Saturday 28 August 2010

Spin, Damn Spin, and Statistics*

The latest Eurobarometer is out (PDF), charting the changes in public opinion in the EU (plus a few non-member states) over the last six months. (For some reason I imagine it delivered phone-directory-like, in a plastic coated bundle across Brussels and posted out to rare subscribers). I wasn't going to comment on it, because while I think the Eurobarometers are good for showing trends and indications of public opinion, I distrust reading into such polls as support for X policy or Y general philosophical outlook on the EU (or anything else, for that matter).

So Eurobarometer Day arrives (it's a public holiday in La Réunion, you know), and bloggers, Tweeters, and perhaps even journalists, look into the entrails of public opinion, to divine the way forward. Support for the EU is down by an average of 6% (42%, down from 42%; distrust now at 47%): proof that the public's patience with the EU project is approaching its end, say Eurosceptics. But distrust in national governments is at 66%, compared to a 47% distrust in the EU, say opponents (distrust in national parliaments averages at 62%). Now, the sharp drop in support for the EU is a concern - and indeed, the very low levels of trust in national institutions should be of great concern, given the (thankfully on the whole so far limited) rise in extreme right-wing rhetoric - but it's hard to say exactly what should be done about it. Because it's a steep drop, sudden, the reasons must be recent. Is it the Eurozone crisis (and does it mean people want more/less co-ordination, or were just disappointed/disillusioned with the heads of state/government arguing and hesitating over a solution?) or do they expect the EU to do more/less/something different to what its doing now? Is it the start of a trend, or purely a reaction to current events? We just don't know.

It's impossible to say, because the Eurobarometer is trying to measure satisfaction, trust, and concern for certain issues in people's lives. So it is by definition, vague. We can only say that there are certain issues that people want addressed, and that they are open to European co-operation on these. Beyond that, policy makers and supporters will have to make the cases for their ideas and try and win support for them. We can't tell if the EPP, PES or even the EFD would win the EP elections on their policy platforms (or even what theoretical policy platform would win), so let's stop pretending that this Eurobarometer is proof for support for X.

So, given that my take on the Eurobarometer, was "I don't think we can take much from this", I wasn't really going to write anything about it. But then I saw this post by Open Europe, criticising the Commission for holding up the Eurobarometer results as proof of support for stronger economic governance, and it annoyed me. Strange, perhaps, since I agree with Open Europe that the results cannot be read to automatically translate into support for economic governance, but the whole subsequent argument - that if the question of Commission scrutiny of national budgets, or of economic governance had been asked, then the opposite would most likely be the case - got to me.

That's right, instead of basing policy on survey questionaire results, we should act instead on what the results might have been like had other questions been asked. Not exactly an improvement, in my opinion.

However, I doubt that questions such as "should there be more economic governance" or "should there be an EU tax" would necessarily be very revealing. After all, the term "economic governance" hasn't been defined yet, so the responce is hardly going to reveal much in the way of support for or opposition to different forms of economic governance. And what sane person would say that asking "do you think there should be another tax", independent of specifics, context or a public debate of the advantages and disadvantages would produce a result which would provide a good basis for taxation policy? (Yet note the useful spin that can be generated for attacking the spin of another party, while suggesting that other vague and hypothetical questions would have produced your favoured result...).

This use of statistics - and worse yet, theoretical statistics - is what annoys be about these types of polls.** So while "only 26%" favour EU action (the highest percent, compared to national governments, the USA and the IMF***), can't tell us whether we should integrate more, or disintegrate more when it comes to economic policy (or how to do either), it does show that there is room for the arguments of closer integration (or the opposite) to be made.

In other words, let's debate our options, rather than look to the statistical entrails of Europe for a modern mandate from heaven. If you asked me, we'd be at least 46% better off if we did.

* Sorry for the bad pun of an over-used cliché. It was all I could think of as a title.

** And survey questioners. If you answer them, they can steal your soul, you know.

*** If you really want to know, the institutions people think are most able to tackle the crisis are: EU (26%), IMF (14%), USA (7%), G20 (14%), National governments (19%), None (6%) [not an official option], Other (1%) [not an official option], Don't Know (13%). So a nice spread of results allowing people to read into them what they want. Though I doubt that anyone running on a "Don't Know" ticket will be elected any time soon.

Thursday 26 August 2010

The Moral Authority of Europe

Despite the rhetoric of the EU as the "EUSSR", a neo-liberal project or as some sort of Papist plot, Europe holds an - at times, surprising - amount of moral authority, even in the more Eurosceptic member states. This is probably because of the practice of using "Europe" as a continental yardstick (e.g. highest cancer death rate in Europe; lowest teenage pregnancy in Europe), and because of the legal certainty the EU and ECHR can lend to policies (if the European Court of Human Rights rules on something, it carries a lot of legal and moral authority, even if legal academics continue to argue and debate the reasoning).

Which is why I wrote an open letter to President Barroso, Commissioner Reding and European Council President Van Rompuy on the Roma issue, urging them to speak out (NOTE: the refusal of the Commission website to relay my email to Barroso, and the chore of moving house have meant that I only managed to send a paper version to Barroso earlier this week). While the EU has issued statements that they will monitor the legal status and treatment of the Roma, there is an important role for the Europarties and EU institutions to speak out for equality and rights (though they obviously need to be held to account on this score as well). So it was good to see Commissioner Reding finally making the wider argument for tolerance (hat tip @dicknieuwenhuis and @Anna_EU_webteam).

However, the argument against mass explusions and for equal treatment needs to be made continuously, and, in the future, the response should be faster. France's calls for a exclusive immigration summit and calls that the EU decide a "coordinated response" on how to "deal" with the Roma's deportation show that national politicians and leaders who support discrimination against the Roma as a group know that the nation-state is a badly tarnished vehicle for carrying out their prejudices. These summits and immigration meetings are attempts to legitimise Roma explusions as "the norm" and "legally acceptable".

So we need to keep making the case for tolerance and equal treatment at the European level. If we don't, one day we'll find discrimination being legitimised in Europe's name.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Is nursing war by another means?

It has been reported by EUReferendum and by the Daily Express in the UK, that EU law is preventing safety checks (and in the caase of the Daily Express), language checks on nurses from other EU countries that want to be registered as nurses in the UK. In a follow up post, EUReferendum spelt out just how dastardly this is:

"...Seventy years ago, "foreigners" were trying to kill us. Today, largely the same bunch of foreigners are still trying to kill us. And it really does not matter whether it is a bomb or an ill-trained nurse. You are just as dead."

I'm not selectively quoting the one paragraph that has war-like imagery; read both EUReferendum articles, and you'll see that the whole affair is really just a re-run of the Battle of Britain.

The law that supposed to be the cause of these restrictions isn't mentioned in the articles, but I assume that it's Directive 2005/36/EC, or the Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive (PDF). It's aim is to allow the free movement of professionals with equivalent qualifications in other member states, including nures (Articles 31-33). This means that if a nurse has an equivalent recognised qualification in, say, France, then s/he will be treated the same as a a UK trained nurse. Not less strictly than a UK national, as EUReferendum suggests, but the same. So the aim of the legislation is to set down rules for the recognition of qualifications so that professionals from other EU states are treated equally in the host state if they've equivalent qualifications.

You can read the list of recognised nursing qualifications from this PDF. From this, and Articles 31-33 of the Directive, it's clear that the training has to include a theoretical element and clinical experience. The recognition of qualifications are "harmonised" in that there's a list that has to be respected throughout the EU, but these have been chosen on the basis of meeting the training requirements. There are other qualifications that might be treated differently, and the member state can use "compensatory measures" (tests, etc.) to check skills not included in that qualification's training. But the list of automatically recognised qualifications is set out to include qualifications that meet these standards, and therefore there should be no further tests that would not be applied to nationals of the same professional training.

But what about recent work experience - whether the nurse has worked in healthcare recently? I've asked the Commission representation in the UK what the position is, and I got this reply:

"UK authorities require EU trained nurses without recent working experience to pass a “return to practice training”. The UK authorities are planning to drop this training for nurses who obtained their qualification in another Member State, as it might go against the Directive.

The Professional Qualifications' Directive does not forbid organising such training; it just cannot be a prior condition in view of recognition of a nurse qualification obtained in another Member State.


However, if an automatically recognised EU trained nurse has been inactive for more than three years in the home Member State, this nurse has to fulfil all obligations UK registered nurses have to respect. Thus, if Continuing Professional Development is an obligation for UK registered nurses, also these recognised nurses from other Member States must follow CPD trainings allowing them to keep their skills and competences up to date and fit to the practice in the UK while being registered and exercising the profession.

In conclusion, the "return to practice" training cannot be imposed as a requirement for the automatic recognition of an EU nurse qualification. However, the Directive does not prevent the UK requiring continuous professional training for EU trained nurses who are already registered in the UK, but do not possess recent working experience."

If UK nurses have to fulfil extra requirements if they haven't been "active" in the last three years, then so do the nurses from other EU states. In addition, further training that UK nurses have to receive can be required of other EU national nurses, though it seems that this is independent of the registration on the basis of their autonmatically recognised qualification. I will try and contact the UK Department of Health to check on the actual treatment of nurses.

When it comes to language, Article 53 of the Directive states that the professionals in question shall have knowledge of the languages necessary to do the job. The Nursing and Midwifery Council, which is the UK regulating body, says (PDF):

"Under EU law the NMC cannot require evidence of your ability to communicate in English for the purposes of registration. However, you need to make sure that you have sufficient knowledge of English in order to practise professionally (Article 53 of the Directive). Employers will expect this and have the right to require evidence of English language competence to ensure that they employ nurses and midwives who are able to communicate effectively. Therefore it is possible that any offer of employment in the UK may depend upon you being able to demonstrate competence in the English language through a test."

It's important to note that being registered doesn't automatically mean that you start working as a nurse straight away, and employers can add some extra requirements.

The Directive isn't exactly the most terrifying World War II weapon I've ever seen...

Monday 23 August 2010

The Role of the High Representative and the EU's CFSP

Dan Smith has written a very interesting and well thought-out post on the state of the External Action Service (EAS) and its potential as well as what aims it should have. The Institute of International and European Affairs had a guest lecture on the topic back at the start of March 2010 on the role of the HR and the President of the European Council. I've embedded the video below.

Northern Ireland continues to Fail to implement EU law

A few months ago the big news in Northern Ireland was that a failure to properly administer CAP funds (e.g. built on land and some land not belonging to the farmers in question was claimed for) led to the Commission itself investigating the procedures of the Department of Agriculture and Regional Development, leading to a €60 million+ penalty being imposed. Now it seems that the BBC have uncovered the long-term failure of the NI Executive to implement EU legislation on protecting horse mussels. It seems that the original complaints were made 6 years ago.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC obtained 24 months worth of documents, which show how anxious the civil service was that the lack of progress in protecting the horse mussels would be uncovered, yet nothing was done.

"Even as late as June last year, six years after the initial complaint was made, one civil servant warned: "If the Commission asks what progress has been made... the departments will be exposed"."

It wasn't as if the Agriculture and Environment Ministries - and Ministers - didn't know that something had to be done about this: in January 2009 the ministers jointly proposed action, and that exclusion zones would be set up to protect the mussels:

"In January 2009, the Environment Minister at the time, Sammy Wilson and Agriculture Minister Gildernew called a press conference at which they claimed they were riding to the aid of the horse mussels.

By then a restoration project was had begun although there were still no non-disturbance zones and today, they still don't exist.

In the last batch of emails and minutes of meetings the BBC has seen little has moved on.

The two departments are still arguing over what size the non-disturbance zones should be and where they should be, they can't even agree over whether lobster and crab fishing is damaging the mussel beds."

While it can be argued that there have been difficulties in restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland that would have delayed descisions being taken, it's hard to believe that since the St. Andrews argeement in 2007 that these decisions couldn't have been taken.

It's interesting to see how this story is being picked up. The communal blog Slugger O'Toole picked up on the story earlier this weekend, and asked whether the NI government was dysfunctional or just incompetent. The BBC focused on the issues and explained how long the situation was going on for, and what had been going on within the civil service. The main thrust is about how local government is spending - or misspending - European money and living up to its commitments under European law.

In comparison, last week BBC Newsnight covered a story on English local councils being fined for non-compliance with EU obligations, but focused on the fact that some councils would have to pay for not flying the European flag, despite being in receipt of EU money. There was then a discussion on whether the European flag should be flown more in the UK (or England, since the pointed out that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland doesn't seem to have a problem with it). Since councils were being fined money for non-compliance, I would have thought that it would be useful to focus on what areas caused the most trouble, and what problems stopped the councils from successfully carrying out legal obligations.

However, setting that aside, since the flag discussion isn't a bad idea in and of itself, looking at how the discussion was lead, it didn't seem as if the BBC knew exactly why the councils had to fly the flag. It wasn't mentioned whether it was by law or under contract that the flag had to be flown (in fact, the Belgian Ambassador on the programme said it was just contractual, rather than by a general law, as was implied). That it was contractual wasn't challenged by the presenter, but she continued to asked whether council should be forced to fly the flag by law. It seems that the lack of clarity was meant to drag out the discussion (perhaps another sign of the silly season), since I doubt that there would be much disagreement that if it's in the contract, it should be followed. While a debate on the value of European symbols could be a good one (unfortunately this debate didn't live up to that billing), I would have preferred to have seen a exposé on how European money is being (mis)spent by councils and what role the councils are playing. Surely such an angle would be more in keeping with the idealised role of the 4th estate?

Saturday 21 August 2010

Further dictionary explanations of European Integration

EU President (Noun):

another term used for the position of the President of the European Council, especially when the user wishes to denote the awe-inspiring power and importance of the post. Best described as a modern day Holy Roman Emperor, the office-holder is chosen by 27 electors: the heads of state and government of the European Union. Presiding over the European Council with an iron fist, President Van Rompuy demands regular fedual oaths of loyality, in ritualised meetings known euphemistically as "cosy fire-side chats". Van Rompuy owes his position to the influence of the Bilderberg group, which he won over during a improvised talent contest at the end of a conference, through his inspiring use of poetic forms, particularly that of the Haiku. Similar to the Holy Roman Empire, the President in turn owes fedual allegiance to the Pope in the Vatican.

Papacy/Holy See (Noun):

refering to the office of the bishop of Rome (the leader of the Catholic Church) and the headquarters of the Catholic Church in the Vatican, respectively. The Catholic Church has influenced the direction of European integration from the start, with the aim of reuniting Christendom and reversing the effects of the Reformation on its spiritual and temporal power. Those who highlight the Church's influence point to the frequent references to the Christian God in the Treaties and the Papacy's direct line with the EU President, who frequently ends his speaches with "God Bless Europe". Competition comes in the form of Whitehall, which constantly rigs elections across the EU to further its neo-liberal goals (See also: Anglo-Saxon/Neo-Liberal Project).

Bilderberg Group (Noun):

a group consisting of the political, economic and military elite of the world, concerned with influencing the course of government, including in the EU. They were the main backers of Herman Van Rompuy to the position of EU President. However, their influential position is under threat in Europe from a shadowy group known as the Buchgemeinschaft der schwaebische Hausfrauen, which has assured the influential positioning of people and families from Swabia (e.g. the Habsburgs or Hohenzollerns) as well as their allies. The Bilderberg Group has recently tried to counter the Buchgemeinschaft's influence by sabotaging the opinion poll ratings of their client German federal government.

"Brussels has decided" (Phrase):

a phrase used to denote that something has been decided by the Minister-President of the Brussels-Capitol region of Belgium on behalf of the entire European Union. The Minister-President of the Brussels-Capitol region has been empowered by certain enabling legislation to pass certain legislative proposals into law across the European Union ("ordonnances"). This is occasionally used as a legal method of bypassing subsidiarity requirements, since technically such decisions taken by the Minister-President were taken at a level lower than the European one. This method of governance also allows for reductions in the European civil service, as periodically demanded by some member states.

Friday 20 August 2010

Quoting Auditors

I read this yesterday, when I was looking at the Wall Street Journal's article on member states who contribute the most to the EU pot per head of population (both with and without the more direct streams of revenue, showing that it is possible to have clear data on how much is collected where through a direct tax). I've often read the arguments against the use of the Court of Auditors' reports on the EU accounts as simply proof of corruption, due to the lack of oversight in the member states' spending of the EU pot, and the requirement that all the accounts need to be cleared for the overall accounts to get the clean bill of health.

Well, this is the quote from the financial report, 2008 (PDF):

"Clean bill of health on EU acc ounts by auditors

The European Court of Auditors’ annual report delivered promising news in 2008.
It confirmed the positive trend in the management of payments, showing that the majority of payments checked were correct, with most policy areas only affected by less than 5 % of errors and, in certain areas, such as direct aid to farmers and administrative expenditure, less than 2 %. Errors were still too frequent in certain areas, particularly where grants have been managed by national authorities, such as for cohesion policy.

Acknowledging the results of the Commission’s sustained efforts to modernise its accounting systems, the European Court of Auditors lifted its last remaining reserves on the EU accounts. The Commission is currently one of the few public administrations worldwide that operates full accrual accounts, giving it a comprehensive overview of its current and future assets and liabilities. Together with FEE, the European Federation of Accountants, it jointly organised a conference on the state of play and future prospects of accrual accounting in the area of public sector management. The main documents related to the conference can be found here:"

Of course, this doesn't mean that more scrutiny isn't necessary (see this article for a diagram on how money is spent in the EU). It may be sensitive for national administrations to audit themselves and present clearer accounts. It was disappointing when a Dutch suggestion for member states producing a certificate of good health of their own spending of EU funds was given the cold shoulder. As recent events have shown, sometimes visits from European auditors can turn up interesting facts in national and regional administrations.

EUSSR (Noun)

EUSSR (Noun):

used as an alternative to the EU, usually as a means of depicting the European Union as a organisation that produces oppressive regulation, by drawing a comparison to the USSR, a communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe and Asia during the 20th Century. This is achieved by placing an "E" in front of the acronym "USSR". Users of this word tend to believe that EU regulations restrict trade and damage the European economy, as evidenced by the disappearance of Brie cheese from supermarkets across the European Union; Brie only being available to those with the requisite food tokens and correctly stamped forms in triplicate.

See also: Supreme Soviet (used to denote the predetermined nature of a decision that was already taken by another body; on occasion these bodies, or institutions, are believed to take decisions for each other); Eurocrat (a civil servant [or class of civil servant] working in the institutions of the European Union. By regulation, they may only work in sinister, darkened rooms on floors not less than 5 floors above ground level, preferably overlooking grandiose views of Brussels [smoke-filled rooms having been removed by the amending Council Decision 35/1998]); and Anglo-Saxon/Neo-Liberal Project [see below]

Anglo-Saxon/Neo-Liberal Project (Noun):

used as an alternative to the EU, although it is generally used as a description subsequent to the European Union's identification, usually as a means of depicting the European Union as a organisation that is bent on excessive deregulation that threaten workers' rights and the welfare state. Proponents of this view frequently cite the successful pressure to abolish the minimum wage in the member states that had won this right, and are generally supported by the American press in this regard, through long editorials on the lack of medical coverage for large sections of the European population.

"Anglo-Saxon" is generally used as part of this term when the user wishes to draw attention to denote the malign and ever-present influence of the British government in the European institutions, which has been successful in pursuing its agenda of deregulation in order that the City of London can reap the benefits of globalisation, at the expense of the social fabric of its own and other European countries. No other EU member states ever subscribe to the economic policies dreamt up in London, yet Whitehall has recently succeeded in rigging elections across Europe to ensure that the Council, Commission and European Parliament have a right-wing majority.

See also: Margin of Berlusconi (the margin of error within with a politician can survive politically, despite major gaffes, insults, and legal issues. Since the margin is sensitive to the political circumstances and the political capital [or media ownership] of the politican in question, the Margin of Berlusconi is notoriously volatile. However, some experts believe it is theoretically possible to survive within it for extended periods of time, though at serve risk to the subject's reputation and the dignity of those associated with him/her).

Thursday 19 August 2010

PES September Seminar: Primaries

The PES Primary Campaign activists have been invited to the September seminar of the PES in Brussels. The seminar is the beginnning of the internal PES debate on the Presidental candidate selection process. It's great to see this worthwhile campaign not only getting recognition from the party, but also being invited into discussions on how to shape the election process.

There are still many important questions on how a primary would be carried out:

"We will shortly provide details for supporters to give their ideas on what Desmond and José should present to the seminar in Brussels. We want to start a debate amongst PES activists and supporters on how they think the selection of our candidate should be organised. How should candidates be nominated? How should they be selected? Who should get to vote in the primaries? How should those votes be counted? Should the votes be weighted like the QMV votes are weighted in the European Council?"

Personally, I think that the voting should be internal to the party, to ensure that the PES and it's policies have a greater voice in the election. A criticism of the EP from Simon Hix, is that while the EP actually represents the average EU voter quite well, representing the average voter isn't really the point of the parliament. In the same way, the PES candidate should be selected by PES members, so that party membership has value (what better way to encourage participation in the Europarties than to give membership a real meaning by opening up opportunities for participation?), and that the candidate represents a truly "PES face" in the election. As for the internal electoral system, that's a more complicated question.

Thinking aloud, the candidate should be selected on the vote of the party members (without special weight attached to MPs, Councillors, MEPs), but I think that votes should be weighted to increase the say of the member parties of smaller member states. Otherwise it could lead to the debate and participation of the smaller states being neglected. On the other hand, the weighting needs to be carefully balanced, so that the majority needed isn't so great that only bland "all things to all people" candidiates are chosen. When it comes to nominations, I think that several methods could be used: a certain number of MEPs, MPs and members as supporters could be required to nominate someone for the primaries (perhaps the "voting value" of MEPs, MPs and members could be "translatable" at the nomination stage (e.g. 1 MEP = 15 MPs)).

Finally, an interesting question is how this would impact on the border make-up of the Commission. Since a coalition is likely to almost always be needed to elect the Commission President, what form will coalition politics at the European level take? Would PES coalition partners be satisfied with commitments to certain legislative proposals in the Commission's manifesto - or will coalition partners hold out for seats around the Commission table itself? Since the EP has to approve the whole Commission, the EP has the power to force the issue if the member states remain wedded to picking their own political favourites for the Commission; while there has to be a Commissioner member from every member state, it is not a requirement that each member be from the governing party of their member state. Even at a basic level we could ask, if there's an EPP majority in the Council, but a PES-led coalition majority in the EP and PES President of the Commission, then why should the Commission be conservative by majority? The Commission has votes on proposals it puts before the Council and EP, so why should a PES (or EPP) President be outvoted by an EPP (or PES) majority in the Commission? Afterall, the Commission is accountable as a body to the EP.

It's a question for the future, since we don't even have primaries yet. But it's an important issue, so I think we should keep it in mind. As the Commission becomes more accountable to the European Parliament, and its membership a question at the European elections, the rationale for allowing its membership to almost automatically mirror the Council's will be increasingly undermined.

Quick Note on Comments

There's been a lot of spam being posted in the comments to the blog posts, so I'm going to start monitoring/approving comments so I don't have to go back through the archives finding and deleting spam.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Taxing Europe

There's been some debate on introducing some form of European tax over the last few days. Prompted by EU budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski's interview with the Financial Times Deutschland that "the feelings on the idea of an EU tax had changed in national capitals", the debate seems to have been prematurely started by the Commission. (See the Commissioner's defence of the idea; and the supporting member states' vague arguments). While there are suggestions about a financial tax or environmental, CO2-based, tax, there are no firm, detailed proposals yet, and therefore the Commission seems to be left without a clear basis on which to argue for a tax, simply because it doesn't really know what it might propose come September.

The Commission is going about this the wrong way.

Jon Worth has written on how more direct taxation could be better than the current situation, where most of the budget consists of national contributions, by introducing transparency and accountability into how the EU is funded. It is obvious that the value of the tax depends on the tax and the goals it serves. Along with the sensitivity of the tax issue when it comes to matters of national sovereignty, we can say straight away that any tax proposal needs:

1. To be well thought out and planned. Arguing just that a tax might be a good idea is, at best, a naive way of discussing the issue. Without a clear tax proposal, it will come across simply as a desire for taxation powers for the sake of them, and it leaves the debate so open-ended and vague, that it is hardly the best way to have a good, rational, debate on the pros and cons of a policy. And that's without the poor reception of European political debate in the media.

2. To have a principle and goal behind it. The examples of financial transaction tax and CO2 tax are good, since they have some principle and goal to them, and they show where the tax burden will fall. In this way, we can talk about the pros and cons, the impact on society and their goals for society. Vital to any EU tax proposal is the element of added value. In other words, the EU needs to show that it can add value through the tax in question. Jon Worth has highlighted that aviation fuel tax is a good example, as planes can pick (within limits) where they refuel, and having an EU-wide tax would make it more effective. Any EU tax needs to be shown to be principled, goal-orientated, and one where the EU can add value because otherwise there is little reason to give the EU these powers. Since tax proposals need unanimity (and probably also need to pass an Irish referendum), people need to be convinced that the issue is at heart a European one, before they decide that it's better off being done by the EU rather than their member state.

3. To have a clear place within the EU structure. Does it add to or (partially) replace the national contributions of member states? Connected with point 2, the proposal should show where and how hard the burden of the tax will fall. This would provide certainty of the effect, and open up another side to the debate. At the moment, the budget is largely decided on by intergovernmental negotiations and sizing up the member states' economies in relation to each other. More direct taxes fall more transparently on certain types of activity and have a social and economic rationale that can be more easily open to debate and control. It could also lead to restructuring the tax system - member states could reduce taxes that fall more directly on citizens (though the degree would be tiny, considering the size of the EU budget), and CO2/financial taxes would shift it onto more specific groups for a more specific rationale.

In other words, the utility of direct taxes versus contributions needs to be highlighted and argued. If it can be argued and shown by supporters that a direct tax would lighten the "general burden" and instead have social utility, as well as making how we pay for the EU more transparent, the supporters would be on firmer ground. At the moment certain member states resent having to contribute a certain amount, and having a clear tax on (a) certain type(s) of activity would be a more rational an just way of distributing the burden. Also, an argument that making the EU responsible for more of its resources would make it more responsible with its spending (it depends on the structure, of course, but if spending and taxing is based more on principle and social utility determined through political debate rather than intergovernmental horse-trading, then it will arguably have to think and debate more openly on its priorities. Of course, intergovernmentalism in the budget is here to stay for a long time no matter what).

4. Any tax proposal has to be linked with proposals on the institutional mechanisms. Just as people wouldn't want the EU to tax if there wasn't an added European value to the exercise, so they wouldn't want the EU to have taxation powers unless there were clear limits on the areas and amount of taxation, as well as measures ensuring more democratic control over it. This would mean that the tax would have to be open to constant review and oversight by the European Parliament (with real control and influence on the subject, and there would need to be clear information on how much is raised where, from whom, and in what context [i.e. X from Austria, from airlines, because there where Y flights/Y% of flights from there]. Also, the Council would need a strong say and oversight role too. Above all, the taxation power given to the EU, if any, needs to be limited to the policy pursued.

Obviously this would mean that the debate would be very complex, but in my view the key point is that any taxation proposal needs to win support outside of national governments (particularly in the Irish, and perhaps UK cases, where referendums would be ratification methods). This can only be done if it can be shown that the issue is one that can be dealt with better at a European level and that the power will be limited. The debate we're having at the moment, while showing some of these elements, is nowhere near coherent or organised enough for there to be a rational, relevant debate.

The wider argument is that the internal market means that there are activities that have social and economic consequences, and it should be possible to make decisions on what is economically and socially important to us. Taxation policy, even if limited in scope, is a way of shaping the way we live. It is a tough issue, and a complicated and sensitive issue, so if we're going to debate it, let's do it right.

Monday 9 August 2010

PES Primaries and a Parliamentary EU

Jon Worth has picked up on a campaign of Desmond O'Toole's for the introduction of primaries in the Party of European Socialists (campaign blog here). With Jason O'Mahony recently writing for a presidential style system, there's been some very interesting talk about how to make the Commission more democratic and reverse the "democratic disconnect" with citizens.

I highly recommend reading Desmond's comments and blog, as well as this paper (PDF) by Dr. Anna Skrzypek on models of selecting a candidate (warning - it's 54 pages long).

These are great proposals, and I would strongly support a primary selection system that involves party members (though there should be some balance to prevent over-dominance by the bigger national parties). This involvement would encourage greater participation before the elections from members (promoting engagement from members who aren't usually interested in EU affairs. This would also help equip them better for the campaign); give a higher profile for the Europarty campaign and, if done well (which is always the qualifier), boost turnout; and force more serious policy competition at a European level, increasing the accountability and transparency of EU politics.

If done well, is a strong qualifier - especially when it comes to European politics. We are all used to uninspiring and unsatisfying decision-making and politics, and it's hard to see any initiative as a sure cure for the falling turnout numbers and lack of engagement. However, institutionalising the selection of a presidential candidate for the Commission would provide the platform for a real debate that can grow and develop over time (all campaigns are different, and of varying quality). There would be 2 key aspects of them: 1. it would force the PES to select a candidate for each election, therefore not leaving it up to national party executives (particularly as the members will [hopefully] have a feeling of ownership over the process/entitlement to vote), and there would be pressure for similar moves in other parties; 2. it would change the nature of the Europarties themselves by forcing regular, very public, debate on policy.

I think the second aspect is one that has been overlooked by supporters of a more explicitly presidential system. Arguments against the parliamentary system are: the EP doesn't really represent the citizens, the Europarties are too heterogeneous to provide real competitive politics, and that the main parties are in coalition a lot of the time. Supporters of a presidential system say it will give a clear choice compared to EP elections.

I think this overlooks the changes in EP politics recently. Simon Hix has written on the cohesiveness of the Europarties, and has concluded that they are more cohesive than their US counterparts. Hix and Votewatch have also looked at the voting patterns of the parties and found that there's a lot more left-right competition than some might expect (Votewatch found a left-wing winning coalition for civil rights, and a right-wing winning coalition on justice and home affairs). It's true that the EP sees a lot of coalition between the 3 main parties, but it is increasingly based on blocking one of the others out. This isn't the same as national parliaments, of course, which see more competition. However, elections with a presidential candidate (elected by the EP) encourage more cohesion, more joined-up policy thinking (or hopefully rewards such thinking), and promotes critical scrutiny of policy on a more European level. Because the Commission and the president(ial candidate) depends on the EP, and, more specifically, his/her coalition in it, this promotes a more pro- and anti- government set up of the EP and mitigates against grand coalitions (though it doesn't rule them out entirely).

The charge of grand coalitions making democracy unengaging in the EP and the EU as a whole is serious, but would a purely presidential system cure this? Not in my opinion. A presidential system would produce presidents who would have only their political capital to work with, and any support base in the EP could dry up quickly, as it isn't necessarily in their electoral interests to make the presidency a success. In other words, more grand coalitions, more national compromises (as the Commission would need the backing of the Council or EP to have a strong position). And how will people react to a President who has to balance grand coalition interests? I doubt it would be greeted with much enthusiasm on polling day.

So I think parliamentary politics are more in keeping with Europe's political traditions (generally). The EU is a wide based project, and a wide based parliamentary approach diffuses the nationality question of the candidates (to some extent), and re-focuses the debate on the ideological and policy positions of the Europarties in which more people can participate - and help shape. The EP would be changed by them - Europarties would could change as they might break up and reform along more ideologically coherent lines, or change long established policy to appeal to voters, as well as more distinct voting coalitions and coalition preferences in Parliament.

In the last European election, for all my blogging, I wasn't active in a campaigning or party role. If a (left-wing) Europarty ran primaries - in other words, offered more opportunities for engagement - then I would have got involved. But that might be looking at things backwards. Maybe I should get involved to try and open up those opportunities.

Would you?

Thursday 5 August 2010

Europe: Speak up on Rights and Citizenship!

It's been disturbing over the last week or so to read about the state of politics in Europe when it comes to the Roma community and immigration. There's a great post over at 1848 that picks up on a Guardian story of the treatment of the Roma across the EU, and it's hard to understand at a basic level why the EU institutions or politicans don't speak out strongly against this. What happened to European values and our supposed pride in human rights standards? Is it to do with the East-West power balance in the EU - i.e. it's ok to speak out against Eastern member states on gay rights issues, but western member states prejudices are ok?

So I'm writing an open letter to Commission President Barroso, Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy to urge them to speak out more on these issues, and explaining why I think these matters are not just "national issues", but issues that are vital to how we view ourselves, and the kind of Europe we want to live in today. I don't know if it would have any effect whatsoever, but as I've written before against political apathy, I think I should at least say something.

In the past few days I have read and heard about political moves against the Roma community in several member states (see the Guardian: as well as debate in France regarding stripping people of citizenship or rights as being a possible feature of the criminal justice system. Expulsion and the loss of citizen rights is a horrifying prospect and shows that we need to remain vigilant so that European political discourse does not slide back into the politics of exclusionism and the scapegoating of minorities. The criminal justice system is meant to deal with law-breaking and law-breakers through fair process based on the equality of citizens before the law. Attempts to set individuals or groups outside the normal processes - to label them as "other" or "non-citizens" - is contrary to the European values and the rights we claim to uphold. Therefore it has been very disappointing that there have been no strong voices from the EU institutions on this matter.

Obviously in each case the legal and social circumstances are different, but the same values and rights are at stake. Will the EU closely monitor each case to prevent any breach of rights (e.g. of free movement) under EU law? In cases where EU law is directly involved there is a natural role for the EU institutions in speaking out against discrimination and rule-breaking. However, I would urge you to take a political lead in defending European values. Even though cases may involve national law and politics, these issues are of such gravity that they touch on the ideas of what kind of Europe we want to live in. The European Union, in its current and past forms, was founded to help Europe and her nations cement values of equality and tolerance as well as working to break down barriers to help make this continent prosperous.

The importance of rights and values in the EU can be seen from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, plans for the EU to join the European Convention on Human Rights, and in Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides for the suspension of certain rights of a member state which breaks these standards. Therefore I believe that there is a place for political debate and leadership at a European level on these issues. How will the EU help strengthen citizenship and human rights in Europe, and how will the EU help protect minorities and protect the right of free movement? It may be more difficult and politically sensitive to speak out on these issues at home than abroad, but I believe it to be a vital part of the debate, and I urge you to take a public part in these debates.

Yours sincerely,

Conor Slowey.

NOTE: It turns out that my email didn't send properly to Reding and Barroso. I'll try again later/tomorrow (internet hasn't been working well lately).

UPDATE: I've sent it to Viviane Reding, but the website still refuses to send it to Barroso.

UPDATE: I've been slow to do this (because I've just moved house), but I've sent the email as a letter to Barroso. Better late than never! (23/8/2010)