A horse. Photo: Flickr/Kim Hill
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Three years after the horsemeat scandal, are we any closer to knowing what we're eating?

This week, MEPs will vote on proposals for the mandatory country of origin labelling of meat in processed foods – a vital measure for food safety and consumer choice.

Mexican beef? French rabbit? Spanish pork?... three years’ on from the horsemeat scandal, consumers may now be more certain what it is they are eating, but they still don’t know where the meat in processed food is from.

Country of origin labelling is now mandatory for fresh beef, and will be for fresh pork, lamb, goat and poultry from April this year, yet this is not the case for meat in processed food. And that is why this week in the European Parliament, Labours MEPs will be voting for the same standards for meat in burgers, ready meals and sandwiches.

This is long overdue. We have been asking for this since 2010, when I helped negotiate new EU laws on food labelling. I managed to get the European Parliament’s support for the idea, but European governments - including our own - would only agree to labelling fresh meat.

When the horsemeat scandal broke in 2012, the UK government changed its mind and promised to introduce labelling for meat in processed food, only to backtrack and block the idea in the European Council last summer. So Tory MEPs may be planning to vote in favour of the resolution this week, but this might never have been necessary if they’d supported our position right from the start.

Labour MEPs, on the other hand, have consistently argued for clear, honest labelling for all food. From easy-to-understand nutritional information to labelling method of slaughter or whether a product contains unsustainable palm oil, we believe consumers have a right to know what’s in their food and where it’s come from.

As for UKIP, despite including country of origin labelling alongside the litany of barmy policies in their 100-point election pledge, Nigel Farage’s MEPs are unlikely to back the resolution. They may want to be taken seriously, but when given the opportunity to take constructive action, as always, UKIP would rather sit back and rant.

90 per cent of consumers want to know the country of origin of meat in processed food. This would allow environmentally or animal welfare conscious consumers to make more informed decisions about where the meat in their food has come from and how far it’s travelled.

And it’s not just consumers, farmers’ organisations also support country of origin labelling. However, the food industry has been lobbying heavily against the idea, despite the fact this could actually be good for them by helping restore trust in the industry, which was badly damaged by the horsemeat scandal.

The European Commission claims labelling the country of origin of meat in processed food would increase costs significantly but their report was based on industry self-reporting. A French consumer study found that labelling the beef in a frozen lasagne would cost less than 1p, and for a bolognese sauce it would be even less.

People should never be misled, if a sausage roll is labelled as a British product, that should mean it is made with British pork. I sincerely hope MEPs won’t cave into to industry lobbying and will support the resolution on Wednesday. Consumers increasingly demand more information about their food and Labour MEPs believe you have a right to know where your meat comes from.

Glenis Willmott MEP is Labour’s Leader in the European Parliament

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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