Friday, 26 August 2011

An Education in Fees

Should the English be charged more?

The huge rise in University tuition fees in the UK caused a massive political storm, and the devolved regional governments signaled that they would step in to prevent such increases locally. In Northern Ireland the plan is to stop any non-inflation related rise in fees and in Scotland University education will remain free, but this has raised concerns over NI and Scottish universities being flooded with English students hoping to escape the burden of higher student loans.

To prevent local students from being crowded out, Scotland will introduce fees for non-resident UK nationals at the same £9,000 level, and the Northern Ireland Executive is thinking of following suit. However, these fees are being challenged as a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights* for being contrary to its provisions on education and non-discrimination. It seems unlikely that the case will be sucessful - after all, Scotland has maintained free education for residents whereas English, Welsh and NI students would have to pay a fee (albeit lower than elsewhere in the UK) - but it has highlighted the issue of discrimination being able to take place within an EU Member State between its own nationals, and yet be outlawed between EU nationals.

Because while students will pay different fees depending on where they live within the UK, EU citizens from outside the UK will be able to access university education on the same basis - the same fees - as locals. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that because UK nationals will be able to draw on benefits that EU students who aren't working won't be entitled to, but the difference on fees is still significant. The political implications are huge - within the UK it will spark many debates: why should the regions with develoved governments be able to have lower fees? should the regions be able to discriminate against the English metropole? is it just that EU nationals should be treated better than part of the UK population?

On the EU question, it's a matter of the weakness of EU citizenship. EU citizenship is limited to cross-border situations, and Member States are free to decide how they grant citizenship and how they treat their own nationals. For a while, it looked like the European Court of Justice** would break down this connection between a cross-border element and relying on citizenship rights in the Zambrano case, but it categorically ruled it out shortly afterwards.

That students from elsewhere in the EU will be charged less is being called a "loophole", but it's a part of the fundamental rule of EU law of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality. The difference arises because EU citizenship rules only regulate cross-border relations, while these fees are being regulated by national and regional rules. The tuition fees debate will rumble on in the UK for some time yet, and get caught up in the wider debate of the relationship between the UK's constituent nations, and, perhaps, the EU too.

* Part of the Council of Europe, and not the EU!

** The EU Court.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Citizens will have to drag Europe closer to them

There's an interesting article in the New York Times (hat-tip Grahnlaw), "E.U. Elites keep the Power from the People", reporting on criticism from Habermas and others on the EU's democratic deficit:

"“The process of European integration, which has always taken place over the heads of the population, has now reached a dead end,” Mr. Habermas said at a forum hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It cannot go any further without switching from its usual administrative mode to one of greater public involvement.”

The political elites “are burying their heads in the sand,” he said, adding, “They are doggedly persisting with their elitist project and the disenfranchisement of the European population.”

Those who agree with Mr. Habermas often cite the behavior of José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the Union’s executive, and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, which represents the 27 member states.

During these past months, both have failed to explain to a wider public what is happening to Europe and the euro. When they give interviews, they tend to address an elitist audience. Neither reaches out to citizens. “I doubt if they ever thought of doing town-hall meetings,” said Pawel Swieboda, director of DemosEuropa, an independent research organization in Warsaw.

“They don’t bother to do such meetings because they don’t have to stand for election,” added Reinhard Bütikofer, a German and leader of the Greens in the European Parliament."

I agree. However, the solution seems to be changing the Treaties, and this doesn't really address the problem. While Treaty change can help (for example, giving the Parliament the sole respobsibility for electing the Commission without Council input, and severing the national backgrounds of Commissioners from national nominations), the biggest and most urgent challenge has nothing to do with institutional tinkering.

The EU is already formally democratic. The Parliament is directly elected and has almost equal power with the Council, the weakness being mainly in the area of foreign affairs. This is real power, with US Vice President Joe Biden making the trip to implore the Parliament to pass the SWIFT Agreement between the EU and US last year. The Parliament elects the Commission (just like the government is in many national parliamentary systems), which is nominated by the Council. The Council consists of the elected national governments, and the European Council - the Member States' heads of government - direct general policy. So in all the main legislative institutions, offices are either directly or indirectly elected.

But despite this, the main focus on EU politics is the summitry that takes place every few months or to combat crises - an increasingly common event. Summits are the face of the remote decision-making that's going on. Member States gather together, not all with an equal say in practice, and hammer out compromises based on haggling over national interests, instead of working out what would be the best solution for the EU or Eurozone as a whole. If this sidelines the Commission, then it definitely sidelines the Parliament: after all, how can they reject emergency agreements made at a European Council summit? These summits could even be sidelining the ECB, which has been one of the most influential players in the crisis so far.

If the EU is formally democratic, then the problem is that it isn't functionally democratic. The addage that in democracies the electorate get the government they deserve doesn't quite apply as there hasn't been much political competition yet at the European level. That might change at the next election, with the PES considering running a primary to select a candidate for the Commission Presidency. Political competition is what's necessary to bring the EU closer to citizens. The EU can't be sold or airbrushed into people's lives: people need to be engaged on European issues, and we have to talk about these issues from the perspective of arguing for EU or Eurozone policies.

We're in the middle of a massive crisis, but when it comes to the solutions, we are talking about national solutions to European problems. When Irish politicans talk about Eurobonds, they're thinking of the next five years and Ireland's interest rates, not how to make the Eurozone work - without even thinking about what fiscal union means, and how it should be run, how can it be properly debated or sold to an electorate? These conversations with ourselves mean that we're talking past each other on a European stage, rather than properly discussing what are our best collective options. Which is why working on giving substance to the Europarties is much more important than institutional tinkering. Citizens need to be engaged with the issues - using citizens' assemblies would be a good way of involving people and informing them on the options ahead.

Oddly, institutional tinkering is the sexy and glamorous side to ideas to tackle the democratic deficit. Hard graft within political parties and outside them in civil society to make them more responsive to European issues - and to make them fulfil their political function as a way of enabling citizens to influence policy - is a much more substantial task, even if it doesn't yet the attention of another constitutional treaty.