Tuesday 31 March 2009

Letters From Brussels

Yesterday I posted about Barroso's new online survey, and my short rant about using more traditional media methods to communicate policy and EU politics in general to the public (which would make better debate more likely). By coincidence, Barroso has written an article for today's Irish Times on the economic crisis and the role Europe is trying to play. Link here.

It's good to see some communication (Javier Solana has also written in the Irish Times about the CFSP back when the Chad mission was coming to a close), but obviously more is needed.

Monday 30 March 2009

So what would you TellBarroso.eu?

I saw an advertisement on EUobserver for a survey to tell Barroso what you think the EU should be doing. So if you like filling out surveys and then re-arranging the survey entries of others in order of importance (or if you secretly wish to meet Barroso himself), then this is for you.

As you can probably tell from the detail of my description, I have filled it in myself. I wrote in a few things, but I also basically re-hashed my rant on voter engagement (but constructively):

"...I am very doubtful of the value of the internet in getting citizens involved if it is not backed up by a traditional media presence. I only discovered this website via the EUobserver website, which I doubt is widely read by those who are not already interested in EU affairs. I accept, though, that this could be a practical judgment in that people who read the EUobserver are more likely to reply, and that there would be less value for money in advertising elsewhere.

However, there should be a larger effort made in creating debate (not just consultations) with citizens. There should be, for example, a transnational televised debate between the party group leaders in the elections; more national media interviews given by Commissioners, not just on the constitutional issue of Europe, but on various Commission policies so the public can debate and organise support or resistance to such policies; and simplifying the language of press releases on up-coming legislation along with other measures to transmit information through the traditional media to citizens - so they can make use of their MEPs, etc by contacting/lobbying them."

In other news, the PES have shown a bit more backbone in opposing a second term for Barroso. Still no alternative candidate, though.

Republican Aspirations

Mayotte has voted to become a department of the French Fifth Republic (95.2% approval). With the level of integration required - Mayotte will have to largely give up its Islamic legal system for the secular republican one, as well as give up many local customs in order for there to be equal gender rights - it will be very interesting to see how well France can integrate them. France is, after all, not well known for social harmony at the best of times.

I suppose the promise of French government and EU funds played a part in the decision, but will there be enough to go around?

Saturday 28 March 2009

We want informed debate on Europe! (But Europe shouldn't take part)

The EU is distant; it doesn't engage; people feel uninformed about the issues and there is rarely any debate on substantive issues - the only debate seems to be infrequent, confused and hurried grandstanding on the constitutional issues.

People want more information. There should be more debate on what legislation is passed and decisions are made at an EU level.

Perhaps a campaign to try to engage people in the European elections would be a good idea? No, that would be propaganda.

Now this campaign is not at all likely to be effective - billboards cannot replace a vigorous political party debate and campaign, and these billboards aren't much good to start off with - but it does highlight a certain attitude which is sadly quite widespread in some approaches to debates on Europe, on both the pro-Europe and Eurosceptic sides. And it's mainly this: if a viewpoint on Europe comes from outside the member state, it is derided as foreign and therefore invalid and not worthy of consideration; official information campaigns are automatically labeled propaganda and are unhelpful to the debate.

Wait - so, on issues that effect more than one European country, other Europeans views are invalid; and in an area where people decry the lack of information, the official stance and official information is ignored? Perhaps I'm missing something, but how else do you improve the quality of debate and participation if you don't bring in more views and perspectives and never discuss the pros and cons of official policy? Is there another way?

I don't think so. As I've written before in more detail, all information has an ideological standpoint (something I've tried to put across in response to an Open Europe article), including official information and policy. But to dismiss its value out of hand for debates misses the point completely: after all, what would national political debates be like if nobody ever talked about what the government does or thinks on a particular issue? If policy statements or facts issued by the government are merely dismissed as propaganda and meddling in the debate, then it devalues the debate.

Basically, as long as politicians on both sides refuse to examine and debate and engage with official sources of information or other Europeans who are equally effected by common decisions, the public at large will be largely cut off from the political world and the decision-making process. And as long as the media doesn't hold the politicians to account, they will get away with it.

If anyone can show me how the debate can be enriched and the public engaged more without doing this; by continuing to exclude opinions and policies from the EU institutions, then let me know. But for now it seems to me that the unwillingness of politicians to fight on the basis of ideas and policies is what's really holding back and diminishing the quality of politics in today's Europe.

Thursday 26 March 2009

Journalists Turn to the EU for help

Journalists have turned to the EU for help, the EUobserver has reported.

They have written to the EP party groups as well, hoping to get some policy out of them. (Well, I'm glad that some journalists know that the EP's there...).

Perhaps some compromise could be found? If journalists report more EU news (and help get more debate going), the parties could come up with some policies on the media. ...Well, there'd be more incentive for the party groups to formulate common policies if they thought they would get media attention...

The Falling European Leadership

Falling, because technically the Czech government of last week is still the current Czech government - and will continue to be until a replacement can be found. So the current Presidency of the European Council is not so much a lame duck as a duck in a deep coma which is dependant on life support. Of course, it was never that much of a presidency - indeed it reminds me of the "Barroso ghost" picture on Anyone but Barroso - though, granted, Barroso is incorporeal through choice.

The CSSD, the main opposition party, doesn't fill me with much hope - it is unlikely to be able to form a government, so it seems that the fall of the government was due to the CSSD opposing it for opposition's sake. Their actions seem to be politically irresponsible, though I don't know much about Czech politics. They have said that they are happy to see the current ghost-government carry on until the presidency passes on to Sweden. I can't make up my mind whether this is a good thing or not.

In the end, I hold pretty much the same views expressed in this Entangled Alliances article: the presidency can be a powerful motor for change and a vehicle for effective leadership, but it largely depends on the political stability of the leader, and on personality. Which is never a good basis for good governance.

Czech president Klaus' position has been strengthened by the fall of his country's government: after all, it's now much easier to ignore/speak out against/plot against the policies of the ghost-government which he doesn't like. His influence over the passage of the Lisbon Treaty is likely to grow (though it was effectively blocked before anyway), despite polls showing that his view on the matter are out of touch with the Czech public.

(As a side note, whatever the truth of the stories of Russia's influence on Klaus (or indeed Russia's influence through Klaus), Klaus and his allies must be fought on the battleground of ideas and policy, not on "playing the man" (or woman). In any case, I'm sure that Klaus has held the views he has independently of any Russian influence, and I doubt that he needs political pointers on playing the system. If there is any Russian influence on Klaus, I'd say it is just egging him on.)

So, basically it doesn't matter much, but only because the situation was already quite bad in a way that mattered quite a lot. The point has been made that this shows that the Lisbon Treaty is needed for the effective functioning of the EU. I largely agree: it seems that over the last 6+ months the weaknesses of the EU have shown the need for reform in practically all areas, and although imperfect, the Lisbon Treaty does remedy some of the problems, to some degree.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Czech government falls

The embattled Czech government, who could not get their two major foreign policy aims passed by parliament, has fallen. The vote of no confidence was 101 out of 200. I'm afraid I don't have time to blog about it now, but I thought I'd flag up the EUobserver report.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Uniting the Italian Right

The right wing party Alleanza Nazionale will merge with Berlusconi's governing Forza Italia to form a new centre-right political party (called "People of Freedom", if I've understood the article correctly). (Here in German). The party will be launched in a 3 day conference in Rome, starting on the 27th March.

The AN have been in alliance with the FI since 1995, so it seems to be the culmination of a long process of integration. Perhaps the AN has modernised and become more moderate over the years, but with the increasing harshness of policies aimed against the Roma, it is hard to see a moderation in the attitudes of modern Italy from outside. So will having the AN inside rather than outside make it easier to govern more moderately if desired? There'd be less chance of members breaking away and damaging the government's majority, but at the same time it could make the senior coalition partner itself more right wing.

Since the AN are a big part of the UEN, the end of the AN (FI MEPs are in the EPP-ED group) along with the departure of Fianna Fáil, could mean that there will be enough leftovers for the Tories to attract in order to form their new EP group. It's definitely the end of the road for the UEN, anyway.

Also in the news is the annual march against the mafia.

Economic aid or Sphere of Influence?

At the European summit on Thursday and Friday, several measures were decided on to help both non-euro EU members and non-EU members. EUobserver has reported on the measures here. The support for non-euro members will be doubled to €50 billion, and a further €75 billion will be pumped into the IMF (which, though it will help non-European countries, is going to help both EU and non-EU European states). The much fought-over €5 billion, which was the initiative of the Commission, will help the older, richer member states more, but then it is peanuts in any case.

And the Eastern Partnership will be alocated €600 million. I know, still peanuts - in fact, hardly any peanuts at all. One of the most interesting aspects of the Eastern Partnership (perhaps so called to annoy those who like abbreviations?) is the level of Commission involvement there will be in the project: the number of meetings with the representatives with the eastern countries, negotiating and setting common policy, etc. Could this be a strengthening of the Commission's hand in guiding foreign affairs at the expense of the CFSP? Of course, this could be viewed as linked with the Commission's external relations department's traditional role of economic relations, and so it is to an extent, but the sheer amount and frequency of the involvement will surely mean that the head of the CFSP will be eclipsed by the head of the Commission's foreign relations.

Though it depends on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty - which would merge the 2 posts, so it may be a bit much to emphasise this. The Council will also host foreign ministerial meetings every 2 years. However, the other departments of the Commission would also be heavily involved too. Perhaps this could lead to the Commission as a whole becoming more aware and sensitive to the needs of Ukraine, etc., and vice versa? It could mean that a lot of the substance of member states' relations with the Eastern Partnership countries will be handled by the Commission - would it help change (older) member states opinions and policies in the region?

Russia views it as a dangerous development - claiming that the Eastern Partnership represents an attempt by the EU at carving out a sphere of influence. It seems that any tightening of relations on Russia's western border amount to carving out a sphere of influence - basically: "EU and NATO: get out and stay out." At the same time, however, we should recognise that we sometimes get caught up in the same sort of thinking. Worries about Russo-German closeness is one example. In any case, a deepening of relations in the Eastern Partnership won't involve a security dimension, so how can you read these worries of Russia's without reading the implication that these countries should be in Russia's sphere of influence?

On the Belarus question, I think that the EU shouldn't be too lenient on Belarus. Russia is wrong to suggest that the Eastern Partnership has a coercive stance; Belarus can choose to join or not, but I think that the EU needs to be more demanding in its conditions for Partnership membership. A common stance on Georgia is good, but Belarus in my opinion is too oppressive to be considered for membership.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Commission and legitimacy

Joan Marc Simon as a good article explaining how it is almost impossible for the Commission to be a source of strong leadership in the current political system - especially without a clear choice in the EP elections.

Also, Sarkozy has recently reiterated his argument that the Commission President should not be picked before the second Irish Referendum.

Friday 20 March 2009

Diplomatic Incident

Of a minor kind, but you have to wonder why (continue to) post someone who makes such comments (and has caused a stir in Ireland before) to a country sensitive on the Lisbon Treaty issue?

An achievable ambition?

Libertas aims to field over 100 candidates in the upcoming European elections, but is it an achievable ambition? After all, in Ireland, Libertas' home base, so far Ganley is the only announced candidate.

So how will Libertas do it? According to Irish Election, Libertas has sent out emails to those who subscribed to their email list, asking all those who are willing to apply to be candidates or nominate candidates. (This strikes me as a bit desparate, but who knows - if they actually do get good talent, it could work. You can never rule out a 1 in a million chance).

In this sort of situation, how do we analyse Libertas? Its claims to be pro-European are somewhat tainted by his association with far-right nationalist and eurosceptic candidates (notably in France). And the structure of the party makes it even more confusing. It seems to be run like a business, almost franchising the name out with the basic policy of anti-Lisbonism attached. So is run in a top-down fashion? To some extent, I would say so (though I'd say allied parties in other member states need to be appeased in some policy areas in order to imbue Libertas with the pan-European aura), but the manifesto will be interesting to read in this regard.

Will it be decided on by Libertas' members/candidates? Will it be drawn up by the Irish core or will there be a pan-Europe party conference which will vote on a manifesto? Such a conference would be great publicity, but it could also be a PR disaster - what if (as I suspect) Libertas doesn't attract enough pro-Europe yet anti-Lisbon members to balance out the plan eurosceptics? Will top-down control be imposed/reasserted in this event?

Another question is the risk of fielding 100+ candidates (enough for almost a 1/7 of EP seats under Nice). Libertas will be judged to some extent on its percentage of successful candidates, though this pressure will not be too great for such an experimental party. So how will its success/failure be measured? And will fielding so many candidates stretch out the party's resources, assuming that funding will not just be limited to the member state in with it is raised?

This quote stood out for me in the EUobserver article:

Mr Ganley... said it was "disgraceful" that taxpayers money was to be used to "inform the Irish people" about the treaty when they had already rejected it.

Damn information campaigns would only confuse people. They wouldn't know if they didn't know so they could vote no, you know?

Cowen Throws his weight behind the move to ELDR

While Brian Crowley, Fianna Fáil MEP and current co-leader of the UEN group, tried to reverse the decision of the FF party at their recent Ardfheis to join the Liberal grouping of ELDR in the EP, it seems that there's no backing out this time. Brian Cowen, FF president and Irish Taoiseach, has thrown his weight behind the decision - Cowen's position may have been weakened by the economic crisis, and his government's bumbling (and at times frankly incompetent) response to it, but I'd say that there's no chance of Crowley getting his way now.

Not only did Cowen hold private talks with ALDE head Graham Watson, but he appeared in a Liberal press conference alongside leading liberal-aligned politicians from the national political arena of other member states.

I wonder what the outcome for Crowley will be within the FF party at the end of all of this? He should be safe electorally since he's the biggest vote-winner for FF in European elections, but will he loose more than a co-presidency of a EP group?

Is the Lisbon Treaty a hostage to US-Russian relations?

I would like to think not, but a report from EurActiv sadly suggests that EU politics are not subject to the decisions of European countries. And where are the effects of this diplomatic positioning being felt? Prague.

I've long since lost the impression that there was an effective government in the Czech Republic - does it get many laws passed, or is it just treaties that it has problems with?

Referendum Strategies

EUobserver has reported that the Irish Government isn't being firm about the date of the referendum, to say the least. I'll take this opportunity to outline my thoughts on setting the date.

1. The guarantees must be agreed on, and have been laid down in writing. The polls showing a swing in favour of the Treaty ask questions based on the assumption that satisfactory guarantees will be, well, guaranteed. To put the Treaty to the vote without anything to show for the reviews and negotiations of the last year would be a major political weakness. The Irish people need to be offered something new, even if I don't believe the guarantees are necessary, apart from the one on the status of the Irish Commissioner.

2. There needs to be a clear run up to the election. All pro-Lisbon parties need to work together effectively in the next referendum - this means there needs to be a clear start, and a joint campaign launch. Keeping the date unclear could be damaging to the coherence and unity of the pro-Lisbon side even if it's intended to weaken the anti-Lisbonites.

3. Rule out May and June - and therefore April too. May and June will be taken up with the EP elections, and it will just be providing free publicity to the anti-Lisbonites to bring up the issue so powerfully so close to the elections. A win for anti-Lisbon candidates will strengthen the anti-Lisbon position when it comes to the referendum. For reasons of giving a good run up to the vote (and the reasons in 1 & 2), this also excludes April as a possible referendum month.

4. A good run up is needed. (Linked to 2) Obvious, in my opinion. The case for needs to be made clearly, and the contra side needs to have enough space too. There should be no snap referendum, like last time. A "no means no" and "they're bullying us" doesn't work quite so well if there's a good run up and a long debate. A longer debate would draw out more practical questions and get past all the knee-jerk no-ism. At least, that's my theory.

5. It should be as soon as possible, provided that the conditions above are met. July or August would be good, in my opinion. The government can be punished in the local and European elections, which may clear the political air of the need to punish the government (though I wouldn't underestimate this government's ability to enrage the public). The political air needs to be as clear as possible to ensure as reasoned a debate as possible.

So for me, July-September (and maybe October) is the best window of time for the referendum, depending on the political conditions. That's my current thinking, anyway.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Image and the EU: Are they starting to think about it?

Everyone knows that the EU has an image problem, though it's not exactly clear what can be done about it (though I personally think it requires some structural and institutional changes). Communication problems about the EU are chronic not only at the EU level itself, but even at national level.

Still, in an election year it's harder for politicians and even EU bureaucrats to avoid the feeling that something must be done. The elections are, after all, an obvious opportunity to reach out to the public and to attempt to get them more involved in European politics. Though it was always going to be, of course, an uphill struggle.

So the EP has unveiled a plan for more spending and more promotion on the campaign trail, as well as plans for more co-ordination of electoral campaign strategies (based around a choice of 4 of 10 "themes") in order to give the elections a more European character. The lack of clarity over what the powers of the new EP will be (due to the problems of Lisbon Treaty ratification*) will make the task of sending out a clear message harder in some respects. I hope that the Lisbon issue won't be focused on too much - it would be far better in my opinion, if candidates and parties focused on providing a clear message of what plans they have to use the powers they currently have to work on the issues facing the electorate. Dredging up constitutional issues, which the EP has no control over, is not a good strategy, and it isn't likely to help MEPs connect with voters. Showing the voters how their votes can make a difference on practical issues would be more effective than focusing on more abstract constitutional questions.

And even Barroso may be showing some dim awareness of the need for good PR - on Wednesday he got into the Irish Times for having a pint of Guinness with Bob Geldof in Brussels on St. Patrick's Day. Though he spoilt the occasion by making a "St. Patrick's day wish" for an Irish yes to Lisbon. By all means promote Lisbon, but it would have been much better to celebrate the occasion for what it is, without turning it into such an obviously pro-Lisbon PR stunt.

I don't expect a big difference, but hopefully there will be more engagement with voters.

*I'm still of the opinion that it would be wrong to push having another referendum before the guarantees are decided on and worked out.

The League of Polish Families and Drink-Driving

The leader of the League of Polish Families has been charged with drink-driving. There have been reports that Libertas have distanced themselves from the party because of this, but Libertas deny ever being allied with them.

Personally, I've classed the LPR as being close to Libertas, but maybe I'm reading to much into the leader of Libertas Poland having served as a LPR MP. I would have thought of them as being prime candidates for Libertas allies, since Ganley seems to share a very conservative view of the role of family life and the Church in society. And Ganley has appeared with LPR politicians in the past, so it definitely gave me the impression of closeness, if not alliance.

Though perhaps the LPR wouldn't be as attractive an ally when their leader has not only been charged with drink-driving, but LPR may loose its political appointee as as a director in a Polish TV channel (TVP).

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

A little late, but Happy St. Patrick's Day to everyone.

Handy Libertas Round-Up

I know I post too much on Libertas, but the EUobserver has a handy article which acts as a good summery of the Libertas story so far.

UK: What's in a Constitution?

In the UK there is a certain pride in their legal traditions, but there seems to be a confusion about what it all means - the concepts of referenda and parliamentary sovereignty are increasingly uttered in the same breath, seemingly without the speakers' awareness of how much these concepts are incompatible. The UK is famous for its unwritten constitution. Of course it has a constitution, but it's not codified - and a lot of people don't seem to know what it is, exactly. And the bigger question is: is the old constitution, favoured for its flexibility, up to the task of serving today's Britain?

There are many factors to be considered in UK constitutional law, but the most famous one is the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty (PS). PS basically means that parliament is all-powerful, just like god.* According to constitutional theory, if the Westminster Parliament repealed the India Independence Act 1949 tomorrow, then India would revert back to British control (who says constitutional law has to make sense? Or even be practical?).

The UK constitution is just made up of acts of parliament (so it can be changed by a simple majority vote in parliament). Parliament can do whatever it wants (except anything that restricts its ability to do whatever it wants in the future). PS also means that parliamentary Acts are superior to judge-made Common Law, which is quite sensible in a democracy. The problem is that PS rests on its recognition by... judges. Because the doctrine of PS is in itself a judge-made concept.

Confused? Well, it dates back to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution,** the end result of which is that the King/Queen had the powers of an absolute monarch, provided that the Parliament was the only body that could exercise them. What parliament is, is the King, just divided up among several hundred people. It just happens to be the case that the lower House, the elected one, is now the most powerful part of the Parliament.

So the UK has a constitution which is at odds with the more modern idea of popular sovereignty (the idea that the people are sovereign, and delegate their power upwards), because it is based on the sovereignty of the monarch, which was essentially (though not completely) stolen by parliament. Referenda go, therefore, against constitutional theory in the UK.

The UK has only ever had one referendum: over EEC entry (referendum introduced by Labour).

Now the constitution of the UK is largely a political one: it depends on the political culture for its continued existence since it is built on custom and tradition, and because any parliament could overturn the entire constitution at a stroke with a simple majority (which, under First Past the Post, might only have the support of a third of the electorate). The political culture of the UK has changed a lot over the last century, and it is doubtful that the current constitution is suitable for the modern UK. The issue of Europe in British politics shows the gap in the current political culture from constitutional theory: that the Conservatives, (the traditionalist, constitutional-upholding party) are demanding a referendum suggests that they have lost all respect for the constitution - and yet are not putting forward recommendations for constitutional reform.

There are a number of issues that make constitutional reform more pressing; chief among these is devolution and human rights. Devolution has raised the well known question over English self-rule,*** and human rights has raised questions over how much the parliament should be able to overturn such rights at a whim - or even without meaning to under the doctrine of implied repeal.****

While there have been a few suggestions on these issues (mainly just the Conservatives demanding that only English MPs should be allowed to vote on legislation affecting only England - in my opinion this will just make the system more messy), but no serious attempt at a systemic overhaul. Until this is done, and until popular sovereignty is made part of the UK constitution, Eurosceptic demands for a referendum will ironically attack the British idea of sovereignty more than the EU does (Factortame resolves the tension between PS and the ECJ's doctrine of supremacy of Community law).

Given these issues though, and the lack of political attempts at reform, it has been left to the judiciary to deal with things the best they can. And over the last 40 years there has been a weakening of the judicial deference to parliament, and even (weak) limits being imposed on PS. The famous Factortame case (no.1), which confirmed the supremacy of EU law in the UK (by cleverly saying that EU law was supreme because the UK Parliament's European Communities Act 1972 really said it was, subject to the parliament's sovereign ability to withdraw such rights. ...Yes, I know, but it has to be done in such a way in law) and the Thoburn case (which started a trend of deeming some statutes to be "more constitutional", and therefore not subject to implied repeal) are good examples of this.

In fact, in Jackson v AG, Lord Steyn in obiter***** practically served notice on PS - stating that if parliament threatens access to the courts (etc.), then the courts could just dismiss the power of parliament to do so. The supremacy of the judiciary is a general feature of democracies (supreme courts being able to rule on laws being unconstitutional, etc), and the UK could be moving in that direction, albeit very slowly, and being moved there by the judges themselves.

If nobody discusses the pressing need for constitutional reform in the UK - in fact, the basic need for a codified constitution - then the judges will just have to do the job themselves, just as they did in the past.

This post doesn't have much direction to it, I'd admit. Sorry for that. In a way, I just felt like showing what a mess I think the UK constitution really is, and vent annoyance at some UK eurosceptics' lack of basic knowledge of how their country works, and what its sense of sovereignty is (basically the sovereignty of the rulers based on their control of a territory rather than popular sovereignty). However, I think that the UK needs a constitution in the traditional, write-it-down-somewhere, sense. The current constitution is out of touch with its people (though if you really like it, perhaps you'd say it's the other way around?) - and there needs to be a big effort to confront these challenges.

And if you think all this is messed up, just take a look at land law in Ireland and the UK!

*Depending on the religion. In some cases perhaps even more powerful than god.

**Where the King was fired and Parliament bought a new one.

*** Britain (more correctly the UK) isn't a nation-state. It's a collection of nations in one (historically very centralised) state. A bit like the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

**** Parliament can't bind successive parliaments, so if two Acts conflict, the newest one is the right one - it "impliedly repeals" the old one. For human rights this could be a bit of a problem.

*****Obiter means that the judge is just saying it - it has no legal effect. But if other judges start agreeing with it, it could find its way into the legal orthodoxy.... [I think this part of Lord Steyn's judgment is at paragraphs 90+ - of the top of my head I'd say it's at 100-110].

[Note: the links for the cases are just to their wikipedia articles, which is definitely not academic. If you actually want to read the cases they should be in the House of Lord's website, though I'd say that they're so famous (ok, famous for court judgments) that you should be able to just google them.]

Monday 16 March 2009

It's a bit late, but...

I'm officially (and belatedly) supporting the Anyone But Barroso Campaign. It shouldn't be too much of a surprise given my recent rants.

I didn't join before because I felt that most Commission Presidents would be pretty hands off in national politics anyway, but the total incompetence in dealing with the economic crisis - and area where the Commission should be keen to prove its worth, and where it could actually work to make a difference - has made a convert out of me.

Sunday 15 March 2009


Ganley will stand for the EP himself in the June elections. Irish Times article here.

His economic ideas sound similar to Republic ideas in America - small government, tax-cutting, etc. I'd say that that's very against the grain of political thinking in Ireland today - people are crying out for leadership and expect to be taxed (not that they'll like it). How is Ireland to have sound finances if it doesn't tax more to fill the shortfall (since a huge part of the tax revenue came from consumer spending, which has collapsed).

And it's Dublin that sets Irish tax policy, not Brussels, so how is any of this relevant anyway?

Will the European Parliament block Barroso's Plan?

Barroso's plan for €5 million of unspent EU budget funds in energy projects, etc, could be voted down in the EP, Claude Turmes told EurActiv. It was never exactly a brilliant plan, although to be fair to Barroso, he's never claimed to be imaginative or competent enough to come up with one in the first place (See comments).

I don't know how viable or effective the idea of pumping it into the EIB is, but if it can be done, I do like the idea of using it to generate more money to help the member states.

Most of all, I'd like to see more initiative from the EP on this matter - as well as running candidates for Commission President in the elections.

Or am I misguided on the practicality of the Commission being more assertive and bold in its plans during the economic crisis? Is it now institutionally and politically impossible for the Commission to show leadership?

(In other news: the Commission and Irish officials will meet to decide how the Commission can help in the Lisbon debate. Is it hoping that nobody says anything stupid too much to hope for?)

To Minister Roche: Please just shut up. Please?

I have often complained at Libertas' conspiracy rhetoric: it's Brussels, out to get us; it's the Irish establishment - they hate us, etc., etc. Look, it's politics - a battle of ideas. If you can't make a case, then how can you win support. Obviously, you must know what your case is first, but you can't plead conspiring elites hate you and the "silent majority" support you (and the not-so-silence majority in Ireland, if you believe that the No voters will translate into Libertas voters), if you can't get even the minimum 7 MEPs/MPs to support you in a Europe full of eurosceptic/euro-reformist parties.


There are those who give Ganley & Co this drum to bang in the first place - and first among these is Irish Minister for Europe Dick Roche. EUobserver has reported another twist in the Libertas referendum funding saga - Libertas hasn't fully co-operated with the Standards in Public Office Commission (Here in the Irish Times, with Libertas' response here). Naturally, Roche pounces on this as an opportunity to attack Libertas. It's not proof of anything except a lack of openness on Libertas' side (this is the party of transparency remember, who don't like unelected elites from manipulating the democratic process), yet Roche bangs on about conspiracies too.

Why? It's so easy to attack Libertas over its ideas and its membership. Not only is it made up of far-right and ultra-conservative eurosceptics, but Ganley has lurched to the right himself. Libertas will be against the Lisbon re-run even if the concerns it raise are met through protocols, etc. (though I personally don't believe the Lisbon Treaty affected these areas of concern apart from the Commissioner point) - why? If amendment is as good as drawing a new treaty from scratch, why do it when our leaders have enough on their plates with the economic crisis? If our parliaments re-wrote from scratch every piece of legislation when it was amended, we'd be rightly furious in the costs of time and money. And alternatives? Libertas still hasn't come up with anything.

Fight Libertas on its ideas (or lack thereof), don't play into its demented and self-centred paranoia trip.

So Dick Roche: give the pro-Lisbon side a chance, and shut up.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Does Europe have any Common Foreign Policy interests?

In my post on Neutrality and Europe, which was focused mainly on Ireland's policy of neutrality and its compatibility with EU membership, I hinted at what I thought was a basis of a possible section of common European foreign policy interests: the single market. On Grahnlaw's Blog (the post on Sweden's neutrality/non-alignment), in the discussion, Grahnlaw remarked on the tendency of European foreign policies to speak in more pacifist terms when discussing foreign policy, perhaps just to placate a more pacifist public. I think that Europe is probably home to some of the most pacifist populations and perhaps that translates into (truly) more cautious governments (I suppose that depends on both the country you're talking about, and who you're talking too), i.e. governments are actually affected deeply by the public consensus because they are part of that society, though the calculations would end up playing out a bit more differently when cold policy choices need to be made (and these can be between 2 evils).

These attitudes have both historical and contemporary reasons - and these are well known: WWII/history of destructive war, and the contemporary experience of successful multilateralism. However, I think that these attitudes and the policies that come with them are suited to the problems we face in our region (and perhaps even a mature reaction to these problems, though that would be very contentious to argue). While I've said that Europe has probably the most pacifist populations of any region of the world, I think that most people here fall into the multilateralist band - in other words strong diplomacy, and any use of force to be based on some form of the "just war" doctrine.

So what could be the common foreign policy problems that Europe faces? Sadly, this part isn't too radical, as much as I'd like to say something completely original here. It's mostly stability - stability of:

- Eastern Europe (defined here as countries east of the current member states)
- the non-EU former Yugoslav states
- North Africa
- the Middle East, especially Israel, Palestine and Iran
- energy security
- trade security (e.g. security of trade routes such as those passing by the Horn of Africa)

These would be issues for the member states with or without the EU, in a sense, because of geography. But the internal market means that we are a lot closer and our interests are less bound by coincidence: the free movements mean that we've a highly integrated economy which is adversely affected by stability on our frontiers. All member states are more equally exposed and exposed in more similar ways; northwestern member states are no longer quite so insulated. Failed states also mean more and less controlled immigration, more criminality, increased drug trade, etc. The impact of this on a free single market and our societies can be very damaging. The problemd with a lack of energy security can be seen by events over the last few winters in Ukraine and Russia. The Middle East Peace process is an issue for both these reasons and for moral reasons.

The solutions to these problems are mostly the ones which the European publics and the European states have been talking about for so long, albeit backed up with a more robust diplomacy and more willingness to take the initiative. A prime example is the Middle East Process, and indeed the Middle East in general. Due to our close proximity to the region, we suffer more than the US when things go wrong (though obviously we're not the ones that suffer the most) - it's hard to see why Europe isn't more assertive here; sure we have our differences, but we're all agreed on the goal. Even the US agrees with the European position. So why can't we be more robust in promoting the peace process? There needs to be tough love with both sides (a basic outline of some of my thoughts on what could be done here), and Europe has the resources to act effectively here. The US may handle Israel with kid gloves, but we don't have to, and we don't have to wait until the US catches up in foreign policy again.

The basic formulation of multilateralism, robust diplomacy and engagement tailored to each area is a winning formula, if done properly. Inherent in this is the recognition that foreign policy is, in a way, just like domestic policy: force of arms generally is a bad idea, and should only be used in extreme cases - and even in extreme cases, they only provide the breathing space needed for a proper political settlement. A good foreign policy is based on a drive for a legitimate international structure, based on balancing needs and interests encompassing economics, stability, participation and political recognition. In many ways a good foreign policy shapes and sustains a successful region in a way that mirrors that of domestic policy. Obviously there are some extreme cases which don't fall into this theoretical musing of mine: not all interests can be balanced or satisfied. However, I believe that such an approach is the best approach for the problems we currently commonly face.

While the US has been portrayed as a global policeman, I think that Europe is the one with the more policeman-like tendencies. The US is more like a superman, racing off to fix certain problems in special circumstances, while Europe works away in the manner of a policeman (though, still in a limited way and in a limit sphere): policing communities, building nations, acting as an administrator, a trader, etc, etc. The US has elements of this too in its policy, but these aspects are the core of how foreign policy is perceived here, if not consciously (or so it seems to me).

Wednesday 11 March 2009

An official British perspective on Europe?

David Miliband, British Foreign Secretary, has given a speech on European Reform at the LSE. (Click here). There seems to be a few ideas there, along with a desire for reform (and note the use of climate and energy security policy to slip in an attack on the CAP), but is Britain actively promoting these policies or engaging with the other member states to forge a way forward? It doesn't seem as if any country is really pushing imaginative schemes, to judge from the bland outcome of the recent summits.

And the Commission is hardly taking a lead either.

I like the defence of the single market and the Community institutions/legal system:

"...the best defence from encroaching protectionism is an effective European Commission. You cannot be in favour of the single market, but against the very institutions that preserve the rules of the game. This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the eurosceptic position."

I've ranted on about it myself. Why can't there be a spirited defence of Community values for a wider audience? Reform isn't enough - the public should be told why the system must be defended and reformed.

Monday 9 March 2009

Neutrality and Europe

Ireland, Sweden and Austria are all both neutral and EU member states: but can you really be both, and what is the value of policies of neutrality and alternative foreign policies? (My main focus will be on Ireland, since I'm more familiar with its policy goals).

Neutrality is a very value-driven foreign policy, and there are several reasons why states become neutral; most of these are tied up in history and identity as well as in the national interest. In Ireland a policy of neutrality underlines the independence of the state, running on the 1940s logic that the ability to stay clear of great power wars was a mark of sovereignty. In Austria, neutrality was necessary to ensure the country's freedom and sovereignty in the middle of Cold War Europe.

Both these policies were the best policies for their time: Ireland, having just been through a war of independence, a civil war, and a trade war, was in no position to enter a world war - especially if it meant opening Ireland to the British military when the conflict of the last 20 years had been about getting them out in the first place. Internal stability and external independence depended on neutrality (and on Ireland being lucky in the course of the war). For Austria, preventing the division of the country between east and west in the same manner as Germany depended on constitutional guarantees that the Second Austrian Republic would be a neutral state.

But, for Ireland at least, neutrality wasn't meant to be permanent; it was just wartime policy. Post-War Ireland tried to ally itself with America, but America turned Ireland down: it was either the NATO alliance or no alliance. Since joining NATO would mean recognising British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, the republic decided not to join.

So what does the EU mean for neutrality, and what does the EU mean for the calculation of national interests when it comes to neutrality?

Under the NATO umbrella, the EU has created a zone of peace, so Europe is not split between 2 antagonistic blocs. This doesn't mean that there's no value in being neutral, but it does change the calculation: the policy goals of neutral states can be more effectively achieved through cooperation with fellow European states without the risks that come with associating with an alliance bloc in tense international circumstance. For Ireland, the main foreign policy goals, apart from a general policy of trying to prevent conflict through the UN and other international organisations, is non-proliferation, disarmament of inhumane weapons (e.g. cluster mines), and conflict resolution through international peacekeeping mission. (Leaving aside the goal of eventual reunification).

The EU, and the interconnectedness with other European states, can be an important factor in all of these aims, and in getting them more widely recognised and more effective action taken on a regional and global level.

The internal market also means that member states share, directly, the same interests in several fields. The free movement of people means that immigration is a shared issue, even for non-Schengen states. Connected to this is the stability and prosperity of the countries neighbouring the EU. Immediately there is a need for a common approach to development aid, trading policy (which is common in any case in the EU), as well as the need for a more political foreign policy voice in the region: whenever trouble breaks out, we are affected; US policy in the region therefore also has an affect on us. The best way of ensuring an effective policy is to have a common policy. Ireland has been involved in helping promote stability in the region along with other European states, particularly in the EUFor in Chad. Energy issues and environmental issue are also areas which require a high degree of coordination.

These goals do not require the sort of militarisation of the EU in the way a lot of neutrality supporters in Ireland fear. See some good defences of the foreign policy role of the EU here and the EDA here.

In this context, the question of whether a neutral or non-aligned or even an allied stance would be the best for pursuing both national and common interests should be asked. Some neutral supporters have (successfully) tried to frame the argument by portraying the choice as one between neutrality (of which Ireland's is in any case doubtful - it even has its own wikipedia page and an almost separate definition from classical neutrality) and a militaristic super-state (possibly practicing conscription). Ignoring the fact that many European states are phasing or have phased out conscription, why should the debate in Ireland, and possibly in the other neutral European states this is similar, be limited to these 2 choices?

In my opinion, the existence of the internal market and membership of the EU has changed the political context for neutral European states. This doesn't automatically mean that military integration should be adopted, but a range of options should be discussed. Still, integration to some degree of foreign policy can provide some clear advantages. Of course, it will never be a simple calculation of interest; the politics of identity will mean that any discussion of foreign policy in neutral states will be fraught with emotional arguments.

Note: Fine Gael is the only Irish party that has a policy of cooperation in a European defence policy.

Transitional Troubles?

Could Brian Crowley, leader of Fianna Fáil in the EP and co-leader of the UEN, derail the planned move of FF to the Liberal EP group? It is widely believed that he was the force behind the failure of the last attempt to leave the UEN. He claims that:

"I think the UEN has worked well for Ireland and for Fianna Fáil, we've been able to deliver policy at a European level, partly because I'm the leader"

What policy exactly? The UEN doesn't stand for much, if anything - it's a random collection of parties grouped together to benefit from the group perks (you could say this of the other groups, but it goes more so for the UEN than it does for the big 3). Perhaps someone could point out these policy gains he has achieved? I think the reason for his support for UEN can simply be cut down to: "because I'm the leader".

As for his preference for Lisbon II to be held ASAP, I would be strongly against. The Irish public may accept Lisbon when it comes with the guarantees, but you need to show you've the guarantees in the bag first. Also, it'd be a bad idea turning Lisbon into a bigger issue in the run up to the EP elections because it would give Libertas a platform without making them do the leg-work in an election which will be dominated by the economy.

Fine Gael MEP Colm Burke is also advocating a sooner referendum.

Saturday 7 March 2009

EuroparlTV Presents: Secretary Clinton in the EP (Eventually)

Since Secretary Clinton had a question and answer session in the EP (sadly not with the MEPs), I thought that I'd watch it on EuroparlTV. (After all, it is there to show EP events).

You can watch it here, if you like, but it takes half an hour just to get to the main event, so have something to do in the meantime, unless you like watching a screen with "Awaiting Clinton/ H-G Poettering" on it, or audiences talking amongst themselves. (This is frankly unbelievable - have EuroparlTV never heard of editing?!).

It was interesting to watch, when I did eventually get to see it, with the Secretary of State making some very federalist noises ("reaching your full potential" as apposed to Dr. Rice's 'don't think you can equal us' rhetoric). Of course, it can be said that it's all just tailored to the audience, and it's not really of much value. In the end, how strong Europe is (and how we define a strong Europe) is up to us (if you'll allow me to restate the obvious).

One other thing: it'll be a proud day for the EP when it picks the Commission President, Mr. Poettering; you can't base a Parliament's good days on the sparse visits of high-ranking foreign dignitaries.

Friday 6 March 2009

Ireland-EU News Round-up

There have been several Europe-related developments in Ireland recently, so here's what I've noticed over the last few days:

Story 1: The Greens want Ireland to pull out of the EDA, apparently to placate their membership, as the Greens didn't get enough party support to campaign on the pro-Lisbon side in the June Referendum (I think they required 2/3 of party members to vote for a pro-Lisbon campaign strategy). Ireland's membership of the EDA was a stumbling block, it seems (I didn't hear about this at the time, but I may have missed it). Cowen has been reported as wanting some sort of compromise.

The EDA is supposed to make it cheaper for European governments to buy good quality military hardware. If you want to make the argument that it's good for arms dealers, so therefore it's bad, then that's up to you. Personally, I support the EDA - I find it hard to believe that the idea of getting the same defense at a lower cost (or better defense at the same cost) could be a bad thing. Since the Greens seem to be pushing this because they realise that it would be bad for Ireland to pull out of the ESDP, it looks like they just want to pull out of something, just to be seen to be doing something.

Story 2: Libertas are involved in yet more membership shenanigans, with the revelation that they may have offered an eurosceptic Swedish party almost €1 million for its support and some sort of joint platform in the European elections. No response to these allegations on their website yet; can they not get someone to run their website properly or deal with Libertas' online presence if they have as much support as they claim? It will be interesting to see how they respond - I can't see any way they have of turning this into a Brussels conspiracy. (Picked up here and here and here by Peoplekorps (apparently talks about the €1 million did take place...) and reported here by the Irish Times).

Story 3: Well, more of a continuation of one I've already written about. The Liberals in the EP are going to accept Fianna Fáil's application to join their group, and will assist them with money in the second Lisbon referendum if they need it. I'm not too happy with Watson's alarmist comments about the referendum being an in-or-out decision for Ireland. It's this kind of talk that comes across as scaremongering, which should be left to Libertas.

There's an interesting article about Ireland and Germany by the Irish Times here. I wonder if I can find Our Farm on the internet?

Thursday 5 March 2009

Red Tape Holds Europe Together

It's not meant as an insult, and it seems obvious, but it's true. And it's amazing to think that after all this time, the nature and need for European bureaucracy is so misunderstood. The standard calls by Eurosceptics for the end to the Brussels bureaucracy and for the EU to be turned into a free trade area, either don't understand the nature of the single market, or want less free trade. But some are waking up to the necessity for the EU, and the bureaucracy that it entails. That's not to say that I back all of the rules and regulations that come out of "Brussels", and I'm not supporting the equation of: bureaucracy is necessary, and therefore good, and therefore we need more.

Yet it's becoming clear that the EU is not equipped to deal with the crisis. The Commission's vague hints at a plan to help Europe, weak and ineffectual sounding even at the time, highlights the powerlessness of the EU to hold together and support its single market, which is the heart of the EU.

We need to dismiss this view that the single market is somehow equivalent to free trade areas in some way. It is so much more, and if we loose it now, we will all suffer. The single market is based on countries coming together to build a market between them which will be as integrated and free as domestic markets. This is clearly more than a free trade agreement, which merely deals with tariffs, but leaves other financial controls and non-tariff barriers in place. These restrict trade, and so for an effective single market there is a need for common rules to prevent national ones from distorting trade. Which requires common institutions and a common bureaucracy. The European bureaucracy is the life-support machine for the single market, and for the most free international trading system in the world.

The argument that the EFTA would be a good replacement is highly debatable. The success of the EFTA to date probably rests to a large extent with the success of the single market - EFTA members are buying into a more liberalised trading system without joining it: if the single market falls, then barriers to trade will rise up again, and an EFTA can't deal with this nor compensate for this. To tear the EU bureaucracy down, or diminish it now would be a grave mistake.

On the contrary, it needs to be strengthened, both in terms of power to deal with the crisis, and in democratic legitimacy. The current Commission is ineffective and without any power or imagination to lead in the crisis, rejecting proposals out of hand for fear of the member states' reaction, while the member states become more and more of a threat to the single market as they retreat into veiled protectionism and incoherence. Max Bergmann seems to hint that more political aspects are needed in the EU. I would agree with this, as far as democratic accountability is needed, both for its own sake (the single market economy affects us all, and should be more accountable) and to bring back confidence in the system. It will also give the EU the legitimacy to be pro-active in crisises.

This isn't political union, but the macro-economy needs to be dealt with at the macroeconomic level, and it should be accountable and effective. Europe needs good economic governance, and it needs it now. If we can't protect and support our single market, it will fall - and take us with it.

The Inclusive(-ish) NATO Summit

Clinton has met European NATO ministers in Brussels yesterday, but many more were invited, including Finland, Sweden and Switzerland - all three of which are neutral states (and Switzerland isn't even in the EU).

So why weren't Ireland and Austria invited?

(....It's a pity that the US will miss out on Irish expertise on Iran and Tehranian power structures...)

In other news, the Guardian has a interesting article on Kremlin power struggles. Kremlinology is alive and well.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Don't worry, the Commission has a cunning plan

The Commission apparently has a plan to aid Eurozone countries that default, though it will not reveal them to the public. Though since there can be no buying up of national bonds or bailing out of defaulting governments, the balance of payments scheme seems to be the only mechanism available (that I know of - not being an economist, I can't say for definite). If that's true, it seems the amount of money that is involved is minuscule (unless the ceiling is raised significantly: at the moment the ceiling is €25 billion).

I'm not too impressed by the claim that they're "equipped intellectually, politically, and economically to face this crisis scenario", either. First of all, I would question the fact that the aid (under "The Plan") seems to be on offer only after the country has defaulted, or at least it is only spoken about in these terms. Second, the Commission's performance over the last few months hasn't been inspiring. If its defence of the single market, the heart of the EU, is so weak, then I don't expect much ambition in this area either. That the Commission has proved so inept in demonstrating the usefulness of the EU to the public by taking a pro-active stance is, in my opinion, the most damning aspect of Barroso's Commission.

Never mind the lack of political promotion and initiative during the referendum campaigns, etc. as highlighted by the Anyone But Barroso campaign, though these reasons are by themselves important - this failure to act effectively cannot be rationalised away with the idea that the Commission shouldn't be assertive in the national political arena; the crisis is huge, and the need for effective common plans and co-ordination has never been greater. If the Commission cannot summon up the courage and ambition to act in an area where it is so desperately needed, then I can only assume that this one has a death wish.

Catholicism, Ireland and the EU

Ireland is a much more liberal and secular country than it has been in the past, but religion still plays a bigger role in Ireland than in some other European countries (though it's debatable whether or not this is due to conservative religious views being widely held, or if religious conservatives are just well organised and good at promoting their message). The idea of "Christian Europe" is alive in some quarters (though my impression that defining Europe as Christian is limited to a few groups), and I have even heard Dana (who almost got to run for the Presidency, but didn't even have enough support to force an election) talking on RTÉ radio about how the EU "discriminates" against Christians. It was a very strange debate, with her opponents rightly rubbishing her claims, but they also pointed to the Catholicism of some of the EU's founding fathers, as if the EU can (and should) be claimed as some sort of Catholic creation.

I would stress that this is a very minor issue; most concerns are based on sovereignty issues (tax & defence) rather than religion - Coir didn't really mobilise many voters to the No side based on family law issues (a stance which directly contradicted the Church's position), though it was able to protray itself as a success in the light of a No victory.

(Still, I would have thought that the response to such arguments would be based more on the "faith should be divorced from the state" line, since Ireland hasn't exactly had a great experience under official and semi-official Churches, both Anglician and Catholic.)

Now the archbishop of Ireland has backed a more positive view of Europe, and even considers the duty of the Church to set right the misinformation of "fundamentalist Catholics" (his words). To be fair, the Church has generally been pro-to-neutral on Europe, but its silence when misinformation on family law is being spread has meant that the EU has been protrayed mostly by small groups as being hostile to Catholic interests (perhaps some form of religio-patriotism to boost the profile of the conservative side on family issues?).

So an ethical issue for those who believe in the separation of religion and politics (as hard as it is to do so): do religions have a duty to intervene in a political debate when groups outside their control are using misinformation of the facts and of the religion's position to influence politics?

And if the Catholic Church steps in to dismiss anti-Lisbon Treaty claims, will this have much impact on Libertas, which Ganley is turning increasingly into a right-wing traditionalist/religious political platform?

Monday 2 March 2009

Eastern Europe? What Eastern Europe?

Eastern Europe is a contested term: apart from the geographical questions of "where is central Europe" and "where is eastern Europe?" (which is related in turn to the even more contested question of where Europe's final frontier lies). Some eastern Europeans and bloggers are annoyed with the label of "eastern European", partly due to negative connotations of low levels of economic development. So it should be great news that the argument that each country should be seen more as an individual has won the day in Brussels. Though ironically, this argument was prepared by a pre-summit summit of eastern European countries.*

These new member states will be treated on a case by case basis. So I wonder, will this whole situation strengthen or weaken the cohesiveness, such as it is, of "eastern Europe" as a bloc within the EU? Their summit helped them get some of what they wanted, but what they wanted involved them being treated differently. Will the operation of any plans in practise cause rifts between these states? And will this effect the political alignments of other member states?

In the end I just hope that this won't be used as a way to limit aid to the new member states.

* I think that the EU is so big now in terms of member states that it's inevitable that there will be generalised regional images. This isn't limited to eastern Europe: "Mediterranean countries" and "Nordic countries" are also labels. The international presence of the big 3 prevents a very strong, single western European label; "eastern Europe" or "CEE" countries do have a shared recent history and has joined the EU at (pretty much) the same time. Western Europe has a shared recent history too, and western Europe exists as a label, but the bickering of the big 3 tends to paper over it. I would definitely agree that there needs to be a higher quality of reporting from the eastern EU member states, though.