La Treizième Étoile: 31/01/10 - 07/02/10 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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Outgoing Commissioner tells UK to improve language teaching in schools

Friday, 5 February 2010
An outgoing EU Commissioner has reportedly said British children in independent schools who have compulsory language lessons are far better off in life than their state-educated peers.

The current EU Commissioner for Multilingualism, Romanian Leonard Orban, has delivered this parting shot to Ed Balls MP, British Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, before he is due to relinquish his role next week when the Parliament gives its consent to the new Commission, of which he is to be no longer part.

Mr Orban, who speaks Romanian, English, French and Italian, and was privately taught, urged Mr Balls to improve language teaching in British schools and compared attitudes to learning languages in the UK to the rest of Europe.

Following the decisions taken to stop language learning on a compulsory basis there is a real difference - I could say a discrimination - between the children who are in independent schools and the children who are in state owned schools.

It’s completely different compared with the rest of Europe, because there is a growing interest everywhere in Europe to learn languages, for different reasons...for employability reasons - the people who have these kinds of skills can get easily better jobs.

Mr Orban is of course correct in his assessment, and it is discouraging that modern languages are not longer taught to UK students as a compulsory part of their school curriculum. While it may be just a strongly-worded parting shot, it is certainly worth a try. Pourquoi pas essayer hein?

Bellissimo! The Neapolitan Pizza receives EU trademark status

Pizzerias in Naples will be celebrating today as the pizza, the Italian city's most famous culinary creation, is now part of Europe's food heritage and protected under its new EU trademark status.

An Authentic Pizza NapoletanaToday's European Union ruling signals the end of a long battle as locals from Naples sought to protect Neapolitan pizzas from imitations produced around the world.

From today, the 'Traditional Speciality Guaranteed' label (below left) will be displayed by pizzerias who make their pizzas in accordance with the original recipe and techniques. Those outlets aspiring to supply the 'real thing' are in future supposed to be vetted by a special commission that will check standards.

According to the application submitted in February 2005, the Pizza Napoletana is a "round product baked in the oven with a variable diameter not exceeding 35 cm and a raised rim and the central part is garnished."

The 'Traditional Speciality Guaranteed' label"The central part is 0,4 cm thick, with a tolerance of ± 10 %, and the rim is 1-2 cm thick. The overall pizza must be tender, elastic and easily foldable into four."

It is distinguished by "a raised rim, a golden colour characteristic of products baked in the oven, and a tenderness to touch and to taste; by a garnished centre dominated by the red of the tomatoes, perfectly mixed with oil and, depending on the ingredients used, the green of the oregano and the white of the garlic; by the white of the mozzarella slabs which are laid either closer together or further apart, and the green of the basil leaves, which are lighter or darker depending on the baking."

It should also be easy to cut, "emits a characteristic aroma", and should be consumed immediately: "it cannot be frozen or deep frozen or vacuum packed for later sale."

Coldiretti, the Italian farmers' association had said that half of Italy's 25,000 pizzerias currently use the wrong ingredients, such as East European cheese or Ukrainian flour, but under the new rules, to be regarded as authentic, the chefs may only use San Marzano tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese.

While authorities disagree its original birthplace, the pizza in its modern form seems to have appeared in Naples in the 18th century. In fact, the pizza margherita dates only from 1889, and was invented by a Neapolitan pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, for the visit to Naples of the wife of King Umberto I. Its colours are intended to reflect those of the Italian flag.

So when you want an authentic Neapolitan pizza - look for the logo.

Bulgarian Georgieva impresses with 'perfect' performance in final hearing

Thursday, 4 February 2010
Those tuning in yesterday hoping to see another Bulgarian candidate face a grilling by MEPs in a Commissioner hearing would have left disappointed as Kristalina Georgieva, the replacement nominee, delivered a "perfect" performance on Wednesday at her hearing before the European Parliament.

Kristalina Georgieva in her Hearing (Photo: AFP)Kristalina Georgieva, above, who until recently was a Vice-President of the World Bank, was thrust into the role as commissioner-designate for humanitarian aid and crisis response after Bulgaria’s first choice for the job, Rumiana Jeleva, was forced to withdraw last month amid questions about her qualifications and business dealings.

Her three-hour hearing was markedly different from Mrs Jeleva's stormy session, mainly because Mrs Georgieva proved her competence for the job, impressing MEPs with her answers, her faith in the Parliament and her ambitions if she got the job. Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov even later described her performance as “perfect" to Bulgarian media.

The hearing in Brussels on Wednesday opened with questions surrounding the EU's response to the terrible earthquake that hit Haiti causing mass devastation in the country's capital Port-au-Prince.

Mrs Georgieva quickly identified two priority tasks for the response: providing immediate relief, especially shelter and health services, and secondly the reestablishment of the country's government, so reconstruction and long-term development work can begin.

EU aid reaching Haiti"Haiti starts from scratch, but not alone. If I am confirmed, it will be my immediate duty to make sure we Europeans bring to Haiti the best our Union has to offer," she said.

The Commissioner-designate continued that the EU can be proud of being the biggest donor of humanitarian aid, but added "we need to convince the Member states that a European protection mechanism would make sense and to move this discussion forward."

She stressed the need to improve the effectiveness of EU actions, to better respond to such crises in the future to "make our fellow European citizens proud of their support for humanitarian aid and disaster response."

She did however repeatedly skirt around questions on whether she would support the establishment of a common EU reaction force to accomplish that goal (as previously advocated by Herman van Rompuy) saying that such an initiative would have to be discussed with the EU’s new foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton, but overall was impressive.

The 56-year old was clearly on form, and it was notable how well prepared, confident and quick she was able to respond to members' questions. At one point, the Committee's vice-chair Nirj Deva (ECR, UK) asked her: "Are you prepared to fight against vested interests?" to which came the swift definite reply of "Yes Sir!" to appreciative laughter and widespread applause from members. "Do you have a follow-up question?" Mr Deva was asked, "Not after that answer but I hope other Commissioners heard that…"

Further applause ensued when she replied to a question from an MEP about why she answered the call to replace Mrs Jeleva: "There are four areas in the work of the European Commission with which I am engaged and I am very happy that I was offered namely that portfolio," she said.

"We had to face quite unusual circumstances. People in Bulgaria were not pleased. When I was invited, I felt that it is my duty.”

Twitter (Photo: Screengrab)In response to a question from Bill Newton-Dunn (ALDE, UK) about the use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs, Mrs Georgieva stated that although she is a member of the old generation she is now catching up with social networking tools and praised Twitter as a “powerful tool” and one she would use to mobilise public support for the EU's future humanitarian efforts.

It was almost as if she could do no wrong, an observation made by Michael Cashman (S&D, UK) who when given the floor said he does not have to ask her any questions, because during her hearing in the EP he was persuaded of her high expertise and intellect.

"I'm not going to ask you a question because you have already shown impressive intellectual capacity. I think we’d better switch to the procedure of approving your candidacy as soon as possible,” he said, which began another round of applause in the hall.

In a final act of humility, Mrs Georgieva revealed it was also her mother's 89th birthday and she had always wanted her daughter to learn French. "She has always believed in Europe and she has always wanted me to learn French. I've never done this and if you give me your trust and I'm confirmed in this role, I will honour the pledge that I made her and I will make an effort to learn French!"

She then read a prepared phrase in what can only be described as amateur French which was warmly appreciated not only by the French-speaking members present.

Mrs Georgieva's performance will please Commission President José Manuel Barroso whose new team is set to receive the Parliamentary nod in a vote scheduled for 9th February in Strasbourg.

The only question that has been left unanswered by the hearing is simply 'why was she not selected first time around?'

Obama's EU-US Summit snub will hurt EU's bid to be taken more seriously

Wednesday, 3 February 2010
It was exactly the kind of signal that the EU did not want - Barack Obama, the President of the United States and so one of the most powerful people on the planet, is to break with tradition and not attend a joint EU-US summit scheduled for Madrid in May – a decision that European officials only found out about through press reports.

Barack Obama, José Luis Zapatero and Herman van RompuyThis unprecedented action can no doubt be viewed as a snub to the EU and comes as a huge blow to the Union that now wants to be taken more seriously in the global arena now that the Lisbon Treaty has been fully ratified and has entered into force. Indeed, El Pais, the main paper in Spain announced as it's headline 'Obama vuelve la espalda a Europa' (Obama Turns His Back on Europe)...

But the hurt the snub caused is still no less painful after the announcement by the State department spokesman Philip J. Crowley, who on Tuesday told press in Washington that the treaty has made it unclear who the US leader should meet and when.

"Up until recently, they [summits] would occur on six-month intervals, as I recall, with one meeting in Europe and one meeting here. And that was part of – the foundation of that was the rotating presidency within the EU. Now you have a new structure regarding not only the rotating EU presidency, you've got an EU Council president, you've got a European Commission president," he said.

Remember that when the Lisbon Treaty came into force on 1 December, it created the posts of a new EU Council president and EU foreign relations chief in order to give the union a stronger voice abroad. But in addition, it kept the institution of the six-month rotating EU presidency, with the member state holding the chairmanship to do the bulk of behind-the-scenes policy work in Brussels.

El Pais' headline 'Obama vuelve la espalda a Europa' (Photo: Screengrab)This role is currently being fulfilled by Spain, who have expressed great disappointment at Mr Obama's decision. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Zapatero, was even described as being both angry and embarrassed when he heard the news.

Suggestions have been made that the US-EU summit might have to be downgraded, or even cancelled, on the grounds that 'if there is no Obama, there is no summit!'

The US president normally attends the annual summit, held in alternate years in Europe or the US. However, there is a feeling in the Obama administration that a lot of summits are light on substance. Obama was reported to be "fairly unimpressed" with the last EU-US summit in Prague last year.

The White House have since tried to make amends by leaving open the possibility of a visit to Europe later this year. A spokesman told the media that "we are still working through the president's travel schedule … and will make announcements on trips and summits when those are set."

But the real problem lies in the organisation of the summits and just who will chair them. Technically it should now be Herman van Rompuy, the newly chosen President of the European Council, but the Spanish PM Mr Zapatero is reluctant to relinquish this responsibility now that it is his country in charge of the rotating presidency.

The Summit - originally advertised on the Spanish Presidency's website for the May 25th but now removed - was to take place in Madrid upon Mr Zapatero's insistance instead of the EU headquarters in Brussels.

If it was scheduled to take place in Brussels, perhaps Mr Obama would still remain on the list of attendees, since he could have combined it with a visit to NATO's headquarters down the road...

MEP demands EU gets tough to snuff out illicit cigarette trading

Monday, 1 February 2010
A Belgian MEP has warned the EU that it must play a leading roll in upcoming negotiations to combat the trade of illicit cigarettes or it will face another 'Copenhagen Scenario' where there "are lots of promising words, but no binding agreement".

Bart Staes (Greens, BE), speaking ahead of an evening conference held in Brussels to push for more EU leadership on the issue, said that “it's essential the EU takes the lead in the final negotiations and helps to win international support for a strong Protocol to combat the illicit tobacco trade. Anything less risks resembling the disappointing outcome of the UN Climate summit in Copenhagen."

Polish authorities seizing illicit cigarettes (Photo: Telegraph)Mr Staes said illegal cigarette trade in the European Union accounts for 10% of the market, and in some western and northern African countries this share is as high as 80%. As a consequence it takes away roughly €35 billion from governments every year in lost tax revenues, and cheaper cigarettes contribute to increasing numbers of smokers and deaths.

The United Nations is due next month (14-21 March) to convene to discuss a new Illicit Trade protocol that would create a binding international agreement to combat the massive market of illegal tobacco sales.

Mr Staes is hoping this protocol will see international tracing and tracking systems put in place to enable authorities to better track where the cigarettes travel to and from, in addition to requiring trading countries to hold valid licenses, the sale of tobacco over the Internet to be restricted or banned, and will make illegal trading a more serious crime in the eyes of the law, which is hoped to act as a deterrent.

Austin Rowen, head of Unit at the Commission's Cigarettes task group at the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) said: "the illicit trade is a global problem which impacts on everyone. This is a unique opportunity to enhance international cooperation which is essential in tackling the illicit trade."

He cited the examples of Antwerp, Hamburg and Rotterdam where the "traffic at the port is just too much to fully regulate" and referred to a recent case where cigarettes have entered the EU from the Philippines as a boat's cargo that was declared as animal feed.

"Illegal cigarettes are cheaper so interest more consumers," commented Luk Joossens, an expert in illicit tobacco trade. "If the phenomenon is eradicated," he continued, "governments would have an extra €30 billion in revenues annually and by 2030 160,000 people's lives would have been saved."

The protocol is a supplementary to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), passed in 2005, was the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organisation. Currently it has the signature of 168 countries around the world, including all but one EU member state (Czech Republic).

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