Voice from Europe: Emergency and Exodus

2015 was the year we recognised Syria as the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era. In January, the EU stepped up its assistance in humanitarian funding and led international efforts to provide aid to Syria and its neighbouring countries. Over three million Syrians have fled the bloody internal conflict and we need a political solution, not air strikes, to make Syria a safe place for her people.

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Published in iScot magazine January 2016

The following month, I was chosen to negotiate a resolution on the European Parliament’s position on the so-called Islamic State, which passed by 585 votes to 34. The abuses committed by the Assad regime in Syria feed and fuel the conditions in which extremists can thrive and we have to recognise that the disastrous intervention in Iraq created the conditions for instability and radicalisation. The fight against IS is complex and cannot be a simply military matter; we need a political solution and an immediate humanitarian response.

But in happier news, the European Commission announced an investment of €1 billion to support under-25s get back into work or training. 

Meanwhile, March brought us some good news as Parliament voted for a cap on credit and debit card transaction fees, and backed a deal to provide safer lorry cab design to save the lives of the most vulnerable road users, such as cyclists. The EU Investment Bank also provided funding for the construction of a new hospital in Dumfries and Galloway. 

Shocked by the inaction over thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean, I wrote a letter with Scotland’s leading aid workers, NGOs and civic leaders calling on the European Commission and Council to immediately prioritise search and rescue operations. The overwhelming response from kind, decent people outraged by the ‘not my problem’ attitudes from those driving an anti-immigration agenda was echoed later in the year when the small body of Alan Kurdi was found washed up on a beach.

Also in April, the Schengen Information System (SIS), came into force in the UK, enabling national authorities to cooperate to fight terrorism and serious organised crime, and to quickly identify missing persons, including children.

May continued 2015’s tradition of surprise developments as, in an astounding victory for anti-slavery campaigners all over the world, Parliament voted in favour of mandatory measures to eradicate conflict minerals from the supply chain. Tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold are mined in conditions of extreme exploitation and slavery, and are found in everyday household goods such as mobile phones, laptops, hearing aids and golf clubs. According to the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), armed groups are present at more than half the mining sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the local population is illegally coerced into working in the mines, and controlled by rape and violence. I’d previously written to CEOs of the leading tech firms to ask what measures they had in place to ensure no conflict minerals were present in their supply chain and, while I appreciate that information on the origin of minerals is difficult to trace, there is no excuse for turning a blind eye to slavery.

The following month, despite pressure from right-wing organisations, June’s EU Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men Post 2015 (known informally as the Noichl Report after its rapporteur Maria Noichl). This report is truly groundbreaking, as it covers areas ranging from economic independence to gender-based violence, cyber-stalking and universal access to sexual and reproductive health. In the true spirit of gender equality, it stresses the importance of flexible working to allow both men and women to balance work and family life, and the inclusive definition of family covers LGBTI rights. Very proud to have supported it!

A bit of a silly season story for the journalists with Alyn Smith joins Pirate Party… in voting to protect Freedom of Panorama, that is! FoP is the restriction-free right to publish photographs, documentary films and other works depicting public places. A few countries – such as France, Greece and Italy - don’t have FoP, and some MEPs were trying to table an amendment that would severely limit this right. If we hadn’t voted it down, uploading your holiday pictures to Facebook would have put you in danger of breaching copyright law! Ironically, the report in question by Julia Reda of the Pirate Party actually wanted to extend Freedom of Panorama, not limit it. Talk about a rum deal…

After Parliament’s summer recess and my much-welcomed month of travelling around Scotland, September had us all hit the ground running. We saw a comprehensive ban on cloned food in the food chain, an important vote on protecting human rights against abusive surveillance, and the latest round of lipstick on the ISDS pig in TTIP negotiations. The Commission suggested replacing the controversial secret courts system (the Investor-State Dispute Settlement System, or ISDS) with an Investment Court System – a cheeky wee sleight of hand there since it maintains all the key aspects of ISDS opposed by politicians and constituents alike! Nothing but a cosmetic marketing exercise, I’m afraid – back to the drawing board with you, Commission!

At 2015’s SNP Conference in Aberdeen, I announced that the First Minister had written to the UK Government to urge David Cameron to use his veto on TTIP if the NHS is not explicitly exempted from the trade deal. I think it is possible to reform TTIP in a positive direction, and I will make every effort to do so. But if there is any risk to the provision of public services in Scotland, then TTIP will not receive SNP support.

On a happier note, MEPs declared that genuine tartan should receive EU-wide protection. Currently, Dunlop Cheese, Arbroath Smokies and Dundee cake are products with Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) status. So why not tartan? Goodness knows that, living in Edinburgh, I’ve seen enough shonky plaid masquerading as tartan to last me a lifetime...

But November brought us back to earth with a bump, as we all reeled in horror following the senseless attacks in Paris. Coinciding with the massacre, the Commission proposed a package of measures to make it more difficult to acquire firearms in the EU, to strengthen cooperation between Member States, and to ensure deactivated firearms are rendered inoperable. Yes, there are already firearms rules but their implementation has been patchy at best. Europe’s security environment is changing and we must adapt.

And so we end the year as we started it, with Syria. While the UK Government deliberated air strikes in Syria, the EU Trust Fund announced a major aid package to release life-saving assistance to the 1.5 million vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. This is the single biggest aid package ever announced by the EU, at €350 million and will enable refugees to access basic education and child protection, and will improve access to healthcare, water, and wastewater infrastructure. The EU Trust fund enables the EU and Member States to jointly intervene in humanitarian crises through one programme. Money won’t end this war and we must now redouble our efforts to find a political solution to make Syria safe for her people.

So what challenges will 2016 bring? Well, Syria won’t be stabilised overnight but I’m hopeful that the EU will play an important part in the Vienna negotiations. Farmers will get a chance for better protection against supermarkets as the McGuinness report on Unfair Trading Practices (UTPs) goes to Committee. Europe will continue to lead the fight against climate change (the renewable energy sector employs over 1 million people).

And of course, Mr Cameron might finally release his proposed date for the EU referendum!