Strasbourg round-up: Group leaders focus on Greece, Ukraine and PNR

Written by The Parliament Magazine on 12 February 2015 in Special Report
Special Report

Ahead of this week's plenary in Strasbourg, the leaders of parliament's political groups have outlined their positions on crucial issues facing the EU.


President of parliament's EPP group Manfred Weber discussed Greece, Ukraine, anti-terrorism efforts and the 'Swiss leaks' controversy, ahead of what he said would be "an important week for Europe".

On Greece, Weber emphasised that the election result in Greece must be respected. He said, "Greece has a new government and a new parliament, but not a new state. The agreements entered into by Greece have to be respected by the new government." 

The EPP group president added that, "An attack on these agreements means undermining the fundamental EU principles of trust and mutual confidence. What applied to Ireland now applies to Tsipras."

He emphasised that the EPP stands behind the proposals of European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Weber said, "We support Juncker in the idea of creating hope for the programme countries and we very strongly support his investment programme. The reparation issues as far as we’re concerned are not on the table - we want to look to the future."

"Greece has a new government and a new parliament, but not a new state. The agreements entered into by Greece have to be respected by the new government" - Manfred Weber

The deputy outlined the worries of the EPP group as regards the situation in Ukraine and praised the efforts of French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel "to start up new initiatives". 

Weber added, "We see no way out of this except negotiations and we hope the Minsk II approach will be successful. Nobody wants escalation."

At the press conference ahead of parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg, Weber also spoke on the EPP's position on the passenger names record (PNR) proposal. 

He said, "We can't keep putting this off in parliament. We also need intensive cooperation between police in Europe [and ensure] that there can be a proper exchange of information."

The EPP group president said in light of 'Swiss leaks', "It's not acceptable if companies can get away without paying tax in Europe."

Weber added, "We think a special committee will be in a better position to reach the goal of transparency than the previously proposed enquiry committee, which was rejected because it was not legally admissible - we shouldn't be talking about specific companies, we want a broad mandate."

S&D group

S&D group president Gianni Pittella focused on migrant deaths in Lampedusa, the ongoing fallout from Syriza's election in Greece and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

At least 27 migrants died of hypothermia yesterday after being rescued by the Italian coastguard. Pittela said, "It is a disgrace that member states cannot and are not willing to do more." 

He called for "more instruments and financial resources" to be allocated to the European Union to address this problem. 

"The notorious memorandum of understanding [between Greece and its lenders] must be abandoned and renegotiated" - Gianni Pittella

The Italian rescue programme Mare Nostrum was discontinued last year and replaced by an EU-run smaller scale operation called Triton. In October 2013, over 300 migrants lost their lives when their boat capsized off the Italian coast.

On Greek efforts to renegotiate the terms of its agreement with international lenders, Pittella outlined that in the view of the S&D group, "the 'Troika' [of the European commission, European central bank and international monetary fund] no longer exists". Its existence "has been overtaken by events" and there is now a "need to move speedily to find a solution", he said. 

He noted that commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had raised questions regarding the legitimacy of the ad-hoc body that emerged during the eurozone financial crisis.

The S&D group president said, "the notorious memorandum of understanding [between Greece and its lenders] must be abandoned and renegotiated". 

However, Pitella said that while his group is against cutting Greece's debt, noting "what was given must be returned", Europe must show solidarity with Athens. 

Referring to efforts to find a solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the S&D group's position is "no to arms, yes to negotiation".

He added that the conflict "can only be dealt with through sanctions, aimed at Russian strategic interests" and he warned that, "we cannot allow a third world war at the gates of Europe".


In the ECR briefing, chair Syed Kamall and MEP Timothy Kirkhope, the group's home affairs spokesperson, discussed Greece and the eurozone, as well as the crisis in Ukraine, and counter-terrorism.

Beginning with Ukraine, Kamall argued, "we have to recognise that if these talks fail and Russia continues to break agreements, then the EU should not be afraid to strengthen sanctions against Russia".

He also noted that his group will be pushing for the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics to be added to the EU terrorist list.

The ECR chair also revealed the nature of discussions with US vice-president Joe Biden on Ukraine. He felt that the US was right not to rule out arming Ukraine, but said it was premature to rule it in. He added that, "unless you have someone tough in the White House, someone who scares the bejesus out of Putin, then what options are left?"

Kamall also noted the hunger strike of his colleague Mark Demesmaeker, as part of an effort to highlight the plight of captured Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, adding that the "whole group demands her immediate release".

"Unless you have someone tough in the White House, someone who scares the bejesus out of Putin, then what options are left?" - Syed Kamall

He concluded by saying, "Russia cannot continue to act like a pariah [… and] the EU will have the ECR's support in ramping up the consequences".

On Greece, the ECR chair sympathised with the Greek electorate and welcomed the election result, but remained critical of the new government's fiscal approach to its debt problems. He said, "they seem to believe this old adage that the 'money magically grows on trees'".

He urged more politicians from the wealthier eurozone countries to be honest with their electorate about paying, "fiscal transfers to the poorer eurozone countries, probably forever".

Kamall concluded by discussing counter-terrorism, drawing particular attention to understanding the "drivers of radicalisation" that result in "home grown fighters" going abroad to commit acts of terror.

Kamall's colleague Timothy Kirkhope, meanwhile, focused on PNR and data protection. He argued that there was a need for a "coordinated set of standards for the collection, storage and handling of the data […] otherwise, you end up with a chaotic situation".

Kirkhope also elaborated on his upcoming PNR report, saying it "was not a knee-jerk reaction" as it began more than three years ago, but did take recent events into consideration.

The ECR home affairs spokesperson also explained that he will present a modified report to the LIBE committee that addresses the concerns raised by parliament's groups, and proves to the European council that progress is being made on PNR.

Regarding data protection, he criticised the misinformation being spread about data protection, but remained hopeful that a deal will be agreed soon. Kirkhope concluded by saying, "our priority is our responsibility to protect all European citizens".


President of parliament's ALDE group Guy Verhofstadt commented on counter-terrorism efforts, Greece and Ukraine. 

He explained that the ALDE group has prepared "a five point approach" which it will present to the council.

In reference to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, Verhofstadt said, "We need to develop new tools to share intelligence and information at EU level, because in Paris we knew all the suspects, but we didn't use and share all the information. We need authorities working in parallel with Europol. We need a platform for the mandatory transfer of information, maybe 'Eurointel'"

The ALDE group president emphasised "the need to enforce law enforcement capacities of the union" and also said, "we need to upgrade our EU foreign policy and external strategy and integrate counter terrorism policies in the external action service".

"We need to upgrade our EU foreign policy and external strategy and integrate counter terrorism policies in the external action service" - Guy Verhofstadt

Verhofstadt described the victory of Syriza "as an enormous opportunity for Greece" and said the ALDE group "hope to see a structural reform package by the new government by the end of the month".

He criticised the Greek prime minister's comments on Germany and highlighted that, "if everyone starts like that then we go back to 1945 and fall back into the trap of Versailles".

The ALDE deputy also added that now is "the moment to look to the future and build up a common future [and] so far in Greece there have been no structural reforms - simply a set of austerity measures".

Verhofstadt questioned the absence of president of the European council Donald Tusk and foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini from efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, following joint French and German proposals in recent days. 

He warned, "Let's not make the same mistakes as in the past, like in Kosovo where we waited for US action before reacting. We need to have a firm attitude, be ready to strengthen the sanctions because they work."

In conclusion, he called for "a common position with our American friends to create enough pressure on Putin to stop what he has launched in the eastern provinces of Ukraine".


Representatives of GUE/NGL group also spoke about parliament's investigation of 'Luxleaks', Ukraine and the EU's response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

GUE/NGL group president Gabi Zimmer said it was regrettable that a 'committee of inquiry' into the 'Luxleaks' controversy was not accepted. She described the events in question as "an incredible situation that took place over a long time". 

A vote on the 'special committee' will take place on Thursday after the proposal for a committee of inquiry was "taken […] off the table" by European parliament Martin Schulz on legal advice.

"Arming Ukraine is the wrong approach" - Gabi Zimmer

In relation to a proposal for a conference to bring about a resolution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Zimmer said, "this initiative is the correct action and should have taken place at the highest level a long time ago".

The GUE/NGL president warned that "arming Ukraine is the wrong approach" and would only escalate the situation. She also said that any move by the United States to provide arms would be ill advised. 

Zimmer added that, "negotiation and de-escalation" are the only acceptable solutions to overcoming the current impasse.

GUE/NGL MEP Barbara Spinelli warned against overreacting to the January's terrorist attack in Paris and said GUE/NGL would not support the extension of the passenger name records proposal. 

She said recent security incidents were being used as a "curtain and a blank cheque for new security measures". Spinelli highlighted that measures already in place have not been implemented and proposed measures have not received adequate parliamentary scrutiny.


The Greens/EFA group co-presidents Philippe Lamberts and Rebecca Harms focused on Greece, the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attack and the situation in Ukraine in their pre-Strasbourg briefing. 

Lamberts said there was a "need for change as regards Greece" but called for all sides to exercise "more discretion and engage in less public gestures" in their negotiations. He added that, "Everyone knows there must be a debt resettlement and that the Greens/EFA group "are still debating the best solution".

In relation to comments on Germany's reparations in the aftermath of the first and second world wars by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Lamberts said, "We don't think we need to go over past agreements and this kind of statement doesn't help."

The Greens/EFA group co-president emphasised that, "Berlin is key to the solution and all sides will have to make concessions" calling for an end to "megaphone diplomacy".

"Everyone knows there must be a debt resettlement and that the Greens/EFA group "are still debating the best solution" - Philippe Lamberts

Lamberts told the press conference that Tsipras and his government "are going about finding a solution in an awkward way".

He also warned of the potential for an increase in support for the extreme right if a solution to the Greek crisis is not found.

Greens/EFA co-president Rebecca Harms expressed "doubts about the concentration of efforts on the collection of data" in response to the terrorist attack in January at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. 

She called for an emphasis on policing and not mass surveillance measures, giving rise to a "human beings against machines" scenario. 

Harms commended the efforts of French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel in "taking the initiative" to find a solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

She said it was made clear that this "is a European problem" and called for a "common answer, unity and use of economic sanctions, not military power" in finding a solution.

The Greens/EFA co-president added, "The EU has to agree a common reading of what is actually happening in Russia."

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