Thursday 22 October 2009

Chasing Brussels #4

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

Moderated by Joe Litobarski, with Jack Thurston of and and myself as panelists.

Direct link.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Think2 Post: "Judging Europe"

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Debate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*I couldn't insert the link for some reason, so here's the long version:

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

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Mary Robinson for the Presidency!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Chasing Brussels #3

The third Chasing Brussels episode is out now, with the Irish Referendum as the topic. We also discuss Czech ratification, Tory attitudes to the EU and the Lisbon Treaty, and Tony Blair's possible canditature for the post of President of the European Council.

Hosting the show is Jan Seifert, with Joe Litobarski and myself as panelists.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Chasing Brussels #2

The second episode of our EU politics podcast, Chasing Brussels, is now published for your listening pleasure (well, for you to listen to, anyway).

This week's topic is the result of the German election, and what the outcome means for European politics. It's moderated by Julien Frisch, with Jan Seifert and myself as panelists. A big thanks once again to Joe Litobarski for editing the podcast.

We hope to have another out soon and to make the podcast a more regular release.

Monday 5 October 2009

Blairs' Backers are making a Fundamental Error

Media attention is back on the possibility of Tony Blair becoming the President of the European Council. Many arguments surround his - possible - candidacy: his supports think he will be a strong, recognisable figure who would give the EU a greater voice on the world stage, and shape the office into an agenda-setting focal point in the EU's institutional structure. His opponents oppose him simply because they consider that Blair just isn't the right man for the job given his attachment to the US over the EU and the failure to make the pro-European case in the UK.

Blair's personal background and qualities can be (and have been) picked over: a good speaker and deal maker, experienced on the global stage, has a reputation burdened by a war legacy, is generally pro-European in outlook, failed to bring the UK into the Schengen and Euro zones, comes from a major yet largely Euroskeptic member state... However, while this is an important debate, behind it lurks the idea that the post can really become a strong executive post - and it can't.

It's not really a surprise that this impression has surfaced - the EU is incredibly fond of creating presidential titles. The heads of the Commission, Council, Parliament, ECB, etc, are all Presidents. The European Parliament even has a Council of Presidents (the party group leaders) who collectively agree on the Parliament's agenda. The European Council is also the highest level of the most powerful institution in the EU, the Council, so in many ways it's natural to assume that any presidential role emerging from this institution could become quite powerful. But while it's true that a strong first President could make the post stronger and more influential, he or she won't be able to force his or her decisions through or play a strong executive role.

First of all, the role will be that of a chairperson. There's no doubt that this could be an influential position; the Parliament has its president, so it can present an institutional voice, even if the political sands are constantly shifting in the chamber itself. In some ways the Council, by virtue of its sheer power, doesn't really need a strong spokesperson. However, a rotating presidency and the intermittent attention of member states to some issues mean that a chairperson could significantly boost its coherence. Being able to organise agenda and shape the debate will make the role important and influential - but not strongly executive.

Institutional arrangements will prevent the emergence of an overpowering President. The Commission retains the power of legislative initiative, and the Parliament has been strengthened under Lisbon so laws require a high degree of support across the EU institutions to pass. Within the Council, it's important to note that the rotating presidency doesn't disappear - when the Council is in it's "committee" forms (agriculture, etc.), it will still be chaired by the rotating presidency, except for the foreign relations circle, which will be chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs (who will also be the Vice President of the Commission). So the President of the European Council is more likely to emerge in a similar (but slightly stronger) form to the US Vice President: influential and visible, but with limited institutional reach.

The desire for a strong European Council Presidency is quite strange when it comes from the member states. Barroso's main strength in getting nominated by the Council in July was his relative subservience to state interests - is it really politically likely that member states will weaken counterbalancing leadership roles in the EU only to set up a rival in their own institutional backyard? The President of the European Council won't be able to act without the backing of the Council, so it's likely that any President to tries to be too activist would be cut down to size.

A strong Presidential role would be undesirable for several reasons: it would favour big states at the expense of smaller states who depend on the Commission to ensure the equality of states, the post wouldn't be under the scrutiny of the European Parliament unlike the Commission President, it would diminish transparency and accountability. But the fundamental error of Blair's backers is that they seek to change the office to be more than it can be; an exercise that could end up obstructing law-making when the Lisbon was supposed to streamline EU decision-making.

Blair has a well-known ability to shape the office he occupies - he was famous for his "sofa government" in the UK. An over-activist President like Blair would continuously clash with the Commission and the semi-Commission-semi-Council High Representative. A drawn out political battle for influence, while it my draw more attention to EU politics, will hinder progress on issues that actually matter. And in the end, the style of Council Presidency may end up effecting the power relationships outside the Council more than the position of the Presidency itself, since the war for influence isn't one the Presidency can win outright. How would the High Representative, Commission President and the European Parliament react to such an activist President? Would the European Parliament and Commission draw closer to offset the Council? Would the High Representative be a Trojan horse for the Council or for the Commission - or would he or she play at both? Would Barroso try to concentrate power in the Commission in his hands further?

Blair is not just the wrong man for the job, but the vision of a Presidency that he represents is simply wrong for the office. Trying to create a strong President won't create a strong EU.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Does time heal all policy wounds?

David Cameron's European policy seems purely aimed at placating the anti-EU wing of the Conservative party, perhaps the sole aspect of the unappealing Old Tory party that has been openly embraced by Cameron, who has tried to modernise the party and shift it towards the centre. This has given the policy an ad hoc quality, and has allowed it to be driven largely by shadow foreign minister William Hague and Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. I say ad hoc because, though the Tories' European policy can easily be identified as Euroskeptic, it's harder to see the actual goal of the policy. And surely to have a successful policy, you need to know where you want to go?

The policy - insofar as it exists as a conscious policy - is also ad hoc because the principles behind it that are on display, aren't really backed up with action after the symbolic move has been taken. Though the Tories have tried to present the ECR Group in the European Parliament as the "first real opposition" and the separation from the EPP as the opportunity to give people a chance to vote for a sceptic, non-withdrawalist grouping, scant attention has been paid to the ECR apart from its scandals (of which it has quite a few for such a young party). In fact, the Group doesn't even have it's own website - this was brilliantly exposed by Jon Worth's cybersquatting. But then, the aim was never to advance a political ideology, but to bin Europe as an issue in the Tory party altogether. The move to the ECR will therefore result in a loss of influence in the European Parliament, while not advancing any clear political vision. It has also started to damage relations with former EPP sister parties like the CDU - as the BBC reports:

"Joint policy groups have been scrapped and an annual meeting has been cancelled. [...] Mr Altmaier [from the CDU] acknowledged that the working groups had concluded their work, but added that when the time came to form new ones the CDU would be looking to their partners in the EPP. [...] He added that, for the same reason, no Tory MPs had been invited to come to Germany as observers during the recent election campaign, as they usually would have been."

Though pragmatism will mean that the UK won't be completely isolated in the Council under a Tory government, the Tories will have to work and lobby harder to construct issue-by-issue alliances.

The promise of a referendum over the Lisbon Treaty brings the Tory dilemma over European policy to a head (though it naturally won't be resolved given the dangers the issue poses to party unity). Since the UK Parliament has already ratified the Treaty, it would be an incredible reversal of UK foreign policy to push for its retrospective rejection in a referendum - especially if the Treaty has come into force. Tearing up (or attempting to tear up) a painstakingly negotiated compromise is also unlikely to help with mending fences after the EPP split. Perhaps most importantly for Cameron's likely government: it would also open a can of worms for the Tory government - with no clear party vision on what it wants out of Europe, and with the fragile unity the party has on Europe, can a Tory government seriously renegotiate a relationship with the EU that's: (a) acceptable to the whole Conservative party; (b) acceptable to the other member states; and (c) legally and practically possible? And that's without taking into account the vast economic problems the Cameron government would have to face, as well as the questionable populism with which the Conservatives are approaching constitutional reform in general.

So what's Tory policy towards the EU if the Treaty is in force if/when they come to power? Either there's a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty or on EU membership, or there's an attempt at renegotiating back competences, which would require a clear idea of what exactly the Conservatives want, and what they think the EU is for. It would have been better for Cameron if Ireland had voted No and taken the flak for binning the Treaty, so that the Tories could advance their aims, such as they are, without a loss in diplomatic, political capital and party unity. But now Cameron has to make a choice.

At the heart of the Tory dilemma is that it wants to see reform the EU, without exactly knowing what it wants from the EU. Presumably withdrawalism, though vocal in the form of Cash and Hannan, remains a minority opinion in the party since the ECR is more geared towards retaining and advancing the single market aspects of the EU while supporting deregulation and reversing integration. Yet the die-hard anti-EU wing of the party has managed to exert considerable influence on European policy, because the withdrawalists are the only wing of the party that have a clear vision of the UK's relationship with the EU and also enough momentum in the form of the policy concessions they've won from the party leadership to drive their agenda.

Cameron effectively lost control of European policy from day 1 when he promised that the Conservatives would leave the EPP, since he can't push for a more moderate form of scepticism. This creates real problems for him, because the belligerent style of current Tory policy makes progress on even moderate aspects of Tory European policy almost impossible to achieve. The European question won't go away - time won't solve this one. Splitting from the EPP means that Cameron can't hide from the European question by just muddling along as before. Cameron has signalled a change in Tory policy toward Europe, even if substantive change wasn't intended, and with little control over the expectations his party creates, Cameron is likely to be dogged by the issue if he can't deliver.

Saturday 3 October 2009

Lisbon passed with 67.1% voting Yes

It's official: the Irish people have voted Yes to the Lisbon Treaty, with a big swing from the first result (53% No) to 67.1% Yes. With the Polish President promising to add his signature to the Parliamentary ratification of the Treaty, the only real obsticle left for full ratification is President Klaus of the Czech Republic.

Nosemonkey has already examined the question of the referendum's legitimacy.

Will he hold out long enough for a Tory government to be elected in the UK? It probably depends on the fate of another challenge some Czech senators are making against the Treaty in the Constitutional court. If the challenge is thrown out, it will become nigh impossible politically for Klaus to hold out - after all, he is only an indirectly elected figure-head head of state.

Kosmopolito has asked whether this marks the end of the road for big EU treaties and if smaller, single-issue treaties are the way forward. I think that single issue treaties would be a great move: presenting a clear-cut issue would go a long way to ensuring that future debates can stick on topic. However, the image of a complicated tangle of competences and treaty law isn't appealing - I would prefer a unanimious system rather than an opt-in, opt-out ad hoc one.

Grahnlaw has already called for greater transparency under the Lisbon setup, and has set out quite clearly what he would like to see happen. I'd love to see it myself, but I can't say I think it will quite happen....

Finally, happy Unity Day to Germany! Froehe Tag der Deutschen Einheit!

Friday 2 October 2009

Referendum Day

So today's the big day, and Ireland is going to the polls to vote on the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. I'm hoping for a Yes, and I'd encourage Irish voters to vote for a Yes for 4 main, simple reasons:

1. It will strengthen the European Parliament. The Treaty gives the EP a greater say over EU legislation and the EU budget, which gives our vote in the European elections more weight.

2. It will involve national parliaments more in the EU legislative process. It give national parliaments a greater opportunity to scrutinize EU draft legislation and allows a "yellow card" system so they can register disapproval or subsidarity concerns.

3. It forces the Council to vote in the open - increasing transparency and accountability.

4. It gives the Charter of Fundamental Rights the force of law, enshrining human rights and workers' rights so that EU law has to comply with these standards.

In other words, I hope for a Yes result because the Lisbon Treaty, while imperfect, enables the EU to work better, and strengthens democracy, transparency and human rights in the EU.

The result will be revealed on Saturday, since counting doesn't start until then. There is a live blog on Irish Election.