My Column – There’s No Such Thing as Debate in the European Parliament

I feel I’m pretty well-qualified to write about so-called debates in the European Parliament. After all, I’ve spoken in more of them since being elected than any other British MEP and I’m currently 3rd out of the 750 in the Parliament. (Another UKIP stereotype goes out of the window!)

The word ‘debate’, though, is stretching the point a little bit. The whole Parliament is actually only convened for 5 days a month: 4 in Strasbourg and 1 in Brussels. Of the four Strasbourg days, the Monday doesn’t start until 5pm and the Thursday session is usually over by midday. In Brussels, we don’t start until 3pm. When you consider that we often spend 2 hours in a day voting, the Parliament is effectively only ‘sitting’ on average for less than 3 days a month.

Compare that with a real Parliament, our Parliament at Westminster which last year sat for 142 days in the year. There was an outcry: how could MPs ‘only’ turn up to Westminster for 142 days? Now, that’s not to say that members of the European Parliament don’t turn up at other times: there’s Committee work for example. But if we’re effectively allocating just 3 days a month to ‘debate’ important issues, there’s no wonder that strange things start to happen!

Last Monday in Strasbourg, they scheduled eight so-called ‘debates’. I use the term very loosely. The rapporteur (the member of the European Parliament who wrote the report) was allowed to speak for around 4 minutes to present their documents, which are often anything between 20 and 50 pages long. For five minutes, MEPs are allowed to ‘debate’ them: five MEPs are allowed to speak for 60 seconds each, before the Commission has a couple of minutes to wrap up. That’s all the ‘debate’ that’s allowed, and the reports are then scheduled, together with various amendments, for a vote on the Tuesday. On average, roughly 10 of the 750 MEPs (I’m normally one of the ten) turn up to these debates. How could anyone possibly be convinced by such a debate? How could we possibly give the reports proper scrutiny? Fortunately for me, I speed-read. I sometimes wonder whether I’m the only MEP in the chamber who’s actually read all of the reports. And yet, this is supposed to be democracy in action.

Then we have the ‘grandstanding’ debates, as I like to call them. The Commission and Council will present on a particular issue, and it’s advertised as “one round of political group speakers only”. This happens on some high-profile issues. MEPs pack the chamber, whilst each Group leader or other delegated representative gets a chance to speak for between 3 and 5 minutes. Nigel Farage does this job very well; he’s very well-suited to this arena. No-one else gets the chance to speak. It’s not in any meaningful sense a debate; it’s just a platform for 9 short speeches. David Cameron is grilled vigorously once a week at Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster; no-one faces such a grilling in Brussels or Strasbourg. But if there’s no true scrutiny, then the chamber’s output suffers. Without scrutiny or interaction, it’s not in any meaningful sense a debate.

There are oral explanations of vote. These allow MEPs to spend 60 seconds explaining why they voted a particular way. It’s all after the fact, so no-one’s mind can be changed. Once again, it isn’t debate.

Then there are the ‘vanity’ one-minute speeches. Any MEP can apply for a 60-second speech on ‘matters of political importance’. It’s 60 seconds to talk about whatever you feel like discussing, to promote a cause that you believe in. The Parliament generally takes around 60 of these each month, and they have zero actual meaning. On the other hand, they can tell a special interest group that they ‘raised the issue in Parliament’. Certainly they did raise the issue, but it’s misleading to suggest that it’s going to make the slightest bit of difference. Some of the better MEPs will use their one-minute speeches to relate to matters in their constituency, contact the press, and use them to raise public awareness of an important issue. But again, it’s not really debate in any sense of the word.

Finally, there are a few ‘debates’ which come a little closer to the meaning of the word. After the Commission, Council and other interested parties have spoken, backbench MEPs are given their chance. Timings are allocated proportionally on a group basis. Individual speakers are usually granted between 60 and 120 seconds to speak. They’re always in a rush and there’s never enough speaking time to go around, so it tends to revert back to the committees: if the EU budget is under discussion then I’m likely to get some speaking time as a member of the Budget Committee. In these kinds of debates, there’s the tiniest sliver of Parliamentary scrutiny. An MEP may hold up a blue card, indicating a desire to question a speaker. If the blue card is accepted, then they can ask a 30-second question and get a 30-second response.

The problem is, that this ‘blue card’ system is incredibly limited. It’s the unelected Commission that drafts the laws, but the rules are quite clear: ‘you can’t blue-card the Commission’. 30 seconds isn’t enough to develop a point in itself. But that’s not the worst of it. Often the blue card system itself is suspended, especially when important issues are being debated. When Commission President Juncker addressed the Parliament last Wednesday, we had a ‘debate’ on his ‘State of the Union’ speech and the current refugee crisis. Juncker’s speech was scheduled for 30 minutes; I believe it lasted 90. Then we had the ’round of political group speakers’ above, and the pro-EU groups were allowed to massively overrun their speaking time. Eventually, the ‘debate’ started. They did not allow even one question before suspending blue cards. The Parliament was running late, and debate would make it run even later. With even the tiniest amount of actual debate cancelled on such an issue, I walked out of the chamber in protest.

My North East Labour colleague (or perhaps, opponent?) Jude Kirton-Darling saw the opportunity for a quick bit of mischief making, and tweeted: “Not one UKIP MEP in chamber for debate on #refugeecrisis”. I’d left in protest at the lack of debate, then was criticised for not remaining in the sham-discussion that resulted. At the time when she tweeted, the UKIP MEPs were actually in a voting meeting – but that’s actually beside the point. The problem is, that when considering events in the chamber, my record speaks for itself.

I don’t actually write this to criticise Jude or Paul, the Labour North East MEPs. They work hard in their own way. I might disagree with them on many things, and indeed the nature of the role of a UKIP MEP is different from that of a Labour MEP. My role is to be the voice of opposition, the person who speaks out when the EU proposes something bad, to try to negate the worst excesses of the EU and to report back to my constituents on what’s going on. I’m heavily involved with putting on events like this one, bringing politics back to the people.

As it happens I did actually speak out in the chamber on the refugee crisis – but as I’ve explained above, sadly the system is designed to minimise the chance of actually persuading anyone of anything.

The whole system is designed to make MEPs feel like they’re powerful, whilst leaving us with very little power indeed. Parliamentary staff treat MEPs with cringeworthy levels of deference. Millions are wasted each year on unnecessary luxuries; I refuse to attend the daily free champagne receptions for MEPs in Brussels for example. There are echoes of medieval feudalism in the way that MEPs are treated out there; you either go into it with eyes wide open and see it for what it is (warts and all), or you end up going native – defending the indefensible to the hilt. Sadly, too many MEPs do the latter and fail to spot that the Emperor has no clothes.

How many MEPs, I wonder, have even failed to spot what is staring us in the face on a daily basis: that there is no such thing as debate in the European Parliament?

This column was originally published on my Huffington Post blog and can be viewed here.

We need investment not empty words

New unemployment figures for the North East – showing it is still the highest in the country – demonstrate the urgent need for investment in the region, said local MEP Jonathan Arnott.

“We have heard so much talk about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ but these figures graphically demonstrate that we need action now and not just empty words.

“The gap between the North East and the rest of the country has grown under both Labour and Conservatives. The North East was 0.5% above average in 2007 and today it’s 3% above average,” he said.

Data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has shown that the rate of people out of work rose to 8.5% in the period of May to July 2015, up from 8.1% in April to June of the same year. This compares with the national average of 5.5%.

“Unemployment in the North East has increased by 13,000 in the last three months and that is a great and increasing worry,” said Mr Arnott.

“It is also depressing to read that average weekly earnings of full-time workers in the region have fallen from a year ago, down from £503 to £496. People in the North East are known for their hard work and commitment and as regional MEP I want to do all I can ensure talk of the Northern economic powerhouse is backed up with real investment and action.

“It is all very well for those in government to bandy the term around as if that solves everything but we don’t want or need catch phrases – we want job creation and proper renumeration for a good day’s work,” said Mr Arnott.

Commission Question – Budget draft meeting for 2016 – Somalia

Question for written answer E-008849/2015

to the Commission

Rule 130

Jonathan Arnott (EFDD)

Subject: Budget draft meeting for 2016 – Somalia

During the budget draft meeting for 2016, the point was raised in relation to having an EU delegation in Somalia. Please provide information relating to how much money this is costing the taxpayer and for how long will this delegation be based in Somalia. Can the Commission confirm the cost and duration of the delegation?

EN

E-008849/2015

Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini

on behalf of the Commission

(16.9.2015)

The European External Action Service (EEAS) is currently working on technical and budgetary details of the establishment of the EU Delegation in Somalia, with the aim of providing the Committee on Budgets (COBU) with a detailed financial statement and to submit by autumn 2015 a building file in accordance with Art 203 of the Financial Regulation. The Federal Government of Somalia has made available a plot of land for 10 years for the EU delegation in the Mogadishu International Airport secure zone. Security situation permitting the EU delegation would be established for an indefinite duration with the aim of eventually moving into Mogadishu city.

The EEAS is making all efforts to keep costs as low as possible, while working towards the highest standards of security.  The current arrangements for EU’s presence in Somalia nevertheless do not provide political visibility proportionate to the level of its engagement in and with the country, nor the ability to deliver all the EU objectives supporting the country’s transition to a stable, plural and developing democracy.  An EU permanent presence in Mogadishu would ensure direct engagement both with Somali Federal Institutions and with the growing number of other international actors present there – the United Nations and the African Union have a long established presence; UK, China, UAE, Turkey have already established their embassies recently and the US announced re-opening an embassy earlier this year.

Commission Question – Youth unemployment in the Member States

Question for written answer E-008851/2015

to the Commission

Rule 130

Jonathan Arnott (EFDD) and Julia Reid (EFDD)

Subject: Youth unemployment in the Member States

It was mentioned in the budget draft meeting by Rapporteur Arthuis that it is crucial to tackle youth unemployment in Europe by increasing mobility and by using Erasmus as a tool to do so. What other options have the EU explored to reduce youth unemployment, in terms of apprenticeships and growth, and to keep people in their own home nations in order to contribute towards growth and not add to the problem of brain drain?

EN

E-008851/2015

Answer given by Ms Thyssen

on behalf of the Commission

(11.9.2015)

 

The Council Recommendation on establishing a Youth Guarantee1 calls on Member States to ensure that all young people under 25 receive a good-quality offer of employment, continued education, an apprenticeship or a traineeship within four months of leaving formal education or becoming unemployed2. The Commission considers that setting up Youth Guarantee schemes is a fundamental structural reform. It can make a systemic difference in improving school-to-work transitions, thus creating the right conditions for growth thanks to better functioning labour markets. Substantial EU financial support to youth employment measures is provided by the European Structural Investment Funds (ESI Funds)3, in particular the ESF and the Youth Employment Initiative. The ERDF also supports employment and long-term growth by financing productive investments to boost employment and counter brain drain (e.g. business support to safeguard jobs, investment in education and public employment infrastructure).

Regarding apprenticeships, new priorities for modernisation Vocational Education and Training (VET) were endorsed by Member States ministers in Riga on 22 June 2015. They include a focus on work-based learning with particular attention to apprenticeships. The Commission will support efforts of Member States to implement the 5 priorities. One example of such a support is the European Alliance for Apprenticeships which aims at increasing supply, quality and image of apprenticeships.  The Ministerial meeting in Riga gave a new boost to the Alliance involving 38 new pledges including from business organisations, chambers, social partners, VET providers, and 7 new countries joining.

1  http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32013H0426(01)

2  For a state of play of the Youth Guarantee per country please visit: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1161&langId=en

3  http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/funding/

Commission Question – EUCAP Nestor

Question for written answer E-008847/2015

to the Commission

Rule 130

Jonathan Arnott (EFDD)

Subject: EUCAP Nestor

Can the Commission please provide an estimate of the total cost of EUCAP Nestor in the Horn of Africa? Please provide a tabled breakdown of the annual costs and the duration of the project.

EN

E-008847/2015

Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini

on behalf of the Commission

(11.9.2015)

The European Union Mission on Regional Maritime Capacity Building in the Horn of Africa (EUCAP NESTOR) is a civilian Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission which was established by the Council Decision 2012/389/CFSP of 16 July 2012. This Decision provided for an initial duration of the mission until 15 July 2014.

On 22 July 2014 the Council adopted Decision 2014/485/CFSP amending Decision 2012/389/CFSP and extending the mandate of EUCAP NESTOR until 12 December 2016.

The budgets (or financial reference amounts) approved by the Council until now to cover the costs of EUCAP Nestor are as follows:

– EUR 22 880 000 for the period from 16 July 2012 to 15 November 2013.

– EUR 11 950 000 for the period from 16 November 2013 to 15 October 2014.

– EUR 17 900 000 for the period from 16 October 2014 to 15 October 2015.

EUCAP Nestor is responsible for the implementation of these budgets. For that purpose, the mission has signed three agreements with the Commission concerning the implementation of each financial reference amount.

The first two agreements concluded between the Commission and EUCAP Nestor for the first two financial reference amounts (covering the periods until 15 November 2013 and 15 October 2014, respectively) are being audited. Therefore the Commission cannot at this stage yet provide for a tabled breakdown of the final annual actual costs under these two budgets As regards the on-going agreement for the budget ending by 15 October 2015, it is currently being implemented by the mission and the related audit can only take place after the end of the implementation period. As a consequence thereof, at this stage no definitive figures concerning the annual actual costs incurred by the mission can be provided.

Commission Question – Somaliland police training course

Question for written answer E-008837/2015

to the Commission

Rule 130

Jonathan Arnott (EFDD)

Subject: Somaliland police training course

On 9-17 May 2015 senior police officers from Somaliland participated in a training course organized by EUCAP Nestor in collaboration with the Irish Ministry of the Interior.

What was the cost of this exercise and what mutual benefits can be identified for embarking upon such an exercise?

Can the Commission please provide details of this exercise?

EN

E-008837/2015

Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini

on behalf of the Commission

(11.9.2015)

 The training course for the Somaliland police which took place in Ireland from 9 to 17 May 2015 was organised by EUCAP Nestor in co-operation with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the “Garda Siochana” (Irish Police).

The course is part of the senior management training programme aimed at developing the knowledge and skills of the Somaliland police forces involved in the fight against maritime crime, in particular piracy, which is an essential part of EUCAP Nestor’s mandate. This exercise is also part of the wider support provided by EU Member States in the framework of European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

The training included modules on the management of rural and coastal policing, community policing and community relations, a visit and operational engagement at the Irish Police Search and Rescue (SAR) HQ, lectures on Human Rights and a visit to the “Garda Siochana’s” Firearms Training Simulator (FATS).

The course focused in particular on human rights, equality for all citizens before the law and accountability, transparency and integrity on the part of police services. The training enabled the Somaliland Police to better understand the need for coordination and cooperation in fighting maritime and organized crime and the need to strengthen legal and law enforcement frameworks.

The costs of the training were covered by the Irish Government. EUCAP Nestor contributed with the payment of police officers’ per diem (EUR 3,306).

Commission Question – EU-Zimbabwe relations

Question for written answer E-010831/2015

to the Commission

Rule 130

Jonathan Arnott (EFDD)

Subject: EU-Zimbabwe relations

Recently the EU has pledged aid to Zimbabwe to the sum of USD 270 million to support agriculture and health improvements, alongside the lifting of the sanctions and travel bans that had been imposed on many senior government officials, excepting Robert Mugabe and his wife.

In light of the calls from Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, for the ‘unconditional lifting of sanctions against our Head of State and First Lady’, are there any ongoing negotiations on the possibility of such a ban being lifted so as to allow Robert Mugabe and his wife to travel to Europe and unfreeze his assets on Europe’s mainland?

 

 

EN

E-010831/2015

Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini

on behalf of the Commission

(11.9.2015)

Responding to the Global Political Agreement and the Government of National Unity, the EU has taken steps, since 2009, towards gradually normalising relations with Zimbabwe.

On 1 November 2014, the Council decided to let the appropriate measures taken under Article 96 of the EU ACP Partnership Agreement expire, enabling the resumption of multi-year cooperation with Zimbabwe under the 11 EDF, worth € 234 million for the period up to 2020.

Restrictive measures against 84 individuals and 8 entities have been suspended but not lifted, and still apply to President Mugabe and his wife Grace, and to Zimbabwe Defence Industries. On 20 February 2015, the Council decided to roll-over the remaining restrictive measures against Zimbabwe under the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), emphasising the need for continued political reform, while it continues monitoring closely the situation of human rights.  The Council will keep these measures under constant review in view of the latest developments in Zimbabwe.

ECJ’s Working Time judgement harmful to small businesses

A new ruling from Europe could have massive implications for workers and small firms, UKIP MEP Jonathan Arnott, warned today.

The European Court of Justice has ruled that time spent travelling to and from appointments by workers with no fixed office should be classed as working time.

“This time has previously not been regarded as work and it means firms such as those employing care workers, sales reps and gas fitters could be in breach of the EU working time regulations,” said Mr Arnott, North East  Euro-MP.

“This could hit thousands of small businesses and employees who could find themselves actually below the minimum wage level depending on their hourly wage.

“The Working Time Directive is designed to protect workers from exploitation by employers and one of its aims is to ensure that no employee in the EU is obliged to work more than an average of 48 hours a week.

“The court says its judgment is about protecting the “health and safety” of workers.

What it is more likely to mean is that they exceed 48 hours hours a week and this could cause massive financial headaches for employers.

“This is more unnecessary red tape from the EU which will hamper small businesses which in reality need help not hindrance. While we remain in the EU the ECJ is the final arbiter of our laws. A vote to leave the EU will help businesses flourish and all the necessary safeguards for workers and management alike emanate from our own parliament,” he said.

Commission Question – Endangered species and Chinese medicine

Question for written answer E-007568/2015

to the Commission

Rule 130

Jonathan Arnott (EFDD)

Subject: Endangered species and Chinese medicine

Many endangered species are poached for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Does the Commission intend to raise the issue of traditional medicine and its negative impact on wildlife conservation in any dialogue with the Chinese authorities?

EN

E-007568/2015

Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini

on behalf of the Commission

(10.9.2015)

The EU and China are both part of the Convention on International Trade in Endengered Species (CITES), aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the international  trade in specimens of wild animals and plants. In the context of CITES,  a number of recommendations has been agreed,  with the goal of curbing the illegal trade in plants and animals used, inter alia, in traditional Chinese medicine, such as tigers or bears, to name two species. The EU and China are working together to further improve the effectiveness of CITES in this regard. In addition, the Commission has a specific dialogue on wildlife trade issues with  the State Forestry Administration-the body responsible for CITES in China-  which is based on a cooperation arrangement signed in 2013.

Furthermore, in 2014, the Commission has adopted a Communication on the EU approach to wildlife trafficking, and it is currently working on an EU Action Plan against wildlife trafficking,which includes measures aimed both  at tackling the problem within the EU and at enhancing  action at the global level.

The EU has raised the issue of wildlife conservation  in  its regular dialogue on environment, and  in its dialogue with China on Africa; while also making use of other diplomatic channels, like  the UN framework, in order to engage China- a key player- in the global effort to stop wildlife trafficking and increase the protection of wild species.

Commission Question – EU delegation in Tehran

Question for written answer E-008846/2015

to the Commission

Rule 130

Jonathan Arnott (EFDD)

Subject: EU delegation in Tehran

An EU delegation will be based in Tehran. What exactly are the qualifying criteria for it being there and what is the cost involved for having such a delegation based in Iran?

Can the Commission provide full details of this delegation?

EN

E-008846/2015

Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini

on behalf of the Commission

(10.9.2015)

The EU is currently exploring options for opening an EU Delegation in Tehran. The eventual decision to open a delegation, while taken by the High Representative, will need to follow the standard procedures as set out in Article 5 of Council Decision 2010/427/EU of 26 July 2010; as such it will require the approval of the Council and of the European Commission. Given the early stage of the decision-making process and the range of possible options, considerations such as exact costs, staffing and other associated issues are as yet unclear.