Weekly News Review

25th September, 2004

Neelie Kroes "not fit to be European Commissioner"

Dutch left Euro-MP Erik Meijer calls government nomination into question

The Dutch government should withdraw the candidature for the European Commission of Neelie Kroes, according to Dutch Socialist Party MEP Erik Meijer. Mr Meijer, one of the 41-strong United Left Group (GUE-NGL), argues that "an ever-growing list of complaints about Ms Kroes’s past has cast doubt on her independence and integrity." He cites Evidence regarding incorrect conduct surrounding the sale of six ships during her presidency of an export board as being "enough to prove that Kroes placed her own interests above the general good."

Next Tuesday, 28 September, Kroes will be questioned at a hearing as the European Parliament exercises its right to vet the men and women nominated by the member state governments for membership of the European Union’s unelected executive. Mr Meijer, being from the same country as the nominee, will be allowed by his GUE-NGL colleagues to take his group’s first turn in the round of questions. He will use that opportunity, having given his reasons, quite simply to ask the Commissioner-designate to withdraw her candidacy. His colleague in the SP’s 8-strong national parliamentary group, Harry van Bommel, has already asked Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende if he is prepared to withdraw the nomination.

Mr Meijer explained to Spectre that "Numerous questions regarding Kroes’s past favouring of firms were not, at the time that they were raised, fully investigated, due to the fact that she no longer held political office. Now that the government has nominated Kroes for the position of European Commissioner, these questions have once again become relevant. We find it incomprehensible that the government has not at the very least ordered a thorough enquiry. A Commissioner for competition policy is responsible for ensuring that firms trade honestly. It is remarkable that the government thinks someone suitable for such a post who has herself acted in a controversial fashion," Meijer said.

One example is the "frigate case". In 1994 Kroes was president of a consortium which was charged by the Dutch public authorities with promoting the country’s products abroad. The consortium was given responsibility for the sale of six frigates to the United Arab Emirates. But when the sale was almost complete, Kroes brought in a friend of hers, Joop van Calderbergh, to close the deal. Van Calderbergh’s interest seems to have been largely in promoting the involvement of his own company, mentioning in a letter that he felt a joint venture should be established in a "country with a favourable tax climate" and also suggesting ways of evading OPEC export quotas. Perhaps because of this latter suggestion, the result of van Calderbergh’s intervention seems to have been that the deal fell through, costing the Netherlands over a billion euros in export business. According to Harry van Bommel, the letter "provoked outrage, both on the part of those involved on the Dutch side and amongst the negotiators of the UAE."

What made this worse was that Kroes denied that she had pushed Joop van Caldenborgh to the fore in the negotiations and refused to admit any culpability over the lost sales. These denials were reported in 1999 in numerous newspapers and in the current affairs TV programme Nova. Yet the SP has in its possession the letter from Kroes in which she recommends Van Caldenborgh to the purchasers. Meijer, not surprisingly, describes himself as "perplexed by the government’s persistence with Kroes’s candidature."

Commission approves British Energy bailout Six billions euro of state aid for nuclear dinosaur

The European Commission today announced a waiver for €6 billion of state aid from the British Government to the nuclear operator British Energy. The privatised company, which has been on the verge of bankruptcy before, is still losing money as its production costs for electricity are higher than the market price. The Commission argued that it was obliged to accept the state aid because of the existence of the Euratom Treaty.

The approval came under heavy fire from environmentalists. Claude Turmes, the Green MEP for Luxembourg who acted as Rapporteur for the Parliament on the directive on the liberalisation of the electricity market, said:

"This decision is a disaster. It will artificially lower the costs of nuclear electricity by injecting billions of Euro from Europe's taxpayers – who in the majority oppose nuclear power. It is also ignores the polluter-pays principle, a cornerstone of both European and UK legislation. It sends other nuclear operators the signal that they are 'too big to die' and will open the door for nuclear operators in other parts of Europe to go begging for billions of euros for their own nuclear waste liabilities. It is nonsense to create an internal market in which one third of the electricity is protected and subsidised. Citizens and politicians in EU Member States have to act now and join the Austrian and German initiative to phase out the Euratom Treaty before further billions of taxpayer’s money is diverted into propping up the nuclear dinosaurs."

Working Time Directive amendments get mixed reception from Left

Members of the European Parliament's United Left Group (GUE-NGL) have condemned broad aspects of the European Commission's new proposal to amend the Working Time Directive as making the existing situation worse. Accordng to a spokesperson for the Group, Left MEPs "will be working hard in the European Parliament to see an overall reduction in the maximum weekly working-time from 48 to 40 hours. While acknowledging that the Commission has taken a tiny step in the right direction by proposing an absolute limit on the length of each working week, the Group thinks that proposed limit of 65 hours is unacceptably high."

Czech GUE-NGL Member Jiři Maštálka, who represents the Group on the Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee, has given a cautious welcome to parts of the proposal, including the extension of the legal definition of working time to include "on-call time". However, Dr Maštálka, a physician, is concerned that the "inactive part of on-call time" is outside the scope of the definition of working time. This is the time the worker, although available for work at his place of employment, does not carry out his duties. Maštálka thinks that making a distinction between "on-call time" and the "inactive part of on-call time" could cause problems in sectors such as the health-care sector. He would like the "inactive part of on-call time" to also be included in the definition of working time.

In relation to the other elements of today's proposal Dr Maštálka said: "I am in favour of harmonising social standards within the EU, but not where this means that standards are lowered. For example, I am against the British opt-out, which gave rise to cases of such drastically extended working times that even the European Commission was alarmed. As a doctor, I know well what damage can be caused to people's health from excessive working time. Therefore, I am happy that today's proposal goes some way to curtailing the scope of the opt-out by giving unions a veto over average working weeks of more than 48 hours in workplaces where they have bargaining powers. This of course still leaves millions of workers all over the EU who have no bargaining powers in a very vulnerable position. The legislation should do much more to protect this category of workers."

Bairbre de Brun of Sinn Fein, affiliated to the GUE-NGL from both Ireland and the UK MEP, said that her party is in support of the protection of workers' rights throughout the EU. "It is our view that any directive which caps the amount of hours in a working week is a forward thinking and sensible measure." She added, however, that governments must make sure that "adequate services and resources are provided to meet the effects of the EU working time directive".

For a broader range of reactions, see "New working time rules get cold reception" here

EU Commission to float defence market liberalisation

The European Commission is set to float plans for the liberalisation of

Europe’s defence industries. Full story here

Euro chief's shock over SF bug

Flagrant breach of rights, Brussels told

‘The President of the European Parliament has said he is "shocked and concerned" at the discovery of a bug at the office of Sinn Fein's MEP in Belfast last week. A spokeswoman for the Spanish Socialist Josep Borrell said that the European Parliament "takes any allegation of any infringement of any MEP's rights and immunities seriously". ‘ Read the full story here