Monday, 14 December 2009

Nuclear and Budgets

I am writing this on the long train to Strasbourg. Leaving home at 7.45 am on a Monday morning I will get to my desk about 5.30 pm this evening – when I started this job there was a direct flight from City Airport but since that has been stopped I have been trying out the train route via Paris. Whilst I moan a lot, it uses less energy than flying (mentally as well as fuel wise) and a good chance to catch up on reading the wedge of papers in my case measures up to about 5 inches.

I have found that the Copenhagen summit has been a good time to focus on Energy use. Last week I joined a group from the European Parliament to visit one of Belgium’s nuclear power stations. In Belgium over 50% of electricity comes from nuclear power and given the UK’s recent commitment to replacing our Nuclear power station I thought it would be useful to see how it works in a country that is so nuclear dependent.

It really was a once in a lifetime experience. The plant was on shut down whilst having its massive steam generators replaced so we were allowed to go right into the heart of the operations. “Kicking the tyres” on a site visit is incredibly helpful. I had gone with 3 questions in mind – Security, Safety, and what to do with the Waste. Security was tight, I eventually lost count of the number of secure locks that I passed through. I expected Safety procedures to be very high – they were, we were each scanned for radiation many times on the way in and out to absolutely make sure that no one risked exposure – it was interesting to learn that there are actually more incidents of over exposure to radiation in the medical world than in the power arena due to medical applications like radiotherapy. However our guide left us in no doubt that politicians need to be very focused on the Waste issue. Even if no more power stations were ever to be built, nuclear waste exists today. Decisions need to be made and we learnt a lot about the options but it was quite depressing that even on this very detailed opportunity to visit a plant just an hour from the Parliament only two MEPs had joined the tour group.

This week in Strasbourg we will be voting on the EU budget. It is incredibly frustrating that there appears to be very little concern in the European Parliament for keeping costs under control. The budget has increased considerably from its initial drafts back in September – for some good reasons – but it appears that the amendments are always upwards and never down. At a time when our national finances are under such strain I would have thought Brussels could tighten its belt.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Not all so sunny in Spain – and busy in Brussels

I spent the last two days of this week in Spain with a group of MEPs considering Economic Affairs. Unemployment in Spain has rocketed to nearly 20%. Whilst the country’s temporary workers are almost all not working , the unionised permanent workers have negotiated large wage rises. In an early morning walk around the block I saw a person wrapped in a blanket holding out a paper cup begging on nearly every doorstep.

The traffic was terrible – the governments “fiscal stimulus” (i.e. spending money) seems to be paying for relaying of pavements everywhere, and everyday travellers were often brought to a halt by siren blasting motorcades of visiting politicians preparing for Spain to take over the rolling presidency of the European Union next month.

Our own bus (with no outriders) took us to meet the Central Bank as well as insurance and market regulators, the employers' union (CBI equivalent) the bankers' association and Spain’s largest bank Santander. Despite their economic woes Spain survived the financial crash well thanks to their conservative regulatory approach in recent years. Part of our visit was to discuss the new European Authorities for financial services that have been causing in Brussels a stir in the UK press this week. Unanimously the Spanish experts said that whilst the European wide Authorities will be helpful for sharing information and setting guidelines they also stated firmly that regulation of individual financial institutions should remain a national concern not an EU concern.

Back at home people have asked me why my office in Brussels and Strasbourg are so busy. Part of this is because of the new group that the Conservatives have helped form in the Parliament. The committee structure of the EP means that every bit of legislation is scrutinised in detail by one member from each political group. Whereas before the Conservatives sat within the very large EPP with over 200 members now our group is 54 members. This means we have a much stronger voice and can be involved in every issue.

My own office is leading on the new European Banking Authority, Bank Capital (yes and bonuses) and new rules to tighten up on Tax havens. Through my second committee I am looking at dodgy drugs (well actually counterfeit medicines) and we have recently completed work on Energy requirements for buildings – helping to bring the rest of the EU close to UK standards. I am also helping colleagues with their scrutiny of legislation on alternative investments, which if we get it wrong will have a huge impact not only on UK pensions but on investments in innovative start-ups and in developing countries. The devil is in the detail on all of this with sometimes hundreds of amendments proposed by the parliament to any given paper – it’s fascinating, stimulating and yes sometimes a mountain of paper work.