Parliament was in recess this week. I traveled to Beijing on Sunday to represent the Liberal Group at the annual EU-China Political Parties Forum on Monday and Tuesday. We discussed China’s new Five Year Plan and the EU’s 2020 Strategy. Both are concerned with economic growth, fighting climate change and improving social cohesion. Liberals naturally also raised questions of human rights.
This is the second of these conferences and is a useful forum for frank debate between the EU’s political parties and the Chinese Communist Party. I was also invited to give a lecture at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences about the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on EU co-operation; and I took the opportunity to meet one of their climate campaigners. The most impressive aspect of the visit was traveling on the new high speed train between Beijing and Tianjin; previously a journey of two hours, it can now be done in 28 minutes with a Chinese-built train which reaches speeds of over 300 km an hour.
On Wednesday night and Thursday I was in Brussels. Though Parliament is not sitting I had a huge pile of paperwork to attend to and much in the way of other activity to brief myself on. The euro-zone finance ministers had met on Monday and all 27 had met on Tuesday. They endorsed Portugal’s austerity programme and agreed a package of financial support: they urged Greece to get a move on with its reforms; and though they refused to cut interest rates on loans to Ireland they nonetheless approved an extra EUR 25 bn in loans to the country’s stricken banks.
The 27 agriculture ministers had also met on Tuesday; they discussed how to improve the welfare of animals during transport, how to improve food quality and how to increase forest planting in the EU.
The EU’s leaders had been out and about. Council President Van Rompuy was in China at the start of the week and was received by the President, while those attending the conference I was at were received only by the Vice President. Foreign Policy supremo Catherine Ashton was in Washington to discuss the situation in North Africa with Hillary Clinton: both the EU and the US are tightening sanctions on Syria’s regime.
On Thursday I was briefed by the EU’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator on developments in EU co-ordination, in advance of parliamentary debates next week. And I brought myself up to date on events marking the international day against homophobia: six EU countries are deemed to be making no progress and the problem is getting worse in a further two.
The Commission has written to the Czech Republic to warn them it will investigate their practice of phallometric testing of gay men seeking asylum from persecution on grounds of sexuality, in which if they have an erotic reaction to pornographic images of women they are deemed to be lying about their sexuality. Commissioner Malmstrom says this is an affront to dignity and contrary to EU law.
In Budapest on Monday, at the EU-ACP Assembly which brings together European and African MEPs, a row had erupted on the issue of treatment of homosexual and my Belgian Liberal colleague Louis Michel, co-chair of the meeting, made a strong statement defending the rights of gay men.
I am currently in Dresden for a meeting of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party. On Monday evening I will be in Ilminster to address the South Somerset Peace group. I wish you, wherever you are, a restful weekend.