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Sarah's bulletin: 30 October 2009

October 30, 2009 5:00 PM

The Lisbon treaty and 'President Blair'

The 27 member states have regrettably agreed an opt-out from the charter of fundamental rights for the Czech republic to enable Lisbon treaty ratification to proceed. Like the similar UK opt-out, it is based on a fundamental misconception. The Charter applies to EU institutions and only to national governments when they implement EU law, so domestic matters outside EU competence such as property rights of expelled Sudeten Germans are not covered. The charter of fundamental rights should be, well, fundamental.

The Blair non-campaign for his non-candidacy for the not-yet-post of president of the European Council has taken a turn for the worse. Negotiations for these kinds of top positions in EU institutions - whether they be chairmanships of European Parliament committees, or even top positions in the Commission - are always governed by a consensus-style 'grand balance' between the different political factions and member states. This grand balance formula would dictate that the centre-right EPP, the biggest group in the European Parliament and the member states, would have the top job - European Council president - and the second-biggest group would take the second job, EU foreign affairs minister. If Blair were to be appointed as president, this balance would be upset, hence why people from Merkel and Sarkozy and even Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialists in the EP, have begun to seriously object to the idea. The word on the street in Brussels is that all will be revealed when the Swedish presidency hosts an extraordinary summit of the European Council in mid-November.

In any case, I do not believe that Tony Blair was ever a suitable candidate for the post of European president. He carries too much negative 'baggage', not least his track record of contempt for domestic and international law such as collusion with rendition and torture and the illegal invasion of Iraq. This makes him wholly unsuitable for a job in the EU which depends above all on respect for the rule of law.

David Miliband's claim that a European president needs to be able to 'stop the traffic' around the world was plain silly, and the role of European Council president does not need the dubious glamour that Blair would bring. I agree with Nick Clegg who said: "This job is about giving the EU strength that is the sum of its parts, and it is not importing Hollywood stardust in the hope that a political globetrotting superstar will transform the fortunes of the EU." I think that former Irish president Mary Robinson, a person of stature and good judgment and a staunch human rights defender, would be an excellent choice. She would both embody and promote the real values of the European Union.

Visit to Washington

This week I spent a busy but effective few days in Washington with the European Parliament delegation to the United States of which I am (newly) the vice chair. The timing was because there was a meeting taking place of the 'Transatlantic Economic Council' (TEC) consisting of 5 EU Commissioners and their US administration counterparts and also an EU-US summit of the top brass next week.

The TEC is in its 3rd year and its remit is to give a big top-level push to the effort to reduce and where possible remove regulatory and other barriers to trade and investment. MEPs' optimistic aim is to see a free trade area by 2015. One area where this is an immediate concern is financial services (re) regulation where it makes no sense to adopt divergent laws which either make transatlantic business more difficult or open up loopholes. Our aim was to win recognition for MEPs in this transatlantic relationship and impressing the parliament's policy priorities on a key set of decision-makers. We met not only with the TEC but also with officials in the State Department and key Congressmen and -women (Jerrod Nadler, Shelley Berkley, Bill Delanhunt) and also Senator Jeanne Shaheen, chairman of the senate subcommittee on Europe.

There were also important developments taking place in the field of justice & home affairs, and I spent some of my time on the programme of colleagues from the Parliament's 'LIBE' committee. We participated in a ceremony at the Swedish (presidency) embassy for the signing of the US-EU agreements on extradition and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, which have been in gestation since 2003! An important caveat is that the US has to commit not to execute any European convicted after extradition, although MEPs have never been happy that this is only a federal pledge because, the US government says, it cannot bind the individual states. This is the kind of agreement that the EP will have to consent to in future under the Lisbon treaty, instead of being marginalised. When we discussed this recently, I took the opportunity to repeat our LibDem opposition to the extradition of my constituent Gary MacKinnon.

The EU takes action on UK privacy failures

We learnt yesterday that the Commission has decided to take infringement action against the UK for its failure to implement an EU law concerning online privacy which could result in a judgment in the European Court of Justice and a fine. This arises out of privacy invasions such as the 'Phorm' ads which result from spying on your internet use, for which the Commission found there is no redress. While welcome as it means that users here can expect better protection, it is deplorable that yet again our own government has totally failed to deliver data protection or security. You can read my press release here.

The European Commission will in fact publish in the New Year a review of online privacy rules with the aim of increasing data protection for internet activities such as social networking, online banking and webmail. It will also look at e-commerce issues that have arisen from businesses such as Amazon and e-Bay. The proposals will also look at safeguarding confidentiality in the realms of healthcare and finance. The Commission will look at introducing a mandatory notification to users of personal data breaches. A review of the data protection directive is also scheduled for 2010, so we have an important year ahead for privacy enhancement.

East London gets £100m EU grant for green energy projects

We London environmentalists had good reason to celebrate this week. Some of the most deprived areas of East London will be getting £100m of EU money to fund sustainable energy projects in the area. The money is expected to generate 1000 much-needed extra jobs!

The grant will go towards local energy efficiency programmes, increased recycling, and waste-to-energy facilities. In particular, the investment will help fund the flagship Thames Gateway Heat Network - a community-scale project that will capture heat generated at Barking power station to heat water that will then be supplied - through a new hot water transmission system - to local homes, businesses, schools and hospitals. The London Development Agency estimates that this will save almost 100,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.

This just goes to show you how some of the most deprived parts of the country can really benefit from EU action. As I said in my press release, Mayor Boris Johnson often foams at the mouth when Europe is mentioned. But even he has been forced to admit how pleased he is at this 'imaginative EU funding programme'. It shows that Brussels is London's friend, not our foe.

Sakharov Prize

The European Parliament has decided to award the 2009 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought to the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and other Russian freedom of speech activists. Memorial has long fought to promote civil liberties, democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the former Soviet Union and in particular has monitored and published the truth about victims of political repression in these countries, such as Chechnya. The murdered Anna Politkovskaya was one of those distinguished journalists and campaigners who worked with Memorial. As she tragically found, this can be a dangerous business in today's Russia, and their activists have experienced a fair amount of harassment and intimidation from the Kremlin, so all the more reason to give them our support.

Enabling the EU to tackle crime and individuals to defend themselves

The creation of the single market needs to be accompanied by cooperation in tackling organised crime since free trade is excellent for legitimate businesses but also benefits trade in drugs, humans and counterfeit goods. See for example a recent article for EU Observer (Leigh Phillips, ''Organised crime in EU thriving on liberalisation", 23 October). This is why the Liberal Democrats support more police and judicial cooperation such as the European Arrest Warrant, whereas the Tories, with their blinded "island mentality", would let criminal networks continue unfettered.

But defence rights must also be boosted in parallel. EU justice ministers agreed their position last week on the measure giving the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, for which I am rapporteur in the European Parliament. I am disgusted that my constituent Andrew Symeou only heard after a month that his bid for bail had been refused by Greek judges, and then it was only in Greek, so this is the type of situation we need to address. The plan is that anyone accused or suspected of committing a crime anywhere in the EU will have the right to free interpretation of proceedings and translation of essential procedural documents. Read a Euractiv article about the issue here.

London Liberal Democrat conference 14 November

Just thought I should remind you again that the London region Lib Dem conference - where I will be speaking - is taking place on 14 November at City University in my home borough of Islington. It will start at 9.30am and will end at 5.30pm. London MPs and Council leaders will also be present, and there will be lots of training on campaigning and diversity.

Please register early by emailing Flick Rea at londonlibdems@cix.co.uk or phoning 020 7222 0134. If you register early you will get a discounted price of £20 waged and £10 concession or unwaged.

Best regards,

Sarah Ludford