7 June 2007 Edition
This news feature is funded by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)
Victory for public transport at heart of EU
BY STEVE McGIFFEN
On 10 May the European Parliament and Council of Transport Ministers finally agreed that local and regional public transport can, in principle, remain in the hands of public authorities.
It is seven years ago since the two bodies received a proposal from the European Commission, which would have resulted in the forced privatisation of all such services. Everyone expected the proposal to be accepted on the nod, as the vast majority of Euro-MPs and almost all Ministers of Transport are wedded to neoliberal dogma.
Step forward Erik Meijer, possibly the only Euro-MP who regularly takes any public transport whatsoever (other than High Speed Trains, and airliners). Erik, from the radical left Socialist Party of the Netherlands, never flies and does not own a car. He travels from his modest home in Rotterdam to his offices in Brussels and Strasbourg by tram and train. Perhaps because his colleagues recognise that this makes him ideal for the job, he has long been co-ordinator of the work done by the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) of MEPs on the European Parliament’s Transport Committee.
When a proposal for a new measure arrives from the Commission, the Parliament appoints a single MEP to act as its “Rapporteur”. He or she is then responsible for researching the issues involved and convening meetings of representatives of all the groups to try to find positions which can win majority support.
These positions are distributed under a reasonably fair system. Big groups get most of these positions, but relatively small ones such as the 41-strong GUE-NGL receive the same proportion of ‘Reports’ as they have members. By allowing less important matters to go elsewhere, Meijer, as his group’s co-ordinator, was able to outbid other groups and win the report.
“I knew that the EU wanted to get rid of publicly owned passenger transport” Erik explains “just as they want to see the back of public ownership in postal services and energy supply. From the start I have been determined to find a way to stop these plans from being realised. But that would only be successful if we could mobilise opposition throughout Europe. This is what we managed to do, and it paid off.”
Generally, everyday public transport in towns, cities or regions is not a profitable business. So why should multinationals like the British firm Arriva, or the French Veolia/Connex/BBA want to move in on it?
The answer is that they’re after your money and mine, not in the form of honest and affordable fares, but in state subsidies. The winner of the tender would be the firm which asked for the least support from the taxpayer.
In presenting its case, the Commission did have one powerful argument. Major publicly-owned state-subsidised transport providers, such as the Parisian RER, could as things stood nevertheless compete for tenders in other parts of the world. Private corporations were complaining that this put them at a disadvantage. The French taxpayer was in effect paying for the RER to claim lower subsidies elsewhere and thus win foreign tenders.
Ironically, it was this single nugget of reasoned argument in a murky river of pro-privatisation prejudice which enabled Erik Meijer to win the day. The proposal was that all tram, bus, metro and train services in need of state subsidy would be put out to tender. Erik’s major amendment was that publicly-owned enterprises in the sector should be given a choice: either they could continue to receive state subsidies, or they could bid to run services in other parts of the EU.
Perhaps it was the sheer reasonableness of this proposed amendment, or perhaps it was the use of the buzzword ‘choice’, but from the very beginning Erik Meijer found that he could persuade MEPs from the centre-left and Green groups and even beyond that they should back him.
The Commission promised that the measure, if left intact, would mean lower fares. Meijer was told that the existing situation was in longstanding conflict with the rules laid down in the EU treaty, that the measure’s consequences had already been exhaustively studied and that the reform must be instituted as quickly as possible.
Meijer did not agree, however, and in working together with major cities, national organisations of local authorities, trade unions and consumers’ organisations and environmentalist groups he formed an entirely different picture of the situation. Meijer was able to show that where deregulation had led to an apparent reduction in costs, these had been achieved primarily by driving down wages and cutting corners on safety. Small private firms would be unable to compete in the tender process. Small-scale, localised public monopolies would be replaced by large-scale monopolies in private hands, and in a short space of time this would result in higher fares and higher subsidies for services of poorer quality. Experiments in some areas with free public transport, as well as the now popular creation of new urban tram networks, would be endangered.
In 2001 the European Parliament voted by a large majority in favour of Meijer’s amendments. Public authorities would remain free to organise their passenger transport services in a non-commercial manner, but only if the amended measure were also approved by the member states. This took until the end of 2006, but at the end of last year the bulk of Meijer’s proposals were carried by the EU Council of Transport Ministers.
Following this, however, some right-wing MEPs attempted to reverse some of Meijer’s original amendments, and he had to return to the negotiating table to try to reach an agreement.
“On the one hand I took all the reasonable proposals from the Parliament on board and tried to defend them, which won me broad support from the different political groups,” Meijer explained. “On the other I convinced the Council that they should throw out a number of amendments which would have meant more market and less freedom of choice for local and regional authorities.”
Erik Meijer is a very unusual politician. A quiet, modest man who goes about his work with little fuss, he was able to take on and beat a European Commission which cares more about the ‘right’ of multinationals to make a fast euro than it does about ordinary people’s rights to safe, efficient transport or transport workers’ rights to decent conditions.
Like a judo expert, he used his opponents’ strength to defeat them, successfully demonstrating that the market can narrow choice as well as, just perhaps, sometimes expanding it.
Twelve questions on the future of the EU Constitution
BY FRANCES WURTZ MEP
(President of GUE/NGL)
European leaders have been on their starting blocks for some months: they were only waiting for the election of a French President before launching into their sprint towards reaching a conclusion as quickly as possible on the development of the future European Treaty. Last March they decided to speed up the timetable, initially fixed to the end of 2008: doubtless they are afraid above all that a long negotiating process will allow the citizens of the different countries to grasp what’s at stake and upset the summit compromise which is taking shape. “Most importantly, don’t reopen Pandora’s box...”
The German Chancellor has been particularly active, behind the scenes, in constructing a consensus among heads of state and government. Each of them designated a representative with whom the German EU Presidency has explored the points of agreement and disagreement. Then, at the end of April, Angela Merkel sent each of her twenty-six partners a twelve-point questionnaire, the purpose of which was to test their reactions to the various possible options. All had responded by the eve of the second round of the French Presidential election, so that only the position of the Elysée’s new tenant is awaited.
Certain of these questions merit attention, including the very first: “What do you think of the proposal made by certain member states not to repeal the existing treaties, but to return to the classic method of modification of the treaties...?” This is exactly what Nicolas Sarkozy has in mind when speaking of a “mini-treaty” and which I have denounced as a “maxi-manipulation”! In effect, it would permit the reconstitution without discussion of the whole structure of the present neoliberal Europe and to limit the future consultation to a few scarcely contentious institutional reforms. And as this would therefore be only a matter of partial modifications, the “unnecessary” nature of a ratification by referendum could be justified.
Question No 3 is also worth its weight in euros: “How do you assess the proposal made by some member states to use different terminology without changing the legal substance –for example with regard to the title of the treaty...?” No more will we speak of a “constitution” but, then again, neither will we touch the golden rules of “the economy of the open market or free, undistorted competition...” Simple, isn’t it?
The fourth question puts one in mind of the 19th Century novelist Courteline’s “gun bent to fire round corners”: “What do you think of the proposal not to include in the treaty an article on the symbols of the Union?” The suppression of the reference to the European flag or the European anthem in the future treaty – now wouldn’t that be enough to have the ex-constitution – which, moreover, will no longer be called a constitution – approved? Goodness me you are difficult!
The penultimate question evokes at last the ultimate sacrifice to which “certain member states” could eventually consent: “What do you think of the proposal... to address in one way or another the social dimension of the European Union?” Naturally, without making any modification whatsoever of the neoliberal economic rules evoked “in one way or another” in each of the twelve questions preparatory to the negotiations!
On the 21 and 22 June, Angela Merkel must, on the basis of the results of these consultations, present to the European Council the key elements of the future treaty. We need to prepare for a serious counter-offensive. Before that will take place the legislative elections in France. It would be in our interests to use these to good effect.
REACH EU chemical law comes into force
Landmark new EU chemical legislation, commonly known as REACH, formally comes into force across the EU on June 1
Replacing various pieces of European legislation with a single system, REACH – Registration, Evaluation and the Authorisation of Chemicals – will be rolled out over several years.
The law is designed to make firms prove the thousands of chemicals they use in products from cars to clothes are safe.
It will, importantly, include a number of chemicals that have not undergone any safety assessment before.
Chemicals manufactured or imported into the EU in quantities of more than 1000 tonnes a year and substances of highest concern, such as carcinogenic, mutagenic and reproductive toxic substances, need to be registered within the first three years and the rest will follow.
Final agreement on the deal, reached by parliament last December, came after years of wrangling between firms keen to avoid more red tape and environmentalists seeking to cut the use of hazardous pollutants.
Brussels threatens Poland and Britain on EU
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has warned both Poland and the UK not to block attempts to agree a new treaty for the European Union.
Speaking about Poland with Financial Times Deutschland, Mr Barroso indicated it was time for Warsaw to show the same solidarity it demanded on issues to do with Russia towards solving the EU’s internal problems.
“Poland is currently experiencing the value of European solidarity. On a difficult issue for Poland, we clearly said: Poland’s problem is a problem for the whole of the European Union,” said Mr Barroso.
The commission chief tailored the same message to London. He told UK daily the Financial Times that London would harm its own interests if it prevented agreement on a new treaty, adding that the matter would come back to haunt Gordon Brown, set to be the next UK prime minister.
EU unveils plans to tackle obesity
The European commission has tabled plans to fight obesity across the EU.
EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou has unveiled on Wednesday a new voluntary strategy aimed at curbing the growing problem of obesity in the EU.
Obesity affects over half of the adult population across most EU member states, accounting for seven per cent of total healthcare costs in Europe, the white paper reads.
The strategy specifically targets children and the food industry.
Brussels estimates there are over 21 million obese children across the EU, and the number is rising by 400,000 a year.