Tuesday 11 May 2010

A Week as a Romanian S&D MEP

From 10th-17th April I was a Romanian MEP for the S&D group in the Model European Union 2010 event in Strasbourg, and it was definitely a memorable week.** MEU did an amazing job trying to recreate the whole experience of the EU political system: people played the roles of MEPs, Council ministers, interpreters, lobbyists and journalists. This post will be part report, and part MEP's diary for the week, but considering the number of roles and work and experiences that the event took in, its inevitably a snapshot from a (sometimes tired) MEP arguing for a few amendments in a sea of activity, as journalists filmed, took photos and published daily newspapers, interpreters strove to make sense of what MEPs were saying, lobbyists tried to persuade creatively (I even saw some €500 notes exchanging hands!), Council ministers maneuvered, and MEPs fought to make themselves and their opinions heard. And all in the grand setting of the Strasbourg Parliament building itself.

The two topics we had to deal with were a GMO Regulation proposal and the Returns directive proposal. Both went through the co-decision (or "ordinary legislative procedure" in today's Lisbon-slang), though due to time constraints (a phrase which became notorious over the course of the week), there was no conciliation committee at the end if the Council and Parliament failed to agree after 2 readings. Parliament started off with the GMO proposal, made amendments, then switched to the Returns directive to amend it and the Council's amendments, then finally switched back to the GMO proposal, as amended by the Council for the final vote to pass into law. (For the Council it was the same, just with the topics reversed). Before the simulation started, we had prepared for our roles - in the case of EP parties, we worked on common position papers - and in Strasbourg we had parliamentary procedure and debating workshops.

So this is my week as "S&D Romania".

**(In fact, two weeks: not only was there the event itself, but it happened to take place during perhaps the most news-filled week of the year, and then I had to take the scenic route home via Germany, the Netherlands and England. In February, when I went to The Hague, the Dutch government collapsed the day before I left. This time, there was the Polish plane crash, another plane crash, a French train strike, the biggest volcanic eruption in Europe for years, the grounding of nearly all European air travel, and the LibDems became popular in the UK. I'm expecting the US government to subsidise a trip to China for me any day now!)

In Parliament: Round #1: GMO Regulation.

The GMO Regulation aimed to regulated GM food and feed in the single market. It had been difficult finding out the Romanian S&D positions, and I'd done some research on GMOs in Romania, which had problems with contamination. The S&D as a whole wanted a lower threshold for contamination (which started off at 1% in the proposal, so something less than that) after which it would have to be labelled as a GM product. I lobbied for a small as lenient a threshold as possible for the position paper, though I was always going to be outvoted, so I tried lobbying for some sort of insurance against contamination, which was adopted as a negotiating position. Apart from that, we wanted stricter controls on GM and more frequent renewals for authorised GM, as well as more impartial scientific control over authorisation.

The Parliament (which took place in the S&D's party room in the Parliament building), consisted of 110 MEPs, and was dominated by the centre-right, like the real Parliament. The EPP had 42 MEPs to our 28. The Liberals tended to be the swing vote faction, and potentially decisive in passing amendments - though this only really struck us when it came to voting time!

Speech-wise the far left and far right were the stars, with loud (and at times worryingly charismatic) speeches on nationality and on the evils of capitalism. Lobbyists were also called in to be interviewed and questioned by Parliament. Though it started off easy-going, things got a lot harder when we realised that we had pretty much only dinner to draw up amendments, since we had a charity Gala that night. Our party split up into amendment groups, and I was in one on insurance. We ran into a few problems on what scheme to come up with and deciding on what would be the best way to phrase it so it would pass. We ended up with 2 good ideas but sadly - due to time constraints - we only put one forward. We proposed an insurance scheme that the authorisation holders would pay into to insure against the costs of any large scale damage caused by the crop even though authorisation conditions were complied with.

When Parliament opened again, there was a free-form secession, with MEPs running everywhere to make coalitions and sell their amendments. We tried speaking to some party leaders and any MEPs we could get our hands on (who were naturally delighted to be cornered on the issue of insurance!). Parliament then went through the amendments one by one, with MEPs introducing their amendments. There was a long debate on the threshold, the expense of labelling and on how often authorisation of GMOs should be renewed. When it came to the vote, I knew that we had the Greens and the United Left on our side for the insurance amendment, but that wouldn't be enough for it to pass. It could only pass if other parties split or MEPs rebelled against their party lines.

Luckily for us, the Liberals split (from what I could see of the red and green lights blinking on in front of their MEPs), and our insurance amendment passed by 56 to 52! (We only seemed to have all MEPs present for the final vote on Friday).

Unfortunately some good amendments that would have given the Parliament more oversight and control of the process were defeated, and the voting highlighted the need for more networking and lobbying. We then elected a Rapporteur to present the EP's amendments to the Council.

Round #2: Returns Directive.

A Council minister presented the Council's amendments to the Parliament before we quizzed him on the details. At this point most parties and MEPs seemed to switch to full human rights mode, and some of the right-wing parties acted slightly more left-wing (in some cases) than I expected. Once again the far-right EFD group and United Left had the most strident (and entertaining) speeches. [But a few of us weren't about to let them have all the fun, and we formed a kind of informal inter-party group. It's an old game, but we challenged each other to slip Father Ted and Star Wars references into our speeches in such a way as to make them seem a natural part of the speech. Though proclaiming that the Council might strike back may have been pushing it.]

Meanwhile, the insurance amendment must have been unexpected, and the Council asked for someone to be sent up to explain it. I volunteered, and got a grilling from the Dutch and Maltese ministers, whom I gave my best politician answers. The Council was sealed off from the public (and journalists and lobbyists), so it was only at lunch I could ask around to see how the amendment was fairing. The news wasn't good, though it seemed to depend on who was asked.

In the Parliament, however, the knives were definitely out as MEPs got ready to drastically rewrite the Council's amendments and the rest of the directive. Once again MEPs swarmed about the hemicycle trying to make alliances on amendments. I ended up talking to the EPP and ECR on rewriting a new article 15 that the Council had introduced. Worryingly, some parties became more fragmented towards the end and there were a few voting rebellions, though luckily the S&D group seemed to become more cohesive towards the end; article 15 seemed to be something we all generally agreed on though, and it passed with 104 votes.

It might have turned out to have aggravated the Council, though - from what I heard from the Council, they were always worried about what would and wouldn't pass through Parliament, while MEPs barely mentioned the Council. Council negotiations also sounded long and detailed, whereas MEPs were ruthless in cutting speaking time. Though the Council is more powerful and influential in real life, in the simulation sheer numbers meant that Ministers didn't have a big personal influence on MEPs, and didn't figure much in MEPs' political considerations, while the lack of the technical staff and advice meant that 27 people had to do the same amount of work that 110 people were doing in the EP. Perhaps having a team (1 Minister + aides) would help rebalance things and get more people involved?

Round #3: Final Vote.

The Council returned a heavily amended version of the GMO Regulation to Parliament, and the Minister presenting it had to deal with some typos in the text (which she did very well). It turned out that the insurance amendment had survived - thanks probably to QMV which meant there needed to be a super-majority to remove it. Though Parliament was unhappy with some of what was changed (and there were some serious typos), it was passed into law with 63 votes.

Overall MEU 2010 was a brilliant experience. It was hectic, meeting lots of new people, making speeches, working on amendments and alliances, and a full social programme with stuff to do every night (tours, parties, etc.). It was tiring but very rewarding, and I'd recommend it to everyone. The MEU 2010 website is here. I applied in January 2010, so I'm guessing that January 2011 will be the deadline month for participants next year. They also do national MEUs in some areas, so that might be worth looking into.

If you're wavering about going, then just go for it! I can't recommend it enough.

The European Citizen's now on Facebook!

The European Citizen now has a page on Facebook! You can "like" the blog here.

Having the Facebook page for the blog is new for me, so if there are any tips on how to make the most of it, or requests for what you would want to see from it, just say, either in the comments or on the page.

Sunday 9 May 2010

My Europe Day

My Europe Week has opened up a blog carnival for ideas, thoughts and opinions on Europe, to get a sense of what people hope, want and expect for the future of 500 million people - and counting. Over the last week it's been open to bloggers and non-bloggers alike, and I'd encourage everyone to make a contribution if you can and submit it.

What I'm celebrating

Europe Day should be a celebration, if nothing else! Europe is more to me than the politics that this blog deals with - through language learning (well, attempted language learning!), blogging, traveling and debating, I've met many great people both at home and across the continent, and I've had many brilliant experiences that I otherwise wouldn't have had. Like Julien Frisch, trains and railways symbolise Europe a lot to me. Standing in a train station in Germany, I feel the freedom of being able to travel to practically anywhere on the continent, across several countries and cultures.

It's that feeling of freedom and possibility, along with all the people I've met that makes me so enthusiastic and passionate about Europe, and I'll be celebrating all of this today.

What I want

The flip side of Europe Week is what you want from Europe, and where you think Europe should go.

When politicians speak of Europe, they always seem to talk about the past - and they shouldn't. Speeches on Europe tend to focus on absence, and what isn't: Europe means that there's no war on the continent, etc. While this is obviously something to cherish and celebrate, what I want to see is a more positive vision of Europe, and the leadership to back it up. Lately environmentalism and fighting climate change became Europe's more positive crusade, but there needs to be a vision and a greater level of citizen involvement to make the European project more relevant to people today.

The Europe I want should be about citizen empowerment. Brussels is bureaucratic and distant, but its politics need to be opened up and people need to be drawn in. There's nothing new in saying this; most people in the Euroblogosphere want more interaction and better communication. But empowerment and participation could be part of an engaging vision and renewing narrative for Europe. If the member states are in the EU because they are stronger together than apart, the political parties at a European level need to start communicating and engaging with the public on what "Europe" can do for them. National governments may not be able to tackle these problems alone, but citizens should be empowered to debate the solutions and engage in solving the problems facing Europe today. It's a simple thing to say, but obviously be an arduous task to undertake. But I think it's the only way Europe can become relevant and closer to its citizens.

This requires the Europarties to get their acts together. In the last election, voters rewarded parties to had a relevant message for the European stage - for example, UKIP in the UK and the Greens in France. Explaining challenges, providing solutions, communicating with voters; all these things will pay off in elections, even though the Europarties seem resigned to dependency on national politics providing them with lucky electoral windfalls. So parties need to become more structured in their engagement with the national media and on the internet. Parties should pick MEPs as their spokesperson(s) in a member state, build up relationships with the main broadcasters and newspapers, and be ready to supply talking heads when European issues arise. Having party faces and connections available will help the news media report on European issues: party-point-of-view makes occasional mentions more interesting, detailed and involving, and familiarity with MEPs will open up the EU system to journalists more.

I'm likely to be disappointed in this, but I believe that Europe needs active leaders in Parliament, and Council, and active citizens in NGOs, locally and online to add to the debate and vision so citizenship can be enriched and Europe can move forward. There has recently been indication that electoral reform will be on the European Parliament's agenda. Let's hope that MEPs will be bolder and braver in engaging with the public. 60 years on from the Schuman Declaration, Europe needs a citizen-centred vision that can deliver for citizens and involve them in building a pan-continental future.

Happy Europe Day from The European Citizen blog!

Thursday 6 May 2010

Biden courts Parliament with Security's "Terrible Beauty"

US Vice-President Joe Biden gave a 30 minute speech to the European Parliament in Brussels today. The first half of the speech was taken up with flattery for the EP, invoking powerful imagery of the EP and Congress jointly representing 800 million people (the EP 500 million of those). A comment that got particular attention on Twitter was that Brussels had as equal right as Washington to the title of "capital of the free world".

I was a bit confused with a reference he made to Yeats early in his speech when talking about how the EP and the EU have changed and remarking on President Regan's visit to the EP in 1985. Biden suddenly quoted Yeats' poem "Easter, 1916", which is about the Easter Rising - "All is changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born." I'm not sure if it was a slip in concentration on my part, or strange delivery on Biden's, but it sounded like he was comparing Irish revolutionary violence to the EU's formation and change.

Halfway through his speech, it became clear that he was referring to the security challenges in today's world. And at this point the speech became a diplomatic courting of the EP to get its support for US security interests. The lobbying for SWIFT was particularly blatant, with Biden explaining the long history of privacy protection in the US and his deep respect for the value, before turning to security as an "equally inalienable" value. Message: we need this information for protection.

Though obviously angling for the EP's backing on the EU-US deal, if changes are made to SWIFT to include safeguards, it could be helpful in winning over support. Biden talked about understanding, listening and responding to the concerns of Parliament over civil liberties - let's see if it's followed up with action.

Biden also raised concerns over nuclear proliferation (i.e. North Korea and Iran), and regional destabilisation. He said that the US supports security co-operation between NATO and the EU.

Overall, it seemed to be a speech that got sucked up into the "terrible beauty" of security issues, and it didn't touch much on economic issues, apart from a self-congratulatory mention that the US and EU had prevented a global economic depression. Though the EP is severely limited when it comes to security, it shows how the Parliament has gained in importance and power over the last few years, and how the US is keen on developing links with it so that there won't be the shock defeat of a matter dear to Washington's heart. The European Parliament's opinion matters, and it will have to be negotiated with and listened to.

UK Election 2010

It's polling day in the UK for the 2010 general election. The 3-way race between Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (itself a surprise outcome from the televised leaders' debates) has widened, and it looks likely that the Conservatives will "win" in terms of seats, even if it fails to secure an overall majority in the House of Commons. If the result is a hung parliament, then the Conservatives (or perhaps, wildly unexpectedly, Labour) could try to govern as a minority government (which is what the Scottish National Party has been doing in the devolved Scottish Parliament), or form a coalition.

So what coalitions are on the cards? The party in the strongest coalition-forming position is the Liberal Democrats, the centre-left pro-European party. Though the third largest party in a 2-party system, they're set to increase their share of the vote even if this doesn't translate well into an increase in seats due to the First-Past-the-Post system. Their natural coalition partners would be Labour, but it would be politically difficult for them to support a government that seems to have lost the support of the public, and Nick Clegg (the LibDem leader) has said that the LibDems couldn't support Gordon Brown as Prime Minister if Labour come third in the popular vote (though this could translate as second or even first in terms of seats).

It's a strange way for the LibDems to think about coalitions if they want to break the old system, as they've claimed. In a proportional representation voting system, coalitions are likely to become the norm, and the test of legitimacy would be whether the coalition had the majority of voter support, rather than that of the leading party, which is the old logic that the LibDem's language seems to indicate they follow. Still, they have left the possibility of a coalition with Labour open, even if Brown's head is the price. Such a coalition would make more sense than that of one with the Conservatives since they're both progressive, centre-left parties that are more supportive of working within the EU than the Tories, and have similar philosophies on the approach (if not detail) on how to deal with the economy and tackle the deficit.

Yet they still might form a coalition with the Tories (which I think would alienate a lot of their voters - after all, if they are taking support mostly from Labour supporters, how long will their supporters stick with them if they are keeping a, perhaps Thatcherite, Tory-LibDem government in power?).

Apart from the LibDems, the Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties would be likely to support any government on a case-by-case basis, based on whatever concessions they can get out of Westminster. In terms of the Northern Irish parties, the unionist parties would be natural allies of the Conservatives, while the nationalist SDLP, a left-wing party, would be more likely to support Labour/Labour-LibDems. Sinn Féin would be a big opponent of the Tories - but they don't take their seats in the Westminster Parliament in protest against the Union and the Oath to the Queen.

The ideal outcome for me is a Labour-LibDem government, so I hope people will be voting tactically to ensure that the centre-left get as many seats as possible (though I want the LibDems to do really well in order to boost the chances of electoral reform).

I'm against the Conservatives for several reasons:

1. I find them grossly and dangerously constitutionally illiterate. Their opposition to the Human Rights Act (with no clear explanation for what they'd do differently) is populist and their attacks on judicial power are something I cannot support given the lack of constitutional checks on the Parliament. The judiciary have proven to be better defenders of rights than the Parliament under the Tories or Labour, and I doubt the wisdom of diluting their power further.

2. Their Euroscepticism. It's unclear what powers they want to repatriate, how, and what difference this will make. Nick Clegg highlighted the advantages the EU brings to policing cross-border crime, etc. It is likely that Cameron would be more pragmatic in government, but then again I cannot trust a party which cannot clearly argue for the good points and against the bad points of a project. I don't see any clear vision, and suspect that the populist posturing will make it harder to be pragmatic, and policy will be confused and even hostage to backbench MPs (who are very Eurosceptic in the Tory Party).

3. I believe a more gradual reduction of the deficit is better for the economy. Basically I'm agreeing with the Labour/LibDem assessment here. Additionally, though it has a few (lonely) good points in it, Cameron's "Big Society" appears to merely be a salve for Tory consciences as they cut deep into the public sector. A culture of mass volunteerism won't spring up overnight, and I don't believe that a Tory government has the time, policy consistency, money and vision to nurture such an expansion in civil society. He's effectively asking people to volunteer to do some of the government's job for them. (Though obviously the point is that they think that the government shouldn't be doing it anyway). Again, I can't support this.

However, I live in a difficult constituency. The 2 leading candidates are a joint unionist one (likely to be pro-Tory), and a Sinn Féin one (anti-Tory, but won't take the seat if she wins it). Therefore, the pro-Tory forces will be added to, or we'll get a vacant seat which will reduce the majority number the Tories need to get to form a government.

I guess I'll just have to vote with my conscience to boost the vote of a party I support, but who probably won't win, and keep my fingers crossed that a Labour-LibDem government will be the result of today's voting...

Wednesday 5 May 2010

My Europe Week

Today, May 5th, is the anniversary of the Treaty of London, which founded the Council of Europe in 1949. Though the Council of Europe isn't an EU institution, it contributed to the spread of human rights and democratic norms across the continent through the European Convention on Human Rights and the court it set up to aid enforcement in Strasbourg.

So May 5th is a Europe Day, but it's not the only one - there's also May 9th, the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, proposing the European Coal and Steel Community (it no longer exists, but it was the starting point for what's now the European Union).

Usually these days largely go by without being commemorated on a large scale. This year, some Bloggingportal.eu editors have set up My Europe Week, to launch a blog carnival. You can write, video or photograph to express what you think about Europe Day, and what you think Europe is - or should be - about. Of course, bloggers can do this on their own sites, but non-Bloggers can get involved too (by submitting entries via this form). It doesn't have to be long, or in a certain format or strict theme (though being about Europe helps!).

Update: As Grahnlaw has reminded me, you can also follow and contribute on Twitter with the hashtags #MyEurope and #EuropeDay.