Friday, 31 December 2010

Europe in 2010

The 14th December symbolised Europe in 2010 for me. Berlusconi, despite all the scandals, won two confidence votes (in the lower house by just 3 votes!), and outside the protesters took to rioting. A few days later there would be a European Council summit where it was decided to dig in: there will be a Treaty amendment to make the Eurozone's bail-out facility permanent, but no increase in the facility's funds, nor any moves towards closer fiscal union through Eurobonds. Outside rages anger and uncertainty about the future, but inside there is little vision, and fear for the alternatives.

European solidarity now has a figure: €750 billion, and a few interest rate percentage points. At the heart of the matter lie questions of blame and responsibility as well as solidarity. Why should the German taxpayer - or Dutch, or Finnish - pay for the poor economic management of other Eurozone states? Or, from the other point of view, why should Greek and Irish taxpayers support a harsh austerity programme that bails out German, British and other private banks; why should these taxpayers pick up the tab for the reckless private sectors in other countries? Both are understandable viewpoints and have good arguments, but they reveal the extent of the "European integration" of the private sphere, and the need for a strong, coherent Eurozone response. I agree that countries like Ireland have mismanaged their economies and a great deal of the responsibility lies with them. But does it make sense to aim to penalise these countries' economies and demand penance, while at the same time advocating their rescue by the very same measures to ensure that their economies revive and cease to threaten the stability of the European economy?

The Eurozone needs a vision for how it will be run to benefit the whole, yet we hardly hear the arguments on Eurozone governance, and we don't debate the different viewpoints across borders. How can we be in a position - how can our leaders even be in the position - to make the rules for living together in the Eurozone when we are intent on having conversations with ourselves in fragmented groups, and trying to extract short-term advantage at each summit instead of trying to build a consensus on how to proceed together?

Though the economic crisis dominated 2010, there was much more to the year than that.

It was the first year of the Lisbon Treaty, which changed EU politics - you might even say it was the year the European Parliament. Whether it was the EU-US SWIFT Agreement on terrorist financing being shot down for a lack of safeguards, with US Vice President Biden imploring Parliament to accept it before a modified form was adopted, or the battle over the budget, the Parliament has been exerting its influence constantly. Victories weren't total, and I didn't always agree with the legislation passed, but the Parliament managed to make its mark on 2010. For me the greatest Parliamentary victory was over the formation of the European External Action Service, were it got a lot of its proposals accepted and heavily shaped the new institution despite only having the right of consultation under article 27(3) TEU - if anything symbolises the Parliament's new-found power, it should be this.

Politics of government and opposition strengthened in the Parliament this year, with the EPP generally supporting the Commission and Council with the help of the Liberals (where the right are in the majority), and a motley alliance of the PES, Greens and Liberals managing to upset the EPP's plurality on occasion. Though voting alliances remain fluid, the increasing coherence and importance of European parties with clearer policy platforms begs the question: why aren't we doing more to hold them to account and to use them to make a difference?

Barroso's second Commission was formally installed early in the year, and he tried to inject some vision into his second term in his hyped "State of the Union" speech. Generally the Commission was the least visible of the institutional triangle, though it did have a moment of glory when it temporarily grew a backbone to speak out over the Roma crisis in France.

Rights were very much an issue - civil liberties in SWIFT, citizenship and human rights for the Roma, human rights and elections in Belarus, and freedom of speech and the media in Hungary. If this is any indication, we will need to remain vigilant at home and across Europe for the next year and beyond.

Like Jon Worth, I'm not so optimistic for the future: there are too many narrow interests pulling in too many different directions. In September I heard a speech on the development of the EU. Europe, it was proclaimed, advanced through crises and managed to muddle through; we should not be worried or optimistic. I can't see that way of doing business working in the future. We need to make greater use of what is there to make the EU more inclusive and representative so that clearer arguments and vision can form and shape the Europe we live in. But it won't happen just through institutional reform and more information campaigns. It's a long road, but promoting debate between people and not just governments is essential if the EU is to become more democratic and joined-up. But this would require people to actively participate, rather than just being passive subjects.

EPP President defends Hungarian Media Law

The centre-right European People's Party (the biggest in the European Parliament), or specifically its President, Wilfried Martins, has defended the new Hungarian Media Law, which blogs, including this one, are against due to the chilling effect it will have on press freedom. In the absence of any other EPP comment on the subject, it seems like it's the current EPP position.

Martins said:

""I appreciate the efforts of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government to improve the former Hungarian media law with the aim to strengthen the freedom of the press, the culture of respect, the protection of minors and human dignity. I also understand the challenge of strengthening media accountability, while keeping media freedom intact. Discussion on the Hungarian media law should not be based on the politicaly motivated misinterpretations, but on the exact knowledge of the text.""

By politically motivated misinterpretations, I suppose he's referring to the outburst of fellow party member and Luxembourgish Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn who condemned the laws, saying: "It's a direct danger for democracy".

Or perhaps the OSCE, which produced a damning report on the law in September (PDF), and is still talking about it in strong terms:

""I am concerned that Hungary's parliament has adopted media legislation that, if misused, can silence critical media and public debate in the country," Mijatovic [OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media] said, referring to the "Law on media services and mass communication", adopted on 20 December.

"The law regulates all media content - broadcast, print and online - based on identical principles, which runs against OSCE standards on free media. It also gives unusually broad powers to the recently established media authority and media council, which are led exclusively by members supported by the governing party," Mijatovic said.

Traditionally, regulatory authorities govern broadcast media only, but the new law in Hungary empowers the authorities to also govern print and online media content.

"Such concentration of power in regulatory authorities is unprecedented in European democracies, and it harms media freedom," Mijatovic said. "Regulating print media can curb free public debate and pluralism. Even though regulating online media is considered technologically impossible, it introduces self-censorship.""

So far, two other European parties have commented: the Liberals (ALDE), and the European Greens. The Liberals are calling for the Commission to take (as yet undefined) action, and the European Greens want Article 7 TEU to be used against Hungary (the article is the mechanism for dealing with EU Member States who breach the fundamental values of the Union). Scope for EU action on the subject is somewhat limited, but it is hard to see this nuclear option succeeding against Hungary, particularly when it holds the rotating presidency. Article 7, does, however, mean that the EP could try to apply political pressure through its resolutions or even trying to start the Article 7 procedure.

Martins also stated the EPP's support for the Hungarian Presidency (Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary, is an EPP member):

""I would also like to take this opportunity to wish Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a successful EU Presidency. Needless to say, for the next six months PM Orban can rely on the full support of the EPP," Martens added."

In this Parliamentary term the EPP have definitely been the "government party", supporting the positions of the (EPP-dominated) Council and Commission. It's a pity that the governing party and opposition aren't being tested properly on their records, particularly as EP votes and support are key to getting proposals through...

[Also, see Deutsche Welle for a broader view of the prospective Hungarian Presidency].

Note: Post edited the same day, thanks to Cédric picking up on an Article 7-related mistake.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Fine Gael lacking courage and conviction in the Irish Abortion Debate

In my last post I wrote about the latest ECHR judgment concerning abortion - A, B and C v Ireland. On Tuesday the leader of the largest opposition party, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael, said that the issue was for an all-party committee to investigate, and would not commit to a referendum on the matter:

"Mr Kenny said abortion had been a very divisive issue in Ireland in the past and a re-run of those debates was not what the country needed right now.


“We had the X case way back in the 1990s and the European Court of Human Rights has given its decision now. This judgment required proper analysis and some in-depth discussion. What I would propose is that the next Oireachtas should establish a process to look at the core issues here. I am not going to shirk the issue but I am not going to predetermine what the outcome will be.”


“In this case, my view is that we should set up an appropriate all-party committee with terms of reference that would allow it to have access to the best legal advice, to the best medical advice . . . what should be done might range across a spectrum, from legislation to a list of State recommendations or regulations that the medical profession could adhere to and operate within,” he says.

“My position is I do not favour legalising abortion on demand. We have a situation where you have difficult, hard cases, and some people have gone through very difficult circumstances but there is an ECHR judgment, there is a Supreme Court decision and there is a constitutional position. If the next Oireachtas is to respond, it has got to determine what the facts are, the scale of the problem and the nature of it and see if we can arrive at a consensus on how to deal with it.”"

This is clearly a cop-out. It is understandable that the focus of FG in government would be the economic situation, but it's clear that FG don't know how to approach the matter at all. It's s clear example of the reluctance of the Irish political parties to think about these matters, never mind have a position on them.

The A, B, and C judgment basically said that Irish law did not ensure adequate access of women in Ireland to abortion where Irish law stated that they were entitled to it. The judgment quoted from reports, and it is clear that there have been research into this area before, and on a continuous basis. So if Kenny didn't want to draw attention to abortion as a devisive issue, he could have just stated that, said that a FG-led government would bring the law into line with the Constitution and the ECHR ruling.

The statement might be a result of tensions within the party (which is centre-right). Conservatives may want to retain strict abortion laws, while more liberal members may want to adopt more liberal abortion laws. From the Irish Times article it appears that Kenny wants abortion to be available where the mother's health would be affected, even if not on demand (currently it's only available if the mother's life is in danger). That would require a referendum.

There are 3 options:

1. Keep things the way they are, but make access to abortion were it's already permitted under the law more accessable in practical terms (the A, B and C line).

2. Have abortion were the mother health is in danger (also in cases of rape/incest/etc.).

3. Permit abortion on demand.

2 & 3 would require a constitutional amendment (which would have to be passed by referendum). In those cases you advocate a position and stick to it: the nitty-gritty of legislative work comes afterwards, when it permitted under the Constitution. The fundamental argument is political, and if the political parties cannot face up to taking a principled stand from wherever they stand on the political spectrum, it's a craven act of political cowardice.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

ECHR and Abortion in Ireland

The ECHR has delivered its Grand Chamber judgment on the A, B, and C v Ireland case earlier this month, on whether the rights of three women under the Convention had been violated due to their inability to access abortion in Ireland. The current Irish abortion laws are very strict - some of the strictest in Europe - prohibiting abortion except in cases where the mother's life is at risk. This is a high threshold, as risks to the health of the mother are not enough. The issue is very sensitive in Ireland, as the right of the unborn to life is enshrined in the Irish Constitution (brought in via an amendment in 1983), and would require a referendum to change - something which there is little will for among the political parties. Ireland has held several referendums on the issue of abortion, and the parties have pretty much decided that there's no votes in opening up such a sensitive issue.

In short, the Court ruled that the fact that A and B had to travel to obtain abortion did not breach their rights under Article 3 (torture and inhuman/degrading treatment) or Article 8 (right to private life), but there had been a breach of Article 8 in the case of C, who feared that her pregnancy could cause a return of her cancer. The Court was essentially stating that Ireland had breached the Convention by not ensuring the effective protection of rights it was guaranteeing (a doctrine developed in Tysiąc v. Poland, which also concerned abortion), as the Court judged that there was a lack of sufficient means of obtaining a medical evaluation showing that a woman fell within the exception permitting abortion. Since C couldn't obtain such verification, there was a breach of her rights.

The judgment has been covered well by the ECHR Blog and Human Rights in Ireland. The Human Rights in Ireland article is a great brief explanation of the judgment's context in Irish law.

So claims that the Strasbourg Court is interfering in Irish abortion law are simply wrong. The Court just states the Tysiąc v. Poland position that if a state grants rights, then individuals should have adequate access to such rights. In a way, the Court is acting as a court of fourth instance on human rights here: no European-wide right to abortion has been recognised. Neither the Lisbon Treaty nor the ECHR ruling has changed anything regarding Irish abortion law. Not that this stops fundamentalist Catholic groups such as Youth Defence from decrying the judgment as interfering:

"The ECHR has no business interfering in Irish pro-life laws and they have no right to try to scare Irish women into believing that they would ever need an abortion to save their life."

Sadly, there is unlikely to be any political debate or moves for Constitutional amendment in the forseeable future. The current Fianna Fáil government brought in a blasphemy law provided for under the Constitution, rather than remove the Constitutional provisions via referendum, which would have been more in line with 21st Century Ireland. Though Fianna Fáil won't be in government for much longer, the next government's attention will hardly be focused on reforming the Constitution to remove the explicit Catholic ethos and to secularise the state further. So while the country becomes ever more liberal and secular in its attitudes, the entrenchment of a Catholic outlook in the Constitution gives groups like Youth Defence a stronger say than they would otherwise have - to the extent that they can claim their views are the patriotic ones.

On a final note, regarding the treatment of A and B, the Court should have dealt with things differently. The dissenting opinion views the core issue more clearly than the judgment: the Court should have balanced the rights of the mother and unborn child, rather than confuse the issue with the margin of appreciation the state has over determining the point at which the unborn child can be considered alive (the issue in Vo. v France). I'll not go into the dissenting opinion (this post is already long enough!), but it makes quite a convincing argument as to the approach the Court should have taken. Perhaps it is an example of the Court shying away from making politically sensitive judgments at the expense of the coherence of its case law.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Blog Action against Hungarian Media Law has called for a Blog Action against the new media law that will come into force in Hungary on January 1st. Hungary will assume the rotating presidency of the Council for the next 6 months, and has set up a presidency blog, so it is a great time for the Euroblogosphere (and national blogospheres) to highlight the dangers to press freedom, and to push for the law's repeal.

You can find the OSCE's damning assessment of the legislation here: PDF.

OSCE Report:

"They will introduce a highly centralized governance and regulatory system, with many new and unnecessary bodies of oversight and supervision and with many decision-making processes involving a succession of inputs by disparate bodies – probably breeding conflicts and inefficiencies, but also multiplying opportunities for political control. The whole system may have a serious chilling effect on media freedom and independence ((by encouraging selfcensorship) and on the exercise of freedom of expression.


The new institutional framework may, if deliberately (mis)used for this purpose, create conditions for the realization of the “winner-takes-most” or indeed “winner-takes-all” scenario in the current term of Parliament, in defiance of the principle of the division of powers and of the checks and balances typical of liberal democracy. As such, the design of this framework runs directly counter to democratic standards in the field of media system organization and governance. Accordingly, this package, which exceeds what is justified and necessary in a democratic society, is cause for very serious concern."

The legislation covers traditional and internet media, though the OSCE report fears that the legislation is framed so all internet content could conceiveably be covered by the law. In any case, the law will change the media landscape in Hungary significantly, by bringing in content regulation where previously the content itself had been "virtually free" of, and which is "without precident in democratic countries" (page 6 of the report PDF). The legislation will set up a National Media and Telecommunications Authority, which the Hungarian government will be able to appoint officials to, and will oversee media (including group blogs) in Hungary, without the national parliament being able to form a adequate check on the government:

"...the manner of appointment of the Media Council Chairperson
amounts to nothing less than government capture of Parliament. Parliament is left no choice but to vote for the Prime Minister’s candidate. Moreover, should it fail to elect that person, its decision will be disregarded in the sense that the President would still chair meetings of the Media Council (with a voice, but not a vote) and the only option left to Parliament would be eventually to elect that same person to this position – or leave the position unfilled, thus considerably weakening the MC. This is very likely if the governing party/coalition does not have a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Then, the solution designed to promote the development of consensus on the chairmanship of the MC could easily turn into an opportunity for obstruction by opposition parties."

Group blogs are another issue, as in Hungary group blogging is popular. As blogs can be fined if they are "edited" or written by several people, this could have a chilling effect on blogging in Hungary, where people are afraid of blogging together and risking suffering for what other people write. Mathew Lowry has written about this over on his blog.

I won't go into the law in greater detail (other blogs and the OSCE have done a good job - the OSCE Report is 57 pages long, after all!), but the vagueness of "appropriate" information, the vagueness of the idea of content and the political nature of appointments are a threat to freedom of the press and to blogging, so I would encourage everyone to join in with the Blogging Action, and raise awareness through blogs and Tweeting. Though the Presidency has argued that this is a purely national matter, and the presidency shouldn't be "hijacked" by it, but the freedom of the media is fundamental to democracy, and we should be concerned about such laws taking root in other countries. Not only is it a question of how we can ensure the same standards of rights, openness and democracy in Member States after they've joined the EU, but just as the presidency used the argument that none of the measures were not found in other Member States, tolerating the erosion of rights in one Member State makes it easier for such erosion to spread.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Division of Labour: Subsidiarity and National Parliaments

Subsidiarity. If you're still reading, congratulations; your courage in the face of EU jargon is impressive.

Subsidiarity is the principle that decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to the public, where that decision can be meaningfully taken. It's a principle that everyone will find attractive and agree with - how could you possibly be against? I support the idea, but when Nosemonkey asserted that giving subsidiarity true meaning and force would improve the EU and its legitimacy during the first Bloggingportal event panel, my first thought was a bit sceptical:

"Subsidiarity is probably one of the most tricky #EU legal concepts - how can you define it?"

Jon Worth replied:

"@EuropeanCitizen Subsidiarity is a conveninent cover for doing what you want to do, at whatever level #EU #EUuk - or am I too sceptical?"

Keeping decision making power at the lowest level possible where it would be effective is clearly a political ideal, and how to impliment it in practice causes a lot of difficulty. Since I study law, my mind immediately jumped to the European Court of Justice - after all, it is the institution which interprets the Treaties and which would rule whether or not the EU was acting within its competence or not. To my knowledge, the ECJ has not once found a breach of subsidiarity, and I am not aware of there being a test for subsidiarity, simply because it is so political it defies easy judicial interpretation.

I don't want to be misquoted here that subsidiarity is meaningless and the ECJ does nothing to limit EU power, because there are other, better, legal tools for doing so. The other 2 legal principles are those of conferral (the EU only has powers given to it by Treaty) and proportionality (EU actions must only so as far as is necessary to achieve their aims). (See Article 5 TEU). The Tobacco Advertising cases (I & II) are good examples of these principles being used (though arguably proportionality should have been more thorough), and the key point was that the internal market concerns cross-border trade, so the EU can only rely on those law-making powers to create laws that ease cross-border trade, not for health or for goods that would be fixed and not cross borders. These principles are either straight-forward or there is good judicial experience in the Member States to draw on to inform how they should be used. But when it comes to subsidiarity, what does it add to the judicial decision-making, and how could it be applied?

Subsidiarity is political, so it would be best enforced through political channels. The Lisbon Treaty gave the national Parliaments the ability to force the Commission to reconsider proposals if enough of them (at least 9) considered the proposal to breach the principle of subsidiarity. (See Protocol 2 of the Treaties). The time limit of 8 weeks is too short for it to be very effective, however, given the amount of co-ordination and co-operation that needs to take place among national parliaments. It does give them a useful tool which could be used effectively when the national parliaments organise themselves (which will take time and depend on their political will), but the time limits need to be extended. Open Europe has made this point, and it's a good one.

At the moment the Commission does a "check" on its proposals - do they conform with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, do they conform with the principle of subsidiarity, etc. The ECJ is likely to take political decisions on subsidiarity as being within the legislative discretion of the EP and Council and focus on other legal questions, but challenges from the national parliaments may force the ECJ to take it into account more (though it will be a long time, since it will more likely decide on procedural issues and on other legal grounds rather than face the difficult and politicised task of defining subsidiarity). Effective political channels are the best way of making subsidiarity more meaningful.

A last point on the role of national parliaments in the EU. At the Bloggingportal event, Mat Persson of Open Europe remarked that their role should be expanded beyond subsidiarity checks. To me, and I'm open to correction, this means national parliaments having a legislative role in place of or parallel to the EP. I'm completely against this. It would be good for national parliaments, through their committees to keep tabs on and control the votes of the national ministers in the Council, but becoming the "second chamber" of the EU would be damaging to transparency and accountability. Though the EP is not loved and turn-out is falling, it does, at least, provide an open, full-time forum for debates on EU legislation and scrutinising the executive.

National parliaments, on the other hand, tend to have little time of EU affairs, and their effectiveness varies from country to country on the powers they do have regarding the EU. Separate debates in 27 (or more) arenas in different languages would mean that the debates will become harder for the public to follow. Inter-parliamentary deals (alliances and deals made in now smokeless rooms) would be even more decisive for the legislative process. Though the EP has a low turnout and political organisation on a continental scale is more difficult, at least it provides the possibility of influencing the way EU legislation is dealt with and of expressing opinions more directly to the EU institutions about what they should be doing. Having the national parliaments take over would damage the transparency and accountability the EP provides (or potentially provides), and could even reduce the EU's legitimacy.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Blogging about Cancún

An agreement has just been reached in Cancún, which has produced another political agreement, but with no legally binding force over emissions. It's not an event I have been following closely over the last few days - I've been caught up in JHA and the excellent conferences/events - but I've noticed that one of my local MEP's Twitter account lit up.

Bairbre de Brún is a United Left MEP (Sinn Féin) who was part of the EP's delegation to COP 16, and was part of last year's delegation to COP 15 in Copenhagen. Normally Northern Ireland's MEPs' (and candidates') Twitter accounts are fairly inactive, only showing some life around election times, though I've seen some more activity from NI political figures recently. For the trip, de Brún also started to write a blog on the negotiations, talking about some of the issues and the negotiating styles at Cancún.

Environment is an area that is frequently mentioned as something that impacts at local, national, European and international levels, and it's a policy area particularly important in the EU - as Gawain Towler pointed out in the Bloggingportal conference yesterday, the EU affects the light bulbs you can buy, so it does effect people's lives. While lightbulbs might be too small an issue to hold much political or media attention, COP 16 is an example of important events were the EU's politics and position matters, and could be newsworthy. But then perhaps reporting on the negotiations of delegates and the differing positions of other countries and regions is too detailed to be newsworthy. Is blogging a better medium for covering these kinds of big negotiations?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Conversations with ourselves

Last week there was a PES (Party of European Socialists [centre-left]) conference in Warsaw, not that it made much media impact. Even EUobserver, which is dedicated to EU news and politics, was so taken up by the Wikileaks story that it simply didn't mention it. Centre-left party leaders from the UK and France did not turn up. EurActiv has an article on the Conference, reporting that the PES have now set up a working group to figure out how a Commission President candidate will be chosen for the 2014 election - but it was the lack of interest that sticks with you.

In some ways this is strange, particularly in Ireland. The Irish Labour Party have said that they will not be bound by the IMF/EU-Ireland bail-out agreement, and it has denounced the conservative consensus in Ireland and in Europe. The stress on investment and growth (though the Labour party would also cut spending and raise taxes to reduce the deficit), is quite similar to the speeches being made at the conference. Growth and jobs; the two words were repeated again and again in Warsaw, with continuous reference to the dominance of the centre-right EPP (European People's Party [centre-right]) in the EP, Commission and Council, and their philosophy of austerity, in contrast to what Greek PM Papandreou termed PES "responsibility".

PES leader Poul Nyrup Rasmussen:

Plenary speeches : Poul Nyrup Rasmussen from PES_Party of European Socialists on Vimeo.

Greek PM George Papandreou:

The two parties who have a chance of winning the next election and electing their leader Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Labour (PES) and Fine Gael (EPP) are pretty much in line with their pan-European parties' philosophies (though it's more doubtful when it comes to the EU's own resources and economic governance). Given the talk of a loss of sovereignty and the control the EU now has over our economy, stressing the influence and links with influential blocs within the EU could have some bonuses, but this possibility isn't explored because that's not how the Europarties are seen by the national parties, and that's not how the EU is represented. It's surprising how much the Commission is represented as purely technocratic, and that Olli Rehn's insistence that the Commission does not "involve" itself in domestic politics passes without real comment. The EU does respond to shifts between the right and the left, as can be seen by the shift in the Commission's composition ever rightwards over the last 10 years as the EPP have gained ground in the Council and Parliament.

The point is that there is the room and the place for political debate and discussion. At the moment a lot of the crisis politics has fallen by default to the European Council - the leaders of the Member States - which favours the voices of those who can shout loudest, and unfortuneately this means that any debate that is going on about the Eurozone is taking place in segmented groups, rather than allowing for an exchange of views across borders. The Irish press, and other European media, can complain that Germany is not being sensitive to the situation of the rest of the Eurozone and doesn't appreciate how much the Euro benefits it, but how useful is that if there's no debate between these different ideas and perceptions in each country? Who is trying to persuade the German public of certain right/left-wing policies that are necessary for the weaker Eurozone states, and who is arguing of the necessity of the largely German and Dutch-supported policies to strengthen economic governance in the weaker Eurozone states?

If we just express outrage at the bail-outs and the running of the Eurozone from different perspectives within our constituencies, then we've little hope of coming to a workable agreement that everyone can at least understand, rather than having another crisis measure hastily agreed at another European Council summit.

[EurActive] "...the centre-left wants to introduce a financial transaction tax of 0,05%, with the revenues going to fight against poverty and promotion of green growth.

Second, the PES wants to introduce an Employment and Social Progress Pact to contrast with the Stability and Growth Pact setting out limits on public debt and deficits for euro zone governments. Instead of strict fiscal discipline, the socialist pact would prioritise job creation, leaving behind the Conservative economic approach based on "punishment and sanctions," said Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, PES President.

Other measures include the introduction of Eurobonds that would add to the EU solidarity budget and setting up a European Debt Agency that would help EU tackle debt problems."

Surely competing ideas like these need to be aired and well discussed?

Where are the MEPs? I have not seen an MEP on Irish TV talking about how the EU should approach these matters. Perhaps nobody in the Irish media thought to grill them on what was going on in the EU, or to ask them what could or should be done differently. If we do not try and influence the EU through our MEPs and their parties, then we are missing an opportunity to exert political pressure and to force "Brussels" to respond. With billions being loaned and transferred across the EU and Treaty change in the air to secure the Eurozone, there is clearly a lot at stake - we should be contacting MPs and MEPs, holding public meetings and TV debates where the different Europarties and national parties debate their different visions of the Eurozone. Force them to take positions; to make the case for their ideas. If MEPs from different Member States joined in, then the different viewpoints of other parties in different constituencies could be discussed and understood.

Experience shows that it's hard to interest people in MEPs and European issues, and it would be undoubtedly difficult to set up public meetings and debates consistency across the Eurozone, but we cannot and should not leave the sole political debate behind the closed doors of the European Council, and we are wasting are time carping ineffectively about the positions of other countries, essentially, behind their backs. If we want to make our political voices heard, we should at least try to use the system we have to its full extent.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

When would Zwarte Piet arrive?

When I arrived in the Netherlands, I was already aware of two of the most striking aspects of living here: the monthly air raid siren test and the Zwarte Pieten; but it tends to be the minor things that make you wonder what exactly you're supposed to do, or how you should react in a certain situation.

But first the striking things. The monthly air raid siren is pretty much what it sounds like. It's sounded at 11 o'clock on the first Monday of every month, and is strangely musical, unlike the building wail of the sirens during the London Blitz that you might imagine. Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete") is a bit harder to explain. He's the mischievous helper of the Dutch version of Father Christmas or Santa Claus, "Sinterklaas", and though I knew about Zwarte Piet, it's still strange to see Zwarte Piet on TV or in the flesh - because people playing Zwarte Piet have to paint their faces black and wear Renaissance style clothes. There's naturally been soul-searching over the representation of Zwarte Piet, but apart from an experiment on Dutch TV of having different coloured Pieten, the traditional blackface appearence has remained.

As Sinterklaas lives in a castle in Madrid (he travels to the Netherlands every year in the middle of November by steamboat), two questions have been idlely floating around my mind.* First, why does Spain still have such a hold on the Dutch imagination when the country has been independent from them for centuries, and they don't neighbour each other, and secondly, I have been wondering whether Dutch families ever visit Sinterklaas in Spain, like the Santa's Grotto in Lapland? So far I've just been told that Sinterklaas kidnaps bad children and takes them back to his Spanish castle, so I suppose it's not necessarily somewhere you would want to visit. Although there is a YouTube video claiming to have spotted him in Madrid:

So far things have been pretty straight-forward, however. Though it becomes more complicated when you're dealing with an international group when it comes to arranging a night out in a pub. It's hard to know exactly what people's conception of time is. On Monday arrangements were made to go out at 8:30pm. At home, the starting time seems to be purely theoretical, and the word "about" is usually included as recognition of this. "We'll be out at about 9". Nobody would arrive at 9, and only a few would turn up within half an hour of that time; nearly everyone will have arrived after an hour and a half. So sometimes the best way is to find out when other people are themselves planning to go out (the reply inevitably features another "about" which signifies a 30 minute margin), and then arrive at the time when most of the "abouts" overlap.

So on Monday evening it struck me that I didn't know just how late to arrive: an important question when you don't want to spend 30 minutes sitting on your own in a pub.

The "problem" was easily solved by meeting up with someone before going to the pub, and most people arrived within an hour. I was told that the Bulgarian rule is: after the meeting time, you wait 5 minutes out of obligation, and another 5 minutes out of courtesy. And though I didn't quite overthink the situation as I might have written it in this post, I'm wondering now: what are the different cultural rules for meeting up across Europe?

*The steamboat might be the more obvious thing to wonder about; I think the reason is that most Sinterklaas traditions originated in the 19th Century. My idle thoughts don't seem to be very consistent in what they wonder about.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Stanley Crossick: Rest in Peace

I have just learnt from Twitter and Stanley's blog, that he passed away on the 20th. My condolences to his family; I'm sure that he will be greatly missed. Though I only know of Stanley through reading his blog, I'll miss him from the Euroblogosphere, and I hope that he will rest in peace.

Eux.Tv tweeted this video of Stanley Crossick, and I thought I would post it here:

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Quote of the Week: Vincent Browne

"You're delusional as well. You guys are completely delusional. You know - you don't seem to realise that this is being forced upon us because of the way you guys have managed our affairs. We have made such a huge mess of our affairs that we threaten the solvency of the Euro... You don't seem to have realised the enormity of what you've done."

- Vincent Browne to a Junior Irish government minister on the Tonight with Vincent Browne programme, 17/11/2010.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ireland the Symbol and Sovereignty the Ideal

For a small country, Ireland has been a very symbollic country in the world. As an oppressed nation under an empire, as a rebellious and feircely independent people, as an example of the terrible consequences of famine, as one of the "angelic states" (very supportive of the UN & UN missions), as what a small country could achieve in the EU, and as a model for how to deal with the economic crisis. It seems we've been good at promoting our own version of history, but Ireland the symbol has become internationalised, and - especially now - Ireland is an example to be held up in argument.

To the left in the UK, Ireland is an example of the dangers of austerity; to Eurosceptics the example of a loss of sovereignty.

I think both are crude uses of the Irish situation. Though I oppose severe austerity measures, and feel the UK government is going too far, the Irish case cannot be compared so easily with the British: in Ireland we've continued borrowing because of the banks, so the deficit is still growing. Similarly, I think any IMF-EU bail-out would be incredibly tough and would entail the loss of some decision-making powers. Ideally it will never happen, but it appears more and more certain with each passing day. However, Ireland is in this mess because of the choices Ireland made.

Sovereignty is...

Increasingly it appears to me that sovereignty is touted as a panacea that ignores the globalised world, as if countries can act like the characters in spagetti Westerns. Van Rompuy's attack on Eurosceptism and nationalism (which I felt was directed more at the increasing popularity of Geert Wilders-like figures and parties when I read it), may have struck people as an out-of-touch thing to say about nationalism, and some have described it as defeatist, but we do live in a globalised world. Sovereignty cannot mean freedom from responsibility. Whether you've signed treaties, joined the EU or just have a bad banking system with international links, you have taken on duties and your room for manuever is limited. In a global villiage with a global market place, we can't all be cowboys.

Countries have to deal with the circumstances they find themselves in, and, particularly for small countries, pooling sovereignty can mean gaining the ability to really influence outcomes, rather than merely being the subject of them. As was said of the Dutch central bank before the Euro: the job's easy; just do what the Bundesbank does.

Now, most people do not have the narrow, populist view of sovereignty, but it is important to note how arguments are being made on the basis of what are essentially buzzwords. Sovereignty, democracy, etc. These words are invoked in political debate increasingly to tar actions and events as illegitimate. But legitimacy, like justice, is a complex concept that depends on several factors. The buzzword arguments are not really how most people see the world, but as simplistic arguments they seem to spread very easily and quickly.

And Ireland? Irish traditions and threads of identity are not a simple as the stories that we tell ourselves, never mind the stories we tell others about ourselves. We may be famous for being rebels, but our rebellions were small and largely ill-prepared and unpopular: constitutional nationalism dominates the span of Irish history. We did not protest like the Greeks nor cheer like Tory backbenchers when austerity came. The "ourselves alone" movement - Sinn Féin - is one aspect of the story. [Interestingly the old Sinn Féin party (not to be confused with the current one) was based on German ideas of autarky and Hungarian ideas of parliamentary absention (which resulted in the Ausgleich)]. Other threads include a certain idea of neutrality (inspired by WWII experience and the US refusing a post-war bilateral alliance), and an internationalist thread, which admires the ideals and goals of international co-operation and community. It's a complex mix of admiration of autonomy and of a true, working, international community in which Ireland should be embedded. (And, of course, that's simplistically put as well).

Given the economic dependence on Britain in the period after independence, and the freedom of movement and empowerment European integration has brought Ireland, there is something distasteful about British politicians and commentators holding up Irish struggle against British rule as a rallying image for rejecting the EU.

So beware of simple answers and symbols. In my opinion - and, judging from the papers and letters to the editor, this seems to be broadly in line with the current mood - the vast majority of the fault lies with the Irish government. (Though for the boom we all share blame for taking part). The Irish place the blame for our current crisis at the door of, well, Ireland. And the blame will be with the Irish government, not Europe, if the bail-out takes place. Accepting and needing any bail-out, after all, would be a consequence of the decisions we made in the running of our economy.

If the IMF-EU fund steps in, then we'll blame them for the mistakes they make.

UPDATE: See today's [Thursday, 18/11/2010] Irish Times editorial here. Emotive over the loss of sovereignty, yet clear that it was ours to squander.

Those Pesky Parliamentarians

Tsk. Those parliamentarians, eh? They clearly don't know how politics works; you don't have to pay any attention to the projects you set up or even actually pay for them, you just announce them to great communique-filled media fanfair. If they don't work, well, sure, that's the Commission's fault, isn't it? Can't they just sit back and enjoy their gravy train...?

So the budget talks have failed. On one hand, it's not the end of the world: the 1/12 rule means that the previous year's budget is carried over on a monthly basis until something is agreed. There's even a mechanism allowing the monthly budget to be added to, in the case of monthly fluctuations. On the other hand, it means that the new projects launched by the EU - not just the Lisbon innovations, but the initiatives of the European Council - are not really being taken care of. Money will be found, but budget by default is not a particularly satisfying outcome.

What were the issues? The 2 major issues were the EP's role during the Multi-annual Framework (the multi-annual budget of the EU), and the existence and procedure for a flexibility reallocation mechanism - essentially 0.03% of the EU's GNI that can be tapped into in the case of unforseen spending needs. As the EU cannot borrow money and must stick to its budget, this has been a useful tool in the past for covering crisis expenditure.

The budget increase of 2.91%, agreed on by the Member States, was accepted by the EP (which wanted a 6% increase), in return for a place at the Multi-annual Framework negotiating table. This would entail a political agreement - an interinstitutional agreement to clarify the procedure which is ambigous in the Treaties as to the EP's role. The ministers claimed that they did not have the mandate to negotiate such an agreement, to which Anne Jensen MEP expressed surprise at the press conference, pointing out that the Member States were aware of the issues the EP would raise in advance. On the flexibility matter, this ran into trouble when the UK pressed for the money under this mechanism to be released after a decision reached by a unanimous Council vote (rather than the current QMV).

"Failure to agree on the reallocation flexibility endangers the financing of programmes such as ITER, an international project to design and build an experimental fusion reactor in France, a source explained.

Another payment which now appears to be in jeopardy is a commitment to pay 190 million euros to banana-producing countries following a decision to discontinue preferential import tariffs. Similarly, 300 million euros of compensation to Bulgaria for having closed down four of its nuclear reactors also hangs in the balance." [EurActiv]

So the EP may have wanted more say, but it appears that some Member States attempted their own power grab as well.

The Parliament's demands to be at the table during the Multi-annual Framework talks included a demanded commitment to look at the issue of the EU's own resources. This is being reported as meaning an EU tax - which is the most high profile and obvious option - but that in itself seems little reason to block agreement. Whatever you think of the idea of an EU tax (and I've argued before that it's an option that has points to be considered), unanimous support is needed in the Council, which is unlikely to occur, so committing to considering the broad issue of own resources (shifting some of the budgetary burden from national budgets to some economic activity) isn't really that dangerous.

So Parliament wanted an increase in the budget to help pay for initiatives the EU started (including ones started by the European Council), and were willing to settle for the number member states agreed on; wanted a place at the table when the multi-annual budget is being discussed (since they are equal with the Council with regard to the budget); and a continuation of the flexibility mechanism.

Sound unreasonable?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The European Citizen: One of the most influential left-of-centre Euroblogs?

It turns out that The European Citizen has been nominated for a poll of the most influential left-of-centre Euroblogs in a Social Europe Journal poll. If you like the blog, and think I've been suitably left-of-centre enough, you can for me and 2 others (or even, theoretically, 3 blogs which aren't The European Citizen) here. The vote is open to 5pm tomorrow.

The (reader nominated) shortlist is 18 nominations long - I'm not entirely sure if that's due to the small size of the left-of-centre Euroblogosphere or the lack of nominations. I'm also not sure if I'm that "influential" (I've never even received a reply to the closest I've come to direct engagement with the EU instituions - though I wasn't really angling for a direct reply - and I doubt any shadowy Bilderbergers or Buchgemeinschaft der schwaebische Hausfrauen members read my blog). Nonetheless it's nice to be nominated.

UPDATE: Here are the results. I came in joint 9th place with the European Tribune. Thanks to those who voted for me!

The Fair Share

European Council President Van Rompuy gave a speech on Tuesday, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (link; PDF). As you would expect from a Europe-focused, (European dated) 9/11 speech, the reunification and integration of Europe had a central place. However, the rise of nationalism, economic governance, and the EU's budget made their way into the speech. Van Rompuy made clear that economic union would have to accompany currency union, but he did not suggest anything new, only pausing to name-check the economic task force that he recently headed.

Nationalism was characterised as a manifestation of fear, and the resolve of governments to implement austerity plans was praised. Despite re-iterating the relevance of questions of war and peace when it came to inspiring European integration, there was little to offer in terms of inspiration or aspiration to the individual citizen. The fall of Communism, the ending of the wars in Europe, are all powerful and important theme and motivators in European politics, and can still invoke strong feelings, but it is essentially a warning from the past not to do something. As a guide to the present and future it remains vague and unsatisfying. Europe should focus on a positive vision of the future.

What is most striking for me was Van Rompuy's comments on the budget, with the European Council President slapping down suggestions of more direct contributions to the EU budget - or direct taxation - page 8:

"In my view the limited Treaty amendment all Heads of State and Government agreed upon ten days ago is essential, but it should not reopen the entire ‘internal debate’ on the nature, the goal and the architecture of the Union: we have more pressing matters at hand. For the same reason, I do not think that redesigning the way the EU get its revenue is a top priority. The current system reflects as a rule the Member States’ capacity to pay. Contributions are based on the Gross National Income and thus seen as fair. Some have suggested to replace this with a direct EU tax, for instance on financial transactions or on carbon. It is argued that such real 'own resources' would make the Brussels institutions 'more responsible'. I am personally open to new ideas, but since most alternative sources of income would risk to hit Member States unequally, this would weaken the fairness of the current system, its built-in solidarity. So let's be prudent, but let's discuss it."

Using GNI as a base, and arguing that direct taxes would fall on different member states differently (and therefore unfairly) is a strange argument to me. First of all, you have to ask if GNI is a good basis for fairness. According to GNI, when Greece had to be bailed out, Ireland contributed one of the highest per capita contributions, despite the austerity and crisis it was in. Of course Member State contributions should be a significant part of the budget, as the EU is a way of maximising Memeber State power through trade agreement negotiations, common market regulation, etc. But having the burden fall mainly on Member States' budgets does not necessarily mean that it is "fair".

Just as the EU is a "Transfer Union" whether Germany likes it or not (given the history of the CAP, the EC/EU has always been a transfer union), and such a transfer union is based on burden distribution, the central question is of burden sharing - or fairness. When it comes to cohesion funds, the EU has undertaken that funds will be paid out to help develop the poorer regions to ensure they aren'y left behind by those reigions that are more wealthy and better placed to to better out of the internal market (essentially the richer regions help the poorer). To me it's a bad argument to assert that shifting the burden from Member States contributions to direct taxation (note that this is separate from the overall size of the EU budget) is unfair on certain Member States. The whole point of direct taxation is that it would shift the burden from general taxation and the budgets of national governments to private individuals engaged in certain economic activities. When it comes to financial or aeroplane emission taxes, this would shift the burden on to individuals and sectors that benefit most from the freedoms of the internal market, or sectors that can only be effectively regulated at the continental scale.

Would it be so unfair to shift some of the burden of the EU budget on to such shoulders?

What taxes and how well defined they are is a major issue, and I've written about it before, but when it comes to fairness, the issues and factors at play are much wider than the general econoomic performance of the Member States. On the other hand, the political possibility of bringing in direct taxation is extremely low. On practicality I would agree with Van Rompuy, but on principle I would have to disagree.

How Van Rompuy dealt with the different issues he raised in his speech show is that he is strongly intergovernmental. This isn't surprising, given his position as the head of the most intergovernmental institution in the EU, but the issue focus and rhetoric show that an intergovernmental Europe is firmly at the heart of his political world- or continental -view.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Civilisational Europe: the Council of Europe

Fittingly, before we visited the Council of Europe, we went to Natzweiler Struthof, a former concentration camp where people were forced to work in freezing temperatures. It is always hard to describe a concentration camp, as no matter how often you see images of World War II on TV and in film, the experience of visiting a camp is always deeply disturbing. It was perhaps all the more so, because the camp is situated in a forested, mountainous area, so the journey there included passing scenic towns and villages. The weather was also icy cold, despite the lack of wind, and it was quickly brought home what kind of conditions the prisoners would have to face.

The European Court of Human Rights

An hour's drive saw us entering the European Court of Human Rights, which is the Council of Europe's most famous institution. It is based in the rather odd Palais des droits de l'homme. The Court has been amazingly successful, and it has promoted the spread and development of European norms in human rights across the continent. Given that our trip had a very legal focus, I won't go into too much detail, but aside from the legal discussions over labour rights and same sex marriage (which was the subject of a judgment earlier this year: Schalk and Kopf v Austria [2010]), the toughest challenges facing the Court today is simply the sheer scale of the workload it has to deal with. Though the Court has been around for many years, the right of individuals to apply to the Court and the membership of the Court has now really expanded, alongside the public's awareness of the Court. So in the last decade the number of applications has increased from 10,500 in 2000 to 57,100 in 2009. A lot of these are rejected, but 90% of the Court's output since its creation in 1959 has been in the years 1998-2009 (when the Commission was removed from the system).

Since a lot of discussion and debate centred around how to make the Court more effective and productive (and this problem seems to be the main one which haunts the registry), it was shocking to find out that the UK had proposed cutting its contribution to the Council of Europe by 25%, and the Netherlands had proposed a 15% cut. The registry has taken up a lot of the workload, but they appear to have reached the limits of efficiency and are haunted by the spectre of the Court being crushed under the sheer level of applications. It should bee remembered that the Council of Europe has a tiny fraction of the budget that the EU has, and the Court takes up about a quarter of this. Battles over the budget may force the question of the CoE's role - to focus on human rights and other limited areas it does well, and essentially become a pre-EU accession organisation; or to try and forge ahead with a full programme for its 47 member states?

Palais de l'Europe

The CoE itself is mainly housed in the fortress-like Palais de l'Europe, which contains the Parliamentary Assembly (the European Parliament used to use this space until their Strasbourg building was completed). The Council works in many different areas, including a project aimed at improving local government and democracy that we were introduced to. Though the presentation was probably intended to show us the wide range of activities the CoE undertakes, I have to admit that it left me with the impression that the CoE should try to focus more on its core functions (though as a law student my own focus is pretty much solely dominated by the Court). The project was voluntary and the standards it sought to promote weren't centrally set; (simplistically put) it consisted of meetings between local government members across participating local governments, and a local government award for living up to good standards, which also seemed to be nationally or locally set. The small budget for the project - €50,000 is miniscule when you compare it to EU or national projects and programmes - underlined the difference between the EU and CoE. Though I can see the value in cross-border local government meetings to exchange best practice, I wasn't convinced by the worth of the awards scheme.

There was a presentation on standard-setting by the CoE, which despite the boring name was revealing in the ways that Europe is integrating both outside the EU, and how other organisations can influence the work of the EU. The CoE works as an organisation to bring its members into agreement on binding Conventions and non-binding Recommendations, which not all member states have to sign up to - the CoE is a forum for these agreements to be made, and so it doesn't have to affect all member states. However, these have protential for European integration that shouldn't be overlooked. First, the "soft" norms that are set through Recommendations can spread throughout the member states and can bring European states closer together in our standards and practice. This can take on a harder edge, though, as the ECtHR has shown itself willing to use these Conventions and Recommendations in interpreting human rights law (see Demir & Baykara v Turkey [2008]), even when countries haven't signed up to them (this ties in with the "living instrument" and "European consensus" doctrines that the Court uses to develop European Human Rights law - see Handyside v UK and Tyrer v UK).

Second, the CoE has Conventions on making grooming a criminal offence andagainst sex tourism. These seem to have influenced the EU's own legislative process, because there's a new directive before the Council and Parliament on these kinds of offences (see the draft law here: PDF). Though the CoE may be overshadowed by the EU, it can inspire changes in EU law. Though I haven't read it yet, there's a report, the Junker Report (2005), on how the CoE and the EU interact.

Committee for the Prevention of Torture

The CPT is very impressive for an international organ - it has the power to conduct surprise inspections of any detention area in the member states and interview all inmates/patients/detainees/guards/staff and have access to all files, including medical files, to access whether or not torture has taken place, or any practice contrary to article 3 ECHR. Though the reports are not published by the CPT, there is an expectation that the member state will publish them (and I think apart from Russia, this has been the case), as the focus of the CPT is not to punish member states but to help them adhere to the proper human rights standards under article 3. Nevertheless, the CPT is quite exceptional for the broad powers it has to independently inspect the situation on the ground, and it preforms an extremely important function.

If the EU is Europe as a kind of system of government (or governance, if you prefer), then the CoE is "Civilisational Europe". Though all European countries lay claim to the common ideas, traditions and practices that make them European, the CoE has worked for over half a century to spread the European civilisational norms across the continent, and to help ensure that standards of hhuman rights are enforced. Though we may look at the CoE as a "soft" organisation, I think it helps to provide the idea off Europe with a backbone, and an everyday, practical, cultural reality.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Back from RIO

It's been pretty quiet on the blog recently because life has been very busy lately. Apart from exams, papers, and general work, I've just been on a RIO Trip. Unfortuneately it isn't as glamourous as it sounds, as RIO stands for "Recht der internationale organisaties", which is Dutch for "Law of the international institutions".

The trip consisted of visiting a lot of European organisations in Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Brussels, and entailed an exhausting amount of presentations and travelling, and, as was pointed out, an unknown number of bars. The EU and the Council of Europe naturally featured on the list, but so did other less well known organisations and institutions within the EU and outside of the EU umbrella. The lasting impression is of a Europe that has embraced an extrodinary depth of co-operation and integration, the scale of which rarely strikes you until you've seen the many different forms of co-operation - and I'm sure we only saw a quick overview. The commitment of the people involved in these institutions is also impressive: again and again, we met people who were genuinely enthusiastic about their subject area, whether it was the prevention of torture or the regulation and safety of the skies.

The positions of the other, non-EU, organisations was interesting as well. In a continent full of international co-operation, the EU looms large as the Europe, and the other organisations are adjusting their roles in the face of the EU's success. From conflicted self-assertion and resignation (Council of Europe), to a vision of providing expert advice (Commission on Navigation of the Rhine), to that of enthusiastic service provider (EuroControl).

Notable exceptions from the trip were the Council and the EP. The Council was dropped because of the European Council summit which occured while we were in Brussels (so ironically I was close by but didn't know what exactly had happened until I got back home). The EP was dropped because, apparently, they're just bad at handling visitors and left a bad immpression on the last RIO trip - which is a shame, because the EP is, for me, the institution that communicates best online.

So to get back into the swing of blogging, I think I will cover some of the institutions and organisations and my impressions of them.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Shape of Dutch EU Policy

This article has been rattling around my head for a while - since before the official formation of the Dutch government - but I never got around to writing it. At the very end of September, I attended a lecture by Wepke Kingma, Chief Director for European Integration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the challenges facing Dutch European policy. Of course, this was before the new government came in (though we were pretty sure about how the coalition would turn out), but it was very interesting to hear about how the Dutch government generally sees itself in the EU.

The Dutch EU role:

When it comes to how the Dutch government view the changes in the EC/EU over the decades and how the power structures affect its influence, it sounded familiar to me. I've often argued that increased power for the Council (or European Council) is counter to the interests of small states, and that the supranational aspect of the EU generally serves small states better. This seemed to be the Dutch experience, with worries over the growing power of the European Council as the Commission is weakened, as well as enlargement. Vetos are of little use as they are a "nuclear option" in negotiations and make you unpopular and less influential in future negotiations; also, it benefits big states more as smaller states are more easily pressured under a unanimous voting system. The Dutch strategy for dealing with enlargement and the "big 3" is to have well-developed positions on all European policies to ensure that the Netherlands is a reliable negotiating partner; and this also feeds into coalition-building on issues. I was a bit surprised that coalitions in the Council are very stable, but it makes sense as it is hard and time consuming to constantly form new voting/negotiating coalitions.

One aspect of the Dutch relationship with the EU that is different from Ireland, and perhaps other small states, is the "founding member" status of the Netherlands. Enlargement seems to be seen as a dilution of identity and influence - the original 6 were described as a "nuclear family", and I couldn't help thinking of the Dutch word "gezellig", which is a bit untranslateable, but means something lke "cozy". Money and the dilution of identity seem to be at the core of Dutch worries over the direction of the EU. However, it seems important to note how integration and supranationalism is seen as an important way of defending the influence and role of small states in the EU struture. While sovereignty may be viewed as being lost through the ending of the veto and supervision by the Commission, small states seem to view this as (generally, though it depends on the area), as protecting their position and opening up new opportunities to influence Europe's direction. Supranationalism can be a goal of nationally-minded member state governments too, it seems.

Multi-annual budget:

This is a big issue as it will be decisive in the EU's capabilities over the next few years (and therefore also decisive on how new Lisbon institutions such as the EEAS develops, and it is being decided in an atmosphere of austerity. Though there's undoubtedly a large element of self-interest in the EP's defence of the budget, and lobbying for increases, there is a good argument that you cannot increase the responsibilities of the EU institutions without having the money available to effectively carry out its duties.

The Dutch position seems to be that they are quite happy to continue paying as a net contributor, as the internal market is so important to the Netherlands, but CAP and the Cohesion Funds are areas where the Netherlands wants to see cuts and reforms. They want the EU budget to be set at around 1% GNI, and have priorities for the EU: Frontex (immigration control at the EU border), energy & climate, and the EEAS, among others. Therefore they want cuts in CAP and Cohesion funds to pay for increases elsewhere. The Dutch seem to view agriculture spending as necessary to aid declining villages and for the maintanence of the countryside ("landscape preservation"), but are otherwise looking for the CAP section of the budget to be reduced heavily. Cohesion funds are viewed as a good policy to help make the poorer member states wealthier, and therefore more able to buy more goods from the richer member states (the thought also occured to me that this is also a good strategy to steadily increase the number of net contributors; or rather slowly spread the burden of contributions). However, cohesion funds should focus on the poorer member states and not be directed to the wealthy countries' poor regions as well. There was a mention of asking for a rebate if the Netherlands didn't get its way, but this was heavily downplayed (my impression was that they viewed it as a childish strategy that wouldn't win them any friends and would be counter-productive in their coalition-building strategies).

My own thoughts on this are that CAP clearly needs to be reformed (as Kingma pointed out, the newer member states will soon join the CAP fully and this will add to the strain on the budget), but I doubt that restricting cohesion funds to only the poorer countries is a good idea in the long run. Perhaps I'm biased because I come from a poorer region, but I think that all member states need to be involved in the cohesion fund, and that if you break their link with it (in that they feel that they're not getting anything out of it), it will come under increasing pressure for cuts despite its value for the good of the internal market. What is clear is that the EU is definitely a "transfer union" and always has been. It consists of a number of different policies transfering money for different projects to help out poorer regions and areas, as richer areas benefit from larger and freer markets. I would personally defend this transfer union as being a social and economic good, though it could do with reform. Still, the battle over the budget is likely to be vicious, as the EU is in some ways a rudimentary welfare state for states, and battle lines have already been quite firmly drawn.

Introducing rebates into the equation would be highly damaging, as rebates are paid for by other countries (I'm reminded of a story of the Polish government asking the British government how much more they would need to pay to join the EU because of the British rebate [it was a sore point obstructing enlargement negotiations]. That image of a poorer country asking how much it would need to pay a richer country - and a champion of enlargement at that - due to its own obstructionism of the budget is something that sticks with me as a symbol for just how selfish and immoral rebates are).

Immigration and asylum:

With Geert Wilders' PVV supporting the minority coalition government, this is obviously a big issue in the Netherlands today. Justice and Home Affairs may be a big European focus for this Dutch government, as Kingma suggested that JHA was an area where the Netherlands wanted to see more action. The Lisbon Treaty moved JHA firmly into our "Union method", so this area could see a leap in activity. The challenge for the Netherlands here is to convince the other member states that they don't want to re-nationalise immigration, but to toughen the rules on illegal immigration. Immigration is such a big issue across many member states that they might be able to win some support for changing the system. Also, there are lots of "Dublin cases" before the European Court of Human Rights on the current system, and this could generate pressure for refrorm as well (the Dublin system is where immigrants into the EU are sent back to the country they first entered so that they can't "shop around" the member states - there have been complaints particularly about the Greek processing of applications).


This touches on the identity, money and influence concerns of the Netherlands. The Dutch government wants tougher enforcement of the enlargement conditions to ensure that there is the legal and institutional change necessary to join, and that the EU moves away from the old practice of giving in to pressure to enlarge quickly. Kingma raised the prospect that a Dutch parliament may end up refusing to give the green light to enlargement if it felt that the candidate country hadn't fully reformed.

Naturally Turkey is a big topic, but it wasn't really directly addressed on its own. However, in the question-and-answer session, it was suggested - but not directly said - that the Netherlands may be negotiating or hoping that the Turkish government would accept some conditions on its voting weight. I stress that this was not directly or explicitly said, and that I am getting this impression from something said by someone talking in their second language rather than their mother tongue. Still, enlargement has seen restrictions on the free movement on workers and access to CAP funds, so if a "privillaged relationship with the EU" is unacceptable for Turkey and other member states, then I wouldn't be surprised if the idea of gradual integration and gaining of rights in the institutions hadn't surfaced in some national administration. If such an idea has surfaced, I hope it will be resisted.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Extreme Europe

How should we deal with the rise of the far-right in European politics? It was a question that was debated over in the UK following the election of 2 MEPs from the British National Party in the 2009 European elections, and it is increasingly pressing across Europe. Jobbik in Hungary, the politics of the place of the Roma in France, Thilo Sarrazin and the integration of immigrants (particularly those who come from countries with an Islamic majority), and of course Wilders in the Netherlands. The PES has issued a proposal for dealing with the far-right and is challenging the EPP and ALDE parties to join them in this strategy. (PDF).

They propose the following code of conduct:

"- Condemn all racist, xenophobic, discriminatory or nationalistic statements or actions.
- Not get into a ruling coalition or electoral alliance with a Party inciting or attempting to stir up
racial or ethnic prejudices and racial hatred, at European or national levels.
- Refuse an implicit support from a Party inciting or attempting to stir up racial or ethnic prejudices
and racial hatred to form a government.
- Fight the legitimization of the discourses of such Parties by refusing to engage into their terms of
the debate, by not taking up their ideas into its political platforms nor in the policies it implements
when in government.
- Isolate its members not respecting those principles."

The other side to this strategy of isolation is PES-specific: the party places some of the blame in the court of the Conservative and Liberal parties for their obsession with cutting the deficits across Europe and not paying attention to jobs and growth. I tend to agree to some extent, in that fiscal conservatism needs to be married with some overarching ideology and approach to the state and society - whether left-wing or right-wing. Unprincipled cutting of the welfare state on the altar of deficit reduction is alienating to the public; it is simply the elites tending to the public finances without regard to the public.

Though I disagree with the Tory vision of the state, Labour's charges of ideological cuts strikes me as purely politik. Both parties would make ideological cuts and revisions to the tax system, and it's healthy to have a debate about what sort of society and conception of the state there should be. So far, while Labour has spoken out about the cuts being unfair, I think they should give a clearer idea about what role they think the state should play. The left-wing arguments of fairness will start to ring hollow against the right-wing version if they let it go unchallenged. The key, though, is to have the debate and to make sure that politics matters beyond the mere management of the state. Otherwise mainstream politics will appear to be distant and disconnected.

So the challenge is for parties to be more challenging and engaging in a way that avoids the terms and rhetoric styles of the far-right. The proposal not to accept support from the far-right is a principled and right approach, though it comes with dangers too.

In the Netherlands, the new government is a minority coalition with support from Geert Wilders' PVV party. An alternative coalition would look more like a Grand Coalition, as parties more to the left of the VVD (Liberals) or the CDA (Christian Democrats) would have to join. Under the current arrangement, the danger is that the PVV's policies could be legitimised to a degree by the association with the government, while it could also play as an opposition party and try to have it both ways at the next election. Those who claim that Wilders will become more moderate when faced with the realities of power have to remember that the PVV doesn't have to take the responsibility for bad decisions by the government. On the other hand, a Grand Coalition would limit the scope for mainstream political debate and could permit Wilders to set himself up as the main opposition. The governing parties would have to try and maintain their own distinct identities and arguments, which the LibDems in the UK have found hard to do.

On balance, I think that the Grand Coalition approach is better if done well, and it is certainly the more principled option. However, it may depend on the conduct of the parties which approach will turn out to be the best in each case. A completely different question, of course, is whether the approach or recommendations of the Europarties will make any difference to the actions of the national parties. I can't see it figuring in their day-to-day political action.

In other news, the Public Prosecution Department in the Netherlands has recommended that Wilders be found not guilty of inciting hatred towards Muslims or of discriminating against them. They were forced to take up the case after a High Court ruling, but the political consequences will likely be contrary to what the anti-racism campaigners originally wanted.

ELDR Conference 2010

ELDR, the pan-European Liberal party that is part of ALDE in the European Parliament (and counts the UK Liberal Democrats, Irish Fianna Fáil and Dutch VVD among its ranks), is holding its last day of its annual congress in Helsinki today. I've only found out about it today, due to a blog post disappointed that the pro-European Liberal Democrats have not sent some MPs to the congress, and EUobserver's reporting of ELDR unease with the VVD-led government's reliance on Geert Wilders' PVV party in the Dutch Parliament. Recently I haven't been that attentive to Twitter, so I may have missed any party buzz from it, but a quick look at the ELDR Twitter account shows that there have only been 12 Tweets since the start of the congress, at the time of writing.

Still, now that I had discovered the ELDR Congress, I went to their website to check up on any news. So far there have been 3 news articles - on the opening of the congress, on the increased turnout at the congress, and one congratulating the VVD on becoming the senior governing party in the Netherlands. Not only is there no press release so far on discussions about the congress's theme - Demographic Change - but there seems to be no mention of the congress on the party's blog, or any of the blogs linked on its blog page, apart from a short descriptive one in Swedish.

The theme of the congress is one that's very relevant today, as immigration and welfare state reform in the face of the economic crisis are clearly the major issues, so it's disappointing that so far little has emerged on the Eurozone economy, the welfare state, or immigration. It's important to have a coherent position on this, given the free movement of workers within the EU, and that the Lib Dems in the UK and (more pressingly) the VVD in the Netherlands have to deal with demands for restrictions on immigration. Indeed, Geert Wilders has supposedly vetted the new Dutch immigration minister. The ELDR leader, Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, said that she was sure that the VVD would stick to liberal principles, but also supported the mooted banning of the burqa in the Netherlands (Neyts-Uyttebroeck is from Belgium) - something that I consider to be an illiberal position.

The last day isn't over yet, and some news and party positions - or even a clearer overview of what was discussed - might emerge after the Congress ends. It seems unlikely that anything very interesting will suddenly come to light when everyone has packed up and gone home, however. Even if interest in the ELDR Congress would have been low even if it was more open and accessible, ELDR have missed a chance to promote themselves as a party online, and I wonder at the political will of a party that seems to not even bother to reach out with such an event.

[In other news, I've just noticed that ALDE's website has undergone a redesign].

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Is Dalli really going to introduce a European smoking ban?

"Commission preparing pan-European smoking ban" exclaims the EUobserver:

"The European Commission is preparing to introduce legislation in 2011 to ban smoking in public places right across the union.


Health commissioner John Dalli has said [...] "We need a complete ban on smoking in all public spaces, transport and the workplace," he said in an interview on Monday (11 October) with German daily Die Welt."

Gulf Stream Blues has picked up on the story, noting that the US hasn't even brought in a federal law on smoking bans, so for it to be achieved at the European level would be a big step:

"For European federalists, it would be impressive if the EU were able to enact a union-wide social/health law that the United States has never even attempted to enact federally. But for Eurosceptics, such a move will surely be seen as un inexcusable intrusion not only on member state sovereignty but on people's individual civil liberties."

But is the Commission going to introduce a pan-European smoking ban? I doubt it.

Tougher on smoking yes, European smoking ban no:

The news of this smoking ban comes from an interview the health Commissioner, John Dalli, had with the German newspaper Die Welt, published yesterday. While the Commissioner indeed wants to bring in legislation to make smoking more unattractive, he didn't exactly say that he was planning to introduce legislative proposals for a pan-European smoking ban:

"Er kündigte an, dass die Kommission im kommenden Jahr neue Gesetzespläne vorlegen werde. Ziel der neuen Tabakproduktrichtlinie werde es sein, Rauchen in allen EU-Ländern weniger attraktiv und weniger gesundheitsschädlich zu machen. Dies könnte beispielsweise durch eine maßgebliche Verringerung giftiger und süchtig machender Inhaltsstoffe wie Nikotin geschehen."

Own translation: "He [the Commissioner] announced that the Commission will introduce new legislative proposals in the coming year. The goal of the proposals will be to make smoking less attractive and harmful in all EU countries. This could be done, for example, by reducing toxic and addictive substances [contained in cigarettes], such as nicotine."

The EU already regulates the packaging of cigarettes and the contents of cigarettes (levels of tar and nicotine) under Directive 2001/37/EC (link). The Commission has indeed launched a consultation on how to strengthen this legislation to make the packaging less attractive and to reduce the harmful contents of cigarettes. Note that this is based on the legal bases in the Treaty relating to the single market - though health is a major concern here, the harmonisation is based on ensuring a single market to prevent restrictions on imports, etc.

The EU also legislates on the taxation on cigarettes through its competence in the area of VAT (to prevent smuggling, so it is still a single market related measure). The relevant legislation can be found here. So there's plenty of scope for legislative proposals in the area of tobacco products and the EU can take a harder line on them.

No European Rauchverbot:

On smoking bans, Die Welt reports:

"Dalli forderte zudem die konsequente Einführung von rauchfreien Zonen in der EU. „Wir brauchen ein komplettes Rauchverbot in allen öffentlichen Räumen, Verkehrsmitteln und am Arbeitsplatz“, sagte der aus Malta stammende Konservative. Ausnahmen für Eckkneipen und Bierzelte halte er nicht für sinnvoll. Schließlich gehe es „nicht nur um die Gesundheit der Besucher, sondern auch der Angestellten“. Zu wirtschaftlichen Begründungen von Ausnahmeregelungen beim Rauchverbot sagte Dalli, es könne nicht sein, dass der wirtschaftliche Vorteil wichtiger sei als die Gesundheit der Menschen."

Own translation: "In addition, Dalli demands the introduction of smoke-free zones in the EU. "We need a complete smoking ban in all public places, public transport and in the workplace," said the Maltese conservative. Exceptions for corner bars and beer tents do not make sense. Finally, it is not only about the health of the visitors, but also that of the employees." On the economic justifications of exceptions to the ban Dalli said that the economic benefit could not be more important than people's health".

Very strong words in support of a smoking ban across Europe, but it's separate from the suggestions of legislative proposals. Last year, the Commission introduced a proposed - non-binding - Recommendation that Member States introduce smoking bans and work to discourage smoking. I wrote at the time that claims that the EU was introducing a smoking ban were wrong in not just that case, but in the sense that the EU is precluded from harmonising health laws under the Treaties (and this is still the case under article 168 TFEU). I stand by my argument. A smoking ban in public places does not concern the single market and internal EU trade, so I cannot see how harmonisation of smoking bans could take place under the internal market heading, and such harmonisation is excluded from the competence of the EU.

In addition, on the Commission's health policy page, there is no mention of a proposed ban, while there is a link to the consultation on strengthening labelling/contents rules for tobacco products. So I think that talk of a Europe-wide ban on smoking in public places is just an over-excited media response to the German interview.

I'm chalking this one up as a Euromyth.