Last week the European Parliament gathered for the first of two plenary sessions this month. It was even busier than usual with the Parliament also hosting three European Heads of State.
King Felipe of Spain was the first EU leader to address the House on Wednesday. He made a solemn speech encouraging Europe to act on the refugee crisis with 'generosity, solidarity and responsibility'. This statement was welcomed by Labour MEPs who have been amongst the strongest voices calling for more comprehensive action from member states. It was a strong message of unity and solidarity. King Felipe also reaffirmed Spain's commitment to playing a supportive role in a strong Europe.
Hot on his heels was a historic joint address by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. The last time the French and German leaders stood together in the Strasbourg chamber was in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War. Twenty-six years on, both of the current leaders emphasised the need for unity and strength within Europe, using the development of the Franco-German relationship as an example for what can be achieved when Europe works together. Jointly they addressed current issues such as the migration crisis, the Volkswagen scandal and the Greek Debt crisis, both calling for a cohesive European response to these issues.
The President of the Parliament, Martin Schulz, has currently extended several invitations to European leaders to increase dialogue between the Parliament and member states. David Cameron is one of these leaders and Labour MEPs urge him to accept the invitation and organise a date given the coming referendum on EU membership.
To add to Wednesday's jam-packed agenda, it was also the World Day for Decent Work. Continuing our campaign to end zero hours contracts and other types of precarious employment, Labour MEPs used the occasion to highlight the risks they pose to millions of hard-working people across Europe. It's high time that the European Commission and EU leaders seriously addressed this issue and gave families the economic and financial security that they need and deserve. We will continue to press this issue until action is taken.
With the Volkswagen scandal still ongoing, MEPs has the chance to give their views. My Labour colleagues and I warned the Commission against any attempts to water down EU emissions rules in light of the recent revelations. To reinforce our point, we also joined our colleagues in the Socialists and Democrats Group in voting for limits on harmful emissions from medium combustion plants. These are not currently regulated despite the toxic emissions they emit being linked to several different types of serious illnesses. They cause nearly 700,000 deaths in the EU every year; 50,000 in the UK. These figures tie into the growing concerns of consumers following the VW scandal. There is a second vote later this month which will set overall limits on Member States' emissions and I urge my colleagues across the European Parliament to act on this. The UK's Tory government must also take substantive action. Their priority should be to protect consumers rather than undermining efforts to improve regulations.
At a debate on the progress of the EU's response to the refugee crisis, Labour MEPs again emphasised the need for long-term solutions, including education for children and support of NGOs in the region, and a renewed focus on improving the situation of refugee camps in Turkey and other neighbouring countries. With winter approaching we need to be prepared for a more refugees to arrive in large numbers. The European Commission and Council can and must keep member states fully informed of the implementation of 'hotspots' in Italy and Greece which will then enable the relocation mechanism.
I was given a chance to vote on the Commission's Capital Markets Union (CMU) plan, which aims to create more opportunities for investors, consumers and financing to the real economy. The aim is to reduce dependency on bank financing to strengthen the financial system and deepen financial integration and increase competition. Whilst Labour MEPs welcome the CMU package, we want to ensure that it aids start-ups and crowd-funding initiatives. We also want to include serious moves towards transparency, harmonisation, and standardisation, and to ensure risks are minimised and rightly allocated.
Labour MEPs also voted in favour of a report that proposes to make electronic payments more secure and which will give consumers more rights. This aim is to improve protection against fraud and possible abuse for consumers and give them greater rights for refunds on debit card transactions. This is a great step forward and has great potential to increase competition. The hope is that it will drive down costs and make electronic payments safer than ever.
Our delicious traditional food like Arbroath Smokies and Cornish pasties have special geographical protections which mean that only authentic original products from those regions can trade on their respected reputations. Labour MEPs voted in favour of extending these protections to non-agricultural products such as materials and designs. Customers have great respect for brands such as 'Harris tweed' and Scottish tartan. Labour MEPs believe that giving equal protection to these brands will boost the local economies and increase local jobs by preventing countries on the other side of the world from trading on these products' good names at a lower price.
There were several important urgency resolutions on human rights this plenary session. MEPs specifically wanted to draw attention to ongoing human rights violations in the Central African Republic, Thailand, Nigeria and the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. You can find a link to The Parliament magazine's article on the barbaric and shocking sentence the Saudi Arabian authorities have handed to al-Nimr, including my comments here. Saudi Arabia's damning record on human rights, particularly the death penalty, right to a fair trial and women's rights, is there for everyone to see. If it wishes to become a welcome and productive member of the global human rights community, it must end these medieval and inhumane practices.
My labour colleagues and I pressed for the urgency debate and resolution on Thailand to focus on the case of researcher and activist Andy Hall. Andy is currently facing four separate charges for highlighting the abuse migrant workers in Thailand despite a similar case against him already having been thrown out by a Judge. He is being harassed following interviews he conducted with workers in production factories owned by Natural Fruit. His research revealed testimony of clear labour violations, and we urge the Thai authorities to protect human rights defenders in their country and not to turn a blind eye to the illegal way in which companies such as Natural Fruit are treating their workforce. Andy's trial must be held in accordance with international human rights conventions and we will continue to work with European colleagues and the TUC to ensure that Andy is cleared of the charges against him. He faces several years in prison and millions of pounds in fines.