Czech PM's Lisbon comments anger MEPs


THE WEEK IN STRASBOURG:MEPS MADE a concerted effort to look outwards at the world this week, concerning themselves particularly with the conflict in Gaza. They also discussed the ongoing dispute over gas between Russia and Ukraine, writes Fiona Gartland

On Tuesday, though, they had a birthday to celebrate. The euro was officially 10 years old. Though the 11 countries of Europe did not get to handle the currency until two years later, Economic Monetary Union was born in 1999. President of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet told MEPs the currency faced major challenges in the next decade. And France’s former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing pleased MEPs by saying there was cause to celebrate because the euro has made “the biggest contribution to the European project since direct elections to the European Parliament were introduced in 1979”.

Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell was concerned about the €500 note. He said there were too many of them in circulation.

“Legitimate businesses do not settle their accounts with €500 banknotes, so there must be reasonable suspicion that they are being used by criminals,” he said.

He called on Trichet to publish a report on the matter.

On Wednesday, all eyes were on the new president of the European Council, Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek. Outlining his priorities for the next six months, he surprised MEPs by announcing that if a referendum were held on the Lisbon Treaty in the Czech Republic, the Czechs would reject it like the Irish.

He described the treaty as average and “somewhat worse than the Nice Treaty”, which outraged many listeners, including Labour MEP for Dublin Proinsias De Rossa. De Rossa declared himself “appalled” by the “disgraceful” comment. He said the president’s comments would make it harder to ensure a positive outcome from a second referendum in Ireland. “If the referendum fails, you, sir, will not be thanked by the vast majority of Europeans who will be left rudderless for another critically important decade,” he said.

However, Sinn Féin MEP Mary Lou McDonald appeared delighted with Topolanek’s comments. Although not in the chamber, she said afterwards that his admission illustrated the massive discrepancy between the political establishment of Europe and member states’ citizens.

Topolanek’s tone differed significantly from that of European Parliament president Hans-Gert Pottering, who, in a press briefing earlier in the week, described as “extraordinary” how the EU had listened to Ireland in the wake of its rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.

“If all countries would have the same demands and if all countries would have the same ambitions and the same wishes then we would be in quite a great difficulty in the European Union,” he said.

As the snow fell outside the Louise Weiss parliament building on Wednesday, those inside were concerning themselves with gas supplies. An EU-sponsored agreement between Russia and the Ukraine to settle a dispute that had interrupted supplies to Europe had not worked and the EU had lost patience. MEPs were told that EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso said legal action could be taken if the agreement was not honoured.

A passionate debate on Wednesday afternoon resulted in the passing of a resolution on Thursday calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

The 1,000-word resolution, which contained 10 clauses, was worded by the socialist group PES, of which Mr De Rossa is a member.

It expressed shock at the suffering of the civilian population in Gaza, and “strongly requested” the Israeli authorities to allow unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance and aid to the Gaza Strip.

It also called for a stronger and united political role for the EU. But it did not call for trade sanctions or the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, much to the disappointment of some, including Ireland South MEP Kathy Sinnott.