January 2011

Hungarian presidency

Hungary has just assumed the presidency of the EU. In Parliament today Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressed the European Parliament, and was met by a silent protest as MEPs covered their mouths with tape. This was in response to a new law restricting the freedom of the Hungarian press, a law that has attracted widespread criticism from journalists around the world. The law places the Hungarian media effectively under the control of the country's ruling party, and compels journalists to reveal sources if the government demands it.

This is in the context of a Europe in which state control of the press is becoming increasingly common. It is a development that worries me greatly, and one that I will campaign against at every opportunity.

A free press is not only desirable; it is an absolute prerequisite of a healthy democracy. We must defend it vigorously.


EU Enlargement

The expansion of the EU is always on the agenda, and this week in Strasbourg the accession of Serbia is being discussed. We are all delighted that Serbia has emerged as a functioning democracy after the dreadful horrors of the 1990s, following the breakup of Yugoslavia. However, there are still problems, not least with the failure of Serbia to surrender to justice a number of war criminals, and unresolved border and other issues with Kosovo.

Serbia formally applied for EU membership in December 2009, and in October 2010 the Council of Ministers officially instructed the Commission to assess Serbia's position - an act seen by many observers as effectively being a green light for accession. Serbs are now able to travel, visa-free, within the Schengen area.

It is tempting to draw parallels between Yugoslavia and the EU - artificially created states tend to have short life spans. In fact, we might look at conflicts throughout the world today, and we would note that so many of them take place in disputed border zones. Africa is a case in point, where borders drawn up summarily during the colonial era are now being contested as indigenous people struggle to assert their identities and to return to traditional homelands.

The EU is playing a dangerous game. It is a prerequisite that states seeking accession must not be a party to any unresolved border disputes. This makes absolute sense, but in the interests of expansion, the rules can be quietly overlooked. Cyprus, for example, was allowed to join despite its dispute with Turkey. Turkey itself is involved in negotiations over accession despite the fact that its troops occupy Cypriot territory.

The point I am making is that in its drive for expansion, the EU may actually be storing up problems for the future by including states with unresolved border issues.


Ignored Human Rights

We hear a lot about the EU's commitment to human rights. Sitting on the human rights committee, I am woefully aware of how little substance there actually is in all the fine words.

Every time we come to Strasbourg, on a Thursday afternoon there are votes on resolutions concerning human rights. There are never more than a handful of MEPs present at this stage - they have qualified for their allowances by voting in the morning, and for the most part they will be heading for home after enjoying a fine lunch. The overwhelming majority simply have no interest in issues such as the persecution of Christians, protection for human rights activists, of the right of defence in a criminal trial.

I will vote on these issues because they do matter very greatly, and because, quite simply, it is what I am paid to do. The taxpayer has every right to expect nothing less.


No Conservative support for the British egg producers

I recently tabled, along with my colleague Mike Nattrass, a written declaration aimed at protecting British egg producers from the threat of an influx of illegally produced eggs from the continent. The initiative also had the effect of ensuring that progress made in the area of animal welfare is not undermined.

I am pleased to report that this declaration attracted strong cross-party support, with MEPs from the Labour, Lib Dem, and Green parties signing, along with a number of UKIP MEPs. Many foreign MEPs also supported us.

Sadly, not one British Conservative signed.

The Conservative party likes to present itself as the voice of euroscepticism at home, but in Brussels and Strasbourg it becomes a different party altogether.

Restricted activities for independent MEPs

I also sit on the Parliament's Women's Rights Committee. This week the committee met in Strasbourg, in what turned into a debacle.

A report by the Slovakian MEP Anna Zaborska discussed issues relating to youth crime. We were due to vote on amendments to the report, but previous criticisms of other reports that have been passed by the committee have led to a certain amount of nervousness amongst the members and the secretariat. As a result, the vote was postponed pending more discussion between the committee members and staff.

Sadly, as an independent MEP, I am unable to take part in preliminary discussions, which take place in what are known as "coordinators meetings". This is because the political groups, like the national parties, are very protective of their own interests, and so they do their deals behind closed doors. At the meeting this week I raised objections to this, as I believe that all restricting the activities of any MEP is to restrict the rights of constituents.


More of Nikkis Strasbourg Reports