ANN CAHILL: Brussels Briefing - A weekly round-up of the most interesting news from Europe

A quick look at some of the more interesting news from the heart of the EU

Shift in sources of counterfeit goods

Counterfeit goods range from designer rip-offs to highly dangerous aeroplane parts and medicines, with China the main source.

But now Europol and the EU office for harmonisation of the internal market have noticed a rise in the amount originating within the EU.

The Chinese are still involved, having set up operations in EU countries, and especially in Italy, where they are working with local crime ganes, such as the Camorra.

They are strong in parts of Madrid, where they are also involved with the textile and fashion industries.

The networks are highly successful, benefitting from the ease of selling on the internet, with transfer agencies allowing them to launder and send huge sums of money back to China. Criminals involved in counterfeiting are frequently involved in human trafficking into domestic and sex slavery and trafficking drugs and weapons.

Biofuel policy ‘too good to be true’

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true” applies to the EU’s 15-year-old biofuel policy.

Switching from petroleum and coal seemed easy when the alternative was energy from palm oil, wheat, and other plants.

It helped farmers too at a time their EU subsidies were being cut as they got a share of the €7bn biofuel subsidies.

In the end, the poorly thought-out strategy has cost the environment and poorer societies dearly as they lose land and their food to biofuel crops.

The EU after seven years of lobbying has agreed to cap the amount of biofuels allowed in the 2020 renewable energy targets.

However, just as important, says Oxfam Ireland, Trócaire, and Environment Pillar, is that calculating the cap will have to include the global social and environmental impacts.

Lack of work at parliament

The European Parliament says it does not have enough work to do due to a new European Commission policy. It cut a sixth of proposed rules, including revised maternity leave and environmental areas which business is not keen on.

The French government is particularly incensed by the slowdown partly because it means MEPs are leaving their monthly plenary session in Strasbourg early, according to letters seen by Euractiv.

MEPs vote for higher rates to run office

MEPs have voted to increase the amount of money they get to run their offices and pay their assistants by €1,500 a month — bringing it to €275,000 per MEP a year.

However, a huge majority of 576 MEPs voted down proposals that would see them submit an end-of-year public report on how the money is spent.

They included the four Fine Gael MEPs and the Socialist and Liberal group independents. The three Sinn Féin MEPs and one Independent Left party group abstained. Instead, the EP will work to define precise rules on accountability without creating extra costs.

Currently there are no checks on how they spend the €4,299 allocated specifically to cover the cost of running their national offices including computers, rent, and phones.

EU looking for interns

EU institutions offer paid work experience to young people, and are looking for native English speakers.

With English the everyday language of the union and just over 10% of its citizens native English speakers, there is a shortage in the internship programmes.

Munster MEP Deirdre Clune says the European Parliament and her political group, the centre-right European People’s Party, are recruiting now. The Brussels-based traineeships last for three months and trainees are paid €1,000 a month. More info: Epp-Stages@europarl.europa.eu; www.europarl.europa.eu/atyourservice/en/20150201PVL00047/ Traineeships

Clampdown on plastic bags

MEPs have agreed that EU citizens must cut lightweight plastic bags usage by 80% by 2019. They can ban them — a policy tried and failed in Italy so far — or tax them.

Some countries already tax them with Ireland’s charge being the highest. The move in 2002 cut consumption by 90% overnight.

At 18c per person it is good, as MEP Brian Hayes points out. However, it is beaten into third place by Denmark and Finland at 4c each and a much lower charge.

At around 100 billion EU- wide, usage is highest in eastern Europe at 466 per person.

Financial sector lobbying outlay rises

The European Commission’s lobbying register showed a huge rise in spending by the financial sector last year, reflecting the bartering over post-crisis regulation, while the tobacco industry and e-cigarette spending fell post-regulation.

JP Morgan Chase increased spending 30-fold to around €1.5m, Goldman Sachs’ 14-fold up to €800,000, big EU banks doubled and tripled their spending, and Google went from €1.5 to €4m.

Transparency International welcomed that MEPs for the first time have set up a cross-party group on Integrity, Transparency, Corruption and Organised Crime to discuss protecting whistleblowers, avoiding lobbying capture, and fighting tax evasion.

Such groups are used to inform MEPs and highlight issues in the Parliament, engaging with stakeholders and leading to internal lobbying among MEPs for new rules or changes.

I spy a snag with security co-operation

Cybercrime, radicalisation and foreign fighters, and other forms of terrorism are in the European Commission’s sights with the launch of its security agenda during the week.

It aims to better co-ordinate what is being done by member states and enlist more help from the IT industry in the fight against new ways of recruiting and organising crime.

Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans emphasised the need for national authorities to co-operate more effectively and work more closely to ensure citizens are safe, while standing firm on fundamental rights.

The size and difficulties of this approach, however, were underlined by revelations that German intelligence is spying on France and the EU and passing information to the US.


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