Lisboa, 31 de Outubro 2012: O Movimento Liberal Social (MLS), face às manifestas dificuldades em estabilizar as contas públicas pelo lado da despesa, vem exprimir as suas preocupações quanto à pertinência de manter o actual texto da Constituição da República Portuguesa.
1. A Constituição Portuguesa foi redigida em 1976 com um cunho ideológico marcadamente orientado para uma via socialista;
2. Os juízes do Tribunal Constitucional (TC) dispõem da possibilidade de realizar interpretações quase arbitrárias sobre aquilo que entendem ser o "espírito da Constituição";
3. O texto atual da Constituição oferece margem de manobra suficiente para que essas interpretações interfiram no processo político com um vínculo ideológico específico, instrumentalmente desadequado à realidade atual e desconectado dos valores de um número muito significativo de portugueses;
4. Os acontecimentos recentes, nomeadamente o "chumbo" do Orçamento de Estado de 2012 por parte do Tribunal Constitucional, e ameaças de chumbos a posteriores Orçamentos, constituem uma interferência lesiva do poder judicial sobre os poderes legislativo e executivo, que ultrapassa o que deveria ser a função da Constituição e a respetiva missão essencial do Tribunal Constitucional;
5. O Orçamento do Estado português, medido em percentagem do PIB, atingiu dimensões historicamente preocupantes, sendo muito maior do que era em 1976, quando a Contituição foi redigida. A estrutura etária era então muito diferente da de hoje. Actualmente, a geração "baby boom" está a reformar-se, sendo que o envelhecimento da população traz encargos acrescidos para os orçamentos da Saúde e da Segurança Social;
6. Em vista de tudo o acima exposto, a Constituição transformou-se num bloqueio para o saneamento das contas públicas, sem o qual o país poderá atingir uma bancarrota que excederá a vontade política do FMI, ou de outras entidades internacionais, de resgatar Portugal, conduzindo a um Estado incapaz de pagar salários, reformas e de manter as suas funções básicas.
Assim, o Movimento Liberal Social apela a que:
1. A Assembleia da República inicie uma revisão constitucional extraordinária;
2. O Partido Socialista colabore urgentemente na alteração do texto constitucional contitucional, que contribui para manter o país no atual impasse;
3. Seja revista a Constituição de forma a enquadrar os limites de acção do Estado em vez de lhe conferir plenos poderes para gerir a vida económica dos cidadãos, nomeadamente nos campos da Saúde, da Educação e da Segurança Social;
4. Que se altere a constituição de forma a enquadrar o direito ao trabalho para que:
- promova a igualdade de oportunidades entre todos os trabalhadores, públicos e privados, impedindo a restrição ao direito ao trabalho de uns através da atribuição de privilégios excessivos a outros.
- os impostos não se tornem efetivamente num confisco dos rendimentos do trabalho e do investimento, tranformando-se em limitadores da liberdade individual e em redutores dos incentivos ao mérito, ao empreendedorismo e ao crescimento económico do país no geral.
Lisboa, 25 de Outubro de 2012 - O MLS, após análise das principais medidas propostas pelo governo, tendo em conta as limitações orçamentais existentes e querendo que Portugal retorne ao crescimento, considera que:
- Deverá existir uma profunda reflexão nacional sobre a permanência do país na zona Euro. Os problemas atuais devem-se em grande medida às condicionantes que o Euro coloca ao país. O MLS continua a acreditar que permanecer no Euro é importante para o futuro de Portugal, mas tal, implica condicionantes permanentes na gestão do mesmo e fortes sacrifícios no curto e médio prazo. É importante que os portugueses decidam, conscientemente, entre permanecer no Euro e aceitar as suas condicionantes, ou voltar a ter a sua moeda própria;
- Existe um consenso nacional de que a carga fiscal é atualmente excessiva. Ora, se a carga fiscal é excessiva, e não é evidente que no médio prazo o país vá retornar ao crescimento, a única solução é cortar na despesa;
- Cortar na despesa, implica necessariamente cortar nas grandes áreas da despesa pública: segurança social, pensões e massa salarial da função pública, tudo o resto, devendo ser optimizado, não chega para resolver os problemas orçamentais do Estado;
- No que toca à massa salarial da função pública, e não permitindo a Constituição a redução dos salários, a única solução que resta ao governo é reduzir numericamente os postos de trabalho. Não consideramos esta situação ideal, particularmente no presente, pois aumentará o desemprego e reduzirá os serviços prestados aos portugueses, mas, é a única alternativa viável, após revisão das normas laborais que se aplicam à função pública;
- No que toca às pensões, deverá caminhar-se para um sistema semelhante a outros países, como a Suíça, onde é determinado um máximo na componente pública da pensão, componente esse que tem como objectivo assegurar apenas uma qualidade de vida mínima. Responsabilizando-se o indivíduo por assegurar a restante componente da reforma de outras formas. Quando mais cedo se iniciar a discussão sobre este tema e alteração do sistema de pensões, mais benéfico será para o país;
- No que toca às restantes prestações de segurança social, deverão ser revistas e reduzidas, por forma a assegurar a sua sustentabilidade;
- É hoje evidente que Portugal só poderá retomar o crescimento económico com impostos mais reduzidos. A justa ambição dos portugueses a terem rendimentos superiores só irá ser possível, com uma redução sustentável da despesa e um enfoque no crescimento do sector privado;
- Sem se iniciar um debate sério sobre quais os serviços públicos que os Portugueses desejam, os limites do Estado, e as alterações duras mas necessárias que deverão ser realizadas urgentemente, parece-nos difícil que os problemas do país venham a ser resolvidos, até porque, o défice continua a ser em grande parte colmatado com medidas temporárias (ex: privatizações, taxas “extraordinárias”). O atual governo, tem essencialmente adotado uma política de "tapa buracos", resolvendo problemas no curto prazo, mas sem definir uma estratégia clara de longo prazo para o país;
O MLS acredita no futuro de Portugal e nos portugueses, mas é tempo de começarmos a construir um Portugal para o futuro, assente numa despesa pública sustentável e no empreendedorismo. O primeiro passo para tal, seria, a existência de uma bastante maior honestidade no debate político e frontalidade de todas as forças politicas para com as consequências das medidas propostas.
Lisboa, 15 de outubro de 2012 - O MLS, face às recentes polémicas de renovação da frota automóvel do grupo parlamentar do PS e, anteriormente, do governo, vem exigir que todos os cidadãos que exercem cargos políticos tenham moderação no momento de decisão de aquisição de novas viaturas ou de aluguer de longa duração das mesmas.
No momento que o país atravessa, com subidas brutais de impostos e novos sacrifícios a serem exigidos semanalmente aos portugueses, é particularmente difícil aos eleitores compreender por que motivo os seus representantes se deslocam em serviço em viaturas topo de gama, em que o status é um factor predominante de escolha, quando deveriam dar um exemplo de moderação e contenção e escolher viaturas com base em critérios utilitários e económicos. Dada a impossibilidade de medir no total dos órgãos do Estado o impacto económico nesta questão, o que está verdadeiramente em causa é a moralidade deste tipo de despesas por parte de representantes dos cidadãos, mais do que qualquer eventual poupança imediata.
Os detentores de cargos políticos, em nome dos cidadãos que os elegeram, deveriam aproveitar o momento para, à semelhança de outras áreas, rever o que é feito nos países “ricos” no que toca a este tema, constituindo a Alemanha e a Suécia dois bons exemplos:
- Na Alemanha e Suécia, um dos benefícios dos deputados, é ter um passe anual que lhes garante o acesso à utilização de qualquer comboio no país, sendo incentivados a utilizar este meio de transporte nas suas deslocações de trabalho no país;
- Na Suécia, os deputados têm direito apenas ao reembolso dos custos de deslocação no meio de transporte mais barato disponível para o local de destino.
Assim, o MLS sugere, em nome da moralização do exercício de cargos políticos, seguindo os bons exemplos dos países “ricos” do Norte da Europa, que:
- Em vez de cada grupo parlamentar ter uma frota própria de viaturas, faz mais sentido existir uma frota partilhada por todos os deputados, à semelhança do que sucede noutros parlamentos na Europa, selecionada tendo em conta critérios transparentes e evitando luxos desnecessários para viaturas de serviço;
- Nas deslocações fora de Lisboa devem ser utilizados preferencialmente os transportes públicos, em classes económicas. Se um membro do governo ou deputado pretender optar por um meio de transporte mais dispendioso, deve pagá-lo do seu próprio bolso e não através dos impostos dos portugueses.
Consideramos ainda que, além da moralização necessária ao exercício de um cargo público e de um bom exemplo de moderação para todos os portugueses, a adoção deste tipo de políticas teria a grande vantagem de dar aos senhores deputados e membros do governo uma experiência em primeira mão do que é utilizar os transportes públicos.
Lisboa, 12 de Outubro - Regressou recentemente à agenda política a questão da redução do número de deputados, apresentada pelo Partido Socialista como uma proposta que visa garantir a redução da despesa pública. O MLS considera que a ideia apresentada, pelo PS, é demagógica e populista, pelo momento em que foi tornada pública, e teria como consequência a bipolarização do sistema político nacional, destruindo o que a democracia portuguesa mais tem de saudável: o pluralismo. O Movimento Liberal Social repudia fortemente todas as iniciativas que visem a redução da liberdade de opinião e da representatividade política.
Para que a liberdade democrática e pluralismo não sejam reduzidos mas sim ampliados, o Movimento Liberal Social defende uma reforma do sistema eleitoral nacional que, mantendo sensivelmente o mesmo número de deputados, aumentaria a representação partidária na Assembleia da República, dando oportunidade às pequenas forças políticas de também terem uma voz.
Assim, o Movimento Liberal Social defende a criação de um círculo nacional acompanhado de diversos círculos regionais, sendo que:
- O círculo nacional teria cerca de 80 deputados, eleitos em listas fechadas e com voto não transferível. O cálculo dos mandatos seria realizado mediante o método da quota Hare;
- Haveria cerca de 145 deputados eleitos por círculos regionais, mais 4 deputados pela emigração;
- Nos círculos regionais e internacionais o sistema de cálculo será igualmente a quota Hare, mas com recurso ao voto único transferível;
- Com excepção dos Açores (3 mandatos), Madeira (4 mandatos), Europa (2 mandatos) e Resto do Mundo (2 mandatos), estes círculos terão entre 5 e 10 mandatos.
Com esta proposta:
- Ficará garantida a representatividade de pequenas forças políticas;
- A proporcionalidade sai reforçada devido à dimensão média dos círculos regionais, nos quais os partidos de média dimensão têm fortes probabilidades de eleger vários deputados;
- A responsabilidade dos eleitos ira reforçar-se sem pôr em causa a pluralidade de opiniões: cada região terá deputados de vários partidos, quebrando a possibilidade de se instalarem redes clientelares, populismos regionalistas ou sub-representação das minorias políticas locais.
O Movimento Liberal Social está naturalmente aberto a discussões sobre a matéria, mas criticará sempre medidas populistas que visem reduzir a representatividade democrática e a liberdade do povo português.
The European Commission published annual reports on Monday on progress in gender equality and on the impact of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Both can be found on the excellent europa website, www.europa.eu, as can the Commission’s updated economic growth strategy Towards a job-rich recovery, which Parliament debated with Barroso on Wednesday. The situation is grim; since 2008 some six million people have lost their jobs. Among other schemes to help people find jobs, Youth Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou (LD, Cyprus) announced that the EU will fund 130,000 job placements this year for young people wishing to work in other EU countries.
Parliament met in Strasbourg this week. We adopted a measure which will prevent the practice by some unscrupulous employers of applying their home country’s employment law in their staff contracts irrespective of the country in which their employees are working. We also voted to approve the Commission’s proposal for a common consolidated corporate tax base, though this is highly unlikely to be adopted by the 27 governments in the Council of Ministers. And we voted (well, I did not!) to approve the new agreement on sharing of personal data of airline passengers with the US federal government. The Liberal and Socialist groups were divided on the issue, in our case partly because the agreement was negotiated and proposed to the House by Liberal Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom of Sweden (Commissioner for Home Affairs). While the House adopted it by 409 votes to 226 with 33 abstentions, only 21 Liberal MEPs voted in favour while 47 opposed it and 7 abstained. It was not our most glorious hour.
The 27 national environment ministers met on Wednesday and Thursday in Denmark, the country which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU. They discussed emissions trading, resource use and sustainable development with the Commissioners for the Environment (Janez Potocnik of Slovenia, a Liberal Democrat) and Climate Change (Connie Hedegaard of Denmark, a Conservative). They agreed the EU’s negotiating mandate for the UN’s Rio + 20 conference on sustainable development in June. I do not yet know whether they settled their differences on the outstanding disagreements about the energy efficiency directive.
On environment matters, readers with children may be interested to know of an online competition with eleven days left to run called the European Citizens’ Climate Cup, a household competition between different countries to reduce CO2 emissions. You can find it at http://uk.theclimatecup.eu. It was drawn to my attention by the pioneering Severn Wye Energy Agency in Gloucestershire.
Farmers may be interested to know that the European Court of Auditors, in a report published on Tuesday, is critical of the Commission’s proposals to simplify its agricultural grant giving mechanisms. It says the proposed new schemes are still too complex and too focussed on cutting spending rather than reforming farming practices, which will add to the armoury of those seeking further reform.
I took MEPs from my climate parliament to visit the Energy Commissioner to plead for more investment in electricity distribution networks. I spoke in the House on Azerbaijan (repression of dissidents) and on the transfer of airline passenger data. And I was pleased to welcome visitors to Strasbourg from the Tamar branch of the European Movement.
Tomorrow afternoon I fly to Germany to address the national conference of their Free Democratic (Liberal) Party in my role as President of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party.
Aviation matters were prominent among our concerns this week. The EU’s imposition on 1 January of an emissions fee on airlines flying into and out of European airspace is still under attack elsewhere; the USA lost an appeal to the European Court of Justice against the measure: China has prohibited its airlines from paying the fee (and is whispering about putting on hold a large order for EU Airbus aeroplanes); and now India threatens to instruct its air carriers not to comply and says this move could put in jeopardy the climate agreement reached in Durban.
Thus far Brussels is standing firm until and unless a global agreement to tax aircraft emissions can be struck at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The contribution of airline emissions to climate change is still relatively small but is rising fast.
The European Parliament’s Liberal Group held a hearing in Wednesday to debate the European Commission’s proposals to reorganise takeoff and landing slots in order to cut air and noise pollution and maximise airport capacity. EU Commission officials and the International Air Transport Association, representing the airlines, were invited to express their concerns in advance of votes in parliament in the coming months.
The best news of the week for me was Bristol reaching the final shortlist of three cities for the EU Green Capital Award 2014. The Council has made great strides forward under Liberal Democrat stewardship. We must now battle it out against Copenhagen and Frankfurt, each of which has substantially greater resources.
Palestine was also under discussion, with a meeting on Wednesday of the international ‘Quartet’ of the EU, the USA, Russia and the UN. Funding for the Palestinian authority is a constant challenge; Palestinian tax revenues are collected by Israel and frequently not passed on to the Palestinian government. Since 2008 the EU has donated €1.3 bn to help pay salaries and other running costs of the administration.
Parliament has been officially in recess this week and does not start back until next Tuesday. But I was in Gibraltar on Monday, where the new Socialist-Liberal coalition invited me to address a meeting of their cabinet and I paid a courtesy call on the Governor. Back in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday I caught up with correspondence, met the new Chinese Ambassador to the EU, called a meeting of the Political Unit at ELDR Party HQ to review progress in party building and gave interviews to Wessex FM (on Spanish retail scams), Cyprus television (on their recent Cabinet reshuffle in which the Liberal Democrat member was discracefully forced out) and French TV (on EU-Africa co-operation).
EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom (Sweden, LD) held talks with Greek minister Chrisochoidis on Monday to express once again the EU’s concern about the building of a fence by the River Evros to keep migrants out. Greece has received EU subsidies for managing migration from (or rather through) Turkey, including help with the building of reception centres, and should not need a physical barrier of this kind. But there was also good news from Greece at a conference on Tuesday hosted by energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger (Germany, EPP) on renewable energy in the Balkans: Greece confirmed that solar energy production is due to rise from 206 megawatts today to 2.2 gigawatts by 2020 and 10 GW by 2050, to be accompanied by a major investment in cabling for distribution of the electricity generated up to northern Europe.
The week’s news was mainly bad, however. Unemployment figures show joblessness in the EU, at 10.2%, to be at its highest in many years. Spain, which has the highest level, announced austerity measures which may make matters worse in the short term; and a debt issue by the Spanish government was undersubscribed. As monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn (Finland, LD) pointed out, unemployment fell in eight member states but rose in eighteen. And a conference in Brussels on Tuesday on the Schmallenberg virus heard that although currently few animals in the eight countries affected have contracted the disease, it is nonetheless still spreading. Farmers in my constituency see that all too well and are naturally concerned that a vaccine against the illness be developed rapidly.
Elections in Burma which were widely judged to be free and fair - and which were won by our Liberal sister party the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi - led to calls for the lifting of sanctions when the EU’s foreign ministers meet later this month. Our own government is wise to urge caution. A gradual lifting in exchange for further reform is the strategy most likely to keep the reforms going.
I left Brussels on Wednesday evening to take a few days holiday with my 17 year old son. I hope you, my readers, also enjoy a break over Easter.
There is so much to report this week it is hard to know where to start. On Monday, while I was visiting Riga to address a conference on the sovereign debt crisis, the Presidents of the EU Council and the European Commission were in Seoul for the nuclear security summit (why both needed to be there escapes me and may owe something to the dismal competition between them), the foreign affairs ministers met in Brussels to do battle over the EU’s budget for the period 2013-20 (a debate which has been engaged but which will not be resolved for at least eight months) and members of the European Parliament’s transport committe were giving Commissioner Siim Kallas (Estonia, LD) an earfull over a reinterpretation by his legal services of the provisions governing HGV’s which would allow longer and heavier lorries (”gigaliners”) on our roads without explicit parliamentary approval.
By the time I was in Copenhagen on Tuesday to lobby Environment Minister Martin Lidegaard (a young and very bright Liberal) about an EU wide electricity smart supergrid (and to meet the Leaders of both our Liberal parties there to seek their support for EU-wide Liberal campaigns), MEPs and ministers from the 27 member state governments were gathering in Brussesls to agree a third and further round of cuts to the prices mobile phone operators can charge for data transfer and ‘roaming’. So people returning from summer holidays abroad this year will have fewer nasty shocks with their mobile phone bills.
There was other good news too this week for my constituents. The European Commission agreed to the UK coalition government’s plans to subsidise rural post offices, deeming this not to breach competition law. And Cllr Roger Simmonds of B&NES made good progress in Brussels in gaining EU funds for transport projects in and around Bath.
As Parliament’s rapporteur for Moldova I was briefed on Wednesday by Prime Minister Filat and Foreign Minister Leanca on developments in their country, where they have finally managed to secure the parliamentary majority needed to elect a President. Later, before the Parliament’s plenary session, I spoke to visitors from Exeter University’s Law School about issues such as EU co-operation in the fight against piracy in the Indian Ocean, about which the Commission was hosting a conference that day with the International Maritime Organisation and other interested bodies.
Greece was again on our agenda, with a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday; and today the 27 finance ministers will meet to decide how much money we need in the new (and, we hope, definitive) bail out fund. Ireland announced the date of its referendum on the treaty change needed to set this fund up; I imagine they will vote in favour, since otherwise the country does not qualify to be a beneficiary from it.
The European People’s Party and the Socialists voted in committee to approve the new draft deal with the USA on rules governing transfer of data on airline passengers flying into US airspace; most Liberal Democrats still believe they fall short of what is needed to ensure privacy, but I reckon we will be outvoted when it comes to the floor of the House.
We were outvoted again on the international trade committee, where the two major parties decided against referring the ACTA (Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) to the European Court of Justice for their opinion. Liberal principle is often a dry rock.
Thursday morning I hosted a breakfast for those interested in cloud computing (see my column in Liberal Democrat News) at which Commissioner Kroes spoke. At lunchtime I voted in Parliament on (to give you an idea of the range of matters we deal with) trade in rubber; rights of airline passengers; the EU refugee fund; export of dual use goods; financial derivatives trading; exposure of workers to electromagnetic fields; intergovernmental co-operation on excise duties; budgetary matters; the setting up of a special committee on organised crime; relations with Belarus, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Turkey; EU citizenship; the European Investment Bank, and corporate governance. It’s all in a day’s work.
On Friday I was in Barcelona to speak at a conference on the Arab Spring with Liberals from North Africa
In the absence of a new world trade agreement, which seems continuously to elude our negotiators at the WTO, attention in Brussels is focussing on bilateral trade agreements which would stimulate trade and therefore growth and jobs. The 27 trade ministers agreed last Friday to sign free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia which they initialled a year ago. These now come to the European Parliament for approval. Discussions continue with Singapore and Malaysia. And the European Commission and the US Administration met on Monday to try to overcome barriers to greater transatlantic trade. Yet at the same time some member states, led by France, have managed to force onto the EU’s agenda a proposal to twist the arms of all trading partners into giving the EU the same degree of access to their public procurement markets as they have to ours. The Commission published a draft regulation on Wednesday despite the opposition of most Liberal Commissioners and the concerns of the lawyers that this is a protectionist measure and would fall foul of WTO rules.
There were two big items of controversy this week. An invitation to former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, currently being investigated on sex crimes charges, to take part in a debate on the economy on the European Parliament’s premises next week raised the eyebrows of many and the ire of some. It was soon withdrawn after complaints to Parliament’s President (the Speaker). And remarks by Foreign policy supremo Catherine Ashton following the shooting of three children at a Jewish school in France were seized on and twisted by Israel’s defence minister to suggest that Ashton was comparing the shootings to what is happening in Gaza. Members of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, obtaining a transcript of the remarks, soon realised this was not at all Ashton’s intention and expressed their support for her. What really angered Israel was Ashton’s signing on Monday of EU aid packages for Palestine providing €22 million for a waste-water treatment plant on the West Bank and €13 million for improvements to a trading point linking the Gaza Strip to the world beyond it.
I was in Brussels on Monday where among other things I addressed and answered questions from 40 or more Liberal Democrat MPs from the Netherlands. (Sadly I could not imagine that UK LD MPs would organise such a collective fact-finding visit, though it is common among German, Danish or Dutch Liberals). On Tuesday I went to Slovakia on EU Liberal Democrat party business but was back in time to speak at a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution of Cadiz, Europe’s first real Liberal constitution. Yesterday I was in London for meetings and to speak at the Kettners’ monthly Liberal lunch. Today I have my Brussels and constituency staff teams together for a reflection session.
Foreign affairs ministers meet today to discuss further sanctions against Iran. Last Saturday Iran’s banks were disconnected from SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transactions), an unprecedented step with any country. On Wednesday Parliament heard from the UN’s special envoy about the situation in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where members of Iran’s opposition shelter. Ministers will consider today targetted sanctions against another twenty or so individuals in Iran deemed responsible for human rights abuses.
Ministers may also give the go ahead for targetted strikes against pirate ships and equipment in Somalia, about which I was interviewed at 7.30 am today on the BBC’s World Service.
I flew to Strasbourg on Monday for a busy parliamentary week under glorious springtime sunshine. We voted inter alia to support Commissioner Reding’s proposal to legislate for quotas for women on company boards (targets 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020) and called for quotas to increase their representation on elected assemblies; and we set an EU goal to reduce the wage gap between men and women by 10%.
We voted to simplify laws governing cross border inheritances. We approved a report by my Lib Dem colleague Chris Davies which supports broadly the Commission’s 2050 roadmap to a low carbon economy; we now await its approval by the Council of Ministers. And we approved a deal with the USA and Canada which should bring an end to the ‘beef wars’: we will continue to ban hormone treated beef but in recompense we will increase quotas for imports of high quality north american beef.
The European People’s Party attacked the Liberals by forcing onto the agenda a debate about the refusal of Netherlands Liberal prime minister Mark Rutte to condemn a website (set up by a party on which his government relies for support) which invites people to denounce illegal immigrants and raise complaints about eastern European immigrants. Liberals joined the condemnation of Rutte, of course, but pointed out the hypocrisy of the pot calling the kettle black from a party which says nothing about Sarkozy’s attacks on immigrants and refuses to criticise the Hungarian government’s attacks on civil liberties.
At the European Council the 27 finance ministers have been continuously preoccupied by Greece. They met by videoconference last Friday and in person on Monday and Tuesday before approving on Wednesday the second Greek bailout (about €130 bn, with substantial private sector write downs). They also examined the situation in Hungary again and told Budapest that unless it corrects its structural deficit by June it will lose €500 million in EU Cohesion funding. At the end of the month they hope to agree on the size of the financial ‘firewall’ fund, the European Stability Mechanism, and on how much each member state will contribute to it. Among the other Council formations the Home Affairs ministers adopted new laws to tackle the trafficking of small arms and the Foreign ministers resolved to appoint a new EU High Representative for human rights, possibly by the end of June.
Commissioner Malmstrom (Home affairs, LD, Sweden) published a Bill (draft directive) to co-ordinate national measures to freeze and confiscate the assets of criminal syndicates. The UN estimates that returns on crime may account for 3.6% of global GDP, or over US$ 2 trillion, of which law enforcers succeed in freezing or confiscating less than one tenth. Commissioner Hahn (Regional policy, EPP, Austria) steered through the College of Commissioners a proposal to combine (and simplify) the provisions of five EU funding streams - the regional development fund, the social fund, the cohesion fund, the agriculture and rural development fund and the maritime and fisheries fund - into one Common Strategic Framework to allow for bids for any one project to seek support from more than one fund. Commissioner Hedegaard (Climate policy, EPP, Denmark) is spearheading the Commission’s drive to incorporate policies on land use into the EU’s climate change policies. And Commissioner Piebalgs (Development aid, EPP, Latvia) drew the attention of the World Water Forum in Marseilles to the success of the eight year old European Water Initiative in helping to reach the MIllenium Development Goal on access to drinking water five years before the UN deadline, though the Goal for access to sanitation has not yet been achieved.
The week kicked off with cross-party condemnation of the rigged Presidential election in Russia. Parliament’s Liberal Group hosted a conference at which Pawel Khodorkovsky, son of jailed tycoon Mikhail, came to speak. Our Group leader Guy Verhofstadt had been in Russia on Monday for the elections.
Parliament’s political groups met this week to prepare for next week’s plenary session in Brussels. Some committees also met. National parliamentarians from the 27 member states came to Brussels on Monday to discuss the fisheries policy with MEPs and the Commissioner responsible for its execution.
All the political groups discussed the proposed Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. In view of the strong reaction it has encountered in the member states and in the USA and other signatory countries from citizens who fear its possible impact on internet freedom, MEPs were rather relieved that the Commission has kicked it into the long grass by referring it to the European Court of Justice for a legal opinion. We may do the same, though the questions Parliament would ask the Court might probe more deeply into its possible impact. It’s not the goal of ACTA which worries us, but possible unintended consequences of the way it might be implemented, such as denial of internet access to citizens who breach its provisions.
At the inter-parliamentary meeting on fisheries there was impassioned debate between those who care for the fishermen and those who care more for survival of fish species. Commissioner Damanaki (Soc, Greece) stressed that the deadline of 2015 by which stocks must be managed under the maximum sustainable yield principle is not negotiable. French, Greek and Spanish MPs want the deadline extended. The Commissioner also insisted on a ban on discarding fish overboard.
My week started at 0525 hrs on Monday when I climbed off of a flight from Abidjan to Brussels, where I’d spent the weekend debating Liberalism with African MPs. From there I took a Eurostar to London to meet potential donors to the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party. Back in Brussels from Tuesday to Thursday my agenda consisted mainly of meetings with visitors (the Speaker of the UN General Assembly, human rights activists from Vietnam and Azerbaijan, representatives of the Women Liberal Democrats); of speeches (two on climate change at environmental conferences, one to students from the university of Westminster) and meeting fire officers who were in Brussels to discuss the establishment of a European network at a meeting hosted by Cllr Doris Ansari of Cornwall who is a member of the EU’s Committee of the Regions).
The European Commission announced that it is not satisfied with the evasive answers Hungary has given to its questions about infringements on EU norms (see recent newsletters) and intends to issue reasoned opinions, the next stage in a legal process which could end in court action. It is also threatening to delay an IMF loan to the country if the Hungarian government does not put its house in order. At its meeting on Wednesday the College of Commissioners also adopted a Communication on the implementation
of EU law which points out inter alia to the member states how much their failure to implement some of the laws they have agreed costs EU citizens and businesses.
In a piece of good news for my constituency the Commission also approved a zero interest loan of €272 million from the Italian government to Agusta Westland for the development of the new medium weight AW 169 helicopter.
Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding (Chr Dem, Luxembourg) used the occasion of international women’s day to annouce plans to propose legislation to get more women onto companies’ boards, since her attempts to persuade them have not worked.
The home affairs ministers from the 27 countries met on Wednesday to discuss border management in Greece and the delayed accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the passport-free travel area created under the Schengen Convention. The 27 Environment ministers meet today.
On Tuesday I was in Warsaw in my capacity as leader of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party to meet Janusz Palikot, the Leader of a new radical liberal movement which took 10% of the vote in last autumn’s elections. These last three days have been spent back in Brussels, where the situation in Greece and revival of Europe’s economy continue to dominate our concerns.
Progress with the second support package for Greece, agreed by eurozone finance minsters last Tuesday, was reviewed at a meeting yesterday just before the European Council (heads of state and government ’summit’ meeting). Despite some worryingly right wing noises from christian democrat finance minister Wolfgang Schauble and others in Germany suggesting that Greece should be forced out of the euro, the majority believes a default and the ensuing uncertainty would cause more problems than it would solve. Denmark’s prime minister, who chairs the Council for the first half of this year, told us as much at a big dinner hosted by a leading Brussels think tank on Wednesday evening. But the summit which started last night and continues today is focussed more on how to secure economic growth. Governments recognise that their actions have not matched their rhetoric hitherto and are expected to pledge to do better; yet it seems they cannot even sort out a spat between the UK, France and Germany about which country should host the new EU Patents Court, though the absence of an EU-wide patent is estimated to be costing EU businesses £425,000 a day! 25 of the 27 EU member states will also sign the new budgetary responsibility pact and commit themselves to increasing the bail-out fund for countries in trouble: the UK and the Czech Republic have opted out. The European Parliament looks likely to propose a longer time period for the European Commission to consider member states’ budget plans each autumn and a form of legal protection for countries facing bankruptcy, like that for companies in receivership.
Liberal prime ministers, DPMs and leading Commissioners discussed these issues at a lunch I hosted yesterday in advance of the summit. We also discussed ACTA, the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which has aroused concern among internet users everywhere. A petition presented to Parliament this week at a major conference with standing room only has been signed by two and a half million people. I have received over 4,000 emails about it in my constituency office. Such is the level of protest that the Commission has referred the agreement to the European Court of Justice to ask if it breaches fundamental rights. In a separate case, the Court ruled on 16 February (similarly to a judgment in November of last year) that social network providers cannot be obliged by governments to prevent illegal downloads or piracy of films or music. The judges argue inter alia that the protection of copyright must be balanced against the freedom to receive and share information.
The European Parliament met in Strasbourg this week. In a vote on next year’s budget we called for a single seat for the European Parliament, to cut operating costs. Our vote will not make a crucial difference but is yet another sign that we are gradually winning the campaign. Until recently, such a move would have been defeated.
The highlight of Parliament’s week was a bravura performance by Italian prime minister Mario Monti, a former EU Comissioner, who outlined the steps his government is taking to put the country’s finances back in order. Far reaching structural reforms are expected to balance the budget by the end of next year. Monti urged EU countries to accompany financial austerity with more emphasis on policies for economic growth through trade.
I was interviewed by BBC TV’s weekly The Record: Europe programme about Greece’s debt crisis and its impact on the Euro. (It is the BBC’s only real attempt to cover the EU yet is to be axed in June in favour of a monthly programme to be recorded in London.) We had debated Greece’s situation in the Chamber a few hours earlier in the debate on the preparation of the next meeting of the European Council (the heads of state and government of the EU’s member states). I argued for a rescue since Greece’s parliament voted by a healthy margin to back a painful set of austerity measures last Sunday. I also recall the times before the euro, when countries engaged in competitive devaluations against each other, making trade a risky business. It is all too easy to forget how much the euro has contributed to trade and growth on our continent, which is why it is the world’s second largest reserve currency (accounting for 26.5% of global foreign currency reserves compared to 4.2% for sterling).
Since Parliament was to debate the situation in Syria, the Liberal Group invited to Strasbourg Fawaz Tello, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, and blogger Dany Abdul Dayem, who called for help from the international community, even if only in enforcing a no fly zone to prevent the army attacking citizens and putting pressure on Russia not to supply arms to Assad. The Foreign Affairs Committee later heard evidence from France’s foreign minister about action in the UN. I am not at all sure that the reports in the western media are reliable; there are big oil interests at stake here.
The chorus of concern about recent developments in Hungary was reflected in a resolution adopted in Parliament this week backing the Commission’s legal action against the country and the moves by Media Commissioner Neelie Kroes (Netherlands, Lib Dem) to press for guarantees of media freedom.
I met US Ambassador Bill Kennard to discuss the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and the re-negotiated provisions for the exchange of Passenger Name Recognition data on air travellers. I think Parliament will likely agree to the former but may refer the latter once more to the European Court of Justice for its opinion, since even the new agreement appears to breach our data protection laws. I spoke on both issues in meetings of the Liberal Group.
Yesterday morning I hosted a breakfast for colleagues at which chess champion Garry Kasparov outlined his programme for introducing chess in primary schools. Last night I met Germany’s new (Liberal) EU Affairs Minister, Michael Link. Today I am in London for a strategy meeting of the UK Liberal Democrat MEPs. Tomorrow I take a break during a one week parliamentary recess so will write again in a fortnight’s time.
Before I sign off, let me share my favourite new acronym: FATCA. It stands for foreign account tax commitment acquittal and is an agreement signed last week between the five largest EU member states and the USA to share information on individuals’ bank accounts in the fight against tax evasion. So yes, it should have another ‘T’ at the end.
On Monday the governments of France and Germany held a joint cabinet meeting. This was not the first such occasion, but to give an idea of the extent to which they are committed to closer union, they discussed a plan to harmonise company taxation by 1 January next year. The Green Paper prepared by their civil servants recommends cutting company taxes but extending the tax base, or widening the taxman’s net. I am pleased to report that the UK and German governments will hold a joint cabinet meeting shortly, which I believe will be a first, but I doubt any plan of such nature will be on the agenda.
The EU is in a stand off with China over its new charges on airlines for their CO2 emissions. While the ECJ found in the EU’s favour against a challenge brought by US airlines, the Chinese government has simply forbidden its airlines to pay the tax. The International Air Transport Association is trying to bring the two sides together to agree a solution.
Greece was again on the EU’s agenda this week, for two reasons. The first is that it has started construction of a metal fence on its land border with Turkey to discourage illegal immigration. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom (Sweden, LD) frostily rejected a call from Greece to bear half the cost of the construction. The second is the ongoing debt saga. Finance ministers from the eurozone countries met in Brussels last night following an agreement on Wednesday by Greece’s three coalition partners to the second bailout plan which involves cuts in private sector wages and pensions, government spending cuts of 1.5% of GDP and cuts in civil service numbers. (24 hours earlier, when Liberal Democrat MEPs had been in Athens, such an outcome had looked highly improbable.)
Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos (Romania, EPP) came to speak to the EP’s Liberal Group on Wednesday. He outlined plans to promote exports of food products (through food quality schemes and other measures first suggested in a Green Paper last June). Though we were sceptical of spending more to support farmers, he pointed out that the EU’s agricultural exports now almost equal those of the USA, supporting over four million jobs and representing 6% of the EU’s GDP.
The European Aviation Safety Agency this week ordered checks on the wings of all Airbus A380 aircraft. Those which have flown more than 1300 flights must be checked within two months, since cracks were discovered on the wings of an A380 in this category. The checks will involve some 68 aircraft. The wings are made mainly in the UK.
I was pleased to welcome to Brussels this week UK Transport Minister Norman Baker MP, over for talks with Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard (Denmark, EPP); David Chalmers of the Kaleidoscope Trust, an international pressure group campaigning for LGBT rights in developing countries, who I took to see Development Aid Commissioner Andris Piebalgs (Latvia, officially EPP but really a Lib Dem); Jayne Bressington, a constituent campaigning for EU action on GIST cancers; and Andrew Wigley, a former staffer of mine who went on to have an illustrious career in the international business world and is now, at the age of 40 and to my great satisfaction, considering a move into politics.
Monday this week saw the heads of state and government of the EU member states meeting in Brussels at an ‘informal’ European Council meeting. They agreed one treaty setting up the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a ‘bailout fund’ available to countries which sign the second treaty, outlawing Keynesian economics by writing into law a requirement on governments not to run budget deficits. The European Court of Justice will be able to fine countries who break the latter treaty, paying the fine into the ESM. They also agreed that when items of business exclusively to do with eurozone issues are on the agenda in future, only the countries which have adopted the euro will participate, though this merely formalises a practice which has become the norm.
The national leaders, some just back from the World Economic Forum, agreed on measures to create economic growth and jobs. Having failed to respond to the blandishments of WTO Director General Pascal Lamy in Davos and resolve to agree a new world trade agreement (which would require cutting subsidies to farmers) they agreed to try to boost inter-EU trade by improving the EU’s single market and to use €82 billion in unspent EU structural funds to get young people in to work.
I hosted a supper that evening in honour of Lord Steel, who was visiting Brussels as a member of the UK Parliament’s all party Africa Group. At 73 years he is still going strong, despite the slings and arrows of nearly fifty years in politics during which he secured for the UK Liberals their highest share of the vote in any general election since the 1930s.
The European Commission published a working paper on Monday describing as ‘feasible, beneficial and much cheaper than previously thought’ a move to cut carbon emissions by 30% by 2020 rather than 20%. On Tuesday parliament’s environment committee adopted a report by my colleague Chris Davies MEP proposing precisely that. Meanwhile Chris and Marian Harkin MEP and I used a committee debate about health claims on foodstuffs to fire a shot across the Commission’s bows, since they are not assessing the claims in the way we instructed them to in the legislation.
The UK Liberal Democrat MEPs bid farewell to two of our number - West Midlands MEP Liz Lynne and Yorkshire and the Humber MEP Diana Wallis - who have each chosen the mid point of our current parliamentary mandate to step down after twelve and a half years of service.
On Wednesday I addressed a conference on Egypt one year after the revolution. That evening I presented to the House my report on a consistent EU policy towards dictators, which - by denying them the right to launder their money through our banking and property markets and to enjoy leisure activities in the EU - should prevent us helping people like Mubarak and Gaddafi remain in power in future. The report was adopted yesterday on the floor of the House as a Recommendation to the European Council.
Tuesday I met Steve Bradley, Chair of the Green Liberal Democrats from the UK (an associate body of the party). We spoke about the plans of the EU’s current Danish presidency to advance investment on renewables before I went into committee to press Denmark’s EU Affairs minister specifically on this point. Denmark’s government ministers, who chair the meetings of the Council of Ministers for the first half of this year, were much in evidence in Parliament; their agriculture minster spoke of using the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the CAP to reform the policy. If only!
This week I also met representatives of the Health Food Manufacturers Association to discuss the European Food Safety Authority’s policy on licensing food which claims beneficial health effects (eg prunes). The EFSA published on Tuesday its scientific decision making criteria, which I and many MEPs intend to challenge when they are discussed in committee next week.
The controversial Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement governing copyright will shortly come before Parliament since it has now been signed (though not yet ratified) by five EU member states. Since it will apply to Internet counterfeiting it has become a matter of interest to netizens, many of whom have written urging me to oppose it, arguing that it breaches EU human rights law. I will study it next week prior to discussion in the Liberal Group on how we will vote. The Commission also published two internet related bills to boost confidence in the Internet by establishing a right to erasure of data and better data protection rules and enforcement procedures.
Safety on passenger ships was on our agenda because of the sinking of the Costa Concordia off Italy, with Transport commissioner Siim Kallas (Estonia, LD) outlining EU procedures and legal competences. Victims’ families must seek compensation under Italian law because few countries have ratified the Convention of Athens, an intergovernmental convention governing these things. An EU-wide law is needed.
David Cameron was at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, of which the UK currently has the presidency, to talk about reforming the European Court of Human Rights (a Council of Europe, not an EU, institution: the Council of Europe has 47 member states and few legal powers, unlike the tighter-knit EU). If he treads in this area he should wear slippers rather than Doc Martens: ECHR rulings may not be to his liking but the Strasbourg human rights architecture is a monument to good design and careful construction.
The week ended on a good note, with Chancellor Merkel saying - in a newspaper interview and then at Davos - that the Germans will show solidarity with other EU countries and will shore up the euro. On Monday the EU’s heads of state and government meet in Brussels to agree the new budgetary discipline treaty which Germany has insisted on to underpin it.
The European Parliament met in Strasbourg this week for the traditional mid-term session in which we spend an inordinate amount of time electing a new speaker (’President’ in our parlance), deputy speakers (’Vice Presidents’) and ‘Quaestors’ (the MEPs’ equivalent of trade union shop stewards, to look after our interests vis-a-vis Parliament’s administration).
The old-pals act between the two major parties ensured the election of a German Socialist, succeeding a Polish Christian Democrat, as our new Speaker. LibDem Diana Wallis put up a spirited fight but came in third, one vote behind a maverick UK Tory: nonetheless the two of them took over 40% of the votes cast, denying the victor the substantial majority he would have liked. Liberals succeeded in electing two deputy speakers, Brit Edward McMillan Scott and German Alexander Alvaro. (Diana Wallis MEP announced after the vote that she is to stand down from Parliament after twelve and a half years of very active and productive membership. We will miss her.)
MEPs also voted to update two important pieces of legislation, one on controlling and minimising the use of biocides which often contain carcinogens and gender bending chemicals and the other on recycling waste electronic and electrical equipment: the new target is to recycle 85% of all such waste by 2019. Waste was on our agenda in other ways too: we called on the EU Comission to investigate ways of halving by 2025 the amount of food thrown away as waste; and we received a survey published by Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik (Slovenia, LD) showing that €72 billion could be saved every year and 400,000 jobs created within the decade if existing legislation on waste were fully implemented across the EU.
The most controversial item on our agenda was a debate with the European Commission about Hungary. The Commission decided on Tuesday to open infringement proceedings
against Hungary for breaches of the EU treaties following attacks in Parliament on the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the central bank and the independence of the data protection authority. A fourth case, regarding freedom of the media, is under consideration. Hungary’s Prime Minister asked and was allowed to speak in Parliament’s debate on Wednesday, in which left and right traded blows with neither scoring a knock- out hit. Hungary has one month to reply to the Commission’s case or to amend its legislation to avoid further legal action.
The Commission also announced legal action against 14 member states for failure to apply the directive on the welfare of egg-laying hens.
Following a downgrade of the credit ratings of nine EU countries by Standard and Poors, it and other credit rating agencies came under attack from those who believe their action is part of an Anglo-American plot to sink the euro. But Liberal Group Leader Guy Verhofstadt circulated copies of the S&P report and pointed out that its criticism of the lack of unity in the EU is perfectly justified. Attempts to establish greater unity (particularly budget discipline) continue in the ongoing talks about a new reinforced economic union treaty (or ‘fiscal compact’), debated in committee on Monday evening and on the floor of the House on Wednesday. Many question whether this needs to be an intergovernmental treaty, preferring to tackle the issue through the EU’s normal legislative procedures. But the French and German governments insist on it, though many questions remain unsolved in the ministerial negotiations: how many countries must ratify the treaty before it enters into force?; should countries not in the euro be allowed to attend eurozone summits?; what should be the penalties for breaking the rules, and who enforces them?, for example. Merkel, Sarkozy and
As Parliament and the other EU institutions returned to work this week I co-hosted with Nick Clegg a meeting for senior EU LibDems (three prime ministers, five deputy prime ministers, one or two other ministers and five EU Commissioners) with UK government cabinet ministers from our party. Though lampooned in the Daily Mail it was a useful meeting and adopted a declaration on the measures needed to ensure that government austerity is accompanied by economic growth and job creation. (For details see www.eldr.eu).
One major concern expressed at the meeting in London also dominated politics in Brussels. If the current economic crisis brings high levels of unemployment, unprincipled governments will play fast and loose with the rules of democracy as is happening in Hungary. The Liberal Group in the EP decided to call on the European Commission to consider invoking Article 7 of the EU treaties which provides for penalties against member states which flout EU values. The Commission itself promised to use all it’s powers against Hungary if it does not reverse some of the measures currently being taken which affect the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and the media. At stake here, as with Greece, is the credibility of the EU in keeping its members in line.
Drafting of the new intergovernmental compact on fiscal discipline in the eurozone, agreed at the 9 December EU Council meeting and due to finish by end January, continues apace. It should be a very limited Treaty, eventually to be absorbed into the EU Treaties. Some already question publicly whether a new treaty is necessary or whether the same goals could not be met through legislation. But Germany wants it, to be sure of having influence over countries with lax budgetary discipline. At the same time Sarkozy is pressing for the introduction of a Tobin tax on financial transactions. The suspicion that this is mainly to help his campaign for reelection in April was fuelled however by the posting on Facebook of film of a press conference he gave just one year ago arguing vehemently against such a tax.
I sat through a depressing debate in the EP’s Foreign Affairs committee about Turkey, where Greek MEPs predicted the modern day equivalent of plagues of locusts and said we give Turkey far too much aid. I suggested, sarcastically, that we limit the aid to no more than 50% of the amount we give to Greece, per capita. Doing so would mean an increase of several hundred percent.
The newspaper European Voice hosted a debate among the candidates for the EP Presidency in advance of next week’s midterm election. Favourite Martin Schulz (German Socialist) is pitted against UK Tory maverick Nirj Deva and our own Diana Wallis. Neither landed a knock-out blow against him, but there is a whiff of jasmine in the air and a feeling that it is time for another woman President, so Diana may be in with a chance.
Yesterday I met a representative of energy company RWE to discuss the possible refurbishment of Ilfracombe harbour to provide for the planned Atlantic Array wind farm in the Bristol Channel.
Last night I hosted, in my new capacity as President of the European Liberal Democrats, a meeting for the leaders of EU level political parties to discuss the legal status of our parties and the proposal to elect a percentage of MEPs from trans national lists at the next euro elections in 2014.
(The following is an article published online by the Associated Press on December 9th, 2011.)
A coalition of Cuban exiles sailed south from Florida on Friday to protest the island's human rights record with a nighttime fireworks display, eliciting a stern rebuke from Havana officials who called it an affront to national sovereignty.
Organizers said their boats would anchor a little more than 12 miles (19 kilometers) from the Cuban capital, just outside Cuba's territorial waters, and by early evening multicolored explosions could be seen intermittently far off on the horizon from Havana.
Only a handful of people were along the Malecon oceanside promenade amid a steady wind and sporadic rain. Almost entirely missing were the masses of young Cubans who gather to socialize on a normal Friday night.
When an Associated Press crew tried to interview the few who were there, a pro-government crowd of more than 20 people ran across the wide boulevard yelling "American press!" and demanding that a video camera be turned over. Some were holding bottles of alcohol and appeared to have been drinking.
The journalists identified themselves as accredited members of the press with the right to work in Cuba. One cameraman was punched in the face, another's thumb was sprained and a video camera was broken in the melee before the crew managed to leave the scene.
Exile organizers in Miami insisted the 18th protest flotilla over the years would be peaceful and was not a provocation, though they said they were trying to coordinate the protest with actions by dissidents on the island. They called on other Havana residents to bang soup pots in solidarity during the fireworks on the eve of International Human Rights Day.
The exiles said they were merely exercising their right to freedom of expression, and the U.S. government said it couldn't legally stop them.
Cuban officials accused them of having malicious aims.
"There's a whole program of provocative acts," said Jose Luis Mendez, an official at Cuba's Interior Ministry. "This is not just about innocuous fireworks. It is subversive."
More than two dozen members of the Ladies in White dissident group, meanwhile, held a literary tea and discussion of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the house of former leader Laura Pollan, who died last month.
A boisterous crowd clogged the street outside shouting epithets like "worms" at the Ladies and proclaiming support for Fidel and Raul Castro in what is known in Cuba as an "act of repudiation."
The government insists such counter-demonstrations are spontaneous outpourings of revolutionary sentiment, despite thinly veiled coordination with state security agents. The street outside the house had been closed to traffic since Thursday.
"We cannot celebrate Human Rights Day here in Cuba. We can't because they repress us and beat us. Right now there's an act of repudiation in front of the Ladies in White headquarters," said Bertha Soler, one of the group's founders. She accused police of blocking some members from joining them.
Other dissidents also reported that government opponents were briefly held to keep them from gathering or protesting.
The government strenuously denies beating dissidents, whom it considers to be common criminals. It accuses them of taking money from Washington to destabilize the island and bring down its socialist revolution.
Flotilla organizer Ramon Saul Sanchez of the small nonprofit group the Democracy Movement said about 50 protesters were going in six boats, including an 85-foot vessel and a small security craft. About a dozen members of the news media were following them.
State Department Spokesman William Ostick said federal authorities had met with the organizers to ensure they complied with U.S. and international laws. He said the organizers offered assurances that they would not violate Cuban territorial waters or airspace.
"We have urged the Democracy Movement and the Cuban government to exercise caution and restraint during the Democracy Movement's December 9 fireworks shows in international waters off Havana," Ostick said in a statement.
"We have also made it clear to Cuban authorities as well as participants in this event that the U.S. government would punish any violation of U.S. laws," he continued, adding: "The United States government does not promote or encourage this activity."
Nevertheless, Cuban authorities criticized Washington for not blocking the protest.
"That the Obama administration did not refuse to allow this kind of action is a very troubling sign, from the vantage point of it could create situations that nobody wants," Mendez said.
A colleague in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Rene Mujica, said President Raul Castro's government had communicated its concern to Washington but declined to say whether it had sent a formal protest note.
"The United States is perfectly informed about the Cuban government's concerns regarding this kind of provocations that have been repeatedly made against our country," Mujica said. "They can have consequences beyond their supposed immediate objectives."
The U.S. Coast Guard said it would patrol the area to ensure the protesters stayed more than 12 miles off Cuba.
The original article can be viewed here: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jFO5q0qCGz4_dDs1XM0Dw1iwYIxQ?docId=787ab92aa9524f49b5be13a53e84179f
(The following is an article published by the Miami Herald on December 3rd, 2011.)
Cuban police and men in civilian clothes attacked more than 50 dissidents as they started a protest march Friday in the eastern town of Palma Soriano, leaving many of them bleeding from head wounds, witnesses and dissidents reported.
The march was part of an effort to stage coordinated protests throughout the island, starting in eastern Cuba, that had led to the police arrests of about 150 dissidents since they started Thursday, opposition activists reported.
Palma resident Liliana Rodríguez said the incident began after about 300 police and many men in civilian clothes closed off the street in front of her house, where about 50 government opponents had gathered for the protest march.
The dissidents stepped outside around 10 a.m., chanting anti-government slogans like “down with the dictatorship” and carrying a Cuban flag, but were immediately attacked, reported Rodríguez, who said she watched from the second-story of her home.
The police and men in civilian clothes “fell on them like a swarm of bees, and demolished them. Almost all had blood on them,” she said. “They were hitting with their fists, kicks and even one of those mechanic’s wrenches.”
Her sister Tatiana, who also witnessed the crackdown told the Madrid-based blog CubaEncuentro that some of the dissidents were “red with blood” after the attack.
Police then forced the dissidents onto three buses, pepper-sprayed some of the protesters who complained about their treatment and drove them away, Rodriguez told El Nuevo Herald by phone from Palma. She added that the men in civilian clothes were clearly State Security agents.
Ladies in White member Yelena Garcés said that before the crackdown, she saw about a dozen police patrol cars and a group of men changing from military uniforms to civilian clothes aboard a Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces bus parked near the Rodríguez home.
Among those detained were José Daniel Ferrer García and Angel Moya, two of the 75 dissidents jailed in 2003 and freed this year. Moya is married to Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White, a group that demands the release of all political prisoners.
Rodriguez said police also arrested her brother-in-law, Osmani Céspedes, who tried to stay in the house so he could report on whatever happened, and another dissident who tried to record a video of the event.
Garcés told El Nuevo Herald that she could not witness the crackdown because police had closed off the street in front of Rodriguez early Friday, but that several neighbors on the street told her what happened by phone.
Police “hit everyone, everyone. There were busted heads, some with so much blood their faces could not be recognized,” said Garcés, whose husband, Miguel Rafael Cabrera, was among those who tried to march and was arrested.
Dissident reports of police violence can seldom be independently confirmed. The government’s news media monopoly almost never mentions such events, and foreign journalists in Havana are under heavy pressures to avoid reporting on them.
The Palma Soriano protest was to have been part of a string of attempts at street marches, starting Thursday in easternmost Cuba and following later in towns progressively to the west, to demand “liberty and democracy for Cuba.”
About 26 dissidents were arrested by police Thursday in the easternmost province of Guantánamo and another 25 or so were detained in the nearby provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Holguin, Ferrer García reported on Thursday.
Havana dissident Juan Carlos González Leyva reported early Friday afternoon that he had already received word of about 150 would-be marchers detained, including the more than 50 hauled away in Palma Soriano.
Most dissidents arrested to prevent public protests or other anti-government activities are usually freed hours or days later, with a police warning that they will be brought to trial and sent to prison if they persist.
Palma Soriano, a largely farming municipality of 125,000 people 18 miles northwest of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city, has seen several harsh crackdowns on dissidents in recent months by police and government supporters in plainclothes.
In August, police for the first time in recent memory broke up a planned protest in Palma by using tear gas and deploying a fire truck and a riot squad, wearing black uniforms and carrying gas masks, shields, helmets and riot batons.
Among the 30 or so dissidents arrested in that attack was Garcés’ husband. Cabrera was freed one month ago, after spending two months in jail “under investigation,” Garcés said.
The “National March Boitel-Zapata Live!” is named after two dissidents who died during prison hunger strikes, Pedro Luis Boitel in 1972 and Orlando Zapata Tamayo early last year.The original article can be read here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/12/03/2529017/marches-are-part-of-campaign.html