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21 September 2006 Edition

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European Issues

Protection of services and social Europe is not guaranteed


Despite a number of hard-fought improvements, I continue to reject the European Union's Directive on Services in the Internal Market in its present form. Protection for the quality of service provision and of the vestiges of social Europe that still remain to us is far from being guaranteed by the existing text. The intention of ex-Commissioner Frits Bolkestein's directive is the creation of a veritable services jungle. And the strongest beasts in this jungle will be neither consumers nor workers. Moreover, the few positive features that might be found in the revised text will be useless without a huge increase in monitoring and enforcement. The likelihood of this is slight.

Not a single EU member state has done anything during the last nine years to put compliance with the directive on workers posted abroad to the test. This directive was, in contrast with the Services Directive, aimed at combating the exploitation of illegally-employed foreign workers and to put an end to the associated downward spiral in wages. It states that workers from abroad must be employed under the same conditions as their indigenous colleagues. However, the directive is frequently poorly-enforced. Even when abuses are discovered, inspection services are powerless to act as the subcontractors responsible have already flown the coop.

With the services directive matters are much worse. This measure is scarcely designed to encourage 'fair competition' between labour forces, let alone to prevent exploitation. Its main aim is to make services cheaper by provoking competition on the level of labour costs and working conditions.

Moreover, the compromises arrived at in the final round of negotiations in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament - such as the exclusion of healthcare and the primacy of national labour laws - were the result of unrelenting pressure from trade unionists and others in a struggle which my own party, the SP, as well as left parties in other member states, actively supported. For the protection of workers, Dutch trade unions and the Dutch Labour Party, in common with centre-left parties and trade union leaders elsewhere, have gained absolutely nothing through their compromises. What they claim to have gained is, in theory, already available in a directive on workers posted abroad, which has proved a complete failure.

o Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, which participates in the United Left Group (GUE/NGL). This article is translated and adapted from one which appeared in the Dutch daily newspaper Financieele Dagblad.

One million EU citizens call for Strasbourg to be ditched

More than one million EU citizens have called for the EU Parliament to abandon its second home in Strasbourg, while the European Commission has distanced itself from EU communication commissioner Margot Wallstrom's comments on Strasbourg becoming a "negative symbol of wasting money".

The online petition - - reached the one million mark on Monday, 18 September after a group of MEPs, led by Swedish liberal Cecilia Malmstrom, launched the website in May this year.

"If the EU is going to be able to deliver results, make decisions and maintain the confidence of the hundreds of millions it represents, it must adopt and get rid of the greatest anomalies," Malmstrom writes on her website.

"To be forced to travel to a second parliament 12 times a year for an extra cost of hundreds of millions of euros a year is not defensible," she explains, adding that the Strasbourg building is empty the remaining 307 days a year.

Meanwhile, the European Commission on Monday distanced itself from recent comments by one of its members, Swedish commissioner Margot Wallstrom.

'Brussels insanity'

"It is obvious that Wallstrom as a politician and as a person is entitled to have an opinion. This needs to be distinguished from the institutional role of the commission," spokesperson Johannes Laitenberger told journalists in Brussels.

"If there is a debate, it is an issue legally for the member states and politically, first and foremost, for the parliament itself," Laitenberger said, adding that the commission should not lecture the parliament in its ways of working.

In an interview with Brussels-based magazine E!Sharp, Margot Wallstrom was quoted as saying that "something that was once a very positive symbol of the European Union, reuniting France and Germany, has now become a negative symbol - of wasting money, bureaucracy and the insanity of the Brussels institutions.

"One has to try both to explain why it was placed there and pay respect to that, but also say that times have changed and now this is impractical and too expensive," she added.

The official seat in Strasbourg has been enshrined in the EU treaty since 1992, with any revision requiring unanimous approval of all member states, something France is unlikely to give.

One French diplomat told the EU Observer, "Everybody will take note of the one million citizens but I don't foresee any discussion on EU government level."

"There is no eagerness and enthusiasm from the people in Brussels to make this a top priority to improve the European Union," another EU diplomat said.

The source explained that France had an economic and a symbolic interest in keeping the parliament on its soil and even within the parliament there is no unanimous will to put the issue on the agenda.

Ministers fail to agree on CIA camps

EU foreign ministers have failed to agree on an official statement on secret CIA jails and instead allowed the Finnish EU presidency to read out a "press line" with hardly any status.

Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot, supported by his Belgian, Luxembourg and Spanish counterparts, had proposed a common EU declaration on alleged illegal activities by US intelligence agency the CIA at a foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on 15 September.

However, the ministers finally agreed only on a move which has the lowest diplomatic status possible at EU foreign ministers' meetings - a press line not forming part of the official conclusions and not being an official declaration.

The press line was read out after the meeting by Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja and says: "The existence of secret detention facilities where detained persons are kept in a legal vacuum is not in conformity with international humanitarian law and international criminal law."

The statement comes one week after US President George W. Bush admitted that the CIA had run covert prisons for terror suspects but did not say where.

A Finnish presidency contact said that the press line "has no official status", with one EU diplomat adding that two member states in particular - the UK and the Czech Republic - still disliked the wording.

Bot told reporters, "I had preferred to see a declaration but this was not acceptable to all 25 member states." He added however that he believed that "the message came across" in Washington that the EU "does not agree with the philosophy that the camps are still to be used in the future".

The text was distributed at the meeting by the Dutch delegation, which is under heavy pressure at home from its national parliament which is angry with Washington's behaviour. It was not put on official EU paper.

EU ministers had earlier used the technique of reverting to a "press line" in order to conceal their disagreement on the US fight against terror in March, when the then-Austrian presidency prepared a statement on the Guantanamo camp.

The Guantanamo statement was not even read out by the presidency and was solely prepared for the event that journalists would raise the issue in the press briefing after the meeting.

Persson ousted in Swedish elections

The centre-right opposition alliance headed by Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt won the general election in Sweden on Sunday, 17 September, ending 12 years of Social Democrat rule, mostly under Goran Persson.

Reinfeldt, 41, and his partners in the People's Liberal Party, the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats won the election with a small majority, on promises to cut taxes and trim back the welfare state to boost jobs.

Reinfeldt favours NATO entry - something not supported by all in his coalition - and also wants Sweden to be more involved in the EU, but has no plans to hold a referendum on the Euro currency in the next four years.

Sweden, with just over nine million people, rejected adopting the Euro in a 2003 referendum.

The Alliance for Sweden, as the new government coalition is called, is set to have 178 seats in the 349-seat parliament - a slim majority of seven.

"Make sure you party tonight; tomorrow we wake up to a new Sweden," Reinfeldt told his euphoric crowd, according to Danish daily Dagens Nyheter. The soon-to-be Prime Minister will present his new government in two weeks, on 6 October.

Persson retires

Goran Persson was until yesterday one of the longest-governing leaders among his EU peers, after ten years in the post.

After the election results became clear, he told a group of supporters that he will step down as the leader of the Swedish Social Democrats.

"We have lost the election, but we are not a defeated party. Now we are aiming for a comeback, but it is not a comeback I will lead," he said, according to Reuters.

Many Swedes believe in the principle of a tightly-woven social safety net but have got Persson fatigue and say the system conceived by the Social Democrats needs reform.

Senior officials in the Social Democrat party are aware of the importance of choosing a new leader carefully and there are many calls for a woman to take over the post.

"Since most of the Social Democrat party's electorate are women, it is only natural that it will be a female successor," said Swedish MEP Inger Segelstrom, according to newspaper Berlingske Tidende.

She said on Monday that she favours EU communication commissioner Margot Wallstrom or Wanja Lundby Wedin, leader of the biggest labour union, for the leadership post.

EU warming up to new Palestinian Government

EU foreign ministers have given "unanimous" support to Palestinian leaders' moves to form a government of national unity, with the Finnish presidency suggesting the bloc could soon resume ties with the Palestinian authorities.

Finland's foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja told journalists after the meeting last week that the latest attempts by Hamas and Fatah president Mahmoud Abbas to join forces showed "the most important glimpse of hope" in the region.

He said Abbas had assured the EU that the new coalition would respect commitments by previous Palestinian administrations and its agreements with the international community, adding that this "allows us to re-engage directly with the Palestinian administration".

"In general, we're dealing with governments. And we want a Palestinian government to deal with," noted Mr Tuomioja.

Ministers gathered in Brussels were briefed by the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana on the latest developments in the Palestinian territories, with Solana reading out two fresh statements by Mahmoud Abbas which most ministers had not seen.

"Javier Solana told us in the platform there will be recognition by the new government of the treaty signed by the Palestinian Authority in the past - it means recognition of Israel as a partner," Italian minister Massimo d'Alema was quoted as saying.

"It's a very important turning point for the situation," he added.

Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot stated, "In principle we are prepared to enter into contact with the new government," adding however that Abbas's pledges should be "realised".

The EU and US have been widely criticised for boycotting the democratically elected Hamas-led government, set up in March after the victory in January. Despite receiving a clear mandate from the Palestinian people, the EU severed its relations with the Authority, stating Hamas's failure to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace agreements.

Earlier this week, some US officials made clear that they are sticking to their position and do not yet see reasons to resume co-operation and financial aid to the Palestinian administration.

The so called "Quartet" group involved in Middle East peace negotiations - the US, UN, EU and Russia - is set to meet next week in New York for further discussions on the recent events.

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