Sunday 21 November 2010

Stanley Crossick: Rest in Peace

I have just learnt from Twitter and Stanley's blog, that he passed away on the 20th. My condolences to his family; I'm sure that he will be greatly missed. Though I only know of Stanley through reading his blog, I'll miss him from the Euroblogosphere, and I hope that he will rest in peace.

Eux.Tv tweeted this video of Stanley Crossick, and I thought I would post it here:

Thursday 18 November 2010

Quote of the Week: Vincent Browne

"You're delusional as well. You guys are completely delusional. You know - you don't seem to realise that this is being forced upon us because of the way you guys have managed our affairs. We have made such a huge mess of our affairs that we threaten the solvency of the Euro... You don't seem to have realised the enormity of what you've done."

- Vincent Browne to a Junior Irish government minister on the Tonight with Vincent Browne programme, 17/11/2010.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Ireland the Symbol and Sovereignty the Ideal

For a small country, Ireland has been a very symbollic country in the world. As an oppressed nation under an empire, as a rebellious and feircely independent people, as an example of the terrible consequences of famine, as one of the "angelic states" (very supportive of the UN & UN missions), as what a small country could achieve in the EU, and as a model for how to deal with the economic crisis. It seems we've been good at promoting our own version of history, but Ireland the symbol has become internationalised, and - especially now - Ireland is an example to be held up in argument.

To the left in the UK, Ireland is an example of the dangers of austerity; to Eurosceptics the example of a loss of sovereignty.

I think both are crude uses of the Irish situation. Though I oppose severe austerity measures, and feel the UK government is going too far, the Irish case cannot be compared so easily with the British: in Ireland we've continued borrowing because of the banks, so the deficit is still growing. Similarly, I think any IMF-EU bail-out would be incredibly tough and would entail the loss of some decision-making powers. Ideally it will never happen, but it appears more and more certain with each passing day. However, Ireland is in this mess because of the choices Ireland made.

Sovereignty is...

Increasingly it appears to me that sovereignty is touted as a panacea that ignores the globalised world, as if countries can act like the characters in spagetti Westerns. Van Rompuy's attack on Eurosceptism and nationalism (which I felt was directed more at the increasing popularity of Geert Wilders-like figures and parties when I read it), may have struck people as an out-of-touch thing to say about nationalism, and some have described it as defeatist, but we do live in a globalised world. Sovereignty cannot mean freedom from responsibility. Whether you've signed treaties, joined the EU or just have a bad banking system with international links, you have taken on duties and your room for manuever is limited. In a global villiage with a global market place, we can't all be cowboys.

Countries have to deal with the circumstances they find themselves in, and, particularly for small countries, pooling sovereignty can mean gaining the ability to really influence outcomes, rather than merely being the subject of them. As was said of the Dutch central bank before the Euro: the job's easy; just do what the Bundesbank does.

Now, most people do not have the narrow, populist view of sovereignty, but it is important to note how arguments are being made on the basis of what are essentially buzzwords. Sovereignty, democracy, etc. These words are invoked in political debate increasingly to tar actions and events as illegitimate. But legitimacy, like justice, is a complex concept that depends on several factors. The buzzword arguments are not really how most people see the world, but as simplistic arguments they seem to spread very easily and quickly.

And Ireland? Irish traditions and threads of identity are not a simple as the stories that we tell ourselves, never mind the stories we tell others about ourselves. We may be famous for being rebels, but our rebellions were small and largely ill-prepared and unpopular: constitutional nationalism dominates the span of Irish history. We did not protest like the Greeks nor cheer like Tory backbenchers when austerity came. The "ourselves alone" movement - Sinn Féin - is one aspect of the story. [Interestingly the old Sinn Féin party (not to be confused with the current one) was based on German ideas of autarky and Hungarian ideas of parliamentary absention (which resulted in the Ausgleich)]. Other threads include a certain idea of neutrality (inspired by WWII experience and the US refusing a post-war bilateral alliance), and an internationalist thread, which admires the ideals and goals of international co-operation and community. It's a complex mix of admiration of autonomy and of a true, working, international community in which Ireland should be embedded. (And, of course, that's simplistically put as well).

Given the economic dependence on Britain in the period after independence, and the freedom of movement and empowerment European integration has brought Ireland, there is something distasteful about British politicians and commentators holding up Irish struggle against British rule as a rallying image for rejecting the EU.

So beware of simple answers and symbols. In my opinion - and, judging from the papers and letters to the editor, this seems to be broadly in line with the current mood - the vast majority of the fault lies with the Irish government. (Though for the boom we all share blame for taking part). The Irish place the blame for our current crisis at the door of, well, Ireland. And the blame will be with the Irish government, not Europe, if the bail-out takes place. Accepting and needing any bail-out, after all, would be a consequence of the decisions we made in the running of our economy.

If the IMF-EU fund steps in, then we'll blame them for the mistakes they make.

UPDATE: See today's [Thursday, 18/11/2010] Irish Times editorial here. Emotive over the loss of sovereignty, yet clear that it was ours to squander.

Those Pesky Parliamentarians

Tsk. Those parliamentarians, eh? They clearly don't know how politics works; you don't have to pay any attention to the projects you set up or even actually pay for them, you just announce them to great communique-filled media fanfair. If they don't work, well, sure, that's the Commission's fault, isn't it? Can't they just sit back and enjoy their gravy train...?

So the budget talks have failed. On one hand, it's not the end of the world: the 1/12 rule means that the previous year's budget is carried over on a monthly basis until something is agreed. There's even a mechanism allowing the monthly budget to be added to, in the case of monthly fluctuations. On the other hand, it means that the new projects launched by the EU - not just the Lisbon innovations, but the initiatives of the European Council - are not really being taken care of. Money will be found, but budget by default is not a particularly satisfying outcome.

What were the issues? The 2 major issues were the EP's role during the Multi-annual Framework (the multi-annual budget of the EU), and the existence and procedure for a flexibility reallocation mechanism - essentially 0.03% of the EU's GNI that can be tapped into in the case of unforseen spending needs. As the EU cannot borrow money and must stick to its budget, this has been a useful tool in the past for covering crisis expenditure.

The budget increase of 2.91%, agreed on by the Member States, was accepted by the EP (which wanted a 6% increase), in return for a place at the Multi-annual Framework negotiating table. This would entail a political agreement - an interinstitutional agreement to clarify the procedure which is ambigous in the Treaties as to the EP's role. The ministers claimed that they did not have the mandate to negotiate such an agreement, to which Anne Jensen MEP expressed surprise at the press conference, pointing out that the Member States were aware of the issues the EP would raise in advance. On the flexibility matter, this ran into trouble when the UK pressed for the money under this mechanism to be released after a decision reached by a unanimous Council vote (rather than the current QMV).

"Failure to agree on the reallocation flexibility endangers the financing of programmes such as ITER, an international project to design and build an experimental fusion reactor in France, a source explained.

Another payment which now appears to be in jeopardy is a commitment to pay 190 million euros to banana-producing countries following a decision to discontinue preferential import tariffs. Similarly, 300 million euros of compensation to Bulgaria for having closed down four of its nuclear reactors also hangs in the balance." [EurActiv]

So the EP may have wanted more say, but it appears that some Member States attempted their own power grab as well.

The Parliament's demands to be at the table during the Multi-annual Framework talks included a demanded commitment to look at the issue of the EU's own resources. This is being reported as meaning an EU tax - which is the most high profile and obvious option - but that in itself seems little reason to block agreement. Whatever you think of the idea of an EU tax (and I've argued before that it's an option that has points to be considered), unanimous support is needed in the Council, which is unlikely to occur, so committing to considering the broad issue of own resources (shifting some of the budgetary burden from national budgets to some economic activity) isn't really that dangerous.

So Parliament wanted an increase in the budget to help pay for initiatives the EU started (including ones started by the European Council), and were willing to settle for the number member states agreed on; wanted a place at the table when the multi-annual budget is being discussed (since they are equal with the Council with regard to the budget); and a continuation of the flexibility mechanism.

Sound unreasonable?

Thursday 11 November 2010

The European Citizen: One of the most influential left-of-centre Euroblogs?

It turns out that The European Citizen has been nominated for a poll of the most influential left-of-centre Euroblogs in a Social Europe Journal poll. If you like the blog, and think I've been suitably left-of-centre enough, you can for me and 2 others (or even, theoretically, 3 blogs which aren't The European Citizen) here. The vote is open to 5pm tomorrow.

The (reader nominated) shortlist is 18 nominations long - I'm not entirely sure if that's due to the small size of the left-of-centre Euroblogosphere or the lack of nominations. I'm also not sure if I'm that "influential" (I've never even received a reply to the closest I've come to direct engagement with the EU instituions - though I wasn't really angling for a direct reply - and I doubt any shadowy Bilderbergers or Buchgemeinschaft der schwaebische Hausfrauen members read my blog). Nonetheless it's nice to be nominated.

UPDATE: Here are the results. I came in joint 9th place with the European Tribune. Thanks to those who voted for me!

The Fair Share

European Council President Van Rompuy gave a speech on Tuesday, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (link; PDF). As you would expect from a Europe-focused, (European dated) 9/11 speech, the reunification and integration of Europe had a central place. However, the rise of nationalism, economic governance, and the EU's budget made their way into the speech. Van Rompuy made clear that economic union would have to accompany currency union, but he did not suggest anything new, only pausing to name-check the economic task force that he recently headed.

Nationalism was characterised as a manifestation of fear, and the resolve of governments to implement austerity plans was praised. Despite re-iterating the relevance of questions of war and peace when it came to inspiring European integration, there was little to offer in terms of inspiration or aspiration to the individual citizen. The fall of Communism, the ending of the wars in Europe, are all powerful and important theme and motivators in European politics, and can still invoke strong feelings, but it is essentially a warning from the past not to do something. As a guide to the present and future it remains vague and unsatisfying. Europe should focus on a positive vision of the future.

What is most striking for me was Van Rompuy's comments on the budget, with the European Council President slapping down suggestions of more direct contributions to the EU budget - or direct taxation - page 8:

"In my view the limited Treaty amendment all Heads of State and Government agreed upon ten days ago is essential, but it should not reopen the entire ‘internal debate’ on the nature, the goal and the architecture of the Union: we have more pressing matters at hand. For the same reason, I do not think that redesigning the way the EU get its revenue is a top priority. The current system reflects as a rule the Member States’ capacity to pay. Contributions are based on the Gross National Income and thus seen as fair. Some have suggested to replace this with a direct EU tax, for instance on financial transactions or on carbon. It is argued that such real 'own resources' would make the Brussels institutions 'more responsible'. I am personally open to new ideas, but since most alternative sources of income would risk to hit Member States unequally, this would weaken the fairness of the current system, its built-in solidarity. So let's be prudent, but let's discuss it."

Using GNI as a base, and arguing that direct taxes would fall on different member states differently (and therefore unfairly) is a strange argument to me. First of all, you have to ask if GNI is a good basis for fairness. According to GNI, when Greece had to be bailed out, Ireland contributed one of the highest per capita contributions, despite the austerity and crisis it was in. Of course Member State contributions should be a significant part of the budget, as the EU is a way of maximising Memeber State power through trade agreement negotiations, common market regulation, etc. But having the burden fall mainly on Member States' budgets does not necessarily mean that it is "fair".

Just as the EU is a "Transfer Union" whether Germany likes it or not (given the history of the CAP, the EC/EU has always been a transfer union), and such a transfer union is based on burden distribution, the central question is of burden sharing - or fairness. When it comes to cohesion funds, the EU has undertaken that funds will be paid out to help develop the poorer regions to ensure they aren'y left behind by those reigions that are more wealthy and better placed to to better out of the internal market (essentially the richer regions help the poorer). To me it's a bad argument to assert that shifting the burden from Member States contributions to direct taxation (note that this is separate from the overall size of the EU budget) is unfair on certain Member States. The whole point of direct taxation is that it would shift the burden from general taxation and the budgets of national governments to private individuals engaged in certain economic activities. When it comes to financial or aeroplane emission taxes, this would shift the burden on to individuals and sectors that benefit most from the freedoms of the internal market, or sectors that can only be effectively regulated at the continental scale.

Would it be so unfair to shift some of the burden of the EU budget on to such shoulders?

What taxes and how well defined they are is a major issue, and I've written about it before, but when it comes to fairness, the issues and factors at play are much wider than the general econoomic performance of the Member States. On the other hand, the political possibility of bringing in direct taxation is extremely low. On practicality I would agree with Van Rompuy, but on principle I would have to disagree.

How Van Rompuy dealt with the different issues he raised in his speech show is that he is strongly intergovernmental. This isn't surprising, given his position as the head of the most intergovernmental institution in the EU, but the issue focus and rhetoric show that an intergovernmental Europe is firmly at the heart of his political world- or continental -view.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Civilisational Europe: the Council of Europe

Fittingly, before we visited the Council of Europe, we went to Natzweiler Struthof, a former concentration camp where people were forced to work in freezing temperatures. It is always hard to describe a concentration camp, as no matter how often you see images of World War II on TV and in film, the experience of visiting a camp is always deeply disturbing. It was perhaps all the more so, because the camp is situated in a forested, mountainous area, so the journey there included passing scenic towns and villages. The weather was also icy cold, despite the lack of wind, and it was quickly brought home what kind of conditions the prisoners would have to face.

The European Court of Human Rights

An hour's drive saw us entering the European Court of Human Rights, which is the Council of Europe's most famous institution. It is based in the rather odd Palais des droits de l'homme. The Court has been amazingly successful, and it has promoted the spread and development of European norms in human rights across the continent. Given that our trip had a very legal focus, I won't go into too much detail, but aside from the legal discussions over labour rights and same sex marriage (which was the subject of a judgment earlier this year: Schalk and Kopf v Austria [2010]), the toughest challenges facing the Court today is simply the sheer scale of the workload it has to deal with. Though the Court has been around for many years, the right of individuals to apply to the Court and the membership of the Court has now really expanded, alongside the public's awareness of the Court. So in the last decade the number of applications has increased from 10,500 in 2000 to 57,100 in 2009. A lot of these are rejected, but 90% of the Court's output since its creation in 1959 has been in the years 1998-2009 (when the Commission was removed from the system).

Since a lot of discussion and debate centred around how to make the Court more effective and productive (and this problem seems to be the main one which haunts the registry), it was shocking to find out that the UK had proposed cutting its contribution to the Council of Europe by 25%, and the Netherlands had proposed a 15% cut. The registry has taken up a lot of the workload, but they appear to have reached the limits of efficiency and are haunted by the spectre of the Court being crushed under the sheer level of applications. It should bee remembered that the Council of Europe has a tiny fraction of the budget that the EU has, and the Court takes up about a quarter of this. Battles over the budget may force the question of the CoE's role - to focus on human rights and other limited areas it does well, and essentially become a pre-EU accession organisation; or to try and forge ahead with a full programme for its 47 member states?

Palais de l'Europe

The CoE itself is mainly housed in the fortress-like Palais de l'Europe, which contains the Parliamentary Assembly (the European Parliament used to use this space until their Strasbourg building was completed). The Council works in many different areas, including a project aimed at improving local government and democracy that we were introduced to. Though the presentation was probably intended to show us the wide range of activities the CoE undertakes, I have to admit that it left me with the impression that the CoE should try to focus more on its core functions (though as a law student my own focus is pretty much solely dominated by the Court). The project was voluntary and the standards it sought to promote weren't centrally set; (simplistically put) it consisted of meetings between local government members across participating local governments, and a local government award for living up to good standards, which also seemed to be nationally or locally set. The small budget for the project - €50,000 is miniscule when you compare it to EU or national projects and programmes - underlined the difference between the EU and CoE. Though I can see the value in cross-border local government meetings to exchange best practice, I wasn't convinced by the worth of the awards scheme.

There was a presentation on standard-setting by the CoE, which despite the boring name was revealing in the ways that Europe is integrating both outside the EU, and how other organisations can influence the work of the EU. The CoE works as an organisation to bring its members into agreement on binding Conventions and non-binding Recommendations, which not all member states have to sign up to - the CoE is a forum for these agreements to be made, and so it doesn't have to affect all member states. However, these have protential for European integration that shouldn't be overlooked. First, the "soft" norms that are set through Recommendations can spread throughout the member states and can bring European states closer together in our standards and practice. This can take on a harder edge, though, as the ECtHR has shown itself willing to use these Conventions and Recommendations in interpreting human rights law (see Demir & Baykara v Turkey [2008]), even when countries haven't signed up to them (this ties in with the "living instrument" and "European consensus" doctrines that the Court uses to develop European Human Rights law - see Handyside v UK and Tyrer v UK).

Second, the CoE has Conventions on making grooming a criminal offence andagainst sex tourism. These seem to have influenced the EU's own legislative process, because there's a new directive before the Council and Parliament on these kinds of offences (see the draft law here: PDF). Though the CoE may be overshadowed by the EU, it can inspire changes in EU law. Though I haven't read it yet, there's a report, the Junker Report (2005), on how the CoE and the EU interact.

Committee for the Prevention of Torture

The CPT is very impressive for an international organ - it has the power to conduct surprise inspections of any detention area in the member states and interview all inmates/patients/detainees/guards/staff and have access to all files, including medical files, to access whether or not torture has taken place, or any practice contrary to article 3 ECHR. Though the reports are not published by the CPT, there is an expectation that the member state will publish them (and I think apart from Russia, this has been the case), as the focus of the CPT is not to punish member states but to help them adhere to the proper human rights standards under article 3. Nevertheless, the CPT is quite exceptional for the broad powers it has to independently inspect the situation on the ground, and it preforms an extremely important function.

If the EU is Europe as a kind of system of government (or governance, if you prefer), then the CoE is "Civilisational Europe". Though all European countries lay claim to the common ideas, traditions and practices that make them European, the CoE has worked for over half a century to spread the European civilisational norms across the continent, and to help ensure that standards of hhuman rights are enforced. Though we may look at the CoE as a "soft" organisation, I think it helps to provide the idea off Europe with a backbone, and an everyday, practical, cultural reality.

Friday 5 November 2010

Back from RIO

It's been pretty quiet on the blog recently because life has been very busy lately. Apart from exams, papers, and general work, I've just been on a RIO Trip. Unfortuneately it isn't as glamourous as it sounds, as RIO stands for "Recht der internationale organisaties", which is Dutch for "Law of the international institutions".

The trip consisted of visiting a lot of European organisations in Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Brussels, and entailed an exhausting amount of presentations and travelling, and, as was pointed out, an unknown number of bars. The EU and the Council of Europe naturally featured on the list, but so did other less well known organisations and institutions within the EU and outside of the EU umbrella. The lasting impression is of a Europe that has embraced an extrodinary depth of co-operation and integration, the scale of which rarely strikes you until you've seen the many different forms of co-operation - and I'm sure we only saw a quick overview. The commitment of the people involved in these institutions is also impressive: again and again, we met people who were genuinely enthusiastic about their subject area, whether it was the prevention of torture or the regulation and safety of the skies.

The positions of the other, non-EU, organisations was interesting as well. In a continent full of international co-operation, the EU looms large as the Europe, and the other organisations are adjusting their roles in the face of the EU's success. From conflicted self-assertion and resignation (Council of Europe), to a vision of providing expert advice (Commission on Navigation of the Rhine), to that of enthusiastic service provider (EuroControl).

Notable exceptions from the trip were the Council and the EP. The Council was dropped because of the European Council summit which occured while we were in Brussels (so ironically I was close by but didn't know what exactly had happened until I got back home). The EP was dropped because, apparently, they're just bad at handling visitors and left a bad immpression on the last RIO trip - which is a shame, because the EP is, for me, the institution that communicates best online.

So to get back into the swing of blogging, I think I will cover some of the institutions and organisations and my impressions of them.