Sunday, 31 May 2009

European Elections 2009 NI: Ian Parsley

[Contents page "Asking the Candidates" here].

Ian Parsley of the Alliance party (ELDR) was the first to reply to my questions. I'd like to thank him for his quick reply, especially since it's so close to the polling day.

Here's his answers:

An important task of the European Parliament is to confirm the next Commission. As an MEP, will you back or oppose a second term for Jose Manuel Barroso and why? If you oppose him, is there an alternative you would support and why?

Yes, I would support Barroso, for a few reasons: firstly, he is already a well established and successful politician in his home country, and therefore has some understanding of the need to ensure the EU institutions react to popular will and maintain popular support; secondly, he is well placed, as a Portuguese, to balance reform of the institutions to ensure large countries are fairly represented while smaller countries are not left out of decision-making; thirdly, his taskforce has already done some outstanding work in Northern Ireland, and we can be sure we have a friend at the top of the Commission for as long as Barroso is in place.

The CAP is an important issue, and there seems to be a lot of talk about its reform. What would you like being done differently, and what aspects of CAP would you retain?

I would retain very little of the current policy (CAP). The foundation of any replacement policy has to be maximising fair competition - our producers have nothing to worry about from that, as our produce is among the best in Europe. We must also have a more flexible policy, taking account of the different land and crop types across the 27 member states; promotion of schemes such as Farm Modernisation, but in a way which is less bureaucratic; and more appropriate means of ensuring farmers do not just have representation in Europe, but a direct voice themselves - again, we have nothing to fear there, as the Ulster Farmers' Union and others are already well placed to deliver that for us in Northern Ireland.

The Common Fisheries Policy has been widely criticized. What would you like to see being done differently, if anything?

The Common Fisheries Policy appears to be even worse, from the discussions I have had! In principle, the same basic foundation must apply as to the CAP above. However, the various quota systems appear even less appropriate; disputes over territorial waters have not been fairly resolved; and it remains too difficult for our marine producers to export even within the EU. All of these need to be resolved more effectively, and I would work with fishers to ensure this.

Financial regulation has become a big issue because of the recession. How do you think the EU should (if at all) regulate the financial services? Do you support the Larosiere report?

Yes, the EU should regulate financial services, as they impact not just upon business, but upon personal banking and basic household finances - the downturn and near collapse of financial services is not just a matter of collapse of an industry, but also of students, working families and pensioners left to struggle to get by (especially those whose hard-earned savings suddenly disappeared).

I broadly support the de Larosiere Report. It offers not just an outline of a fair way to regulate financial services across the EU, but also to promote global responsibility. Furthermore, it promotes simplification of financial "products" in a way to ensure individuals and families can better understand what is being offered, and what the impact on household finances would be.

What do you think will be the most important issues for you as an MEP?

Firstly, we must engage more effectively on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland - linking not just with the NI Executive, but also with local councils and, outside politics, with community groups, business organisations, and the local voluntary sector; secondly, we must re-build our economy and do it in a way which is promotes responsibility, not just profit (and so that our young people can look forward to successful careers right here in Northern Ireland); thirdly, we must change our attitude to the environment, basing tackling climate change not just upon what may happen in the distant future, upon the immediate potential positive economic and health benefits of developing renewable energy sources, promoting more efficient construction and electricity, and delivering more ambitious public transport projects - we in Northern Ireland must seek to lead on such issues, not just follow.

In short, we must think not just of what we in Northern Ireland can get out of Europe, but also what we can put into it.

Asking the Candidates

After watching the BBC NI Politics Show election special earlier on, I was still left with some questions about the stances of the candidates on some European issues. Since I have posted a plea for people to vote, I thought I should contact the candidates myself and ask them a few questions. The 5 questions I asked are:

An important task of the European Parliament is to confirm the next Commission. As an MEP, will you back or oppose a second term for Barroso and why? If you oppose him, is there an alternative you would support and why?

The CAP is an important issue, and there seems to be a lot of talk about its reform. What would you like to be done differently, and what aspects of CAP would you retain?

The Common Fisheries Policy has been widely criticised. What would you like to see being done differently, if anything?

Financial regulation has become a big issue because of the recession. How do you think the EU should (if at all) regulate the financial services? Do you support the Larosiere report?

What do you think will be the most important issues for you as an MEP?

I also told them about my blog and asked permission to reproduce their replies. I'll use this post as a contents page for the replies I may receive, and I'll edit it to say if a candidate has replied, but for some reason doesn't want to have their answers reproduced, in the interests of fairness.


- Ian Parsley
- Jim Nicholson
- Jim Allister (Jim Alister's office emailed me after the elections directing me to their website for their policies).
- Alban Maginness
- Steven Agnew
- Bairbre de Brún
- Diane Dodds

I'd like to thank all the candidates who replied, especially since I emailed so close to the polling day.

Northern Ireland candidates election debate

Today the Politics show has hosted a debate with the 7 Northern Ireland European election candidates today (BBC One NI, 12pm) with an audience that periodically voted on some general questions put to them.

Three audience polls struck me: 2/3 thought that the elections should be on purely European issues; a bigger majority (high 70s, I think) felt that the election issues being fought were mainly a nationalist-unionist battle; and a similar majority (again, I think it was in the high 70s) said that the expenses scandal would not effect their vote. The expenses scandal hasn't been as big an issue in NI as it has in the UK, though there has been a few big headlines on NI MPs.

If you're in the UK (with a UK computer), you can watch the debate on BBC iPlayer here.

A few of the main issues discussed were:

- Expenses.
- Whether or not the Peace Money from the EU was being well spent.
- Double Jobbing (where a politician has more than one mandate [MEPs cannot have another mandate now - Ian Paisley was famous for double, and sometimes triple jobbing, but many NI politicians did it (and some still do)]. The audience were against this practice).
- Who would top the poll, and if this is an important question.
- Do/how much do the NI MEPs work together in NI's interests.

Sadly CAP and CFP was not discussed, despite them being important issues to NI as an agricultural region. Neither was the issue of the next Commission Presidency, though without competing candidates, this is more understandable. Neither was financial regulation, which is a lost opportunity for the BBC to steer the debate towards what I think would have been topical issues.

Still, even if I have remaining and perhaps even more questions on what the candidates stand for, it was interesting to watch all the candidates together. At least, it was for me.

Belarus leaving the Russian Sphere of Influence?

Russia has feared that the Eastern Partnership will make the EU the dominant power in its post-Soviet sphere of influence. One of the key states in Russia's sphere of influence, especially since the Orange Revolution (which isn't looking too stable itself at the moment), is Belarus. Belarus is generally seen as being firmly within the Russian sphere of influence, with even ideas of Russo-Belarussian Union floating about at different points. I doubt that Belarus will somehow turn into a pro-EU state, but I think that Belarus will use the EaP as a way of asserting its independence through playing the EU and Russia off each other.

What may be a bigger factor in Russian insecurity over the EaP may not be the set-up of the EaP itself, which is economically-orientated, but the weakness of Russia to maintain its sphere of influence. Less than a year ago it was harder to see the shrinkage of Russian influence with the war in the Caucasus, which asserted Russian military dominance in the region. However, it was interesting to see that Belarus didn't recognise the breakaway republics in line with Russian foreign policy.

Now it seems that Belarus is moving further from the Russian sphere due to a list of grievences with Russia:

"Mr Lukashenko has been frustrated by the Kremlin’s reticence over plans to form a “union state” linking Russia and Belarus and by energy disputes, but he was infuriated by Moscow’s refusal this week to provide finance to his country due to fears it is badly run and could collapse."

Russia's reluctance to cultivate its influence in its backyard - probably due to the pressure the economic crisis has put it under - could lead to Belarus becoming less able to play the EU and Russia off each other in the short term, as the Russian card looses some of its value. Hard power may be impressive, but its utility can often be very constrained, and Russian hard power isn't always that impressive.

That said, it remains to be seen if the EU can really fill the vaccum through the EaP, or if the political will and resources are there to play the influence game. Especially at a time when showing solidarity with the big bang EU members can be problematic, never mind helping out a country widely considered to be "the last dictatorship in Europe". It could turn out to be a temporary spat and Belarussan relations with Moscow could warm up again.

Irish voting already started on Friday, and some political ponderings

Some Irish voters have already voted in the European and local elections. Normally some of the islands vote before the mainland, but this time the voting was officially started by patients in the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum. It seems that there's been a 60% turnout there, though naturally there will probably be a much lower turnout by the general public on June 5th.

The European elections may have the effect of - or be proof of - shifting the national politics into a more traditional European direction. It may also be the point where national politics became more integrationist (in a society sense), with EU immigration starting to have an impact on the political parties.

First of all, Irish politics may finally be moving towards a left-right contest, as the conservative Fianna Fáil party is stuck on 20% popularity - and this is the political party that has dominated Irish politics since the 1930s. The European elections have become a contest between Fine Gael and Labour in a sense, though the media doesn't make it out to be quite so adversarial as it would if it was a government-opposition set up.

However, if the shift is taking place, it will be a long road. The STV system of voting means that candidates are important, and despite FF's vast unpopularity, one of its candidates, Brian Crowley in the Ireland South constituency, will probably be the candidate to attract the most votes in the country (he's at 30%, well over the 25% quota to get elected). For a number of reasons, Ireland is likely to return pretty much the same MEPs as in the last election.

Still, it's FG vs Labour in Ireland East, with Labour on course to win a seat at the expense of FG who had unexpectedly won two seats in the 3 seat constituency in 2004. If Labour becomes the second party in the next general election, they will need to fight the temptation to go into government with FG (the temptation will be very strong since the leadership is aging) and force them into a coalition with civil war enemies FF. (Interestingly, however, there have been reports that up to one third of the Irish electorate could be floating voters, which is more than previously thought).

[See Frank Schnittger's Th!nk About It article on the European elections in Ireland here].

In terms of the political balance of the EP, these elections are unlikely to change much given the stability of the MEP delegation. The PES may gain 1 or even 2 seats (though an extra second seat is becoming less likely as Kathy Sinnot (InDem group) experiences a surge in the last two weeks. Still, a second seat is not beyond the realms of possibility. The EPP will lose one seat. Though FF could lose a seat in Dublin, if it does it can't really be considered an ELDR loss, as the FF MEPs won't join them until the next EP assembles, so ELDR will gain at least 3 seats in Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, there's an outside possibility that SDLP candidate, Alban Maginness, could win the third seat if the unionist vote is split. So the PES could be in for a 1-3 seat increase from the island as a whole, but it would be a big upset for this to happen. I've written a basic overview of the election in NI here.

Another factor which could emerge from this election is the participation of non-Irish EU citizens. I briefly pondered about this a good while back, and it has been good to see that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have polish versions of their websites (I didn't include a link for FF because it doesn't seem to be working at the moment). Of course, there are immigrants from other big bang member states, especially from the Baltic states, as well as immigrants from Africa (mostly Nigeria), so hopefully there is a drive for inclusion there too.

This Irish Times has an article on immigrants and political party partcipation (link here). Will more partcipation and the experience of availing of the free movement of workers lead to a good turnout? Or will the registration system and lack of information put people off?

I really liked the article's fantastic English-Polish Irish political phrasebook:

"We are where we are - Jestesmy, gdzie jestesmy.

I have a deep passion for pot- hole-related issues - Mam glebokie zainteresowanie dla problemów zwiazanych z dziurami w drogach.

Poles before politics - Polacy przed polityka.

This is a damning indictment/ appalling vista - To jest potepiajace oskarzenie/ przerazajaca perspektywa.

We cannot let this country go backwards, going forward - Nie mozemy pozwolic, aby ten kraj sie cofnal, idac naprzód.

The money was just resting in my account - Pieniadze tylko spoczywaly na moim koncie. [My favourite]

I’m glad you asked me that question, but if I could just return to an earlier point - Ciesze sie ze Pan mnie o to zapytal, ale czy móglbym powrócic do wczesniejszego punktu."

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Virtual Political Clashes

There have been a few web-based political clashes recently, mostly PES-related. All of the European Parties are being denied the "oxygen of publicity" during these elections, but there are a few sparse glimmerings of something approaching a political political campaign online - though sadly "sparse" is the key word here, and many of the online battles are far less interesting to read than the "Letters to the Editor" pages in newspapers. A little more passion or vision, please?

The PES have gone for a cross-group attack (though still quite focused on the EPP) in their "12 Terrible Candidates" press release, attacking its rival groups on the basis of the kind of fringe membership they have. It hasn't entirely worked, with the Economist (which I read via Julien Frisch) criticising the PES for including the former Minister for Justice of Romania, Monica Macovei, in their list. Macovei has a good reputation for fighting corruption, and her inclusion in the list has perhaps reflected more on the Romanian branch of the PES than on their EPP rivals. The EPP has dismissed the list as another aspect of a populist campaign by the PES in similarly combative language.

On the ELDR front, Poul Rasmussen has criticised the ruling ELDR-aligned government in Finland for its response to the crisis and for simply copying the policies of others:

"...why is the liberal Finnish Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, just copying the inaction of conservative leaders such as Merkel and Sarkozy when it comes to fighting the worst economic crisis for generations? ... [T]he tax cuts that he has enacted are just not enough. According to current estimates, by next year 250,000 people will be unemployed in Finland."
The Finnish PM has defended his government on the ELDR site, saying:

"...fiscal policy is in Finland one of the most expansionary in the OECD area. Discretionary stimulus measures amount to over 3 per cent of GDP in 2009 and 2010. For example, infrastructure investments are higher than ever. My government is committed to increasing resources for labour market policies as needed. Most recently, this week, 61 million € were added to labour market activities. Similarly, we have taken several measures to help municipalities in their financing difficulties.

At the same time as we are handling this acute crisis, we look further ahead. We need to manage the huge debts we now take without burdening too much our children. Therefore my government has continued efforts to improve our educational and innovation system, taken initiatives to lengthen working careers and launched a new growth project, among other things. Unfortunately Mr. Rasmussen's Finnish colleagues have not been very helpful in these efforts."

It's a political battle of sorts (though Rasmussen didn't advance specific policies in his blog post; he just supported his Finnish allies), but how relevant is it? Has it made an impact? I doubt much has been made of Rasmussen's attack in the Finnish media (though I may be wrong), but the engagement of the Finnish PM shows that the European Party-level could have some relevance to the campaign. Does anyone know if the Finnish PES party has played up this PES attack on the government?

Rasmussen has also been attacked by ELDR over some comments on the Estonian government's handling of the crisis, with the ELDR claiming that he wants Estonia to remain out of the Euro by increasing its debt (and breaking the criteria).

In the end I think that it will take a big effort of the European Parties' respective leaderships over the course of the next EP to raise the public awareness of their groups and themselves. It is nigh on impossible to generate a political campaign out of thin air, and despite the possibilities the internet opens up for politics, without the mainstream media reacting to a European political debate, there's almost no point in having one. Or in trying to generate one.

[Out of the 3 major EP political groupings - EPP, PES and ELDR - I think that the PES has made a good effort online (it seems the most active to me out of the 3), with ELDR's website not looking too bad, even if it's campaign is quite sketchy. The EPP-ED's site is functional, and the EPP have set up "Dialogue TV".]

Friday, 29 May 2009

Election Mail (Northern Ireland Style)

I've finally got some election literature (not that the writing exactly warrants that description) for Northern Ireland. So far I have something from all of the major (and some not-quite-so-major) parties, except for the UUP/Conservatives' Jim Nicholson. Here's a quick overview for anyone who wants a taste of NI political leafleting (you know who you are):

DUP/No Group (Diane Dodds):

Medium-sized booklet promising "Strong Leadership in Challenging Times". The chief concern is on preventing Sinn Féin from topping the poll and the state of Unionism in general. It is almost entirely composed of one-line long bullet points (European issues are mentioned in 2-3 out of 22 of them on the inside pages). EU-wise the DUP is for the "best deal from Brussels for business, farmers and fishermen" - it doesn't elaborate, but my impression from their campaign so far is that they want less regulation and CFP reform.

Sinn Féin/GUE-NGL (Bairbre de Brún):

Tiny stretched postcard of a leaflet; tagline: "Putting Ireland First". Has "MEP" written beside Bairbre de Brún's name, which I thought wasn't allowed (but that might only apply to election posters). Contains a mere two paragraphs - one English, one in Irish. Talks about delivering for Ireland, supporting various communities (agriculture, business, etc) and mentions the potential of a green economy. No policies outlined or even general stances on policy areas mentioned.

Jim Allister/No Group (Traditional Unionist Voice):

Booklet with the most writing out of the bunch. Tagline: "Experience, Principle, Integrity". Main points are the need for a full time MEP (claiming that 70% of laws originate in the EU), outrage over Sinn Féin being in government (the NI regional government) with the DUP (his former party), and his principles on moral and constitutional issues. Highlights his number of speeches, oral questions and written questions versus the 2 other NI MEPs and the NI MEPs of the previous EP, and his ability in "Opposing Sinn Féin 24/7".

Talks about local government issues, but he does talk about European issues - EU funding (he wants more), farming (wants fewer Brazilian imports), CFP (against), regulation (proposes a "regulation holiday"), traditional family values (for), Euro (against) and the Lisbon Treaty (against). Has quotes from Farage and Hannan praising him.

The Alliance Party/ELDR (Ian Parsley - not connected to the more famous Ian):

Fold-out leaflet; tagline: "Replace the Politics of Fear with the Politics of Hope". Pro-European, but not much that stands out - wants to make Europe closer to its citizens, to make it work for citizens, and is pro-green investment - but no policies. May be what Julien Frisch has yearned for in terms of "European experience" - Parsley has lived in Germany, Spain and England, speaks fluent German and Spanish and he has set up his own business (though it doesn't mention if this business was outside NI).

SDLP/PES (Alban Maginness):

Small fold-out poster; tagline: "When we Win, You Win" - in English, Irish, Polish and Spanish. Highlights his online campaign, which in website terms is on all the usual suspects; though his blog makes a play on the old Guinness ad slogan, calling it: "Maginness is Good for EU". Describes himself as "passionately pro-European", and there are some bullet points, which is pretty much the same sort of stuff as in the other parties, except the anti-CFP and defensive CAP stance of NI in general is gentler in rhetoric. Emphasises the importance of the PES and belonging to one of the big EP groups - and has the PES logo beside the SDLP one (one of only two to have the Group logo on their literature - at least, out of this collection).

Green Party/Greens-EFA (Steven Agnew):

Another fold-out booklet; tagline: "For a New Green Deal". One of the few candidates I have actually met in person, but that was a year ago. Calls for a "Green Industrial Revolution" and claims that 5 million jobs could be created across Europe if there's proper investment in green technology (seems possible) - with 50, 000 of them in NI (which I don't personally find a particularly convincing number). Also highlights its links with its EP Group (one column devoted to it), though the group logo is small and on one of the inside pages.

I have to say that none of the leaflets actually impacted on or changed how I'm planning to vote (at the moment, anyway), but that could be because I'm just interested in politics so I'd already knew the outline of the parties' stances. Does leafleting have much of an impact on your voting intentions?

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Further boost to Barroso as the SPD fold too

The leader of the SPD, Franz Muentefering is reported by EurActiv to have told reporters that:

"Müntefering told reporters that Barroso, backed by his party, the European People's Party, had done a competent job as head of the EU executive and had the support of some centre-left governments in Europe, including his native Portugal, neighbouring Spain and the UK."

And that:

"...there was little point in the European Socialists naming their own alternative candidate in an attempt to halt the incumbent's re-appointment."

This is a massive blow to Rasmussen, who still has some hopes that the PES can prevent a second Barroso term if they do well in the elections, since the SPD would be one of the (if not the) biggest national delegations to the PES group.

It's very disappointing that Muentefering (and apparently the SPD) can't see the "point" in running an alternative; presumably the basic need for a political choice for voters in the make-up of the next Commission is not sufficient for the SPD. And though Muentefering is right that the member state governments are mostly conservative-controlled, it shows a depressing continued attachment to the diplomacy of intergovernmentalism instead of a much-needed shift to more democratic politics.

And how does this play in the SPD's election campaign? They've been running a poster campaign for a while now claiming that financial sharks would vote FDP and those who want wage dumping would vote CDU - but who would the SPD vote for?

Sadly, it will probably be Barroso.

So the question is, what would "more SPD for Europe" actually do?

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Progressive reform through Conservative means?

David Cameron yesterday gave a speech on constitutional reform.

I agree with the idea that local councils and devolved assemblies should have more power and autonomy, though Cameron has avoided the whole issue of Parliamentary Sovereignty - if the constitution can be so easily changed to devolve power down, then power can be quickly and easily centralised again by a determined government/parliament. Also disappointing is Cameron's avoidance of the issue of the House of Lords.

It would be too much to hope for Cameron to start a debate on the sorts of policy and the areas of competence that local government should have - and what this means for policy areas such as health, policing and education. If health is controlled more locally (decisions over medicine provision, etc) then how will/should that affect access to health care outside your area (if it should be controlled locally to a degree)? Should police be subject to some local control, and what are the implications for the political neutrality of the police? Hopefully now the issue of competence has been raised, there will be some debate on it.

I like the talk on the power of the whips being reduced for the early stages of the legislative process, but how will this be enforced? If it's just a political convention, political pressure could see a government or an opposition increase the power of the whips again when "politically necessary" for the party. Conventions are weak, and depend on the self-restraint of MPs - perhaps some sort of parliamentary disciplinary procedure for whips who interfere at a point where parliamentary procedure allows MPs a free vote...?

The temptation to break with convention - even the most powerful and respected of conventions - can be very tempting when there's a political advantage in it. Daniel Hannan has recently called on the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call an election if Gordon Brown doesn't:

"If the Prime Minister will not ask the Queen for a dissolution, perhaps she should force his hand. Her constitutional role is very limited, but this strikes me as a case where she might reasonably act. The country unquestionably wants fresh elections. The legitimacy of our democratic system is in the balance. All three party manifestos have been rendered obsolete by events - as much by the financial crisis as by the expenses revelations. The only possible argument against an early poll is based on low political calculation - which it is precisely the Crown's role to transcend. Your ministers have failed you, Ma'am: send for better ones."
If the Queen is supposed to be politically neutral, then she shouldn't intervene - those judgments are political ones, and, really, it's not up to the Queen to judge her ministers. I can't see how the Queen can call an election unilaterally when the polls show that the Tories will win and it wouldn't be see as political. It would be breaking convention and a breach of political neutrality for the Queen to decide what the best political course of action is. Especially since constitutional reform is in the air. The Queen is wise not to start tempting fate by exercising her power in a controversial way (even if you hate Labour) when people are pushing for constitutional reform.

Cameron's speech also has some points I would be seriously critical of:

Cameron's reasons against PR - that in a fixed term parliament it would be bad to have a parliament where the government didn't have a majority and that is weakens voter's ability to decide on the government.

First, the problem of weak governments could be fixed with a minimum requirement of votes to ensure there are coherent parties and if a government can't be formed after, say 3 months or 3 attempts, then there could be an automatic election under a fixed term system - fixed term meaning that parliament or the Queen don't decide on when an election happens, but the stability of a government and the set term of the parliament does.

Second, if parliament is to be strengthened at the expense of the executive, then no government will be able to push through their manifestos and implement them. Wasn't that the point of reforming parliament - so that it would be stronger and more diverse views would be expressed and constituents would be better represented? The more power parliament and individual MPs have, the more consensual politics become, and manifestos are implemented less directly and clearly. If Cameron wants MPs to go through legislation line by line and for parliament to have more legislative input independent of the executive (with perhaps even citizens proposing legislation for parliament to debate), then the importance of government manifestos is weakened as a more consensual approach to legislation is taken. Why then, is a consensual government - or coalitions - a bad thing? If you're going to have a more powerful and consensual parliament, then why not go for PR, where fewer votes are wasted? Does Cameron fear Parliament becoming political? Did he just want MPs to make legislation more efficient and effective and leave the serious politics to the government? Coalition governments can be effective in implementing their respective parties' manifestos - it's more likely that right-wing and left-wing parties will join with like-minded parties to govern, and the changes in policy from manifesto to government need not be so great. And, again, since a consensus needs to be build in Parliament anyway, what's wrong with a consensual government programme? Or to put it another way: why should a party with 1/3 of the vote be able to impose it's manifesto outright?

On Human Rights and the power of the judiciary, I wonder if Cameron actually knows much about this area in the first place.

"...since the advent of the Human Rights Act, judges are increasingly making our laws."

Increasingly? Judges in the common law system always had some law-making power - that's what the common law is: judge-made law. The Human Rights Act involves the interpretation of Acts of Parliament in the light of the Human Rights Act (another act of parliament, though it copies and pastes practically all of the ECHR, it's still an Act of Parliament, and the ECHR only has legal effect because of this). The HRA states that judges can interpret laws into line with the ECHR (which they do, sometimes creatively) or declare laws incompatible if such interpretation is impossible (which has the effect of doing, well, nothing). So judges interpreting law passed by Parliament in light of law passed by Parliament - sounds pretty much what judges are supposed to do, doesn't it?

And the alternative?

Cameron proposes a "British Bill of Rights" to "strengthen our liberties". Ok, so what does that mean, exactly? From the speech, it sounds like he thinks that the HRA has gone too far, so I would guess that he wants a diluted version of the ECHR. Does he propose pulling out of the ECHR? If not, people can still appeal to the court in Strasbourg which, although unbinding (almost like the judges' rulings under the HRA if there's incompatibility), it does have a political effect. So does he want less rights than the ones under HRA? More? What does he want - does he have policies or is he just staking out a populist decision? And again, what about the old question of Parliamentary Sovereignty - where does Cameron stand? If, under a British Bill of Rights, the rights are enshrined and cannot be repealed by implication by Parliament and judges still interpret the law, then judges have the same power (maybe more if declarations of incompatibility start to mean something), but if PS is reasserted, then rights won't be protected as well as they will be vulnerable to the whims of Parliament. So what's it to be, Cameron?

Finally, on Europe, Cameron highlights it's unaccountability and its remoteness. So, where are his policies? What powers should be taken back? What policy areas shouldn't be? On the policy areas that shouldn't be, what policies will the Conservatives pursue in the EP and how should the EP be reformed to make it more in touch with voters? Cameron has failed to articulate any opinions he has on these issues (and you never know, he may have some) despite the looming European election. How do you propose to make the exercise of power in the EU that you're happy to leave there more accountable if you fail in your duty to explain and formulate policies for the voter to choose or reject?

Sadly, the Conservatives are far from alone from this in the UK.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

UK Constitutional Reform: It's all the rage

Some of you will know from my earlier ramblings that I'm not exactly a fan of the UK Constitution, or at least some of the contradictory claims surrounding it. (At the same time, it has rightly been pointed out to me that I've ignored the Scottish question on the nature of the constitution and Parliamentary Sovereignty).

So as someone who's interested in constitutional questions (perhaps one of the main reasons I'm fascinating by the EU in the first place), it's been very interesting to see the rumblings on constitutional change that have begun to emerge since the expenses scandal. Jon Worth has highlighted the need for considered consultation with the public, instead of MPs hurriedly jumping into action to show that they can be decisive and are, contrary to current public opinion, able to run the country. Constitutional change is a big issue and it should be brought about by consensus and after a comprehensive debate on the issues behind each reform. Personally, I'm leaning towards a Constitutional Convention-like body, where members would be elected on constitutional policies and would formulate a draft constitution to be put to a referendum, instead of leaving it to Parliament, the composition of which will be affected more by everyday politics and the recent record of the parties rather than their constitutional ideas.

Still, it's good to see some debate emerging, with David Cameron poised to make a speech on reform later today, probably based on his Guardian article, and Alan Johnson arguing for proportional representation in the Times. The historian Professor Starkey has even called for a separation of the legislature from the executive on the Week in Politics (while having a go at the Scots and Welsh, as per usual), though he's in favour of keeping the Monarchy and supports the Church of England's established role despite being an atheist (something about it being a "civilising force", though I must say it hasn't always appeared to have served that role).

While I'd like to see a radical overhaul of the UK constitution (codified and with popular sovereignty at its heart would be a good start), I'll just make some random points.

1. Why the focus on cutting the number of MPs? I know it's tempting to not only claim a few heads, but also throw out a few seats, and there are some arguments for reducing the numbers, but why the focus? The quality of the ministers is dependent on the quality of the MPs (at least under the present constitutional arrangement), and though in an ideal world the quality of MP would rise the fewer seats there were, I doubt that this would be the case. This would leave a smaller pool of talent from which to draw the government. And what about the cherished link between the MP and constituents? Apparently a key argument against proportional representation, but we should be aware that with a reduction in the number of MPs, there comes the inevitable increase in constituency size, and that means more constituency work for MPs. Will fewer MPs be able to serve their constituents as well or do their work as well under these conditions? Perhaps they could, but there's no real debate along these lines.

2. What should be done with the House of Lords? Here there's a vastly better case for the culling of seats, in my opinion - the House of Lords is bigger than the House of Commons, with less power and less democratic legitimacy. However, where is the debate over what the role of the House of Lords (or whatever it may be renamed as, if it is renamed) should be. Should it be elected, just as the Commons are elected? Why - what would be the point in having 2 equally democratically legitimate chambers of Parliament, and why should one be superior to the other? Should the House of Lords simply be abolished and the UK be made a unicameral system?

Or should the House of Lords be a more expert-centred House - perhaps elected by a mixture of universities, the professions, the trades...? Should it be made up of directly elected county/city representatives? Or should it be part of a proportional representation system: if a party list system forms part of a PR arrangement, should the list-elected candidates be put in an inferior House of Lords to weaken the power/influence the list system would give parties while leaving the option of some forms of PR open?

3. Should there be a monarchy? Well, why not question this? And why should there be an established Church while we're at it? Personally, I'm suspicious of the claim that the Queen brings in tourists. She may bring in a few by herself, but I suspect that the changing of the guards, the history, the old castles and palaces bring in the tourists, not the Queen. Presidents can have palaces (or a palace, with the others as national trusts open for tourism and to the public) and a changing of the guard. Some of the romanticism may be lost, but I doubt many people got to see the Queen herself, and Britain has a rich enough cultural and historical heritage to reconsider the merits of monarchy, in my opinion.

(On a side note, I loved a list of "practically endless" reasons why Germany should restore the monarchy I saw once. One was that it would be more "Umweltfreundlich" [environmentally friendly] due to the lack of ballot papers, and another was that it would be more "Kinderfreundlich" [child-friendly], for reasons that weren't quite explained...)

4. Does the First-Past-The-Post system really keep voters close to their MP? On a purely on a "connection with the voter" point, if you live in a safe seat area with political opinions that are unlikely to ever be expressed in a winning candidate, do you feel a close connection with the MP, or the system? If it causes some voters not to vote due to the inevitability of the safe seat, does that not damage identification with the system and the MP?

5. If David Cameron supports fixed term Parliaments AND thinks that constitutional reform should come at the end of a considered debate, why does he call for a snap election? Ok, cheeky question there.

6. English devolution: what form should it take? The two options being considered at the moment seem to be exclusively English MPs voting on English matters in the UK Parliament, or a devolved English Parliament. What about other options? If the goal is to bring government closer to the people, how close should it be, and how should it be achieved - though some see regional government as a "balkanisation" of England, it should be remembered that Wales and Scotland have about 5 million people each, while England has around 48 million - the question of how close the regional government should be to people needs to be a bit more in-depth than some of the slogans that are being thrown about.

7. What should be the constitutional position of the devolved governments? Should they be given greater powers in the interests of bringing government closer to the people? What are the powers best exercised at UK level, and what's better exercised at the regional level? This is a vitally important question since is could concern the structure of the health service and questions of accessibility. Should devolved governments be more independent of the Westminster parliament, with power going upwards towards it (akin to federalism), or should the devolution model (Westminster leases out power to [possibly temporary] regional assemblies/parliaments)?

That's probably enough questions for now. It's clear what way I lean on each point, if not what my exact opinion is, but hopefully it's raised some interesting points to think about... Maybe.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Dangers of Nationalism in a Pan-European Campaign

Jamie [The Irish Time's Europe correspondent] has blogged on the reaction to Libertas' blue card scheme in Poland.

...Where Libertas are campaigning on reducing the restrictions to the free movement of workers....

Apathy breeds Apathy

Or: "Be an Active Citizen.... please?"

All political systems tend to be characterised as distant and out-of-touch at times; especially the European Parliament. There are many factors in this: structure of the political parties/EP party groups, media attention, institutional structure/power balance, etc. These all contribute to it, but we should remember that politics is what we make of it too, and it tends to be shaped by those who are active in the process. So, please be an active citizen, and vote, even if the European Parliament seems remote to you.

Politics can only be changed through engagement, and often that engagement needs to be long term. We need to make sure our voices are heard, and are effective in being heard. Not voting and expecting the system to be more responsive to your needs and wishes simply doesn't work.

First of all, candidates want the job (in most cases), and want to win the seat. That means running an effective campaign, and getting enough votes. This seems like an obvious statement, but think about the effects it has - obviously the most effective campaign will be the one that gets the most voters on its side - not the most people, the most voters. What, after all, is the point of going after people who aren't likely to vote and wooing them with your policies if they end up not voting? It's a big risk going after such voters when there are "dependable" voters out there who will actually vote (and may even be persuaded to vote for a particular candidate). If you want politicians to adopt policies closer to your preference, then you have to let them know that your vote is up for grabs (and, if possible, what policies you'd want to see). Time, lack of activists and financial constraints on political parties also lead to a prioritising in campaigning.

A few years back a student's union advised its members not to vote until candidates came up with student-friendly policies - instantly removing the threat of an organised student vote against any of the candidates, and removing the incentive to change policy; especially since students as a group vote in fewer numbers.

Second, if possible, talk to/contact the candidates. Obviously a lot of people don't have that much time, but it is worth finding out not only what they stand for, and if they'll be responsive to your needs and opinions. Naturally they won't (and shouldn't) be very ready to change their policies to suit you, since they need to be consistent in their policy choices and with their party platform (if they have one). Still, repeated messages from the public will filter through the party machinery: if there's a policy area, and it's in line with their political philosophy, and there's a market for it, then they will change their policy to become more responsive. Question candidates, and if you don't agree with them, tell them why. (How else will they ever learn...? ;-)).

Third: make your voice count more by expressing your needs to the electoral forum that the election concerns. I.e. if it's a local election, vote based on local issues and your views on how your area can best be served. By voting based on something that's happening at another level of government, your are making your voice less effective. Think local councillors are lazy? Maybe they can afford to be, because come election time it's the national issue that a significant number vote on. Hold them to their promises and make sure they do a good job. You can help make a democratic forum more effective and responsive by focusing on the issues that it deals with.

Fourth: yes, there is that "but I'm only one person" aspect to the whole exercise, and, yes, these things are long-ish term. But the obvious come back is: "well, where else can it start?". Voting behaviour does make an impact. If a person's friends and family aren't interested in voting, then they may be turned off voting by that. By voting and seeing value in voting, you (may) help persuade your friends that there's value in it too - and the more people there are involved, the more likely the system is to be responsive to the people at large.

You can't expect a responsive political system if you have unresponsive apolitical people....


Saturday, 16 May 2009

Eurosceptic, moi?

Libertas have tired to portray themselves as pro-European, but anti-Lisbon, though many aren't convinced due to some of his continental EP election allies (for example, French politician Philippe de Villiers). Combined with their general rhetoric and lack of policy alternatives (honestly, if you can't come up with any policies and your website counter says there's under 19 days to the election, why not just remove the line promising to reveal your policies in the coming weeks?), it's not surprising that most people consider Libertas a Eurosceptic party - apart from other Eurosceptic parties of the "Better Off Out" variety.

Still, with Ganley's vague musings on wanting a 25-page constitution, and perhaps an elected president (though I think this has been dropped recently), there was something there that could be spun into a critical yet pro-European image; a brand for those who don't hate the EU, but are still uncomfortable with it. Ganley has waxed lyrical on the single market, saying how he himself has benefited from the EU; the implication being that Libertas doesn't have a problem with the fundamentals of the EU.

Yet, with around 3 weeks left, the Irish Times have reported that Libertas have an immigration policy, both for EU and non-EU citizens coming into Ireland. They want a "blue card" system:

"[Caroline Simons, Libertas' Dublin candidate has been] calling for the adoption of a “blue card” throughout the European Union that would allow a citizen of the EU to live in another member state for up to two years as a guest worker as long as they were not a burden on the receiving state."

It's not just Simons:

"Her comments followed similar comments on Thursday by Libertas East candidate Raymond O’Malley, who said the time had come to stop the tide of workers coming from accession states."

Given that the single market has at its core the free movement of goods, capital, services and people, this represents a major attack on the single market. Hardly a pro-European policy.

This latest lurch deeper into right-wing populism may be a result of recent opinion polls which show that the 3 main parties are likely not to face any major challenge by Libertas - indeed, the current prediction is that Libertas will win no Irish seats. So even Ganley's chances are slim, despite having the advantage of being the sole candidate living in Galway, the most populous area of his constituency.

Considering that immigration has never been an issue in Ireland before - at least, not one where the main parties are prominent - it will be quite interesting to see how this goes down with the electorate. Speaking very generally, the economic boom and a certain sympathy for immigrants due to Irish history has ensured that the few grumbles there have been over immigration have been largely overwhelmed by appeals to the Irish people's image as a friendly and hospitable people.

I doubt it will be very effective for 2 reasons (beyond that of the historical sympathy):

(1) a reaction to the economic crisis was an increase in emigration. Not all of it is to the EU, and the degree of it may have been talked up by the Irish media since the image of people leaving invokes the pre-boom Ireland and can be seen as a symbol of the collapse. However, restricting emigration opportunities may not go down too well. I'd say people will still look at the restrictions such a policy would impose on them as well as other EU citizens as not being a factor unworthy of consideration.

(2) this stance shows desperation on Libertas' part. They have already portrayed themselves as ring-wing and Catholic, so I can't see how many extra votes this will get them. At the same time, Libertas needs to get more voters to embrace it by being more moderate and less of a fringe party. In other words, the Irish are still quite pro-European and any Eurosceptic party will need to be seen as somewhat respectable to get any sort of significant vote. The further right Libertas goes, the more it inhibits its ability to gain a wide base of support.

Of course, Libertas' support could get a boost in the next 3 weeks. Walesa will probably give another Libertas address, this time in Ireland, and Libertas will get a publicity boost if nothing else. (If Walesa gives this address, it will be his 3rd paid appearance for Libertas after Rome and Madrid, despite his son running under an EPP-aligned Polish party and despite saying that he doesn't support Libertas; he just values their role as a democratic opposition [or something along those lines]).

And interesting question would be: if no Libertas candidates are elected in Ireland, how long will Libertas hold together without/with a weak Ireland-based leadership?

On a wider note, here's some analysis in the Irish Times on the election: link. Interestingly, it seems to show that voters are distinguishing between candidates and current MEPs on one hand, and their opinions of the government and opposition on the other, despite the lack of a developed pan-European campaign. Perhaps not so much identification of European issues as opposed to national one, as identification with candidates and current MEPs, and a willingness to see them (slightly) separately from their parties. It's great to read that candidates are being judged on an individual level, and a pity that not all member states give their citizens this opportunity.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

An tAontas Eorpach agus Gaelige

On Tuesday, it was reported in the Irish Times that the Irish government wasn't living up to the responsibilities of promoting the first official language, Irish. The financial crisis seems to have weakened the government's commitment to Irish, with the Irish Language Commissioner, Séan Ó Cuirreáin, and his office launching more official investigations to investigate complaints. I think that this is a very telling finding from an investigation:

"The practice of actively removing every síneadh fada from the names and addresses of newborn children being registered for child benefit payments was found to be in breach of a commitment in the Department of Social and Family Affairs’s statutory language scheme."

Actively removing fadas (á, é, í, ó, ú)? Why? Why bother?

If the Irish Government is failing to ensure that language rights are protected, then what is the condition of Irish at the European level? Irish has been a treaty language since Ireland's entry in 1973, which meant that all of the EC/EU's Treaties would be in Irish as well as English, German, French, etc. However, Irish has only become an official language of the EU since 2007 (before this legislation didn't have to be translated into Irish).

Despite this status, only legislation produced by co-decision is translated into Irish, as per Regulation 920/2005, though this will be reviewed after 4 years and then again every 5 years.

Earlier in the week I attended a jobs talk, and one of the talks was by university professor, who had done freelance work for the EU institutions as a lawyer-linguist, on job opportunities in the EU. Apparently they are crying out for people with English as their mother tongue (and the Irish are doing quite well out of this since people from Britain simply don't seem to want to work for the EU), but the situation is much more serious for Irish, despite the limitations on translation requirements. It seems that, so far, not one person has passed the Irish part of the concours. Naturally, legal Irish is very different from every day Irish, and those who are capable of being lawyer-linguists in Irish are based in the Dublin administration, which does a lot of the Council translation for Irish.

Which is a real pity, since, despite the complaints about translation costs, I do admire how an effort is made to respect the different languages.

Unfortunately, my Irish doesn't go much further than a few phrases (though the accent helps), so it doesn't look like I'll be able to take advantage of it.

The Irish EU law site is here.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Poor Poul

It's becoming very hard not to feel sorry for PES leader Poul Nyrup Rasmussen:* unable to run a candidate for the Commission Presidency (which will damage the PES's chances in June), he's been reduced to impotently hinting that he has someone in mind. Meanwhile, the Greens are calling for a Red-Green coalition, with an open door for others to join, and the Liberals whinge from the sidelines that the PES isn't coherent enough or credible enough to put forward a candidate.

At the same time, there's no guarantee that the Liberals will support an anti-Barroso. Even if the PES and Greens-EFA do well enough in June, the coalition needs to be large to stand up to the EPP and the Council. Given the internal party splits in the PES (UK's Labour will do badly in the election, but with Spain and Germany, it makes up the (at least potential) core of PES in the EP), along with the strong left-right differences within the Liberals (contrast the UK's LibDems with Germany's FDP), any coalition must be big and coherent enough to withstand both its internal party splits and to wage a strong campaign against the EPP and the Council. The PES really need a plurality in the EP here, since it's unlikely that they'll be able to succeed against the Council if the Council can point to the EPP as the winners.

Of course, the EPP have some of their own problems, with the UK Conservatives breaking away from them (well, away from the EPP-aligned ED anyway), but this is unlikely to dilute centre-right support for Barroso in the EP.

I wonder if the PES might loose a few seats to the Greens, since in several countries the PES parties are either highly unpopular (UK), or have faced coherence and credibility problems (Germany and France). In Germany, the Greens tend to be the natural allies of the SPD, and their alignment in the run up to the September federal elections may further boost the credibility of the Greens among dissatisfied SPD voters who don't want to vote for the hard left. I doubt the Green's calls for EP coalition will boost their credibility much in the public's mind without an actual candidate to rally behind, but it may have a small effect. (On the other hand, a loss for the Greens has been predicted).

The PES are clinging on to the outside chance of a plurality or coalition, and have hit out against suggestions of appointing the new Commission President quickly after the new EP convenes. Nevertheless, we'll probably be left with the pitiful outcome of PES appeals for Barroso to become more socialist.

*(As ever, not to be confused with the innumerable other Rasmussens (ok, 2 others). Which makes a nice change for me, since Irish politicians with the same name are 99% likely to be related).

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Update on the European Elections (and media coverage)

France 24 has set up its own page on the European elections, where you can see the current president of the EP, Hans-Gert Poettering, facing questions from young people on issues and how Europe can/should deal with them.

Personally, I found Poettering's answers very disappointing: he waffled on and didn't answer some of the first questions put to him. On one question he didn't make it clear where the responsibility for decision-making lies - blathering on about the need to work together rather than properly addressing the issue. Since his role was to explain what the EP could do for citizens and to encourage young people to vote, I have to give him a fail on this occasion - he gave no real sense of what the EP was for and what it could do for citizens.

Another story is Sarkozy and Merkel's common campaigning for the EPP - and Merkel's thinly veiled criticism of the UK Conservative's championing of enlargement while not facing up to the need for reform by embracing the Lisbon Treaty. Though it seems not to have made much of an impact over in the UK (the BBC haven't reported it anyway), it will probably be used by the Liberal Democrats and Labour to bash the Tories' weakeness/highlight their isolation in Europe.

The LibDems have just launched their election campaign. I wasn't impressed with their Public Election Broadcast (PEB) on the BBC: no mention of Europe, just a promotional video for the still new-ish leader Nick Clegg. Quite disappointing, since Clegg used to be an MEP. However, at the launch Clegg stressed the need for the EU and gave specific examples of how it was a positive force for Britain.

The Irish Independent and the Irish Times have increased their coverage of the European elections, with sections of their papers devoted to the campaign leading up to the June 5th polls.

Council of Europe Reform and Protocol 14

The Council of Europe, which the European Court of Human Rights belongs too, is likely to proceed to implement reforms to the court system, despite the failure of Russia to fully ratify the reforming protocol necessary to achieve this (protocol 14 was originally proposed in 2004).

The reforms will try to free up the backlog of cases to the ECHR by having the admissibility of cases to the court ruled on by a single judge, rather than a panel of three judges, and by having routine cases ruled on by panels of 3 judges (rather than the current 7). The necessity of the reforms were caused by the accession of Russia, Ukraine and Romania to the European Convention on Human Rights, precipitating a flood of applications to the court. The UK was previously a source of many complaints to the court until the Human Rights Act 1998 was introduced; this meant that human right cases are usually resolved in the national court system before they have a chance to progress to the ECHR in Strasbourg.

Foreign ministers meeting in Madrid will vote on implementation of the reforms, which, if passed, will create a 2-tier system within the ECHR. However, it will be a great improvement to the system and will boost the effectiveness and credibility of the court.

A case from Ireland concerning abortion is seeking to be heard at the ECHR before going through the national court system. The main argument against this is the need to exhaust all national remedies first, and the need to protect the ECHR from being overwhelmed with applications. It will be interesting to see if these reforms will have an impact on the court's approach.

Consulting the faiths

Grahnlaw has highlighted the EU's efforts to reach out to the faiths (but not non-confessional ethics-based groups). It has also been reported in the EUobserver.

As Grahnlaw has pointed out, dialogue with both religious and non-confessional groups will be required under the TFEU (as the TEC will be) if the Lisbon Treaty passes, a provision almost certainly inserted to counter-balance the absence of the word "God" from the Treaty. In Ireland, right-wing Catholic groups have slammed the Treaty for not including God (though it mentions Europe's common religious heritage) and have sought to portray the EU as anti-religious.

I think the Commission's attempts to reach out to the faiths is an attempt to defuse such criticism in Ireland and elsewhere - in terms of newspaper articles it's worked for today at least: the Irish Times has reported the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin's comments on the bond between Ireland and Europe in general:

“A pluralist Europe does not mean a secularist Europe; Europe needs its religious heritage and can only benefit from welcoming and respecting that religious heritage. Hopefully, Ireland’s believers will feel more and more welcome to play their part in the future of Europe, as they have done right throughout their history'’

Whether or not it will have much of an impact is questionable; I doubt anything really came out of the meeting with EU representatives, and I doubt many of the faithful that hold eurosceptic views because of the EU's anti-religious practices (in their view) will be swayed. After all, the Catholic Church said that Lisbon didn't change the position on abortion, but this didn't stop the right-wing Catholic group Coir from campaigning on that line.

In other news, Irish Health Minister Mary Harney has defended a proposed law on blasphemy. The law was proposed by the Minister for Justice as the Irish Constitution takes a dim view of blasphemy, but the courts have said that it requires legislation to punish blasphemers. So the justification is that it's in the constitution, so it must be legislated for. It's a poor excuse that makes no real argument for the necessity or desirability of the law, and the proposal has been greeted by disapproval in the media. It seems to me that the courts have wisely prevented people from using the courts to promote their religious views (and wasting the courts' time with petty litigation), and now the government has taken the hint the wrong way and thought they needed to legislate.

It may be necessary to legislate to give the constitutional provision force, but this shouldn't be confused with the need or desirability of the law or even the provision itself. Another fail for this government.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Dublin EP Elections on TV3's Nightly News

Vincent Browne hosted a debate between some of the candidates in the race for 3 Dublin EP seats. (People Korp's site flagged this up).

Only one of them was a sitting MEP (Proinsias de Rossa - Labour/PES), but the programme was interesting none the less, with a Green candidate (and current Sentator - one of eleven who had been appointed by Bertie when he was still Taoiseach) Deirdre de Burca and a former Green Patrica McKenna (who lost her EP seat in the last election and campaign against the Lisbon Treaty in the referendum) arguing over their independence from the government should they win a seat. Caroline Simons, the Dublin Libertas candidate was also there, and gave a lamentable performance when Browne tried to pin her down on policy.

The debate raised 3 issues: the independence of MEPs from their parties when they're in government, MEPs expenses, Libertas' lack of policies.

De Burca and McKenna battled over the issue of independence. McKenna has just left the Green Party (she is at odds with the party's decision to go into government with Fianna Fáil) and is standing as an independent, and claims that she will be better placed to press for Ireland to properly implement environmental directives and fight for environmental and social policies when a Green candidate would be pressured into following the government line. De Burca rubbished this, but I think that all national party executives exert pressure on their EP contingent - especially when they're in government. I don't know how the Green party is in this area, but, as Jon Worth has explained, national party executives have divided the PES and effectively wrecked moves to run a socialist candidate for the Commission Presidency.

De Rossa and De Burca also highlighted the importance of political groups within the EP, and De Burca said she encourages people to check out the groups. It's good to hear candidates trying to communicate the politics of the EP, and De Burca deserves credit for calling on voters to support the left leaning parties to ensure an EP that will be strong on Green and social issues. It's not exactly a strong European campaign, but it's good to hear that some candidates are trying to communicate what votes can mean for the make up and policies of the parliament.

Simons was torn to shreds by Browne. It took a lot of waffle and increasingly impaticent interjections from Browne for Simons to give an example of what kind of powers the EU should return to member states - she settled on labelling: she believes it burdens businesses with too much cost. Browne wasn't impressed, and De Rossa easily asserted the value of labelling rules for consumer protection and the free movement of goods. It was a very poor choice by Simons - there are undoubtedly arguments for and against regulation in many areas, but it's a different argument to at what level the power to regulate should be vested.

Later, Simons went on the attack over the actions of the ECJ. She didn't do well here either - after raising the issue, Browne pressed for an example, which she had to admit she hadn't prepared and couldn't think of one off the top of her head. This is very damaging - after all, Simons is supposed to be a solicitor, and I imagine she was choosen as a candidate to lend credibility to Libertas' claims in areas of EU law. Not that's she's been very good on the subject before - as her performance in front of the Sub-Committee for Ireland's Future in Europe shows.

She did a bit better attacking De Rossa over expenses, but the blows didn't really land. De Rossa wasn't great at explaining his position over expenses, but he defused the issue by asserting that he's put information on his expenses on his website (here). It was still quite shocking to find out that he received €300,000 in expenses. It raises a lot of questions of the worth/need for this level of expenses. (The video showing this is the second half here).

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Dublin MEP Debate

On RTÉ's Saturday view this afternoon (Here. If it's not the "latest show" anymore, look for the 9th May programme under the "current series"), there was a debate between the 4 Dublin MEPs: Proinsias de Rossa (Labour/PES), Mary Lou McDonald (SF/GUE-NGL), Gay Mitchell (FG/EPP) and Eoin Ryan (FF/ELDR).

The main topics were the Lisbon Treaty, MEPs expenses and work, and the economic crisis. McDonald faced a strong attack after she called for more transparency on MEP expenses, with the other 3 attacking her attendence rates and Committee participation - even pointing out an instince where she had been present at a plenary meeting, but didn't bother to vote. The effect of this attack may have been damaged since it could come across as ganging up on her. Mitchell subsequently backed McDonald's calls for more publication of MEPs expenses, but returned to the attack, saying McDonald's expenses may be lower since she wasn't there as much. (McDonald got the most "tumbs down" out of all of Ireland's MEPs on Parlorama - which has been closed down again).

On the interest in the EP, de Rossa said that the only attention he ever got for his parliamentary work was a proposal he made on the price of condoms. (That they shouldn't be considered luxery products).

De Rossa was quite downbeat on the influence of the EP, his ambition seemed to be limited to increasing the PES's share of the seats in order to get more socalist commissioners - quite defeatist when it comes to the question of who gets the Commission Presidency. Annoyingly, I didn't get the chance to send in a question to get a more explicit answer from him (and from the others on their attitudes to EP-Commission relations).

The Lisbon Treaty was naturally a noisy debating topic, though I think that it probably won't change anyone's opinion on the issue: the positions where listed off again, with the main point being the second referendum. McDonald attacked the others for voting in the EP in favour of letting the other member states continue with the ratification process. It was countered that the EP voted to respect the ratification choices of all member states, including Ireland.

The arguments over the validity of the second referendum haven't changed. Pro-re-run: the guarantees change the overall package, and if they address the concerns of the people raised in the original referendum, of course it should be put to the vote. Anti-re-run: we've had one, and decided, so there shouldn't be another. Because I've already taken a side (pro-re-run), McDonald's arguments seemed quite weak to me, but I'm sure there are quite a few who will stick to that position.

There was also the standard government-bashing, with a major point being the FF logo on candidates posters being particularly hard to see - the acusation was that FF-ers are ashamed of the government and their association (which is probably true).

Eoin Ryan and Mary Lou McDonald will be fighting for third place (I'd say it's unlikely that de Rossa and Mitchell have much to worry about) as the Dublin constituency will be reduced to 3 seats from 4 (Ireland's overall seats being reduced from 13 to 12). Ryan will be the embattled representative for the government, but McDonald has a fair battle on her hands too.

Happy Europe Day 2009!

A happy Europe Day to everyone who likes celebrating Europe (and to those who just like celebrating)!

The EU is hosting its open day for each of the institutions in Brussels to mark the day.

Interestingly, PES is the only European party to mention Europe Day at all on its website; they will be using it as an opportunity to campaign for the elections. The other European parties don't mention Europe Day at all (well, the EPP does, but only to point out the Brussels open day).

The Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) last considered the value of Europe Day in 2006.

Will anyone be doing anything for Europe Day this year?

Friday, 8 May 2009

Poettering and France 24

This Sunday (May 10th*), the outgoing President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, will feature on a special programme on the EP for France 24. It's a debate on "Young People and Europe".

15 young Europeans will address questions to Poettering on a range of issues, though why Europe matters/why they should bother voting will probably take up a lot of the programme. Poettering will also be joined by Monica Frassoni of the EFA/Greens.

It's not quite an election debate, but it could be interesting to see how effectively the EP/MEPs are trying to put themselves across, and to see how Poettering himself will fare - apparently he didn't do too well when Julien Frisch saw him - just an off day?

*2.10pm and 8.10pm Paris time.

Could this be the beginning of a great Partnership...?

The summit launching the Eastern Partnership was held in Prague today, though you might miss the good feeling that was presumably supposed to burst forth from the summit, with some leaders not attending, some leaders (ok, just Georgia) being annoyed with Russia, and Russia being annoyed with the whole thing.

Of course, everyone has said that the EaP isn't a sphere of influence at all (apart from Georgia, which proclaims it as having an integrational direction), and that Russia shouldn't get so worked up about it. Though the effect is ruined somewhat by a former EU official saying:

"This is only happening because Russia has annoyed everyone."

The EaP is a sphere of influence, but I don't think that there's any malign intent behind the project - I'd say it's a mix of needing to politically finding a way of stalling the push for enlargement, trying to ensure political and economic stability along the EU's eastern frontier, and building a buffer zone when it comes to Russian influence. It's debatable whether or not the EU would have pursued the project if Russia was perceived to be a more reliable partner in EU eyes, though Polish ties with Ukraine and the EU's (and EU member states') tendency to view the whole thing as purely economic affair along with intra-EU politics on the need to balance the Union for the Med. in the south with an eastern project... well, perhaps the EU would have done it anyway without really thinking that much about Russia.

EU-Russian relations are mainly pursued through the Common Spaces. Is it time to change the relationship with Russia?

Meanwhile, Bruno Waterfield over at the EUobserver has blogged that the EaP has nothing to offer Ukraine and that the agreement doesn't have enough on the table to tempt Ukraine westwards. Beyond this he raises questions of ethics. I've mused on the ethics of the Partnership before, though in a foreign policy sort of way - Bruno raises the question (at least, this is my reading) of the EaP denying Ukraine's European identity; of not living up to pan-European ideals by going far enough to offer Ukrainians more rights and opportunities. Particularly in the area of visas.

His assessment is that the EaP could destabilize Ukraine further.

A case of creating an expectation-capability gap?

Restrictions on travel certainly weaken the EU's soft power in the region, but I don't think that the EaP is a destabilising force. Restrictions on the movement of Ukrainians into its EU members have existed since the big bang enlargement of 2004 - the EU's presence and economic power means that it was always going to have an impact, the question was only what form it would take and if there was going to be a structured political will behind it (or any sort of will at all). The idea of a "Common European Home", which the EU has effectively claimed the mantle of, is a powerful political call, though it may seem very weak to us from inside. The management of the EU's influence is vital here, since the biggest foreign policy tool is essentially to turn the foreign policy question into a domestic one.

Bruno is right that the lack of a visa agenda will be a blow to the EU's influence in the region, though the size of the blow is debatable. In my opinion though, we're just still at our default position - a missed opportunity - rather than having heedlessly rushed into an empty arrangement that made things worse. The EaP is a start in regularising relations between the EU and its "Eastern March", and could open a lot of doors diplomatically for wider co-operation. Like any foreign policy, it will depend much more on the political will and the effectiveness of co-ordination over time perhaps even more than the structures that the EU will work within.

It will be extremely interesting to see if the high level of Commission involvement will lead to greater co-ordination and effectiveness, or if a lack of member state support behind the Commission will hamper the whole process. And that's beside the question of whether or not whoever has the most influence will do the job well anyway.

Plus the Russian factor...

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

There's Europe Election '09!

After I complained about the BBC's lack of coverage of the EU elections this June, it's only fair that I point out that they now have an Election page. It's got videos on how the EP works, what Commissioners do, etc.

So you've no excuse for not voting now (!) - they even have advice on forming your own party.

Also, on their programme The Record: Europe, the BBC have had a half an hour long debate over the areas of social protection/free movement of workers, business, and environmental protection. The whole programme is here (in clips).

Good to see more of an effort.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Thoughts on Unionist Identity

Deviating from strictly European topics, this will be a post with a few musings on Unionist identity based on a few things I have read, since Josef has asked me to after my last blog on Northern Ireland.

Given that I still have a lot of reading and work to do on the subject (1880-1925), and the fact that it doesn't really fit on to my course (it was sort of tacked on: we haven't done much on identity or on politics in Ireland pre-1920s) this is very much a work in progress, and if you see were I've gone horribly wrong, don't be afraid to say.

Unionism has changed as a political force and an identity over time:

- 19th Century unionism: the Union was the best way to improve Ireland. The focus was mainly on the material and cultural benefits rather than on a separate identity, though there was an emerging "Ulster" or a Protestant identity, it wasn't as developed as it is today.
- 20th Century: as unionism developed its identity and thought, its argument changed to that of bad London government was preferable to good Dublin government. If government was to be determined by sentiment, then the growing unionist identity wanted to be governed from London.

Unionism was a status quo political position, so before 1885 there was no separate unionist political force at Westminster. However, a number of changes before 1885 created political pressure for unionism to be represented more separately, just as nationalism was in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869), the National League, Land League, Ballot Act 1872 (weakened landlords' influence over their tenants' votes). Though it should be noted that economics could play a bigger part than Protestant identity at the time - an agricultural depression led to many Protestants in what is now NI joining the Land League, despite it being seen as a nationalist movement, and despite a campaign of counter-demonstrations by the Orange Order starting in November 1880 (unrest only ended by the Land Act 1880).

A unionist group developed in Westminster when the Irish Tories felt that the Conservative leadership was sacrificing its interests for in its dealings with the Liberals over the Redistribution Bill (which could weaken the Irish Tory and Liberal Unionist position in Ireland through franchise reform and electoral boundary revision). An alliance with local Liberal Unionists, though weak at first, strengthened its position. (Parnell's IPP had grown to the extent it was wiping out the Liberal party in Ireland).

This would be an electoral division between unionism and the rest of the UK, which one strand of unionism wanted to reverse under direct rule (and was unsuccessful).

Though the Home Rule Crises of 1886 and 1893 lead to the formation of several unionist groups, these generally didn't last long or have a big enough following to be rivals to the Orange Order or the Irish Unionist Alliance (unionists in Parliament). Though the Orange Order was far from having universal Protestant membership, it did shape a unionist identity - with Orange songs, festivals, etc. and a story of the Glorious Revolution where Ulster was a launching pad for taking back the rest of Ireland.

Unionist identity was divided, mainly between a landed (more southern) class, who favoured Anglicization yet also had an Irish-British identity (like a Scottish-British identity), and a more Ulster-based identity, which existed in the lower classes in Ulster. The Irish Tory/landed tradition had financial and political resources were allied with the numerically stronger Ulster-based group for much of the period 1880-1910, though there was a tension between the 2 identities.

It's hard to track unionist identity's development, as it mainly reacted to nationalism and worked within the political environment it found itself in (Conservative alliance, pro-Imperialist popular sentiment). Unionism's commitment to the Empire during the first 2 H.R. Crises may not have been the same as the Conservatives. 3 main unionist views of the Empire:

- Ireland's position must be maintained - at the moment it's part of a governing race, and shouldn't be reduced to colonials.
- The Empire provides the best (non-parochial) expression of Irish patriotism.
- The Empire is better than Home Rule, but Independence would be better than home rule also: based on the feeling that a British-backed Parnellite government would leave the minority with less chance to defend its interest than they would have under independence.

[I don't have much more time, so I'll just give a vague overview:]

- Mass democratisation (extension of the franchise) lead to a higher degree of politicisation of the lower classes (and increased the importance of the geographical spread/concentration of each identity, as electoral success depended increasingly on them).
- Removal of the Lord's veto in 1909 made Home Rule more likely, and increased the need for mass mobilisation. The political momentum behind nationalism at this stage and the playing of the Ulster card, led to the assertion of the Ulster unionist identity over the more pan-Ireland unionist identity - and support for partition.
- Partition and the border increased the separation both politically and identity-wise.
- The self-determination question and the concentration of unionists in the north-east meant that the Ulster-based identity laid claim to self-determination, arguing that there is no reason why the island should be a single political unit.

It's not a great post - didn't have much time to write it - and you'll [Josef] probably be more interested in more modern unionist identity (isn't UK nationalism a hard enough topic?). It's a very large and complex topic, so I clearly haven't done it justice, but hopefully that helped.

(The main book I've used is Alvin Jackson's The Ulster Party, but I'd also recommend the writings of Paul Bew and Patrick Buckland).