ANN CAHILL: Brussels briefing

Kenny and Gilmore tackle ‘must do’ list

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore arrive in Brussels tonight to tackle the biggest single item on the Irish presidency’s list of “must dos” — the Union’s seven-year budget, close to €1 trillion.

They jointly meet commission and parliament presidents to try to sort out what is holding up negotiations. The parliament — with a say in the EU’s budget for the first time — believes the member states are not taking them seriously and cancelled a meeting with the Tánaiste last week.

They want a deal on the €11bn the member states owe the commission for this year (almost all of which gets redistributed to the countries) before they agree to the seven-year budget.

But they have only weeks to complete negotiations — otherwise funding will be on a year-to-year basis with long-term projects likely to lose out. Clearly a job for the big guns.

Free movement

The Irish presidency received an interesting letter from four countries (Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain) complaining that the free movement of citizens in the EU was creating problems for them.

They claim that their systems are being overburdened by EU citizens shopping around for the best deal in dole and other benefits and moving there.

Yves Pascouau, from the European Policy Centre think tank, says there is no evidence for this and their demands that EU citizens be treated as foreigners undermines the greater good of the freedom of movement. The letter also mentioned an issue close to the heart of the Irish Department of Justice: non-EU citizens marrying EU citizens to get residency.

Rather than change national legislation, the department wanted to ditch the freedom of movement principle.

Tobacco plan a ‘hot’ topic

The tobacco industry has come up with a plan to get us all out of debt — smoke more.

Philip Morris International commissioned a report to show that the new draft rules on their products — increased warnings, plain packaging, and a ban on slim and flavoured cigarettes would be bad for the EU’s economic health.

Tobacco generates more than €100bn in tax and the new rules would increase illicit trade and move smokers to cheaper brands.

This would cost 305,000 jobs and reduce the tax take by €8.5bn.

Some countries would be particularly badly hit — Greece would lose €220m in tax, Poland 50,000 jobs and €780m in tax, and Bulgaria could lose up to 29,000 jobs, the industry warns.

Drink wars

The Scottish government won its case on minimum unit pricing for alcohol, meaning that it can base the cost on the strength of alcohol.

The drinks industry fought the move in the High Court but the government won, arguing it should help reduce binge drinking and improve the region’s health and crime rates.

But that is unlikely to be the end of the matter, Paul Skehan, head of spirits Europe group, said they believe it contravenes EU law and 30 years of European case law, and the opinion of 11 member states and the European Commission.

He points out it will discriminate between different kinds of alcohol and affect the export of European drinks — the single largest agro-food export from the EU worth €10bn in 2012.

Taking closer look

The West on Track group took its case to the European Parliament’s petitions committee to complain that the Government did not even include the western rail corridor in its plans for EU funding.

The European Commission pointed out that it is up to the Government to decide who to put on the list to receive funding — which they have to match.

But they were intrigued by the lack of transparency in how EU money is being spent, with less than 20% of the funds going to the BMW region that has 27% of the population, and decided they would visit the region to see for themselves.

MEPs Jim Higgins and Marian Harkin, who championed their cause, said the committee wants a detailed breakdown of how EU funds are spent in the region.

Doing time

The Council of Europe (not the EU but the Strasbourg-based council of 47 countries that deals mainly with human rights) published its report into prisons.

Ireland had one of the lowest prison populations in 2011; was holding two with electronic surveillance —both in hospital; had 4 octogenarians behind bars; with the biggest single group doing time for drug offences, followed by theft, assault and murder. Just 45 were jailed for financial offences and 46 for terrorism.

Costs were relatively high at €193 a day compared to €11 in Latvia, while juveniles cost €1,392 a day. Ireland has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility at 12 years and 10 years for murder, rape or serious sexual assault.

Double standards

Former health and consumer commissioner John Dalli was given 30 minutes to admit guilt and resign last year over allegations he was aware an acquaintance was requesting money to have the ban on snus, chewing tobacco, removed.

A report by the EU’s fraud investigation body found the complaint about Dalli by the Swedish snus maker was prepared by the former European Commission’s legal service head, Michel Petite, now working for law company Clifford Chance. He is a member of the commission’s ethical committee too, advising on conflicts of interest by commissioners using the revolving door.


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