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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The result of Italy's general election on Monday dominated discussion in Brussels this week. The vote split almost equally between Berlusconi's right wing party, the Social Democrats and a stand-up comedian called Beppe Grillo, who took 25% each. Outgoing technocrat Mario Monti, whose government was brought down before its reforms had time to work, polled 10%. A system of bonus seats for the winner gives the Social Democrats a majority in the lower house, but Berlusconi won a majority in the Senate which can block legislation. Unsurprisingly, the country's cost of borrowing over the medium and long terms has risen sharply. All are concerned that paralysis will lead to budgetary ruin.
On Monday I co-hosted in Amsterdam with the Dutch Prime Minister a summit of leading Liberal Democrats: the deputy prime ministers of Germany, the UK, Belgium, Croatia and Sweden together with leading EU Commissioners, our EP leader and the President of the European Investment Bank, who announced he will raise lending by 40% (an additional €60 bn) over the next two years to stimulate Europe's economy. We discussed the economic and financial crisis, relations with China and preparation for the European elections next year (for statement see www.aldeparty.eu).
Back in Brussels, agricultural ministers agreed to resume the publication of the names of farmers receiving CAP subsidies and the Commission called on 22 member states to return a total of €414 million in misspent agricultural subsidies. The UK is the worst offender, with €111 million misallocated: next are Italy at €48 m and Spain at €40 m, ahead of Poland, France and others.
Fisheries ministers spent 20 hours haggling over the banning of discards and finally agreed to end discards of pelagic species from 2014. The compulsory landing of all fish caught should be phased in by 2019, gradually including all species, they decided. Final agreement still has to be negotiated with Parliament, however, and we may well ask them to shorten the phasing-in period. The ministers also agreed that a joint scientific committee should do an audit of fish stocks in Mauritanian waters, as called for by MEPs.
Social Affairs ministers met EU Council President Hermann van Rompuy to discuss unemployment of under-25s, of whom a quarter are jobless, and agreed to spend up to €21 billion over the coming years on education and training. And Development Aid ministers met to plan a common, coherent and comprehensive policy for the rebuilding of Mali.
MEPs and Ministers finally reached agreement on capping the bonuses which banks can pay to their staff (no more than annual fixed pay unless shareholders specifically allow) and agreed new capital requirements for banks.
The EP's Liberal Democrat Group met on Wednesday to discuss the budget deal proposed by the European Council (heads of state and government). We agreed not to contest the total amount foreseen but to insist on gearing spending more towards growth, providing for greater flexibility to move money between budget headings and holding a mid term review so that the next Parliament is not bound by our priorities. The matter is currently in committee. Final agreement is likely in May or June.
Midweek I met Cornwall Council officers to discuss regional spending and spoke by videoconference to students at South Devon College. I also met Britain's EU Affairs minister David Lidington to discuss the breakdown of the coalition in Moldova, for which I am Parliament's spokesperson.
Today and over the weekend I campaign with LibDems in South East Cornwall, Torridge and West Devon, Exeter and Chippenham: all buoyed with enthusiasm, I hope, following our success in holding Eastleigh with a bigger majority than when Chris Huhne succeeded David Chidgey in 2005. Eastleigh just about qualifies to be considered part of Wessex, allowing me to recall the lines And not by eastern windows only / When daylight comes, streams in the light / Ahead the sun climbs slow, how slowly / But westward, look, the land is bright!