegis of the ECB. On Wednesday negotiators from Parliament and Council met to discuss the role of the EP in overseeing bank resolution (winding-up) procedures.
In Strasbourg the grey gloom of a mild mid-January week was much lifted for MEPs by a rich harvest of parliamentary activity. On Monday evening the economic and monetary affairs committee quizzed former ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet, European Stability Mechanism head Klaus Regling and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn on the democratic accountability of the 'troika' (ECB, IMF and European Commission) which has overseen the national re-stabilisation plans of the countries hit by debt servicing problems. On Tuesday we approved plans by French Liberal Robert Rochefort to target EU consumer protection spending on transport, energy and health and a call by UK Liberal Chris Davies for measures to kickstart the development of carbon capture and storage projects, which the International Energy Agency believes will be responsible for 20% of global CO2 reductions by 2050. And on Wednesday we debated with Greece's Prime Minister Antonis Samaras his plans for Greece's six month EU presidency.