Tuesday 29 December 2009

Because it just wouldn't be New Year's without...

...A gas crisis.

EUobserver has reported that there are warning signs of yet another gas crisis on the horizon, with Ukraine looking for high transit fees. Though the article reads as if everyone involved is trying to give off reassuring signals, budgetary pressures on both Russia and Ukraine (though perhaps particularly Ukraine) may work against a quiet solution.

It's stressed that there are enough reserves to see out any cut-offs in supply:

"The EU's executive body has re-assured, however, that there is "no current threat to supplies to households or to businesses" as emergency oil stocks in the 27-nation bloc stand at comfortable level of 122 days of consumption.

Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic also report having sufficient reserves - 118, 94 and 101 days, respectively - figures well above the mandatory 90 days."

If there is another gas crisis, then the EU's response will be very interesting. By now, the EU's approach should be more coherent, given the regularity of the gas crises, but even beyond that the role of Baroness Ashton, the new High Representative, will be worth watching. Would she prove effective at advocating a common position and articulating it? Would pressure be brought to bear more on Ukraine or on Russia, and how? Would pressure be applied (can it be applied) through the Eastern Partnership?

Since the HR's work will be mostly done behind the scenes, and with so many factors outside her control, it may be a difficult to fairly access her approach, however...

Monday 28 December 2009

Blogging Update

The blog has been a bit slow lately when it comes to updates and new posts - sorry about this. December has turned out to be very busy (coursework season plus several other things), and January is looking to be busy too (exam season). Still, I'm aiming to increase the postcount going into the new year, and increase my activity on Bloggingportal.eu and Chasing Brussels.

I jope you've had, and are having a good Christmas holidays, and will have a great new year!

Thursday 24 December 2009

"Is Nuclear in Ireland's Energy Future?"

Here's my latest post over at Th!nk About It:

Yesterday the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET) at Queen's University Belfast held what will be their first annual Christmas Lecture. Christmas Lectures have quite a history, and are a part of a kind of scientific and educational tradition: "... in 1825, Michael Faraday, co-founder of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, started a series of Christmas Lectures to present scientific topics to young people at the Royal Institution in London."

When I first heard about the Lecture this year - and that it would take the form of a debate on the place of nuclear power in Ireland's energy future - I thought it was great that they were starting up this tradition again with the IET's Northern Ireland branch, and I asked if I could film parts of it for Th!nk2. In the end the original opposition to the motion pulled out on short notice, and I was asked to step in as part of a new opposition (which I did, despite warning them that I didn't really know much about the subject) - so it ended up being a much more educational experience than I'd expected!* Personally, I don't have very strong opinions on nuclear power either way, apart from the waste issue, and I wouldn't mind leaving existing nuclear power plants in operation for the time being (why focus on them if emissions are the big target and oil and gas produce more emissions?). Luckly, my team-mate, Michael, had some personal experience of green industry, and we tried to make the best case possible on (mainly) practical cost terms, rather than some of the traditional arguments (though we used some of them too).

The Proposition's case was that nuclear power would become part of Ireland's energy mix through interconnectors with the UK and the mainland continent - that, while renewables should be expanded on in Ireland, Ireland should be able to draw on the stability and controlability of nuclear power as part of its energy mix. Emphasis was on the improving technology and the utility of nuclear.

The Opposition's case focused on the costs of nuclear and its alternatives. Production, construction, and other costs were highlighted, along with the level of subsidies the nuclear industry receives compared with the relatively new renewables sector. Problems with waste were explored, and alternatives were highlighted.

Each speaker spoke for 10 minutes each, and then there were questions from the floor.

Chair: Susan Whitla

Proposition: David Laverty and Thejus Kodiayt

Opposition: Conor Slowey and Michael Montgomery.


I tried to record the debate, and I got most of it on the iFlip, but the distance means you might have to turn up your volume to hear it. I split it up into 6 parts, and I currently have 3 parts uploaded online, so I'll try to update this page later with the rest of the debate. (I wasn't able to get the PowerPoint presentations in-shot, but they mostly weren't relied on by the speakers).

[UPDATE: I've now uploaded the remaining 3 parts of the debate, which includes the first 2 questions from the audience. Unfortunately the iFlip ran out of space before the end of the Q&A part: the questions related mainly to the viability of the alternatives (particularly when it comes to scale) and on technical and waste issues with nuclear power. Though the PowerPoints weren't central to the debate, they were refered to occasionally, so you can find them here if you want to take a look.]






In the end, the House voted that nuclear was in Ireland's energy future. A big thanks to David (the first speaker for the Proposition, who organised the event); I hope to see the Lecture becoming a regular feature of the university year!



* Having to research and debate a topic I didn't really know much about reminded me of a point we talked about during the first test ThinkCast: that blogging can be valuable by encouraging people to become more informed on a topic - perhaps blogging is more useful for the bloggers themselves than for the readers?

Wednesday 9 December 2009

COP15 Interview with Bairbre de Brún MEP

My lastest post on the Think About It platform is an email interview with MEP Bairbre de Brún on the role of the European Parliament in the climate change talks and on where the EU should go when it comes to climate change policy. You can read the post on the Th!nk2 platform here.

Bairbre de Brún is one of my constituency MEPs; she's a member of the party Sinn Féin in Ireland, and sits with the United Left group in the European Parliament. In the European Parliament she sits on the Environmental Committee (ENVI) and is part of the European Parliament's delegation to the Copenhagen conference. She agreed to an email interview with me; so a big thanks to her for taking the time out during such a busy period to answer my questions. Here's the interview:


1. The European Parliament's Environment Committee might not feature strongly in the public's imagination when it comes to the COP15 Conference, the main image of which consists of heads of state and government. What role had the Committee played in the run up to the Conference? Has it done enough?

I believe the Environment Committee, and before it, the Temporary Committee on Climate Change, has played an important role in the run up to Copenhagen.

Legally, of course, the governments and the Commission are kings but the European Parliament has succeeded in applying pressure for them to go further than they would have otherwise. The EP passed last month an ambitious albeit imperfect resolution which called for a legally binding deal at Copenhagen and action on emissions reductions and finance: the resolution stated that recent scientific data indicates that an emission reduction of at least 40 % is required; calls for those reductions to be domestic;’  However, it stopped short of repeating recent calls for a long-term reduction target of 80-95% and instead ‘ recalls that a long-term reduction target should be set for the EU and the other developed countries of at least 80 % by 2050 compared to 1990 levels". It also stated that ‘the collective contribution of the EU towards developing countries' mitigation efforts and adaptation needs should not be less than €30 billion per year by 2020’.

This type of political pressure is important and it also gives citizens a yardstick by which they can measure the achievement of the summit. The EP can also help pave the way for an ambitious deal through its contacts and visits with legislative bodies in China and the US for example. This role goes back a long way and was important also in Poznan and Bali and before.

2. It looks like a binding deal at COP15 is impossible, or at least highly unlikely. If a binding deal can't be reached, should the EU commit to a 30% reduction in emissions in any case?

The EU should not use the excuses of others as an excuse not to forge ahead by itself if necessary. The European Parliament has recognised ‘ that recent scientific data indicates that an emission reduction of at least 40 % is required; calls for those reductions to be domestic’

The science is clear that we need to cut emissions now! A global deal is the preferable way for all to do so but in its absence blocs like the EU have a responsibility to continue on the road to where we know we need to go regardless of the reluctance of others.

Even from an economic point-of-view an EU which progresses towards the green economy of tomorrow will be in the medium- and long-term in an extremely advantageous situation compared to those who cling on to the old dirty economy of yesterday too long.

We must also continue to push for a legally binding deal in Copenhagen, one that is strong enough to tackle the challenge of climate change while being just and fair to developing countries.


3. The US Congress has proven to be very slow and conservative on reaching agreement on a climate change bill. As a member of the Environment Committee, do you sense that the Committee and Parliament as a whole are willing to take the necessary legislative action to live up to the EU's green rhetoric?


The US needs to be part of any global deal and having recently travelled there as part of an official European Parliament Environment Committee delegation I can say categorically that there has been a change in attitude since the Obama administration took over. However the complexities of the US lawmaking process mean that much may remain unclear about the exact figures the US will commit to for both emissions reductions and for financing at Copenhagen. The House of Representatives has passed climate legislation but the Senate now looks unlikely to do so before the end of the year.

To date my experience has been that the EP and the environment committee in particular has been the most progressive institution out of the three bodies (Council and Commission being the other two) when it comes to environmental legislation. Therefore I think it is necessary to ask the question of the governments: are they ready to back their rhetoric.

Having said that the European Parliament could also go further than it has in my view. 

4. There have been rumblings over a possible EU environmental tax policy (concerning VAT). What would be your position on changing the VAT rules to make VAT a "greener" tax?


Sinn Féin opposes EU control over taxation as the ability to set the rates of taxation is a core element of sovereignty. Therefore if any new proposal amounted to increased EU powers over taxation we would be opposed.

Notwithstanding the above, the party is supportive of the introduction of some form or forms of revenue neutral (ie intended to engineer changes in behaviour, and ensuring that the state does not become reliant on them as a source of public funds) environmental taxation so long as these have progressive features (ie do not have disproportionate impact on those least able to pay or least able to change their behaviour), together with other simultaneous or advance supports for behavioural change. 

5. Developing environmental industries and projects seems to require a lot of assistance or intervention from the state, and the Commission has promised to use the Social Fund to fight the recession in a “Green” way. Is the Commission doing enough? Should the Social Fund be increased or expanded to invest in Green projects? Should the European Investment Bank take up the task instead, or as well, if at all?


The EIB does have a role to play in providing credit to eco-innovation, and the environment is one of the EIB priorities.

The Commission has also taken some initiatives but the transition to a ‘green economy’ must be much more centre stage.  This will involve the Structural Funds but must also involve a green skills and green jobs strategy. Member States must also play their part.

R+D will be crucial in the time ahead.  There needs to be structured and co-ordinated review of how the ‘green economy’ will be integrated across the range of policy measures and instruments.


6. What are your ambitions for environmental legislation during this parliamentary term?


I would expect further legislation regarding climate change to deal with the post-Copenhagen situation and also to deal with adaptation within the EU.  It will also be important to see further measures on biodiversity and ecosystems. In the immediate term timely and proper implementation of existing legislation will be crucial.

I also expect further measures in terms of sustainable transport, although these may involve a number of European Parliament committees.



It's encouraging to hear such a strong call for binding targets, especially after the leaked Danish Text came to light. While I think the EU should forge ahead with tougher emissions cuts whatever the outcome at Copenhagen, I have spoken with people who believe in holding back on more extensive cuts for a better bargaining position (either for Copenhagen itself or, if a good deal isn't achieved, for the follow-up talks). I wonder what the opinion is out there on what the EU's strategy should be?

Meanwhile, in Brussels, Climate Change legislation rumbles on...

I return once again to the glamorous world of citizen-legislative-journalism with a new Think2 post on energy efficiency. You can read it on the Think2 platform here, where there's also lots of interesting coverage of the COP15 conference that's now taking place in Copenhagen.

The appearence of the Danish Text has caused outrage in Copenhagen, and rightly so (I can only hope that it's some sort of diplomatic tactic to concentrate minds and help spur on alliances in order to push a good deal through). Meanwhile, in that other famed *ahem* hotbed of politics, the Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers - think of it as the Senate of the EU system), the recasting of building regulations was up for consideration.

Does this matter? Behind every good summit stands an army of bureaucrats rolling their eyes at the paperwork: boring as it may be, these directives and regulations are the much desired practical follow-up and implementation of the lovely political rhetoric we get to hear on climate change.

The proposals themselves aren't overly ambitious, though their aims may sound ambitious: the aim is to recast regulations of the building sector on its energy performance (PDF) in such a way that combines several political objectives. The proposals should increase the energy performance of new buildings and renovated buildings, boost the building sector with some new work through these requirements, help reduce the energy costs of citizens, help to reduce carbon emissions and so help member states meet their international and European commitments on climate change. It would be great if it really had this effect, but though it aims to restrict state aid to building work that doesn't comply with the requirements under the directive (eventually), market forces are still the central element here: the regulation is trying to direct the market in such a way that it dovetails with climate change goals. However, even if the law encourages more building work and economic activity, I doubt that there will be a such a great level of economic activity in this area now (or member state intervention) that the differences made by this law would approach a considerable scale, but it's still a step in the right direction.

It's also important to have action in this area because:

"The buildings sector – i.e. residential and commercial buildings - is the largest user of energy and CO2 emitter in the EU and is responsible for about 40% of the EU's total final energy consumption and CO2 emissions. The sector has significant untapped potential for costeffective energy savings which, if realized, would mean that in 2020 the EU will consume 11% less final energy.

Since the law would be a directive, member states have can choose exactly how to transpose it into their national legal systems (directives require member states to pass national laws giving effect to them, rather than the EU just passing a law and it being law across the EU automatically [though it can do that as well]). This means that the process will be quite slow. The measure was proposed in January 2007 (which perhaps explains the greater faith in the market to some degree), and it still hasn't passed. When it does, member states will have until 31st December 2010 to transpose the law and until 31st January 2012 to fully implement it. Though it's better to get it done right than to have a sloppy law, it hardly gives the same impression of urgency as the rhetoric of the politicans. Considering that the Commission thinks that only 22 member states have implemented the original measure fully, it will probably be a lot longer than 2012 before the law is sorted out properly."

As residential buildings aren't covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme, it would fill a gap in the EU's climate change/emissions strategy.

Still, it reads better at the moment than the state of play at COP15...

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Not all coverage of European News is that bad

I've complained about journalists confusing the ECJ and ECHR before, so I thought I'd just point out an article that caught my eye last week in the Irish Times:

"European Court to be told Irish abortion ban violates rights".

It caught my eye because it does make the distinction between the EU and the ECHR, and it brings up an interesting case before the ECHR which affects some of the politics of the religious right who sided with the No side campaign in the Lisbon Treaty referendums. The claim that the Treaty would affect Irish law on abortion was a false one, which makes the distinction between the two courts in the media all the more important if there's to be a clear and proper debate on it.

"The court is to have a full hearing of the case before its grand chamber of 17 judges on December 9th.

Based in Strasbourg, the court, which is separate from the EU, adjudicates on human rights issues among all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights – now incorporated into Irish law – the Government is obliged to seek to implement whatever decisions are made by the courts.

The identities of the women, known as A, B and C, will remain confidential as the case proceeds.

They include a woman who ran the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus develops outside the womb; a woman who received chemotherapy for cancer; and a woman whose children were placed in care as she was unable to cope.

They argue that the lack of any effective remedy at home means they have satisfied the requirement to exhaust domestic legal remedies. In addition, they say that taking a case would have been costly, futile and could have forced them to relinquish their anonymity.

The Government, however, contends that domestic legal remedies have not been exhausted by the women. It also robustly challenges suggestions by them that there is a lack of post-abortion care or counselling in Ireland. Among the questions the court will ask of the Government, and the the three women, include:

Have the applicants exhausted domestic legal remedies available?"

Also, the case is interesting in itself, since it will consider whether a case will be taken on by the court if it hasn't been through the entire national legal system first. So it could be an interesting case to watch out for, with the hearing beginning tomorrow.

I first mentioned this case here.

Monday 7 December 2009

The State of the Euroblogosphere

Thursday saw the first Euroblogosphere meet-up, and, despite being plagued by technical issues and general rebellion by the internet, it went quite well. An outrage of bloggers* gathered to discuss the language barrier, how to raise interest in and expand the Euroblogosphere, and to just chat generally.

The language barrier was the dominant issue, with several ideas being floated. While English is perhaps the most commonly spoken second language, restricting any translation effort into just English would be quite limiting on the Euroblogosphere, and would exclude many Europeans from the chance of getting involved. However, it's clear that any translation effort - even if focused on only a few interesting or influential articles - would be time-consuming, and labour intensive. The Euroblogosphere has proven very capable of making voluntary efforts - such as Bloggingportal.eu and the Gender Balanced Commission campaign - it's hard to see how a major translation effort could be sustained. Having a funded and specially designed blogging platform to bridge the language gap would seem to be a better option, but it too raises many technical, funding and presentational issues. A voluntary newsletter or summarising effort based around Bloggingportal.eu struck me as the best option.

Engagement was the most interesting issue for me. Nosemonkey made some good arguments about the exclusivity of the Euroblogosphere:

"What the Euroblogosphere needs is simple - a) more of us, and b) more passion. The EU is incredibly dull. The reason we've all got such little traffic is mostly because of this - but also because we're failing to make it sound interesting. The anti-EU blogs, meanwhile, are much more fun to read - because they've got real passion behind them (even if they're mostly based on lies and bullshit) [...] Anything that makes it sound interesting and relevant. The biggest problem with the Euroblogosphere is that it's a) very small, a, and b) most Eurobloggers haven't been doing it very long - which means that most of the coverage is very, very general. Loads of posts about what it means to be European, ideal reforms of the EU. It's all too theoretical. Political theory only engages geeks - for it to grow we need to engage the man/woman on the street. This is something the anti-EU blogs do very well - albeit through lies and bullshit."

As a Euroblogger, I'm definitely on the theoretical/institutional side of things, but I recognise the value in opening up to different aspects of EU politics. If we want to encourage growth and development in the Eurobloggersphere (more readership, more bloggers, and more engagement), then as a political blogosphere, we will probably have to move towards a more normal style of political blogging. This means blogging more on the left-right, government-opposition divide in the EU, because this is both the politics that matter more in day-to-day life, and the type of politics people can identify with more, and find easier to debate. "How far should the banks be regulated and how - and how is it playing out in Brussels and in the national capitals?" is a much more politically relevant question to people than the institutional development of Qualified Majority Voting. This brings up a few interesting points, though:

1. It's easier to write about institutional politics than just politics. Yes, I wrote that right - it really is easier. It's much easier to have an opinion on the high politics of institutional reform and Commission appointments than it is to follow policy debates. Policy debates and legislation take a lot of time and effort (and the patience of a recently canonised stone) to follow. The passage of legislation is slow; it pings back and forth from the Council to the Parliament, and is hard to track on the EU websites. Following months of negotiation on aspects of the single market may not be an appealing idea to prospective (and existing) Eurobloggers. And would people read it?

2. Lack of official engagement on the web. Or indeed in the media at large. Though there's plenty of officialese statements flowing from each of the institutions, there's very little in the way of media-friendly policy statements or active MEPs on the internet. While some dedicated Eurobloggers may track down and explain some policy areas, the high level of effort involved will mean that it would remain a minority of the Euroblogosphere. But perhaps the effort of trying to open up EU politics like this would encourage more MEP engagement and the media-isation of Brussels' political language?

3. Speed. Legislation is slow, and it's hard to maintain interest over the period to report on an issue in the same way a national blogger may do in a shorter time span.

4. Bloggers. You can't get bloggers to do anything, not even if you ask politely. So how can you encourage a move towards reporting on the party-political aspect of the EU (note that this shouldn't require becoming party-political for the bloggers themselves). Perhaps some sort of common call to look at this aspect of EU politics more? It should be an area that is interesting in and of itself for Eurobloggers. We can't ask or expect other bloggers to write about it, but hopefully some will pick it up, at least partially, and add their two eurocents. So how about it? Do you think it would be a good area to write about, even occasionally?

Despite the obstacles, I think it's at least worth a try. I won't be able to properly try until after Christmas, and the idea of Europe and how its institutions work will still be very interesting to me, but I'll try to write a bit more on the daily politics of the EU. It'll take some adjustment, so bear with me on this.

Also, interaction with national blogospheres will be important too. I'm not sure how much I can bring EU politics closer to Northern Ireland's regional politics, but I should (and will) try to interact more with national blogospheres. Again, it'll take a while to get going, since my time's a bit limited at the moment.

So, do you think it could work?

* I'm hoping to get "outrage" accepted as the collective noun for bloggers, since it's the most common natural state of blogging.

There's now a Chasing Brussels episode on the topic, with many Eurobloggers debating these issues.

Chasing Brussels #9: Language and the Euroblogosphere

Chasing Brussels #9 is out now, and this week we're taking a closer look at the direction of the Euroblogosphere (which is every Euroblogger's favourite topic). The podcast follows a Euroblogger's virtual meet-up on Skype and Google Wave, where we discussed the language barrier and how to get more people involved and engaged in that most fasinating of all topics: EU politics. So the podcast picks up on this debate and explores some of the suggestions that were brought up on Thursday's meeting.

In the podcast this week were:

Jon Worth,
Julien Frisch,
Frank Schnittger,
Matthew Lowry,
Joe Litobarski (hosting),

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Of minarets and democracy

In Switzerland, further construction of minarets has been banned after a referendum on the issue (57% in favour). This seems to strike at the heart of many debates: the separation of church and state, between the religious and the secular, on referendum and the tyranny of the majority, and on human rights and minority rights. This law seems objectionable for two reasons; one relating to rights and the rule of law, and one relating to liberal democracy. The draw of the argument that a referendum trumps these because it's the "will of the people" may be attractive on a first glance, but if we look at what we mean by the rule of law and the purpose and extent of democracy, it soon looses its force.

It might seem strange to ask if a law passed by a referendum is "legal", but, just as states are limited in their sovereignty over their people, so the sovereignty of "the people" is limited over the individual. This is done by constitutions (though these can be changed - usually, but not always, by referendum), but it's also done through international conventions and treaties on human rights - in the extreme is the outlawing of genocide; a crime over which all states have universal jurisdiction, so that even if the sovereign power makes it legal within its borders (even through referendum and the will of the people), other states can prosecute the perpetrators on their territory.

So is it legal? The EU Law Blog has a good article on this, and argues that it can't be held to be legal, since it violates the right to religion. there have been counter-arguments that the right to practice religion is qualified in its public form, but this misses the point that qualifications on rights must be justified. The referendum result cannot be this justification, just as "the state passed a law" cannot be in itself a justification - there must be some public necessity based on public health, order, etc., in order to limit the rights of individuals.

I very much doubt that any firm reason of public necessity can be given: only minarets are banned, not church spires or church bells, and the minarets that are already built will remain. The law is manifestly discriminatory, as it enforces a ban on one community without applying the same restrictions to others in similar positions, and without a set of valid reasons. On this basis it probably violates the European Convention on Human Rights, which Switzerland will ironically be chairing (though hopefully they won't be chairing it ironically).

It's because it violates this tradition of rights and raises the spectre of discrimination between religions that Julien Frisch has denounced the referendum as a Europe he wouldn't vote for. On its own, I think the above argument is enough - that not only is it a violation of rights, but an unjustified one.

Some may still argue that despite the rights-based argument, and arguments against the tyranny of the majority, the result is democratically legitimate and that should trump any other concern.

But to do so would be pushing towards breaking the distinction between the public and private spheres in liberal democracy. should everything be within the public sphere - or subordinate to it? Should everything be subject to the sovereignty of the state/people? Generally we consider the private to be superior - and that the public needs a good reason to interfere in the private sphere. Let's apply that to this case: this concerns private individuals, building on privately owned land with their own funds. The state is not involved. There are no planning permission-based objections. So we would say that the public sphere (in this case the state acting as an agent of the will of the people) needs a proper reason of public concern to interfere.

Extend it further: what if a private individual built placed a statue to the Virgin Mary on their land. Such statues aren't essential to Catholic worship/expression of religion, but they are a private expression of religion. Would a referendum banning the erection of statues of the Virgin Mary be legitimate? No; we'd say that it's an arbitrary rule that doesn't follow the rule of law. If it was a law banning the erection of all statues, the law would be more rational and less discriminatory, though it would still be unjustified - on what basis can the state intervene? If the complaint was that there was unreasonable light pollution from the light illuminating the statues, then there may be the beginnings of a reason if it: (1) could be proved that the light pollution was serious enough to be of real public concern, (2) there was no other way of preventing the light pollution. It would fail because: (1) it leaves the already erected statues alone, (2) the lights are at issue, not the statues themselves and the lights should be subject to a ban or a form of regulation to ensure they remain within certain limits. On the basis of religion, culture or politics objections, how is the statue adversely affecting the rights of others to religious, cultural or political expression? It doesn't.

This issue is not only about democracy and human rights, but on the extent of the state, the rights of the individual and the rule of law. There cannot be a coherent argument for the decision on the basis of democracy unless it's from the position that the will of the sovereign trumps everything, every time.

And I can't accept that level of state power.

Now Lisbon's in force, Parliament has nowhere to hide

1st December 2009, and the Lisbon Treaty is in force (well, it has amended the two treaties that make up the constitution of the EU, anyway). It's biggest innovations were the extension of Qualified Majority Voting in the Council and the increase of Parliamentary power - the two are pretty much in step. The European Parliament wasn't powerless before, but now it is virtually an equal to the Council, except in areas of unanimity, such as foreign affairs.

So now there's nowhere for Parliament to hide - it has to prove that it's deserving of these powers; that it's willing to go further in holding the to account, in staking out it's own position more clearly from the Commission and Council, and it must go further in transparency - both from itself, and from the Council and Commission. The Commission President's Question Time needs to become more focused as well: now MEPs have more power, they should prove themselves able to get a good handle on the different issues and ask the awkward questions - this doesn't mean ranting on about political points (I'm looking at you, Martin Schulz), but digging around and making sure you put Barroso and other Commissioners on the spot to open up the Commission to real scrutiny.

The hearing of the Commissioners in the run up to the vote in January must be rigorous, revealing, and truly testing for the Commissioners-designate. In particular, Baroness Ashton's positions on Iran, Russia, the Middle East peace process, energy policy, the Eastern Partnership, etc. must be made clear. Likewise, Oettinger needs to be pushed on how he wants to see the EU's energy policy develop; it's an important portfolio, and one that the Commission has proven quick to move on in Barroso I, with important energy market reforms and the implications of climate change politics - is Oettinger up to the job? The Parliament needs to be willing to reject the Commission if it doesn't correspond to its political views; it shouldn't just rely on there being someone who can be easily recognised as objectionable even through a lazy media glance - a list of good policy reasons should be enough. There doesn't need to be a rejection of the Commission just to ritually assert the Parliament's position, but they should make sure the opportunity to shape it doesn't pass them by.

Finally, and as a greater task, all the parties in the Parliament should work to make their mark outside the Brussels Bubble in the public's minds. Better Parliamentary debates help, and will hopefully entice the media to report on them more, but the parties need to make their presence felt more in the mainstream media and at grassroots level. The Citizen's Initiative could be an excellent way of doing this if done right: a campaign for a certain policy for the media to report on, co-operation across borders with common campaigns, engaging people in European politics ("We need your support! This is what we're trying to do for you in Parliament and the EU!") and it builds up at least some recognition of the Euro-parties (or at least the position of the national parties on European issues, which will be helpful in any case come election time).

The Citizen's Initiative requires 1 million signatures across borders, and the Euro-Parties are supposed to help express cross-border political debate. The link and the logic should be obvious, and the party to latch on to it and to runs campaigns well - and follow them up in Parliament effectively - would be laying good groundwork for the 2014 elections.

Now that Lisbon's in force, we deserve a better working Parliament - more transparency, scrutiny and engagement. There are no more excuses for not trying.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Van Rompuy, European Council President

A few days ago, Van Rompuy was a little known, everyday, average Belgian Prime Minister... but now he's the President of the European Council! Ok, so it's not all that dramatic, and thank god it isn't.

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

Chasing Brussels #7: Playing Devil's Advocate

This is Chasing Brussels #7 (in my last post I accidentally labelled the latest episode as number 7). In this episode, released on Thursday, Joe and I discuss the ECHR ruling on crucifixes in Italian classrooms, and get philosophical on how far secularism should go...

Hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed the discussion!

Saturday 21 November 2009

Chasing Brussels #8: Van Rompuy, Ashton and Gender Politics

Episode #7 is out now, and this time we're discussing the new appointments from Thursday and gender politics and the campaign for a Gender Balanced Commission (with a certain amount of devil's advocate thrown in).

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

NI Green Politics

My latest post over at Think2: NI Green Politics. Thanks to the QUB Green Society for letting me sit in on their meeting!

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.



Green Society QUB

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.

Chasing Brussels is now on iTunes!

Chasing Brussels, the EU politics podcast, is now on iTunes, so you can subscribe and download our old episodes and the new ones as they are released.

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

You shouldn't get to vote for the President of the European Council

The Foundation Robert Schuman is running an online poll on the 5 candidates for the post of President of the European Council (via Grahnlaw and Joe). It's important that there's a debate over the candidates - whoever's elected to the office will represent the institution of the European Council in the EU (like the EP President represents the European Parliament), and on the global scale the President will represent the EU (though probably in a largely ceremonial fashion, since the High Representative will have the most influence over foreign policy - in fact, the E.C. President's claim to represent the EU as a whole will largely rest on being able to speak for the consensus between the states).

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

The Polluter Pays - but only if they can easily afford it.

I've posted a new article on Th!nk About It on the polluter pays principle, asking how far can - and should - it apply to countries, both between the developed and developing world(s), and between the western and eastern EU member states. I've cross-posted the article below, but if you've any comments, please post them on the Th!nk2 website.

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

OECD Review of Environmental progress in Ireland

A new Th!nk2 article on the OECD's recent report into Ireland progress on environmental commitments since 2000. You can read the original article on Th!nk About It here. It's also cross-posted below:

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?

Chasing Brussels #6

Episode 6 of everyone's favourite EU politics podcast (I think that's specific enough to be true)is out now.

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)
Linda Broughton

Sunday 8 November 2009

The Observer, Europe and Blogging

Henry Porter's article in today's Observer is interesting for 2 reasons: (1) he repeats the mistake of confusing the ECHR and the EU and the role of the President of the European Council, and (2) he calls for a kind of enlightened scepticism of the EU's institutions - a good idea - that is undermined by the factors that bring about point (1). So I sent the Observer a letter (ok, email):

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?

Conor Slowey

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

Conservative Party: the Ghost of Referenda to Come

Conservative Europe policy has just been announced (made?) in a speech by party leader David Cameron today. Throughout he took pains to outline the reasoning behind dropping the promise for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty - it is no longer a Treaty but (from December 1st) an integral part of European law. Moving on to what the Tories meant by "not letting matters rest", Cameron outlined several areas for change:

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

Lisbon Treaty Ratified: only months of speculation left!

In the course of one day, the Lisbon Treaty has had the challenges against it rejected by the Czech Constitutional Court, and Klaus has finally signed it into law. The Treaty has now been fully ratified in all 27 member states, and the way is clear for it to be brought into force on 1st December.

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

Chasing Brussels #5 and Chasingbrussels.eu

Chasing Brussels episode 5 is out now. This week the topic is enlargement, and how the EU's enlargement policy might develop when the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. Should enlargement continue? What countries should be allowed to join? Should there be extra criteria/requirements for countries wanting to join the EU? Joining me on the podcast is Joe Litobarski and Jan Seifert.

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.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Chasing Brussels #4

The fourth episode of Chasing Brussels is out now. This week we discuss the milk protests and the CAP in general.

Moderated by Joe Litobarski, with Jack Thurston of caphealthcheck.eu and farmsubsidy.org and myself as panelists.

Direct link.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Think2 Post: "Judging Europe"

I've written another post on the Th!nk2 platform - a bit of analysis of the EU approach to climate change, going into a bit more detail than on the new ThinkCast episode Waldo Vanderhaeghen, Joe Litobarski and I participated in (give it a listen!).


[...][...Introducing the ThinkCast Episode...][...]

In this episode - moderated by Waldo Vanderhaeghen, with Joe and I as panelists - we discussed the EU's record on climate change, and the prospects of its climate policy both at and post-Copenhagen. It was a good debate (20 minutes long), and I think we covered quite a bit of ground (thanks to Waldo's questioning). There was some difference of opinion between Joe and I over how the EU should be judged/seen when it comes to climate change - though, since it was never really explicit in the podcast, I could be off the mark on this. I think that Joe's right that the EU should be seen as a unit to some degree - on it's performance on environmental legislation and it's overall effectiveness and impact, for example - but the member states retain an enormous amount of power and responsibility in this area. When we heard about Samso, the energy-independent Danish island, most of us were struck - and inspired - by the level of community involvement and ownership over the project. But there was another side to it - the sheer scale of investment from the community, the private sector/banks and the government/EU. And the fact is, that the EU cannot play this role on a European scale: the EU doesn't have the budget or taxing and redistributive powers to make large enough investments to revolutionize the European energy market - that's up to the member states, who will largely choose their courses of action within the limits set internationally and at the European level.

That's not to downplay the importance of the EU - the political and legal culture it provides is invaluable to fighting climate change, and it can be instrumental in some investments - but I just wanted to highlight that power and responsibility is shared and spread out across the European political system. Which makes it very hard when it comes to judging Europe.

I think we were all agreed on the importance of the legal basis for acting on climate change.

During the Th!nk2 launch event, we were told that good, solid legal mechanisms for tackling climate change would be the best outcome at COP15, and it's not hard to imagine why: introducing binding targets introduces the rule of law, making political ducking of the issue much harder (and in principle, impossible without consequences). In the Th!nkCast, Waldo asked me if the EU should seek to export its Emissions Trading Scheme model to the rest of the world - while I raised some criticisms of the scheme, I generally think it's a good mechanism, and agree with Joe that the problems with the scheme are largely due to it being an experiment in climate change legislation. But if the EU were to export the fundamental principles of its environmental legislation, then it would be politically quite revolutionary.

Should the EU export its climate change model? Yes - though it is a tough task, because it really requires projecting the European project onto the world stage. I was reminded of an FT article I read recently: Europe's plot to take over the world - where the argument was that the European countries were taking over by "Europeanizing" the G20. Meetings, bureaucracy, aims, targets, agreements... Basically extending the culture and machinary of the EU and the rule of law into the international sphere. We still have to see if it will work with the financial sector and the G20 (though it'd never reach the scale of the EU itself); could it work with climate change?

It's a big question, because it challenges the old ideas of national sovereignty and the "softness" of international law in a way that's mundane and normal for most Europeans (surely it's common sense to pull together and agree on shared rules and principles?, we might say) but it's a big step for everyone else, and you can bet on a lot of resistance to the idea. Will it happen? Could it work? Success here will be even harder to judge...

Think2 Post: "ENVI: The Road to Copenhagen #1"

I've just posted on the Th!nk About It site on the debates on the EU's strategy at the Copenhagen Conference here. If you want to comment, please comment on the Think2 platform.

ENVI, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament yesterday adopted a draft resolution on the Copenhagen Conference. As the centre of environmental politics in the most democratic institution of the European Union - an organisation that's supposed to be leading the world when it comes to climate change issues - how is ENVI doing?

The Debate:

The Committee debated how the EU should approach the Conference in December on September 30th, in advance of yesterday's vote (video link*). The debate followed pretty established lines: questions of upper targets, of tax and financing, technology transfer, balance between the north and south, and relations between the developed and developing world.

There was quite a lot of debate on the simple question of targets. Originally, there was an upper target band of 25-40% in reductions in CO2 emissions, an upper target clearly dreamt up purely to try and satisfy the opposing opinions within the chamber, but which worryingly could lend a legitimacy to moves to backtrack on commitment to a 30% reduction later on. Thankfully, many MEPs argued that the upper limit should be set at a 40% reduction - in fact, some MEPs were pushing for a minimum 40% with extra funding for climate change measures in the developing world. Such radical measures were always unlikely to pass, and unfortunately there was a degree of inevitable pontificating over some obvious arguments on targets: they should be realistic in order to be credible, there must be a clear plan and stages behind them, etc.

Indeed, while it was important to have this debate, it was disappointing in how simplistic the debate was - MEPs chipping in on the old, well-trodden issues of historical responsibility for emissions and responsibility to act, the question of what degree of technology transfer and wealth transfer is politically possible and practically effective, enforcing the proper use of wealth transfers, the role of the US (how far can we lead, and how necssary the US is), "realism" in international relations versus the "idealism" of combating climate change, transport and trade, etc. There is a wealth of issues behind each of these topics to be debated and addressed, yet the Committee lapsed into simplistic idealistic appeals and statements-of-position. To a certain degree this is inevitable in any case - MEPs have to represent the positions of their parties and the concerns of their constituents, and many of the points made were very good, and needed to be made or re-made to highlight the necessity of rising to the climate challenge and the direction of the commitments already made. However, the political effect of the draft is lessened by the lack of detail and a lack of scrutiny of the Parliament's own commitment to tackling climate change.

What would I have liked to have seen from the debate?

Well, since the measure being debated is a resolution, I think the Parliament should have focused on how it could add political force to its argument. Resolutions are non-binding political statements, but they shouldn't be treated as an opportunity to air positions or tack on radical arguments that the Parliament may not be able or willing to support in practice. The Committee should have focused more on the areas of environmental legislation that the European Parliament would be looking to tighten up or create in the event of a good deal.** It would be too much to ask for consensus on legislative questions on measures that aren't before the Parliament, but areas should have been highlighted where the Committee would be willing to act more radically.

If this had been done (and some of these questions were touched on, but only touched on), the Committee would have been able to produce a much more politically effective resolution. In the US it's been noted that the Congress is slowing down a domestic climate change deal, so in order to be more effective, the Committee should have been clearer on the role it would play to push for environmental measures combating climate change: with a clear position of support for action from the Parliament, the Commission and EU as a whole would be strengthened in its negotiating position, as it would show that the EU would be coming to the Conference with a strong domestic consensus behind it; that the EU would be capable of delivering on its promises.

It would also boost the Committee's own credibility when it meets with its US counterpart at the end of the month (27th-29th October).

*I couldn't insert the link for some reason, so here's the long version: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/wps-europarl-internet/frd/vod/player?eventCode=20090930-0900-COMMITTEE-ENVI&language=en&byLeftMenu=researchcommittee&category=COMMITTEE&format=wmv

**The Parliament has no legislative initiative power, but it can request draft legislation from the Commission, and show a commitment to positively ammending all relavent legislation put before it. It would also enbolden the Commission to be more radical on climate change, or ensure that it maintains its commitments.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Mary Robinson for the Presidency!

Support for Mary Robinson to be the first elected President of the European Council (at least by the member states) has been building on Facebook, with 4500 supporters joining in a week and the support of Margot Wallstrom. Though the post will only be elected by the EU version of a papal election,* it's great to see some public discussion on who should be the first one to fill (and shape) the office.

So why do I support Mary Robinson for the Presidency? While I reject the Blairite vision of the presidency - powerful, executive, dominating the EU institutions - I can't support the idea that the President should be as mediocre as possible to avoid overshadowing Barroso (this argument has been advanced to support Jan Peter Balkenende's candidacy). The President of the European Council needs to be someone with experience - both nationally and internationally - who could play a positive part in shaping the Presidency and the EU as a whole. The idea behind creating a permanent president was to increase the political coherence and continuity of the European Council, and to give the EU a stronger voice in the global stage (in a way that compliments the post of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs) - while the dangers of a Blairite Presidency might tempt us into believing that we need a weak president, there will be little gained by having a figurehead president presiding over a visionless and fractured Council.

Mary Robinson would be a great President. A respected stateswoman who's served as President of Ireland and as the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, she can both work quietly behind the scenes to get things done as well as use her profile and position to promote the values and principles that the European Union is supposed to stand for, particularly human rights, the rule of law, and concern for those less well off or forgotten by society. As President of Ireland, she promoted a more open vision of Ireland and society. Though, as President of the European Council, Robinson would not have a strong hand in shaping the Council's actions, she could prove to be an influential progressive influence, particularly given her experience of trying to put such principles into action, through both her political career and personal campaigning. She also has experience in legislating and in European law from her time as a Senator in Ireland (1969-1989) during which she was a part of the Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation. She also founded the Irish Centre for European Law at the Trinity College and was its first Director.

There are other good contenders for the Presidency out of those being mentioned by the media at the moment. In particular, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg and the head of the EuroGroup, would be an extremely experienced choice. Brilliant at brokering deals and finding compromises, Juncker has widely-recognised experience and weight when it comes to European politics (which is why Brian Cowen visited Luxembourg as well as Brussels, Paris and Berlin when sounding out European opinion on the Lisbon Treaty guarantees). He would also be more likely to respect the constitutional and political boundaries between the High Representative, the European Council President and the Commission President than Blair or a Blair-like figure. Both Robinson and Juncker have the advantage of being small-state candidates would would maintain the Presidency as a presiding rather than executive office. But while Juncker would make a good and influential President and is More experienced when it comes to solely EU matters than Robinson (and would be my second choice), he is too wedded to the traditional secrecy of the Council, and to the summitry model of compromise politics to promote a positive political vision of Europe or promote transparency. Under a Juncker Presidency the European Council would work well, but the political signal of appointing Juncker would be a lost opportunity in my opinion - I want more from the Presidency than a "fixer".

The Presidency should give added personality and interest to European politics; it should be about articulating a vision for Europe and giving voice to the values that the EU should be guided by, as well as speaking for the Council; it should be as much about opening the European Council up as a political organisation as ensuring its coherence.

I'm not saying that Mary Robinson can single-handedly make the Council more transparent or open, or that just because she articulates the values the the EU should stand for that the Council will always follow them. However, I think that Robinson would be the best person for the job and the best political choice. Robinson wouldn't overstep the boundaries of office, but nor would she be a mediocre, faceless appointment. She could articulate a vision of Europe based on values and influence the European Council without attempting to dominate where the office can't and shouldn't. And Robinson would be a respected leader on the world stage, vocal on the behalf of the European Council and EU.

A President Robinson would signal a positive political direction for the EU.

*Actually, since I'm a supporter of a "parliamentary speaker" role for the European Council Presidency, this makes sense as an electoral process. There's no need for it to be a directly elected post if it's not an executive role.