Saturday 28 February 2009

Will the Captain go down before the ship?

The Kremlin is contemplating cuts in the military, which the military isn't too happy about, as you can imagine. With Putin already weakened can he afford to risk discontent in the ranks? (Though Putin is a tough leader, and valid perceptions of "weakened" and be difficult to ascertain in Russia).

If the Kremlin weakens in terms of unity as power struggles develop, will this mean a weakening of Russian geopolitical ambitions, or a renewed attempt to increase Russian geopolitical standing in the world?

Fianna Fáil go Liberal

The Fianna Fáil party in Ireland (the senior party in the governing coalition) is going to join the Liberal group in the European Parliament, after delegates voted in the party's Ardfheis (party conference) to accept the move. Provided that the Liberals accept them of course. It is unlikely to be much of a boost to the Liberals in the coming election, though as support for the party has collapsed in Ireland recently. Though since the party did so badly at the last European elections, there may not be a massive drop in the size of its delegation to the EP.

There are also plans to tighten rules about campaign funding for groups engaged in referendum campaigns. The move is clearly targeted at Libertas, whose funding has been a source of controversy and speculation ever since Lisbon I.

Germany: willing to step in?

It seems that Germany is finally beginning to realise the need for it to take a lead in the EU (and I suppose we'll worry later if this unduly increases Germany's influence in the bloc further). The eurozone bond idea is out, as far as Germany is concerned (and so as far as the eurozone is concerned too). The Nordic countries are apparently sceptical about the idea (while agreeing that the euro is a Good Thing), but I'd say that Germany has pretty much killed it off for now. A eurozone bond would have helped the more crisis stricken eurozone countries, but if western banks are so tied up in Eastern Europe, then it might not do much good overall anyway.

And in any case, it would make things more expensive for Germany.

Of course, German money will be handed out only on German terms. For Ireland the conditions could be a bit of a slap in the face: protection of the Irish corporation tax (which is quite low in order to attract investment) was one of the planks of the No campaign back in June, despite the retention of the veto in such areas. In the end economic realities could force us to raise our corporation tax to get our hands on German money.

Of course, the German government is there to serve the German people so it can hardly be blamed for acting to ensure its own interests where its own money could be splashed about. Shoring up the European economy is naturally itself in the interests of Germany, but moves to act on this can hardly be politically comfortable, to say the least, and if this is acted on, then Germany should be congratulated for its solidarity with other member states when Germany itself is facing a tough time too.

Perhaps there should be some sort of country or industry insurance in the EU (or the eurozone)? I know nothing about economics, so I'm just tossing out random ideas, but with Europe's economies so interdependent, a common fund for supporting member state governments or Europe-wide industries could be an alternative to just relying solely on Germany. If every country contributed regularly to this fund, which could be administered by the Commission to ensure that it wasn't applied in such a way that it could harm the workings of the internal market, then the burden would be lifted from Germany (to a degree), and the political danger inherent in relying on one member to prop up the whole group would be mitigated. Member states would have to commit to certain rules to make sure that the fund wasn't abused (though it's hard to see how it could be enforced when the whole point of it is to help in times of crisis).

The EIB, etc. are stepping into a support role for countries at the moment, but they were not designed to help combat the effects of a crisis of this scale in the member states. Something stronger is needed.

Moves to help ensure the better regulation of Europe-wide (and global) flows of money are good, but all economic areas grow and develop quickly and the regulation regime we produce today may be outmoded in 20 years time, or even dismantled in the future just as the regulation resulting from the Great Depression was scrapped in the name of free market orthodoxy (plus the fact that every generation sees themselves as smarter than the last one). So prevention, while better than the cure, cannot always be relied on. We need to have some medicine in place as a back up, should we need it.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

King of the Summit

Summits are a vital part of the European system, a simple fact that underlines the powerlessness of the Commission and European Parliament in times of crisis (and since the EU is always in crisis...). However there is an art to summitry: the main goal is to agree on a direction and move everyone together along it towards a goal (which need not be clearly defined). A bit like the EU as a whole.

But to move everyone along, everyone needs to be a part of it - and feel like a part of it. After Sunday's mini-summit in Berlin, which is ahead of the EU summit on March 1st, several countries are reportedly irked that they weren't invited to the party to decide that something must be done. What exactly? Well, it was decided at Berlin that the global financial and economic system should be fixed.

I know, I'm disappointed too; when will Berlusconi reveal his Marxist plans?

So what was the summit about really? There were more than the EU G20 countries there, so it wasn't just to decide on a common position for the summit in London in April; could it also be aimed at deciding a common position at the EU summit in March? Perhaps to ensure that the "west" (though not all of it) have a common position as well as the "east" which will have a summit of its own?

And where does this leave the countries left over?

All this summitry is turning poisonous.

In other news, a group of experts will probably announce that there should be a new EU bank watchdog. Common sense, right? Especially after the revelations that banking business in the past has lead to the situation where an eastern European collapse could bring down a lot of the west's banking system with it - illustrating the enormous flows of money between member states. But... member states might not be able to agree on it? Maybe a summit is needed...

Ireland will not opt out of the ESDP

The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs has ruled out a complete opt-out out of the ESDP, as the Danes did after Maastricht. The debate seems to be moving on to the membership of the European Defense Agency.

The impression that I get when people point to the EDA as an example of the militarisation of the EU is that it always seems to be made out to be more than it is. The EDA is supposed to ensure a freer market in military goods, and aims to ensure that military hardware is cheaper for national governments and that the military technology of the member states armies, etc are more compatable, so on joint missions (such as in Chad where Ireland leads the EU mission) EU countries have similar military hardware so they can work together more easily and aren't hindered by unfamilarity and/or incompatability with each other's hardware. It is not entail defense committments.

So an agency that will help ensure bigger bang for our (Euro) bucks and mean that on common missions it's easier for our soldiers to work together and be well equiped. Sounds like a good deal, doesn't it? Member states get to benefit from cheaper and better military hardware while spending similar amounts on defense so that better defense does not have to mean cutting down on the welfare state.

Unless you have a moral aversion to co-operation in terms of military technology and markets, this does not represent a significant militarisation of European countries. If anything, it's a mechanism designed to make defense cheaper and better without the military and political integration that is advocated by some (on the basis that it would reduce the wasteful duplication of national defense budgets).

I wonder if the EDA would make it cheaper for Ireland to increase the size of our navy to help patrol our coast and prevent successful shipments of drugs. Ireland has a very small navy (is it only 9 ships officially or something now? Of course there would be several small ones too...), and as this Tagesschau report says (in German), we're not exactly winning the "War on Drugs". [There are nice parts of Limerick, by the way...]

In other news, the big oilslick off the Irish coast is Russia's fault. What exactly was Russia's flagship doing around there anyway? Is it common practise for the flagships of major powers to just sail about to show the flag?

Saturday 21 February 2009

Ganley Committee Video

People Korps has flagged up a video on Ganley/Libertas' appearance before the Sub-Committee for Ireland's Future in Europe. It's very long, at almost 3 hours.

In it, Ganley emphasises that the EU needs to be more democratic and citizens need to have a bigger stake in it. A position which I support.

However, he was reluctant to spell out what he would like to see changed, insisting that he didn't have a mandate, despite the fact that it was a Committee that was looking for suggestions on how to proceed. He did eventually, when asked as a private citizen, say that more elected EU posts would be part of the solution. Ok so far.

But the Lisbon arguments didn't add up when compared with his European vision. The ECJ is too strong and too activist, but an EU constitution should be only about 25 pages along (and 15 pages would be "even better"). Subsidiarity is also very important. Yet reducing a complex set of inter-institutional and state relationships on competency and powers that needs to be understood in 23 different languages to 25 pages is an invitation for litigation, misunderstanding and judicial activism.

Subsidiarity is strengthened in the Lisbon treaty, giving national Parliaments more scrutiny of EU legislation and of the appropriateness of exercising power/legislating at the European level. The competence areas of the EU are more clearly defined. On top of this there is the increase in EP power and control over EU legislation.

Ganley insisted that his assertion that those who say that there's no political will to come up with a new treaty should step aside wasn't intended for elected national leaders, yet these are the people who negotiate and set out new treaties and treaty changes, and it is their political will which sets the pace of EU reform, which has been extremely slow (the lack of courage for a big leap forward in the democratization of the EU is reflected in the piecemeal approach in the frequent treaties since the early 1990s). There is nobody else this could refer to except the national leaders.

Some of Ganley's statements seem federalist (indeed some of his past writings seem to be federalist too), but in the absence of any clear policy, and in the presence of so many far-right, ultra-conservative and arch-Eurosceptic Libertas members/supporters, it is impossible to take Libertas seriously as a pro-Europe democratic reform party. Even if Ganley is a democratic reformer as he claims, it takes one than one member of a party, even if he leads it, to work successfully to that end. Or does he plan to unilaterally set the party's manifesto?

Friday 20 February 2009

A Song for Europe*

Politics will always bubble over into culture, and now it could feature in the Georgian Eurovision entry this year. Though I suppose it depends on where you stand on Eurovision being culture.

"We Don't Wanna Put In / The negative move, / It's killin' the groove," using a phrase that sounds like "We don't want Putin."

It's not exactly great political satire, but should the EBU ask the group to change the lyrics? The Eurovision is supposed to be a fun kind of continental get-together (naturally to get drunk), so political digs at other countries isn't really in keeping with the spirit of the contest. But should that mean intervention by the EBU?

*A gold star for correctly identifying the reference.

Klaus, and levels of decision making

Czech President Klaus addressed the European Parliament yesterday, to tell them that the directly elected body is essentially anti-democratic.

"Are you really convinced that every time you take a vote, you are deciding something that must be decided here in this hall and not closer to the citizens, that are inside the individual European states?" Mr Klaus asked.

Subsidiarity is a very important concept for the EU, and it probably needs to be considered more, though of course it would be a political minefield, since "subsidiarity" is the EU's term for the distribution of power to where it is as effective and as close to the people as possible.

So subsidiarity poses 2 questions: is the European or national level best for [a certain power], and is the national or the local level best for [a certain power]?

This includes taking power from the national level and devolving it down too:

"[EP President Poettering] did concede one point to the Czech president, saying that decisions should be indeed taken closer to the citizen, but that it was also the responsibility of national government to devolve powers to regional and local authorities."

The EU institutions work mainly with the Internal Market; for the EP this is especially true as it has little to no input in the more sensitive areas of Justice and Home Affairs and the CFSP (Pillars 2 and 3). Now I would say that the best level for legislating for a transnational market is, well, the transnational level, so I would say yes, the decisions the EP take are generally best decided at EU level.

The implication of Klaus' speech is that he would prefer decisions to be taken at a national level. With regard to the internal market this is done to some extent through the ECJ's doctrine of Mutual Recognition (if it's legal to be sold in one member state, then ditto for the other member states, unless there's good reason for this not to be the case). But then Klaus has been positioning himself to avoid signing the Lisbon Treaty into law in the Czech Republic if the Czech Parliament ratifies it by saying that he won't sign it unless the Irish vote Yes.

On the basis that the closest level of decision making for the Czech Republic, is, in fact, Ireland? (....If only more countries would give us a veto on their parliamentary decisions.... In their own interests, of course. In fact, we should elect the Czech President to make sure s/he doesn't get any strange ideas about bowing to the will of the Czech Parliament).

So is the Czech Parliament an illegitimate vehicle for governing the Czech Republic? (Surely the President is even more removed than the parliament from the people, and, since the post can only be filled by one person, even less representative).

Klaus also makes the "EU is not just undemocratic, it's anti-democratic" argument. The composition of the EP cannot make a difference because it cannot form a government and an opposition, he explains.

Then, realising that this is just an argument for giving the EP more power to ensure the accountability of the Commission and (even more shockingly) the member states in the Council, he quickly moves on to the "polity" argument - that giving directly elected politicians more power won't be very democratic either, since people won't identify with them.

Personally, I've never heard of people identifying with national politicians, never mind European ones, but I think that the polity argument takes a very narrow-minded view of human identity: that we can only identify with one thing at a time. (Interestingly as media and economies have grown in reach, so human identity has been pushed up to higher levels while remaining to some extent at each level: family - tribe - city-state - nation state - ?) It also assumes that identity is essential to legitimate decision making, whereas I would argue that having a fair and open arena where ideas are discussed and voted on lends its own legitimacy. The EP needs to engage the people more, no doubt, and the media needs to do its duty in informing the public and holding the EP up to close scrutiny, but these are practical problems that can be addressed - we don't need to give up democracy here as a lost cause. (Jon Worth has a good article on this).

The conclusion would logically seem to be, for Klaus, to pull out of the EU, yet he rules this out as a viable alternative. He says there is no alternative to EU membership. (Grahnlaw disagrees). So does Klaus have a solution? Not really.

The thinking seems to be that powers should be taken back from the EU to national level, but the internal market remain in place. Some powers of the EU aren't essential to the workings of the internal market, but the vast majority are. So how should they be set? They can't be done nationally, and just agreeing to them in an intergovernmental fashion (i.e. just have the Council) is even less democratic than the EU we have now. Surely people should be involved in deciding how we run our common market? But apparently this wouldn't really be democratic?

Unless he doesn't want the internal market, but merely free trade (which is the term he uses), which is much, much less than an internal market - just the end to tariff barriers, with all the non-tariff barriers to trade still in place (no true free movement of goods, people, and services). If so, does that mean that Klaus is actually quite protectionist? I doubt he wants an end to the internal market, which is why he has recognised that there is no alternative to the EU when it comes to the internal market.

So why not come up with some solutions to what he perceived are the EU's problems? Far from providing the debate he claims to want, he merely perpetuates the same old tired arguments.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Enlarge your Horizons

The Czechs are using the impending release of a Commission report on enlargement to push the benefits of enlargement. The report will be released on Friday and is supposed to detail how enlargement has strengthened the economies of both the new and old member states.

I've mixed feelings on this. The need for EU reform is pressing now, so with more members the EU will become less and less effective. Also, the countries closest to membership, Croatia and Turkey, face opposition from within the EU and still have progress to make on meeting the conditions for membership, so it's not as straight-forward as: enlargement is good, therefore we should push on with enlargement. Romania and Bulgaria were arguably not ready for membership, and it is a lot harder to put pressure for reform on them now that they are members (that said, some older members are in need of reform too...). It would also make keeping other candidate countries to the letter of the conditions harder in the future if any current candidate got a fast-track entry. Not that that's what's being suggested.

On the other hand, it would be good to open up more markets (by increasing the EU market size) and secure free trade. I'd like to see the report to see how much enlargement has added to the EU economy and how convincing the evidence is. I could see lots of conditions attached to the free movement of people, etc for any new member states that join over the next few years, though - if so many member states did it during the 2004 enlargement, then I can't see a more open approach any time soon. Would enlargement help at all in the current crisis? The 2004 member states attracted investment to grow; such investment is very scarce now.

Still, it's good to know that the Czech deputy prime minister has his enlargement priorities right:

""In general, Croatia is a country that belongs to the community - I go there almost every summer," he added. "It has a strategic value.""

Tuesday 17 February 2009

No seat, no Sarkozy

EUobserver has reported that Sarkozy has threatened to boycott the April NATO conference (the 60th anniversary of NATO) - unless he gets to pick his own seat.

And to think he was held up as an example of what an energetic and statesmanlike politician can do at the helm of the EU!

Honestly, this is complete and utter childishness - while the article highlights Sarkozy's lack of English as an embarrassing factor, it is far worse that he so focused on the seating "issue" that he has forced NATO leaders into a compromise seating arrangement. I wonder what effect this will have on the "goodwill" that's supposed to result from the expected re-integration of France forces into the NATO command structure? There will be goodwill, but it is likely to be somewhat tarnished. It can hardly be a good strategy to throw tantrums - there's no other word for it - over insignificant seating arrangements. I can't understand how any of his officials can, apparently, feel so much embarrassment that he cannot speak enough English to engage in smalltalk with other leaders: linguistic ability doesn't automatically translate into statesmanlike qualities, even if it hampers forming relationships with other world leaders. Causing small but intense rows over seating arrangements, on the other hand, hardly helps in building relationships.

The French President Sarkozy seems to run purely on ego. It was mainly ego which drove his presidency - claims that Europe had "changed" him clearly have no basis outside the aim of flattering the EP - Europe just happened to be lucky that it worked to our advantage for 6 months (most of the time).

I do have some respect for him, though - he does try to put his plans into action and to come up with solutions, even if some of them are not fully thought through: a can-do attitude which would be more welcome in many places at the moment - yet it is difficult to have respect for him when he pulls these sort of stunts.

Friday 13 February 2009

Labour overtakes Fianna Fáil in polls

Wow. This is big news - it's never happened before. Unlike most European countries, where the centre left party is one of the big two, in Ireland Labour is the third party. This is a bit like saying that the LibDems have overtaken Labour in the UK polls!

And Eamon Gilmore is now the most popular party leader by quite a margin. I knew Labour was making an inroads, but this is quite impressive.

So is Ireland shifting to the Left? It's a strange thought for a country whose two big parties have been centre-right and centre-ish since independence. In the '90s Labour support/electoral success increased too, known as the "Spring tide" after the leader of Labour at the time, Dick Spring. However it was short lived, and Labour was still in third place at the time. But now that Labour's overtaken Fianna Fáil in the polls...

Is is sustainable? This says that Labour's support is based more in the older demographic, perhaps because older people will find it harder to recover than younger people. But if it establishes itself as the second party, then it could possibly end up with a more durable support base that comes from being a possible senior government party. It will be interesting to see how Labour does at the European elections.

Is Germany Ripe for the Libertas brand?

There's a good article on EurActiv about Libertas and Germany. With the Bundesverfassungsgericht throwing doubt on the Lisbon Treaty's democratic credentials, there may well be a niche there that Ganley can exploit, if it was done well.

Even more interesting though, is the assertion that Libertas is not just a one-issue party: something that the pronouncements about making the elections into a "referendum on Lisbon" indicated. This would seem to run counter to the strategy of picking up extreme right-wing conservatives as supporters, though if he really has as big a list of candidates as he claims, then this might not be such a big deal. But then why risk the image by enlisting such right-wing support...? Perhaps Ganley is just that right-wing on his own convictions. If so, are his candidates as well?

Anyway, considering Libertas' gaff-ridden start, it will be a big test to come up with an actual manifesto, and it will be very interesting to see what's in it, and how it will be viewed. It would have to be a lot more moderate than the supporters he's gained (well, kind of gained) so far if he's to gain any support of significance beyond the anti-Lisbonites dissatisfied with national Eurosceptic parties. And how cohesive will the party be? I thought that Libertas was a one-issue party; do the current candidates? Will they have much input into this manifesto? Will they promote it, agree with it, etc? Or will it be centrally set and cause a loss of candidates?

Ganley also protests that Libertas is not all about him. Well, since there's so much uncertainty about him running, and there is no sign of a deputy chairman who can runs if Ganley doesn't, there is a distinct lack of a viable substitute candidate if he doesn't run. And the Fine Gael poll in the article doesn't sound too promising for Mr. Ganley. A second problem for Ganley running for election himself is that the leader of the opposition and Fine Gael, Enda Kenny has challenged him to run in his constituency. Will Ganley run there if he decides to run or risk being called a coward if he runs in a different constituency?

Anyway, there is a distinct lack of a strong "front bench" Libertas team for it to be seen as anything but a one-Ganley show. There are not even any candidates trying to build up a public image which will be vital in the elections.

Also: Libertas has updated their site with this article. Still no sign of a Finland page in Finnish, though.

They are "mildly amused that the other Libertas signatories have not been persuaded to suffer from amnesia"? I'm a bit confused over the choice of "mildly amused" as a choice of words - why not praise them for upholding democracy, etc, etc? The article isn't exactly a very mature and considered sounding rejection of the allegations, and the proof of Kuminev's signature is... well, I can't see it well enough to judge (I can't even see his name there in print, though I can see "Sofia"), and I don't know enough about Cyrillic alphabets and Kuminev's signature to judge either. And the allegation was that if they had a signature, it was forged.

I will take a look at the Libertas manifesto when (if) it comes out, and who knows, I may change my mind about them. However, I have little faith that there'll be a big change (not even I am that naive), so I'll stick to my position 'til then.

The Great EP Robbery

I've been busy, so I've also been quite slow to pick up on this, but it's a very interesting story - it should get the EP in the headlines for a day at least!

So someone robbed a bank inside the EP. I was surprised that there is one inside the same building. Is it to make it easier for MEPs to manage their accounts during their lunch breaks? Anyway, there's something quite embarrassing about a crime taking place in a place where laws are passed.

I wonder if it will all turn out to be some sort of stunt?

And I hope that the EP won't go overboard on security now; like the EP spokesperson said:

"We can never guarantee 100 percent security," he explained. "But this is the European Parliament and as such must remain a public building open and accessible to European citizens."

And who knows, some day those citizens may take an interest in what goes on inside too.

The Democratic Europe Act

(Or, an exercise in vanity?) I've said before that I think the EU needs a modern day Single European Act. The SEA relaunched the EEC/EU and its economic/political rationale, and today we need a clean break in the form of a radical democratic reforming act for the EU. Here, I'm assuming that the competences and powers of each of the institutions is the same as under the Lisbon Treaty, apart from a few exceptions, which I'll put under "constitutional" (though they should be obvious anyway). Some of what I propose will be achievable through national or European legislation, or measures to encourage debate in the media.

Of course, the usefulness of setting this out is next to nothing in practical terms, but given the increasing need for more democratic input into the EU, and the German Bundesverfassungsgericht's concern for democracy, I thought it would be a good time to actually set out what I would like to see be done. I'll not say that I'll not change my mind in the future about some aspects, so feel free to think of this as an exercise in vanity if you want.

The Democratic European Act

1. Constitutional Changes.
2. Political Changes.
3. Changes for the Media and Member States.

1. Constitutional Changes:

(a). The Commission President will be directly elected by the people. Rationale: apart from the obvious legitimacy this would give the commission, it would motivate the EuroParties to put up candidates, and so explain their policies and attempt to live up to their political educational role. However, I wouldn't be opposed to the Commission President being elected by the EP as a first step.

(b). The Commission President nominates the members of his/her commission and they are individually voted into office by the EP. Rationale: widens the pool of talent available if the President can nominate rather than just pick from national nominees (which would hardly make much sense if the Commission President was elected...)

(c). The Council approves the Commission as a whole by QMV, but otherwise they have no input in the appointment of the Commission. They can remove the Commission by unanimity, or by a QMV vote with a very high threshold.

(d). The European Parliament will have the power of initiation - they can propose legislation, if enough MEPs sign up to the proposal, and then it would be put before the EP.

(e). The Council can block legislative proposals coming from the EP by QMV with a high threshold.

(f). The EP elections will be by proportional representation of the single transferable vote kind. Voters will be able to vote for candidates, not party lists.

(g). The Court of Auditors will evaluate each EU institution's and member state's spending of the EU budget, and will approve each one separately.

(h). When the treaties will be changed in a significant way, a Constitutional Convention will be convened to draw up the treaty changes. Each member state will directly elect 3 representatives (or whatever number is decided), and each member state government will negotiate too. The member states will still have the final say on the final wording of the treaty, but the Convention would be a more democratic way of drawing up a draft treaty and involve citizens more (and apply political pressure on the member states). Treaties will be ratified by each member state unanimously in accordance with their constitutional methods before they take effect.

2. Political Changes:

(a). Local party branches and the EuroParty leadership will have more input into the choice of EP candidate.

(b). There will be a Charter for the Composition of the Commission to ensure that a certain percentage of member states are represented in the Commission and that the Commission doesn't just end up being drawn from the big member states or from a few countries. This would not mean that the national governments have a say in who gets appointed (though see (c) in "constitutional changes"), but it will ensure that the Commission is still representative of Europe. While I think that the Commission has become too "nationalised" lately, as many member states should be represented as possible. (This can be done under a binding inter-institutional deal under Lisbon, as can (a), the case of the EP picking and electing the Commission President, under "Constitutional changes").

3. Media and Member State Changes:

(a). To encourage the media to report more on EU developments, a number of measures could be adopted. As correspondents based in Brussels/Luxembourg/Strasbourg/European capitals are vital to reporting on EU and European affairs, there should be certain tax exemptions for journalists based there to encourage TV, newspapers, etc. to investigate and report on developments without cost being as much of a deterrent to do so. This should help inform citizens about goings on in Europe that effect them, without the need for Commission info-campaigns which can be labelled as propaganda. It should also flag up interesting/important legislation so the public can influence the EP, national governments, protest, etc and be more involved in influencing the passage of legislation.

(b). There should be a number of pan-European televised debates: especially in the run up to EP elections.

(c). Other tax relief for covering up-and-coming topical legislation at a European level could be provided for the media too (this could be used for national level politics too!). Should help give the public greater access to legislative info while they can still try to influence the debate.

I'm aware that there are a lot of problems with the practicality of adopting this - member state governments would hate to see some of these passed. But I think that a lot of this needs to be done to involve the public more at a European level. I also think that involving the mainstream media more is crucial to providing the public with more information, though I'm not totally sure of my proposed ways of achieving this.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Libertas... They're radioactive!

This was made by People's Korps who runs a sort of UKIPwatch for Libertas. A very anti-Libertas blog, but I'm hardly going to condemn that, am I?

I suppose this is the official confirmation, if any was needed, that I'm now firmly anti-Libertas (and probably also that I'm a bit childish?).

Italian Coma Paitent Dies

And so it ended.

This case has made me very uneasy: the speed with which Berlusconi moved to overturn a court decision is quite disturbing. If the executive and legislature are going to intervene in the judicial system, then it should always be measured and considered, not rushed. What does it do for the independence of the judicial system if politicians are so quick to intervene? (Why this focus? Perhaps this is the student lawyer in me...)

Of course, it could be argued that this was an instance where quick action was needed to ensure that life is respected. In such a sensitive case the moral question should be addressed.

I find myself ill at ease with euthanasia for a number of reasons, partly because of the abuse which it could be open to (pressure on the elderly and paitents, etc), but the value of life argument does strike a cord with me here too. It is a very sensitive and complex topic. However, the right to die in this case is very different. Euthanasia is about assisted suicide; it requires the intervention of one human in order to end the life of another. The right to die in this case is about withdrawing the human intervention which has artifically prevented death.

To me this is an important difference.

Ms Englaro was in a vegetative state for 17 years. The court was statisfied that nothing more could be done to heal her, and that it was her wish that she would not be maintained in such a state if she could not be cured. The purpose of the life support was to keep her alive until she could be cured, if she could be cured. Should she have been left in an artifical limbo until she died of old age? Perhaps I have come to the conclusion I have because of where I draw the line of what is a "natural" death. To me, letting nature take its course, free of human intervention, if there is no hope of improvement and the paitent him or herself has expressed the wish that they do not want to be kept on life support, is miles apart from assisted suicide and is a "natural" death.

This may not end with Ms Englaro's death; Berlusconi could, and probably will, push ahead with this legislation. If he does, I hope that there will be enough time for a proper debate about it, rather than it being forced through parliament.

On another matter, I have to say that the treatment of the Roma community, as indicated by Jon Worth on his blog, here and here, is also very disturbing and unsettling.

Monday 9 February 2009

The Swiss Vote Yes

Switerland has voted yes to continuing closer ties with the EU. The vote was on whether or not to extend the free movement of workers to Bulgarian and Romanian citizens - if it didn't do this, it would have led to looser ties with the EU at a critical time.

Interestingly, from a country which celebrates direct democracy;

"With an eye on Ireland’s Lisbon Treaty vote, an official familiar with the Swiss and Irish tradition of referendums, observed that “Swiss direct democracy is not half as problematic as referendums in Ireland’s ‘occasional direct democracy’.” Well-organised civic education programmes encourage Swiss citizens to propose laws by popular initiative backed by 100,000 signatures.

Just 50,000 signatures can force a referendum to act as a brake or to force consensus on an issue."

Gasp - are they calling us "absolute fools, uninformed idiots"?

Ganley lurches further right - perhaps Brussel's elite is to blame for this too?

Eh? Who is this Ganley now and where is he coming from? He was speaking at a panel discussion hosted by a pro-life Catholic group. Here's a long quote from the Irish Times:

He also assured delegates of his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, referring to earlier opening remarks in which he quoted from Pope Benedict’s recent encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi , “with their message of God’s love”.

Reflecting on Ireland’s history he continued, “our faith and our rights are strong today because we have suffered the yoke of oppression . . . we grew stronger and we grew free”.

He queried whether “we have lost something” and noted the address of the pope at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome immediately prior to his election in April 2005. There, the pope criticised a “dictatorship of moral relativism . . . in a world where faith in God is seen as a threat”, Mr Ganley said.

He went on to criticise “a media obsessed with breaking down the domestic church . . . and the family” and reminded delegates that “the essence of our faith is that all life is sacred”. He concluded: “Yes we must, we must take risks for truth.”

In the later question-and-answer session, he said any guarantees given by the EU on social and ethical issues “were not worth the paper they are written on”, where the European Court of Justice was concerned.

Ignoring the fact that the Catholic Church itself, upon examining the Lisbon Treaty, found that it would not effect family law and issues such as abortion (well, it is what right-wing Catholic pressure group Coir did during the referendum campaign - but who says that Catholicism needs to be coherent?), and ignoring that the Treaties post-Lisbon explicitly state that family law is to remain a matter for the member states, why exactly should the Catholic Church have a central role in Ireland?

We tried that before, and it wasn't exactly fun. Does Ganley want the "dictatorship of moral relativism" to be replaced with Church authority? He would probably deny that, but modern societies are diverse, with many groups with different views - and such an idealised version of religious and family life can't even be attempted to be maintained without a the Church being in a position of great authority in society. It seems perverse that someone who claims to want the EU to be democratized and rails against Brussels elites, at the same time criticises the press for not showing enough deference to Church authority and advocates an idealised, conservative model of society which would exclude so many others.

The media is right to be critical of the Church, and the Church has only itself to blame. Ganley, raised in England, may not fully appreciate the sway the Church had on society here, but he should be well aware of how it has been abused. Child abuse is only the most extreme example.

Faith should be private.

On a probably more relevant political note:

"The party was now recognised in all 27 EU countries, he said, and referred delegates to its website"

The website is another thing. It has not been updated in ages, has no mention of who has given Libertas support (I had to find that out elsewhere), and seems to mainly exist to issue howls of righteous indignation against the government, other parties and Brussels whenever they say anything against him, or he suffers a setback. There are some who have reacted by trying to smear him (and he reacts by smearing them back), which is totally the wrong way to go about it. His ideas and his "party" are so riddled with weaknesses that it should be easy to take him on. Wild rhetoric on the pro-Lisbon side is a sign of weakness, and brings the debate down.

And despite support from a Finnish MP, I note that Libertas' Finland page is still in English...

Saturday 7 February 2009

Munich International Security Conference: Second Day

Joe Biden addressed the conference today (reported here in German; Tagesschau clip here; BBC report here). There wasn't much - or indeed anything - new about US policy that can be divined from his speech; it was mostly a restatement of Obama's previous announcements: more multilateralism, shift from Iraq to Afghanistan, closure of Guantanamo and the decision of whether or not to give the go-ahead to the anti-missile system in Eastern Europe to be based on the technological feasibility of the system.

More interesting is Angela Merkel's announced willingness to consider "tough sanctions" against Iran if Iran doesn't make any progress in negotiations (here, again in German). This could be a significant hardening of German attitudes to Iran, with which Germany has numerous business interests. However, we'll have to see how Germany defines a lack of progress and tough sanctions.

Jaap de Hoop, NATO General Secretary has again called for closer transatlantic ties, with an America more open to listening to the European states and European states more willing to help in Afghanistan. He also called for a more trusting relationship between NATO and Russia.

BBC news has also uncovered some very important Russian news.


Ireland has won its first victory in its opening Six Nations game, beating France 30-21.

I'm not much of a sports fan, but it's a good win, and God knows we need something to be happy about.

(For those of you not familiar with the Six Nations, it's a rugby competition between Ireland, France, Italy, England, Wales and Scotland. The Irish rugby team is one of the few sporting teams in Ireland that's all island.)

Steinmeier calls for more disarmament at the start of Munich Security Conference

Walter Steinmeier, German Foreign Minister and SPD Chancellor candidate, has opened the international security conference in Munich calling for more disarmament of both conventional and nuclear weapons. (German; and a short English version).

He described the political situation in Russia and the US (with Obama and a Russian President not so attached to Cold War ideas) as "Das Fenster der Geschichte ist für eine Weile geöffnet" - a window of history has opened [for disarmament and security]. US Vice-President Joe Biden will address the conference later today, with a speech that's expected to set out the new Administration's foreign policy course. Hopefully it will include plans to open new arms control talks to put together a treaty to replace the expiring START 1 treaty.

Russia is in an interesting position at the moment. It's worsening economic condition makes any aggressive foreign policy (or one that might be perceived as aggressive) more risky. Putin, like Obama, has to fix the economy. Putin is still very popular in Russia, but the growing economy was the basis of his popularity, and a lot of his government's legitimacy, and now he is more open to criticism, if only indirectly - The Irish Times has an interesting article noting how it has become acceptable to criticise the government (as a whole) after Medvedev began to criticise the government for its response to the crisis.

Putin is still very much in control, but perhaps the power could slowly shift over time to Medvedev. The US and Europe may prefer to deal with the more liberal President rather than the Prime Minister, but this situation may make it even harder for outsiders to know who they should be talking to in order to "talk with Russia".

Arms control talks would be a good start to relations with Russia, and will probably be popular with the Russian government too. Hopefully any temptation (however remote) to sabre-rattle to distract people's attention from the economic crisis will be cancelled out in Moscow by the need not to frighten off business and investment.

Friday 6 February 2009

Big Election Date set for Ireland

It has been announced that Ireland will hold elections to the European Parliament on Friday the 5th of June. Polls will be open longer (7am-10pm) to try and encourage a larger turnout as turnout for EP elections traditionally decline at each poll.

What makes June the 5th a big election day (apart from the elections to the biggest multinational, directly elected institution in the world) is that elections for local government will be held too, and possibly 2 by-elections (which really should have taken place already by now). Fine Gael hopes to gain from the government's unpopularity in both polls, but I don't expect major losses for Fianna Fáil, if only because they sunk so low in the last local and European elections. More interesting will be the performance of the Green Party, the junior partner in the governing coalition. Will the Greens (who hold the Environment and Local Government Ministry) be able to avoid the voters' wrath?

Given the influx of people from the new EU member states, I wonder if they will register to vote in the EP elections, and if this will have much of an impact if they do...

It will be very interesting to see if statistics for registration levels of non-Irish EU citizens will be available. Are EU citizens in another member state than their home state more likely to vote in EP elections (and possibly be more pro-European?), or would factors such as unfamiliarity with the electoral system (EP elections don't have a unified system) and voter-candidate language difference turn them away? Or is the EP (and the EU at large) not important enough even for mobile EU workers for these questions to be relevant?

Thursday 5 February 2009

Should Afghan opium be bought by Western Governments?

Tony Barber at the Financial Times has a very interesting article on a possible NATO policy of buying all of Afghanistan's opium crop and using it for medicinal purposes. The idea is that this will reduce the drug trade and reduce the funding of organised crime and terrorist organisations through the drug trade.

However, I think a major weakness of such a policy would be that it (by itself) does nothing to encourage Afghan farmers to grow traditional crops; indeed switching to traditional crops while Western governments are buying your produce would be a risky move, as any farmer attempting this would be leaving a secure market to try one which might have a learning curve for the farmer (would many farmers be experienced with traditional crops? Do they grow a small amount themselves to feed their families?), and require building up new buyer-seller relationships in a market they are unfamiliar with.

Perhaps what Afghanistan needs is... some version of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy?

That probably sounds like a strange idea, but it would be a good way of creating a more attractive, more secure market for farmers to grow (return to growing?) traditional crops. It would be hard to place a similar burden in terms of prices on the Afghan people as Europeans are under, but a system of subsidy and (perhaps more controversial, especially for the EU) more secure market access for Afghan farmers to western economies could help create a solid agricultural base in Afghanistan. With population growth and global warming, there should be a good market for Afghan food which will help an emerging agriculture sector to survive in the market when the West reduces and then ends protection of Afghan farmers.

This could also encourage more Afghans to "buy into" the system, and be a way of reducing the influence and support for terrorist groups.

That said, I'm not an economist and I claim very little economic knowledge; this is just an idea.

Some Commissioners to run in this year's EP elections

EurActiv has reported that 5 of the Commission have told Barroso that they intend to run for election to the European Parliament this June. These Commissioners include:

"Viviane Reding (information society), Louis Michel (humanitarian aid), Janez Potočnik (research), Danuta Hübner (regional policy) and Ján Figel' (education)."

Since they would need to leave the Commission before the elections, Barroso will need to reshuffle the Commission and balance the competing interests of ideology and nationality. It will be interesting to see how he deals with it, as with 5 Commissioners leaving at once, this will be the biggest reshuffle he has had to manage yet. And as Barroso is almost certain to be reappointed for another term (which will be extended to accommodate the second Irish referendum), this reshuffled Commission could be the basis of the new one.

Another interesting question is: what does this reveal about the political dynamics of the Commission and EP?

The Commissioners may been jumping ship early, as seems to be the habit with Commissions in their dying days, but that all 5 (though others may leave later for other reasons) will leave to campaign to be elected to their (hopeful) next job, and that they want an EP seat may indicate that some of the assumptions of EU institutional balance and European political culture may be aging and loosing some of there relevance:

1. The Commission is more powerful than the EP, and a Commission post is a more attractive than an EP seat.

2. National politics are more attractive to politicians (except in isolated cases of idealists), and Commission posts are for decommissioned national politicians or a spring broad for the national ambitions (in some cases both). In any case Commissioners are usually unelectable as well and unelected and would not put themselves up for the vote.

It has been my own view that the power of the Commission has been declining as that of the EP has been rising. While some of this is to do with the weakness of the Commission's leadership, the extension of the co-decision procedure (making the EP an equal co-legislator with the Council) has weakened the Commission as the EP and Council's consensus matters more to the success and shaping of legislation than sole power of initiation which is vested in the Commission. The Commission's right of initiation is in any case weakened by its fragmented nature (differing ideologies, national viewpoints and agenda mean that its wrong to portray the Commission as a monolithic organisation - though the Commission's civil service and Treaty tasks along with the growing "presidential" power of the Commission President goes some way to countering this) and its lack of resources. In extreme cases the EP and the Council can at the end of the co-decision process make bargains excluding the Commission ("conciliation").

However, I don't know enough about the history of Commissioners running for EP elections, so this may be a tenuous link to make.

Edit: Julien Frisch has pointed out that EurActiv has updated its report. It seems now that two of the Commissioners have ruled themselves out of the EP elections: Potočnik and Figel. Figel seems to be very categorical in ruling himself out. This probably weakens my argument somewhat. I wonder if the other 3 are going to rule themselves out too?

Wednesday 4 February 2009

EU Communications Strategy (Ireland), or, How should the public best be informed about European issues?

The European Commission plans to spend €1.8 million on a new communications strategy in Ireland, which will be specifically aimed at women, 16-30 year olds and those on lower income. Information about the EU is to be disseminated in several ways, of which:

"Blogging, cinema advertising, listening exercises and advertising in women’s and youth magazines are key parts".

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin MEP and a prominent figure of the Anti-Lisbon campaign, has called this new initiative "propaganda", noting that this strategy is set out explicitly to target the sections of society which tended to vote no in the June Referendum. The Commission has countered that the publicity campaign will be rolled out after the referendum.

So how far should the Commission - or any other EU institution for that matter - be involved in publicity or information campaigns? There is a lack of public knowledge of how the EU works and what it does (and both have very complicated answers), largely due the way the media works. In the absence of national media reporting on EU affairs (especially when legislation is being drawn up/considered when people can get into contact with MPs and MEPs to try and influence the process, instead of merely pronouncing the end result occasionally), and when national parties and governments devote little time to European issues, then it is left to the EP and Commission to disseminate information about the EU.

Ideally the parties in the EP would provide this function, but their fragmented nature and the fragmented and nationalised nature of European debate during EP elections has meant that the EP groups have not been able to preform the "educational" function that political parties are normally supposed to preform.

This leaves the Commission to fill the gap, though it is not noted for its success in this area. The Commissioner for Communication, Margot Wallstroem has made some good moves, including setting up her own blog, but in general the Commission has been severely lacking in providing political leadership for the EU. Arguably this not the role of the Commission. The European Council is tasked with the political leadership of the EU in the Treaties but the Commission is a guardian of the Treaties, and this has led to the Commission in some ways styling itself as the "guardian of the European ideal" since it is the institution that is meant to represent the common European interest.

So the Commission is trying in some small ways to engage people more in the EU, an effort which (as far as I can see) is mostly carried out on the internet. The internet is a great communication tool, but for engaging people in political debate I would still prize the traditional media over it - the internet is an area for people with similar interests (even if they hold opposing viewpoints) to voice their opinions, get information and debate, but I'm very sceptical of its worth in drawing more people in to debate European issues. Judging by Wallstroem's comments that the politicisation of the Commission is a good thing, the Commission does seek to some extent a leading political role in the European debate (or in generating one). But on this count it has failed: Commissioners have not made themselves more visible in national-European discourses - especially Barroso, whose invisibility during the Constitution and Lisbon referendum campaigns as well as generally despite being head of the Commission has sparked the online "Anyone But Barroso" campaign.

Having the position of the Commission President electable by the EP (or better yet, directly by the people), would be a good way of using politicisation to encourage political debate and awareness. However the political will in the case of the EP needs to be there (and in the absence of any EP group putting a candidate forward, it clearly isn't there yet) and though having a single electable post would put institutional/political pressure for debate, the lack of a very informed and informing media would hinder a lot of the initial interest, and could seriously weaken the effectiveness of this aspect.* Simply tinkering with institutional balances won't have much affect on debate either, as can be seen from the declining EP election turnouts.

The criticism of any Commission attempt to promote awareness of the EU and its affects (which are criticised as opaque) is that it is only pushing its own agenda, that it's only producing "propaganda". European issues are perhaps the only political area where opinions can be classified as foreign or propaganda, and then dismissed from the debate altogether. This is worrying. Governments and governing parties all release information and have publicity campaigns on their policies and their opinions and views are contested by those who disagree - and this leads to debate (and hopefully increases public understanding of the issues). Official information, opinions and policies all carry assumptions and agendas behind them - all information and forms of media and debate do, so it's hardly special - but it is wrong to simply dismiss them out of hand and not engage them.

McDonald is right when she says that this initiative is not dialogue, but she misses the point. The only dialogue that the Commission can stimulate is by inviting statements of opinion - which would end up being a focus group type of "dialogue". Imagine an Ireland, or any European country, where the political parties refuse to debate the issues with each other, so that the government resorts to asking (only) focus groups and interest groups their opinions and then goes about its business. In order to engage in a debate, you must at least know what the opinion of each side is, what they claim the facts are. Then you debate, dispute, disagree - engage! By dismissing not just what the Commission says, but indeed what any politician or group from outside the country says as being irrelevant and even unworthy of consideration due to bias, propaganda, "them being foreigners", etc., McDonald and politicians who accept this political culture or use it to their political advantage are smothering the possibility of debate at birth.

Anyway, the Commission apparently spent €650,000 on its communications plan in Ireland last year, and I'm willing to bet that it had no impact whatsoever (I certainly didn't notice it, and I'm interested in this sort of thing!). Just over doubling it may (theoretically) double its impact, but I'd say it would just upgrade "no impact whatsoever" to "next to no impact whatsoever". If McDonald is worried about propaganda, then she can rest easy.

*I will try to post about the media and its role in European debate later, either as an issue on its own or together with institutional factors.

Libertas' EU funding halted

Just after Libertas was recognised as a pan-European party eligible for just over €200,000 of EU money, an Estonian MP - needed to confirm Libertas' pan-European credentials (it must have the backing of a certain amount of other national parties in a number of member states) - has distanced himself from Libertas. Igor Grazin has denied signing anything backing Libertas' attempt to gain recognition as a pan-European political party. Libertas has claimed that Grazin did sign a document in its Brussels office.

Meanwhile, Liberal MEP Andrew Duff has called for the decision to give Libertas official recognition to be reviewed.

It's an embarrassing incident for Libertas, and it will be interesting to see if they can prove that they got Grazin's signature at some point (could Grazin withdraw his support even if he has signed a document of support earlier, or is he locked into it? I would assume so, but I'm not certain on that). More important would be if Libertas will be able to attract enough support without Grazin.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Talks with the Social Partners break down, Government to announce cuts anyway.

The Irish government has been criticised for being slow to react during the economic crisis (apart from a brief period just after the bank deposit guarantee scheme), but I can't help wondering if all this dithering is part of a strategy of sorts.

The self-imposed deadline of today for the talks with the Social Partners (Trade Unions, employers, etc) seems like a great way to prepare the ground to push through generally unpopular reforms without anyone's agreement. You just have to let the deadline come closer and closer; let the outcry for action - any action - build up and up, and once the deadline passes (as it now has), announce the cuts you want to make anyway.

Could it be that similar tactics are being used for the crisis in general? Or is it giving the government too much credit to suggest it has any plan at all?

While it might work short term however, the current government has little political capital to spare, and if Fianna Fail is using such tactics, then they're not likely to serve them well in the future, when the next round of ballots is cast.

Libertas Campaign Launched (Again?)

Libertas has launched it's campaign in Poland. I have to admit, I'm not sure if this is a recent event or not - the Irish Times has just reported it today, but the Libertas website sets Ganley's Polish rally on the 11th of January, but I think I visited the site between now and then and didn't notice it... Perhaps it was a different event.

Anyway, the candidates I've read about seem right-wing and rabidly eurosceptic, a philosophy which doesn't seem to be reflected in how Libertas likes to portray itself. And while this theoretically shouldn't impact on what is supposed to be a single issue party, Libertas' target audience in Ireland during the referendum was the wavering middle class - not a group likely to be courted successfully by the candidates and viewpoints on offer. Of course, this doesn't mean the same tactics will be used across Europe, but Ganley has shown some desire to project Libertas as a pro-European movement, if only with an eye on how Libertas abroad will reflect on Libertas at home. Though it would be the first time that the Polish resistance against the Nazis was invoked in the name of a "pro-European" cause. Isn't "Europeanism" supposed to have good-neighbourliness at its core? I wonder if his comments on the Siege of Vienna 1683 reveals anything about his views on Turkish membership prospects?

Libertas has also gained access to EU funding as it was granted pan-European party status. Ganley has stated that this money (€202,823) will not be spent by Libertas until it has gained a mandate from the voters. A German pro-Europe think tank also called Libertas is threatening to sue Ganley's Libertas for "usurping its name to campaign against the Lisbon Treaty".