European trip thoughts

I’ve just returned from a nearly three week long work trip to Europe.

I started the trip with Tau Henare and Darien Fenton, as part of a NZ Parliamentary delegation, and then I headed off by myself to talk to various policy and political groups.Here are a few thoughts from the trip.

Russel with Tau Henare and Darien Fenton, the other members of New Zealand's delegation to the IPU assembly.
Me, Tau Henare and Darien Fenton, New Zealand’s delegation to the IPU assembly.

We started in Brussels with the European Parliament.The New Zealand government is engaged in an interesting debate with the EU over the content of a political agreement between us. The EU wants to include human rights clauses that will have real effect, and the NZ government doesn’t. It could mean that if the EU decided a country was breaching basic human rights standards then it could negatively impact on trade access to the EU market. I actually think it would be positive development providing the process for deciding whether a country had breached human rights standards was independent of both sides. If one country thought another country was breaching basic human rights standards, then that country could go to an independent umpire and seek a ruling. And if the umpire found that one country was in breach of basic human rights standards, then the other country could invoke penalties which could include trade restrictions, as is common with WTO disputes. However, I don’t think MFAT likes this approach as they think that trade issues should trump human rights, environmental or anything else. It is an interesting debate with the EU.

We had an interesting dialogue with various MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) about this issue and others. I was surprised by the strength of feeling about the Snowden revelations. MEPs from the German conservative party, the CDU, were furious about the American surveillance state targeting European governments and parliaments. I think the Stasi history made them particularly sensitive, but they are deadly serious about it, including threatening the US-EU trade negotiations currently underway.

Broken Chair monument in Geneva. It was a project of Handicap International and symbolises opposition to land mines and cluster bombs.
Broken Chair monument in Geneva. A project of Handicap International, it symbolises opposition to land mines and cluster bombs.

I also attended an afternoon of a two day meeting of 50 Green MEPs as they planned for the European elections in 2014. I got to see a couple of green celebrities, Jose Bove, famous food activist, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the 1968 uprisings in France and Germany and a very controversial figure indeed! The European Greens are determined to promote the positive benefits of Europe even as the right wing politicians become increasingly drawn away from a pro-Europe position.

I also discussed the German federal elections with a number of the German MEPs, they were disappointed by the result, 8.4%.

World War I cemetery in Messines.
World War I cemetery in Messines.

Then the New Zealand delegation headed off to the WW1 battlefields around Iepre and Messines. It was terribly sad. All those young men who were robbed of their entire adult lives for an imperial war. They cried for their mothers as they died and then their mothers cried for them. We attended numerous local memorial ceremonies, including the last post at Menin gate, and Tau did a great job representing NZ. 

Then it was off to Geneva for the Inter Parliamentary Union meeting. The IPU was the main reason for the whole visit to Europe. I’m a little suspect of the IPU. I think the basic idea is sound, that parliamentarians from different countries should talk to each other, not just the governments of different countries. And the IPU does promote democracy in various countries. But the IPU congress itself had pretty low output. The previous IPU meetings had been pretty fiery around GBLT issues, led by Jan Logie and Louisa Wall, with Tau actively supporting. But this one had a debate around the use of chemical weapons which was reasonably proforma, with the only heat coming from the Turkish delegates accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons on its people while the Syrian delegation strongly denied it.

Tram in Geneva
Tram in Geneva

We also had the UN High Commissioner for Refugees address the conference. He pointed out the scale of the disaster, over 2.1 million registered Syrian refugees outside Syria, and many more internal refugees. This is placing huge pressure on countries like Lebanon, 20% of the population are now Syrian refugees, and Jordan, about 10% and growing rapidly. The Jordanian reps told us that the Syrian refugees have full access to the health and education systems which is putting huge pressure on them. It put the Australian government approach to refugees into very stark relief.

Once the IPU was over I headed off on my own.

I went first to Paris. I wanted to talk with the OECD and International Energy Agency about green economics and energy policy to inform the preparation of our election platform for 2014. Simon Upton, former National Party Minister for the Environment, heads up the environment directorate at the OECD and he facilitated my meetings.

The "Great Gallery of Evolution" in the Natural History Museum, Paris.
The “Great Gallery of Evolution” in the Natural History Museum, Paris.

The discussions were Chatham House rules so I can’t really talk about them. But suffice to say these bodies are far more interested in green economics than the current NZ government! The governments of NZ, Australia and Canada are really heading in a different direction to the majority at the OECD.

There is tremendous flux in energy markets in Europe as the renewables really start to disrupt the old order, particularly in Germany.

The day before my meetings the OECD Secretary General had said that we needed to phase out all net emissions from burning fossil fuels by the second half of the twentieth century, which of course has huge implications for the fossil fuel reserves of the big fossil fuel companies. Their reserves would effectively become stranded assets which would mean that the companies will lose a lot of capital value in the future when we finally take action on climate change.

Paris Metro
Paris Metro

I managed to avoid using a car the whole time I was in Paris – walking and the underground trains, the Metro. Man, the underground system was fantastic.

Then I caught the train to London. Seriously cool catching a fast train under the English Channel.

I had two days of meeting in London with various think tanks about green economics, including the New Economics Foundation, Green Economy Coalition, IIED, and Reform. There is a very lively debate about green economics including reform of the electricity market, especially after Labour Leader Ed Miliband promised to freeze power prices while he reformed the electricity market. In many ways the debate in NZ around the single buyer in the electricity market is far more advanced than the debate about electricity market reform in the UK.

Meeting with Jean Lambert, Green MEP.
Meeting with Jean Lambert, Green MEP.

I also caught up with the Green Investment Bank, which has nearly 4 billion UK pounds to catalyse investment in projects that produce both positive economic and environmental outcomes. They’ve got some pretty good stories to tell.

And with London Assembly members Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones.
And with London Assembly members Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones.

And I met some more Green politicians, Jean Lambert who is the Green MEP for London, and Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson, Greens in the London Assembly.

Jenny will become the first, and only so far, Green member of the House of Lords on November 5, which also happens to be Guy Fawkes, which seems apposite.

Then finally home after about 35 hours in transit from London to Wellington. It was great to get home. I tried to pack as much as I could into the trip to make it worth the expenditure of taxpayer funds and carbon emissions. The Paris and London legs of the trip were incredibly useful in terms of policy development for the next election. Watch this space.

2 Comments Posted

  1. I was wondering where you had been, Russel, as Parliament started back from recess without you. You missed your co-leader being thrown out by the speaker for the first time ever! Well, it sounds you made some good contacts in Europe and could see, how environmental and alternative energy policies get higher priority treatment in Europe, than in little old New Zealand.

    That agreement the EU wishes to enter into with NZ, by including human rights aspects, that sounds interesting. I am not surprised that the present NZ government is NOT keen on it, as they like to show off with “human rights” written in the law books here, but they hypocritically do not honour human rights that much. It has been evident in many laws passed, and the welfare reforms spring to mind, as just one of the changes they brought in.

    Yes, John Key and his lot seem to feel more comfy with Mainland China and certain South East Asian countries, that have a different idea about “human rights”.

  2. welcome home safe and sound and loaded with heaps good ideas (although such trip sounds very tiring too)..hopefully we can learn from them and then actually implement those good ideas.
    why does it not surprise me that Nat govt doesn’t want to include human rights clauses into agreement? This govt leads to breach as much human rights in own country as they can…what can we say?

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