Thursday, 25 October 2012

Scandal, intrigue, tobacco and unanswered questions

As some people may already be aware (it`s been reported in UK national media and international media like the Wall Street Journal), the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, John Dalli from Malta resigned his post last week in the wake of an alleged dodgy lobbying incident involving the tobacco industry. I will try to summarise the events as concisely as possible, which might not be easy.

Mr Dalli was asked to resign by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on 16 October 2012 following an investigation by OLAF, the EU anti fraud office concerning a Maltese entrepreneur known to Mr Dalli who was allegedly acting as a middleman for a Swedish tobacco company. The Maltese entrepreneur was said to have been preparing to offer money to Mr Dalli in order to obtain meetings between the Commissioner and the tobacco company to influence a forthcoming EU law on tobacco products. The offer was never made and it was the tobacco company concerned Swedish Match, which made a complaint to the Commission which led to the OLAF investigation.

As part of  his health and consumer protection role, Mr Dalli had led Commission work on a new EU law on tobacco products, which was rumoured to include strict measures like plain packaging for cigarettes. However, the incidents relating to the potential dodgy lobbying that never happened are said by OLAF and the European Commission not to have affected the work done on the draft new tobacco products law, as they occurred after the final draft was completed by Mr Dalli's staff.

Mr Dalli was not accused of having accepted or even been offered the alleged bribe; the OLAF report instead claimed that he knew his name was being used in vain. Mr Dalli has said that he has never seen the OLAF report, but was read the conclusions on 16 October after which he was asked to resign and did so verbally in front of Commission President Barroso and two witnesses.

Coincidentally, within 48 hours of Mr Dalli's resignation, the offices of several Brussels based public health NGOs active on tobacco control were burgled. During that burglary, only computers and documents belonging to staff working on tobacco control were stolen. Evidence indicates that the burglary was a well organised professional job.

This week, the Chair of the Supervisory Board of OLAF resigned, initially thought to be related to the Dalli investigation, but now OLAF has confirmed that it was unrelated.

Whether Mr Dalli is guilty of misconduct or not (this is about as clear as mud right now), what is of great concern is that this may now delay the (already delayed) new law on tobacco products. This law is needed to upgrade Europe`s fight against tobacco, which kills over 600,000 EU citizens each year and causes long term ill-health in many more.

Mr Barroso, the President of the European Commission and Mr Secovic, the Commissioner temporarily taking over Mr Dalli`s responsibilities at DG SANCO (Health & Consumer Protection), have both said that the tobacco products directive is a top priority and will only be delayed as long as it takes to get a permanent replacement for Mr Dalli. Malta has nominated Mr Tonio Borg as Mr Dalli`s replacement and Mr Borg will attend a hearing to assess his suitability for the role in the European Parliament on 13 November 2012.

So far, so murky (or should that be smoky?!). There are a lot of unanswered questions and missing pieces of information including:

- What is the "circumstantial evidence" that OLAF found that indicates Mr Dalli was aware of the potential dodgy lobbying? (NB Mr Dalli denies knowledge of the plan to bribe him)

- Why was Mr Dalli not allowed to see the report accusing him of misconduct?

- What delay will the tobacco products law be subject to?

- How can we be sure that the tobacco products law will not be watered down from the version that Mr Dalli`s staff had prepared (which was rumoured to be very strong)?

- Who could believe that a Health Commissioner could (even if they were so persuaded) credibly change the draft version of a new tobacco products law to make it favourable to the tobacco industry? (NB Mr Dalli`s position on tobacco control was considered very strong by public health activists)

In addition to the need to further protect public health from the scurge of tobacco, the whole affair with unanswered questions and vital information withheld from public view (and from the view of the European Parliament, which has a role in appointing Commissioners!), does not give a good image of the EU institutions.

A friend working in EU affairs informed me that his Mother raised the Dalli affair with him after seeing various media reports. Her view?

"I don`t know anything about the tobacco law, but all this secrecy and cover-up in the newspapers bothers me. Why can`t people be told what he (Mr Dalli) did wrong?. It seems that big companies are getting away with a lot and I don`t like it!"

So, worrying developments for Europe and for public health in Europe. Not good : (




Tuesday, 16 October 2012

An MEP's life?


Since starting my new life as an MEP I have been asked by both family (including my 7 year old niece!) and friends just what it all involves. It therefore seemed timely to write a piece about my life as an MEP.

Firstly, I have quickly learnt that there is no such thing as a typical day.   Secondly, there are many misunderstandings about the life of an MEP. It does not, for example, mean that I have moved back to Brussels.  Typically I’m there 8 to 10 days a month. 

It is also not the case that I am now well acquainted with Business class on British Airways.  I became an MEP 6 months ago and I'm yet to fly in the line of duty! I travel, like other MEPs from the north, from home to Brussels (5 hours, 2 trains) and Strasbourg (8 hours, 3 trains) taking advantage of high speed rail travel. Not only is this less damaging to the environment, but I find it a less stressful and more productive way to travel. 

Being an MEP is a job of two halves; working both in your region and the parliament. There is thus always the need to balance the demands of both sides of the role.

Given the nature of the work, and the long hours involved, none of my work could be possible without support, and I have an excellent team in both the region (Angela, an office manager/caseworker and Mike, a communications officer) and Brussels (Sam who manages the Brussels diary and helps me with environment committee work and Marzena (Maz) who supports me on the legal affairs committee). There is also currently Daniel, a recent graduate from North Yorkshire who has a 6 month (paid) internship.

So what exactly does an MEP do? 

The work in the region includes dealing with casework from constituents – such as assistance to apply for EU funding, or supporting local community groups.  It involves meeting and supporting regional businesses, trade bodies and interest groups.  I have also attended and spoken at community and business events.  There is also the media work, promoting my work or that of the party in the region.  I am also keen to work alongside fellow Liberal Democrats on their campaigns.

In parliament my committee work has seen me take a lead on a number of key issues.  These have varied from cross border health issues, dealing with flooding and supporting the effort to make big business more transparent about their tax affairs.  This is with the added complication of having the meetings occasionally timetabled at the same time and meaning I have to fly (not literally!) from one to the other.

There is also a lot of group work, both within the Liberal Democrat group and across the wider Liberal group for Europe, known as the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – ALDE.  This is important, particularly for agreeing common positions before we go into committee.

Just as in the region, in Brussels too I will often meet with business or other groups or attend breakfast meetings, working lunches or seminars.  These can be any time of the day, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.   There are also groups who will come to me to lobby on behalf of a particular cause or campaign.

Contrary to popular belief, money/big business does not always win the lobbying game. In September, the Legal Affairs Committee voted in favour of requiring multinational companies to disclose their payments to governments on a global basis, thus taking a position advocated by Non-Governmental Organisations like Oxfam and Publish What You Pay, rather than the view of large oil and mining companies.

An MEP's schedule does require a lot of moving around. I can travel as frequently as every 4 days, so I have become an expert in packing light! I spend 8-10 days a month in Brussels, 4 days per month in Strasbourg (a ridiculous situation which I hope will end soon, see www.singleseat.eu for more info) and the rest of the time (15 or so days) in the region.

When i am in the region, I work pretty much standard working hours either in my Hull office or at home in Leeds, although I do regularly have evening and weekend engagements. When I am in the Parliament (in Brussels or Strasbourg), days tend to be long; they can start as early as 0745 and go on until 1900 or 2000. My Brussels staff do their best to make sure that my time is well used, so my diary can be a bit jam packed sometimes.

As you can see it's a very varied and usually very interesting role.  It means working all hours, depending on the demands of the time.  It is certainly rather difficult to get bored. I also get to see many parts of the region that I perhaps would not visit otherwise and to meet people from all walks of life with a point to make (even if I don't always agree with them!).

So for those people who wonder what an MEP does, the answer is not straightforward and depends on just what part of the continent they are in at the time.  Hopefully, however, this sheds a little light on the matter!

For more information on how the European Parliament works, visit http://europa.eu/about-eu/institutions-bodies/european-parliament/index_en.htm

Monday, 15 October 2012

Reporting back from Eurocommerce's SME day

SMEs are the backbone of the twenty three million companies based in the EU, and Eurocommerce’s SME day (10 Oct 2012) was a chance for representatives from the European Parliament and Commission, as well as SME associations and entrepreneurs themselves, to come together and look at concrete steps needed to create an economic environment favourable to SME growth while encouraging entrepreneurship in people of all ages and backgrounds.

ALDE MEP J├╝rgen Creutzmann was the first to stress that better access to finance and markets for SMEs needed to be translated into real action. He proposed reducing the time and cost of obtaining a licence to set up a new business to three days and 100euros respectively by 2020; creating “one-stop-shops” for entrepreneurs in each member state to go to for business start ups; and channelling fifteen per cent  of the EU’s budget towards SMEs. Mr Creutzmann also highlighted that around €300bn of EU programmes have not been accessed within the current budget and that it is essential that small businesses are made aware that they can participate in these.

With regards to smart regulation, the floor heard from Elizabeth Golberg of the Commission’s Secretariat General, who maintained that regulation is essential in order to protect and facilitate exploitation of European markets, while agreeing with Mr Creutzmann that SMEs can feel over burdened by heavy regulation, which can often lead to failure. To combat this, Ms Golberg highlighted the Commission’s commitment to simplifying the system, reducing general administration by twenty five per cent (which would subsequently save around €40bn), and canvassing SMEs to find out what are the most burdening pieces of legislation for them.

The panel also included several entrepreneurs and SME leaders who gave first hand testimonials of their experiences in setting up a business, as well as putting forward their own ideas for encouraging entrepreneurship. Mr Marco Lardera, a twenty-five year old property website founder from Italy, told of the problems facing young people in his country with regards to a lack of confidence from banks and the authorities. Mr Heinz Werner, founder of a child and teenage jeanswear company, spoke of the worry of many possible SME leaders of being suffocated by corporate social responsibility rules, and stressed a need for a bigger focus on education in order to train the very best possible candidates to enable continued SME start ups and growth.

This was echoed by a second panel focusing on “boosting the spirit of entrepreneurship”, which expressed a need for entrepreneurship to be taught in schools “from the very beginning”. The panellists agreed this would build self confidence, increase awareness, and teach young people how to be independent. A fear of the stigma of failure was identified as a big problem deterring potential entrepreneurs from setting up a business by Imelda Vital of direct-selling company AMWAY- to which Mr Christian Verschueren, Director General of EuroCommerce suggested that the EU should follow the example of the United States, where, according to Mr Verschueren, failure is often seen as a golden opportunity for more entrepreneurship!

By Daniel Callaghan, intern for Rebecca Taylor MEP

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Lib Dem party conference - a beginners guide

As it is autumn, it is party conference season. We Liberal Democrats had our conference last week, this week it was Labour’s turn and the Conservative conference will follow.

So why have party conferences at all and what happens at them? As a Liberal Democrat I know they are a key part of how our party operates, on both a political and social level.

There is more to a conference than the few hours you might see on the television.  Here is a quick overview of what happens at Lib Dem party conference:

- There is, of course, discussion and debate on policy, both in meetings and the main auditorium.   This means, unlike the other main parties, Lib Dem members still set party policy.  Crucially, the leadership can be defeated even now – as happened just last week on the issue of secret courts.

- There are keynote speeches by senior parliamentarians, which for the Liberal Democrats now includes Cabinet Ministers such as Danny Alexander, as well as other leading members like Sharon Bowles MEP.  Traditionally, our conference always ends with the Leader’s speech, sending party members back home on a high note.

- Party members also get the opportunity to put questions to senior party members from different parliaments in special Q&A sessions.

- There is also the chance to meet charity and commercial exhibitors, as well as party organisations, at an ever impressive exhibition.  The best always have some exciting goodies or games to play!

- Some of these organisations, as well as a number of others, also hold fringe meetings.  These are a chance to debate an issue or sessions on training and advice.  While some are exclusively for party members, others are open for anyone to attend.  This conference, I had the privilege of speaking at a number of fringe meetings.  These covered topics as varied as internships, regional transport policy, the EU and body image/eating disorders.  I also had time to attend fringe meetings on youth employment and training, NHS reform, the Scouting movement, and manufacturing. 

- Conference is also an ideal opportunity for organisations to meet with elected LibDems to raise concerns or discuss ideas. I found myself on both sides of this exercise.  As an example, I met with representatives of several trade and professional associations concerned with specific EU legislation as well as a regional utility company.  My turn to put the points to an elected official came when I met with Lib Dem transport minister, Norman Baker, to discuss rail issues in the Yorkshire and Humber region, pushing the case for more investment in the region’s transport infrastructure. 

- One of the many unique parts of Lib Dem conference is the Glee Club, a tradition going back many years.  This is an old fashioned sing along on the last night of conference. Here we see many Lib Dems, some of whom may have had a few (or more!) drinks at the bar, singing specially written lyrics to well known tunes.  A classic is one such song about Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes, which describes "Simon Hughes and his black and white cab" sung to the tune of Postman Pat. The regions also get an outing.  I joined fellow Yorkshire Lib Dems on the Glee Club stage singing "Ilkley Moor bar t'hat". There is also always at least one refrain of the old Liberal anthem "The Land".  The current Glee Club pianist is Birmingham MP John Hemming, which he explained during a transport fringe, is why he has to drive to conference, as he can't get his piano on the train!

-  Not least of all, in fact a big attraction for many conference attendees, is the chance to meet up and socialise with old friends from around the country.  For many, conference is the only chance they meet, but the friendships are no less strong for it.  For me, as I became an MEP since the last conference, a lot of LibDem friends and colleagues at conference naturally wanted to speak to me to ask how I was settling in to my new job.  The fact I got to do this in bar made it no less enjoyable!

So conference is made of many parts.  All have their highlights.  I certainly enjoy it and I am sure it has something for everyone too.