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Report from Bill Newton Dunn

November 17, 2011 12:01 PM
By Bill Newton Dunn MEP
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Euro-zone financial crisis

Next week, on 23rd November, the EU Commission President, Barroso, is to announce his proposed legislation for "financial and economic union". On 8-9th December at the next summit of national EU leaders, Merkel and Sarkosy are to announce their proposals for changes to the EU treaties. George Osborne called for the creation of a federal euro-zone, now it is starting to take shape, but the UK is not in the inner circle for these decisions, and is regarded by some continentals as an irritating critic with massive and mounting debts of its own. These "Merkosy" proposals will trigger an EU Constitutional Convention at which all interested parliaments (European and national) will be involved, to negotiate and agree the treaty changes to give Brussels the power to enforce responsibility in national budgets.

Meanwhile, in Greece there is a caretaker government until new parliamentary elections in February 2012. The question is whether the Greek people will vote to accept the austerity or to reject it. If they reject it, then there will be nothing more the rest of Europe will do to help them.

In Italy, the president (who is an ex MEP) has used a device something like the UK's House of Lords and has appointed the chancellor of an elite Italian university, Mario Monti, (an ex EU Commissioner) to be "Senator for Life". This puts him in the upper house of the Italian parliament for life, and he becomes the Prime Minister. He has appointed a government of ministers none of whom are elected.

Berlusconi now faces a number of trials in court without any further immunity. Previously he passed a law giving himself immunity but the Italian Constitutional Court (which interprets Italy's Written Constitution) struck the law out as unconstitutional. In the UK, where we have no written constitution and therefore no safeguards, it would also be possible for a majority in the Commons to pass a law giving a Prime Ministrer immunity and there would be nothing we the British public could do to stop that.

Cleaning up our Rivers and Waters

With the help of the parliament's environment committee and of my assistant Sarah, I have been able to bring about a change in the law.

Back in the spring I was appointed "rapporteur" by the Environment committee to take charge of the Commission proposal to remove phosphorus from detergents for household washing machines. It is desirable to remove phosphorus compounds (which provide "grit" to help the washing) because when discharged they cause eutrophication and algae spreading across rivers and lakes and seas which stifle wild-life. In the committee we decided, by 48 to 8, to include household dishwashers.

This proposed law is a "Regulation" which applies directly in all 27 member states (including the UK) and not a "Directive" which gives national parliaments some flexibility.

Regulations are decided jointly by the two EU legislative chambers, parliament and the Council of Ministers. The Council's initial reaction to our inclusion of dishwashers was "certainly not". But then they did their numbers and found there was an even balance between the 27 member states with some like Sweden and France having already done it. The UK and Denmark were among those who remained in the "certainly not" camp.

The Poles, being in the chair for six months in the Council, were anxious to be able to show some success from their chairmanship so decided at an early stage that they would push hard to include dishwashers.

I asked to see the UK government minister but was told his diary was totally full until the end of the following month. Then a general election in Denmark tipped the balance. The right were defeated and the new Danish environment minister, who is a Green, reversed Denmark's position.

Other MEPs lobbied their national governments. With the vote-count inside the Council shifting towards my position, I again asked to see the British minister and this time was given twenty minutes several weeks ahead.

The Poles continued pushing hard inside the Council and liaising closely with us in the parliament. The British minister received me in a beautiful office surrounded by his Sir Humphrey and several other assistants. I explained the situation, but was made to understand that government policy would not permit agreement to including dishwashers until a full impact assessment had been drawn up by the Commission in Brussels. Even though the parliament's research showed that no small businesses make old-fashioned phosphate detergents for dishwashers anywhere in Europe and although phosphate-free detergents are already available (and on sale in Swedish supermarkets), the UK position was unmovable.. As a final shot, I pointed out that if the parliament's proposal passed direct into EU law and therefore applied directly in the UK, the UK coalition government was vulnerable to a press story that it had resisted a way to clean up British waters for bureaucratic reasons.

Back in Brussels - now five months since our Environment committee's vote to include dishwashers - I led a negotiating team to meet a Council negotiating team led by the deputy-head of the Polish permanent embassy in Brussels. In a two hour evening negotiation, we discussed the timing of the new law, technical details about the varying hardness of water across Europe (soft in the Baltic, hard in southern Spain). Both sides made concessions and we reached an agreement on the final text of the new law. All that remained was for the 27 national ambassadors (the Sir Humphreys in Brussels) to accept that agreement - which they did on Monday this week with only two countries voting against (Bulgaria and the Czechs, so the UK changed its position but did not tell me).

Finally, the full parliament will vote (I hope) to approve the final text in mid-December, and the Council of the 27 national ministers (who will all travel to Brussels) must also approve the final text. Then it becomes law - for washing-machines in June 2013 and for dishwashers in January 2017.

Climate Change

The next world conference, organised by the United Nations, will start in Durban on 28th November. Shockingly, there is very little prospect of any agreement. The BASIC countries - China, India, South Africa and Brazil -- have already taken a position that any decision on climate change actions beyond 2020 must be based on the next report of UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which will be submitted in 2014, and a review of the fulfilment of commitments under the UN climate convention to be done in 2015. The USA is in recession and unwilling to make commitments.

All the best

Bill Newton Dunn