Thursday, 27 February 2014

Are the European Conservatives passing up a great political opportunity?

The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists have announced that they will not be putting forward a candidate for the Commission presidency in the 2014 elections. As an anti-federalist party, the main reason being given is that participating in the presidency contest will play into the hands of the more federalist parties. But are they giving up an electoral opportunity by giving the "federalist" candidates a free run? And does their main argument fit in with the AECR's general political position?

Obviously the AECR must consider it a good tactical and electoral move. Presumably the AECR is setting itself up to oppose any move by the European Parliament to prevent the European Council from ignoring the contest when it nominates the next Commission president, but their support of a nominee will probably be more dependent on how closely he or she reflects their free market and anti-federalist positions. The biggest advantage is probably the freedom of movement it gives the AECR's member parties, such as the UK Conservatives, in the elections. European elections have typically been viewed through a national lens, and AECR parties will be free to highlight the any embarrassing policies that their opponents may be connected with through their European political families.

The common decision to not run a candidate gives the national parties a good Eurosceptic response to any questions over why they're not supporting a candidate, which could help protect them on their Eurosceptic flank. Finally, the AECR is unlikely to go from fifth to first place in the European Parliament so they are not going to miss out on a chance to actually win the office of Commission President for themselves. Therefore it probably seems to be a small sacrifice for a potential tactical advantage.

Despite these advantages, I think that the AECR have missed an opportunity. While it was left to Daniel Hannan to give the Europarty's reasoning for the decision (that the EU doesn't have a common demos and therefore the contest cannot be democratically legitimate), unlike Hannan the AECR is not for withdrawal from the EU but for a looser, more free trade orientated Union. This means that it's not necessarily ideologically inconsistent to take part in the contest: votes for a common candidate espousing a more decentralised EU wouldn't by definition contradict the demos argument (agreement on an anti-federalist message should logically indicate an unwillingness to identify as a pan-European demos). It's not as if the European Conservatives don't want the European Parliament to have a stronger say over the Commission - they called for reform of the confirmation process of nominated commissioners back in 2010!

Politically, it is a missed opportunity to promote an anti-federalist but pro-free trade message. If the European Conservatives want to revise the free movement of people, then a common candidate will be able to put that opposing viewpoint to the other candidates in the televised debate, and the national parties could draw on their alliance - and perhaps the opinion polls - to argue that their proposals for changing the EU are possible and have support. The European Conservatives don't have a member party in each Member State, but the campaign could raise those issues where they haven't been raised before and it would help set the AECR up as an alternative political home for the more Eurosceptic member parties of the centre-right European People's Party, or put pressure on the EPP to move closer to them politically. When it comes to the televised debates, the AECR is probably betting that they won't attract much attention, but there is a risk that they might, and that the conservative viewpoint doesn't get that air time.

The European Conservatives believe in the single market and the EU as a market (though they are increasingly questioning the free movement of people) but want to return some powers to the national level, so the question is if they can advance that view within the EU. A common candidate could be a valuable tool in campaigning for that version of the EU, while surrendering that political space to more federalist parties actually makes it harder for the AECR to differentiate itself from the out-and-out anti-EU Eurosceptics. Without a credible voice for a more decentralised Union, the European Conservative position will lose support to parties like UKIP. After all, if the EU appears to be captured by the other Europarties, then the supporters of the AECR may increasingly wonder if their approach is worthwhile or if they should just abandon the hope of changing the EU. Not running a candidate is a political move that is more likely to benefit the Hannanite position than the Cameronite one.

I may not be a supporter of the European Conservatives, but their decision not to run a common candidate could be a loss to the quality of the public debate as well as a missed opportunity for the AECR itself.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Campaign will be Televised

The European elections will have televised debates between the Europarties for the first time. The European Broadcasting Union, which works on the Eurovision Song Contest, will be organising debates between the candidates for the presidency of the Commission. Screening the debate live is optional for the public broadcaster members of the EBU, so the event is unlikely to get equal coverage across the Member States, but it's a big step forward in giving the elections a "European" flavour. There will be two debates: one between the candidates of each of the political groups in the European Parliament (on the 15th of May) and one between the two main candidates (on the 20th of May).

European Voice reports that the first debate will be between the candidates of each of the Europarties (which are made up of like-minded national parties), rather than just between the candidates of the largest Europarties that are more likely to take the presidency. This means that the debate will need to be very well managed. With five or more candidates debating, the moderator will have to have a firm grasp of proceedings to make the most of the opportunity. The second debate between two candidates can develop more naturally, but here the moderator will have to ask good questions designed to highlight the differing positions of all the candidates and draw out the main policies as well as policing speaking time. 90 minutes isn't a lot when divided between 5 speakers!

The language of the debate will be an interesting issue. Apparently, the EBU wants the candidates to debate in English to prevent awkward translation delays that will break the flow of the debate, but candidates have the choice of speaking in their native language. Will the candidates plump for English in the hopes that they can reach a wider audience (and perhaps avoid potential translation errors from tripping them up), decide to debate in their own language (showcasing linguistic diversity - or simply being a more natural way to debate for a candidate), or a mix of English and their native language? There will probably be a mix in practice - if candidates can communicate well to voters in different languages, then they will probably try to make that connection.

Who will debate is another topic. The European Greens have two "top candidates" to choose from: Bové and Keller. Fielding Bové may be a good way of boosting the Green vote in France, and as an anti-globalisation campaigner he may have a bit more name recognition (though Keller may appeal to a broader swathe of voters in practice). Since there will only be one televised debate with a Green representative (unless they poll very strongly), the Greens will have to make the choice. Apart from the Greens, the European Conservatives and the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group aren't fielding any candidates for the Commission presidency - will they put forward one for the debate?

The debates will take place one week before the elections on the 22-25th of May. Given the traditional low interest in the European elections, it's probably a good idea to stage the debates close to the election date, though this might leave little time for the second debate to have much of an impact. The impact the debates make will be a factor in deciding whether selecting candidates for the Commission presidency really is the potential political bonus that most Europarties think it could be. But they should give the media big ticket events to report on (as long as they are interesting debates!). They should certainly put the parliamentary orientation of the national parties in the spotlight, as journalists can ask the awkward question: so, do you agree with your pan-European candidate on...?

Forget 2014 being Europe's Twitter election - the more interesting question is could it be a TV election?

Monday, 24 February 2014

Scottish Independence and the EU

The debate on Scottish independence is heating up: within the last few weeks we’ve gone from emotional appeals to keep Scotland in the UK to declarations that if Scotland leaves the UK it will lose the pound and EU membership. Commission President Barroso made a surprisingly strong intervention into the debate on the Andrew Marr Show, saying that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to be accepted back into the EU.

Although there are some interesting arguments on the legal obligations of the Member States in this area, and the assertion is disputed, it probably will be difficult politically for Scotland to re-join the Union. Still, an agreed referendum on independence is different from a unilateral declaration of independence (which is Spain’s real fear), and it shouldn’t be “impossible” for Scotland to gain membership. The 2016 deadline of the Scottish National Party is another story: Scotland may be up-to-date on EU law, but the negotiations would probably drag on.

What’s strange about the debate is that there’s little discussion about the UK union as a whole. (As noted in The Guardian, 100 years ago the situation was different). The polls on independence may be narrowing, but a vote against is still the likely outcome. But even if Scotland stays in the UK, further devolution of powers is on the cards. Without a debate on how the UK should be run – whether there should be devolution to England or the English regions, and if power should be devolved more equally with the central government holding on to limited and clear powers – there is a sense of drift. If devolution is just about the nations and regions claiming opt outs from the central government, rather than part of a broader discussion about how the UK should be run, then the direction of the political narrative is towards exit: maybe not today, but perhaps tomorrow.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Swiss vote puts EU to the test on Free Movement

The Swiss referendum on immigration restrictions for EEA nationals - effectively a vote on ending the free movement of people in the single market for Switzerland - was passed by a very narrow majority of 50.3%, but it has big consequences. The bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU form a dense and developed relationship; there are some 120 individual treaties. But the treaties are inter-related: should Switzerland breach one of the free movements, then the other single market provisions will be brought to an end. So Switzerland could potentially be exiting the single market.

As The Economist notes, this puts the EU in a bind: does it bring these agreements to an end and uphold the single market, or does it try to accommodate Switzerland for fear of inflating the Swiss vote? The Commission is quick to highlight the sanctity of free movement at every opportunity, but it is a delicate situation: the referendum doesn't have immediate effect, as the quota system needs to be drawn up and implemented. So when and how should the EU approach the question of bringing the single market agreements to an end? The EU should not come across as heavy handed - above all the decision of the Swiss electorate must be respected. But the relationship runs in two directions, and the Swiss should not be allowed to benefit from the single market without extending the same rights to the rest of the EU.

In the end, the issue will have to be confronted. Accommodation of the dilution of the single market unpicks the EU and the commitments Member States, and in this case also Switzerland, have made. If Switzerland chooses to opt out, then that's their choice, but it entails opting out of the single market, not just the parts they don't like. The EU should wait for the Swiss proposals, while making clear that they will stick by the treaties with Switzerland.

For Eurosceptics, the Swiss result is a victory, but the real question is if it is accommodated by the EU system. If it is, then the question will be: why not restrict free movement within the EU? It is one thing to say that the free movement rights are key to the single market, it's another to stand up politically for the benefits they bring and for the integrity of the single market as a whole. In the referendum, the impact of the result on Swiss access to the single market was debated. If Switzerland breaches its EU treaties and brings them to an end, that is their decision.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

First Thoughts on the First World War

This decade is going to see a lot of centenaries – the beginning and end of the First World War, the Spanish Influenza that killed so many afterwards, the rebellions and independence of so many European countries, the Russian revolution, the suffragette movement – and the commemorations will probably not only be about what we remember but how we remember it. Already there’s a debate in the UK over how the First World War is remembered: a time of patriotism, a disaster, a war that Britain never should have got involved in…

I’ve not had much patience with Michael Gove’s emphasis on patriotism (which seems to be more about deference to authority and the government of the day than anything), but I’ve been wondering if the debates and commemorations this year will change my view of the war. Like many people the First World War is an immense tragedy, and the horrors of trench warfare are unimaginable. The war need not have happened: sabre-rattling had been going on for a long time without war, and it did not necessarily have to break out in 1914.

However I have some understanding for how and why the war broke out. In a Europe ruled by the logic of the balance of power and bound up in alliance blocs, once the situation got out of hand and war started, it was hard to stop. Geopolitical and tactical considerations – whether Britain’s need to keep the Low Countries free to protect its coastline, or Germany’s aim to knock France out first via Belgium to prevent a war on two fronts – propelled the war forward, making it harder and harder to back down.

From today’s standards, it’s hard to see the First World War as just. We just don’t act like that in Europe anymore – our borders are virtually undisputed (and where they are disputed, war is unlikely), and it is not the empire-driven dog-eat-dog world out there anymore. Expansion and geopolitical positioning no longer drive our thoughts on our place in Europe, so it’s harder to think of going to war in the same circumstances. The shock of what the First World War actually cost pushed us away from the culture and assumptions of pre-war Europe, so it has become more of an alien concept to us today.

Before the First World War periodic Great Power wars were simply part of the balance of Europe: they happened when the other states felt that one country or another was getting too strong and threatening their strategic position, so there was a war to contain the growing power of other countries. The shock of the World Wars and the end of the age of imperialism has moved us to a stage where “just wars” are wars of defence or maybe of humanitarian intervention. So we should probably be a bit wary of projecting our values back on to the people of the time.

I wonder if our view of the war is not only coloured by the Second World War, but because the First may have straddled a shift in attitudes. The War of Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-German War – we don’t seem to single out these wars out for being wasteful in the same way as the First World War, despite being similar Great Power wars in many ways. But the First World War did popularise the concept and phrase “never again”. The League of Nations was set up. Though the Second World War swept it away, the United Nations replaced it and the attitudes to war continued to shift from the pre-WWI outlook.

This is simply my impression at the moment and I wonder if this year of commemorations will bring new viewpoints and change my own. But there’s no question that it was a war that changed us.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt and the “Federalist Cause”

Guy Verhofstadt, who has led the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament for the last few years, will be the Liberals’ candidate forthe Commission Presidency in the May elections. He has fended off Olli Rehn, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs for the candidacy. It was unlikely that Rehn would have much appeal across Europe – he is the face of Eurozone austerity in the bailed-out countries and would represent a very fiscally hawkish face for the liberals – but he had a lot of support among the ALDE member-parties. The two will run together on a the same “ticket”, with Rehn proposed for another “senior post”. Perhaps the thinking is that if Verhofstadt doesn’t get the Presidency, he might stay as leader of the parliamentary group…?

Verhofstadt is probably a better bet than Rehn in that he’s a former Prime Minister (or Belgium) and has experience in both the European Parliament and in the European Council. He failed in his last attempt to become Commission President when Barroso first got the job in 2004… and I can’t see him having much hope this time around. Though some in his party have noted that he’s more centrist (and therefore more likely to be able to deal with either a right- or left- leaning Parliament), the liberals are probably going to have a very tough election. Two of the biggest liberal contingents – the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the FDP in Germany – are battered, with the FDP thrown out of the Bundestag last year and the Lib Dems predicted to come 4th in the UK in the May poll.

Verhofstadt is an interesting choice given his very outspoken federalism. Having written a federalist book – The United States of Europe – and given tub-thumping federalist speeches in the European Parliament, I’ve come to think of him as the federalist Farage. He has tried to set out his vision of federalism as more democratic:

However, I can’t see a more nuanced version reaching people. And, as I said at the start of the last Parliament, a focus on federalism and pro-Europeanism is not the way to go. Federalism is a concept for organising things rather than a proper ideology that sets out values and priorities. Really, competing ideas for the Eurozone, economic growth, the CAP, etc., need to be put to people and then the decision is make on how much to do at the European level, and how to do it.

The Liberals, and Verhofstadt, will need to come out with credible policies to make their brand more bankable. It strikes me that civil liberties and data protection could be a good issue for them if they tap into it – certainly it would chime with a lot more people than vague sermons on “federalism”.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Stripping Citizenship

Last week the UK House of Commons voted on an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would empower the Home Secretary to strip foreign-born terrorist suspects of their UK citizenship, even if it would render them stateless. (Those with dual citizenship can already be stripped of their British citizenship). The amendment reads (p.3):

"(4A) But that does not prevent the Secretary of State from making an order under subsection (2) to deprive a person of a citizenship status if—
(a) the citizenship status results from the person’s naturalisation, and
(b) the Secretary of State is satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good because the person, while having that citizenship status, has conducted him or herself in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom, any of the Islands, or any British overseas territory.”

The decision doesn’t have to be made following a court ruling and it isn’t made by a court – it’s made by the Secretary of State herself. The amendment was proposed by the Home Office Secretary of State, Theresa May, and was reportedly aimed at drawing Tory back-benchers away from an amendment that would have limited criminals up for deportation’s ability to rely on the right to family life under the European Convention on Human Rights. That amendment was defeated with the help of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The vote is another example of how difficult it is for Cameron to control his back bench, which will be worrying for him come the European elections. At the moment the Conservatives are expecting to come behind UKIP in the May poll, but even with that factored into their calculations, the back benches may take the result as a spur to become even more rebellious.

Disappointingly, the anti-immigration rhetoric has meant that the other parties have failed to take a firm stand on the issue of taking away citizenship. On Question Time on Thursday, the Labour and Lib Dem representatives weren’t able to give a clear “yes” or “no” on whether or not they supported the idea. UK politics seems to be stuck on an illiberal course…