Thursday, 26 November 2009

Is the EU hiding debate on its accounts...

I have been a bit rushed off my feet over the past fortnight in manning the front line in Europe (with a stinking cold) but I thought I had to blog about today.

This morning there was the open debate about the court of auditors opinion on last year's EU accounts. As I sat listening in the chamber it was clear that whilst some members are willing to brush aside the controversial issue of 15 years of "qualified" accounts, there were also members from all parties with strong and critical views. There were also a number of suggestions of how the situation could be improved. Many others made good suggestions of areas they think could be improved. I heard socialists, liberals, greens, centre-rightists raise questions that deserve answers. No time was given for answers.

Is the EU trying to hide the MEP's voices in this debate?

The first thing that raised my (now very cynical) antennae is that the debate on the accounts happened today whereas the vote was yesterday. (I voted against). The second issue is just how long the secretariat of the parliament took to post the video on the website. Whereas normally the video record of parliament appears almost immediately - this debate took until the end of the day. Other debates have quite clear labelling on their subject matter but this debate is just labelled as "2008". Who will ever find this on a google search in years to come? Will our questions be answered or are they just being brushed under the carpet?

If you want to watch the whole debate you could spend hours searching the internet or you could perhaps find it here.. My contribution is about an hour in.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

From Fridges to the Future of Europe and Financial taxes

Britain’s next aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, due to enter service with the Royal Navy in 2016, is still years away from being completed, let alone battle ready. On Friday, in a damning testament to our defence procurement system, I saw the final touches being applied to the fridges that will stand in her galleys. As I stood at my own village war memorial this morning I listened to the familiar family names in the roll of honour and I wondered what our British soldiers in Afghanistan would think about the money that has been spent on un-needed fridges.

Actually I was very impressed by the fridge company. Based in deepest Norfolk they are Europe’s leaders in commercial refrigerators. Every product is hand finished and environmentally of the highest standards. Even with the recession their sales have held up – declines in domestic sales helped by increased exports especially to France and Germany. In a week when Britain has ceded so much control to Europe this reminded me that it was to help companies like this that we went into the common market in the first place. On the other hand the company also explained that the last thing they need is the “Agency Workers Directive” – the vast majority of their staff are permanant but to be competitive they need to employ agency staff when they have bigger orders. This was a real world example of the opt out of Employment law from Brussels is so important.

Negotiations in Brussels are often more complicated than they first seem. I have been looking at the plans to create new European Authorities for banks, financial markets and insurers. Everyone agrees that we need a new form of regulation and must not go back to the risk taking that led to the financial crisis. We need better ways to share information across borders and to manage not only national but global risks. But these new authorities potentially go much deeper – the current drafts cede powers from the FSA/Bank of England to Europe to manage emergency failures in the future. With Britain being home to the world largest financial centre and such a vast amount of British tax-payers’ money currently on the line with our banks I believe the current draft crosses a red line.

To date the principal has been upheld that if national taxpayers are affected then national regulators (not Europe) should make the decisions. Gordon Brown’s step this weekend to propose a “transaction tax” on all financial trades starts to move into a potential grey area. Whilst I totally agree that financial institutions need to show some austerity and pay back the tax payer for the pain they have caused, I also know that if trading is more expensive in Europe then financial market business will just be driven overseas. But if Europe starts to set up a “pool” for future bail outs then Europe will argue for central decision making and ultimately wrench control of financial institutions from National regulators. Is the UK really ready to see the Bank of England subservient to the European Central Bank, the European Commission, or majority votes of the other 26 member states?

It may be easy to brush Gordon’s proposal of a transaction or “Tobin” tax away as pre-election posturing (the first reactions from the US are so negative that it’s unlikely to happen globally and therefore maybe not at all) but it does open up the possibility of another set of very difficult negotiations with Brussels.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Unsexy Methane, Railways and more

I have been (rightly) told off for failing to boast on my blog about how delighted we are to get EU funding for the upgrade of the railway lines East West across the UK to allow freight to travel by rail not road. This is a project I have been working on for over a year, and since elected working very closely with my Conservative MEP colleagues Geoffrey van Orden and Robert Sturdy. The press release we put out last week is here. Its good news.

I’ve just had one of those luxury weeks when the parliament doesn’t meet and MEPs get a chance to catch up with their home issues. Yes it is a luxury to stay in one’s own bed for a week but it is not a week off!

In Essex I met up with Rebecca Harris who has appeared in recent newspapers for having an “unsexy interest in methane gas”. She is right. Rebecca is the Conservative Candidate for Castlepoint, a constituency that includes Canvey Island. The small Island has 45,000 residents, one exit route and a very large and now old gas storage plant. Many of the residents live within a mile of the plant. Post the disaster of the Buncefield fire residents are justified in asking questions about safety. Rebecca and I met local campaigners. They were very well informed. I have offered to raise the issues of safety as part of the debate that we will have on Gas Storage in the parliament this month. It is always good to be able to try to help a local issue.

In Cambridgeshire I visited yet another world leading organisation. The Welding Institute (TWI) was founded during WWII to investigate welding and joining material. I saw how they have been involved in everything from formula one cars, to heart by-passes, nuclear waste to gas rigs. It’s a superb institution at the forefront of real research – I hope that they are successful in their bid to expand.

I had a few days in London discussing finance – I am becoming concerned about the speed that some of the new legislation may rush through Brussels without real debate. In particular I have been looking at the plans for the new “European Banking Authority” – now I have no problems with sharing information between banking regulators and yes we do need a new system of regulation – but, digging into the detail, it appears to me that various national sovereign powers are being transferred over to Brussels and I am yet to be convinced that this is in the interest of taxpayers, savers or borrowers.

At the weekend I joined Conservatives from across all 58 Westminster constituencies of the East of England for a regional conference. The final session of the day was a talk from Joe Johnson, deputy editor of the FT. Inter alia, Joe pointed out that a 1% increase in the rate UK Gov pays on the National Debt costs £15 billion per year. That’s a hell of a lot of money. We need to get our debt burden down – not just because it is so high but because the ratings agencies are watching us and if we don’t investors will start demanding higher spreads. Food for thought as I sit on the Eurostar rushing back to Brussels – the spending capital of Europe.