Friday 31 July 2009

Back Again

I'm back after a short break from blogging (though it seems to be pretty quiet generally due to the summer). So I'll be back blogging again - today or tomorrow, time depending - but for those who are interested in Lisbon II and the Irish blasphemy law:

Lisbon II - Stephen Spillane has been updating us here. Among other things, the Green Party has voted to campaign for a yes, which requires a super-majority of 2/3 of the party. Last time they were just under the 2/3 threshold, and members were free to campaign on whichever side they wanted.

On the blasphemy Act (or the Defamation Act 2009, to give it it's proper title), Dr. Eoin O'Dell of Trinity College Dublin has some brilliant posts on his blog setting out analysis and argument past the traditional free speech arguments you might hear condensed in the media. Read in particular this and this.

In other news, I've been selected to take part in the second round of Th!nk About It! The second round will be focused on climate change and the Copenhagen Conference this winter. I'm looking forward to the launch event in Copenhagen this September - hopefully I can pick up a few things to improve my blogging. I'm particularly interested in how climate change and environmental law is/will be dealt with in Stormont and Brussels, and on how agreement will (might?) be reached at Copenhagen. I can't see Stormont being up to speed on the environment (for a while we had an environment minister [Sammy Wilson] who publicly disagreed with the climate change policy of the Executive and his party, and who blocked climate change public broadcasts from being aired).

Thursday 16 July 2009

A strong President of the European Council?

There's been a sudden burst of activity across the EU-Bloggosphere over the re-emerging story that Tony Blair might run for the Presidency of the European Council (which is not the presidency of Europe) after Lady Kinnock slipped up by saying that the UK government is giving Blair full backing in his bid - as Charlemagne explains, Blair's not actually running (yet). There are many reasons why Blair should not get the job; they've been covered by Child of Europe, and very comprehensively by Crystals and Gaish.

But there's another issue here: should the post of President of the European Council be a weak or strong one? A weak one would be a "chairman" role, where the president merely organises the agenda and the meetings/summits and represents the positions that the Council makes to the world and the other institutions. A strong president would have more input in agenda-setting and he or she would have a more decisive role in setting the EU's agenda as a whole.

Do we want a strong presidency? We shouldn't. A strong presidency would strengthen the most intergovernmental institution of the EU while simultaneously weakening the intergovernmental flavour of the politics in the Council. Such a president may be able to give some good and strong leadership, but he or she would be less legitimate than the Commission: the president of the European Council will not be subject to the scrutiny of the European Parliament, so if this office becomes the leading office of the EU, accountability and transparency will suffer. For small states, a strong president would weaken their position in the same way that strengthening the Council tends towards weakening the smaller states: if you make a forum where state interests are the focus, and where the power of those state interests have the weight of their states behind them, then the bigger states will strengthen their position versus the smaller ones and can seek more privileged positions. Where positions and policies are debated and set along ideological right-left lines and states cannot get privileges due to their size, the set up is more equal.

At the same time, it's hard to see how a strong presidency would be possible. The president can't promise what the Council won't give him/her, and the president would have few political weapons to force the Council his/her way - political skill and reputation would be the most obvious weapon, but it weakens as things stop going exactly their way in the Council. The power of the president will be based on the Council, so there is little the president can do to counter the Council if it refuses to play along. So even with a strong candidate as president, they can only do what their office permits them to do. They will not be able to bestride the world stage like the US president or even the Russian president and the Chinese and Indian premiers. There may be moments when the president can provide Europe with a loud voice - but it will only be when, and if, the Council is united. The president won't be able to unite the Council because the presidency won't have the institutional power or democratic or political legitimacy to bludgeon the Council into following.

The European Council needs a permanent president who can provide a focus and organisational coherence that the Council has lacked for years. Having a president will strengthen the tendency to argue along the left-right dividing line and will make debate within the Council more "normal" in political terms (the need for more openness and transparency will be as great as ever). These are good changes. But we should not expect nor want a strong president in the Council. I don't think that it's remotely politically possible though - this is the same organisation that picked Barroso, after all.

What the European Council needs is a good and respected "Speaker of the House", not a strong executive figure.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Europe doesn't need a Pro-European Alliance in the EP

Guy Verhofstadt has spoken of the need for a "strong pro-European alliance" in the European Parliament for this term. He said:

"The three largest groups in the European Parliament announced today their commitment to pro-European values and their intention to seek a political consensus at the heart of the European Union in order to respond in a coherent and united way to the multiple challenges that Europe's citizens are now facing in terms of employment and financial security."

Now the only thing you can say about pro-Europeanism when it comes to "employment and financial security", it that there should be some degree of EU involvement in these policy areas. The problem is that "pro-Europeanism" either amounts to the constitutional status quo, or a vague degree of increased integration. "Pro-Europeanism" in itself doesn't provide any ideological clue to what kind of policies a coalition will enact - what, for instance, is Europeanism's stance on the level of workers rights that's appropriate to an economy in recession? Verhofstadt has confused a unified cross-party pro-European alliance for some sort of Coalition from the Napoleonic Wars that, if it held together long enough, would put an end to the spectre of Euroscepticism. But it can't work like that.

Grand Coalitions aren't necessarily a bad thing; grand coalitions can make good governments, and they provide political stability in a country. But they need a common programme for government. In the EP, the executive is separate from the legislature so there's no need for a fixed or agreed programme of government to provide stability. So this alliance is not strictly necessary on a long-term basis. Also, since the EP's say over constitutional matters is extremely limited, basing a coalition on what is essentially a non-issue - apart from non-binding reports and the occasional vote on treaties or enlargements - isn't exactly a strong foundation. The rhetoric of Pro-European unity will paper over the divisions on the practical issues that the EP has to deal with in its day-to-day life. It hardly helps the EP's image to have such an alliance - wouldn't it be better to project it as a mature arena for political debate that scrutinises legislation and the Commission well?

If Verhofstadt wants to win more hearts and minds to "pro-Europeanism", he needs to draw in the public to the Brussels Bubble and spark interest and participation in EP politics. An outwardly cosy coalition in control of Parliament won't do this. Political competition encourages participation and interest, so it shouldn't be suppressed. The alliance - which I suspect will be more rhetorical than real, except for important votes, such as the Commission President vote - will give credibility to the ECR's strange claim to be the "first real opposition". For several reasons, the ECR is just not that significant, and will probably collapse at some point. Open political competition will make party politics in the EP matter more and if this perception increases among the public, then it would be more of a threat to the ECR than attempts to marginalise them. After all, the ECR are already having difficulties maintaining coherence, and it's only their first day!

It's also bad politics for ALDE. Ruling out coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis ties the hands of the EPP, since the only other option it has is a coalition with PASD or PASD and ALDE. This weakens ALDE's position as the EPP and PASD can do deals without ALDE's input. While it strengthens the hand of the PASD when it comes to coalition politics, in terms of electoral politics it will mean that they are not playing the oppositional role well or positioning themselves properly for the next elections.

Finally, this line of politics already goes against what ALDE and the PASD want - Barroso has used this line of reasoning before to try and brush away calls for presenting a programme for the next 5 years and to downplay the significance of the lack of a contest for his post. He said:

"I am in favour of a political Europe, but I am against partisan political confrontation in Europe. If we are a supra-national reality, we need to be supra-partisan politicians. ...I am against political parties’ artificial dramatisation... We must talk about Europe positively, because what most encourages eurosceptics in times of crisis is the pessimism of pro-Europeans."

Surely the worst thing "pro-Europeanism" could do is adopt the politics of Barroso?

The Seventh European Parliament's first week

Today the European Parliament will meet for the first time since the election in Strasbourg; it's also Bastille Day - or the National Celebration - in France. Still, all the cool thrill-seekers will be tuned in to the no doubt dramatic opening of the European Parliament. The plan for this week is online (via @spiller2/JulienFrisch). For those of you who want to maintain the maximum mystery and excitement of the proceedings, look away now.

Today the EP will be electing its president for the next 2 and 1/2 years. Jerzy Buzek will certainly get the job since the only other halfway serious contender, Graham Watson, withdrew last week, leaving only a far-left GUE-NGL candidate, Eva Britt Svensson, to run against him. The vice-presidents will also be elected. Given the high number of new MEPs and the co-ordination of the groups, it's likely that the posts will be settled on quickly, so there's little danger of there being a long day. Of course, there is some potential that the vice-presidents election will be more combative.

On Wednesday, the EP will debate the previous European Council presidency of the Czech Republic and the new Swedish Presidency. MEPs will also elect Quaestors, who have the exciting job of looking after the "financial and administrative interests of MEPs". The EP will also debate the Commission and Council statements on recent events in China, Iran, and Honduras.

Thursday, the final day, will see the next crop of Committee chairmen and chairwomen. Julien Frisch has criticised the horse-trading that goes on around these posts - something I would like to come back to later.

Make sure you don't miss it!

The G8... and other minor issues

This may be the first blog post I've written about a G8 meeting (and a late one at that), but it is probably a waste of time, judging from the media coverage of the summit and the well-deserved cynicism that summitry in general tends to meet with these days. One of the few blog posts I've read on the G8 L'Aquila summit had the blunt title "G8 - Waste of Space?". The G8 focused on 3 main areas last week; the financial crisis, climate change and food and aid for the developing countries, though they also discussed issues like the Iranian elections, intellectual property, etc. You can find the summit documents here.

Overall it was quite underwhelming: the major achievement as far as climate change goes was getting an agreement to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 and so prevent the rise in temperatures beyond 2 degrees Celsius. Before the summit, this had been Barroso's stated aim, but, though achieved, a political and non-binding agreement with no detail to have something done in 41 years time is hardly an impressive or ground-breaking achievement. The talks will have been useful in preparing the ground for Copenhagen in December; it's a weak diplomatic weapon, but the agreement could be used to urge greater action this winter. There will also be an institute to look at carbon capture: the "Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute", which will be based in Australia. I don't know any of the details behind it: budget, remit, etc. and it's likely that all of that is still to be finalised; still, it doesn't take too much imagination what sort of stuff it will be doing.

The lack of action an real targets has led to a rubbishing of the G8's conclusions - even Ban Ki-Moon, the low-key Secretary-General of the UN had some strong words:

"“The policies that they have stated so far are not enough, not sufficient enough,” Mr Ban told reporters. Referring to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he said: “This is the science. We must work according to the science. This is politically and morally imperative . . . for the future of humanity.”"

When it comes to the financial crisis, it doesn't look as if there's much new here: just a commitment to getting credit flowing again and to try to make the Doha round of trade talks a success - since I haven't heard of any country taking the opposite line, this doesn't especially strike me as an impressive diplomatic victory. The G8 also considered the issue of food security and aid, and Obama has spoken about Africa being self-sufficient. This has resulted in a promise for $20 billion (around €10 billion) to be invested in rural aid over the next 3 years in developing countries, though, again, there will be the small matter of following up on the promise now that the leaders have left L'Aquila.

As for the significance of the G8, I'm torn. On on hand, it has become obvious that power in the world has shifted so that the G8 can no longer be expected to come up with the solutions to the problems of the day anymore. This can be seen from the simple fact that the G5 were invited along to attend. On the other hand, there is a value in a group of (mostly) like-minded countries coming together to discuss various issues at the highest level. It helps grease the wheels of diplomacy (though I suppose, depending on the leader, the foreign affairs officials may see that differently), and could help co-ordination and lead to better achievements at more specific summits. It may be the end of the G8's significance, but that doesn't mean that it's the end of the G8's usefulness.

Sunday 12 July 2009

An Irish Problem to frustrate an Irish solution?

There's a phrase in Irish politics: "an Irish solution to an Irish problem", which usually means a compromise that's been created to solve a problem that could only arise in Ireland. Could this new Defamation Act be an Irish Problem to frustrate an Irish solution?

Arguably the court ruling in Corway v Independent Newspapers was an Irish solution - here the Supreme Court ruled that there could be no prosecution for blasphemy because, while it is in the Constitution (article 40), there's no legislation for the "crime" of blasphemy. Per paragraph 36:

"There is no doubt that the crime of blasphemy exists as an offence in Irish Law because the Constitution says so. It says that the publication or utterance of blasphemous matter “is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with the law”. Yet the researches of the Law Reform Commission would appear to indicate that the framers of the Constitution did not intend to create a new offence. This may explain why there is no statutory definition of blasphemy. The Censorship of Films Act, 1923 S.7 (2) and S.13 (1) of the Defamation Act, 1961 assume that the crime exists without defining it. It would appear that the legislature has not adverted to the problem of adapting the common law crime of blasphemy to the circumstances of a modern State which embraces citizens of many different religions and which guarantees freedom of conscience and a free profession and practice of religion."

And 38:

"In this state of the law, and in the absence of any legislative definition of the constitutional offence of blasphemy, it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists. As the Law Reform Commission has pointed out neither the actus reus nor the mens rea is clear. The task of defining the crime is one for the Legislature, not for the Courts. In the absence of legislation and in the present uncertain state of the law the Court could not see its way to authorising the institution of a criminal prosecution for blasphemy against the Respondents."

And that could have been the end of it, but a few months ago the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahren, revealed plans to legislate to outlaw blasphemy (in order to fulfill a supposed obligation set by the constitution), despite the Committee on the Constitution recommendation on the subject being a referendum to amend Article 40 to bring it into line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Frank Schnittger wrote a good background on the proposed act back in May.

On Friday, the new Defamation Bill passed in the Seanad, though only after the government whips called for a walk-through vote - giving the government time to round up 2 more Senators to reverse the first (lost) electronic vote. The Bill will be signed into law by the President - which is merely a formality at this point, since she cannot refer the law to the Supreme Court on grounds of constitutionality.

The Bill as passed by the Dáil is here. The article concerning blasphemy is Article 36 (Page 26 on the PDF).

The decision to draft and pass article 36 is a strange one. The reception by the public has been very negative, going by the various letters to the editor I've read in different newspapers, and a referendum could presumably be done at the same time as the Lisbon Treaty referendum on October the 2nd (though that is no longer a realistic possibility now that the Dáil's in recess until September). The reasoning behind the legislation has been confused too - the only real reason that's been given is that the Constitution must be enforced, and that nobody should take the law seriously - but in that case why work on passing the law in the first place; why not have a quick referendum and be done with it, instead of tempting right-wing religious groups with a legal means of suppressing contrary views?

The excuse that the law was one that would never be really be seriously tested is given lie with the changes over article 36(1). The original upper limit of the fine that could be imposed was €100,000, on the thinking that the higher the fines are, the less likely anyone is of actually being convicted. Yet, this was seen as too harsh, and the fine cap is now €25,000. ["The Minister added that he had amended the Bill to remove the threat of imprisonment and reduce the fine for blasphemous libel from €100,000 to €25,000."] Still a hefty sum; but surely this weakens the argument that the law is being made so ridiculous that it will never be enforced in practice?

It's hard to see the reasoning behind each part of the (completely unnecessary) process.

And that's long before you get to the meat of the argument that in a diverse and open society there shouldn't be the legal protection of ideas or beliefs from criticism, and that setting the limits of free speech at blasphemy is far too restrictive.

It's an amazingly wrong-headed and ridiculous law that doesn't represent the Ireland of today.

Saturday 11 July 2009


Today is the 14th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, where they are still working on covering and identifying the bodies of the victims. There will be a burial ceremony of the 534 newly discovered victims in commemoration.

From France 24:

"Tens of thousands of Muslims are expected in the eastern town to attend a commemoration and burial ceremony for 534 newly identified victims.

The remains of the victims, aged between 14 and 72, were in most cases found in secondary graves, where they had been moved from initial burial sites in an attempt by Serbs to cover up war crimes.

The massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed by Serb forces after they captured the UN-protected enclave on July 11, 1995 is to be commemorated for the first time across Europe, but not in ethnically divided Bosnia itself.

The European Parliament in January proclaimed the date a day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide, calling on countries across the continent to support the move."

The massacre won't be commemorated across Bosnia and Herzegovina: Serb deputies have blocked an attempt in the Bosnian parliament to declare 11th of July a Remembrance Day in BiH, and Bosnian Serb authorities have condemned the EP resolution.

The man who led the Bosnian Serbs during the war, Radovan Karadic, is awaiting trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The UN Security Council has extended the mandates of the ICTY judges to continue their work, and the work of the ICTY looks to be a long way from completion, with 2 fugitives still at large: Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić. Ratko Mladić was the Bosnian Serb military leader at the time of the massacre, and is charged with direct involvement in what happened.

The OHR and Special Representative for the EU to Bosnia and Herzegovina has made a speech at Srebrenica; here's an excerpt:

"...we must do everything in our power to build in Bosnia and Herzegovina a society that can uphold the law, that can protect its citizens, that can ensure their physical safety, their freedom, their dignity and their fundamental rights. A just society. Part of that effort includes communicating clearly and accurately the nature and scale of crimes that were committed during the 1992-95 conflict.

You know that in January 2009 the European Parliament adopted a Resolution calling on all citizens, members of the European Union and Western Balkan countries to mark July 11 as a day of remembrance of the genocide committed in Srebrenica. It is important to understand the nature of this resolution – it does not call on citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to remember the genocide, but it calls on ALL Europeans to observe this day. This is not something only for those who were bereaved. Every right-thinking person will contemplate with horror and profound sorrow the terrible crime that was committed here. That is why today is a day of mourning not just for the people of Srebrenica but for all the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and all the people of Europe and the world.

No one must be allowed to deny or belittle the suffering of victims and their families, and no one must be allowed to misuse the memory of that suffering for their own political ends. There are still some who have failed to understand the terrible moral and human calamity that war crimes represent. In that lack of understanding are the seeds of fostering hatred in future generations. Everything must be done to prevent this hatred from perpetuating itself. It is our commitment to educate and inform. Peace is built upon true information, on justice, and justice is built upon truth.

The most fitting memorial to those, who we have gathered here to remember and honour, is a Bosnia and Herzegovina that guarantees the dignity of its inhabitants."

It is hard not to feel shock and anger at what had happened; I am very lucky to have grown up in a society which, though divided, never reached the level of killing that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina had to endure, but it serves as one of the world's - unfortunately many - reminders of what evil can easily happen if we put one identity or idea above our common humanity.

Thursday 9 July 2009

An Update on Bosnia and Herzegovina

I'm a bit late in posting this though I'd read it a while ago, but following the vetoing of an attempt by Republika Srpska to claim back some powers from the central government, the various political parties in BiH failed to meet on the 28th of June. The continued fractured nature of BiH politics means that the office of the Official High Representative (which has an extraordinary degree of power in the country's political system) is likely to be considered a continued necessity by the Peace Implementation Council.

Elections will be held in 2010, which may have the effect of accelerating the deterioration of relations in the BiH, or it could help focus minds on the country's declared EU membership goal.

European Voice has an article on the failed political meeting here, and my original blog post on the veto and a bit of background is here.

Referendum date set: 2nd October 2009

The 28th Amendment of the Constitution (Treaty of Lisbon) Bill 2009 (Initiated draft PDF) has been passed quickly by the Dáil yesterday. The date for the next referendum (in case you missed the title), is the 2nd of October, and the Referendum Commission has already been set up.

The Bill has probably already gained the assent of the Seanad (the Upper House), as it was due to vote on it when I was watching the Oireachtais Report earlier on. A video of the debate in the Dáil hasn't been uploaded on the Oireachtais website yet, but it hardly seemed a stimulating debate from the Report, with the 3 main parties mainly stressing the need to win the confidence of the people in the referendum campaign. Sinn Féin, the only anti-Treaty party in the Dáil, didn't have anything new to say either, from what I've seen. When it comes to Yes campaign unity, I haven't seen anything yet to make me optimistic on this score; some of the outspoken invokers of unity haven't always been great at putting across a good campaign message. Perhaps the new civil society groups will strengthen the coherence and argument of the Yes side this time around.

The Yes side has no excuses this time - it has plenty of ammunition against the arguments of the No campaign from last time around. The legal guarantees form a catch-all argument against various claims, the German Constitutional Court ruling has confirmed that the EU will have no say over the armed forces of the member states, and the Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon has recently stated that Ireland's EU peace mission participation is compatible with its UN role (the UN is a key source of legitimacy in any international involvement for Ireland).

On top of this, the most successful anti-Lisbon group, Libertas, has lost its well-known leader Declan Ganley, and the representation of anti-Treaty MEPs from Ireland was halved in the June election (from 2 to 1) with the loss of Kathy Sinnot, the co-leader of the now defunct InDem group. Of course, many of these people and groups will continue to campaign against the Treaty - notably the new Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group will campaign against the treaty, though it hasn't got an EP seat in Ireland. The temptation of Yes campaigners to rubbish them and get caught up in ridiculous claims must be resisted, and they must focus on reasons why people should vote for the Treaty.

Monday 6 July 2009

A short July Round-up

I was away for the weekend, so I've missed a few bits of news, so here's a short round-up:

1. Javier Solana has ruled himself out of the running for the High Representative of the CFSP post - or the replacement post if Lisbon is passed in the Irish Referendum. Solana has served as the CFSP chief for 10 years, as well as being the Secretary-General for the Council*; so he knew something about being in a "double-hatted" position, as the Lisbon HR's post would be (the HR would also be the vice president of the Commission). I wonder if this announcement is good news for Barroso or not. It means that there's one less Iberian to compete with if there's a multi-office package up for negotiation (Felipe González would probably be backed by Sarkozy who is reportedly dropping his support for Blair for the Presidency of the European Council). Barroso still has a chance that the EP could confirm him for the post before the Irish Lisbon vote.

*These posts aren't actually officially linked; he just happens to hold both of them at the same time.

2. The Bill for the 28th Amendment to the Irish Constitution has been published (see Stephen Spillane here and here and Irish Election - Irish Election has the full wording of the amendment).

So the second referendum campaign will start gearing up, and the campaign organisations Generation Yes and Ireland for Europe could become more active (Generation Yes has already been quite active). The Dáil will be closing for a long summer break soon, and I somehow doubt that TDs (Irish MPs) will spend it campaigning for the Lisbon Treaty - if they won't keep the Dáil open for longer during the worst economic crisis the state has had to face, then what are the chances of them doing some campaign work?

3. Barroso has been urging that the G8 accept the need for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The Commission will attend the G8 in L'Aquila this week. The language of the article indicates that the Commission isn't asking that much of the G8 right now - "accepting the need" may turn out to be less significant than the European Council's "political backing" Barroso for a second term - but movements in policy this week could translate into more co-ordinated negotiations by the G8, and perhaps also the EU, come December's Copenhagen Climate Change conference. The significance of the G8 has in any case been downgraded politically by the rise of the G20, but the G8 may still reveal some of the changes in position in the diplomatic dance that will be ongoing between now and December.

At the moment, my expectations for the December Summit are quite low, given the economic crisis and the natural focus on getting the global economy going again. Some of the indications of the cost of fighting climate change are jaw-dropping, and it's hard to see how fiscally-pressed states will be able to stump up the cash. Sweden has a tough task ahead of it if it wants to boost the EU's green credentials. [The Swedish presidency has a page on EU environmental policy here].

Also worth looking out for is any sign of the press embarrassing Italy - which is Berlusconi's fear.

4. The US and Russia will probably agree on a new Treaty aimed at reducing their nuclear arsenal. It's good in terms of diplomacy and improving relations, but at the same time, it is probably one of the few areas in which they will find it easy to reach agreement. Georgia, NATO expansion, missle shields, etc. are much more sensitive diplomatic issues. Hopefully a deal on nuclear arms - and the inter-governmental commission that's mentioned - will throw up more opportunities for closer and better relations between the US (and EU) with Russia.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

The Commission and the Smoking Ban: Should Commission announcements be given a health warning?

You may have heard that "Brussels" would like an EU-wide smoking ban:

"The commission is suggesting the bloc's 27 member states agree smoking in "enclosed public places, workplaces and public transport" be banned by 2012, while children's exposure to tobacco should be specifically tackled and "efforts to give up tobacco use and pictorial warnings on tobacco packages" should be encouraged."

Predictably, it's got a strong reaction from some:

"The UK Independence Party says it will further harm UK pubs and accused Brussels of crossing the line.

"Nobody pretends that smoking is a good thing, but it is legal," said UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom.

"These bullies seem to have no truck with freedom, liberty or tolerance. Well in that case we shall have to take it back. And if that means a certain level of civil disobedience, well so be it," Mr Bloom added."

I've also seen the words "Big Brother" being bandied about. Of course, this all assumes that the EU (or the Commission) has the power to bring in such a ban. It doesn't.

First of all, all the Commission is proposing is a Recommendation, which would call on member states to make the changes themselves. The recommendation would have to be passed by the Council, and wouldn't be legally binding - article 249 EC* states that "Recommendations and opinions shall have no binding force." Basically, all it would do is say "The EU thinks that..."

Even if the Commission wanted to propose a legally binding smoking ban, it couldn't - the EU doesn't have the competence. Article 152 EC outlines the extremely limited competence of the EU when it comes to health - 152(4)(c) states that the EU can adopt "incentive measures designed to protect and improve human health, excluding any harmonization of the laws and regulations of the Member States." [emphasis mine].

There's also case law on the legality of legislation concerning the tobacco industry (mainly laws on labeling and advertising). Tobacco Advertising (Case C-376/98) and Tobacco Advertising II (Case C-380/03) in particular illustrate the limited extent of EU competence when it comes to health: the ECJ said (as a crude summary) that other legal bases [treaty articles] cannot be used to circumvent the express exclusion of the harmonization of laws in the health area, and that health aspects can be taken into account when shaping legislation as long as health isn't the primary purpose behind the legislation (i.e. legislation affecting the free movement of goods and the ability of magazines with tobacco ads in them to circulate freely in the single market).

So if the EU can't enact such legislation, then why is the Commission making such a big fuss? EUobserver hints at it:

"...a large majority of Europeans favour smoking ban in the workplace (84%), restaurants (79%), as well as also bars, clubs and pubs (65%)."

The Commission is jumping on the bandwagon and trying to look as if it's doing something useful and popular - and this gives the impression that the Commission is more powerful than it really is. It will convince Eurosceptics (further) that the Commission is an extremely powerful body that can interfere with practically anything, while it's likely that most pro-Europeans will have doubts about whether the EU should have such competence in this area. And those neutral to the debate? They probably won't notice it much, but it confuses further the question of who has responsibility for what. David Keating has a good article on the Commission's opportunism and how the announcement could affect perceptions of the Commission.

The trouble is that the Commission is inflating expectations of what it can do without having the power to influence the outcome, so that whatever the result, the Commission is likely to annoy people and loose support and make it look big, powerful, interfering and incompetent, rather than making itself appear a pro-active force acting in the citizens' interests. Perhaps the tendency to make such announcements is linked to the top-heavy nature of the Commission?

There should probably be health warnings for Commission statements in the future, such as:

"Warning: this statement contains irrelevant political blather."
"Warning: this statement could lead to legislation."
"Warning: this statement could be a product of boredom and should not be taken seriously."

*Treaty Establishing the European Community

On Phone Chargers

The EU has managed to get the top 10 mobile phone companies to agree to adopt a single phone charger that will be compatible across their brands. The companies include:

"...Apple, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson – [and they] represent 90 percent of Europe's mobile phone market."

The story has been covered by Stephen Spillane and Gulf Stream Blues.

There will be no legislation to enforce this; the move is an agreement between the companies and it won't be enforceable in law. However, the agreement only came about when the EU applied pressure by threatening to introduce legislation in this area - which would probably pass in the Council and the European Parliament, just like the roaming charge cap.

The benefits of such a move will be mostly environmental, since there will be less electrical waste of old, incompatible chargers being thrown away, but there will also be benefits to the consumer in terms of convenience.

Dave Keating at Gulf Stream Blues touched on what could be one of the most interesting aspects of this story as it (might) develop:

"Since most of these companies also design phones in the US and the rest of the world, I would assume that this standardization will eventually spread to the rest of the world. After all, why would they make phones with different electrical input jacks specifically for Europe?"

If the single charger is adopted by these companies outside of the EU, it will demonstrate the economic power that comes with the single market. As the economy globalises, it's likely that market access will become more essential in the calculations of the economic and political consequences of regulation. The bigger the market, the more insulated that market is from the negative economic effect of regulation: so it's easier for big markets such as the EU to set higher standards than small (and sometimes even medium) states as the relative economic power of big companies is reduced when they want to ensure they have market access.

Not that the EU should go mad regulating, and I'm not denying that EU regulation can have negative effects on the economy - it all depends on the regulation, and views on particular examples of regulation will vary depending on political priorities. But the single market enables states to re-assert (some of) their political power and relevance at a time when economic power is growing and limiting the political options of states.

Another thing to note is that the Tories in the EP have welcomed this new move:

"British Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour, member of the consumer affairs committee in the European Parliament, also welcomed the agreement.

"The days of drawers full of useless old mobile phone chargers will soon be over. Common sense has prevailed," Mr Harbour stated.

"We will no longer have to worry about forgetting our chargers and having to ask around to find one that is compatible. This agreement will also encourage more chargers to be recycled, preventing electronic waste," he added."

Perhaps an attractive aspect of this deal for the Conservatives is that it was reached without any actual legislation (though it's still strange to hear the Tories hailing a European move as a victory for "common sense"), but it shows that there is recognition in the Conservative party that the single market is worth something as a working reality, and not just a free-market ideal to pay lip-service to - and what's more, there's a recognition that common rules/policies mean something.

Now it could easily be countered that the Tories could hardly mean anything else when they say they support the single market as you can't have a single market without common rules. Still, the recent political message of the Conservatives gives a different impression. If the Tories are serious about this new group, and are serious about the single market, they will have to show in their rhetoric that some decisions need to be made in Brussels. They also need - and this is a big step that they might never take - to accept that it follows that there should be some form of political contest in the EU, since the question of economic governance is a left-right issue. They will have to accept the value of politics while (if they remain committed to the ECR) rejecting political union itself.

A coherent political vision from the ECR will probably never occur to anyone within the group, let alone see the light of day, yet that is what they'll need if they don't want to be outflanked by withdrawlists and if they wish to avoid being cornered into policies that will weaken the single market itself. In other words, their political group at the very least needs to get political. Politics isn't bad, you know.

Guy Verhofstadt becomes leader of ALDE

Guy Verhofstadt has become leader of the Liberal group, ALDE, in an unopposed contest after UK MEP Diane Wallis dropped out of the race at the last minute. ALDE is the third largest group in the European Parliament after the EPP and PASD.

Politically it means that if he decides to challenge Barroso for the Commission Presidency (it's unlikely since he would need the support of the EPP, and the - even less likely - support (or acquiescence) of the Council to manage it) he may have a stronger base in the ALDE and would be part of the Presidents of the EP who will decide on whether or not to put Barroso's second term to the vote in July. This is all a big stretch, though, but if the Commission Presidency vote is delayed to the autumn, then Barroso's candidature enters dangerous waters and it would give any Parliamentary challenger time to gather support.

At this point, and even if the vote is deferred, the most probable scenario is that Barroso will be re-appointed, and the Liberals or the PASD will win a half-term of the European Parliament Presidency.

It will be interesting to see how Verhofstadt will work in the EP (and if he'll use much of his group's speaking time. Will he try to make the Liberals a more coherent group, and will he work towards a coherent European campaign for the next elections (though it should be noted that ALDE consists of 2 Europarties), and how would he go about it?