Please help out your local foodbank this Christmas

Please help out your local foodbank this Christmas

Why are people using foodbanks?

Food bank use peaks in December. Despite Theresa May and Phillip Hammond’s pronouncement that “austerity is over” foodbank use continues to rise. To help your local foodbank this Christmas click here to check out a foodbank near you.

Figures released by the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank service, reveal an especially bleak picture. Between April and September 2018, the Trust provided 658,048 emergency food supplies and food parcels - an increase of 13% compared to same period last year.

How on earth have we got to this point? The Tories would have you believe that the reasons people head to foodbanks are ‘complex’. But I’ve got a simpler explanation:

Short answer - the Tories.

Long answer - read on.

Universal Discredit - the problems with the system

The rollout of the Universal Credit benefit system is in its final phase, and by the end of this year, Universal Credit will be fully implemented.

The idea of Universal Credit, rolling up the different benefit streams into a single payment, seems like common sense but in practice this is an inherently flawed system. The problems with Universal Credit have never been more starkly illustrated than by the recent UN report on poverty in the UK:

Delays in payment. The waiting times are excruciating, the stated wait being five weeks, but in practice, the process will take 12 weeks. A long time when you are skint.

Sanctions. That is stopping peoples’ money. One in eight sanctions are for a period over six months, and experts predict that some sanctions will soon stretch into years. Despite these measures that tip applicants into the abyss of destitution, there is no DWP assessment for the effectiveness of sanctions. They seem really about fear.

Benefit ‘advance’. Even as recently as Wednesday’s (5 December 2018) PMQs, Mrs May claimed that no claimant would have to wait for money ‘if they need it’, and 100% of claimants could get an advance. What she neglects to mention is that these advances are a loan and must be repaid out of subsequent Universal Credit payments which are later docked. This causes no end of problems for people who simply cannot afford to repay pushing some further and further into debt and arrears.

Universal discredit - the application process

Universal Credit is the first major government service that is ‘digital by default’. This means that the main interface for access to universal credit payments is via an online application portal. Trouble is, 21% of the UK population do not have the five basic digital skills and 16% of the population are not able to fill out an online application form. It’s not hard to work out that people with poor computer literacy skills are likely to be those with low incomes who need to apply for benefits. According to the DWP’s own survey from June 2018, only 54% of claimants were able to apply online without assistance.  Only one third of UC claimants could verify their identity online, which is a necessary step for the application to proceed. Of course people could go to their local libraries for help but local services like libraries have been significantly squeezed. Government funding for libraries has been cut by half under the Tories so between 2010-2016 more than 340 libraries were closed with 8,000 library jobs lost. Now local libraries simply do not have the capacity to help with applications but the applicants keep coming as they have little choice. 

What are the Government doing about this?

Seemingly nothing. A common theme in ministerial responses is absolute denial of the desperation felt by some people. The findings of the UN Report on Poverty have been completely ignored by Mrs May, who has stated she doesn’t acknowledge the findings. To her the rollout of Universal Credit has been, by and large, a success, and everything is proceeding as planned. In PMQs (5/12/2018), Mrs May refused to acknowledge the severity of the problem.

But the report is damning. One fifth of the UK’s population live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line. 1.5 million people are termed ‘destitute’, meaning that they are not able to afford even the most basic essentials.

And yet they ignore it, bar the odd staged photo of them looking idiotically happy in a foodbank with copy-pasted caption.

Brexit has made things even worse

The fall in the value of the pound since the referendum in 2016 has already increased the cost of living for people in poverty by £400 a year. The Government’s own studies have shown that if the UK goes ahead and leaves the EU the UK economy will be leading to consequences for inflation, real wages and prices. The comments by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation were stark - if the Government does not increase benefits to account for inflation after Brexit, nearly one million more people could fall into poverty.

What can I do?

South East England is the 23rd most wealthy region in the European Union. However there are still more than 100 food banks operating from nearly 250 distribution locations in the constituency.

This Christmas, take a look here to see the local foodbanks in your area. If you can afford to please talk along something. Foodbanks also take money – it helps a lot because they can fill gaps and the larger food banks have considerably buying power so you money can go further in helping people who need it.

Thanks for reading and have a good holiday.

Posted by John Howarth
Labour MPs must vote down this Tory Brexit

Labour MPs must vote down this Tory Brexit

Labour MPs at Westminster face a stark choice. The Agreement that has been struck at long last between the UK and the EU27 will come before the House of Commons in the near future and the decision that you take will affect the UK and Labour voters for many years to come.

The agreement that you will be presented with will comprehensively fail to meet the 6 tests that Labour has set out by which the Party’s view will be measured.

Some of the reporting of the deal has suggested provides access to the Customs Union. It does not. It only provides for the status quo during the ‘so called’ transition period and a temporary arrangement thereafter should the Conservative government fail in their objective to negotiate a future trading arrangement. Their objective, as Mrs May has made clear, is to take the UK out of customs union.

The proposed agreement does not at all match what was promised to the British electorate by the Brexiteers. It provides:

  • No extra money for the NHS
  • No improvements in the UK’s trade arrangements
  • No control over EU rules and no seat at the table for the UK

In addition the agreement:

  • Damages UK jobs, manufacturing and services - so the major Unions are opposed.
  • As all the studies show, will hit UK tax revenues and lead to a further pressure on public services
  • As the governments’ own studies show it will hit incomes - the least well off will come off worst
  • Fails to protect UK Citizens in the EU27 and EU Citizens in the UK

In short, the agreement is NOT what people voted for.

We were promised “the exact same benefits we enjoy as members of the EU” - this may have been a rash promise by the Brexiteers, but it was a promise nonetheless. The agreement that is on offer is massively worse - in terms of jobs, trade and individual rights than the position we currently enjoy.

The Government has sought to present this agreement as the only alternative to ‘no deal’. It is not. Not only is there is large majority in the Commons opposed to ‘no deal’ but as Mrs May made clear herself there is the option of “no Brexit”. The not exactly subtle campaign over the last couple of months has been to build support for this terrible deal to avoid the ‘no deal’ for which Parliament will not vote.

Others have suggested that Labour would be unable to re-negotiate a different deal, or that the EU27 would not allow further negotiations. Both assertions are nonsense. First of all a Labour negotiating team would not impose the ludicrous ‘red lines’ of Mrs May’s government that (as we warned) proved insurmountable barriers to the negotiations. Labour would not waste months and months failing to put forward a negotiating position. Labour would seek a customs arrangement that, while not as good as what we have, would protect many jobs longer term as well as many of our existing trade arrangements. Labour would be able to agree arrangements the provided for real continued worker protections and would take seriously the future protection of UK citizens in the EU27.

Of course Labour could negotiate a better agreement - in fact it is hard to seek how we could fail to. As for whether the EU27 would be prepared to negotiate further, it is evidently clear that they would - as they have whenever a change of government in a member state has required it or when circumstances have dictated. Of course they do not want to prolong negotiations that simply seek the same position, but when changes of Government take place in member states they are always given the opportunity to renew discussions. The past behaviour of the EU is more of a guide to what would happen should the potential for re-negotiation arise - for example in the case of the Constitutional Treaty and a number of other situations. What is clear is this Government cant get a better deal because of their self-imposed 'red lines'.

Finally, I believe it was quite right that the UK government commenced negotiations with the EU27 following the advisory referendum. It is a perfectly reasonable for the UK Parliament, which cannot be bound by its predecessors, to take a view on the outcome of those negotiations and take whatever decision it wishes in the best interests of the country - which could include returning the issue to the people. That is entirely consistent with ‘respecting the outcome’ of the 2016 vote. The assertion of the Brexiteers that to return to the public is somehow undemocratic is simply a clumsy attempt to bully, democracy necessarily involves the ability for the public to change its mind.

Posted by John Howarth
Digitising Construction Machinery

Digitising Construction Machinery

On 21 November John spoke to the European Forum for Manufacturing in a dinner debate at the European Parliament. The forum brings together policy thinkers, industry experts and legislators to explore challenges and opportunities facing the manufacturing sector. The debate, entitled "Digitising Construction Machinery - the role of research funding and regulation", took place in the context of the continued debate over the use and misuse of personal data by digital corporations, the data privacy regulation and the implementation GDPR.

This is John's policy paper, republished from the EFM event papers and website, accompanying the talk:

John HOWARTH MEP, (S&D, UK), Regional Development Committee

The E-Privacy Regulation: a potential obstacle to digital machines 

Events in recent years and months have raised concern among consumers on the security and priviacy or personal data. To those developing application that depend upon the availability of and use of mass consumer data this is a double edged dilemma. Without a data privacy framework in which consumers are confident both the quality and quantity of data available to innovators declines. Thus consumer confidence in the security and privacy of their data is paramount.

This is the context for any debate on the reasonable limits of data use. The major IT companies have long since understood that when consumers lose confidence in a service dealing with their data, they lose confidence in the service as a whole. In the past 12 months it has become a priority in this parliament. The e-Privacy Regulation, and with it the GDPR which has just entered into force, are political necessities to protect citizens and allow them to make informed decisions about the use of their data.

However, by expanding the scope of privacy legislation beyond the remit of traditional telecommunications companies, we run the risk of jeopardising innovation in sectors which require mass data, but not necessarily personal data, to produce intelligent solutions. The challenge for EU legislators is to find a balance.

e-Privacy State of Play

The Commission proposal was published in January 2017. It aimed to update the scope of existing legislation to include new forms of electronic communications, as well as streamlining legislation with the updated GDPR. New forms of electronic communications include Machine-to-Machine communications (M2M communications), becoming increasingly prevalent in the manufacturing sector through developments in AI. A manufacturer employing digital machines which communicate with each other may have to comply with the proposed regulation. 

The European Parliament position has sought to mitigate the spill-over effects of including M2M communications. Recital 12, governing M2M communications, highlights: “the transmission of machine-to-machine communications involves the conveyance of signals over a network and, hence, usually constitutes an electronic communications service.” This supports the Commission’s assertion that the proposed regulation cannot offer comprehensive data protection to users if it does not cover M2M communications at all.

However, the Parliament position goes on to clarify what constitutes an electronic communication for the purposes of the regulation, stating: “... it should not however apply to machine-to-machine communications that have no impact on either privacy or the confidentiality of communications such as transmission between network elements”.

The Council is still to adopt its general approach and has discussed at length the issue of digital machines. The most recent compromise text reflects the Parliament position in reiterating that M2M communications normally constitute an electronic communication. It remains to be seen whether the Council will also advocate an exemption for those M2M communications which do not process data which has an impact on user privacy.

The use of digital machines in manufacturing

The use of digital machines and the Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the nature of production. In the future manufacturing processes could include interaction between machines and computers dealing with CAD, big data analysis, and manufacturing processes such as 3D printing and laser cutting. However, in theory such processes could undermine individual privacy, as data is passed from one machine to another during manufacturing processes.

In this context it is unavoidable that machine-to-machine communications are subject to rules regarding privacy of communications. However, a blanket requirement for user consent in ALL machine-to-machine communications would severely limit the ability of manufacturers to realise productivity gains from the use of digital machines and artificial intelligence.

The challenge for legislators

The challenge for us, as Members of the European Parliament, is to find a delicate balance between reassuring citizens of their high levels of personal privacy, whilst ensuring that communications which have no real impact on privacy are not subject to counterproductive rules and consent processes.

In this respect the work of the European Parliament would seem to heading in the right direction. It would not be correct simply to exclude M2M communications from the scope. If our personal data was unprotected as soon as it is passed from one device to another, citizens would lose confidence in privacy legislation and service providers. It is therefore in everyone’s interest that data is protected throughout all processes.

The question is rather that of scope, and what do we consider to be sensitive communications which need protecting? More work needs to be done to refine this definition, but the solution of including M2M communications, with a clear exemption for those communications which are essential to the functioning of digital machines but have little to no impact on data privacy.

Another solution explored in the Council would be to differentiate between different data processes in M2M communications, with only the transmission of data considered to be in the scope of the e-Privacy regulation.

Conclusions

The legislative process on the e-Privacy file has not yet concluded, and it is not clear at this point what will the final result look like. What is clear is that any option put forward must satisfy three conditions. The legislation must:

  • Increase consumer confidence in the privacy of data as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things become more prevalent in our daily lives
  • Anticipate technological developments and avoid unnecessary spill-over to domains with little relevance to the protection of privacy
  • Provide business with legal certainty as to which M2M communications are within the scope and therefore subject to privacy rules.

If the Council adopts an ambitious text the overall result will be an effective protection of user privacy, and need not be an obstacle to innovation and digital machines.

Posted by John Howarth
Preventing abuse in the aid sector

Preventing abuse in the aid sector

John writes:

On the 19th of November I hosted a policy roundtable in the European Parliament on safeguarding in the aid sector. I want to be very clear. Largely, organisations across the aid sector do a marvellous job. Without the people who work in these organisations, dire situations would be hopeless. Those prepared to work in chaotic environments, often moving across continents and away from their family and friends in difficult circumstances are truly remarkable people. However, in February this year, revelations about some Oxfam workers’ behaviour in Haiti hit the headlines. More allegations followed, including allegations concerning Save the Children.

Why I got involved

I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the Aid sector. Like most people, I witnessed the dripping tap of #AidToo revelations for the first time in February 2018. I was appalled by the incidents of exploitative and in some cases criminal activity by individuals in positions of trust, the apparent failings of the charitable regulator, and the willingness of the big charities and not-for-profits to apparently ignore abusive behaviour and definitely to put their corporate reputation ahead of the welfare of vulnerable individuals.  

A constituent who had been working in Oxfam’s safeguarding department subsequently approached me. She had the courage to go public with her experiences of the failures of Oxfam’s board and trustees to take incidences of sexual harassment and abuse seriously. This includes both dealing with incidences of abuse towards beneficiaries of aid and those that occurred to Oxfam employees. 

The issue was bring progressed by others in the UK in public life and the media. As an MEP covering Oxfordshire and the headquarters of Oxfam, I felt it was appropriate to take up the issue. The EU is the world’s leading donor of development assistance. Working with a colleague in the Parliament I was able to give the issue a profile in Brussels. Our objectives are to protect the position of development aid programmes and development aid budgets but also to ensure that the EU takes safeguarding seriously. I felt that I had an opportunity to help to facilitate a platform to help reformers influence the conversation around safeguarding. My colleague Marietje Schaake MEP raised the issue in the Parliament through a procedure called an ‘oral question for debate’ that I co-signed. I then organised a heading for experts and survivors of abuse that Marietje co-sponsored.

The hearing at the European Parliament

We were able to gather together some of the leaders in the safeguarding field to address an audience comprised of members and employees of the EU institutions, and members of external bodies, including NGOs. All panellists have been working on safeguarding issues, both before and after the start of the #AidToo revelations in February.

Asmita Naik started the panel, speaking about the historical context of the Oxfam scandal. She pointed out that this was not a new issue in the aid sector and referenced her report, written in conjunction with the UN back in 2002, on food as a tool of sexual exploitation in Western Africa. We were then joined by Lesley Agams, the former country director of Oxfam in Nigeria, who spoke about her personal experiences of sexual violence whilst attending an aid conference. Hannah Clare, the Global Adviser on Protection against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Norwegian Refugee Council, then discussed how best to handle safeguarding issues and reform from a practitioner’s point of view, and then Tricia Young, CEO of Terre d’Hommes, concluded with her experience working on the Bond Child Rights working group.

There was a common thread to all the panel’s contributions. It’s clear that there’s the frameworks in place for effective safeguarding practices- the issue comes in the implementation. Panellists spoke of the unequal power structures within the aid sector, with some charitable boards being dominated by an ‘old boys’ network’, and a reluctance to take complaints seriously and to deal with perpetrators of sexual violence.
The developments stemming from the recent DfID Safeguarding Conference were also critiqued and all panellists were united in their view that the structures are already in place, and what NGOs really need is a cultural shift.

The next steps

The proceedings of the hearing will be submitted to the European Commission and my colleague and co-sponsor will continue the work after my term of office as an MEP is completed. I know there are concerns in the Commission that good safeguarding practices are essential to aid programmes and are keen to listen to stakeholders based across the EU and their views on what effective safeguarding practices look like and their views on what an effective regulator should be.

If you are an interested party and would like to contribute to this dossier, please contact my office and a member of my team will be in touch.

Posted by John Howarth
An investment budget funding S&D priorities post 2020

An investment budget funding S&D priorities post 2020

On 1 January 2021, the day after the UK’s transition out of the European Union is due to end, the EU’s new 7 year budget will come into force. Known as the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF), the seven year budget effectively determines everything that the European Union does through its programmes, policies and subsidies.

One of the half-truths perpetuated by the anti-Europeans on the far right is that “the EU Budget only ever rises”. In real terms this is utter rubbish. The current MFF budget framework from 2014 to 2020 involved a real terms cut in EU funding. The EU institutions (Commission, Parliament, Council, Court etc) were all expected to make 5% reductions in their staffing levels, which they have now achieved, and remain under pressure for further real-terms reductions. Contributions from the member states represent a lower proportion of Gross National Income (GNI) than they did under previous financing regimes (about 1%, while domestic spending programmes account for at least 28% of GNI).  The current MFF was prepared in the aftermath of the 2008 crash (which, let’s not forget, kicked off in the USA’s dodgy mortgage market), the knock on crisis in the Eurozone and the pressure on public finances across Europe. Unfortunately an ‘austerity MFF’ followed.

This time round the Socialist & Democrat Group (S&D) in the Parliament has been very successful in  making the case for bringing austerity budgeting to an end and investing for the future of Europe. At the same time we have been wrestling with the budget gap left by the UK’s planned exit at the end of the current MFF. S&D was able to win a consensus for:

  • Doubling the EU’s Horizon 2020 scientific and medical research programme
  • Trebling the Erasmus+ study funding scheme
  • Doubling the Creative Europe programme
  • A major increase in priority funding for border protection and security
  • Maintaining cohesion investment in Europe’s less developed regions
  • Substantial increases for environment and conservation programmes
  • Requiring a 25% commitment from all programmes for climate change action, rising to 30%
  • A ‘just transition’ fund for moving away from fossil fuels and retraining workers in new green technologies
  • Maintaining the EU’s commitment to international development aid

These commitments are a response to the challenges posed by technology, migration, the modern skills economy. The scale of the challenge is well illustrated by the investment being made elsewhere. In China investment in scientific research in 2016 was €242 billion. In a single year. This makes the €120 billion ambition of Horizon Europe over seven years look modest indeed. Of course Horizon doesn’t represent the totality of research investment in Europe, but it is nonetheless a key programme and the primary arena for collaborative research across Europe. It represents the ambition of Europe to continue to compete on a world stage and it is a means of delivering economies of scale and developing excellence in research.

As for climate action, the urgency of addressing the focus and effectiveness of EU spending is urgent if the continent is to achieve its Paris climate commitments. Within this the establishment of a ‘just transition’ fund will be an important step to achieving a humane transition that equips working people for an alternative future rather than abandoning communities that have built their living on fossil fuel based industry.
S&D have succeeded in winning broad support from the pro-European groups in the Parliament and some beyond to an ambitious programme. Far from being extravagant, it’s the minimum investment Europe needs.

Where does the money come from?

Just as important as the spending side is how the EU gets its funding. Over the years the balance of EU funding has shifted toward funding from the member states based on their Gross National Income rather than through EU ‘own resources’ - the most obvious being customs income the significance of which has declined over time. This has created a tension between national budgets and EU ‘contributions’ that has been toxic to the cohesion of Europe. If the EU is to survive and thrive it needs to resolve this tension.
The opportunities exist to reduce the GNI-based contribution of member states by replacing them with new fair taxation of major digital, financial and trans-national corporations who currently use their cross-border operations to avoid paying their fair share. Additionally, levies on single use plastics and carbon levies can play a part. Relatively small contributions can provide both new funding for EU programmes and reduce the burden on citizens and the EU, rather than member states, is the only body with the clout to bring corporations to book.

S&D has been able to win broad support to these minimal proposals for fair taxation of corporations which in many ways is the biggest practical challenge facing European policy makers and essential to demonstrating to citizens that the political process can offer fairness and force major corporations to contribute to society. It is a strong negotiating position but it remains to be seen what approach the member states will take when their turn to approve the seven year budget comes.

Why does the matter to the UK?

Even though the UK intends to leave the EU at the end of the current MFF the decisions that are taken will matter to the UK in the future. At the very least the decisions of the big neighbour over which the UK will have little or no influence will affect us. For example the level of spending on agriculture will limit, because of fair competition rules, the amount the UK can spend on it own farming industry - at least if we want to continue to export to its largest customers. The scale of EU research programmes and the legislation around them will affect the extent to which UK institutions can engage and continue to lead world-class research. The ‘political declaration’ alongside the Withdrawal Agreement provides for participation even though we will have to pay much more than we do at present for access to the programmes, The extent to which the EU can effectively police its borders will have a knock-on effect on the UK and the overall level of the budget will matter if the UK needs to contribute in return for access to markets.

In these and many other areas and whatever the Brexiteers might say, the way the EU spends its money will continue to affect the UK for many years to come.

Posted by John Howarth
Everything you need to know about the referendum in FYR Macedonia

Everything you need to know about the referendum in FYR Macedonia

John visited the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as a member of the European Parliament-FYRM Joint Parliamentary Committee (pictured above) during the referendum campaign. Here he explains the outcome of the referendum 

Yesterday (Sunday 30 September 2018) there was a referendum in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The issue at had was whether or not the people wished the country to join NATO and the European Union and in order to do so, change the name of the country to ther Republic of Northern Macedonia.

Why a single question?

Because the issues are inherently linked. While the country is called ‘Macedonia’ neighbouring Greece would veto any progress on EU membership - so, ‘no change, no chance’ as they say.

What does it have to do with Greece?

Well, nothing really, but the fact is that there is a region of Greece called Macedonia and Greece believes that while there is a country next door with the same name it implies a territorial claim over their bit. It doesn’t really matter how ridiculous this sounds - it’s a fact. In the meantime the Greeks will stop any progress just because they can.

Why does changing the name help?

Change the name, drop the claim is the way enough Greeks see things. So Northern Macedonia is OK - like Northern Ireland. So the ‘deal’ between the two governments was that so long as Macedonia changed its name then Greece would drop its opposition to their progress into the EU.

Does that mean everybody is happy now?

Of course not, this is politics! On both sides of the border the opposition parties complained that the deal was a greate ‘betrayal’ of the ‘nation’ and seek to score points against the government by proving that they are ‘more Greek/Macedonian’ than the other lot while not proposing any solutions other than more stalemate. 

So what was the result?

94.8% Yes.

So that’s sorted then?

Er, not quite. The referendum rules say that unless there is a 50% turnout then the result has no status. The turnout was 36.9%. 

Why was the turnout so low?

First of all there aren’t as many Macedonians as the electoral role suggests - at least not actually in Macedonia. According to the register there are 1.8 million - so over 900,000 are needed for a 50% turnout. But the number actually in the country who could actually vote is much lower than that - maybe about 1.5 million, though nobody can say for sure - that means the actual turnout required to make 50% on paper is more like 60%-65%. This wouldn’t be a problem if everybody who was against the deal had actually turned out and voted ‘no’ but some opposition politicians called for a boycott and others refused to take a position - including the leader of the opposition. 

Those against the deal couldn’t win, but they could bring the turnout down thus sabotaging the referendum.

Back to square one then?

Not exactly. First of all the referendum was advisory anyway - the real decision is down to Parliament (the Sobraine). That requires a two thirds majority to change the constitution. 

Will the government go for it?

I expect so, and PM Zoran Zaev has said as much. The result was so overwhelmingly pro the deal that can argue a mandate for changing the constitution. Resolving the name dispute and moving toward EU membership is the government’s flagship policy, so they may as well get on with it.

How so?

If you assume the voters needed to get to a 50% turnout had all turned out and voted ‘no’, the ‘yes’ vote would still be over 67%, so the Government is highly likely to press ahead with the vote to change the constitution and if it doesn’t get the necessary two-thirds majority then it will probably call a general election.

And will it get the two-thirds majority?

Hard to say. The Government is made up of the Social Democrats and a number of parties representing ethnic minorities, most significantly the Albanians. They are around nine votes short of what’s needed, so some opposition MPs will need to back them. Had they achieved the 50% then enough of the opposition would have voted with the Government.

Could they be persuaded?

A hard core definitely not. There is a lot of ‘you have betrayed the blood of my Grandfather’s sisters first cousin’ stuff around. However there may be enough opposition members open to persuasion. Some say that there are a number of opposition MPs who are under investigation for corruption who could find their charges/investigations dropped.

A bit dirty then?

About as dirty as a mud wrestling in a vat of treacle.

So who are the opposition and what do they want?

VMRO-DPMNE are the main opposition party - which is a bit of a vowel-free mouthful. They want to be back in power. They are a right-wing party who came out of the independence movement when Yugoslavia disintegrated. They see themselves as the Macedonian nationalist party but some see themselves as nearer to the European Christian Democrat parties, and their allies in the EU are the European People’s Party, so they are a fairly broad church. Their leadership is trying to keep their party together and have been looking for a fence to sit on during the referendum, meanwhile a hard core allied to the former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, who is up before the beak facing a two year sentence on corruption charges, are closer to Hungary’s Viktor Orban than to Jean Claude Junker. I’m not saying they are totally corrupt but I suggest taking a look at the Presidential Palace that Gruevski built! Some say the VMRO current leader, Hristijan Mickoski, would have been happy if the 50% turnout had been reached. He said he would back ‘the will of the people’ and that would have got VMRO-DPMNE off the hook. Now he’s probably going to lean the other way but won’t offer any other solution to the problem as there doesn’t seem to be one.

Anything else we should know?

There are a few smaller ultra-right parties including one that is openly pro-Russian and anti-EU. They were pro-boycott.

What does it have to do with the Russians?

Very little, but they don’t want Macedonia in NATO and they don’t want NATO/EU influence extending further into the region. They see the Macedonians as ‘Slavs’ and themeselves as ‘Slavic’, along with the Bulgarians, the Serbs, Montenegro, etc. In the greater scheme of things, however, Macedonia doesn’t matter very much. It has about the population of Hampshire, is somewhat poor and doesn’t add much to NATO - the Russians are messing around mainly because they can. 

Where does it leave Greece?

Twiddling their thumbs really. The Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras has at least tried to settle things. Right of centre New Democracy say they will oppose any settlement as will the various far-right/openly fascist parties like Golden Dawn but they have no other answers to propose either. It is fair to say most Greeks don’t much care, but those in the north of Greece care quite a lot - so there are votes to be won. The ball is, however, firmly in the Macedonian court.

When will it end?

Who knows? If they government gets its two-thirds majority and Greece then approves the deal too, The Republic of Northern Macedonia will be invited to join NATO and accession talks with the EU will start, though it will be a long time before they come to fruition. If not then expect new elections - the government seems fairly popular right now and it might just get its supermajority. Otherwise there is no other proposition to end the impasse - as someone said to me on my last visit, “We don’t fight the old battles of World War 2 here, we’re too busy fighting World Ward 1”. 

Posted by John Howarth
Europe’s Ryder Cup – more than the sum of the parts

Europe’s Ryder Cup – more than the sum of the parts

Being an MEP does nothing for my golf game. Golf takes time and practice and I just don’t have the time for either. Neither do I have time to watch much sport on TV, but the Ryder Cup makes riveting viewing because it not golf as we know it.

Golf is the ultimate individual sport. It is also an addiction. There are few  games in which you have no interaction at all with your opponents. You can do nothing to diminish their performance. Meanwhile you play your own game - against yourself and the course but there isn’t much you can do if your opponent is playing the way Tony Finau played today.

Also, golf is one of the few games where the ball isn’t moving while you hit it - so the same ball struck in the same place with the same club with the same force will go in the same direction for the same distance. This means at a very early stage of learning golf you hit one pretty much like that Tiger bloke on the telly. It is a beautiful if short lived high - like crack cocaine (I’m told). That’s what gets you hooked on golf. 

The Ryder Cup an oddity in professional golf because this ultimate team event is composed of largely invidual actions, there is only a very small about of actual team play (the foursomes in which two players take alternate shots using the same ball - accounting for just over 28% of the points in the match) yet the team ethos is nonetheless incredibly infectious.

The Ryder Cup seems to have got bigger and better each time and some of the players seem to transcend their individual form as they thrive under the pressure of representing their team - Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter (pictured above winning his match against world number 1, Dustin Johnson) seem to turn in exceptional performances. Mind you, these are people who play week after week for a great deal of money. In the Ryder Cup they don’t get paid - so I guess it depends what kind of pressure bothers you.

Of course it wasn’t ever thus. The first Ryder Cup was held in 1927 and was between Great Britain and the United States, and expanded out to add Irish players in the 1950s. It was never much of a contest. I vaguely remember there was a close call in the late 60s but GB and Ireland couldn’t compete and there is nothing more boring than the same team always winning - especially when it’s the USA.

So in 1979, after the European Professional Golf Tour had become a serious business, the Ryder Cup was remodelled has been since contested by a team from Europe and team from the United States. Suddenly we had a proper contest, entertainment and everybody involved got to make more money through crowds, sponsorship, TV rights, the whole bit. Even the Americans seemed pleased. 

So the little nation that invented the infernal game (I’m referring to Scotland of course) found itself in a Union with some larger countries and was able to compete with the uppity colonials across the Atlantic. Nobody seriously thinks the Ryder Cup would be better if we went back to being a group of relatively small islands trying to compete against as much bigger nation. Competing under the European Flag and a Swedish, Spanish or Scottish captain is no problem because Justin Rose is no less English and winning is rather fun. 

This seems to have some relevance to where we find ourselves as a nation today, but I don’t want to overdo the metaphor. 

So congratulations to the European Team on a comprehensive 17.5-10.5 victory in which the USA failed to win any of the five sessions. A pity it had to end with Phil Michelson, probably the greatest left-hander in the history of the game, finding the water with his tee shot on 16th - but I dare say he’ll get over it when he next checks his bank account (1). 

A footnote on Golf

I started playing golf when I was working in a company where the rest of the senior management went off to the golf course on a Friday afternoon, I presumed, to talk business. I felt I was missing out and decisions were being taken without my input - so I learnt to play. I found out that they almost never talked business and just used it as an excuse to get away from work early.

I got the golf bug but hated the way golf clubs worked - they were dominated by self-interested, old, dull white guys wearing terrible trousers and tasteless shirts that should have carried at least a suspended sentence. So I avoided joining one for a long time. Luckily along came Tiger Woods, who among his many achievements changed golf clothing for the better through his Nike sponsorship deals. The difference Tiger Woods made is hard to underestimate - it’s great to see him back playing close to his best and winning again. 

I eventually found a club where women were equal to men and where young players male and female were encouraged - even if the club took it all a little too seriously. But there are still far too many golf clubs where the old rules apply. 

 

(1) Being left-handed is a big disadvantage in golf - or at least that’s what left-handers tell me - and the statistics would seem to support that view.

Posted by John Howarth
Manufacturing and EU research investment post 2020

Manufacturing and EU research investment post 2020

On 26 September 2018 John spoke at the European Forum for Manufacturing dinner debate at the European Parliament. The debate , entitled "From High-Tech R&D To Cutting Edge Infrastructures In The MFF: How Horizon Europe, CEF And Other Instruments Can Drive EU Competitiveness" (snappy, eh), coincided with the consideration of legislation for the Horizon Europe framework programme in the post 2020 seven year EU budget (MFF).

This is John's policy paper republished from the EFM event papers:

John HOWARTH MEP, (S&D, UK), Budgets Committee

The Horizon Framework Programmes and European Manufacturing Competitiveness

In the first three years of the current EU scientific research Framework Programme 8, Horizon 2020, brought together 14,768 for profit businesses, 1,494 educational institutions, 2,147 research organisations and 1,490 public sector bodies in funded collaborations.

These projects represented only 1 in 4 of the proposals assessed as high quality during the first three years of the seven year programme. By this measure funding for the EU Framework programmes, though productive of itself, has been woefully inadequate in ensuring that European research is enabled to deliver its full potential. The 2014-20 MFF set funding just under €75bn - €13bn, 15% less than the Commission had proposed.

However, the challenge is recognised to some extent. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament have highlighted research and innovation as a strategic priority for the Union. Funding for the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF - the EU’s seven year budget), from 2021 to 2027, sits around €98bn in the proposals put forward by the European Commission. This represents an increase but does not live up to the bold talk of the Commission President, Mr Junker. It represents a relatively small step forward. The MFF, however is legally speaking, a binding international agreement between the member states and, as such, is the property of the EU Council. It remains to be seen whether the Council shares the notion of priority for Framework 9 once the hard talking over numbers begins. Were the Horizon Europe budget lines to be scaled back in a similar manner, one could be looking at a pot of €83bn - hardly an increase at all and in proportionate terms, around 7.5% of total MFF commitments. Despite the rhetoric from the top of the Commission, this is hardly a decisive shift of the Union’s priorities. The European Parliament resolution of 14 March 2018 called for an FP9 Budget of at least €120bn.

These figures, however, hide the as yet imponderable effect of a British exit from the EU. The UK contribution to HorizonEurope could be anything between zero (were the UK to walk away from either the EU without a deal from FP9 because of conditions deemed unacceptable) and €15bn with participation at current success rates.

The bigger the programme, the better the news for Europe’s manufacturers. Horizon Europe addresses a series of key challenges that can produce real gains for the sector unlikely to be realised by any other means. The European Union adds value by providing:

  1. Economies of scale - the programme can address research that is otherwise too broad, too deep and too expensive for individual organisations to attempt, in doing so harnessing the capacity of a diverse group of organisations ranging from SMEs to major publicly funded centres of research excellence
  2. The means of engagement - those sceptical of the value of the EU and its programmes generally feel uncomfortable when confronting the empirical world of research and innovation but when they do engage they frequently contend that, left to its own devices, the market would fill the void and solutions would evolve without the need for the dead hand of the bureaucrat. This seems to anyone who cares to look to be wishful thinking. The role that the EU plays in making the Horizon programmes happen across national and linguistic boundaries is now simply taken for granted, but its value cannot be underestimated. The definitions and streams provided by the pillars of the Horizon programmes, through challenges and proposal calls, make projects happen. There is simply no substitute for a central organising authority

Within this context Horizon Europe seeks to address through innovation the central business challenges facing manufacturers:

  1. Delivering higher productivity - to maintain Europe’s economic position progressively raising productivity is a central challenge. A good example of Horizon’s contribution is the Satisfactory project. This partnership of ten organisations across five countries co-ordinated in Greece, seeks to create the smart factory, researching working environments, processes and decision making in the modern productive workplace. Smart sensors and data analysis, decision support systems, collaboration and information sharing, augmented reality and gamification methods are all part of the mix delivering environments in which productivity gains are realised
  2. Lowering material and component costs - improving competitiveness in manufacturing with more cost effective materials. With pilot applications in aerospace, medical technology and automotive, the Borealis project develops new means of producing more cost effective components and developing revolutionary smart manufacturing tools. 15 businesses and research organisations contributed to the project co-ordinated in Finland and Switzerland
  3. Supporting growth - innovation to improve the growth potential. For example the ReconCell consortium have developed reconfigurable robot work cells that make practical the robotisation of production for SMEs where costs were otherwise prohibitive. Nine organisations led by the Josef Stefan Institute in Slovenia collaborate in the project
  4. Creating solutions for new and growing markets - the circular economy promises new directions but requires priming through research into products and production processes. Ecosolar seeks to re-engineer the processes in the manufacture of solar panels. The project “envisions an integrated value chain to manufacture and implement solar panels in the most ecologic way, taking into account reuse of materials while manufacturing and repurposing solar panel components at end of life”. Co-ordinated by Norwegian research foundation, Sintef, the project involves eleven organisations
  5. Addressing societal challenges - environmental markets increasingly provide large scale challenges. Horizon prizes offer cash incentives for solutions to societal problems - such as automotive emissions, tactile displays and materials for clean air. Solutions proposed need to be marketable, affordable and sustainable. One of this year’s Horizon prizes seeks to promote the development of materials to improve air quality - an increasingly critical issues for major conurbations and a serious public health challenge. The winner will be announced at the end of October in Vienna at INDTECH18 - a conference on innovative industries for smart growth, promoted by the Austrian Presidency under the Horizon programme

Horizon Europe’s continuation goes beyond its direct continue to innovation. It’s aims include the promotion of excellence in science. Accordingly Horizon funds its share of fundamental science - something which must continue for the benefit of the European Research Area.

The funding of pure/fundamental science research has been called into question by both market forces and some political currents. The argument that if industry is not prepared to fund research then that research can make little or no contribution to the productive economy has always been of dubious merit. However, a time of increasing marketisation of higher education, undergraduate fees and post-graduation employability has focused university business managers on marketable courses and has led in some member states to the reduction of numbers studying ‘pure’ science and to the closure of courses or entirely departments offering theoretical physics, biology or engineering.

The decline of teaching pure, as well as applied, science and the resulting absence research at theoretical frontiers will only damage practical science. It may be stating the obvious but unless the frontiers of knowledge are continually extended, the possibilities of applying new knowledge cannot reveal themselves. The benefit to manufacturing lies further down the road and cannot always be directly connected. Nonetheless, Horizon Europe should be open to funding fundamental science projects and to catalysing the partnerships and collaboration that enables knowledge to be extended for its own sake.

Horizon provides the framework that facilitates collaboration between industry leading businesses and leading research institutions. It enables the scientific progress to develop hand-in-hand with manufacturing, applying the practicality of developing production processes to experimentation and theory. It is producing solutions to real business challenges and both building and broadening the sum of knowledge within the European Research Community. As such the Framework Programmes continue to be the most direct means of enhancing the competitive performance of manufacturing on the European continent.

 

Posted by John Howarth
Farming worries about Brexit (and the weather)

Farming worries about Brexit (and the weather)

More politicians should visit farms - or at least listen to ‘The Archers’. The terminally irritating BCC Radio agri-soap was devised as a fusion of entertainment and education. Those were the days, when the BBC pursued its mission to educate and inform. The notion was that a largely urban population needed a better understanding of the needs of farming and farmers needed to understand national policy priorities in an age of shortages. ‘The Archers, for all its manifest awfulness, still has an agricultural story editor and reflects the issues facing the sector - to some extent.

One thing that’s sure; farmers may have a reputation for complaining and worrying but right now they have plenty to worry about. In 2018 Brexit casts long dark shadow over an industry that has faced a long term crisis of profitability, labour and social mobility and weakness in the face of more powerful market actors. One of the central paradoxes of Brexit applies to farming - those who voted for the UK to leave are likely to be hardest hit should Brexit eventually happen and the harder the Brexit the harder the hit. Right now uncertainty dominates, as I found out visiting two farms in the east of Berkshire.

Farming income support - for how much longer?

The UK has moaned about the Common Agricultural Policy and all its works since joining the EEC in the early 1970s. The UK and Labour in particular, argued that the policy should consume a lower share of EU resource. This happened: at one time the CAP accounted for nearly 80% of the budget now it is around 40%. The UK argued that the nature of subsidies should change to more the CAP away from stockpiling overproduction. This also happened. In fact the UK, though not the biggest beneficiary from the CAP, does nonetheless receive more from the CAP budget than it contributes. If there is a transition period UK farmers will continue to draw from the CAP until the end of 2020. After that the Conservative Government has said that it will maintain subsidies to farmers - but it hasn’t said for how long. In reality it will be difficult for the UK to subside at a greater rate than the EU without damaging the export prospects of the sector through charges of unfair competition under whatever trade agreements may be struck. So once again the UK will find itself tied by the decisions of the EU in which, despite its record of winning reform, will have no say. For now, however, farmers simply have to wait.

Agricultural depends on Labour from mainland Europe

The immediate problem for many farmers, particularly those in horticulture, is where and how they will source the labour on which they depend. The simple fact is that seasonal and part-seasonal labour is sourced from Eastern Europe. While there are undoubtedly bad employers in the sector both the NFU and individual farmers I have met strongly dispute this is typical. The notion that migrant labour will be replace by local labour is yet another unicorn ridden by the Brexiteers. Whether it is fruit picking in Kent, herb harvesting in Berkshire or lettuce farming in East Yorkshire, any notion of local labour long since disappeared. There is simply easier money to be made. The value of sterling has already hit labour supply and despite having all the ability to plan in this area there remains a deafening silence from the Home Office more than two years after the vote to leave.

Agriculture has a cross-border supply chain

Next to labour, there seems a failure to understand the dynamics of modern agriculture and how it has developed within the single market. Just as the single market enabled UK manufacturing to take advantage of specialist suppliers producing and supplying components ‘just in time’, it also enabled agri-business to develop cross border supply chains. UK agriculture is linked to suppliers in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany and exports to end-use and processing markets across Europe. UK agri-business has interests in Spain and Portugal that in turn supply the UK food chains. The notion of ‘reverting’ to the UK ‘growing its own food’ is another fiction peddled by Brexiteers. The UK has never been self-sufficient in food production since the industrial revolution and has agricultural trade with the European mainland pre-dates the Roman Empire. Here too we cannot just turn back the clock. EU regulations, which protect the consumer, provide a level playing field for food production and deliver animal welfare standards, are a reality and UK agriculture has no choice but to go along with them or sacrifice its more valuable markets.

The food supply chain is fragile

Fragility of the supply chain is amplified by the fact that we are dealing with in part with perishable items and fresh food destined for the supermarket shelves in the UK. The lack of understanding at Westminster was perfectly illustrated by ministerial calls for supermarket chains to ‘take up the slack’ in ensuring food supplied continue uninterrupted in the event of the UK crashing out of the Customs Union and EU Single Market thus causing inevitable delay in both directions at the ports, in particular Dover. In 1974 the UK may have had other markets but also the EEC regulatory framework was much less integrated. Now outside that framework, in which the UK will have no say, farmers face potential problems should the UK diverge from the rules in which the industry operates.

Precision farming depends upon satellite communications

At one of the farms I visited ‘precision farming’ techniques with the aid of GPS technology was enabling efficiency gains during their harvests leading to improved productivity and lower cost of capital employment. It was also responsible for a reduction in the carbon footprint of the farms and, when rolled out on a wider scale, significant agricultural contribution toward climate CO2 reduction targets. All good news and all dependent upon the EU developed Galileo satellite navigation programme - the UK’s continued participation in which has been needlessly called into question by the sclerotic progress of Brexit negotiations.

Supermarkets, force overproduction and waste

Aside from the immediate issues with Brexit, farmers face continual additional costs because of the way in which the supermarkets use their powerful market position. A farmer is as good as their last contract. Fail to supply the supermarket and that contract may well not be renewed, so horticultural suppliers may overproduce by as much as 50% to be sure to deliver. While there are some alternative markets for the rest much is ploughed back or simply thrown away. I find that there is something deeply wrong with a situation that allows oligopoly customers to misuse their power in this way without any significant form of counterbalance in the market.

Agriculture has an image problem

In the medium term the entire industry has problems of long term profitability and image that mean it is becoming harder and harder to attract young people into agricultural careers. The image of hard work, long hours, unreliable incomes and the potential for nature-inflicted disaster ensures that agriculture faces an ongoing crisis that, Brexit or no Brexit, UK policy makers need to take seriously.

Don’t mention the weather

So in summary, while Brexit dominates immediate thinking, farming faces long term problems that are finding few answers from politicians and policy makers. It’s not new but it is ever more critical that it is taken seriously by Labour as well as the other parties all of whom have had the luxury of relying on EU policy makers to deliver. They largely have. Whatever else, a continent that frequently struggled to feed itself has benefitted from abundance for half a century. UK Farmers are finding at present that they have much more to complain about than the weather.  For the good of the country, more politicians are going to need to find out what's bothering the farmers.

Posted by John Howarth
UK Universities return to Brexit uncertainty

UK Universities return to Brexit uncertainty

With most students returning to or starting university this week, John has been working on two ‘legislative opinions’* in the European Parliament that will, Brexit or no Brexit, affect the future of students in the UK and the universities as institutions. 

The EU is developing its Horizon Europe (Framework 9) programme through which it will make its research investment from 2021 to 2027. The EU’s programmes include institutions from a number of countries outside the EU. John is working hard to make sure that the door is not closed on UK Universities. 

He says, “It is vital that the seventeen universities within the South East, are not restricted in their ability to continue to be world class research centres as well as to attract both EU Students and Staff. The Horizon 2020 (Framework 8) programme has ensured South East England has remained at the forefront of research and innovation. The success of this thriving sector depends on international collaboration. I would prefer the UK didn’t leave at all, but while I will always argue that it is also my job is to help get the best deal possible”.

Britain receives a considerable amount of funding through international research programmes, particularly those originating in the EU. In fact the UK gets out more proportionately than it currently put in. Over the period 2007-2013, Britain was the second largest recipient of research funding through the EU’s Framework Programme 7, receiving €6.9 billion out of a total €55.4 billion. Furthermore, UK higher education institutions received £725 million in research funding from EU government bodies in 2014/15, which accounts for 12 per cent of their total income from research grants.

Since 2014, the South East of England has benefitted from nearly €420 million of research funding to support 709 research projects under Horizon 2020.

John and his colleagues have consistently made the argument that the UK remaining in the programmes and, eventually, the UK Government has agreed, in principle, that it wants to ‘pay and play’. That means the UK will pay MORE than it pays at present to take part in these programmes - but the sad reality is this is the only way to keep our institutions at the forefront - there is no alternative framework available. The upside is that the budget for the programme will grow substantially. Now John is trying to make sure that the EU legislation governing Horizon Europe doesn’t contain traps that seek to limit access or prevent UK universities benefitting from the outcome of their research.   

The second programme on which John is working is Erasmus+ which enables students to study at universities in the rest of the EU.

The UK’s participation in Erasmus+ continues to grow year-on-year, with 15,645 students from UK universities spending a period abroad in 2015–16, up from 14,801 students in 2014–15. 

So far John has been able to get assurances from the UK Univerisities Minister, Sam Gymah MP, that the UK intends to seek participation in Erasmus+ and from the European Commission that the door will remain open to the UK.  

John says “I hope the UK government will join me in helping shape the next phase of Erasmus+ working toward greater flexibility for short-term mobility, and of providing targeted support for disadvantaged students who would like to participate in Erasmus+ in the future. We already know that funding for Erasmus will increase significantly after 2020. It would be a tragedy if UK students were forced to miss out under a ‘no deal’ or hard Brexit.

“More broadly however, the UK government and the EU must ensure future academic and student mobility is not impeded by unnecessary bureaucracy regardless of the immigration status of EU/EEA nationals if and when UK leaves the EU”.

Universities in the South East of England have benefitted hugely from both the Horizon 2020 and Erasmus programmes. Allowing students to be at the forefront of new, exciting research combined will be part of any Brexit deal that swerves the interests of both the UK and the EU. The next six months will be make of break for the university sector - one of Britain’s biggest export earners.

 

* a ‘legislative opinion’ is a specialist view of a particular committee seeking to amend/influence EU legislation being determined by another committee in the Parliament. 

Posted by John Howarth