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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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.
Brussels highlights this week included visits from China's President Xi Jin-ping, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-mun and the heads of state and government of many African countries who were in town for the EU-Africa summit. Xi Jin-ping said little in public but reports suggest that talks on an investment agreement went well (since a few trade disputes have recently been solved) and common ground was found on issues such as the Ukraine and how to mitigate climate change.
While China's President met only the Presidents of the European Council, Parliament and Commission and their entourages, the UN Sec Gen also held a much wider session to which I was invited. He spoke of the global climate change summit he will host September to stress the need for 'transformative collective action', saying that the short term pressures of democratic politics are hampering effective action and stressing 'you cannot negotiate with nature'.
This was a quiet week for MEPs, with few committee meetings. It allowed me to attend to EU Liberal Democrat Party business in Barcelona on Monday afternoon and in Bilbao on Tuesday morning, to travel to Hamburg Wednesday afternoon to take part in a live Deutschlandfunk radio debate and to leave again on a flight at 0700 Thursday for the College of Europe in Bruges, where I debated the merits of UK membership of the EU with Liam Fox MP at a business conference sponsored by Deloitte. In between these engagements I managed some useful meetings and dealt with correspondence in my parliamentary office.
The biggest buzz around Brussels was Barack Obama's visit for the EU-USA summit.
While Ukraine again dominated the agenda and underlined how the EU cannot hope to influence Russia unless it is united, UK PM David Cameron chose last Sunday to outline, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, a seven point plan to distance the UK even further from its continental partners. Many of the points he made involved setting up Aunt Sallies to knock them down again: such as saying he would free businesses from EU red tape to make them freer to trade with North America or Asia. There are currently no EU rules which restrict this; and the best way to boost such trade would be through trade agreements which EU countries negotiate jointly, such as the hugely successful recent EU agreement with South Korea.
The EU's foreign ministers met on Monday and prepared the ground for the decision on Thursday by the European Council (the 'summit' meeting of the heads of state and government) to add more senior Russians to the list of those targetted with individual sanctions.
Last week ran almost unbroken into this. I left LD party conference in York on Saturday evening to travel to Cardiff to take part in BBC TV's The Big Questions on Sunday, and managed only Sunday afternoon with family before travelling to Brussels for meetings on Monday.
BBC TV West came to Strasbourg this week to report on the European Parliament. Their visit coincided with the reports that the government will not apply for money from the EU's Solidarity Fund to help with the cost of flood damage, which Tory MEP Julie Girling and I both regretted.
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.