Notes from the Green Party MEP for East of England. Biographical reflections on life as an MEP. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...

Sunday, 30 June 2019

A round Europe tour

You'll have detected a certain low key silence from me over the last two weeks. That's because I decided to honour two commitments that I had from before I was elected, firstly to attend and speak at a conference on Plato's Theaetetus in Sardinia, and secondly to stay on for a few days in Sardinia to join a colleague from Canada
(another ancient philosophy professor called Rachel Barney) who had a few days to fill seeing the sights before attending another conference in Europe. 

Obviously many plans had been laid and tickets bought and paid for by my hosts at the conference and by myself and my colleague, so it would have been a betrayal of trust to pull out if it wasn't absolutely necessary.

You'd think that, given that the new position doesn't officially start or get paid until July, going abroad at the end of June might be OK. The answer is, not really. It turns out that a whole lot of things have to be delivered in Brussels with an original signature on a paper document, and that some of the most important documents needed to be delivered there this week, or last week. There are some that I managed to sign in the UK and send by post to be delivered by hand by others. But there are others which I have had to have a special dispensation to sign on Monday (before the first session on Tuesday), and some that, by not getting them in this time, there will be no money coming through in July, and the first money for some costs will be reaching me only in August, if I'm lucky. Though some rumours suggest that we can't have any of the expense allowance for office costs till August anyway. We've been trying to get our offices up and running as soon as possible, so as to get as much done in four months as we can, but the EU bureaucracy doesn't make that easy, and expects a rather less hasty approach, I think.

A little about my travels before returning to the matters relating to EU stuff. Travel plans were laid in part some time ago, and included a few new experiences: after Eurostar to Paris, I took the night train with a sleeper car from Paris to Milan. It was pretty good but some accident in Paris meant that all the trains from Paris Lyon were about three or four hours late leaving. The result was that our train left at around 2215 instead of 1915 as planned. Those of us who had planned to dine in the restaurant car ended up with cold food and bottled beer because the train kitchen had no power while standing in the station in Paris, but the waitress valiantly served us with salads and cold meat. Having joined two delightful other English speaking people, one a man called Barney from the West Country who was heading down to Bari to catch the ferry to Patras (the journey I did in April this year, only I didn't take the night train) and the other a wonderful friendly man from Ireland called Patsy Brady (@PatsyBrady19) who is, as he says on his twitter account, interested in human connection and all forms of transformation, I made sure that we got a lovely plate of salad and a platter of charcuterie and mozzarella, and we all had some beer and a lot of good conversation about train journeys and green politics and how to change the world and why we are doing what we are doing. It is really so much better to talk to other people on the train. I joined the other two because otherwise I'd have been sitting by myself taking up a table for four in the restaurant car, when other families needed the space. But what a much more entertaining thing a delayed train is if you go through the inconveniences in company. Fortunately I had plenty of time for my connection at the other end of the journey, but Patsy and Barney were going on in the same direction and were able to look after each other, after Barney missed his very important train to Bari that he needed to make it in time for his ferry.

The other silver lining to the delay was that our train was four hours late as it passed through the alps, so we woke to these views:
 I think I failed to realise that there was a free breakfast included with my cabin, so I bought a coffee in the buffet area and watched the people who had got off the train to smoke or take photos at Modane. It seems that we managed to leave without a considerable number of these people who had failed to get back on when the doors were being closed. I sat with my coffee and imagined the plight of those people with no breakfast, no wallet, no passport, no water bottle. A rumour started that one of them was a parent separated from a child (or baby) on the train... but I think this may have been a chinese whisper
 that resulted from the train conductor and another official who, as they passed where I was sitting, remarked (in French, or maybe Italian, I forget) that the people were not supposed to get off the train at Modane, that they had been told in announcements not to get off, and that it was not up to them to look after people as if they were babies (to be "babysitters"). I'm hoping the rumour about the motherless (or was it fatherless?) baby was a misinterpretation by one of the large party of Americans, based on mishearing that comment.

Arriving very much delayed into Milan, we were all given little bags of water and biscuits and a team of advisers rebooked us on new trains. I had a revised train to Genova, where I was able to leave my luggage in a left luggage place and go and explore the town a bit. (Among other things, I discovered the amazing lifts inside the hill that serve as a substitute for a bus, and for which you need a bus ticket). And besides that I accidentally bumped into a friend and colleague called Damiano Simoncelli, whom I last met in Pardubice (I think) but who is writing his thesis at the University of Genoa. 
After tiring my legs out with walking round Genoa, I collected my luggage from the station and took a taxi down to the port from which my ferry was leaving for Sardinia. 
A smooth sailing overnight brought me to Porto Torres from where I succeeded in getting a bus to Alghero.

In the course of this long journey I was able to finish (sort of) the paper that I needed to present at the conference in Alghero, and keep up with (some of) the work related emails from the European Parliament and my university address.

The ancient philosophy conference was hosted in Alghero, and many of the participants were from Italy (or indeed, Sardinia), with a number from other parts of the world. 
With some of them I struggled to follow the very rapid delivery in Italian, but some made an effort to help those of us who were not native Italian speakers. We dined and breakfasted well in a wonderful place with views over the harbour from the bastion. 

The old city is fantastic.

After the conference was over I spent a few days travelling south down the West coast of Sardinia to Cagliari, 

from where I got a ferry back to the Italian mainland and then a train up the scenic coastal railway to Genoa again. After a brief overnight stop in Genoa 

(where the temperature was 41ºC at 1745,  42º at 1830 and 30º when I left at 9 a.m. the next morning), I took the trains via Milan and Basel to Strasbourg, ready to begin the serious stuff again. 

Back to the politics.

What did I achieve politically in this time? I added my signature, along with Caroline Lucas and a range of others, to a letter from the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation to The Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which was meeting on Friday, urging continued efforts to stem the risk of war between the US and Iran. You can see the letter on twitter here.

I also signed a letter to the Venice Commission raising concerns about the betrayal of democratic standards in th UK and asking for intervention by the Venice Commission. The issues raised include several that are particularly close to my heart: the exclusion of EU citizens living and working in the UK from the franchise for the 2016 referendum, for instance, and the failures to get voting papers to people living abroad and other issues that excluded EU citizens from taking up their right to vote in the recent EU election. And, of course, the money-laundering and overspending that has been proven already in relation to the 2016 referendum. The letter was initiated by Molly Scott Cato (our excellent hard working Green Party MEP for the South West) but signed by 43 MEPs across parties.

I also signed a letter to the President of the EU Commission and the Commissioner for International Trade urging them not to conclude the EU-Mercusor trade deal (which they have now announced that they have concluded) because of its ghastly environmental consequences (it's essentially a deal for us to sent more chemicals and cars to South America and for them to export cheap Argentinian beef to the EU: a more stupid out of date set of priorities would be hard to imagine), and the threat to the environment, indigenous people and human rights posed by Brazil's President Bolsonaro. This letter was signed by 65 members of the Green-EFA group. You can read it here.

And fourthly, I added my signature to a letter to the Bureau of the European Parliament, denouncing the violation of political rights for the Catalan MEPs Charles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras and Antoni Comín, who have been prevented from taking their seats by the Spanish authorities, despite being duly elected to the European Parliament by proper process.

I've also been fixing up engagements for the next few weeks, both in the UK (for instance, I'll be speaking at a "car free day" rally run by XR in Cambridge on Saturday 6th July, as well as at the Eastern Region Green Party Regional conference on the same day, also in Cambridge; and I'm working on plans for attending a People's Vote rally in Luton on 26th July, and the opening of a food bank store near Colchester on 11th July, hopefully, if I can fit that in with travelling back from Brussels); and  a load of appointments for media work and other meetings this coming week in Strasbourg. But right now I write this from a journey back across a Europe that is boiling itself to pieces. Never has it been more urgently apparent that we need to stop all this destruction of the place we are trying to live.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

First days in the new job, Week 3

I went to Brussels again.

I went both ways by Rail and Sail this week, so left on Monday evening after a day's work, and returned by Friday morning, so that I was able to do a complete day's work on Friday, and complete some marking and other matters before the deadline for examination marks at the University.

My Brussels trip was packed with appointments from morning till night every day, but in the course of that I managed not only to attend all the Group Meetings and UK delegation meetings, but also interview some candidates who had sent their CV in the hope of coming to work for me as parliamentary assistants. Indeed a good deal of week 2 had been devoted to considering the applications and fixing up times to see the people, along with a fellow MEP and an experienced member of the existing support staff from Keith Taylor's office. From the point of view of the assistants themselves, it's a bit of a nightmare if they used to work for an MEP during the previous mandate, and then their MEP is not re-elected. Then they suddenly have to try to find a new position urgently, to pay their rent and support their families. So newly elected MEPs are the lifeline who are looking for new staff and can take on some of the ones who have experience in running an office. That's obviously pretty helpful—to get someone who has lots of knowledge of what's what, since that's what the new MEPs lack. But of course, getting work with a new UK MEP is not particularly secure. They may end up out of a job again in due course, maybe quite soon!

Besides looking for good staff in Brussels so as to be well equipped and supported by the time we start in Strasbourg in July, I also had to do all the other complicated stuff, to register as a new MEP: to get access to the IT and email facilities and so on, get a badge to come and go in the building and several other things. There's a whole area of the building that is a "Welcome Village" where you have to go to seven stations and complete various kinds of paperwork. First you need some new bank accounts though, to keep the business expenses separate from personal expenses and I'll be having some money (my travel expenses and subsistence allowances) paid in € because it is for the hotel bills and meals, and some paid in £ because it is my salary and needs to pay for my house and bills. So before I could do that bit of the registration I had to go and open a new bank account with a Belgian bank, to keep my Euro money in.

Politically, we are still in the negotiations associated with the power struggle for the new parliament, so we had good meetings working out what we are hoping to achieve and how to insist that it happens. We're also waiting to find out which committees we're on, but there are some preliminary working groups and some other fora where we can thrash out things that are of interest to us. I attended a group with a focus on Environment and biodiversity, sustainable mobility, fighting climate change and zero waste, food, health. There are further working groups relating to the committees from this coming week, but I shan't be able to join those.

On Wednesday evening I did a live interview by Skype for Euronews about the announcement of the Government's "carbon neutral by 2050" target which had been announced that morning. I also did some work with the local media in East Anglia on Friday and Saturday when I got back.

And after doing two jobs all week, I then spent part of Saturday

joining the Critical Mass Bike ride in Norwich with Extinction Rebellion,

and then attending Natalie Bennett's talk on livestock farming practices at the Forum in Norwich as part of the Compassion in World Farming event.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

First days in the new job: Week 2

This week I didn't go to Brussels. Us new MEPs aren't actually employed as MEPs until July, and we won't get paid till the end of July— and that means I am still in my old job (as a professor at the UEA), though there is precious little time to do much of that at the moment.

In fact there are many important things that I have to do, or ought to be doing, in Brussels every week at the moment. Some of this is meetings of the Green Group, which has important decisions to make and plans to develop, and the members ought to be helping to input to this, and to get a full understanding of what we are trying to achieve in this parliament. Some of it is the more boring bureaucratic stuff about getting registered and installed with an email address, a bank account, information about what to do and where to be when. And so on.

But it's not compulsory to go every week and not all of us can. Some of the UK Greens who weren't able to go last week went this week for the first time, but I had been last week and will go again next week, and I decided that I had too many things to sort out at home and at work this time. I had to see the HR people at the University for instance, about what happens to my position there: do I leave, do they keep my job in case I come back at some point? In addition I needed to mark and agree marks on a dissertation, deal with some grading of MA work, sort out various tricky aspects of my domestic and financial affairs here, and turn up for the Norwich Green Party AGM. Most of all I was anticipating the fact that I had to be away for at least part of this weekend, to attend the Green Party Conference in Scarborough.

A week in Brussels and then a load more travelling and hotels, for a weekend at Conference in Scarborough, is all very well, but I haven't really squared this new schedule with the expectations of the cat (named Pushkin) who is currently in charge of my life. Making sure that he has suitable staff to help him adjust to the new life is a task I am currently working on.

As a result of not going to Brussels this week, I am very behind, compared with some of my fellow MEPs, on setting up my staffing for my office in Brussels, so this will be a priority in this coming week. I have to get the paperwork in for the staff I want to appoint this coming week, as early as possible. That's going to be my number one priority along with attending Group meetings, catching up on what I missed, and discovering the leaders of my committees and working groups to identify what I should be getting to work on first.

Talking to lots of people at Conference this weekend made me think that it's worth saying a little about what the job of MEP involves. Some people asked me whether I was going to be giving up my current job. And the answer to that is yes: being an MEP is not a part time role, like being a Councillor for example. It is a (more than) full time occupation, and I shall no longer be working for the University, nor enrolled on the USS pension there nor having employers' contributions paid for me, nor paying my National Insurance there. I shall be employed full time by the European Parliament (though I shall continue to be registered for tax purposes in the UK).

The European Parliament has a complicated calendar. Most weeks we are at work in Brussels, to which I shall normally go on a Monday and return late on Thursday or early on Friday. Around one week per month is spent in Strasbourg, where the parliament holds its plenary meetings. In fact there are two of those weeks in July, so we begin with one of those when the job first starts. Just occasionally there is a week when we don't have to be in Brussels or Strasbourg but are expected to spend a week in the region that elected us. This is known as a "Green Week". But a close look at the calendar suggests that there is only one of those this coming Autumn, at the end of October; so for the most part I shall be abroad and rather rarely available to do things locally in the region, other than on Fridays.

For those MEPs who are elected for five years, you can see that it would make sense to get a flat or a house in Brussels and make that your principal home. After all, that's where you work and spend most of the time. Maybe my cat would like to become an unelected Eurocat? But for those of us who have been elected for the uncertain amount of time that is "until Brexit happens", it can't make sense to settle in Brussels (unless you intend never to come back, which has its attractions, on the assumption that we know what Brexit is going to do to this country). And of course, if you effectively move to Brussels, it's that much harder to ensure that you do really continue to keep in touch with the region you represent. Whatever you do, there's a lot of time away from home, and a lot of time to spend on trains. You might even ask whether it isn't just a little bit bonkers that the European Parliament has two different locations, so that everyone is working in three different places, two of which are not home. If you ask that, you will not be the first to ask!

So one of the things I have spent this week doing is planning and booking travel tickets and hotels for the next six weeks, including the two weeks in Strasbourg in July. Hotels become very scarce and rather expensive in those weeks. My bank balance doesn't quite know what's hit it: there'll be no refund of any of these expenses from the EU for a long time yet!

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Priorities for my work in the EU

I write at the end of a busy first week. There's been little time to think so far, because the complexities of embarking on a complicated life in two countries, while trying to do the marking and other commitments of a university job, leave little chance for real politics. I've even gone rather quiet on Twitter which is a shame, as much is going on and I could have had a good go at the indignities of a nation and a Queen forced to host the offensive climate-change-denying "leader" of the nation that some people want us to become enslaved to (in order to get our country back).

One of the things I want to think about, in preparing to take up office in Brussels is to which of the many aspects of Green politics I want to pay most attention. I don't need to do all of it, because I am only one of a really substantial UK contingent of Green MEPs, so that's good. And anyway no one can do all of it.

Partly my focus will be determined by what committees and delegations I get assigned (I've put in my bids on that front, but I'm not going to tell you what they are till I know whether I got the ones I wanted!).

But in addition, I want to find a way of engaging with other things, but without diversifying too broadly. To keep my work focused and manage my time, let's make a list of priority areas of special interest. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on these. My first one is described below.

Animal welfare:
This interest relates to my work on the Vegan Studies Network at UEA, and my support for Compassion in World Farming (which I inherited from my Aunt). I'd like to do some work in connection with the horrors of intensive factory farming of animals, and live exports etc. Animal welfare, the economics and benefits of traditional small scale livestock practices, good farming and good food. The problems of intensive farming of crops, pesticides, weedkillers and the loss of biodiversity that goes with factory production. The problem of imports of food, including palm oil, to service the plant-oil requirements of vegetable diets. The problem of imports of soya for intensively farmed cattle. And so on.

So this focus, let's call it good food and good welfare, with the ethics of traditional mixed farming in mind. Whose land is it anyway?

This is one theme, though it need not necessarily be placed as number one priority in a hierarchy.
I will continue with some other ones later and summarise the list when I've finished. Need to stop now for a meeting!

Saturday, 1 June 2019

First days in the new job: week 1

What have I been doing this week? Well I'm not officially in the job yet (it starts on 1st July) but that doesn't stop them holding lots of meetings in Brussels in the coming weeks leading up to our starting day.

And naturally, the European Parliament bureaucrats want lots of paperwork to make us official, so there's a process of registering (which I haven't done yet: it will require several hours of free time in Brussels and several pieces of paper that I didn't have with me on this visit, and possibly won't have for some time).

What we did do was meet up with the hugely impressive "Green Group" which is all the MEPs from the Green Parties from a range of EU countries. There was a great sense of positive progress, not least in the fact that we needed BIGGER ROOMS, and there wasn't enough space for everyone, because there are SO MANY of us. Not enough of us, naturally (why did we only win seven UK seats, you may well ask, when everyone should have been voting Green at this point?). But still, there are a lot of us, a lot more than there used to be. What's more, in the Green/EFA Group, the UK Greens comprise one tenth of the whole, or more than that if you include the four members of the EFA (SNP members and Plaid Cymru). But still, Germany and France have even larger contingents of Green MEPs than us.

I'm beginning to learn who's who and to discover all the wonderful people from other countries with whom we'll be needing to collaborate, working together in the committees to get our ambitious proposals and policy changes up and running in the next few weeks, months and years. Many of the other MEPs in the Group have been there before and are already experienced and influential in their roles, so the UK delegation is unusual in having six of our seven MEPs new to the role.

Wednesday's meeting was partly a celebration of the Party's huge success all across Europe in these elections, and partly an opportunity to get to know each other. There are also crucial decisions to be taken in working out how the Group positions itself in relation to other large groups in the Parliament, since we are now large enough to hold a "balance of power" position. No Group has an overall majority, so groups of the size of the Greens can offer support for things that are in line with our values and ideology (or decline support if there are things that we wish to oppose).

I've got a lot to learn: finding my way about in Brussels was a small and relatively simple bit of it, though since it was a Public Holiday on Thursday which was the day I was coming home, part of the metro was closed for repairs, and I had to take a rather infrequent "Sunday service" bus to Brussels Midi Station to catch the Eurostar coming home.

Finding my way about the Parliament Building will be much worse (I've only been to a few bits of it, and always with someone to take me to the right place). Getting my head round the work involved in finding and appointing staff for my offices (one office at home and one office in Brussels) is even more challenging. And then there is the urgent task of finding accommodation for the weeks we have to go to Strasbourg for sessions in the parliament there.
And probably I need to be booking travel tickets.
Tricky to do all this with no assistants in post yet, and while I still have a lot of things I have to do in my old job—most of which have been waiting for weeks, because there was no time for anything during the election campaign. And then there was the stuff at home, like the lawn that needed mowing. Finally I did that this weekend!