Wednesday 26 August 2009

First ThinkCast

The Think2 blogging community has started up over on the Think About It website, and we've decided to set up a Think2 podcast. It will launch officially in the third week of September with a special launch event podcast from Copenhagen, but in the meantime there will be 3 "preview" podcasts before then. Each podcast will feature a different group of around 5 ThinkCasters, since we got a great response to the podcasting idea. The first was recorded on Saturday and has now been published online.

The first podcast is about blogging, its impact and its future/purpose; you can find it here.

The Group includes:

Domen (the Host),
and me.

Hope you like it.

Thursday 20 August 2009

The Economics of Lisbon

There are 43 days left until Ireland votes again on the Lisbon Treaty, but it doesn't look like there's much campaigning by the main political parties on the issue. The politicians are on their holidays, but you would think that there would be more activity considering the vote is so vital (politically, at least, if nothing else).

And the arguments being made, when they are made, haven't been fantastic. The Minister for Foreign Affairs was on the radio earlier today speaking of the importance ratification has for Ireland's economy recovery. This message was reinforced by Intel, which has come out in favour of the Treaty:

"Intel Ireland's General Manager said voting Yes to Lisbon would maintain Ireland's attractiveness to multi-national investors.

Jim O'Hara said US multi-nationals and international investors have viewed Ireland as playing a central role in Europe and it is one of the reasons why they have invested here.

He said anything that would enhance that perception would be a good thing and every time we create uncertainty and doubt it does not help us.

Mr O'Hara said the company's call for a Yes vote was an unusual move but he wanted to send a clear message that from a business perspective a Yes vote mattered to the future prosperity and growth of Ireland.

He said last time he and others did not speak up on this crucial issue as they believed a Yes vote was a foregone conclusion."

Intel was heavily fined by the European Commission for anti-competitive practices in May.

I am uncomfortable with this line of argument being almost the sole argument for the Treaty. The Treaty in and of itself doesn't contain an economic strategy or anything, so it doesn't directly impact on Ireland's economics. On the other hand, politics does affect how businesses view a country and can inform their decision of whether or not to invest there. Since one of the major selling points of Ireland for foreign investment is that it can be a base for companies within the single market (from which they can sell products or services across the EU without facing trade barriers), Ireland's political position within the EU could affect its standing in business circles.

While there may be a political point behind this argument, this is not what the Treaty is about. So it shouldn't be the sole argument for voting Yes (as opposed to arguments merely against voting No). It's not enough to say that the Treaty won't damage Ireland's interests in certain areas; the Treaty itself must be "sold" to the public.

The Lisbon Treaty gives more say over EU legislation to the European Parliament, greater say to national parliaments, a right of petition to citizens, gives the Charter of Fundamental rights the status of primary law, and extends QMV in the Council as well as making Council votes public.

Another speech today by the Minister of Foreign Affairs did a better job; hopefully the quality of the Yes campaign will be better this time.

Or am I being too demanding in what I expect from the Yes side of the debate?

Sunday 16 August 2009

Reforming the Commission

With the second Lisbon referendum coming up in Ireland, Jason Mahoney has a new "Improved Spoofers Guide to the Lisbon Treaty". One paragraph in particular jumped out at me:

"The big gain is that we stopped the EU reducing the number of EU Commissioners and ensured that every country gets one. This means, by the way, that the Irish people have become the first people in the entire European Union to argue that there are not enough politicians and that we need more."

Of course, in Ireland we like our representation: for a country of 4.4 million, the Republic has 166 TDs (MPs for the Dáil) and 60 Senators (Seanad/Upper House), plus 1 President - though we've remained minimalistic when it comes to our presidents. In Northern Ireland, which has a population of around 1.7 million, the devolved Assembly has 108 members (MLAs) to "decide"* on a selection of issues that aren't dealt with in London.

But are there enough jobs to go around for 27 Commissioners? Here are the portfolios at the moment (take a deep breath and say them with me):

- President
- Industrial Relations and Communications Strategy
- Enterprise and Industry
- Justice, Freedom and Security
- Transport
- Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud
- Economic and Financial Affairs
- Internal Market and Services
- Agriculture and Rural Development
- Competition
- Trade
- Fisheries and Maritime Affairs
- Environment
- Health
- Development and Humanitarian Aid
- Enlargement
- Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities
- Taxation and Customs Union
- Financial Programming and the Budget
- External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy
- Education, Training and Culture
- Regional Policy
- Energy
- Science and Research
- Information Society and Media
- Consumer Protection
- Multilingualism

There will always be some jobs that are more important than others in an executive, but when it comes to non-jobs, we're really spoilt for choice here. Member States, of course, want their nominee to get one of the best jobs, and fear being "Orbanised". And sometimes, the number of policy areas and portfolios means that the Commission can come up with policy statements and announcements that give the impression that the Commission is more powerful/influential than it really is (for example).

If the Lisbon Treaty comes into force, then it will mark the end of reform for a while, but pressure will continue to build on the shape of the Commission - with Iceland, Croatia, Turkey and the Western Balkans knocking at the door, the number of Commissioners will continue to increase with enlargement, and new portfolios will be cobbled together by splitting up old ones.

So what are the options for reform? Here are a few suggestions:

1. We stick to the 1 Commissioner per Member State principle. In the interests of safeguarding national representation in the Commission (even though the Commission is supposed to take care of the "European" picture), we accept the costs and inconvenience of an over-population of Commissioners.

2. Rotation of "nationalities" represented. This is basically the same idea that was on offer in Lisbon I: the right to have a Commissioner rotates among countries, so for a certain period of time a nationality is not represented in the Commission. This was rejected in the first Irish Lisbon referendum, but it might be revived if Lisbon II results in a "No" (since the number of Commissioners must be lower than the number of member states under the Nice Treaty), or later on down the line.

3. Absorb the Commission's civil service into the Council and abolish the Commission as an independent organisation. The President of the Council would have an executive role. However, under this arrangement state power would become more important, and the independent functions of the Commission (anti-Cartels, etc.) could come under greater state and political influence and become less effective. Also, the political weight of states would matter more and big states would increase their influence at the expense of small states.

4. The President of the Commission is elected by the EP; the Commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the EP - the link between nationality, state and office is abolished. This would increase the independence of the Commission from state interests, and allow for fewer Commissioners. However, under this model not all nationalities would be represented in the Commission.

5. As 4, only with the added obligation that the Commissioners must reflect the diversity of the Union (certain number from big and small states, percentage of female Commissioners, etc.). Downsides: again, as in 4, though a certain amount of small states would be represented under this model - but which states wouldn't be certain.

At the heart of Commission reform is the question of what kind of Commission we want. There are a few interests to balance here:

- The more nationality/statehood is emphasised in the Commission, the more unwieldy it becomes, but the more nationalities can feel themselves to be represented (so the Commission is perceived as more legitimate, though perhaps less effective).
- The more state control over the Commission appointees, the more open the Commission is to state influence - especially the influence of big states.
- The more state control over Commission appointees, the more confidence the states will have in the Commission, but the less likely the Commissioners are to be the best people for the job.
- The more state influence over the Commission, the less legitimacy the Commission will have with small states, as big states will be more able to exert more political influence and bend the rules their way (a complaint in Ireland at times).
- The greater the independence of the Commission, the more it is able to apply/enforce the law equally among states, and the more legitimate it will be for small states, but also the more its legitimacy/usefulness will fall in the eyes of larger states.

From a small state perspective, strengthening the EP and the independence of the Commission is part of maximising the usefulness of the EU for small states: for small states, the EU equalizes the relationships between states and plays down the relevance of size (though it does play a big part in legislating). The stronger and fairer a legal system is, the more legitimacy and usefulness it has in the eyes of small states.

The question for small states as the EU expands and reforms is how to balance the need for representation in the executive (beyond that in the Council and EP) with the effectiveness and independence of the executive.

At the heart of the "Commissioner Question" in Ireland is the question of equality - how small states view and balance the different factors of equality will be an important factor in how the EU will be reformed in the future.

* Note the the Executive commands a massively overwhelming majority in the Assembly due to the 4 party coalition. And the Executive itself is so divided, that the general impression (if not the reality) is that ministries are the fiefdoms of the parties that control them.

Saturday 8 August 2009

Being European, or becoming European?

European identity is a complex one with many debates surrounding it (European nationalisms and identities is a particular interest of Josef's over at the Citizen-Europe blog), and identity, politics and culture fascinate me in how they interact at times. Still, on the question of European identity, I can only give a personal response.

So am I European, becoming European or is there any "European" for me to be anyway?

"European" to me is a lot of things. First, there's the mix of values that always gets mentioned when European identity is brought up; which is shown in a certain balance between individualism and the community and the welfare state. It's also a shared cultural and historical legacy that has shaped the continent and its nations, though sometimes in different ways.

Mostly, for me, being - or becoming - European is aspirational. When I think of Europe, I think of its diversity and its languages and its traditions, and I want to travel, explore and experience all of the little differences, while I still feel at home. To me it's not rootless cosmopolitanism, but a deep appreciation for many roots and a desire to feel a part of the different places and people that I meet.

Being European seems to be a process; of traveling, learning, meeting and experiencing, in places that feel to be familiar, but with added flavour. It's not something that I can really claim to be very good at - I have no natural gift at languages, though I try in my own way to learn more and practice (see my on-again-off-again German blog), and in many ways I'm very rooted locally: with my friends and family, and with my degree (and presumably career) path anchoring me home. I'm also a creature of habit. Though some factors mean that I cannot move as freely as some, I have met several people who I have found inspirational in their attitude.

For me, the European Ideal is in discovering and enjoying all that Europe has to offer. I doubt that many people could ever really "be" European - at least in the fullest sense of what I have in my head - but I think that the process of becoming is perhaps the major part of the thing itself. It's certainly one of the most enjoyable parts.

So am I European? Can you ever really say for yourself? Blogging has made me feel more European, and more connected, and has moved me to become a part of things like Th!nk2. If nothing else, I certainly want to be European - I've seen it, and I want to be part of it.

Do you think that a European identity could ever be inspirational (or aspirational)?