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.

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