La Treizième Étoile: 14/02/10 - 21/02/10 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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Commission gives Microsoft thumbs-up to acquire Yahoo to rival Google

Friday, 19 February 2010
Computer giant Microsoft's plans to acquire Yahoo's internet search and advertising businesses have received a resounding thumbs-up from the European Commission, allowing the deal to go through.

In its ruling made under EU Merger Regulations, the Commission said that the deal "would not significantly impede effective competition or any substantial part of it."

Microsoft, Bing and Yahoo (Photo: the terms of the partnership which was struck and announced in July last year but unable to take effect without both EU and US consent, Microsoft's Bing will become the search engine for both sites while Yahoo will focus on attracting the big-name advertisers.

In exchange, Microsoft will retain 12% of the search engine revenues generated via Yahoo's website for the first five years of the deal, while paying the remaining 88% to Yahoo.

The Commission said its investigation into whether to approve the deal on competition grounds, showed that the deal was expected to "to increase competition in internet search and search advertising by allowing Microsoft to become a stronger competitor to Google".

Google, the first port of call for 90% of the global search market, dwarfs the figure of 7.4% for Yahoo and Bing combined, according to November data from Web research firm StatCounter.

Reacting to the news, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said regulatory approval for the tie-up represented "an exciting milestone".

"I believe that together, Microsoft and Yahoo will promote more choice, better value and greater innovation to our customers as well as to advertisers and publishers," he added.

Microsoft has had a previously difficult with the European Union since in March 2004 the EU ordered Microsoft to pay €497 million (£381 million) - the largest fine ever handed out by the EU at the time - in addition to the previous penalties, for abusing its dominant position in the market through the presence of the Windows Media Player program as default on all new computers.

The company back then was given 90 days to produce a version of Windows without Windows Media Player. (Click to read more)

European Commission refuses to be blamed for recent Belgian rail disaster

Wednesday, 17 February 2010
The European Commission has strongly refuted accusations made by Belgian train officials who suggested that delays in implementing an EU-community standard for railway signalling and safety systems is at fault for Monday's train disaster near Halle, south of Brussels, in which 18 have to date been confirmed to have lost their lives.

The devastation at Halle, Belgium (Photo: Chief Executive of Belgian railway operator SNCB Marc Descheemaecker had reportedly told the press that "the EU's hesitations on a harmonised automatic braking system caused delays to Belgian plans to secure the lines", an accusation that has been quickly rebuffed.

"We've read comments in the press this morning with some surprise, because they do call into question European safety rules. At this stage, we don't really understand these comments. We don't see that they are founded on evidence," Helen Kearns, spokeswoman for the transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, said during a press briefing yesterday.

The head-on collision near Halle, approx 14km south-west of Brussels, occurred during the morning rush hour on Monday morning and has left more than 170 injured and heavily disrupted local and international rail services.

The black boxes of the two trains were recovered this morning and an investigation into the causes of the accident has been launched which could take weeks or even months to conclude. However, it is believed that the two trains collided head-on after one apparently ignored the red light. A third train narrowly missed being involved in the wreck after “making an emergency brake”.

The force of the collision smashed one train deep into the front of the other, tearing back the metal sides and tipping the carriages high up into the air breaking the overhead power lines. As a result Eurostar services to and from Brussels have been suspended and other high speed train services to Paris and beyond suffered widespread cancellations.

It has since come to light that the collided trains were on a regional track, which had been fitted with the EU rail safety system, the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). One component of the ERTMS is the European Train Control System (ETCS) which guarantees a common standard that enables trains to cross national borders and enhances safety.

Balise on the track (Photo: system ensures communication between the tracks and the train through a series of balises, see left, which are located either adjacent to, or on the track beside line-side signals, or at required intervals. These balises liaise with the onboard ETCS equipment on the train so when a signal ahead is at red, the onboard system prevents the train from proceeding.

As for Monday's crash, even though the tracks were equipped with the system, one of the trains involved was not, Mr Descheemaecker confessed.

The EU-wide harmonisation process of 20-odd different signalisation systems across the EU begun in 2000, but was only formalised in 2005 by a memorandum of understanding signed by the Commission and the rail industry.

So far, it is only mandatory for international trains. The high-speed Eurostar, for example, uses seven different signalling systems across Belgium, France and Great Britain on its typical journey.

Train in the air following similar crash in Pécrot, Belgium, 2001 (Photo: a similar train crash in Pécrot in the Walloon region on 27th March 2001, see left, the Belgian authorities said they would install a system to stop trains automatically when they ignore a red light, but Mr Descheemaecker said "that cannot be done over night" adding that the SNCB had only installed that system on a third of its trains and expected to finish the process by 2013.

Back in 2001, the cause of the crash was principally the language barrier with the French driver unable to understand the urgent call made in Dutch from the signalman. With this EU system installed in both trains, such an accident is extremely unlikely to happen, so hopefully everyone will speak in one language in calling for quick harmonisation before another such incident occurs.

In a move that further disrupted train services in Belgium, train conductors and controllers went on "symbolic" strike on Tuesday in protest over dangerous working conditions and to protest the accusation that their colleague driver caused the crash after not stopping at a red light.

The investigation (and disruption) continues.

Polar Bears, Iran, Women & Gambling: A Strasbourg Part-Session Round-up

Monday, 15 February 2010
It was an incredible part-session in Strasbourg last week, not just because the new Commission was finally voted into office after a long wait.

MEPs made history in refusing to give their consent to the SWIFT agreement negotiated by the Commission and Council with the US to share citizen's bank data, and also voiced their continued concerns over the lack of common EU initiative to house former inmates of Guantánamo Bay.

The progress reports of Croatia, FYROM and Turkey were all formally adopted, after having already been adopted by the Parliamentary Committees, and a Commissioner-elect created a Twitter account.

But in addition to all this, there were several other important issues tackled which deserve a mention. A short summary of each follows below:

Blue Fin Tuna and Polar Bears

Blue Fin TunaMEPs voiced their support for a ban on the trade in endangered animals such as blue fin tuna and polar bears as well as products derived from these animals. They called for financial compensation for the tuna fishing sector that would be affected and expressed their desire to also keep the ban on trade in African elephants and forbid any trade in ivory until 2028.

Male/Female Equality

In its annual report on the equality between men and women in the EU, Parliament called for greater efforts to tackle violence against women, for paternity leave to be addressed at an EU level and for equal pay legislation to be revised. MEPs also said women must have control over their sexual and reproductive rights, through "easy access to contraception and abortion" - a phrase so controversial that it never made it into previous reports.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson MandelaParliament commemorated the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, recalling his role in the dismantling of apartheid and that he was the first winner of Parliament's Sakharov Prize. Exceptionally, the floor was given to Michael Cashman (UK, S&D), delegation chair for relations with South Africa, who paid a tribute on behalf of the Parliament.

Online Gambling

Online GamblingSome MEPs urged the new Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier to introduce common rules to regulate cross border online gambling in Europe. In the debate, organised in response to an Oral Question, MEPs also expressed their concerns about the effects of gambling on minors, addiction and money laundering.


Iran Nuclear ProgrammeMembers deplored the Iranian government's latest rejection of a compromise over the nuclear issue. Parliament said that Tehran "was apparently seeking to use this issue both as a means of distracting attention from the crisis within the country and as tactics to win time".

Credit for SMEs

MEPs voted to give the green light for EU funding to be used to help Europe's unemployed start up small businesses. Credit will now be made available to budding entrepreneurs through a "microfinance facility" which will be funded partly from the existing Progress programme and partly from unallocated monies in the EU budget.

Our new Commissioners - as penned by Parliament's Committees

Last week saw the European Parliament elect into office the new Commission headed by José Manuel Barroso. This concluded the long four-month process in which Commissioners were proposed by their country, named by the Council in cooperation with José Manuel Barroso, assigned by the Commission President to portfolios and finally heard and scrutinised by Parliament's committees.

After each hearing, the head of the Committee who chaired the session was duty-bound to send the Parliament's president an "evaluation" letter expressing the Committee's opinion vis-à-vis the Commissioner-designate.

Before the vote, the letters were published on the Parliament website's hearing section. Here we display a few select comments and key words from each of the committees' letters to present the new Commission team.

Joaquin ALMUNIA (ES, Vice-President and Competition Portfolio): "Committed to send all legislative, non-legislative and pre-legislative documents on competition matters to the European Parliament at an early stage. [...] He […] gave a convincing impression of his aptitude to be a member of the College of Commissioners."

László ANDOR (HU, Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Portfolio): "Considers his first priority to find a balanced way out of the social crisis by stopping the rise in unemployment and by helping the jobless return to work [...]."

Catherine ASHTON (UK, Vice-President and High Representative of Foreign Affairs): "Showed a genuine desire to work closely with Parliament in elaborating a truly common EU foreign policy [...] There is no denying that in comparison to her first address to the committee, on 2 December, Ms Ashton has shown better grasp of the issues within her extremely wide and challenging portfolio."

Michel BARNIER (FR, Internal Market and Services): "Convinced the Members of his skills as a politician and an articulate communicator, with a clear and political vision for the future development of the Internal Market [... He] reaffirmed his conviction that ethics should be at the heart of financial markets."

Dacian COILOŞ (RO, Agriculture and Rural Development): "His many years of experience in agriculture and his responsibilities in the offices he held previously in the Romanian Government and in other public services in this field mean that he is particularly well qualified for the post of Commissioner for Agriculture."

John DALLI (MT, Health and Consumer Policy): "Made a positive and constructive impression and demonstrated firm convictions on certain issues, while evading clear answers on others. He showed a pragmatic and open approach."

Maria DAMANAKI (GR, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries): "Gave clear and convincing answers to most of the questions [...] Although her institutional commitments toward the EP still lack specificity [...] this reluctance appears to be due to horizontal constraints imposed upon candidates."

Karel DE GUCHT (BE, Trade): "The Hearing was conducted in a cordial and positive atmosphere and most of the comments made by the Commissioner-designate made a very favourable impression upon the majority of Members present."

Štefan FÜLE (CZ, Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy): "Clearly stated the different nature of Enlargement and Neighbourhood policies [... He] proved a keen supporter of the enlargement strategy as beneficial to both enlargement countries and the EU [...]. All political groups, with the exception of GUE, consider he has the adequate grasp of the issues within his portfolio."

Máire GEOGHEGAN-QUINN (IE, Research, Innovation and Science): "While being new to the field, she appeared to be knowledgeable and well prepared, while also willing to listen and discuss possible points of disagreements."

Kristalina GEORGIEVA (BG,International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response): "Acquitted herself outstandingly well [...]. Her answers were coherent and showed extensive knowledge and good communication skills as well as the impartiality necessary for the portfolio."

Johannes HAHN (AT, Regional policy): "Stated he would pursue an open door policy to members of the committee and be ready to exchange views both in formal and informal meetings, and make sure there is maximum transparency [...]"

Connie HEDEGAARD (DK, Climate Action): "Members strongly agreed with her statement on a need for a new green economy with europe as the leading region in the world [...], thereby creating many new green jobs [... She] made a determined and positive impression and demonstrated a strong and ambitious approach."

Siim KALLAS (EE, Vice-President and Transport Portfolio): "Displayed a high level of European commitment, excellent communication skills and a welcome degree of candour."

Neelie KROES (NL, Vice-President and Digital Agenda Portfolio): "Has shown her integrity, independence, experience, European commitment and professional aptitude in general [...] Some groups were concerned about her understanding and vision with respect to several topics [but] the further informal meeting provided Members with reassurance regarding her aptitude for the portfolio."

Janusz LEWANDOWSKI (PL, Budget and Financial Programming): "Stated that the future financial framework should be far more flexible than the current one in order to ensure the capacity of the EU to react to unforeseen events."

Cecilia MALMSTRÖM (SE, Home Affairs): "Showed a clear commitment to make a general and objective assessment of the internal security related (EU) policies [...] so that they could become consistent, effective and comply with the security needs of EU citizens as well as well as the fundamental rights of data protection [... She] is a promising candidate."

Günther OETTINGER (DE, Energy):"It was particularly welcomed that he is convinced of the European added value of energy policy as well as his commitment to defend independently European interests."

Andris PIEBALGS (LV, Development): "Stated that [...] he would give real political momentum to establishing a European approach between member states in their development policies [...] He acquitted himself well in all respects [and] gave an optimistic and dynamic perspective."

Janez POTOČNIK (SL, Environment): "[He] placed implementation and enforcement high in his priorities [and] the Committee is confident he will develop a clearer vision of the concrete actions to be taken."

Viviane REDING (LU, Vice-President and Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Portfolio): "Affirmed that law was what makes the Union. She was enthusiastic about utilising the opportunities of the Lisbon Treaty to the full [...]."

Olli REHN (FI, Economic and Monetary Affairs): "Has the experience and personal qualifications needed. However, ECON members expressed their wish that at future meetings Mr Rehn would be more forthcoming with his views on matters that are pertinent to the portfolio."

Maroš ŠEFČOVIČ (SK, Vice-President and Inter-institutional Relations and Administration Portfolio): "Proved, beyond any doubt, his thorough knowledge and good practical experience of the functioning of the EU institutional set-up and administration […] Quite often avoided clear answers, the future seat of the Parliament being a good case in point."

Algirdas ŠEMETA (LT, Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud): "CONT criticised the approach of Mr Barroso in creating the situation where the portfolios do not match the competences of the committees [...] and trusts that Mr Šemata's communication skills will improve over time. […] Despite the misgivings cited, since the Hearing he has shown a commendable willingness to listen to Parliament's concerns."

Antonio TAJANI (IT, Vice-President and Industry and Entrepreneurship Portfolio): "His understanding of the issues and problems raised was appreciated. However, certain political groups expressed reservations on the perceived lack of depth in explaining how general political commitments will be transformed into actual policy instruments [...] Mr Tajani was perceived [...] as a skilled communicator and a dedicated European politician."

Androulla VASSILIOU (CY, Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth): "Her answers to questions on the subjects were constructive and helpful . However, they were often general rather than specific in nature, and included few detailed commitments [...]."

Click here to read the full letters of the Parliamentary Committees.

Last election:

Click here to see which six MEPs were elected.