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A report-back from the european parliament by Bill Newton-Dunn

September 21, 2009 12:00 AM

A report-back from the parliament.

Two important votes are approaching

1. the General Election in Germany on 27th September

2. the referendum in Ireland on 2nd October about the Lisbon Treaty

One of our Irish Liberal MEPs emailed : "Many people have been asking me whether they can help in any way in the Irish referendum campaign, and the answer is that a national referendum is, by definition, an internal national matter, even where, as in this case, the repercussions have an effect across Europe.

That being said, Irish people resident in Belgium and indeed all over Europe have set up a "Europe for Ireland" group to promote a Yes vote to the Lisbon Treaty and which is helping in whatever way it can within the rules. Anyone interested in contributing should visit their website at: http://www.europeforireland.eu/

As they say on their website : "Whether you are Irish or not, we need YOUR help... You can send us an e-mail of support, sign up for updates, donate, join us on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Linked In , contact your family or friends in Ireland, tell us your ideas/suggestions as to what we should do."

The big event in the parliament this week in Strasbourg

was the vote to install a President of the Commission in office for the next five years.

The Commission is the EU's executive body. For the past five years its President has been Jose Manuel Barroso, a former prime minister of Portugal. In the opinion of many in the parliament, he has been "re-active" rather than forward-looking and has not given the lead that Europe needs.

The right to propose a new candidate, according to the EU treaties, lies exclusively with the 27 heads of national governments. Earlier this year they nominated Barroso for another five years but the leaders did not set out any targets for him or any programme of work, preferring him to remain their obedient servant as events unfold. Many in the parliament were deeply dissatisfied with such a conditionless proposal. So, instead of immediately confirming the national nomination, each political party put Barroso through a hearing. The Christian-Democrats supported Barroso, being one of their own. The Socialists and Greens did not want to vote until after the fate of the Lisbon treaty is known. The Conservatives, on their own, were irrelevant. So Barroso needed Liberal support. We liberals gave him two hours of live questions. During our hearing, Barroso put on a virtuoso performance, saying that in a second term a president is much stronger and he would fight for a strong united Europe like never before. We extracted a promise that there will be, for the first time, a Commissioner specifically responsible for Fundamental Rights and Civil Liberties (which of course is a priority area for liberals). He was warned that, over the five years, his leadership will be carefully monitored - with the threat that the parliament can dismiss him. Afterwards, our Latin liberal MEPs commented "He is Mediterranean too so he knows how to put on a seductive performance. But we are not taken in and remain sceptical."

The full parliament voted on Barroso's appointment on Wednesday morning. With our support he won a majority with 382 out of 736 votes.

He won because the centre-right won most MEP seats in June European elections, and because the other parties did not put up alternative candidates. A year ago we Liberals discussed putting up a candidate for President of the Commission, but concluded that we could not find a candidate who was willing to spend a year seeking votes in the 27 countries, with no expenses refunded, and no likelihood of winning. But the idea of alternative candidates will be stronger in 2014, and it is possible to foresee that the first directly-elected European President is already alive and now at school somewhere.

The influenza pandemic

The first case of H1N1 inside the parliament was confirmed on Monday. The medical centre is planning for a peak of cases in the second half of October when 20% are expected to be absent from work.

I attended a briefing by a Dutch expert. He complained that "It is the same virus everywhere, but there are 27 separate uncoordinated national plans for dealing with it." There should be a single European centre, as there is the CDC in the USA. (see http://www.cdc.gov/) but Europe's national capitals are unwilling to share their powers, as usual.

The best counter-measure, he said, is to be vaccinated. There are two to have :1. against seasonal flu, 2. against H1N1 not yet available but coming soon. The mortality rate of H1N1 is very low : the risk is not of dying but if you have to go to hospital the danger is that the hospitals may already be full. In August, the UK was sending ill patients to Sweden.

Looking further ahead, he said that nobody knows how it will develop. Spanish flu in 1918 was very mild but suddenly turned nasty in 1919 and killed forty million people, the most being in the under-fifty age group perhaps because they had not experienced a previous strain unlike their elders. The danger in 2009-2010 is that H1N1 (mild but very infectious) might meet Avian flu (with 60% mortality rate among humans who catch it but bad at transmitting itself between humans) and mutate into a vicious strain which combines high-mortality with high-infectiousness : if that happens, he said, we shall all be in very big trouble.

Forest Fires

There was emergency debate about the violent fires along the Mediterranean this summer. Points made that over 400,000 hectares of forest have disappeared in the past decade, the severity of fires has been increasing over recent years, many have been started by arsonists, and with higher temperatures expected in the future due to global warming, worse can be expected.

All the best, Bill