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Martin Callanan MEP: My colleague Vicky Ford fights off a directive that would have damaged our oil industry

Martin Callanan MEP is Chairman of the European Conservatives. This is his monthly letter to ConHome readers. Follow the ECR Group on Twitter.


As EU leaders met in Brussels to discuss energy prices and tax evasion, the European Parliament was in Strasbourg again for our monthly session, once again highlighting the folly of the Parliament's travelling circus.

It wasn't the heaviest agenda we've had, as the Commission begins to churn out less legislation towards the end of its term. However, a few significant votes were heavily improved thanks to the work of Conservative MEPs.

Firstly, MEPs voted on proposals to update regulation on oil and gas drilling. The review was the result of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and initially a number of MEPs from the left had sought to use the incident to impose a moratorium on all drilling operations across Europe. Thankfully, we were able to kill that suggestion at an early stage. However, when the Commission brought forward its initial legislation, we were worried that it would be harmful for the North Sea installations.

As it stood, the law was a regulation, which directly imposes strict technical standards from the centre, yet similar to those that already operate in the North Sea. Our lead MEP on the issue, Vicky Ford, was able to change this proposal line-by-line from a regulation into a more flexible directive, which allows for greater interpretation at the national level. Seeing as the EU was seeking to impose UK standards on the rest of the EU, a regulation would have done nothing to improve safety around our shores, but it would have required the technical manuals and procedures to be completely re-written, at a cost of over £140 million in legal and administration fees.

Instead, thanks to Vicky's work, this won't be necessary, and instead of the tick-box safety culture that the Commission wanted, we will now have a culture of learning best practice from each other - which has been the approach that has made the North Sea the global standard since the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. At a time of high energy prices, Vicky has been able to avoid adding costs onto energy producers that would have been pushed through to consumers in their bills.

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Energy was also the topic of the EU summit, alongside tax evasion. Speaking before the summit in a debate with the Commission President, I said that energy prices can only be brought down if we thoroughly reform or repeal any legislation that exacerbates them - whether that be some of the EU's draconian and arbitrary climate policies, or (even) financial services legislation that holds back major investment in infrastructure.

I also supported efforts to increase cooperation and transparency to ensure that illegal tax evasion is stamped out: an agenda led by our Prime Minister under the auspices of his G8 Presidency. However, I also warned against anyone seeking to use the veil of co-operation on tax evasion as an excuse to push through a long-standing federalist ambition of tax harmonisation. After all, any harmonisation would drag us up to the levels of punitive tax that is destroying France's economy under President Hollande. We will continue to push for strong tax competition in the EU. You can see the speech here.

At the end of the week, I travelled to the European Council to speak to the media. It's a good opportunity to promote our group with journalists who rarely cover the European Parliament. Of course, all they wanted to talk about was oil. Given the topic of the meeting you might understand - except that it was not crude oil that caught their fancy, but olive oil.

You will have read that the commission placed a ban on the use of refillable olive oil bottles in restaurants, and on olive oil dipping bowls. In all my years as an MEP I struggle to think of ideas as ridiculous as this one. Thankfully, pretty much all MEPs from all groups and northern European countries agreed, and by the following Thursday the Commission has U-turned and dropped the idea. Whilst it's good to know that they can sometimes respond to a public outcry, the event has thankfully focused attention on the way the Commission can be left to fill in some of the details of legislation at a later stage - known as the comitology or delegated acts procedure. In this case, it gave enormous influence to olive oil producers to help fill in the detail of their own marketing standards. No wonder they wanted to protect their industry - but it does raise questions about accountability and vested interests.

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Back in Strasbourg we were able to lay down an important marker that whilst the eurozone may wish to integrate further, it should not threaten the UK financial services industry.

The vote was on the first stage of what the EU calls the 'Banking Union', namely, the creation of a 'Single Supervisory Mechanism' to keep tracks on most eurozone banks. Thankfully we will not be a part of it, but we also had major concerns that if the eurozone was able to form a caucus then it would also determine the rule-making process regarding banking regulation and the so-called 'single rule book', through the European Banking Authority. In effect, we risked being overridden on these major decisions by a pre-cooked decision amongst the euro countries.

Thanks to a lot of hard work by Conservative MEP Kay Swinburne we were able to reach an agreement that requires decisions made in the Banking Authority be subjected to a double majority voting system that needs a simple majority both of those participating in the euro and of  those that are not. Kay described it as a 'seminal' moment, because it sets a precedent to allow the Euro to integrate further if it wishes, whilst protecting those countries that wish to keep their currency.

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And finally a piece of mixed news. You'll probably have read a great deal about the proposed EU-USA trade agreement that is now in the offing. The PM made it a priority of his trip to Washington a few weeks ago, and Conservative MEPs have been leading the drive for such an agreement that would be worth a year's extra salary for every person in the UK over their working life.

The Parliament will have to ratify any eventual agreement, and so MEPs last week set out their position on the talks. Whilst the resolution was mostly positive towards the deal, it was extremely frustrating to see the Parliament call for exemptions for the audiovisual sector - in order to protect arty French films that could never compete against Hollywood. We are foolish to risk such a major economic boost because of some parochial interests, but the vote was close and we hope the negotiators on both sides will see past the protectionist voices of the French and the left, and go for an ambitious deal. ECR trade spokesman Robert Sturdy and I will be hosting a hearing on the agreement next week, along with the US Ambassador and the EU Chief Negotiator. You can watch it live on Tuesday from 09.00 UK time.

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That's all for the plenary round-up. This week the European Commission was supposed to be publishing the draft EU budget for 2014. We understand that it was to represent the first annual budget cut, taking into account David Cameron's victory on the long-term budget earlier this year. Unfortunately, because the Parliament has yet to formally approve the long-term deal, the commission has postponed the announcement. But the end of talks on the long-term budget are in sight and I hope to be able to report some good news in the coming months. The cut won't be enough for most of us, but it's a start.


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