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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In the absence of a new world trade agreement, which seems continuously to elude our negotiators at the WTO, attention in Brussels is focussing on bilateral trade agreements which would stimulate trade and therefore growth and jobs. The 27 trade ministers agreed last Friday to sign free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia which they initialled a year ago. These now come to the European Parliament for approval. Discussions continue with Singapore and Malaysia. And the European Commission and the US Administration met on Monday to try to overcome barriers to greater transatlantic trade. Yet at the same time some member states, led by France, have managed to force onto the EU's agenda a proposal to twist the arms of all trading partners into giving the EU the same degree of access to their public procurement markets as they have to ours. The Commission published a draft regulation on Wednesday despite the opposition of most Liberal Commissioners and the concerns of the lawyers that this is a protectionist measure and would fall foul of WTO rules.
There were two big items of controversy this week. An invitation to former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, currently being investigated on sex crimes charges, to take part in a debate on the economy on the European Parliament's premises next week raised the eyebrows of many and the ire of some. It was soon withdrawn after complaints to Parliament's President (the Speaker). And remarks by Foreign policy supremo Catherine Ashton following the shooting of three children at a Jewish school in France were seized on and twisted by Israel's defence minister to suggest that Ashton was comparing the shootings to what is happening in Gaza. Members of Parliament's foreign affairs committee, obtaining a transcript of the remarks, soon realised this was not at all Ashton's intention and expressed their support for her. What really angered Israel was Ashton's signing on Monday of EU aid packages for Palestine providing €22 million for a waste-water treatment plant on the West Bank and €13 million for improvements to a trading point linking the Gaza Strip to the world beyond it.
I was in Brussels on Monday where among other things I addressed and answered questions from 40 or more Liberal Democrat MPs from the Netherlands. (Sadly I could not imagine that UK LD MPs would organise such a collective fact-finding visit, though it is common among German, Danish or Dutch Liberals). On Tuesday I went to Slovakia on EU Liberal Democrat party business but was back in time to speak at a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution of Cadiz, Europe's first real Liberal constitution. On Wednesday I spoke to pupils at Hayle School in Cornwall by video-conference link (they linked to various world centres during the day) and later met management and trade unions from the port of Falmouth, with whom I am working to try to get permission to dredge a section of the inner harbour to allow the port to expand. I also addressed a conference consisting mainly of electrical engineers gathering to press for the laying of a high voltage direct current electricity supergrid linking countries across the continent to provide access to an electricity reservoir for countries which choose to make the switch from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. My Climate Parliament (www.climateparl.net) is working to build political support for this. Yesterday I was in London for meetings and to speak at the Kettners' monthly Liberal lunch. Today I have my Brussels and constituency staff teams together for a reflection session in Somerset.
Foreign affairs ministers meet today to discuss further sanctions against Iran. Last Saturday Iran's banks were disconnected from SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transactions), an unprecedented step with any country. On Wednesday Parliament heard from the UN's special envoy about the situation in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where members of Iran's opposition shelter. Ministers will consider today targetted sanctions against another twenty or so individuals in Iran deemed responsible for human rights abuses.
Ministers may also give the go ahead for targetted strikes against pirate ships and equipment in Somalia, about which I was interviewed at 7.30 am today on the BBC's World Service.