15 December 2005 Edition
Blair's Budget Blues - By Eoin Ó Broin
• This news feature is funded by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)
Tony Blair hasn't had a good year. The failure of his Iraq policy, coupled with the increasing strain on the welfare state has made him look increasingly like a politician on his way out. Most informed pundits are asking not if, but when will he will gracefully retire, and leave the ubiquitous Gordon Browne to take the British Labour Party into an historic fourth term in Downing Street.
And just when things looked like they couldn't get any worse, they do.
For the past six months in addition to his already heavy load as British Prime Minister and world ambassador for George Bush, Blair has also held the important role of EU President. A position rotated every six months, the role enables the particular head of state to shape the EU's political and economic agenda for the incoming period.
When Bertie Ahern held the EU Presidency last it was his crowning moment of glory. He successfully managed to conclude the complex negotiations which led to an agreement on the proposed EU Constitution, a task that caused great difficulties for his two predecessors.
However, as timing is everything in politics, Blair's assumption of the Presidency only days after the French and Dutch said NO to the Constitution meant that his six months at the EU helm was sure to be a rough one.
As Britain was the only country who was always expected to reject the proposed Constitution, taking charge of the now damaged ratification process was to prove a headache.
However, no sooner had that particular problem receded into the background when Blair had to face up to an even bigger problem; the EU's Financial Perspectives.
The Financial Perspectives are a key element in the EU's budgetary process. Agreed every seven years it sets out the broad parameters of what the EU will receive from its member states and how it intends to spend this. Without an agreement of the Perspectives, the EU enters a kind of twilight world of financial management, with all new projects or areas of expenditure on hold, as the budget is set at the level of the previous year's expenditure.
The next set of Financial Perspectives will run from 2007 to 2013 and the EU should have agreed them earlier this year. However, as An Phoblacht goes to print EU heads of state prepare for their emergency December summit, at which they will make a final attempt to agree the Perspectives.
One of the key jobs of the member state who occupies the EU Presidency is preparing proposed Perspectives and negotiating an agreement between the 25 member states.
But Tony Blair has a problem. On the one hand, as EU President he must prepare a budget framework which has the 'European Interest' as its main focus. However, as British Prime Minister, he needs a budget which will satisfy his national interests. And at the centre of the impasse which has dogged these negotiations for the past year has been a series of demands by one member state. Yes you guessed it, Britain.
40% of the EU's annual budget goes into agricultural subsidies, known as the Common Agricultural Policy. Britain, with a very small agricultural sector, receives very little of this, and historically has received a rebate from the EU to compensate. However, the ever fiscally frugal Gordon Browne wants Britain to pay even less into the EU, at a time when in the context of EU enlargement- the EU wants Britain to pay more.
So Messrs Blair and Browne have made the EU an offer they can only refuse — either Britain pays less or the CAP is reformed. The ten new EU member states, who will gain the most from the next round of EU structural funds, have said no to the first proposal, as it will see the amount of money available to them drop by 10%. The French, Germans and Irish have said no to the second, because it will be disastrous for their Farmers.
So poor old Tony Blair has been left isolated. If he sticks to his guns, he will hold on to British public opinion but loose influence in Brussels. If he compromises he will have plenty of friends at the EU summit, but few at home, particularly among the ever Eurosceptic British tabloid press.
At a specially convened EU finance ministers meeting last week, some flexibility was evident in the position of the British negotiating team, but only after member states, new and old, called for a new set of proposals from Blair.
The crunch summit, due to start this week, will be an interesting one, both for the future of the EU and the future of Tony Blair. Watch with interest.
Basque Table for Conflict Resolution Addresses MEPs
On Thursday 30 November, eleven MEPs from different nationalities and political groups organised a public hearing in the European Parliament where the "Table for the Agreement" was invited to explain the Basic Democratic Agreement (BDA) for conflict resolution in the Basque Country.
The BDA has been signed by 53 different organisations and individuals in the Basque Country, including political parties like Batasuna, and Eusko Alkartasuna. and Trade Unions like ELA and LAB.
The BDA says that "All citizens in the whole of the Basque Country must be consulted on the future of the Basque Country through whichever procedure the parties agree".
The hearing "Towards a peace process in the Basque Country" was organised by the Greens/EFA group of the European Parliament. The event was sponsored by MEPs including Gerard Onesta (vice president of the parliament), Bernat Joan i Mari (Catalan), Alyn Smith (Scottish), Bart Staes (Belgium), Ian Hudghton (Scottish), Jill Evans (Wales) and Tatjana Zdanoka (Latvian), and the GUE/NGL members: Jonas Sjostedt (Swedish), Erik Meijer (Dutch), Helmuth Markov (German) and the Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brun.
The table for the agreement was represented in the hearing by Begoña Lasagabaster (Eusko Alkartasuna), Zigor Goieaskoetxea (Batasuna) and Itziar Fernandez (representing social organisations and trade unions). They were joined by Father Alec Reid, who has played an important role as international observer in the process of reaching the BDA.
The hearing was well attended and generated great media interest.
Father Alex Reid outlined the current situation in the Basque Country. He stated that the principles of the peace process in the Basque Country should be "dignity of the persons" and "dialogue, as the unique mechanism capable of solving the ongoing conflict in the Basque Country as in any other place. Listen to the other, even to our enemy in order to know what he wants. Dialogue always succeed because it does not ask the other to leave behind his principles".
As a conclusion of the public hearing, a friendship association was created to work in favour of the peace process in the Basque Country. The main work of this friendship association will be to lobby in the European Institutions in favour of a peace process in the Basque Country. By the end of the Public hearing 12 MEPs stated that they will join this Friendship Association, including MEPs from the Greens/EFA, GUE/NGL and the EPP.
During the hearing different MEPs took to the floor and defended the idea of creating such a group inside the EP. Mary Lou McDonald underlined that "the Irish and Basque conflict have a common point: that the status quo can not be maintained. We can not have the luxury of not making compromises. It is not our prerogative to solve conflicts, but we need to help for an inclusive dialogue process. There is no other alternative." Gerard Onesta, Vice-president of the EP, said the "European example shows that when we are not directly involved in a conflict, we can help". He also asked, "if Europe can not solve its internal conflicts, how would it do with other conflicts of the world"?
Following the public hearing, MEPs supportive of the Basque peace process will form a Friendship Association, the first meeting of which will take place next January in the European Parliament. The purpose of the group will be to examine ways in which the European Parliament can assist the resolution of the conflict in the Basque Country.
BAIRBRE de BRÚN
The December session of the European Parliament was dominated by the EU Budget which was presented to MEPs this week. Customary divisions were evident with different priorities and positions being adopted by the various groupings. The deal reached between the European Council and the Parliament's Budget Committee ensured that four-billion euro was taken off from its first reading, in return for greater flexibility in the budget's use during the year in responding to natural disasters such as earthquakes.
A commitment has been made to provide just under a half billion to the promotion of youth issues and education although budget cuts are expected in areas such as external relations and structural funds to some of the poorest areas and most marginalised sections of the European Union.
There are encouraging signs for the Peace Process and reconciliation in Ireland with the British EU Presidency recommending that the PEACE programme should receive 200 million euros in funding for the period 2007-'13. However, work still remains to be done to ensure a further round of PEACE funding is secured and it is imperative that the EU Council of Ministers ratify this proposal when they meet to finalise the Financial Perspectives later in the month. The other major contentious issue discussed in Strasbourg surrounded the long-running debate on data retention. I have made it clear on numerous occasions that we oppose moves towards EU authorities accessing the personal details by storing and accessing all telephone calls, SMS or Internet connections used during previous months. We do not believe that such access will make us any safer but will increasingly lead to further infringements of the civil liberties of citizens in the EU.
Strasbourg In Brief
• The news that a lack of Irish language translators may delay the full implementation of the language's official status as a working language of the EU, will come as a shock to Irish language activists. At a meeting in the Parliament last week it emerged that European officials were recommending a delay to the January 2007 date and said that the Irish Government was responsible for facilitating the training up of translators. It is imperative that the Government state whether or not they have legislated for the January 2007 implementation date.
• This week MEPs debated the controversial issue of the alleged use of European countries for the transport of prisoners by the CIA for illegal detention. In not directly denying the allegation, the USA has added to concerns that it is illegally using airspace and detention centres across Europe. Irish citizens have long held the view that the use of the Shannon stopover for US troops on their way to and from Iraq is a gross infringement of the principle of neutrality. Furthermore, it is unclear if Shannon is being used to transport prisoners.
• On Thursday MEPs will vote on measures to increase accessibility for people with disabilities travelling on airplanes throughout Europe. One example of the need for this was when a group of blind and partially sighted passengers were asked to leave a Ryanair flight just a few months ago.
• On Wednesday the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his capacity as President of the EU, met with Parliament President Josep Borrell and the European Group leaders to help reach agreement on the EU budget ahead of the mid-December Brussels summit. Huge cuts are expected in certain areas of the budget including structural funds.