Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Despite my first impression, really, I can't complain too much with this appointment: though I'd have preferred Freiberga or Juncker, I have argued for a low-key Presidency, and that the Council itself is the legitimate electoral college for the choice (though of course that in itself wouldn't stop me from disagreeing with the choice). Van Rompuy has a good record as a consensus builder, and has proven able to hold the linguistically divided country together; surely good experience for the role of a chairman steering the Council agenda to some sort of workable conclusion. He's very unlikely to claim much of the media's attention, which is both good, in that it will defuse the chance of a conflict between the Council Presidency and the Commission Presidency (and probably even with that of the High Representative); but perhaps also bad in that the clear constitutional separation will mean that the media will have little inclination to highlight the different positions between the Council and Commission. Hopefully it will still lead to a bit more of a clearer representation of the differences between the Commission, Council and Parliament in the media, though I'm not sure I'd be willing to put money on it.
Still, the first few days have revealed a certain potential for controversy - particularly over Van Rompuy's opposition to Turkish EU-membership and his support for the idea of an EU tax. Controversies probably won't arise too often, since Van Rompuy is likely to stick to his brief and just represent the decisions reached by the Council publicly, though he could prove to be influential on issues such as Turkey (could France and Germany try to use his opposition as a front to deflect criticism for any anti-Turkish moves on their part?). In any case, Van Rompuy needs to be careful, since his statements will colour the impression of the EU both within and without: it is, at its heart, the most diplomatic post in the EU.
In any case, with the European Council Presidency in safe enough - and dull - hands, the High Representative, Baroness Ashton, will be even more interesting.
Sunday, 22 November 2009
Hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed the discussion!
Saturday, 21 November 2009
Host: Joe Litobarski
Panelists: Julien Frisch and myself.
Who are the new European Council President and the High Representative? Are they the right people for the job? Is the appointment of Ashton a victory for the gender balance argument, or could it deflate the Gender Balanced Commission's wider campaign to get gender balance over the whole Commission? Should gender politics be focused on the outcome of selection processes or on reforming the selection processes themselves?
I'd also recommend that you look up the Gender Balanced Commission campaign, and sign the petition.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
I think it’s fair to say that green politics don’t feature strongly in Northern Ireland’s political culture. Due to the history of the Troubles, the main divide in NI politics is the nationalist-unionist one, and this showed in the articles Stephen Spillane, Frank Schittger and myself wrote about NI in the lead up to the European elections in June (Northern Ireland is a single constituency for the European Parliament under UK law).
But in the European elections, the Green candidate, Steven Agnew did better than ever, with 15,674 votes (I had a small email interview with him at the time of the election). Still a small number, though the numbers are going in the right direction. In the regional Assembly, the Greens have 1 MLA (Member of the legislative Assembly), Brian Wilson, in opposition. This is their first Assembly seat, and it’s one the Greens have high hopes of retaining in the next regional election – and hopes of perhaps even winning a second.
I went along to a meeting of student greens at my university to see how active green politics are at a student and local level.
Some of the Student Greens at QUB, with co-leaders Lois and Mark on the right
Political societies, like most societies in my university, tend not to be very mission-driven, and fall back to being purely social clubs, so it was great to see that the Green Society was quite active in its approach. The society is involved in several campaigns, both on green issues and on other issues, but what particularly stood out for me was how the society was both outward-looking as well as focused on more local issues. One of the more student-related issues was the creation of an environment-focussed committee in the Student Parliament, and a push with the executive of the Student’s Union building to make the Student’s Union building greener. The society also had links with the Green parties in the Republic of Ireland and in Britain, with delegations to party meetings in Ireland, and links with the MEP Caroline Lucas’ campaign for a seat in Westminster in the May general election.
The wider links (again reflected in the pan-European Green stance taken during the European elections) especially appealed to me, but the Green Party in Northern Ireland has quite a mountain to climb in terms of growth: the other party in NI not situated along one side of the nationalist-unionist divide has failed to turn itself into a major political force, despite being the largest opposition party in NI (the top 4 are in a consociational coalition). However, the Green Party may have the potential for a broader appeal given the prominence of the climate change issue. “Being Green” is seen as a somewhat important value in NI now – this was especially apparent when the current finance minister Sammy Wilson caused controversy over his anti-climate change views while he held the environmental portfolio.
Can the Greens build on the acceptance of the dangers of climate change to increase awareness and make more of a political impact? I hope so.
We also now have a "Suggestion Box" page on the Chasing Brussels website, where you can leave your thoughts, opinions and suggestions about the podcast in general.
Saturday, 14 November 2009
But we need to distinguish the right to transparency from the right to vote.
There have been calls for the post to be directly elected - some Eurosceptic condemnation of the Lisbon Treaty was based on the fear that it created an unelected executive President of the EU, rather than the occasional chairman/woman role that it will actually be. If the office had really been an executive post, then the outrage at the lack of direct elections would have been understandable - after all, the electoral college that elects the President is made up of the governments of the member states, and though they have legitimacy as directly or indirectly elected bodies themselves, having an executive post elected by a twice-removed indirect method would have been too much. But then that's the point - it's not an executive President.
So, no, you shouldn't have a vote on who gets the job. Just as the President of the European Parliament shouldn't be directly elected (MEPs elect the post), so it is justified that the European Council elects its chairman. Direct elections for such an office would be pointless - why focus on making what is essentially the "Speaker of the Upper House", who doesn't even have a vote, directly electable, when increasing the accountability of the Commission and participation through the European Parliament are the real, substantive challenges?
That's not to say there are problems with the selection process; ideally the candidates would apply for the post, and be subject to an open and transparent debate in the European Council and/or an open interview before the European Council. Though there may be some diplomatic hang-ups about this level of openness in what is an intergovernmental institution (note that this means you can't always apply the same rationales to it as you can to the supranational institutions!), I don't think the argument that the selection process should be secretive and elitist can be justified:
"The bottom line is surely this: if the EU sees any merit in having big, serving figures given these big new jobs, then opacity is the price to pay."
This assumes that former and current government leaders form the only qualified group that you can draw on to fill the post, so you mustn't scare them off by opening the process so much that candidates risk losing face by not getting picked. While it's true that openness and transparency isn't likely to excite Europeans into caring about European politics (I don't see the performance of Barroso during Commission President's Question Hour being poured over each month on the news, do you?), and direct elections aren't likely to do better (after the novelty value wears off, and people realise that the post isn't executive, do you think that its election will even manage the turnout of the EP elections?), arguing that opagueness is "good" is just ridiculous. There may not be a cause to directly elect the President, but open discussion and debate of the roles and politics of the candidates and the institution itself has its own value.
We should be concerned about holding the European Council to the principle of transparency, not arguing for the vote when there's no firm ground for doing so.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
At the European Council Summit at the end of October (a gathering of the heads of state and government of the EU), EU leaders failed to agree on firm figures for the financial side of a climate change agreement - the best they could produce was a series of vague estimates.
One of the most interesting aspects of the agreement (or lack of agreement), was the concession to the eastern states that payments into any EU wealth transfer fund to the developing countries would be take the ability to pay into account, rather than having payments heavily weighted according to the level of a member state's carbon emissions (a topic that we briefly considered at the end of the latest Chasing Brussels podcast*). While the principle of "the polluter pays" has been a key concept in Green politics - and the underlining rationale justifying Green taxes - the principle applies less to countries. There are good reasons for this: developing countries have a right to develop, preferably in as Green a way as possible, but development inevitably lends to an increase in greenhouse emissions. But how far can this principle of social justice be stretched? The eastern EU member states may be poorer compared to the western ones, but they still belong to one of the most developed regions in the world - how poor is "poor enough" to escape the demands of paying for pollution?
The western EU member states chief concern about the concession (apart from having to pay more themselves, of course), was that making the ability to pay count heavily in contributing to the global climate change fund on an EU-scale would weaken the developed world's argument that developing countries should contribute to such a fund as well. Poland's PM, Donald Tusk, responded with a surprisingly federalist-sounding counter-argument:
"We're not interested in how various Chinese provinces or US states are going to achieve their climate goals," he told reporters after the summit. "It's the EU as a whole that is important and what we are doing is at the forefront of that fight. I don't see any conflict between the two positions."
I doubt that developing countries will be content to leave it as a purely internal EU affair if they can extract a diplomatic advantage from it (though with the failure of a legally binding agreement widely expected by officials themselves, perhaps it won't emerge too strongly as an issue in December).
Still, how far can we excuse developing countries of the obligation to pay for pollution?** Without penalties and duties arising from pollution, how motivated will the governments of developing countries be to develop as greenly as possible? Would the temptation be just to invest in green technology and development only to the extent that the rich North is willing to pay for it?
It's obviously a sensitive political issue, given the recognised right of developing countries to be given the space to develop without the more onerous constraints that the developed world should bear. There's also a question of how far enforcing global payments would take away from investing in (green) development at home. Perhaps a graded approach would be the best one - one that properly took into account the level of emissions, which took into account the level of wealth in the contributions, yet maintaining "the polluter pays" principle at the forefront of the fund?
Is there a workable, practical solution that maintains this principle, or is it a mistake thinking that it should be applied to countries?
*For a specialised podcast on EU climate politics and policy, check out the Th!nkCast by Waldo, Joe & I.
**Assuming that we get the developed world to pay properly for its own pollution, of course.
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
Last week in Dublin, the Secretary-General of the OECD, Angel Gurría, launched the Conclusions and Recommendations of an Environmental Performance Review on Ireland. The report was to review the progress Ireland has made on meeting its environmental commitments (both internally and internationally) since 2000, the year of the last review. The report, and the speech launching it, was couched in safe, inoffensive language, and stuck to very general recommendations (all the while scattering italics around the report in an annoyingly liberal and unnecessary way).
So, what are the good points? Ireland has made good progress on expanding the staffing and capabilities of environmental agencies and in strengthening domestic legislation on environmental protection. Ireland also has one of the lowest energy intensities of the OECD countries. However, it should be noted that the majority of environmental legislation originated in the EU institutions, and, despite a higher level of transposition into domestic law, in 2006 Ireland was the country with the highest number of court actions taken against it (at the European Court of Justice) by the European Commission for "infringing EU environmental directives".
The main areas where the report identified a need for change were: waste management, conservation and resource management.
Taxing water consumption was one of the few specific recommendations that the report made - apparently Ireland is the only EU country not to charge for water use (though, as of yet, the same is true of Northern Ireland). The OECD argue that bringing in water charges would discourage domestic water wastage and encourage the improvement of the water infastructure. Introducing water charges could be politically problematic in Ireland, however, since the "water culture" in Ireland is the assumption that water should be free since Ireland's a wet country and because there's so much of it about. Water charges are on the agenda in Northern Ireland, and have proven to be a very unpopular policy. Still, given the economic crisis and the sharp budget deficit of the Irish government, now might be the easiest time, politically, to introduce such a tax (a budget crisis may be looming in NI too, where the Executive [regional government] is still operating on a budget that was drawn up before the economic crisis).
The OECD has also urged Ireland to go further than the EU's ETS and introduce environmental taxes in areas not covered by the scheme - with the Greens in government and the need to raise more tax, along with the relative political acceptability of green taxes, will we see some experimentation with tax in Ireland?
When it come to waste, there's a serious problem in Ireland: it's not a binding duty of local government to provide for waste disposal or recycling. So, though the report notes: "voluntary approaches by business and industry, especially regarding air and waste, have led to increased recycling, reduced air pollution and the promotion of eco-innovation and energy efficiency", it does point out that the "lack of enforcementcapacity in smaller municipalities" has been an obsticle to good waste management. Since there's no obligation for local government to manage waste, it's easy for them to shirk their responsibility and instead lower rates (local tax). Though private companies step in in areas, their services can be more expensive than if they were administered by a public body, with the result that - in border areas - there's been a habit of dumping waste over the border in Northern Ireland, where local government does provide this service (this puts the resources of councils on the border under strain when it comes to dealing with waste). Action needs to be taken here quickly.
Another firm proposal that the report makes, is that Ireland finally sign up to the Aarhus Convention, which opens up progress on environmental protection to more transparency and scrutiny. The report also urges a closer relationship between economic planning and environmental policy.
In 2007, before the crisis hit Ireland, Ireland had a +25% increase in emissions, well above the +12.5% commitment in Kyoto. Could the economic crisis help Ireland and other states meet their Kyoto commitments?
This week we discuss the lengths to which the EU went to get Klaus' signature on the dotted line. What does this tell us about the EU's political culture? Can the opt out from a Charter of Rights be justified?
The panel for episode 6:
Joe Litobarski (Host)
Sunday, 8 November 2009
Henry Porter is convincing in his argument for a better scepticism when it comes to the EU institutions ("I saw the joy on German faces - but now I despair", 8th November). The need for civil society to debate and scrutinize European institutions is great, and the duty of the media to enable continuous debate is particularly strong. However, Henry Porter fell victim to a few assumptions that highlight the lack of media scrutiny in this area, and shows that without this scrutiny, it's hard to have an effective and informed scepticism.
Getting basic facts such as the difference between the European Court of Human Rights and the EU's European Court of Justice wrong (the ECHR belongs to the Council of Europe, a completely different organisation) can make such scepticism ill-informed and misdirected, since placing the blame at the EU's door for the ECHR's rulings would be ineffective. Similarly, the office of President of the European Council has been talked up to be a full-blown "President of the EU" (there's no such post), giving rise to fears of a powerful executive President who would be unelected - when, in fact, the post is one of chairman/woman who would only preside over the European summits, with no vote or veto on issues. The President would be more the role of a parliamentary speaker than a president, though with more publicity.
For such scepticism and political engagement to work, we need to not only see the EU as a set of institutions, but also take part in the political discussions at its heart - the EU isn't monolithic: there are many fractions in the Parliament and the Council arguing for different policies. We can't just blame "the EU" for faults and failings, we must identify who is in power (currently the centre-right EPP, with Barroso as Commission President), and what the opposition (Socialists and Democrats, the Greens, etc) is doing, and question their policies.
It is a demanding task to stimulate this kind of debate, but it's essential. The EU can try to open up all it wants (for example, the Commission President has to face a European version of PMQs before the European Parliament), but without the engagement of ordinary people and the media, it won't work. Will the Observer start scrutinizing the Brussels Bubble?
It's annoying to see that important political debates (over liberty versus security, and questions over the ECHR court case on cruifixes in Italy) being diverted off course by ingrained misinformation. The EU is mind-numbingly complex, and it can't just be explained in a short run up to European elections or each time there's a summit: there needs to be constant media scrutiny of the policies and political actors acting in the Brussels Bubble. Though I'd like to see the mainstream media improve it's journalism on the EU - and really open up a continuous debate on the issues and policies confronting the EU (as well as if the EU should confront them in the first place) - it'd be very naive to expect anything to change here.
So if the mainstream media won't do it, could there be a duty for civil society to step in? I'm generally sceptical of the power of blogging versus the mainstream media, although the mainstream media clearly doesn't always get it right, but could bloggers be said to have a certain duty in this instance?
Probably not. Bloggers are probably the most prickly of groups when it comes to independence and implying duties, and I can't see how you could convincingly say that people have a duty to investigate these things, except as, perhaps, the general and vague duty of voters who want to participate in the political process fully.
Still, I think that scrutinizing the polcies, actions and goals of the parties and fractions in the EU is vitally needed (despite the boring detail), and I'd encourage EuroBloggers out there to start looking into the Parties and holding them to account. EuroBloggers (and perhaps particularly myself) are guilty of focusing too much on the institutional/constitutional side of things, but hopefully that will change with the passing of the Lisbon Treaty.
It's certainly an area we'll be keen to look at on Chasing Brussels in the future.
Edit: Jon Worth has gotten wind of this journalistic mistake.
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
1. Amendment of the European Communities Act 1972, so that any new Treaty transferring power to the EU is subject to a referendum (including any decision to enter the Euro). This politically does a lot of damage to the idea of Parliamentary Sovereignty while neatly keeping it at its base.
2. The introduction of a Sovereignty Act:
"Because we have no written constitution, unlike many other EU countries, we have no explicit legal guarantee that the last word on our laws stays in Britain.
There is therefore a danger that, over time, our courts might come to regard ultimate authority as resting with the EU.
So as well as making sure that further power cannot be handed to the EU without a referendum, we will also introduce a new law, in the form of a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill, to make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament."
Interesting in that it's the first time I've heard the "unwritten" UK constitution being bemoaned as a weakness by UK politicians - of course, the Conservatives wouldn't propose a written constitution. The idea behind the Bill seems to be that there will be a constitutional court set up* (or powers given to the Supreme Court) to examine the constitutionality of EU measures (a role that's really reserved for the European Court of Justice in Treaty law). The argument runs that the German Bundesverfassungsgericht does this already, but I wonder if it will be an appellate court (i.e. cases have to be referred to it) or a legal body that politicians refer legislation to. The problem here is that, so far, the German Constitutional Court as deferred to the judgment of the ECJ and there is no procedure or plan for what would happen if the ECJ and this new court (or the German court) came into conflict. Citing the German Court as a model isn't really citing a stable or tested example.
It will be very interesting to see the wording of the legislation. (Also, it's notable as the one policy where the Tories are proposing an increase in judicial power, instead of maliciously interfering with the remit of the courts. I wish that the UK courts could test the constitutionality of UK law the way that the ECJ tests EU law...).
3. Parliament would have to assent to any use of Treaty clauses that permit a policy area to move from unanimity to Qualified Majority Voting (by an unanimous vote).
4. A Tory government will seek an opt-out on areas of social policy, criminal justice and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Setting aside the actual content of social policy and the usefulness of some criminal law co-operation in the context of a borderless common market, let's look at the Charter:
"We must be absolutely sure that this [the Charter] cannot be used by EU judges to re-interpret EU law affecting the UK.
Tony Blair claimed that his Government obtained an opt-out from the Charter.
But what he got – as the Government have now admitted - was simply a clarification of how it works in Britain.
We will want a complete opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights."
...Because human rights are for losers, right? This is consistent with Tory opposition to any regime of binding human rights (they want to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law). How exactly will the ECJ interpret (what exactly is "re-interpreting" law, Mr. Cameron?) in a way that the Tories fear? It's not exactly clear, apart from the general wailing and gnashing of teeth the Conservatives seem to give at the mere mention of "rights": rights are something to be feared in conservative political thought.
In any case, how practical and useful would a complete opt-out be? The Commission would draft laws with the Charter in mind, and the Council and EP must respect the Charter, so, unless they try to contravene the Charter, EU laws will mostly comply with it. So Charter compliance will ideally be the rule and not the exception of produced legislation. Regulations apply across the EU, so if the ECJ interprets a regulation into line with the Charter, would there be a different law for the UK? Or will it depend on whether or not the case comes from the UK or not, how the ECJ uses the Charter? The most practical use of the opt-out would be with national law that transposes Directives, but would this be complete enough for the Tory party?
Social Europe Journal has a good bit on the Tories' attitude to rights law in general:
"David Cameron appears never to take any legal advice on, er, laws. His puffed up ‘British Bill of Rights’ would not in any way remove any law already passed because it represents an incorporation of the ECHR (to which we are signatories) into UK law, and this is the basis on which the case law is made. The law would remain, it would just be more expensive both for claimants (many of whom have suffered intolerable abuses) and the taxpayer (all of whom will face intolerable abuse as a result)."
1-3 are all achievable by a Tory government without having to negotiate with the other member states. #4 would require Treaty change and the assent of the other 26 member states. So what concessions will the Conservatives make (as one journalist asked Cameron)?
The answer seems to be "none". The Rebate? Untouchable in the minds of the Tories and the grassroots - it's viewed as something to be defended, not traded away. Integration in other areas seems to be out of the question. As for threats? A Tory government could oppose the accession of new member states, but the party is firmly committed to the policy of enlargement, and France and Germany would jump on it as an excuse to keep out Turkey.
Could there be another Empty Chair Crisis to bring back the Luxembourg Compromise? The cause of the original dispute (France not wanting the EP to have a say over the agricultural part of the EU budget) has only been cleared with the Lisbon Treaty.
This is a Tory party that has shed almost all association or common thought with continental Christian Democracy, has dropped its tradition of pragmatism and is suspicious and hostile towards the judiciary. I can only describe the Tory party as dangerously constitutionally illiterate.
* Which would only look at the EU, of course. It couldn't look at the UK constitution, because, in the UK, the politicians tell the courts what constitutional law is.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
So ends almost a decade of wrangling, negotiation and debate (of varying degrees of coherence). But fear not, the endless speculation about how the constitutional structure of the EU will evolve isn't over yet - though the prospect of a referendum on the Treaty is off the table for the Conservatives, when they announce their policy tomorrow (some political improv from Cameron, perhaps?), it will almost certainly feature a commitment to tinker further with the EU constitutional system.
The question is: how practical will the Tories be when it comes to their (re)negotiation over competence? When reflecting on the Tories' record on Europe, the capacity for pragmatic engagement isn't particularly confidence-inspiring, especially given the recent news of how much influence hardline Eurosceptics (in particular "Better Off Out" supporter Daniel Hannan) will have on the political thought and direction of the ill-conceived European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
But it's not just that the Conservatives seem stuck in an ideological black hole on Europe; Tory policy making seems to have lost all sense of pragmatism when it comes to constitutional thought - and even all sense of clear thought of how principles should be carried out. This was made clear for me when Cameron spoke on constitutional reform within the UK, which was full of weak sops to parliamentarianism mixed with attacks on judical power and on the concept of entrenched human rights.
Practically speaking, there's not much the Tories can realistically ask for; it will need a lot of political goodwill to get any concessions through, since it will require treaty change, which will be subject to unanimity. Would the UK need to offer something to gain opt outs? The obvious concession would be the Rebate (which is nigh-on indefensible), but it's hard to square this with Eurosceptic thought that the UK is (1) already paying too much, and (2) the appearence that as the UK withdraws from aspects of the EU, it's harder to explain (particularly to an Eurosceptic audience) how paying more is justified. In any case, the concessions the 26 can offer is extremely limited by the nature of the Union (after all, despite the opt-out from the Charter, if legislation is drafted and passed in a way that respects the Charter, the opt-out's practical effect may be limited).
In fact, the rhetoric and practical issues involved mean that it's hard to see how the changes can be either very trival (such as the Economist's passport example) or quite fundamental (to the point of leaving the EU).
And if that doesn't keep you from going into post-Lisbon withdrawal pangs, there'll no doubt be lots of opportunity to analyse how the Lisbon reforms are playing out in practise.
Phew - see? Doesn't sound so bad now, does it?
Monday, 2 November 2009
There's also a Chasing Brussels website now at www.chasingbrussels.eu, where we'll be hosting the podcast for now on, and where you can leave comments and suggestions.