Tuesday 29 December 2009

Because it just wouldn't be New Year's without...

...A gas crisis.

EUobserver has reported that there are warning signs of yet another gas crisis on the horizon, with Ukraine looking for high transit fees. Though the article reads as if everyone involved is trying to give off reassuring signals, budgetary pressures on both Russia and Ukraine (though perhaps particularly Ukraine) may work against a quiet solution.

It's stressed that there are enough reserves to see out any cut-offs in supply:

"The EU's executive body has re-assured, however, that there is "no current threat to supplies to households or to businesses" as emergency oil stocks in the 27-nation bloc stand at comfortable level of 122 days of consumption.

Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic also report having sufficient reserves - 118, 94 and 101 days, respectively - figures well above the mandatory 90 days."

If there is another gas crisis, then the EU's response will be very interesting. By now, the EU's approach should be more coherent, given the regularity of the gas crises, but even beyond that the role of Baroness Ashton, the new High Representative, will be worth watching. Would she prove effective at advocating a common position and articulating it? Would pressure be brought to bear more on Ukraine or on Russia, and how? Would pressure be applied (can it be applied) through the Eastern Partnership?

Since the HR's work will be mostly done behind the scenes, and with so many factors outside her control, it may be a difficult to fairly access her approach, however...

Monday 28 December 2009

Blogging Update

The blog has been a bit slow lately when it comes to updates and new posts - sorry about this. December has turned out to be very busy (coursework season plus several other things), and January is looking to be busy too (exam season). Still, I'm aiming to increase the postcount going into the new year, and increase my activity on Bloggingportal.eu and Chasing Brussels.

I jope you've had, and are having a good Christmas holidays, and will have a great new year!

Thursday 24 December 2009

"Is Nuclear in Ireland's Energy Future?"

Here's my latest post over at Th!nk About It:

Yesterday the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET) at Queen's University Belfast held what will be their first annual Christmas Lecture. Christmas Lectures have quite a history, and are a part of a kind of scientific and educational tradition: "... in 1825, Michael Faraday, co-founder of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, started a series of Christmas Lectures to present scientific topics to young people at the Royal Institution in London."

When I first heard about the Lecture this year - and that it would take the form of a debate on the place of nuclear power in Ireland's energy future - I thought it was great that they were starting up this tradition again with the IET's Northern Ireland branch, and I asked if I could film parts of it for Th!nk2. In the end the original opposition to the motion pulled out on short notice, and I was asked to step in as part of a new opposition (which I did, despite warning them that I didn't really know much about the subject) - so it ended up being a much more educational experience than I'd expected!* Personally, I don't have very strong opinions on nuclear power either way, apart from the waste issue, and I wouldn't mind leaving existing nuclear power plants in operation for the time being (why focus on them if emissions are the big target and oil and gas produce more emissions?). Luckly, my team-mate, Michael, had some personal experience of green industry, and we tried to make the best case possible on (mainly) practical cost terms, rather than some of the traditional arguments (though we used some of them too).

The Proposition's case was that nuclear power would become part of Ireland's energy mix through interconnectors with the UK and the mainland continent - that, while renewables should be expanded on in Ireland, Ireland should be able to draw on the stability and controlability of nuclear power as part of its energy mix. Emphasis was on the improving technology and the utility of nuclear.

The Opposition's case focused on the costs of nuclear and its alternatives. Production, construction, and other costs were highlighted, along with the level of subsidies the nuclear industry receives compared with the relatively new renewables sector. Problems with waste were explored, and alternatives were highlighted.

Each speaker spoke for 10 minutes each, and then there were questions from the floor.

Chair: Susan Whitla

Proposition: David Laverty and Thejus Kodiayt

Opposition: Conor Slowey and Michael Montgomery.


I tried to record the debate, and I got most of it on the iFlip, but the distance means you might have to turn up your volume to hear it. I split it up into 6 parts, and I currently have 3 parts uploaded online, so I'll try to update this page later with the rest of the debate. (I wasn't able to get the PowerPoint presentations in-shot, but they mostly weren't relied on by the speakers).

[UPDATE: I've now uploaded the remaining 3 parts of the debate, which includes the first 2 questions from the audience. Unfortunately the iFlip ran out of space before the end of the Q&A part: the questions related mainly to the viability of the alternatives (particularly when it comes to scale) and on technical and waste issues with nuclear power. Though the PowerPoints weren't central to the debate, they were refered to occasionally, so you can find them here if you want to take a look.]






In the end, the House voted that nuclear was in Ireland's energy future. A big thanks to David (the first speaker for the Proposition, who organised the event); I hope to see the Lecture becoming a regular feature of the university year!



* Having to research and debate a topic I didn't really know much about reminded me of a point we talked about during the first test ThinkCast: that blogging can be valuable by encouraging people to become more informed on a topic - perhaps blogging is more useful for the bloggers themselves than for the readers?

Wednesday 9 December 2009

COP15 Interview with Bairbre de Brún MEP

My lastest post on the Think About It platform is an email interview with MEP Bairbre de Brún on the role of the European Parliament in the climate change talks and on where the EU should go when it comes to climate change policy. You can read the post on the Th!nk2 platform here.

Bairbre de Brún is one of my constituency MEPs; she's a member of the party Sinn Féin in Ireland, and sits with the United Left group in the European Parliament. In the European Parliament she sits on the Environmental Committee (ENVI) and is part of the European Parliament's delegation to the Copenhagen conference. She agreed to an email interview with me; so a big thanks to her for taking the time out during such a busy period to answer my questions. Here's the interview:


1. The European Parliament's Environment Committee might not feature strongly in the public's imagination when it comes to the COP15 Conference, the main image of which consists of heads of state and government. What role had the Committee played in the run up to the Conference? Has it done enough?

I believe the Environment Committee, and before it, the Temporary Committee on Climate Change, has played an important role in the run up to Copenhagen.

Legally, of course, the governments and the Commission are kings but the European Parliament has succeeded in applying pressure for them to go further than they would have otherwise. The EP passed last month an ambitious albeit imperfect resolution which called for a legally binding deal at Copenhagen and action on emissions reductions and finance: the resolution stated that recent scientific data indicates that an emission reduction of at least 40 % is required; calls for those reductions to be domestic;’  However, it stopped short of repeating recent calls for a long-term reduction target of 80-95% and instead ‘ recalls that a long-term reduction target should be set for the EU and the other developed countries of at least 80 % by 2050 compared to 1990 levels". It also stated that ‘the collective contribution of the EU towards developing countries' mitigation efforts and adaptation needs should not be less than €30 billion per year by 2020’.

This type of political pressure is important and it also gives citizens a yardstick by which they can measure the achievement of the summit. The EP can also help pave the way for an ambitious deal through its contacts and visits with legislative bodies in China and the US for example. This role goes back a long way and was important also in Poznan and Bali and before.

2. It looks like a binding deal at COP15 is impossible, or at least highly unlikely. If a binding deal can't be reached, should the EU commit to a 30% reduction in emissions in any case?

The EU should not use the excuses of others as an excuse not to forge ahead by itself if necessary. The European Parliament has recognised ‘ that recent scientific data indicates that an emission reduction of at least 40 % is required; calls for those reductions to be domestic’

The science is clear that we need to cut emissions now! A global deal is the preferable way for all to do so but in its absence blocs like the EU have a responsibility to continue on the road to where we know we need to go regardless of the reluctance of others.

Even from an economic point-of-view an EU which progresses towards the green economy of tomorrow will be in the medium- and long-term in an extremely advantageous situation compared to those who cling on to the old dirty economy of yesterday too long.

We must also continue to push for a legally binding deal in Copenhagen, one that is strong enough to tackle the challenge of climate change while being just and fair to developing countries.


3. The US Congress has proven to be very slow and conservative on reaching agreement on a climate change bill. As a member of the Environment Committee, do you sense that the Committee and Parliament as a whole are willing to take the necessary legislative action to live up to the EU's green rhetoric?


The US needs to be part of any global deal and having recently travelled there as part of an official European Parliament Environment Committee delegation I can say categorically that there has been a change in attitude since the Obama administration took over. However the complexities of the US lawmaking process mean that much may remain unclear about the exact figures the US will commit to for both emissions reductions and for financing at Copenhagen. The House of Representatives has passed climate legislation but the Senate now looks unlikely to do so before the end of the year.

To date my experience has been that the EP and the environment committee in particular has been the most progressive institution out of the three bodies (Council and Commission being the other two) when it comes to environmental legislation. Therefore I think it is necessary to ask the question of the governments: are they ready to back their rhetoric.

Having said that the European Parliament could also go further than it has in my view. 

4. There have been rumblings over a possible EU environmental tax policy (concerning VAT). What would be your position on changing the VAT rules to make VAT a "greener" tax?


Sinn Féin opposes EU control over taxation as the ability to set the rates of taxation is a core element of sovereignty. Therefore if any new proposal amounted to increased EU powers over taxation we would be opposed.

Notwithstanding the above, the party is supportive of the introduction of some form or forms of revenue neutral (ie intended to engineer changes in behaviour, and ensuring that the state does not become reliant on them as a source of public funds) environmental taxation so long as these have progressive features (ie do not have disproportionate impact on those least able to pay or least able to change their behaviour), together with other simultaneous or advance supports for behavioural change. 

5. Developing environmental industries and projects seems to require a lot of assistance or intervention from the state, and the Commission has promised to use the Social Fund to fight the recession in a “Green” way. Is the Commission doing enough? Should the Social Fund be increased or expanded to invest in Green projects? Should the European Investment Bank take up the task instead, or as well, if at all?


The EIB does have a role to play in providing credit to eco-innovation, and the environment is one of the EIB priorities.

The Commission has also taken some initiatives but the transition to a ‘green economy’ must be much more centre stage.  This will involve the Structural Funds but must also involve a green skills and green jobs strategy. Member States must also play their part.

R+D will be crucial in the time ahead.  There needs to be structured and co-ordinated review of how the ‘green economy’ will be integrated across the range of policy measures and instruments.


6. What are your ambitions for environmental legislation during this parliamentary term?


I would expect further legislation regarding climate change to deal with the post-Copenhagen situation and also to deal with adaptation within the EU.  It will also be important to see further measures on biodiversity and ecosystems. In the immediate term timely and proper implementation of existing legislation will be crucial.

I also expect further measures in terms of sustainable transport, although these may involve a number of European Parliament committees.



It's encouraging to hear such a strong call for binding targets, especially after the leaked Danish Text came to light. While I think the EU should forge ahead with tougher emissions cuts whatever the outcome at Copenhagen, I have spoken with people who believe in holding back on more extensive cuts for a better bargaining position (either for Copenhagen itself or, if a good deal isn't achieved, for the follow-up talks). I wonder what the opinion is out there on what the EU's strategy should be?

Meanwhile, in Brussels, Climate Change legislation rumbles on...

I return once again to the glamorous world of citizen-legislative-journalism with a new Think2 post on energy efficiency. You can read it on the Think2 platform here, where there's also lots of interesting coverage of the COP15 conference that's now taking place in Copenhagen.

The appearence of the Danish Text has caused outrage in Copenhagen, and rightly so (I can only hope that it's some sort of diplomatic tactic to concentrate minds and help spur on alliances in order to push a good deal through). Meanwhile, in that other famed *ahem* hotbed of politics, the Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers - think of it as the Senate of the EU system), the recasting of building regulations was up for consideration.

Does this matter? Behind every good summit stands an army of bureaucrats rolling their eyes at the paperwork: boring as it may be, these directives and regulations are the much desired practical follow-up and implementation of the lovely political rhetoric we get to hear on climate change.

The proposals themselves aren't overly ambitious, though their aims may sound ambitious: the aim is to recast regulations of the building sector on its energy performance (PDF) in such a way that combines several political objectives. The proposals should increase the energy performance of new buildings and renovated buildings, boost the building sector with some new work through these requirements, help reduce the energy costs of citizens, help to reduce carbon emissions and so help member states meet their international and European commitments on climate change. It would be great if it really had this effect, but though it aims to restrict state aid to building work that doesn't comply with the requirements under the directive (eventually), market forces are still the central element here: the regulation is trying to direct the market in such a way that it dovetails with climate change goals. However, even if the law encourages more building work and economic activity, I doubt that there will be a such a great level of economic activity in this area now (or member state intervention) that the differences made by this law would approach a considerable scale, but it's still a step in the right direction.

It's also important to have action in this area because:

"The buildings sector – i.e. residential and commercial buildings - is the largest user of energy and CO2 emitter in the EU and is responsible for about 40% of the EU's total final energy consumption and CO2 emissions. The sector has significant untapped potential for costeffective energy savings which, if realized, would mean that in 2020 the EU will consume 11% less final energy.

Since the law would be a directive, member states have can choose exactly how to transpose it into their national legal systems (directives require member states to pass national laws giving effect to them, rather than the EU just passing a law and it being law across the EU automatically [though it can do that as well]). This means that the process will be quite slow. The measure was proposed in January 2007 (which perhaps explains the greater faith in the market to some degree), and it still hasn't passed. When it does, member states will have until 31st December 2010 to transpose the law and until 31st January 2012 to fully implement it. Though it's better to get it done right than to have a sloppy law, it hardly gives the same impression of urgency as the rhetoric of the politicans. Considering that the Commission thinks that only 22 member states have implemented the original measure fully, it will probably be a lot longer than 2012 before the law is sorted out properly."

As residential buildings aren't covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme, it would fill a gap in the EU's climate change/emissions strategy.

Still, it reads better at the moment than the state of play at COP15...

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Not all coverage of European News is that bad

I've complained about journalists confusing the ECJ and ECHR before, so I thought I'd just point out an article that caught my eye last week in the Irish Times:

"European Court to be told Irish abortion ban violates rights".

It caught my eye because it does make the distinction between the EU and the ECHR, and it brings up an interesting case before the ECHR which affects some of the politics of the religious right who sided with the No side campaign in the Lisbon Treaty referendums. The claim that the Treaty would affect Irish law on abortion was a false one, which makes the distinction between the two courts in the media all the more important if there's to be a clear and proper debate on it.

"The court is to have a full hearing of the case before its grand chamber of 17 judges on December 9th.

Based in Strasbourg, the court, which is separate from the EU, adjudicates on human rights issues among all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights – now incorporated into Irish law – the Government is obliged to seek to implement whatever decisions are made by the courts.

The identities of the women, known as A, B and C, will remain confidential as the case proceeds.

They include a woman who ran the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, where the foetus develops outside the womb; a woman who received chemotherapy for cancer; and a woman whose children were placed in care as she was unable to cope.

They argue that the lack of any effective remedy at home means they have satisfied the requirement to exhaust domestic legal remedies. In addition, they say that taking a case would have been costly, futile and could have forced them to relinquish their anonymity.

The Government, however, contends that domestic legal remedies have not been exhausted by the women. It also robustly challenges suggestions by them that there is a lack of post-abortion care or counselling in Ireland. Among the questions the court will ask of the Government, and the the three women, include:

Have the applicants exhausted domestic legal remedies available?"

Also, the case is interesting in itself, since it will consider whether a case will be taken on by the court if it hasn't been through the entire national legal system first. So it could be an interesting case to watch out for, with the hearing beginning tomorrow.

I first mentioned this case here.

Monday 7 December 2009

The State of the Euroblogosphere

Thursday saw the first Euroblogosphere meet-up, and, despite being plagued by technical issues and general rebellion by the internet, it went quite well. An outrage of bloggers* gathered to discuss the language barrier, how to raise interest in and expand the Euroblogosphere, and to just chat generally.

The language barrier was the dominant issue, with several ideas being floated. While English is perhaps the most commonly spoken second language, restricting any translation effort into just English would be quite limiting on the Euroblogosphere, and would exclude many Europeans from the chance of getting involved. However, it's clear that any translation effort - even if focused on only a few interesting or influential articles - would be time-consuming, and labour intensive. The Euroblogosphere has proven very capable of making voluntary efforts - such as Bloggingportal.eu and the Gender Balanced Commission campaign - it's hard to see how a major translation effort could be sustained. Having a funded and specially designed blogging platform to bridge the language gap would seem to be a better option, but it too raises many technical, funding and presentational issues. A voluntary newsletter or summarising effort based around Bloggingportal.eu struck me as the best option.

Engagement was the most interesting issue for me. Nosemonkey made some good arguments about the exclusivity of the Euroblogosphere:

"What the Euroblogosphere needs is simple - a) more of us, and b) more passion. The EU is incredibly dull. The reason we've all got such little traffic is mostly because of this - but also because we're failing to make it sound interesting. The anti-EU blogs, meanwhile, are much more fun to read - because they've got real passion behind them (even if they're mostly based on lies and bullshit) [...] Anything that makes it sound interesting and relevant. The biggest problem with the Euroblogosphere is that it's a) very small, a, and b) most Eurobloggers haven't been doing it very long - which means that most of the coverage is very, very general. Loads of posts about what it means to be European, ideal reforms of the EU. It's all too theoretical. Political theory only engages geeks - for it to grow we need to engage the man/woman on the street. This is something the anti-EU blogs do very well - albeit through lies and bullshit."

As a Euroblogger, I'm definitely on the theoretical/institutional side of things, but I recognise the value in opening up to different aspects of EU politics. If we want to encourage growth and development in the Eurobloggersphere (more readership, more bloggers, and more engagement), then as a political blogosphere, we will probably have to move towards a more normal style of political blogging. This means blogging more on the left-right, government-opposition divide in the EU, because this is both the politics that matter more in day-to-day life, and the type of politics people can identify with more, and find easier to debate. "How far should the banks be regulated and how - and how is it playing out in Brussels and in the national capitals?" is a much more politically relevant question to people than the institutional development of Qualified Majority Voting. This brings up a few interesting points, though:

1. It's easier to write about institutional politics than just politics. Yes, I wrote that right - it really is easier. It's much easier to have an opinion on the high politics of institutional reform and Commission appointments than it is to follow policy debates. Policy debates and legislation take a lot of time and effort (and the patience of a recently canonised stone) to follow. The passage of legislation is slow; it pings back and forth from the Council to the Parliament, and is hard to track on the EU websites. Following months of negotiation on aspects of the single market may not be an appealing idea to prospective (and existing) Eurobloggers. And would people read it?

2. Lack of official engagement on the web. Or indeed in the media at large. Though there's plenty of officialese statements flowing from each of the institutions, there's very little in the way of media-friendly policy statements or active MEPs on the internet. While some dedicated Eurobloggers may track down and explain some policy areas, the high level of effort involved will mean that it would remain a minority of the Euroblogosphere. But perhaps the effort of trying to open up EU politics like this would encourage more MEP engagement and the media-isation of Brussels' political language?

3. Speed. Legislation is slow, and it's hard to maintain interest over the period to report on an issue in the same way a national blogger may do in a shorter time span.

4. Bloggers. You can't get bloggers to do anything, not even if you ask politely. So how can you encourage a move towards reporting on the party-political aspect of the EU (note that this shouldn't require becoming party-political for the bloggers themselves). Perhaps some sort of common call to look at this aspect of EU politics more? It should be an area that is interesting in and of itself for Eurobloggers. We can't ask or expect other bloggers to write about it, but hopefully some will pick it up, at least partially, and add their two eurocents. So how about it? Do you think it would be a good area to write about, even occasionally?

Despite the obstacles, I think it's at least worth a try. I won't be able to properly try until after Christmas, and the idea of Europe and how its institutions work will still be very interesting to me, but I'll try to write a bit more on the daily politics of the EU. It'll take some adjustment, so bear with me on this.

Also, interaction with national blogospheres will be important too. I'm not sure how much I can bring EU politics closer to Northern Ireland's regional politics, but I should (and will) try to interact more with national blogospheres. Again, it'll take a while to get going, since my time's a bit limited at the moment.

So, do you think it could work?

* I'm hoping to get "outrage" accepted as the collective noun for bloggers, since it's the most common natural state of blogging.

There's now a Chasing Brussels episode on the topic, with many Eurobloggers debating these issues.

Chasing Brussels #9: Language and the Euroblogosphere

Chasing Brussels #9 is out now, and this week we're taking a closer look at the direction of the Euroblogosphere (which is every Euroblogger's favourite topic). The podcast follows a Euroblogger's virtual meet-up on Skype and Google Wave, where we discussed the language barrier and how to get more people involved and engaged in that most fasinating of all topics: EU politics. So the podcast picks up on this debate and explores some of the suggestions that were brought up on Thursday's meeting.

In the podcast this week were:

Jon Worth,
Julien Frisch,
Frank Schnittger,
Matthew Lowry,
Joe Litobarski (hosting),

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Of minarets and democracy

In Switzerland, further construction of minarets has been banned after a referendum on the issue (57% in favour). This seems to strike at the heart of many debates: the separation of church and state, between the religious and the secular, on referendum and the tyranny of the majority, and on human rights and minority rights. This law seems objectionable for two reasons; one relating to rights and the rule of law, and one relating to liberal democracy. The draw of the argument that a referendum trumps these because it's the "will of the people" may be attractive on a first glance, but if we look at what we mean by the rule of law and the purpose and extent of democracy, it soon looses its force.

It might seem strange to ask if a law passed by a referendum is "legal", but, just as states are limited in their sovereignty over their people, so the sovereignty of "the people" is limited over the individual. This is done by constitutions (though these can be changed - usually, but not always, by referendum), but it's also done through international conventions and treaties on human rights - in the extreme is the outlawing of genocide; a crime over which all states have universal jurisdiction, so that even if the sovereign power makes it legal within its borders (even through referendum and the will of the people), other states can prosecute the perpetrators on their territory.

So is it legal? The EU Law Blog has a good article on this, and argues that it can't be held to be legal, since it violates the right to religion. there have been counter-arguments that the right to practice religion is qualified in its public form, but this misses the point that qualifications on rights must be justified. The referendum result cannot be this justification, just as "the state passed a law" cannot be in itself a justification - there must be some public necessity based on public health, order, etc., in order to limit the rights of individuals.

I very much doubt that any firm reason of public necessity can be given: only minarets are banned, not church spires or church bells, and the minarets that are already built will remain. The law is manifestly discriminatory, as it enforces a ban on one community without applying the same restrictions to others in similar positions, and without a set of valid reasons. On this basis it probably violates the European Convention on Human Rights, which Switzerland will ironically be chairing (though hopefully they won't be chairing it ironically).

It's because it violates this tradition of rights and raises the spectre of discrimination between religions that Julien Frisch has denounced the referendum as a Europe he wouldn't vote for. On its own, I think the above argument is enough - that not only is it a violation of rights, but an unjustified one.

Some may still argue that despite the rights-based argument, and arguments against the tyranny of the majority, the result is democratically legitimate and that should trump any other concern.

But to do so would be pushing towards breaking the distinction between the public and private spheres in liberal democracy. should everything be within the public sphere - or subordinate to it? Should everything be subject to the sovereignty of the state/people? Generally we consider the private to be superior - and that the public needs a good reason to interfere in the private sphere. Let's apply that to this case: this concerns private individuals, building on privately owned land with their own funds. The state is not involved. There are no planning permission-based objections. So we would say that the public sphere (in this case the state acting as an agent of the will of the people) needs a proper reason of public concern to interfere.

Extend it further: what if a private individual built placed a statue to the Virgin Mary on their land. Such statues aren't essential to Catholic worship/expression of religion, but they are a private expression of religion. Would a referendum banning the erection of statues of the Virgin Mary be legitimate? No; we'd say that it's an arbitrary rule that doesn't follow the rule of law. If it was a law banning the erection of all statues, the law would be more rational and less discriminatory, though it would still be unjustified - on what basis can the state intervene? If the complaint was that there was unreasonable light pollution from the light illuminating the statues, then there may be the beginnings of a reason if it: (1) could be proved that the light pollution was serious enough to be of real public concern, (2) there was no other way of preventing the light pollution. It would fail because: (1) it leaves the already erected statues alone, (2) the lights are at issue, not the statues themselves and the lights should be subject to a ban or a form of regulation to ensure they remain within certain limits. On the basis of religion, culture or politics objections, how is the statue adversely affecting the rights of others to religious, cultural or political expression? It doesn't.

This issue is not only about democracy and human rights, but on the extent of the state, the rights of the individual and the rule of law. There cannot be a coherent argument for the decision on the basis of democracy unless it's from the position that the will of the sovereign trumps everything, every time.

And I can't accept that level of state power.

Now Lisbon's in force, Parliament has nowhere to hide

1st December 2009, and the Lisbon Treaty is in force (well, it has amended the two treaties that make up the constitution of the EU, anyway). It's biggest innovations were the extension of Qualified Majority Voting in the Council and the increase of Parliamentary power - the two are pretty much in step. The European Parliament wasn't powerless before, but now it is virtually an equal to the Council, except in areas of unanimity, such as foreign affairs.

So now there's nowhere for Parliament to hide - it has to prove that it's deserving of these powers; that it's willing to go further in holding the to account, in staking out it's own position more clearly from the Commission and Council, and it must go further in transparency - both from itself, and from the Council and Commission. The Commission President's Question Time needs to become more focused as well: now MEPs have more power, they should prove themselves able to get a good handle on the different issues and ask the awkward questions - this doesn't mean ranting on about political points (I'm looking at you, Martin Schulz), but digging around and making sure you put Barroso and other Commissioners on the spot to open up the Commission to real scrutiny.

The hearing of the Commissioners in the run up to the vote in January must be rigorous, revealing, and truly testing for the Commissioners-designate. In particular, Baroness Ashton's positions on Iran, Russia, the Middle East peace process, energy policy, the Eastern Partnership, etc. must be made clear. Likewise, Oettinger needs to be pushed on how he wants to see the EU's energy policy develop; it's an important portfolio, and one that the Commission has proven quick to move on in Barroso I, with important energy market reforms and the implications of climate change politics - is Oettinger up to the job? The Parliament needs to be willing to reject the Commission if it doesn't correspond to its political views; it shouldn't just rely on there being someone who can be easily recognised as objectionable even through a lazy media glance - a list of good policy reasons should be enough. There doesn't need to be a rejection of the Commission just to ritually assert the Parliament's position, but they should make sure the opportunity to shape it doesn't pass them by.

Finally, and as a greater task, all the parties in the Parliament should work to make their mark outside the Brussels Bubble in the public's minds. Better Parliamentary debates help, and will hopefully entice the media to report on them more, but the parties need to make their presence felt more in the mainstream media and at grassroots level. The Citizen's Initiative could be an excellent way of doing this if done right: a campaign for a certain policy for the media to report on, co-operation across borders with common campaigns, engaging people in European politics ("We need your support! This is what we're trying to do for you in Parliament and the EU!") and it builds up at least some recognition of the Euro-parties (or at least the position of the national parties on European issues, which will be helpful in any case come election time).

The Citizen's Initiative requires 1 million signatures across borders, and the Euro-Parties are supposed to help express cross-border political debate. The link and the logic should be obvious, and the party to latch on to it and to runs campaigns well - and follow them up in Parliament effectively - would be laying good groundwork for the 2014 elections.

Now that Lisbon's in force, we deserve a better working Parliament - more transparency, scrutiny and engagement. There are no more excuses for not trying.