Friday 31 December 2010

Europe in 2010

The 14th December symbolised Europe in 2010 for me. Berlusconi, despite all the scandals, won two confidence votes (in the lower house by just 3 votes!), and outside the protesters took to rioting. A few days later there would be a European Council summit where it was decided to dig in: there will be a Treaty amendment to make the Eurozone's bail-out facility permanent, but no increase in the facility's funds, nor any moves towards closer fiscal union through Eurobonds. Outside rages anger and uncertainty about the future, but inside there is little vision, and fear for the alternatives.

European solidarity now has a figure: €750 billion, and a few interest rate percentage points. At the heart of the matter lie questions of blame and responsibility as well as solidarity. Why should the German taxpayer - or Dutch, or Finnish - pay for the poor economic management of other Eurozone states? Or, from the other point of view, why should Greek and Irish taxpayers support a harsh austerity programme that bails out German, British and other private banks; why should these taxpayers pick up the tab for the reckless private sectors in other countries? Both are understandable viewpoints and have good arguments, but they reveal the extent of the "European integration" of the private sphere, and the need for a strong, coherent Eurozone response. I agree that countries like Ireland have mismanaged their economies and a great deal of the responsibility lies with them. But does it make sense to aim to penalise these countries' economies and demand penance, while at the same time advocating their rescue by the very same measures to ensure that their economies revive and cease to threaten the stability of the European economy?

The Eurozone needs a vision for how it will be run to benefit the whole, yet we hardly hear the arguments on Eurozone governance, and we don't debate the different viewpoints across borders. How can we be in a position - how can our leaders even be in the position - to make the rules for living together in the Eurozone when we are intent on having conversations with ourselves in fragmented groups, and trying to extract short-term advantage at each summit instead of trying to build a consensus on how to proceed together?

Though the economic crisis dominated 2010, there was much more to the year than that.

It was the first year of the Lisbon Treaty, which changed EU politics - you might even say it was the year the European Parliament. Whether it was the EU-US SWIFT Agreement on terrorist financing being shot down for a lack of safeguards, with US Vice President Biden imploring Parliament to accept it before a modified form was adopted, or the battle over the budget, the Parliament has been exerting its influence constantly. Victories weren't total, and I didn't always agree with the legislation passed, but the Parliament managed to make its mark on 2010. For me the greatest Parliamentary victory was over the formation of the European External Action Service, were it got a lot of its proposals accepted and heavily shaped the new institution despite only having the right of consultation under article 27(3) TEU - if anything symbolises the Parliament's new-found power, it should be this.

Politics of government and opposition strengthened in the Parliament this year, with the EPP generally supporting the Commission and Council with the help of the Liberals (where the right are in the majority), and a motley alliance of the PES, Greens and Liberals managing to upset the EPP's plurality on occasion. Though voting alliances remain fluid, the increasing coherence and importance of European parties with clearer policy platforms begs the question: why aren't we doing more to hold them to account and to use them to make a difference?

Barroso's second Commission was formally installed early in the year, and he tried to inject some vision into his second term in his hyped "State of the Union" speech. Generally the Commission was the least visible of the institutional triangle, though it did have a moment of glory when it temporarily grew a backbone to speak out over the Roma crisis in France.

Rights were very much an issue - civil liberties in SWIFT, citizenship and human rights for the Roma, human rights and elections in Belarus, and freedom of speech and the media in Hungary. If this is any indication, we will need to remain vigilant at home and across Europe for the next year and beyond.

Like Jon Worth, I'm not so optimistic for the future: there are too many narrow interests pulling in too many different directions. In September I heard a speech on the development of the EU. Europe, it was proclaimed, advanced through crises and managed to muddle through; we should not be worried or optimistic. I can't see that way of doing business working in the future. We need to make greater use of what is there to make the EU more inclusive and representative so that clearer arguments and vision can form and shape the Europe we live in. But it won't happen just through institutional reform and more information campaigns. It's a long road, but promoting debate between people and not just governments is essential if the EU is to become more democratic and joined-up. But this would require people to actively participate, rather than just being passive subjects.

EPP President defends Hungarian Media Law

The centre-right European People's Party (the biggest in the European Parliament), or specifically its President, Wilfried Martins, has defended the new Hungarian Media Law, which blogs, including this one, are against due to the chilling effect it will have on press freedom. In the absence of any other EPP comment on the subject, it seems like it's the current EPP position.

Martins said:

""I appreciate the efforts of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government to improve the former Hungarian media law with the aim to strengthen the freedom of the press, the culture of respect, the protection of minors and human dignity. I also understand the challenge of strengthening media accountability, while keeping media freedom intact. Discussion on the Hungarian media law should not be based on the politicaly motivated misinterpretations, but on the exact knowledge of the text.""

By politically motivated misinterpretations, I suppose he's referring to the outburst of fellow party member and Luxembourgish Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn who condemned the laws, saying: "It's a direct danger for democracy".

Or perhaps the OSCE, which produced a damning report on the law in September (PDF), and is still talking about it in strong terms:

""I am concerned that Hungary's parliament has adopted media legislation that, if misused, can silence critical media and public debate in the country," Mijatovic [OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media] said, referring to the "Law on media services and mass communication", adopted on 20 December.

"The law regulates all media content - broadcast, print and online - based on identical principles, which runs against OSCE standards on free media. It also gives unusually broad powers to the recently established media authority and media council, which are led exclusively by members supported by the governing party," Mijatovic said.

Traditionally, regulatory authorities govern broadcast media only, but the new law in Hungary empowers the authorities to also govern print and online media content.

"Such concentration of power in regulatory authorities is unprecedented in European democracies, and it harms media freedom," Mijatovic said. "Regulating print media can curb free public debate and pluralism. Even though regulating online media is considered technologically impossible, it introduces self-censorship.""

So far, two other European parties have commented: the Liberals (ALDE), and the European Greens. The Liberals are calling for the Commission to take (as yet undefined) action, and the European Greens want Article 7 TEU to be used against Hungary (the article is the mechanism for dealing with EU Member States who breach the fundamental values of the Union). Scope for EU action on the subject is somewhat limited, but it is hard to see this nuclear option succeeding against Hungary, particularly when it holds the rotating presidency. Article 7, does, however, mean that the EP could try to apply political pressure through its resolutions or even trying to start the Article 7 procedure.

Martins also stated the EPP's support for the Hungarian Presidency (Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary, is an EPP member):

""I would also like to take this opportunity to wish Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a successful EU Presidency. Needless to say, for the next six months PM Orban can rely on the full support of the EPP," Martens added."

In this Parliamentary term the EPP have definitely been the "government party", supporting the positions of the (EPP-dominated) Council and Commission. It's a pity that the governing party and opposition aren't being tested properly on their records, particularly as EP votes and support are key to getting proposals through...

[Also, see Deutsche Welle for a broader view of the prospective Hungarian Presidency].

Note: Post edited the same day, thanks to Cédric picking up on an Article 7-related mistake.

Thursday 30 December 2010

Fine Gael lacking courage and conviction in the Irish Abortion Debate

In my last post I wrote about the latest ECHR judgment concerning abortion - A, B and C v Ireland. On Tuesday the leader of the largest opposition party, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael, said that the issue was for an all-party committee to investigate, and would not commit to a referendum on the matter:

"Mr Kenny said abortion had been a very divisive issue in Ireland in the past and a re-run of those debates was not what the country needed right now.


“We had the X case way back in the 1990s and the European Court of Human Rights has given its decision now. This judgment required proper analysis and some in-depth discussion. What I would propose is that the next Oireachtas should establish a process to look at the core issues here. I am not going to shirk the issue but I am not going to predetermine what the outcome will be.”


“In this case, my view is that we should set up an appropriate all-party committee with terms of reference that would allow it to have access to the best legal advice, to the best medical advice . . . what should be done might range across a spectrum, from legislation to a list of State recommendations or regulations that the medical profession could adhere to and operate within,” he says.

“My position is I do not favour legalising abortion on demand. We have a situation where you have difficult, hard cases, and some people have gone through very difficult circumstances but there is an ECHR judgment, there is a Supreme Court decision and there is a constitutional position. If the next Oireachtas is to respond, it has got to determine what the facts are, the scale of the problem and the nature of it and see if we can arrive at a consensus on how to deal with it.”"

This is clearly a cop-out. It is understandable that the focus of FG in government would be the economic situation, but it's clear that FG don't know how to approach the matter at all. It's s clear example of the reluctance of the Irish political parties to think about these matters, never mind have a position on them.

The A, B, and C judgment basically said that Irish law did not ensure adequate access of women in Ireland to abortion where Irish law stated that they were entitled to it. The judgment quoted from reports, and it is clear that there have been research into this area before, and on a continuous basis. So if Kenny didn't want to draw attention to abortion as a devisive issue, he could have just stated that, said that a FG-led government would bring the law into line with the Constitution and the ECHR ruling.

The statement might be a result of tensions within the party (which is centre-right). Conservatives may want to retain strict abortion laws, while more liberal members may want to adopt more liberal abortion laws. From the Irish Times article it appears that Kenny wants abortion to be available where the mother's health would be affected, even if not on demand (currently it's only available if the mother's life is in danger). That would require a referendum.

There are 3 options:

1. Keep things the way they are, but make access to abortion were it's already permitted under the law more accessable in practical terms (the A, B and C line).

2. Have abortion were the mother health is in danger (also in cases of rape/incest/etc.).

3. Permit abortion on demand.

2 & 3 would require a constitutional amendment (which would have to be passed by referendum). In those cases you advocate a position and stick to it: the nitty-gritty of legislative work comes afterwards, when it permitted under the Constitution. The fundamental argument is political, and if the political parties cannot face up to taking a principled stand from wherever they stand on the political spectrum, it's a craven act of political cowardice.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

ECHR and Abortion in Ireland

The ECHR has delivered its Grand Chamber judgment on the A, B, and C v Ireland case earlier this month, on whether the rights of three women under the Convention had been violated due to their inability to access abortion in Ireland. The current Irish abortion laws are very strict - some of the strictest in Europe - prohibiting abortion except in cases where the mother's life is at risk. This is a high threshold, as risks to the health of the mother are not enough. The issue is very sensitive in Ireland, as the right of the unborn to life is enshrined in the Irish Constitution (brought in via an amendment in 1983), and would require a referendum to change - something which there is little will for among the political parties. Ireland has held several referendums on the issue of abortion, and the parties have pretty much decided that there's no votes in opening up such a sensitive issue.

In short, the Court ruled that the fact that A and B had to travel to obtain abortion did not breach their rights under Article 3 (torture and inhuman/degrading treatment) or Article 8 (right to private life), but there had been a breach of Article 8 in the case of C, who feared that her pregnancy could cause a return of her cancer. The Court was essentially stating that Ireland had breached the Convention by not ensuring the effective protection of rights it was guaranteeing (a doctrine developed in Tysiąc v. Poland, which also concerned abortion), as the Court judged that there was a lack of sufficient means of obtaining a medical evaluation showing that a woman fell within the exception permitting abortion. Since C couldn't obtain such verification, there was a breach of her rights.

The judgment has been covered well by the ECHR Blog and Human Rights in Ireland. The Human Rights in Ireland article is a great brief explanation of the judgment's context in Irish law.

So claims that the Strasbourg Court is interfering in Irish abortion law are simply wrong. The Court just states the Tysiąc v. Poland position that if a state grants rights, then individuals should have adequate access to such rights. In a way, the Court is acting as a court of fourth instance on human rights here: no European-wide right to abortion has been recognised. Neither the Lisbon Treaty nor the ECHR ruling has changed anything regarding Irish abortion law. Not that this stops fundamentalist Catholic groups such as Youth Defence from decrying the judgment as interfering:

"The ECHR has no business interfering in Irish pro-life laws and they have no right to try to scare Irish women into believing that they would ever need an abortion to save their life."

Sadly, there is unlikely to be any political debate or moves for Constitutional amendment in the forseeable future. The current Fianna Fáil government brought in a blasphemy law provided for under the Constitution, rather than remove the Constitutional provisions via referendum, which would have been more in line with 21st Century Ireland. Though Fianna Fáil won't be in government for much longer, the next government's attention will hardly be focused on reforming the Constitution to remove the explicit Catholic ethos and to secularise the state further. So while the country becomes ever more liberal and secular in its attitudes, the entrenchment of a Catholic outlook in the Constitution gives groups like Youth Defence a stronger say than they would otherwise have - to the extent that they can claim their views are the patriotic ones.

On a final note, regarding the treatment of A and B, the Court should have dealt with things differently. The dissenting opinion views the core issue more clearly than the judgment: the Court should have balanced the rights of the mother and unborn child, rather than confuse the issue with the margin of appreciation the state has over determining the point at which the unborn child can be considered alive (the issue in Vo. v France). I'll not go into the dissenting opinion (this post is already long enough!), but it makes quite a convincing argument as to the approach the Court should have taken. Perhaps it is an example of the Court shying away from making politically sensitive judgments at the expense of the coherence of its case law.

Monday 27 December 2010

Blog Action against Hungarian Media Law has called for a Blog Action against the new media law that will come into force in Hungary on January 1st. Hungary will assume the rotating presidency of the Council for the next 6 months, and has set up a presidency blog, so it is a great time for the Euroblogosphere (and national blogospheres) to highlight the dangers to press freedom, and to push for the law's repeal.

You can find the OSCE's damning assessment of the legislation here: PDF.

OSCE Report:

"They will introduce a highly centralized governance and regulatory system, with many new and unnecessary bodies of oversight and supervision and with many decision-making processes involving a succession of inputs by disparate bodies – probably breeding conflicts and inefficiencies, but also multiplying opportunities for political control. The whole system may have a serious chilling effect on media freedom and independence ((by encouraging selfcensorship) and on the exercise of freedom of expression.


The new institutional framework may, if deliberately (mis)used for this purpose, create conditions for the realization of the “winner-takes-most” or indeed “winner-takes-all” scenario in the current term of Parliament, in defiance of the principle of the division of powers and of the checks and balances typical of liberal democracy. As such, the design of this framework runs directly counter to democratic standards in the field of media system organization and governance. Accordingly, this package, which exceeds what is justified and necessary in a democratic society, is cause for very serious concern."

The legislation covers traditional and internet media, though the OSCE report fears that the legislation is framed so all internet content could conceiveably be covered by the law. In any case, the law will change the media landscape in Hungary significantly, by bringing in content regulation where previously the content itself had been "virtually free" of, and which is "without precident in democratic countries" (page 6 of the report PDF). The legislation will set up a National Media and Telecommunications Authority, which the Hungarian government will be able to appoint officials to, and will oversee media (including group blogs) in Hungary, without the national parliament being able to form a adequate check on the government:

"...the manner of appointment of the Media Council Chairperson
amounts to nothing less than government capture of Parliament. Parliament is left no choice but to vote for the Prime Minister’s candidate. Moreover, should it fail to elect that person, its decision will be disregarded in the sense that the President would still chair meetings of the Media Council (with a voice, but not a vote) and the only option left to Parliament would be eventually to elect that same person to this position – or leave the position unfilled, thus considerably weakening the MC. This is very likely if the governing party/coalition does not have a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Then, the solution designed to promote the development of consensus on the chairmanship of the MC could easily turn into an opportunity for obstruction by opposition parties."

Group blogs are another issue, as in Hungary group blogging is popular. As blogs can be fined if they are "edited" or written by several people, this could have a chilling effect on blogging in Hungary, where people are afraid of blogging together and risking suffering for what other people write. Mathew Lowry has written about this over on his blog.

I won't go into the law in greater detail (other blogs and the OSCE have done a good job - the OSCE Report is 57 pages long, after all!), but the vagueness of "appropriate" information, the vagueness of the idea of content and the political nature of appointments are a threat to freedom of the press and to blogging, so I would encourage everyone to join in with the Blogging Action, and raise awareness through blogs and Tweeting. Though the Presidency has argued that this is a purely national matter, and the presidency shouldn't be "hijacked" by it, but the freedom of the media is fundamental to democracy, and we should be concerned about such laws taking root in other countries. Not only is it a question of how we can ensure the same standards of rights, openness and democracy in Member States after they've joined the EU, but just as the presidency used the argument that none of the measures were not found in other Member States, tolerating the erosion of rights in one Member State makes it easier for such erosion to spread.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Division of Labour: Subsidiarity and National Parliaments

Subsidiarity. If you're still reading, congratulations; your courage in the face of EU jargon is impressive.

Subsidiarity is the principle that decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to the public, where that decision can be meaningfully taken. It's a principle that everyone will find attractive and agree with - how could you possibly be against? I support the idea, but when Nosemonkey asserted that giving subsidiarity true meaning and force would improve the EU and its legitimacy during the first Bloggingportal event panel, my first thought was a bit sceptical:

"Subsidiarity is probably one of the most tricky #EU legal concepts - how can you define it?"

Jon Worth replied:

"@EuropeanCitizen Subsidiarity is a conveninent cover for doing what you want to do, at whatever level #EU #EUuk - or am I too sceptical?"

Keeping decision making power at the lowest level possible where it would be effective is clearly a political ideal, and how to impliment it in practice causes a lot of difficulty. Since I study law, my mind immediately jumped to the European Court of Justice - after all, it is the institution which interprets the Treaties and which would rule whether or not the EU was acting within its competence or not. To my knowledge, the ECJ has not once found a breach of subsidiarity, and I am not aware of there being a test for subsidiarity, simply because it is so political it defies easy judicial interpretation.

I don't want to be misquoted here that subsidiarity is meaningless and the ECJ does nothing to limit EU power, because there are other, better, legal tools for doing so. The other 2 legal principles are those of conferral (the EU only has powers given to it by Treaty) and proportionality (EU actions must only so as far as is necessary to achieve their aims). (See Article 5 TEU). The Tobacco Advertising cases (I & II) are good examples of these principles being used (though arguably proportionality should have been more thorough), and the key point was that the internal market concerns cross-border trade, so the EU can only rely on those law-making powers to create laws that ease cross-border trade, not for health or for goods that would be fixed and not cross borders. These principles are either straight-forward or there is good judicial experience in the Member States to draw on to inform how they should be used. But when it comes to subsidiarity, what does it add to the judicial decision-making, and how could it be applied?

Subsidiarity is political, so it would be best enforced through political channels. The Lisbon Treaty gave the national Parliaments the ability to force the Commission to reconsider proposals if enough of them (at least 9) considered the proposal to breach the principle of subsidiarity. (See Protocol 2 of the Treaties). The time limit of 8 weeks is too short for it to be very effective, however, given the amount of co-ordination and co-operation that needs to take place among national parliaments. It does give them a useful tool which could be used effectively when the national parliaments organise themselves (which will take time and depend on their political will), but the time limits need to be extended. Open Europe has made this point, and it's a good one.

At the moment the Commission does a "check" on its proposals - do they conform with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, do they conform with the principle of subsidiarity, etc. The ECJ is likely to take political decisions on subsidiarity as being within the legislative discretion of the EP and Council and focus on other legal questions, but challenges from the national parliaments may force the ECJ to take it into account more (though it will be a long time, since it will more likely decide on procedural issues and on other legal grounds rather than face the difficult and politicised task of defining subsidiarity). Effective political channels are the best way of making subsidiarity more meaningful.

A last point on the role of national parliaments in the EU. At the Bloggingportal event, Mat Persson of Open Europe remarked that their role should be expanded beyond subsidiarity checks. To me, and I'm open to correction, this means national parliaments having a legislative role in place of or parallel to the EP. I'm completely against this. It would be good for national parliaments, through their committees to keep tabs on and control the votes of the national ministers in the Council, but becoming the "second chamber" of the EU would be damaging to transparency and accountability. Though the EP is not loved and turn-out is falling, it does, at least, provide an open, full-time forum for debates on EU legislation and scrutinising the executive.

National parliaments, on the other hand, tend to have little time of EU affairs, and their effectiveness varies from country to country on the powers they do have regarding the EU. Separate debates in 27 (or more) arenas in different languages would mean that the debates will become harder for the public to follow. Inter-parliamentary deals (alliances and deals made in now smokeless rooms) would be even more decisive for the legislative process. Though the EP has a low turnout and political organisation on a continental scale is more difficult, at least it provides the possibility of influencing the way EU legislation is dealt with and of expressing opinions more directly to the EU institutions about what they should be doing. Having the national parliaments take over would damage the transparency and accountability the EP provides (or potentially provides), and could even reduce the EU's legitimacy.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Blogging about Cancún

An agreement has just been reached in Cancún, which has produced another political agreement, but with no legally binding force over emissions. It's not an event I have been following closely over the last few days - I've been caught up in JHA and the excellent conferences/events - but I've noticed that one of my local MEP's Twitter account lit up.

Bairbre de Brún is a United Left MEP (Sinn Féin) who was part of the EP's delegation to COP 16, and was part of last year's delegation to COP 15 in Copenhagen. Normally Northern Ireland's MEPs' (and candidates') Twitter accounts are fairly inactive, only showing some life around election times, though I've seen some more activity from NI political figures recently. For the trip, de Brún also started to write a blog on the negotiations, talking about some of the issues and the negotiating styles at Cancún.

Environment is an area that is frequently mentioned as something that impacts at local, national, European and international levels, and it's a policy area particularly important in the EU - as Gawain Towler pointed out in the Bloggingportal conference yesterday, the EU affects the light bulbs you can buy, so it does effect people's lives. While lightbulbs might be too small an issue to hold much political or media attention, COP 16 is an example of important events were the EU's politics and position matters, and could be newsworthy. But then perhaps reporting on the negotiations of delegates and the differing positions of other countries and regions is too detailed to be newsworthy. Is blogging a better medium for covering these kinds of big negotiations?

Monday 6 December 2010

Conversations with ourselves

Last week there was a PES (Party of European Socialists [centre-left]) conference in Warsaw, not that it made much media impact. Even EUobserver, which is dedicated to EU news and politics, was so taken up by the Wikileaks story that it simply didn't mention it. Centre-left party leaders from the UK and France did not turn up. EurActiv has an article on the Conference, reporting that the PES have now set up a working group to figure out how a Commission President candidate will be chosen for the 2014 election - but it was the lack of interest that sticks with you.

In some ways this is strange, particularly in Ireland. The Irish Labour Party have said that they will not be bound by the IMF/EU-Ireland bail-out agreement, and it has denounced the conservative consensus in Ireland and in Europe. The stress on investment and growth (though the Labour party would also cut spending and raise taxes to reduce the deficit), is quite similar to the speeches being made at the conference. Growth and jobs; the two words were repeated again and again in Warsaw, with continuous reference to the dominance of the centre-right EPP (European People's Party [centre-right]) in the EP, Commission and Council, and their philosophy of austerity, in contrast to what Greek PM Papandreou termed PES "responsibility".

PES leader Poul Nyrup Rasmussen:

Plenary speeches : Poul Nyrup Rasmussen from PES_Party of European Socialists on Vimeo.

Greek PM George Papandreou:

The two parties who have a chance of winning the next election and electing their leader Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Labour (PES) and Fine Gael (EPP) are pretty much in line with their pan-European parties' philosophies (though it's more doubtful when it comes to the EU's own resources and economic governance). Given the talk of a loss of sovereignty and the control the EU now has over our economy, stressing the influence and links with influential blocs within the EU could have some bonuses, but this possibility isn't explored because that's not how the Europarties are seen by the national parties, and that's not how the EU is represented. It's surprising how much the Commission is represented as purely technocratic, and that Olli Rehn's insistence that the Commission does not "involve" itself in domestic politics passes without real comment. The EU does respond to shifts between the right and the left, as can be seen by the shift in the Commission's composition ever rightwards over the last 10 years as the EPP have gained ground in the Council and Parliament.

The point is that there is the room and the place for political debate and discussion. At the moment a lot of the crisis politics has fallen by default to the European Council - the leaders of the Member States - which favours the voices of those who can shout loudest, and unfortuneately this means that any debate that is going on about the Eurozone is taking place in segmented groups, rather than allowing for an exchange of views across borders. The Irish press, and other European media, can complain that Germany is not being sensitive to the situation of the rest of the Eurozone and doesn't appreciate how much the Euro benefits it, but how useful is that if there's no debate between these different ideas and perceptions in each country? Who is trying to persuade the German public of certain right/left-wing policies that are necessary for the weaker Eurozone states, and who is arguing of the necessity of the largely German and Dutch-supported policies to strengthen economic governance in the weaker Eurozone states?

If we just express outrage at the bail-outs and the running of the Eurozone from different perspectives within our constituencies, then we've little hope of coming to a workable agreement that everyone can at least understand, rather than having another crisis measure hastily agreed at another European Council summit.

[EurActive] "...the centre-left wants to introduce a financial transaction tax of 0,05%, with the revenues going to fight against poverty and promotion of green growth.

Second, the PES wants to introduce an Employment and Social Progress Pact to contrast with the Stability and Growth Pact setting out limits on public debt and deficits for euro zone governments. Instead of strict fiscal discipline, the socialist pact would prioritise job creation, leaving behind the Conservative economic approach based on "punishment and sanctions," said Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, PES President.

Other measures include the introduction of Eurobonds that would add to the EU solidarity budget and setting up a European Debt Agency that would help EU tackle debt problems."

Surely competing ideas like these need to be aired and well discussed?

Where are the MEPs? I have not seen an MEP on Irish TV talking about how the EU should approach these matters. Perhaps nobody in the Irish media thought to grill them on what was going on in the EU, or to ask them what could or should be done differently. If we do not try and influence the EU through our MEPs and their parties, then we are missing an opportunity to exert political pressure and to force "Brussels" to respond. With billions being loaned and transferred across the EU and Treaty change in the air to secure the Eurozone, there is clearly a lot at stake - we should be contacting MPs and MEPs, holding public meetings and TV debates where the different Europarties and national parties debate their different visions of the Eurozone. Force them to take positions; to make the case for their ideas. If MEPs from different Member States joined in, then the different viewpoints of other parties in different constituencies could be discussed and understood.

Experience shows that it's hard to interest people in MEPs and European issues, and it would be undoubtedly difficult to set up public meetings and debates consistency across the Eurozone, but we cannot and should not leave the sole political debate behind the closed doors of the European Council, and we are wasting are time carping ineffectively about the positions of other countries, essentially, behind their backs. If we want to make our political voices heard, we should at least try to use the system we have to its full extent.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

When would Zwarte Piet arrive?

When I arrived in the Netherlands, I was already aware of two of the most striking aspects of living here: the monthly air raid siren test and the Zwarte Pieten; but it tends to be the minor things that make you wonder what exactly you're supposed to do, or how you should react in a certain situation.

But first the striking things. The monthly air raid siren is pretty much what it sounds like. It's sounded at 11 o'clock on the first Monday of every month, and is strangely musical, unlike the building wail of the sirens during the London Blitz that you might imagine. Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete") is a bit harder to explain. He's the mischievous helper of the Dutch version of Father Christmas or Santa Claus, "Sinterklaas", and though I knew about Zwarte Piet, it's still strange to see Zwarte Piet on TV or in the flesh - because people playing Zwarte Piet have to paint their faces black and wear Renaissance style clothes. There's naturally been soul-searching over the representation of Zwarte Piet, but apart from an experiment on Dutch TV of having different coloured Pieten, the traditional blackface appearence has remained.

As Sinterklaas lives in a castle in Madrid (he travels to the Netherlands every year in the middle of November by steamboat), two questions have been idlely floating around my mind.* First, why does Spain still have such a hold on the Dutch imagination when the country has been independent from them for centuries, and they don't neighbour each other, and secondly, I have been wondering whether Dutch families ever visit Sinterklaas in Spain, like the Santa's Grotto in Lapland? So far I've just been told that Sinterklaas kidnaps bad children and takes them back to his Spanish castle, so I suppose it's not necessarily somewhere you would want to visit. Although there is a YouTube video claiming to have spotted him in Madrid:

So far things have been pretty straight-forward, however. Though it becomes more complicated when you're dealing with an international group when it comes to arranging a night out in a pub. It's hard to know exactly what people's conception of time is. On Monday arrangements were made to go out at 8:30pm. At home, the starting time seems to be purely theoretical, and the word "about" is usually included as recognition of this. "We'll be out at about 9". Nobody would arrive at 9, and only a few would turn up within half an hour of that time; nearly everyone will have arrived after an hour and a half. So sometimes the best way is to find out when other people are themselves planning to go out (the reply inevitably features another "about" which signifies a 30 minute margin), and then arrive at the time when most of the "abouts" overlap.

So on Monday evening it struck me that I didn't know just how late to arrive: an important question when you don't want to spend 30 minutes sitting on your own in a pub.

The "problem" was easily solved by meeting up with someone before going to the pub, and most people arrived within an hour. I was told that the Bulgarian rule is: after the meeting time, you wait 5 minutes out of obligation, and another 5 minutes out of courtesy. And though I didn't quite overthink the situation as I might have written it in this post, I'm wondering now: what are the different cultural rules for meeting up across Europe?

*The steamboat might be the more obvious thing to wonder about; I think the reason is that most Sinterklaas traditions originated in the 19th Century. My idle thoughts don't seem to be very consistent in what they wonder about.