Whenever I am in Brussels, which to be honest isn’t that often, I always try and touch base with our Lib Dem Euro MP, Sir Graham Watson. I have described Graham many times as our man at the EU because of our six elected MEPs he is by far the most proactive on our behalf.
I met up with him for coffee last Thursday before he headed off for a busy Brussels day and then flew home to his constituency, which could be anywhere in the South West of England or indeed Gibraltar.
I was taken up to Graham’s office by Sonia, one of his hardworking team. Sonia has skills involving throwing coffee cups in to the air, which are rare even at the EU, but my lips are sealed. However she gave an interesting insight in to Graham’s widespread constituency.
Euro MPs are allowed to claim for travel to and from their constituencies. However she was having a lot of trouble with the EU’s fees office over Graham’s travel to Gibraltar. Officials could not understand why the UK MEP for the South West of England was flying to Gibraltar and even on occasions to Málaga. There is no other constituency of this type in the EU and of our six Euro MPs Graham is a frequent visitor whilst the others are not.
Needless to say the two key topics on our agenda over coffee were EU related. The awaited report by the EU inspectors on the summer border chaos and the Commission’s State Aid enquiry.
There is still no word on the outcome of the inspection at our border although it took place around a month ago. However I suspect four weeks is not a long time in Brussels. Graham has been pushing for the report to be issued and is very bullish on what he believes should be its conclusions. Graham here has two advantages: he has sat in the queues himself and he knows how the EU works so he hopes justice is done and is seen to be done in Gibraltar’s favour.
The European Commission’s decision on starting a State Aid enquiry had just been announced and was welcomed by our own Government who believe we are in a good place. Indeed anybody who listened to our Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, speak on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme at the crack of dawn on Monday will know he totally disarmed what was set to be an aggressive attack from his business affairs interviewer.
Graham had been monitoring the Twitterati in Gibraltar who had smelt a rat in that it was a Spanish Commissioner who would be investigating our affairs. It could not be any other way as Joaquín Almunia is the EC Commissioner in charge of this specific matter and the EC has to investigate a complaint when it is laid.
However as I pointed out to Graham and have written here previously Joaquín Almunia is hardly flavour of the month in Madrid and is not on Rajoy’s Christmas card list. In July he declared that Spain’s ship yard subsidies were illegal and had to be repaid with the industry warning that 87,000 jobs could be put at risk, many in Almunia’s home territory. The figure paid out in subsidies is 2.8 billion euros but the figure to be repaid, which could be 20 per cent less, has yet to be fixed. When you are an EC Commissioner you serve the EU not the country that appointed you.
The elephant in the room whilst we sipped coffee and chatted was would Graham be here this time next year. Indeed I had just attended in Brussels a PES election strategy meeting designed to get socialists in and others including Lib Dems out. Interestingly though when I voiced my support for Graham to PES members it was clearly obvious he was highly regarded in the socialist camp.
The South West of England constituency of which Gibraltar is part is not typical of the UK. Graham admits this will probably be his hardest fought election yet. The Lib Dems are on the slide and it remains to be seen how UKIP and the Conservatives will do in a Euro seat where they hold two and three seats respectively. I along with many others will be working to ensure one of those seats at least goes to Labour. None-the-less I will also be supporting Sir Graham Watson the Man because I believe if he loses his seat, Gibraltar will lose its most powerful advocate in Brussels.