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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Published on Friday 7th July 2006
Probably the most important achievement of the European Parliament this week has been to force the European Commission to create a financial instrument for the promotion of democracy and human rights in third countries. This will replace the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights which expires at the end of the year and will provide 1.1 billion euros for work in this field over the period 2007-2013, out of a total external relations budget of 50 billion euros. We hope now to proceed to develop the 'soft power' of the EU in observing and assisting with democratic elections, strengthening civil society and promoting human rights and the rule of law.
If it is accompanied by sufficient EU concessions this week and next in Geneva to allow the WTO's Doha round of trade talks to succeed, we might see real improvements in standards of living for many of our fellow global citizens. If the talks fail we will condemn them to continued poverty which will hardly encourage the flourishing of democracy - and deprive ourselves of economic growth opportunities into the bargain. I hope Commissioner Mandelson will be smart enough to resist the French rearguard action against trade liberalisation.
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I've been "out of the office" again this week, leading my MEPs to the Aland islands (between Sweden and Finland) for one of our two annual get-togethers outside our normal places of work, then our committee co-ordinators to Helsinki to meet the government ministers of the Finnish EU presidency which assumes office tomorrow. I find it difficult to keep my finger on the pulse of Brussels if I'm away too much, so was pleased to get back to Brussels late on Thursday.
On Wednesday Commissioner Frattini launched a review of progress in EU co-operation on matters of justice and home affairs such as immigration, asylum, co-operation in civil law and fighting crime. He called on EU member states to recognise that progress will remain painfully slow if they insist on taking decisions only by unanimity. All member states signed (though only 15 have ratified) a constitutional treaty which committed them to introducing majority voting in all but the most sensitive areas. Will they decide to move ahead anyway, even in the absence of a Constitution? If they do, the existing EU Treaties provide a mechanism in the form of the so-called "footbridge" clause (Art 42).
I think it is possible they will make the change. The Finnish Prime Minister told my MEPs on Wednesday that one priority of his Presidency would be to reach agreement on "qualified majority voting" in this area. (A qualified majority requires a two thirds majority of votes in the Council of Ministers plus an absolute majority of votes in the European Parliament before a measure becomes law.)
In 1999, when the Finns last held the Presidency, they launched the so-called 'Tampere agenda' to create a common EU asylum and immigration policy. The lack of progress thus far is almost entirely due to the need for unanimity. The French want a French policy for Europe, the British a British policy, etc . and few recognise that Europe needs a European policy.
Perhaps the Finns, in their deliberate and measured way, can pull off agreement. (If some of the officials we met this week are anything to go by they may force agreement through by boring everyone to distraction.)
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The European Commission insisted on Tuesday that EU countries own up to allowing the CIA to use their airports and re-fuelling facilities for the so-called "rendition" of terror suspects. The work of Swiss Liberal MP Dick Marty in the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in exposing such activity has been excellent and has provided a good basis for our own EP temporary committee. Europe is finally finding a little more courage in tackling the USA over its policies in the 'war on terror'. I think what has shocked many has been the revelation that SWIFT, the Brussels-based clearing house for banks (society for worldwide interbank financial telecommunication) has passed personal data linked to financial transactions to the US government. The ramifications of the assaults on privacy and civil freedoms continue to come to light..