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Nick Clegg should say No Thank EU – UPDATE

By Angela Harbutt
August 8th, 2013 at 10:54 am | 7 Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, Europe, Uncategorized

So not only did Conservative MP Anna Soubry act in defiance of UK parliament when she hot-footed it over to Luxembourg to negotiate on behalf of the UK at a meeting of European ministers. We now know that her support for the European Commissions proposals at that meeting was decisive in giving the green light to the Tobacco Products Directive.

In a letter (dated July 31st) to Bill Cash MP (Chairman, House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee) Soubry says:

“The committee asked whether the UK’s support was vital to a General Approach being agreed” (at the Council of European health ministers meeting on 21st June)…..

“Four member states – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania were unable to offer their support, which meant that the UK’s support (of the Tobacco Products Directive) was decisive in forming a qualified majority” 

Given that we know Ms Soubry asked for, but was refused, a waiver from the relevant House of Commons committee, her statement should more accurately read :

Four member states – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania were unable to offer their support, which meant that my support  (of the Tobacco Products Directive), acting on my own and in defiance of UK parliament, was decisive in forming a qualified majority

Quite how one woman – sticking two fingers up to the UK democratic process – was able to waltz into a room and declare she was negotiating on behalf of the United Kingdom – when, in fact she clearly had no authority to do so whatsoever –  will be beyond most people’s comprehension.

That her role was then “decisive” in “forming a qualified majority” at the meeting will shock and infuriate in equal measure.

In her letter Soubry goes on to explain what she thought was likely to happen had the UK abstained at the meeting.

“The Committee asked me what I thought was likely to happen to the Directive (had UK not offered support).

Whilst this would not have immediately killed of the Directive, which I believe will bring important public health benefits to the UK, it would almost certainly have represented a serious set-back. It would have re-opened the debate across all aspects of the Directive…

It would also have made it very unlikely that the revised Directive would have been adopted by Council and the European Parliament within the terms of the current European Parliament and the European Commission.”

That’s it. If Soubry had abstained (surely the correct thing to do when the proposed European legislation in question is still under scrutiny by the UK parliament?), the Directive would have continued but at a slower pace. Given the complexities involved; and indeed the far reaching unintended consequences of  the proposals, a bit more time thinking and discussing before acting is almost certainly what’s needed.

It’s hard to know if Soubry was set up/hoodwinked/sweet-talked into taking the action she did  (junior ministers come and go but bureaucrats, it seems, go on forever) or if her own obsession with plain packaging/incompetence was the cause.

What ever the reason, the fact that her role at the Council meeting of European Ministers was “decisive” in determining the outcome of that meeting is a very serious turn of events.   And whilst it is important to understand how and why we arrived at this sad and sorry place (if we are to avoid such catastrophic errors in the future) the real question is what will the UK coalition government, the European Commission and indeed MEPs themselves do to put all of this right?

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Nick Clegg should say No Thank EU

By Angela Harbutt
August 1st, 2013 at 11:52 am | 19 Comments | Posted in EU, EU Politics, European Politics, Liberal Democrats

A couple of days ago I re-read the “Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Europe”. On the summary page it says

“Liberal Democrats don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. This is because Liberal Democrats believe that individual people, families and their communities know best about the things that affect them, so decision should be taken by them, not by distant politicians and bureaucrats in Westminster or Brussels.

That is why we insist that Europe does not act when national, regional or local action is more effective.”

I assume that is still the party position (given that the web site is still live).

I am sure that most Liberal Democrats agree that on matters of public health this is especially true.  Decision-making should wherever possible, be taken at national, regional or local level, not left to the whims of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

I am also sure that the party will agree that if the UK parliament has been deliberately denied the opportunity to scrutinise any European legislation, (having refused to provide a waiver on scrutiny), then that legislation should not be allowed to proceed until such times as it has.

All that being the case I will be asking Nick, as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to take action on a rather scandalous state of affairs.

Back in June, Conservative MP and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, Anna Soubry was summoned, very hastily, to attend a General Council meeting in Luxembourg on 21st June. The purpose of the meeting was to agree, with other health ministers from around Europe, the “general approach” to be taken on the revised Tobacco Products Directive.

Soubry requested waivers from the scrutiny committees in both Houses. The Lords agreed but the Commons European soubry picScrutiny Committee said no on the grounds that there was insufficient time (less than two weeks) to examine the very many (and complex) issues involved. Soubry decided to over-ride the House of Commons scrutiny committee, and played a full and “crucial” role in the discussions on Europe-wide regulation at the June 21st meeting.

The Directive is now due to be voted on by MEPs in the first week of September. This vote too has been hastily forced up the agenda (scheduled for October, it has now been moved to early September).

Voters in Britain will rightly wonder what is going on. Why is Brussels in such a hurry to get this legislation rushed through? Why has UK parliament been denied the right to examine the proposed EU laws? Why are most of the public wholly unaware of the proposals and therefore prevented from expressing their views on the matter? Why indeed is Europe forcing through laws banning swathes of products that no UK government has sought fit to do?

No wonder Euro-scepticism is on the rise. No wonder at least half of the adult population believe that the UK would be better off outside of the EU if this is how legislation is introduced.

The scrutiny committee has already summoned Soubry to explain herself (and a very sad and sorry affair it was too). The chair (Bill Cash MP) has stated :

“We consider that insufficient information was made available to the committee to enable it to scrutinise the Commission’s proposals”

“Negotiations on the draft Directive appear to have proceeded at unwarranted haste given its far-reaching implications”

“The draft Directive remains under scrutiny”

That begs the question how on earth can MEPs vote on the Directive proposals in early September when the Directive is still under scrutiny in the UK Parliament?

I will be asking Nick to take action. This is a cast-iron chance to make the words in the manifesto count; make it clear that EU laws that by-pass proper scrutiny in Westminster will not be tolerated.

I will be asking Nick to:

  1. 1. Work with others (including Lib Dem MEPs) to ensure that the EU delay any vote on this Directive (which has been rushed through faster than a high-speed train) until such times as Westminster has been given sufficient time to examine the proposals contained in the Directive. There is no good reason to force this through in September when, for want of a few weeks or so, the ministers can re-convene and discuss this proposal with the benefit of more time, consideration and proper parliamentary scrutiny. Then, and only then should MEPs be given the opportunity to vote on the proposals.
  2. 2. Ensure that decision-making on UK public health remains with elected politicians here in the UK, not Brussels bureaucrats.

Earlier this week the smokers’ group Forest launched a new campaign No Thank EU seeking to give the British people a voice on this piece of desperately hurried and deeply flawed EU legislation.road-sign-logo6

But it should not be left to Forest to bang on doors demanding  that the EU be made to pause whilst elected politicians here in the UK (and elsewhere I have no doubt) are actually given sufficient time to review carefully what is proposed.  Nor should it be Forest’s job to fight to ensure that decision-making on matters of UK public health remains in the UK.

This is an ideal opportunity for Nick in particular, and the party more generally, to demonstrate to voters that being Pro-European does not mean remaining silent when Brussels gets it wrong. To show that liberals are willing and able to stand up to Europe when UK parliamentary processes are circumvented or when the Commission moves beyond its remit.

I understand that smoking is a controversial topic and that some Liberal Democrats believe that any measures that may reduce smoking rates should be embraced. But this view is deeply flawed if they are willing to allow proper process to be casually caste aside in the process. Those who are passionate about the need for yet more smoking legislation and support the EU measures proposed should lobby for their inclusion in the Liberal Democrat manifesto – not hide behind Brussels bureaucrats. That is how democracy works, surely?

I have listed the key EU proposals below. I know that Lib Dem MEPs are already deeply concerned about the proposals on e-cigarettes contained in this Directive and have spoken out about it publicly on several occasions. But speaking out about some aspects of the Directive, or seeking amendments come the September vote, doesn’t go far enough.

It’s like agreeing to play a game of football knowing that the hosts of the game have changed all the rules and given themselves a 3 goal advantage. To play the game legitimises the new rules. That won’t help the 1.3 million+ vapers or 10 million+ smokers and it will outrage many ordinary voters who will wonder what on earth the EU will be allowed to railroad through next.

This is bad legislation, rushed through to avoid proper scrutiny. I am asking Liberal Democrats individually and collectively, and the leader specifically, to make a stand.

Signing the petition would be helpful so please do go ahead and sign. But I am also asking the party to show that when necessary it is willing to stand up to the EU, and to coalition ministers who have chosen to play fast and loose with parliamentary process.

What the EU proposes and Westminster hasn’t been allowed to examine:

As well as forcing all e-cigarettes to become classified as medicinal products Europe-wide, the EU Tobacco Products Directive proposes:

  • A  ban on menthol and ‘slim’ cigarettes throughout Europe.
  • Larger health warnings on packs and pouches covering  75 per cent of the front and back.
  • Standardisation of cigarette pack size and shape
  • A ban on packs of ten cigarettes
  • A ban on all smaller pouches of roll your own tobacco

For more information on these proposals, visit “What’s at Stake” on the campaign website.

For additional reading on the Tobacco Products Directive see this article “A dog’s breakfast” by Clive Bates (former director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Angela Harbutt is Campaigns Manager for No Thank EU (www.NoThankEU.com), launched on July 29.

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Giving the EU the red card

By Angela Harbutt
June 2nd, 2013 at 10:00 am | 2 Comments | Posted in EU, Europe

The EU seems to be a  topic of some interest here at the moment (see “Liberalising the European Union” from Barry Stocker and “EU- It really is getting sillier by the day” by Editor). Here is one more little item that may be of interest.

On Friday, Foreign Secretary William Hague was over in Germany calling for a “red card” scheme so individual nations can block laws unwanted and unnecessary EU legislation. This is, in effect, an extension of the current “yellow card” system under which parliaments in member states can force the European Commission to reconsider a law. The red card would go further by blocking legislation altogether, though, as with the current system, the proposal would need a minimum number of national parliaments to agree to have effect.

Mr Hague said it was time “to make the EU more democratically responsive” and that:

“We should explore whether the yellow card provision could be strengthened or extended to give our parliaments the right to ask the commission to start again where legislation is too intrusive, and fails the proportionality test” (read the full speech here)

Hague, it seems, is confident of securing backing for his proposals from other northern European countries, including Germany. And it looks like this proposal is set to attract cross-party support in the UK. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander is reported to have said that the Labour party would also push for a mechanism ensuring national parliaments have a bigger say in EU laws. One assumes that the Lib Dems will likewise get behind such a policy – (I believe I heard Chris Davies MEP indicating his support for the red card system on the radio yesterday, but please correct me if I am wrong).

All in all this looks like a highly practical suggestion that seeks to call a halt to the regulatory bloat coming from unelected Brussels bureaucrats. As Hague says (and I agree), the EU is not “democratically sustainable” without a “decentralisation” of powers. The challenge is to see this policy implemented as soon as possible.

That in itself, of course, in not enough. The UK action (or, more accurately, lack of action) on the olive oil jug ban was lamentable and if we are to see true reform of the EU it will require the member states to ACT when presented with unnecessary legislation, not just stand by and watch.

 

 

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