A Short Break from Campaigning…


There is a quotation of Bismarck that has taken on much meaning of late: ‘Laws are like sausages. Better not to see them being made’. Having had some recent experience in the field I can sympathise with Bismarck, certainly when it comes to lawmaking in the EU.

The Commission churn out draft law like it’s going out of fashion and rarely is it worthy of unqualified applause. Trying to make the law better is hard going but vital, which is why I find myself back in Brussels on eve of poll about to cast my vote in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee.  ‘Why!?’ I hear you ask.  ‘Have you gone mad? Should you not be knocking streets and pounding doors?’ Well, let me tell you about the Medium Combustion Plants Directive.

The Medium Combustion Plant Directive (MCPD)

For the record, a ‘combustion plant’ is a facility with a generator or engine that makes energy.  Think of an electricity generator or a commercial heating/cooling system. These generators burn fossil fuels and so emit greenhouse gases and air pollutants. The impact of the proposed law is straightforward - affected plants must upgrade or close.

The original law was intended to affect only onshore facilities (as did the directive affecting Large Combustion Plants which preceded it), but for some reason no one got the memo, and so the law as written would cover oil rigs.  Now, as anyone reading the papers knows, this is not the best time to be placing additional burdens on the North Sea oil industry (particularly when the rigs are responsible for less than 3% of the EU’s emissions). Industry estimates that the directive will cost jobs and slow down production by 45-60% by 2030.

How to make an EU law

Most books on the EU devote several chapter to this process, but I am going to hone it down to a few lines. Three EU institutions are involved in law making: the Commission, which drafts the proposed law, and the two co-legislators, the Council and the Parliament, which ‘amend’ it in to shape.

In the Parliament, the relevant committee takes the lead - in the case of the MCPD, the Environment Committee - and appoints from its ranks a rapporteur whose job it is to secure compromises from the other political groups. Where legislation affects more than one committee, the other committees are invited to offer a formal opinion on the law, which must be taken into account. In the case of the MCPD, the Energy Committee was invited to offer such an opinion.

It is during the committee stage that the Parliament’s power is greatest. MEPs will often table upwards of 500 amendments to a single law, changing its nature, scope, cost and impact.  Every amendment is voted upon, with votes often lasting several hours.  Once the voting is complete, the agreed draft is either tabled for a full plenary vote, where it can be further amended by all MEPs, or it is sent on to the Council for the Member States to uphold their end of the law making process.

How to influence law-making

Those affected are often reluctant to embrace a new (or changed) law, reading ‘change’ as ‘cost’.  This is where lobbying comes in, either in support of the law or agin it. Sometimes it is by companies themselves, or their trade bodies and European Federations. Sometimes it is trade unions or NGOs.  Often it is the Member State itself, recognising the Parliament as a useful vehicle to achieve change they could not secure in Council.

In the run up to the vote in the Energy Committee, I and my fellow MEPs received hundreds of meeting requests, unsolicited ‘suggested’ amendments, position papers and guidance from across the lobbying spectrum; from green groups seeking an end to fossil fuel use to Polish electricity providers intent on protecting coal.

However, the issue that has caused me most concern from a Scottish and UK perspective has been the impact of the directive on offshore rigs.

Judgement time

Having weighed up the arguments on both sides it was clear to me that rigs should be excluded from the law (just as they had been from the Directive affecting the larger plants).  So being a member of the Energy Committee and the Environment Committee, I had suitable amendments tabled, and began my own lobbying of committee members to secure support.  You would think that this would be a no-brainer for the British MEPs on the Committees, but there you would be wrong.

Round one: step forward, the Labour Party

When the amendment to exclude oil rigs was voted upon in the Energy Committee just a few weeks ago, it fell by only three votes. Those three votes belonged to the UK Labour party.  I met with the leader of the Labour delegation. I explained the impact the amendment would have on offshore jobs and the future of certain rigs.  However, on the day, one Labour member voted to include rigs in the scope of the directive, one left before the vote and one didn't turn up.  The two missing Labour MEPs were replaced by substitutes who voted down the amendment.

Round Two: Labour Vault Face - but what about the SNP?

Today the Environment Committee, which will lead negotiations on behalf of the Parliament, will vote on the Directive.  So how stand the UK parties?

Having voted to include oil rigs in the directive only two weeks ago, the Labour Party has had an epiphany and now declares it will support my amendment to exclude.  You would almost think there was an election on…

And what of the SNP?  Well, they are in something of a quandary.  SNP MEPs belong to the Green/European Free Alliance Group, and the Green Group has declared it does not want offshore rigs excluded from the directive.  This is a real test of the SNP’s influence in Europe.  If the SNP MEPs are able to persuade their group colleagues sitting on the Environment Committee to vote in support of the amendment then there is a strong chance that rigs will be excluded.  If they are unable to influence their colleagues then it could be a body blow for the North Sea offshore industry.

Goodness knows how the UKIP group will vote…

The vote is scheduled to take place today at around 2.30pm. Fingers crossed we find cross party support for the amendment to exclude off shore rigs from the directive.  Watch this space.

Ps...Vote has been and gone.  The SNP failed to show, and their group voted against the amendment.  However, the good news is that the amendment passed regardless.