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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Parliament has been officially in recess this week and does not start back until next Tuesday. But I was in Gibraltar on Monday, where the new Socialist-Liberal coalition invited me to address a meeting of their cabinet and I paid a courtesy call on the Governor.
Gibraltar's main concern at present is how to stop Spanish fishing boats fishing illegally in its waters, particularly since they are using sledges to drag up everything off the sea floor, which is illegal in many parts of Spain and elsewhere. The previous (Conservative) government turned a blind eye to the practice; the current government has said it will enforce the law; and Spain is seeking to make this a cause celebre on the issue of sovereignty. There are also still tensions over the pollution of the western beach by sewage from storm drains over the border in La Linea; I have been taking this issue up in Brussels and met environmental campaigner Janet Howitt on Sunday evening to review progress. But the main difference between the current coalition team of Fabian Picardo (Soc) and Joseph Garcia (Lib) and their Conservative predecessor Peter Caruana is how open, transparent and inclusive is the new government of the Rock. Caruana ruled it like a medieval fiefdom until his arrogance upset so many voters that they threw the rascal out.
Back in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday I caught up with correspondence, met the new Chinese Ambassador to the EU, called a meeting of the Political Unit at ELDR Party HQ to review progress in party building and gave interviews to Wessex FM (on Spanish retail scams), Cyprus television (on their recent Cabinet reshuffle in which the Liberal Democrat member was discracefully forced out) and French TV (on EU-Africa co-operation).
EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom (Sweden, LD) held talks with Greek minister Chrisochoidis on Monday to express once again the EU's concern about the building of a fence by the River Evros to keep migrants out. Greece has received EU subsidies for managing migration from (or rather through) Turkey, including help with the building of reception centres, and should not need a physical barrier of this kind. But there was also good news from Greece at a conference on Tuesday hosted by energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger (Germany, EPP) on renewable energy in the Balkans: Greece confirmed that solar energy production is due to rise from 206 megawatts today to 2.2 gigawatts by 2020 and 10 GW by 2050, to be accompanied by a major investment in cabling for distribution of the electricity generated up to northern Europe.
The week's news was mainly bad, however. Unemployment figures show joblessness in the EU, at 10.2%, to be at its highest in many years. Spain, which has the highest level, announced austerity measures which may make matters worse in the short term; and a debt issue by the Spanish government was undersubscribed. As monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn (Finland, LD) pointed out, unemployment fell in eight member states but rose in eighteen. And a conference in Brussels on Tuesday on the Schmallenberg virus heard that although currently few animals in the eight countries affected have contracted the disease, it is nonetheless still spreading. Farmers in my constituency see that all too well and are naturally concerned that a vaccine against the illness be developed rapidly.
Elections in Burma which were widely judged to be free and fair - and which were won by our Liberal sister party the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi - led to calls for the lifting of sanctions when the EU's foreign ministers meet later this month. Our own government is wise to urge caution. A gradual lifting in exchange for further reform is the strategy most likely to keep the reforms going.
I left Brussels on Wednesday evening to take a few days holiday with my 17 year old son. I hope you, my readers, also enjoy a break over Easter.