A discussion forum of MEPs meets regularly to debate issues of concern to maritime nations such as Scotland. The main objective is to highlight key concerns of constituents, and to influence the European Commission and Member States on issues linked to maritime affairs and which are currently on the EU's agenda. Recent discussions have included employment in the maritime sector, adaptation to climate change and dealing with maritime waste, all in the context of the EU's Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP).

The IMP looks at how to stimulate growth across all sectors linked to maritime activities, including the fisheries sector. Responding to MEPs questions, Fisheries and Maritime Commissioner Maria Damanaki stated that "radical and deep reform of the CFP is necessary and pressing. Serious problems exist with the current policy and new challenges are there to be confronted."

There is an opportunity for Scotland to push for real powers to be returned to fishing nations, and with that objective in mind a conference is being held in the European Parliament, hosted by the Scottish Government and MEPs, to highlight working models of local decision-making in fisheries management.

The Parliament is debating a range of other issues, including the EU's 2006-2010 animal welfare action plan. At committee stage MEPs expressed the view that the rules should be better enforced through more inspections and effective penalties in some member states. I know that our farmers are achieving high standards in animal welfare that can improve product safety and quality, but it is essential that these standards are applied consistently across Europe.

Commission President Barroso has presented the Commission's Legislative and Work Program for the year. The program focuses on four main areas: tackling the economic challenges and sustaining Europe's social market economy, building a citizen's agenda, developing an ambitious external agenda and modernising the EU's ways of working.

With reform of the Common Agriculture Policy also on the agenda, I recently attended a seminar in Brussels at which Brian Pack gave a detailed presentation on the challenges facing Scotland's agriculture businesses and rural communities. With 85% of our land designated Less Favoured Area, and 65% of Scottish farming land being rough grazing, it is clear that we have very particular interests in the future of agriculture, and we must be prepared to strongly stand up for ourselves in EU policy-making forums. Scotland's influence on international negotiations, within the EU and beyond, would be much greater as a normal independent nation

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