La Treizième Étoile: 10/01/10 - 17/01/10 Blog Archives
News from the European Union with a focus on the South West UK and Gibraltar region and its MEPs
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Expelled EuroParl Vice-President could sue Tories for 'unfair dismissal'

Friday, 15 January 2010
Edward McMillan-Scott, a British MEP who when re-elected a Vice-President of the European Parliament last July was expelled from the Conservative Party could file a law suit on the grounds of unfair dismissal.

Edward McMillan-ScottMr McMillan-Scott (above), broke with party orders and stood last July against Michal Kaminski, the Polish MEP and leader of the new alliance of which the UK Conservatives are a part of because of, because of his "anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist links".

Following his re-election, the party whip was removed, and Mr McMillan-Scott was expelled without apparent notice or reason in September 2009.

A former leader of the Conservative MEPs, Mr McMillan-Scott was the architect of their 1999 link with the EPP Group which was replaced in July by David Cameron's ECR Group.

Mr McMillan-Scott explained that he had written to David Cameron and had made numerous private contacts with senior figures since the Conservative Party Conference to arrive at a positive conclusion. But his correspondence fell on deaf ears.

Michal Kaminski"I stood against Kaminski [left] because he represented the rise of disguised extremism at a key moment in European politics - the start of a new European Parliament which saw gains by the far right in 13 out of 27 EU countries, including the BNP in Britain," he writes in a statement on his website.

"My lawyers – the best in their field – say the expulsion was unconstitutional, against natural justice and grossly disproportionate. Paul Daniels, a partner in the leading firm of solicitors Russell Jones and Walker, has advised that I have a clear action for breach of contract in the High Court. I am taking further advice, including from Counsel. This is not about me: it is about the values of the next British government."

"There is no shame in losing the whip on a point of principle: to be expelled for the same thing was disproportionate and plainly against natural justice," he continued.

The party will now seek to prevent his candidacy in the next European Election, which he says is because he was "merely for making a stand on matters of personal conscience."

"This raises very serious ethical, legal and political issues," he wrote. "As a Conservative Party member for 42 years, an MEP for 25, leader of the MEPs for four and a Conservative Board member for three years, this is no longer the Party I knew."

In response, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote to Mr McMillan-Scott setting out the steps he would need to take before the whip was restored. These steps included resigning as the parliament's vice-president, withdrawing the allegations against Kaminski and issuing a heart-felt apology to him.

With no such action on the horizon, Mr McMillan-Scott has stressed he will continue to serve his constituents as an 'Independent Conservative' regardless of his party status, while seeking to rebuild the relationship with the EPP.

Kazakhstan makes history as new chair of European security body

A little bit of history was made yesterday as Kazakhstan became the first state of the former Soviet Union to assume the presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

This is the first time an Asian nation gets to chair the 56-member group and it is the largest and the most developed of the former Soviet republics east of the Urals, Kazakhstan that has assumed the chairmanship.

OSCE and Kazakhstan flags (Photo: rferl.org)Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said his country takes on the role in the midst of "an era complicated by the global financial crisis and tectonic shifts taking place in the global order."

In this role, Kazakhstan will chair the negotiations on the European security dialogue within the OSCE which some countries continue to grant much importance to its framework for European security dialogue.

However, several OSCE member countries in the West say Kazakhstan does not qualify to hold the group's chairmanship because of its questionable democratic record, and that Mr Nazarbayev, who has served as president since Kazakhstan became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, has been criticised for curbing political activities by the opposition and imposing heavy restrictions hampering the freedom of the nation's press.

Undeterred however, Kazakhstan says it will fully support efforts aimed at bringing the East and West together in order to develop better understanding of the key issues of the modern world.

Founded in July 1973, the OSCE is the world's largest security-oriented intergovernmental organisation, with a mandate that includes issues such as arms control, human rights, freedom of the press and ensuring free and fair elections.

It is an ad hoc organization formed under the United Nations Charter (Chap. VIII), and involves 56 participating States are from Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North America.

In a similar model to the European Council, it has a rotating chairmanship, although unlike the council the chairmanship changes annually rather than every six months.

Last year was the turn of Greece, and in 2011 the chairmanship will move on to Lithuania, then Ireland the following year.


German Oettinger wastes little energy impressing MEPs

Thursday, 14 January 2010
The nomination of Günther Oettinger to the post of Energy Commissioner last October came as a big surprise to many in Brussels and Berlin because the former premier of the southern German länder of Baden-Wuerttemberg has no track record in European politics and little professional experience in the field.

Yet, at the end of his three-hour hearing last Thursday morning, MEP members of the Industry and Environment Committee (ITRE) were all united in their applause and congratulations for the candidate's "clear and precise" answers, "thorough knowledge" of the subject and prospective outlook for the EU.

Günther Oettinger, Commissioner-designate for Energy in Brussels, 14 January 2009 (Photo: European Parliament)Indeed, throughout the whole hearing Mr Oettinger (above) sat calmly in the hotseat and remained composed, hardly consulting his meagre one-sheet of notes, able to respond directly to the answers posed to him, and all in keeping within his allotted time - something which cannot perhaps be said for the other Commissioner-designates that have already undergone their hearings...

As for his message to the Committee members: he was firm in stating that Europe needed to urgently curb its dependence on imports of oil and gas, help protect the climate and tighten the security of energy supplies.

"Fossil fuels are a characteristic of our energy world and with that goes dependency on imports," he said. "We need a paradigm shift and our goal should be de-carbonisation."

He declared the EU's pledge of 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 pronounced in the run-up to December's Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen was "very ambitious and courageous, but important" and said the EU must eventually look to go further.

He stressed the importance he attaches to reaching these targets by vowing to "push towards making them legally-binding if in two years not enough is achieved and we're in danger of missing the targets."

The German Commissioner-designate then expressed his support for new energy projects such as the Nabucco pipeline (left), which when completed he said would reduce the EU's dependence on Russian supplies.

Nabucco pipeline (Photo: ibox.bg)"We have to reduce our dependence on Russia without backing out of our strategic relation with Russia, which has characterised our last ten years and will characterise the next 10 years," he argued.

He also suggested that the EU should "speak with one voice" on energy matters, underlining that it needs to "move forward from bilateral agreements to European agreements" with third-party countries.

Claude Turmes (Greens, LU) then enquired about Mr Oettinger's alleged close links to the CEOs of dominant German energy companies E.ON and RWE and how he would remain independent company interests in favour of the EU's millions of consumers.

His response was to assure members "You can trust me to show objectivity and independence," before later promising he would not toe Berlin's line when carrying out his new job. "I have no intention to be partial in favour of Germany," he said, who have a large vested interest in ensuring the success of the Nord Stream gas pipeline that will eventually link Russian supplies to the European Union via the Baltic Sea.

There was one major issue left for Mr Oettinger to answer on, and that was nuclear energy which is controversial in some European countries while the main source of electrical supply in others. Rather diplomatically, the Commissioner-designate took a neutral line stressing that "on the basis of the current treaty it is up to national governments and parliaments to decide on that."

After the hearing, praise for Mr Oettinger's performance was widespread from MEPs. Alejo Vidal-Quatras on behalf of the EPP group commented that he gave a "convincing performance. He's identified core challenges of EU energy policy. And he gave the answers too!"

Similarly, Hannes Swoboda of the S&D Group said he "is for the highest standard concerning nuclear security and he is dedicated to realise the EU climate policy."


Translated documents clear Bulgarian Jeleva of financial non-declarations

The website New Europe has this afternoon made public some documents it has obtained and had professionally translated that make it fundamentally apparent that under-pressure Commissioner-designate Rumiana Jeleva no longer has any role in Globul Consult company and did not have any participation which is/was not permissable by law.

The documents reveal a number of important details that are of direct relevance to the controversy, such as how Globul Consult was renamed Auto Spa, and that the company was not active for the years 2007 and 2008.

They also display the names of new owners and a new manager, a certain Iveta Kirilova Koleva, and show that on 9th April 2009 (a few months before the European Parliament Elections) Mrs Jeleva sold all of her shares in the company for their nominal value. She did not therefore realise any profit and so was not obliged accordingly to make any such declaration under Bulgarian legislation.

At least this resolves half of the concerns voiced by MEPs. Now she just has to convince them she knows what on earth she is talking about regarding her dossier. That must just prove to be an even harder task...


Gloves come off and handbags are out as squabbles begin on Commissioners

The European People's Party (EPP), the majority centre-right group, has begun to mount an attack on one of the left's commissioner candidates and has vowed to defend its own contested nominee, Mrs Jeleva from Bulgaria.

Following Mrs Jeleva's disastrous hearing on Tuesday, the leader of the Socialist & Democrat group at the Parliament (S&D) Martin Schulz has reportedly sent a letter to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso "to inform him of the very serious doubts the group has regarding the Bulgarian candidate."

The EPP have responded by strongly defending Mrs Jeleva, a former MEP and a former vice-chairman of the group, who they say was the victim of a "witch hunt" and subject to "unfair treatment" by the rival parties.

"We will defend the integrity of her personality against unfounded allegations," EPP deputy chairman Jozsef Szájer, in charge of the commissioners' hearings, told journalists last night, before labelling the allegation potential conflict of interest as "minor".

Jozsef SzájerMr Szájer (left) then used the same briefing to attack a Socialist commissioner candidate later insisting it was not a tit-for-tat move.

He distributed copies of a document drafted (but not officially released) by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental body monitoring elections, frozen conflicts and human rights around the world, in which Maroš Šefčovič, the Slovakian nominee for vice-president of the Commission in charge of administrative affairs, is cited as saying in 2005 that ethnic Roma were "exploiters of the Slovak welfare system."

"We are very worried about the statement of Mr Maroš Šefčovič which he made on 19 January 2005, when the Commission organised a conference on human rights and EU migration policies," Mr Szájer said.

"I don't think that the future vice-president of the European Commission, responsible for such sensitive issues as recruitment, as equal opportunities, as gender, can have such discriminatory views on this."

Mr Szájer then warned that the Slovak would have a rough ride when he appears in Parliament next week at his once hearing scheduled for Monday afternoon in Strasbourg.

An source close to the EPP leader apparently off-record said that both candidates (Mrs Jeleva and Mr Šefčovič) "were dead" - which hardly seems fair as the latter has yet to appear before MEPs!

It would certainly appear to me that the EPP has been keeping Mr Šefčovič's quote aside for use when one of its own Commissioner-designates comes under pressure, which is not only petty but somewhat irresponsible. In my view, if any particular Commissioner-designate is not the right man (or women) for the post, he/she should be changed, regardless of the political affiliation - but tell that to the Parties!

It would seem to me additionally that Mr Szájer's views are in themselves contradictory to his party's statements saying it was against personal attacks or "manhunts"... But nonetheless the gloves have come off and the political handbags are out.

Expect a bitter scrap - perhaps even some blood shed - but if it runs too long then it will put at risk the scheduled vote on the entire team on the 26th January and further delay the starting date of the new Commission; something that none of the political groupings want.

A closer look at Mrs Jevela's financial declaration documents...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010
One curious and unusual happening in Mrs Jeleva's hearing yesterday evening which I regrettably did not include in my piece earlier, was the distribution (mid-session) of a number of documents which apparently supported her case that she did declare all her financial interests.

Screenshot of Mrs Jeleva's July 2009 Financial Declaration to the European ParliamentThese documents distributed were predominantly in Bulgarian (although some in German) - which meant very few of the parliamentarians present were able to read them.

German MEP Gabriele Zimmer intervened to condemn such distribution and said "we should suspend this hearing until we have a proper atmosphere." The session was not suspended but Parliamentary officials were instructed to take the papers back, but a number of people refused to hand them over generating an air of disorder and chaos.

But I've been doing some digging, and thanks largely to Google Language Tools (by no means perfect but a substantial help here), we can look closer at these documents, which are Mrs Jeleva's official declarations to the Bulgarian Court of Auditors, which she is by law required to do annually.

However, these still paint quite a confusing picture.

Her 2009 declaration (web) (pdf) for example, states "nothing to declare" on all accounts, stating that she owns no property and has no source of income of any kind.

The year previous, her submitted 2008 declaration (web) (pdf) records "refunds" from the European Parliament for an amount totalling €73,000 (item 7.3) as well as shares in the Global Consult firm amounting to some €2,500 (item 7.2). This figure similarly appears in her 2007 declaration (web) (pdf - item 7.3).

Also circulated in the meeting were Mrs Jeleva's financial declarations to the European Parliament.

One of them, filed on 20 June 2007, says that she is the manager of the Global Consult company.

Another, filed on 14 November 2007, says she has "nothing to declare" on all accounts, and the same goes for the years 2008 (filed 9 January 2009) and 2009 (filed 1 July).

So why is that interest stated on the Bulgarian records until 2008, not stated at all on the numerous European Parliament declarations after June 2007? What happened to that company?

What is additionally strange about these four Parliament declarations is that none of them, which incidentally had been accepted by the European Parliament's services at the time, were actually signed by the MEP herself. Which raises further questions about the procedure...

Since it is not for me to explain why these omissions exist, it will certainly be interesting to how the questions this raises will be answered.

[Incidentally, anyone who speaks/reads Bulgarian is very welcome to correct me if I have misread the documents... I would also be very keen to learn your views.]

Rumiana Jeleva's 'Hearing from Hell' leaves Barroso with crisis on his hands

I enjoyed speaking with you today," she said before collecting her notes and shuffling quickly out of the Hearing Chamber last night. Somehow, I am not so sure that the Bulgarian Commission-designate Rumiana Jeleva meant that, after she was put under great scrutiny over possible undeclared conflicts of interest in her financial affairs, which left MEPs unconvinced of her suitability.

In light of such question marks beforehand, she faced a real challenge in trying to convince MEPs she was the right person for the job, and the immediate response is quite clear that she failed. Miserably.

Rumiana Jeleva at her hearing (Photo: European Parliament)It is indeed somewhat ironic that it would in fact be Mrs Jeleva (above) who would be responsible for taking the lead in the EU's 'Crisis Response' in her potential position as Commissioner for the newly-created International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response portfolio. But instead Commission President José Manuel Barroso is the one who needs to resolve this crisis, and quick.

In the hearing and in reply to questions asked by Thijs Berman (S&D, NL) at the beginning of the meeting and later on by Michael Cashman (S&D, UK) and Judith Sargentini (Greens/EFA, NL), Mrs Jeleva was eventually forced to declare: "I don’t have anything to hide (...) I would like to point out that I have been a public person since 2007. I have declared everything I have been obliged to. Any allegations against my husband or myself are totally, completely unfounded."

But fellow Bulgarian MEP, Antonyia Parvanova, begged to differ. "What Madame Jeleva has said I am afraid is not the truth,” she said adding that she had seen the official Bulgarian documents showing that Mrs Jeleva had managed this company until 9 June 2009. [Note: any undeclared financial interest would put Jeleva in breach of European Parliament rules (as a former MEP) and European Commission rules (as a commissioner).]

Ms Parvanova then claimed that Mrs Jeleva still owned a 60% share in Global Consult, which has been sold and renamed in the meantime, again in contradiction with Bulgarian law.

The Commissioner-designate then did not do herself many favours by seeming to contradict herself in her response, saying she had anticipated the attacks but was unable to indicate the amount for which she had sold her shares in the company.

But it wasn't just on this delicate issue that MEPs remained unsatisfied with her answers. Indeed, it could be argued she failed to show sufficient knowledge of the policy area she had been assigned to.

She responded to most questions in only general terms, pledging to work in cooperation with other commissioners and the Parliament, to visit hotspots personally, and to prepare scenarios in advance. A standard tactic nonetheless but in response to one question, she unbelievably showed her ignorance of the current state the Gulf of Aden (a global hotspot situated between Yemen and Somalia where attacks by pirates have multiplied and Bulgarian nationals among others are being held hostage) saying how she wishes to view and inspect such areas for herself, and to reassure herself about the "communication between field expertise and the local authorities contributing to relief efforts by allowing full and open access to the professional aid workers."

Mrs Jeleva said the humanitarian situation in Congo is 'for a lower-ranking official to know' (Photo:rnw.nl)Later on in another round of questioning, she was pressed to comment on the humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to which she answered that it was for a lower-ranking official to know such details, adding she was not applying for the position of director-general. Oops...

But at least she was a little realistic, stating an early contender for the understatement of the year award with: "I can assure you that I will not solve the whole problem in Gaza."

How good are you at dealing with 27, or it could be any number, that don't believe what you are saying?" enquired Bill Newton Dunn (ALDE, UK) while Hannes Swoboda (S&D, AT) said in a statement “I don’t give a final judgement because we have to decide as a group, of course as a whole, but for the Socialists and Democrats, for the moment, it is a no, that is for the moment.

Compatriot Ivaylo Kalfin (S&D, BG), who served as his country's foreign minister before Mrs Jeleva took over in 2009, said "I don't feel like commenting. It was shameful. Jeleva did not do well."

"She spoke in bad English, and did not give good answers. She told outright lies about the conflict of interest issue," he was quoted by Novinite as saying on national radio.

But it was Dutch Green MEP Mrs Sargentini, a staunch opponent in her questioning during the hearing, who was most outspoken afterwards saying Mrs Jeleva's performance on policy issues was very poor.

"If I was the Bulgarian government, I would immediately nominate somebody else," she said.


Barroso forced to defend 'Gangster Bride' Commissioner ahead of Hearing

Tuesday, 12 January 2010
If there was to be a weak link in the proposed Commission then you would have to look no further than the Bulgarian foreign minister and a former MEP, Rumiana Jeleva, who is due to appear before MEPs this afternoon to be scrutinised on her suitability for a role in the new Barroso II Commission.

It is hardly a secret that doubts exist about Mrs Jeleva's candidacy, since officials have long been admitting that if one would-be commissioner will be forced to go by the Parliament, it was most likely to be her.

Rumiana Jeleva (Photo: euroxpress.es)Critics have pointed to her lack of policy experience and her apparently relatively poor English language skills (although fluent in German), which will no doubt be important since all designates (expect Ms Jeleva) declare themselves fluent in English...

It is perhaps with these considerations in mind that her original allocation to the consumer protection dossier was revised to instead nominate her for the entirely new portfolio of International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response - which is certainly seen as one of the least important dossiers on offer.

And if that wasn't enough, reports in the European press have brought to light allegations of her husband having connections with organised crime (the respected German paper Die Welt even referred to her recently as the "gangster bride") and her past position as the owner and/or manager of a trading company called Global Consult and another called Auto Spa, which she is alleged to have not declared.

Bulgarian legislation stipulates that the MEPs are not entitled to conduct any other sort of paid activities in addition to their work in Brussels, and the debate into a potential conflict of interest raged upon her election to the Parliament as an MEP in 2007.

Sensing that MEPs will look to delve into these undeclared financial interests and her personal and family background, Commission president José Manuel Barroso has apparently taken the unprecedented step of sending a letter to MEPs telling them that any accusations levelled against the Bulgarian EU commissioner nominee must be backed up by proof.

"Anyone accusing anyone of any wrongdoing should of course present corresponding evidence, as in our democratic societies the rule of law implies that the accuser should prove accusations," he writes in the letter.

"All the commissioner-designates' declaration of interests have been looked at carefully in terms of respect for the terms of the Code of Conduct. Ms Jeleva confirmed to me that her declaration, like those of other commissioners, respects the Code."

Speaking ahead of the hearings in a press conference on Monday morning, Andrew Duff MEP (ALDE, UK) said that "we are all conscious of the press speculation, especially in the German press, on the family's business concerns. And I am certain that the hearing of her is to be focussed upon some of those issues."

Mr Duff, who is charged with overseeing how the hearings are carried out, also said that MEPs would not hesitate to ask Mr Barroso for more information if they felt that a candidate was not forthcoming enough.

With the Parliament only permitted by the Treaties the opportunity to vote on the entire Commission and not on each individual candidate, Mr Barroso will be keen to ensure each candidate is to Parliament's satisfaction.

It will therefore be interesting to see how Ms Jeleva's Hearing goes this afternoon and to what extent members will interrogate her on these matters in light of Mr Barroso's letter.

To watch the proceedings yourself, click here. (Hearing runs from 3.30-6.30pm GMT).


Seizures of Euro banknotes rise but fewer counterfeit coins about in 2009

Monday, 11 January 2010
The number of fake Euro banknotes seized in the second half of 2009 rose by eight percent from the first half of the year while the number of counterfeit Euro coins removed from circulation has fallen, the European Central Bank and Commission have individually announced today.

Das liebe Geld... by xxxTraumvogel on flickr"In the second half of 2009 a total of 447,000 counterfeit Euro banknotes were withdrawn from circulation", an ECB statement said.

While this rise was slower than in the first half of last year, the central bank has reported a 17% jump in the number of seized counterfeit notes.

"The proportion of counterfeits is still very low", the statement continues reminding that roughly 12.8 billion genuine banknotes are still in circulation throughout the Eurozone.

As is often the case, the banknotes of mid-level value were the most often seized, with the 20 Euro (£15) notes representing 47% of the total.

Almost all of those counterfeit operations uncovered (97%) comprised of 20, 50, and 100 Euro denominations, and more than 98% of all counterfeit notes were found within the 16-member Eurozone.

€1 coinsMeanwhile, the second consecutive decrease in the number of counterfeit coins seized - down 12% compared with the year before - confirms, according to the Commission, that "the actions to render Euro coins safer for users" are effective.

The Commission has reaffirmed its belief that counterfeit Euro coins are "not a significant cause of concern for the public", but say that although the decreases are encouraging "there is no room for complacency and efforts to remove counterfeits from circulation should be maintained and intensified."

Indeed, the overall number is very small by comparison with the total number of around 15 billion genuine Euro coins put into circulation of the three highest denominations, with a resulting ratio of 1:89,000 - in other words for one counterfeit coin for every 89,000 genuine.

A Commission proposal is in fact currently being discussed in Parliament which further aims to improve the fight against coin counterfeiting.

Drama set to start as future Commissioners face MEP grilling

Beginning this afternoon and continuing over the course of this week, Brussels will play host to a series of public hearings with each of the 26 Commissioner-designates (plus Catherine Ashton) to face touch questions from the Parliamentary Committees.

All 26 Commissioner-designates (Photo: European Parliament)Each "Commissioner-designate" whose name had been put forward by the Council and Commission President José Manuel Barroso will each have to face three gruelling hours of questioning by MEPs that sit on the committees relevant to their proposed portfolios in order for the members to fully ascertain whether they are suitable for the job.

Each designate will thus, as laid down in Annex XVII of Parliament's Rules of Procedure, be evaluated on the basis of their general competence, European commitment and personal independence. They will also be assessed on their knowledge of the prospective portfolio and their communication skills. Once their interrogation time is over the committees will deliberate and send their conclusions to the Conference of Presidents who will then discuss the conclusions.

It is at this point that any possible requests for portfolio changes or in the composition of the proposed Commission will emerge.

In order to help citizens, journalists, MEPs and staff members alike to fully follow the hearing process, Parliament has set up a new website that outlines in great detail the procedures involved, the timetable of each hearing, their locations and full CVs of each Commissioner-delegate.

This site, we're told, will also include all the official documents relating to the hearings as soon as they become available, including the answers to written questionnaires prepared by MEPs and all press releases relating to the hearings will also appear on this site. In case you were in need of something to read before going to bed...

You can access the site by visiting europarl.europa.eu/hearings.

Under the current treaties, Parliament can only approve or reject the new Commission as a whole and will not have the opportunity to vote down (if necessary) any individual candidate.

But cast your mind back to the events of six years ago (2004), when after pressure applied by MEPs before its final vote ultimately led to two changes in the line-up of Commissioners and one proposed candidate having his designated portfolio changed. An undoubted victory for the Parliament.

Catherine Ashton (Photo: novinite.com)(It is worth noting here that one candidate due to appear this afternoon - the Brit Catherine Ashton (left) - is safe in her role after being named the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy - see previous blog.)

Parliament will hold its final vote on Mr Barroso's new team on 26th January at an especially convened plenary session in Brussels.

So there remains plenty of time for drama to unfold... and 2010 has only just begun!

See the timetable for the hearing here (pdf).


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