Day 84 – Some Days, You Can Change The World

One of the things I’ve learnt in the past few months is that actually being at the centre of politics is much more frustrating then being on the fringes. The problem is that the closer to the centre you are, the greater understanding you gain and the more you see the problems which prevent action on a given issue.

To give an example: a while ago, I was reading the Economist in the pub after work one day. The main story was about poverty levels, education and the rich-poor divide in India. It made me very angry. I thought, well what can I do about this where I am just now? The answer, of course, is not much. EU-India trade relations are under negotiation, but in many ways these are the domain of Council and not easily influenced. There is also the small issue that the EU can’t interfere in India’s domestic affairs. India is, after all, a democratic state, a strong military and economic power and in many ways a well governed. For the EU to attempt to dictate policy to India would  be a slight to them, a slight to their sovereignty and likely to set diplomatic relations back.

Indian domestic problems are an extreme example of how you can feel powerless and frustrated when you should be doing something. There have been plenty of other times when I’ve felt the same in the past few months due to letters, goings on in the news or even just walking past a beggar on the street.

The flip-side are the days when you feel like you can change the world. Today was one of those days. Unfortunately, I can’t explain why because it’s related to a constituency letter and is thus confidential. In the greater scheme of things, it’s a small matter, but it’s one which is very much within the scope of the EU. I’m intending to do everything I can to get the powers who be to notice this issue and deal with it in the legislation planned for 2011 (where it fits nicely in with some similar trade and commerce issues).

The days like this are brilliant. They are the days you know you are doing the right thing and genuinely helping people. I had a similar feeling after I spent two days researching the oil moratorium for Alyn, in an effort to ensure that it didn’t pass and have a grave impact on Scotland.  Unfortunately, for me, they are less frequent then I’d like. There are a lot of obstacles in politics.

I can understand why people do this job though. When you know you are doing the right thing, and doing all you can to achieve it, it feels utterly fantastic!

Day 37 – Mini-Plenary Retrospective

Most of the plenary sessions of the European Parliament are held in Strasbourg. This dates back to the treaties which founded the European Coal and Steel Community in the ’50s. It was intended to ensure the French retained more power in the ECSC then the Germans did. Since then, various treaties have come and gone and the French Government have vigorously fought for Parliament sittings to remain in Strasbourg despite MEPs being based in Brussels, where committee and group meetings are held. The exception to this are Mini-Plenary sessions, which only last two days, compared to the full Plenaries which last four.

This week was my first Mini-Plenary. It wasn’t originally expected to be too stressful, expect that following an Environment (ENVI) committee vote the previous week, the vote on Thursday was to include a motion calling for a moratorium on oil drilling in EU waters. While this wouldn’t have been binding on the members states, it would have led to a communication to the Commission and Council suggesting that they impose a legally binding moratorium through the Council of Ministers.

Understandably, this meant this it was all hands on deck in SNP quarters: a ban on oil drilling would potential devastate Scotland’s economy and jobs market, as well as cutting the UK treasury’s revenue. Initially, we believed that they moratorium would pass so we prepared damage controls and started to think ahead to what could be done to persuade the Council and Commission that Scotland’s rigs were safe.

When it came down to the vote, the motion which contained the resolution passed, but an amendment which removed the moratorium from it also passed. This makes it more unlikely that the Council of Ministers will seek a moratorium, even though the Commissioner for the Environment is quite enthusiastic about one.

What will happen now is that the EU will look at coming up with collective response strategies for oil accidents as well as looking at increasing the safety standards on rigs. The UK rigs already have very high standards of safety thanks to the Cullen Inquiry on the Piper Alpha Disaster, which put stringent regimes in place. These were tightened by the Health and Safety Executive (a Quango which is essential) in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon accident.

For much of this week, it was just Alyn and I in the office. It was an interesting experience dealing with this without Laura. I’m not sure I did as well as I could have done, but Alyn seemed happy enough with how I coped. Admittedly, by the time he left at 2 on Thursday, I was just about ready to pass out from stress, cold symptoms and exhaustions, but it was great fun. It was also something extremely important and it felt daunting to know that I was lending a hand to a current issue that might affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Next week will be more relaxed. I’m heading back to Scotland on Tuesday for the SNP conference. This years conference is in Perth (as normal) and runs from Thursday to Sunday. After that, I’m take a week off Europe to sort out some stuff for Uni and to visit my Grandfather, who is very probably dying (of old age rather than anything specific, but he’s being very well looked after in a carehome near where he grew up). I may well write a bit about him over the next week, because without him I wouldn’t be sitting in Brussels or heading to the SNP conference next week.

Day 25 – Four Weeks Already?

At the end of this week, I’ll have been working in Brussels for four weeks. It’s a bit frightening, after all, it’s gone incredibly fast. Soon, it’s going to be Christmas and I’ll be returning to Edinburgh.

I’d also say there has been a good learning curve. At the start of the internship, I was given a simple fact checking paper to write and some constituency cases to deal with. Reasonably tight deadlines coupled with constant email interruptions and keeping one eye on the newsfeeds resulted in an atmosphere with just the right amount of tension and stress for me to work effectively in.

The second week was mostly taken up by constituency work, which is extremely interesting, due to one of Alyn’s staff taking a holiday. By the end of last week, I was doing press releases (although my first one required a good bit of rewriting to fit the style used in Alyn’s normal releases. Today, I drafted a question for the Commission (equivalent to Westminster’s written questions) regarding a directive which regulates the sale of herbal remedies. While it’s not something I have vast faith it, it’s still an interesting issue to work on.

For the rest of this week, Alyn is in Brussels, so I don’t know what I’ll be working on yet. I do know that I’ll be taking notes at some committees (because MEPs do need to be in two committees at the same time) and accompanying Alyn to some meetings. It’ll be interesting to see the MEPs working first hand, since this is the first time the Committees have been in session in Brussels since I started.

In the past weeks, my impressions of the support staff needed for politicians has changed greatly. Like many others in the wake of the expenses scandal at Westminster, I called for MPs staff to be limited. I would say that it’s easy to underestimate the amount of work which is required to support a politician. I wonder how many could adequately do their job without at least two to three full-time staff? I suspect none in this age of mass media.

Still, several weeks to go. How else will this internship challenge my perspectives?

Day 13 – Where CAP and CFP Subsidies Are Spent

This week, I went to my first European Parliament meeting. It was a panel discussion on transparency in regional policy, largely for the benefit of the EFA-Green group within the Parliament. I was sent to gather facts for Alyn since his flight arrived in Brussels half-way through the meeting.

One of the three speakers was Jack Thurston. A former advisor to the Labour Government in Westminster, Thurston left his job and helped to set up the websites FarmSubsidy.org and FishSubsidy.org. These take data which the EU member states are required to publish, translate it into English and publish it in an easy-to-use database. At the meeting, Mr Thurston demonstrated a future version of FishSubsidy, which will use Google Maps to allow you to easily browse subsides by region.

This is an excellent demonstration of how the internet can be used to allow greater transparency and a good way for those concerned to see how the CAP and CFP subsidies are spent.

Day 12 – Alyn Makes A Movie

What exactly it is that MEPs get up to doesn’t seem to be widely known by the general public. Which is a bit daft really, because by and large they do a lot of interesting work which goes unnoticed. This is particularly true in Scotland, where there are many who benefit from Agriculture and Fishery payments which MEPs have toiled over long after the heads of state have gone home.

This is pretty much why Alyn is making a DVD about what exactly MEPs do. Questioning him in the DVD is the presenter Lesley Riddoch, who I know best for the now defunct Lesley Riddoch Show, a lunchtime current affairs programme on Radio Scotland.

It was extremely interesting seeing the sort of work that goes into making a documentary, with Charlie (the camera man on the left in the photo) poking and prodding Alyn and Lesley so he could get the best shots. It was amusing seeing Alyn doing the same spiel in five or six different positions. I can’t wait to play spot-the-cut when Alyn gets a copy of the finished production.

I found the whole day quite tiring and I was only carrying equipment and acting as a guide, so I’ve no idea how Lesley and Charlie must have felt by the time they got back to Scotland via Amsterdam, or how Alyn felt by the time he got back to Edinburgh. It was quite educational though, not because I didn’t know what MEPs do, but because I got to spend some time in bits of the Parliament I don’t have much of an excuse to visit (like the Hemicycle and the main committee rooms), meet interesting people (such as Tatjana Zdanoka MEP, a former member of Lativa’s Supreme Soviet and a human rights campaigner or Donald MacInnes, the charming Islander in charge of the Scottish Government offices in Brussesl) and learn a few interesting stories about the Parliament.