NEWS FROM THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, JANUARY, 2014
Arms Trade Treaty
In next month’s Plenary the Parliament will vote on consent on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), for which I have been the lead legislator (rapporteur). The Treaty has taken ten years to negotiate with strong involvement from NGOs, including Amnesty. It is the first global agreement on regulating the trade in conventional weapons. EU Member States are responsible for about 30 per cent of all arms exports (the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest arms exporter behind USA, Russia, Germany and France). The international trade in weapons is one of the least regulated sectors of international commerce. While there are complex and strict rules on all sorts of products from bananas to iPods no global rules exist for trading tanks, machine guns and conventional weapons[DJ1]. The Treaty is an opportunity to establish binding international rules on trade in conventional weapons and move closer to eradicating the illicit trade of weapons to areas where there is a possibility for genocide or abuse of human rights. The global arms trade is a €20 billion industry which often has a devastating effect on peace, security and human rights in some of the world's most vulnerable countries.
My report has strongly recommended approval of the ATT and encourages Member States to ratify it as soon as possible.
Public Procurement and Fair Trade
Public authorities purchase billions of euros worth of goods and services every year, but until now the focus has been on getting the lowest price.
In January MEPs voted for new public procurement rules to allow the criteria for awarding contracts to include sustainable growth, quality and durability, rather than the lowest cost. Compliance with environmental, social and labour obligations are also now enshrined in the principles of procurement law, meaning potential suppliers can be excluded if they fail to comply with sustainability standards or are found to be treating workers unfairly.
The new rules will apply right across Europe and because they will allow a wider range of social and environmental considerations to be taken into account, public authorities can opt for Fair Trade products. In the past, complex rules and legal challenges have hampered some public authorities from opting for a Fair Trade purchasing policy in their contracts. In the Netherlands, for example, a coffee company challenged one local authority in the courts because they had a Fair Trade tea and coffee policy. These new rules should make those challenges a thing of the past, and I look forward to seeing more Fair Trade tea and coffee on offer.
Wildlife crime is the fourth largest illegal activity in the world, after drug trafficking, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Many illegal animal products are now worth more than their weight in gold. The European Union is a significant market and a transit route for illegal trade in rhino horn, ivory, and other animals and plants threatened by extinction. This puts the EU in a privileged position to control this trade.
This month in the Strasbourg Plenary Labour MEPs voted in favour of a Resolution on wildlife crime calling for increased EU action to end the illegal trade in wildlife products both within the EU and worldwide. We have urged the Commission to raise the issue in talks with the EU’s international partners and make it a priority when shaping EU aid policy. MEPs also believe the Commission must continue to raise the issue during exchanges with key countries including China, Vietnam and Thailand, and likewise in upcoming talks with the United States and the African Union.
EU Member States must also be urged to harmonise their differing penalties for those found guilty of wildlife crime and make them commensurate with the seriousness of their crimes.
Commission plans consultation on controversial ISDS
If you can’t bear the sight of yet another European acronym then look away now. Nonetheless I have received many letters and emails following the publication last year in The Guardian of an article by George Monbiot about the dangers of the EU-US Trade agreement (officially called the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP).
The article concerned the fear that within the agreement multinational firms would be given wide-ranging powers to sue EU governments that discriminate against foreign investors. Similar trade deals elsewhere in the world have resulted in countries being sued for adopting policies in the public good such as anti-smoking measures: Australia is currently being sued by Philip Morris for introducing plain cigarette packaging. It is called the Investor-state Dispute Settlement mechanism, and commonly referred to as ISDS. ISDS is not new and already exists in UK investment agreements, but the exploitation of this tool is unacceptable and it is time we scrapped or radically reformed ISDS.
This month the European Commission announced that following unprecedented public interest in the issue it consult the public about this part of the TTIP negotiations. In March a proposed EU text will be published that will be accompanied by clear explanations for the non-expert. People across the EU will then have three months to comment.
I have expressed my concern that the inclusion of ISDS in trade agreements might make privatisations irreversible. An example would be the UK government selling off parts of the National Health Service and a future UK government finding it legally impossible to renationalise that service. The Commission explained that no other part of the negotiations is affected by this public consultation and the TTIP negotiations will continue as planned.
Betting on Hunger
‘Futures contracts’ have been used for hundreds of years to help farmers deal with uncertainty allowing a farmer to sell produce at a future date at a guaranteed price.
However these contracts can also be bought and sold by bankers and traders whose interest is less in the commodity being traded than in the opportunity to create profit, causing drastic price swings in staple foods such as wheat, maize and soy. This creates instability and pushes up global food prices, leaving millions to go hungry and has a devastating impact on poor and food-dependent countries.
In January the European Parliament and the national governments in the Council[DJ2] agreed a deal to establish an effective system of limits on the positions taken by financial players to curb speculation on staple food commodities and help decrease price volatility and inflation of staple food commodities.
The new rules are aimed at slowing down the pace of trading, increasing transparency and ensuring prices reflect current market conditions. This was achieved despite attempts by the UK government and Tory MEPs to weaken its impact and there remain concerns that there are still potential loopholes. Labour MEPs wanted to go further but plans for more extensive regulation were not supported by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
The free movement of workers is one of the fundamental freedoms granted under Community law, and includes the right to live and work in another Member State. During the EU summit of 19-20 December 2013, David Cameron called for restrictions to be imposed on EU employment market when new Member States join the EU, although the European Commission has said that it has not received any concrete proposals from him.
The unrestricted free movement of workers is a fundamental principle of the EU, established in the treaties. Any modification of the treaties will require negotiation with all member states, and ratification by all member state parliaments.
This month (January) a joint resolution was tabled by five groups of the European Parliament, (representing 85% of MEPs) calling on member states to comply with Treaty provisions on freedom of movement, a right guaranteed to all European citizens. With the approach of the European elections in May the free movement of EU citizens has become a campaign issue and the Parliament noted the high risk that this could lead to a rise in racism and xenophobia.
Contrary to ideas put forward by some populist parties, recent Commission studies have shown that mobile workers are net contributors to the economies and budgets of the host countries. Although only 2.8% of all EU citizens live in an EU country other than their own, they are nonetheless a key element in the success of the internal market and a boost to Europe's economy.
Plastic waste in the environment
The European Parliament wants to see the EU take more action on collecting, recycling and recovering plastic waste. In a resolution adopted on 14 January, MEPs called for the development of a genuine EU strategy to reduce plastic waste. We are all too aware that plastic waste is damaging the environment. An immediate aim must be compliance with the existing Waste Framework Directive with obligations that Member States regard the use of landfill only as a final resort for disposing of plastics. Presently methods vary greatly with 18 member states still far from achieving the targets.
The EU is in a good position to show leadership in the elimination of plastic to landfill, it should share best practices locally, regionally, nationally and internationally and promote sustainable initiatives. The report stressed producer responsibility – far too much of a burden for recycling is falling on local authorities. It also highlighted the need to establish a clearer EU-wide labelling system: ‘degradable’,’ biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are terms often incorrectly used; ‘biodegradable’ may only mean that plastics will biodegrade in industrial facilities at high temperatures.
The report suggested the phasing out of single-use plastic bags, bolder steps to tackle illegal exports and dumping of plastic waste and further development of the economic potential of recycling plastics. Only 25% of plastic wastes are currently recycled. It has been estimated that fully enforcing EU legislation on waste could save €72 billion a year and create over 400,000 jobs.
Tougher action on food fraud
In January a number of new measures were proposed by the European Parliament to combat food fraud. Mandatory ‘Country of Origin’ labelling would be one measure to give consumers the power to make informed choices, and force food manufacturers to get a grip on their supply chain. Labour MEPs proposed this for meat in processed foods in 2011, and had the support of the European Parliament. Unfortunately it was blocked after opposition from the food industry and the UK government. The proposals call for the adoption of a harmonised definition of fraud at European level, the establishment of an anti-food fraud network and higher penalties, especially in cases where public health has been deliberately endangered. The EP resolution also urges the Commission to consider the labelling of meat and fish indicating whether the products have been frozen, how many times they have been frozen and for how long. It also calls for better labelling of fish used as an ingredient in processed foods, in particular concerning its origin and the fishing techniques used.
In January Labour MEPs voted for greater consumer rights and empowerment in the EU's new Consumer Programme. There is generally poor knowledge and understanding of key rights by consumers and retailers alike, particularly important with so much more being purchased on-line. Taking into account the increase in social exclusion as well as the EU’s ageing population MEPs feel it is important to ensure vulnerable customers are protected and not left behind. This new programme is aimed to build on the work done over the past few years by using information and education initiatives as well as improving enforcement action when consumer rights are being compromised or denied. A funding boost will also be used to tackle differences in product safety legislation between countries and improve protection on cross-border purchases.
Pouring cold water on another ‘Euro-myth’
Certain media reports alerting the public to proposed European legislation regulating the amount of water allowed in a conventional toilet tank have been flushed away by the European Commission.
There are no plans to regulate the quantity of water used when flushing a toilet. What was proposed was a voluntary label, providing useful information to consumers wishing to purchase a more eco-efficient product that uses less water, reducing its environmental impact as well as household water bills. A study undertaken by the Commission demonstrated that the installation of water-saving toilets in domestic buildings could bring for an average household water savings of approximately 6,600 litres of water per year.