Over two years ago, the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee, of which I am a member, began the process of scrutinising new legislation to regulate the importation of certain minerals into the European Union.
Last month these new laws progressed to the full Parliament, and I and my Labour colleagues welcomed the vote to support mandatory rules to begin breaking the link between armed conflict and the mineral trade. This will be a great step forward in ensuring that consumers buying electronic products will not be unwittingly financing conflicts in some of the world’s poorest, most unstable countries.
It is easy to overlook the ethical issues concerning the mineral components contained in our attractive, fashionable and cleverly-marketed electronic devices. However the mining of certain minerals (including tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) has been linked with horrific human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and other conflict zones. The trade in these minerals, essential for the components of electronic goods, is often used to finance violent conflict by paying for armed groups and security forces. In some poor, but resource-rich countries, workers, hired at gunpoint suffer terrible conditions and their families are terrorised and under constant threat. These ‘conflict minerals’ are entering the supply chains of multinational companies and ending up in many of the increasingly popular products that we buy, most notably laptops and mobile phones but also jewellery, packaging, lighting and some industrial machinery.
As the world’s largest trading bloc, and home to many leading global companies trading and manufacturing natural resources, the European Union has an enormous influence on global supply chains and an opportunity to bring in strong and effective legislation to enable businesses and consumers to check whether their purchases have funded conflict and human rights abuse.
Since 2002 the United Nations has been highlighting the link between the illegal exploitation of mineral resources and conflict, most particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Apart from the United States’ ‘Dodd-Frank Act’ of 2010 (which the Trump is preparing to suspend), all other existing measures to regulate mineral importation have been implemented on a purely voluntary basis. We pushed hard for a mandatory approach and a broader coverage of the whole supply chain. The proposed regulation establishes binding obligations for importers from conflict-affected or high-risk areas to enable audits, traceability and verification of the raw products used in their production processes. The European Commission will also draw up a list of responsible smelters and refiners that supply production in the EU as well as a guide to conflict and risk areas. This shows the EU to be at the forefront of global efforts to create more transparent, responsible and sustainable business practices.
My concern now, as we see Article 50 triggered, is that these positive and hard-fought regulations will not be maintained after Brexit. Labour MEPs fought long and hard to challenge what was a voluntary system of compliance. It would be truly unforgivable if the UK abandoned these new laws and regressed to trading unethically.
Last week, the European Parliament passed a landmark piece of legislation ensuring proper and effective regulation of minerals imported into the EU.
It aims to break the real and demonstrable link between the increasing demand for these precious materials — used in a wide range of everyday electronic products — and the financing of armed conflict around the world.
In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, armed groups and corrupt regimes are profiting from the mining of minerals, destabilising already-weak states and dangerously hindering the prospects for peace and sustainable development.
After months of internal tussling between MEPs and national governments, a deal was eventually reached providing mandatory due diligence requirements for all smelters, refiners and importers of these minerals, based on OECD guidelines. The European Commission had initially proposed a voluntary scheme, but Labour MEPs and our social democrat colleagues from across Europe dug in our heels in the face of the business lobbies to ensure this more progressive conclusion.
The four main minerals concerned — tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold ore — are essential elements of many modern electrical gadgets. Thanks to this new law, British consumers will know that when they are buying their latest smart phones they are not fuelling wars abroad.
Many in the West complain about the negative consequences of globalisation, particularly on traditional manufacturing jobs. This was a crucial factor in both Brexit and Donald Trump’s success in the US presidential elections. These concerns are real and the centre-left must deal with them if we are going to lose people to the seductive siren calls of protectionism.
However, in other parts of the world, the problems caused by unregulated international capitalism are much graver, as we saw in the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. International trade has proven to be a key driver of development across the world, but if it is not properly regulated it can be exploited by unscrupulous groups and ordinary citizens will suffer.
The tough new conflict minerals regulation builds upon other EU legislation designed to protect ordinary citizens. One example is the anti-torture goods regulation, which places strict export controls on goods that could be used for torture. Another is the regulation on ‘dual-use’ goods — items that have one intended purpose but could possibly be used by nefarious regimes for military purposes, like nuclear technology.
In these areas and many more, the EU is taking a leading international role. The current UK government needs to realise that trade policy is not just about striking free trade agreements, but also promoting and enforcing responsible and fair trading practices.
My worry is that in its rush to promote Britain as a global free-trading nation these important issues will be sidelined.
The risk is made even greater by the fact that it wants, no, needs, quick trade deals in order to replace the fifty or so countries with whom we currently enjoy privileged access by virtue of our EU membership. In my experience, negotiating good and equitable agreements takes time. Furthermore, as we have seen with the conflict minerals case, trade deals must also be complemented by a strong and sustainable trade policy more generally.
My work on trade policy in the European Parliament has been just as much about creating fair global rules as it has been about bringing down barriers to trade. One has to go hand in hand with the other.
he conflict minerals regulation is a perfect example of how governments can use trade policy to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, both at home and abroad.
Liam Fox and his new Department for International Trade would do well to look at the EU’s achievements and learn from them.
The European Parliament voted today to back new laws for the mandatory regulation of minerals imported into the EU, designed to break the link between armed conflict and the mineral trade - regulations Britain must maintain after Brexit, lest it regress to unethical trading practices, Labour MEPs have warned.
Following the first negotiations between the European Parliament, the Commission and the 28 national governments represented in the Council on a draft 'conflict minerals' law, David Martin and his S&D colleagues pushed for a mandatory system but faced strong opposition from the Council, who favour a voluntary arrangement.
The European Union condemns the death penalty, and condemns torture wherever it occurs. While it continues to use all its available tools of diplomacy and cooperation assistance to eradicate torture and raises the matter consistently in political and human rights dialogues with countries outside of the EU, torture and other ill-treatment still persist in all parts of the world. We therefore must continue to look at further measures.
An EU regulation known as the ‘Anti-Torture Regulation’ has been in place for the past decade. Via EU-wide export controls, it bans EU trade in items and services that are designed for, or could be misused for, capital punishment and torture such as electric chairs, finger-cuffs or cage beds as well as certain chemicals or electric shock devices.
Last month (September) in the Parliament’s International Trade Committee, of which I am a member, we voted to strengthen these anti-torture rules and to widen the ban to include the marketing of prohibited goods in expos or via online catalogues, and also their finance, insurance and transit via the EU.
Rapidly changing circumstances in the use of products and technology means we must be able to react quickly. I therefore welcomed the proposal to introduce an ‘urgency procedure’ to rapidly update the list of banned goods or controlled items.
One key aspect of this update is also the balance between restricting the trade in goods which may be used for torture, without implementing a widespread ban on certain products, the vast majority of which may not be used for torture. We have also recognised the need to look further at prohibiting the ‘brokering’ of banned goods as well as any technical assistance for their use. We need to determine if a supplier knows or suspects the goods may be used for cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and act accordingly.
The Committee also asked the European Commission to set up a regular reporting and reviewing system, to be coordinated by an “Anti-torture Coordination Group” (one representative per EU member state), to monitor the member states’ national licensing decisions.
Labour MEPs fully support this legislation which is designed to prevent the EU being complicit in the death penalty or torture around the world. A requirement of EU membership is the abolition of the death penalty, and in addition the EU also advocates abolition throughout the world in its bilateral foreign policy relations.
The EU also works closely in other areas. Under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) the EU provides funding to civil society groups working to end torture or rehabilitate torture victims and provides support for the promotion of democracy and human rights in non-EU countries. As of today the EIDHR is funding more than 1200 projects in over 100 countries.
September’s successful vote in the Trade committee needs to be endorsed by Parliament as a whole in a plenary vote next month. Hopefully then MEPs will start talks with the Council of Ministers to agree on the final text of the law.
The big story of the week was the vote on Conflict Minerals. This proposal aims to hold companies who trade products containing Tin, Tungsten, Tantalum and gold, to account. These raw materials are heavily mined in conflict zones are workers are frequently exploited. Thanks to a massive push and excellent campaign from the Socialists and Democrats Group, the vote passed by 378-300 on an amendment for mandatory regulations for the whole supply chain of such products.
Negotiations will now begin between the European Parliament and the European Council, and Labour MEPs along our colleagues in the S&D Group will continue to push for the mandatory system as the legislation progresses. These measures have the potential to tackle human rights violations across Africa by forcing companies to prove where the parts they are handling came from.
In other news, Labour MEPs voted in favour of a resolution calling for the European Commission to present a new legislative proposal that will take greater steps to protect pregnant workers, and also provide stronger maternity and paternity rights. Labour remain at the forefront of this issue, with Conservative MEPs voted against these any development. We believe that for women to be able to play a part in the economic recovery and for all parents to have a healthy work-family balance, we must ensure that there is flexibility for those returning to the labour market.
The European Parliament voted to adopt the Anti-Money Laundering Directive. Through new registers for beneficial ownership, we will know and be able to track exactly who owns and is funding our businesses and from where. These registers will create much-needed means for transparency and will not only help us clamp down on tax crimes and evasion, but also help us combat money-laundering and terrorism funding. The UK Government has already pledged to make our registers public.
One story that everyone has been following over the past few weeks is the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. The dire situations faced by those crossing on smuggling boats that has come to light in the last few weeks has caused the European Union to reassess its migration strategy. Whilst Labour MEPs support the tripling of resources to the EU's border agency, Frontex, and increasing the operational area of Triton, we have expressed our concerns over the militarised approach to combating the smuggling boats. This strategy could pose a significant threat to the civilian migrants travelling on board. We will continue to push the Commission to maximise security for the migrants and to focus on lowering the death toll.
Thousands of constituents have been emailing Labour MEPs over the last few months to express concerns about VATMOSS - the system designed to support small businesses affected by the new EU rules on VAT for digital services, books and papers. For months now Labour MEPs have been lobbying Commissioner Ansip on this matter, urging him to redress the disparities that threaten the livelihoods of thousands whose small businesses rely on the digital market. Despite being met, once again, with vague answers, we intend to immediately write again to Mr. Ansip and continue putting pressure on the Commission to re-assess the VATMOSS mess.