Friday 28 January 2011

Our Mission, should we choose to accept it...

Italian Foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has called for an EU mission to be sent to North African countries affected by protect movements, including Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria:

"...the EU should send a high-level "political support team" to calm tensions in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region hit by deadly civil unrest in recent days.

"The European mission ... [should] take contact with the highest levels, beginning with the authorities in Tunisia, with civil society, mayors, opposition parties, to collect information, not to give orders," he said, Italian newswires report.

"I do not think this can be dealt with by sporadic initiatives of this or that country in Europe, but only by a European initiative.""

To calm tensions, but to not give orders? The EU would have to be very clear about what it wanted to see in the region after the protests ran their course. Does it want to see a return to the status quo, or does it want to ensure a stable transition to more democracy or an accommodation of the protesters' demands? Sending in a clearly political mission without figuring out what kind of role it is to play could backfire pretty easily - what would be the reaction to the mission if the protesters failed or succeeded? Would the EU mission get some of the blame for the outcome, even if it didn't really do anything?

The EU can afford a sort of distant pro-democratic attitude from outside the region, but once it sets foot there - even if it's just dipping in its small toe - it better have a clearly thought out strategy and be able to position itself (very publically, if need be) when things change quickly. North Africa is our neighbouring region, so we should have a common position and policy regarding it, but it should be thought out at home, not created ad hoc through missions.

Thursday 27 January 2011

The Politics of Debate

The former foreign minister, Micheál Martin, has won the contest to become the leader of Fianna Fáil, and immediately called for a series of leaders debates between himself, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, and Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore. He's asked for one at the start and at the end of the election campaign, as well as one in Irish. He is also calling for other head-to-head debates. So far Gilmore has accepted, while Kenny has sounded more cautious about Martin defining the structure of the debates.

With Fianna Fáil still well under 20% in the polls, Martin will naturally want to highlight his approach to both distance FF under him and under Cowen, and at the same time stick to the original message that Fianna Fáil is taking the tough but necessary decisions. Current Fianna Fáil strategy is to point out the differences between FG and Labour, since they will most likely form a coalition after the election. To some extent FG and Labour are happy enough with this: they tried a pact in the last election and failed, and their strategy this time is to run separate campaigns.

In some ways, this line of reasoning should be turned against FF: who would they form a coalition with? The Green Party are facing a likely wipeout - and in any case, FF will be a shadow of its former self in the next Dáil. Martin has spoken about not letting the election turn into a "coronation" of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, but the sense I get from the question-and-answer session after Martin's leadership press conference is that the focus is on damage limitation, and therefore not on government. This in itself would suggest that the election will be a coronation of sorts, and as long as nobody even thinks to ask the question: well, who would you form a coalition with?, it will remain that way.

The politics of the debates is revealing, though it highlights something that has long been common knowledge in Ireland. FG's leader, Enda Kenny, is not a good speaker in the Dáil, and isn't seen as a strong leader. Gilmore, however, is, and its his leadership that was credited with the now-waning climb in the polls by Labour - called the "Gilmore Gale". The enthusaism of Gilmore and Martin for debates is clearly rooted in their desire to capitalise on this. Labour have never held the position of Taoiseach before, and they will want to revive the call "Gilmore for Taoiseach" in a meaningful sense - I wouldn't be surprised if Gilmore tries to use Martin's charges of irreconcilable differences between Labour and FG against Kenny by suggesting that a FF-FG coalition is a possibility. Such an outcome would be political suicide for Kenny and FG, but the ploy may attract some votes to Labour as a more anti-FF party (though I doubt the effect would be great).

The debates may just inject more fluidity into the polls and excitement into the Irish election.

Monday 24 January 2011

Irish Government in Flux

The situation in Ireland is changing quite rapidly: after the motion of confidence and the resignation of Brian Cowen as leader of Fianna Fáil but not as Taoiseach, the coalition Green Party yesterday pulled out of government.

John Gromley, the Green Party leader, said that their patience had run out:

“In his statement, Gormley soon focused on why the relationship had fractured irreparably. It was grindingly obvious, given all that had happened in the preceding days: “Our patience has reached an end. There’s a lack of communication and a breakdown in trust. We have decided that we can no longer continue in Government.”

From their perspective, the crucial moment had come when Cowen had decided to press ahead with a reshuffle without consulting the partners. “What cut us to the quick was that Cowen thought he could bypass convention and somehow override our concerns by forcing resignations and creating vacancies,” said one. “That was not on.””

Now there is a minority Fianna Fáil government in place at the constitutional minimum limit of 7 ministers (as Stephen Spillane has pointed out), which will only remain in place until the passage of the Finance Bill. The Finance Bill is an implementing bill which will set out in more detail some of the budgetary legislation passed last year. Some elements of the Bill were only published on Friday, and usually there is a long process of scrutiny before it is passed, but the opposition are demanding that the Bill be passed by this Friday, and then an election called, or they will proceed with their various no confidence motions (there is one of no confidence in the Taoiseach, and another in the whole government).

Brian Lenihan, the Finance Minister and a contender for the FF leadership, has stated that the Bill cannot be passed so quickly, though some have suggested that the parts of the Bill had been published before Friday could be voted on and passed, while the more recent parts could be deleted and left until after the election.

This week will be another eventful one. A new FF leader should be elected by Wednesday, there may or may not be a motion of confidence before the Dáil on Tuesday, and whatever is agreed by Friday, the government is bound to be in trouble. I had thought about explaining who is running for the leadership for the FF party – there are 4 contenders – but there doesn’t seem to be much point, quite frankly. Fianna Fáil won’t be leading a government any time soon, and whoever is elected as leader will be defending the general approach of the current government to the crisis, even if admitting some mistakes. Still, the 4 candidates are: Micheál Martin, Mary Hanafin, Éamon Ó Cúiv (a grandson of party founder Eamon de Valera), and Brian Lenihan. Martin and Lenihan are the two main rivals for the post.

Meanwhile, it seems that Berlin will announce its vision for the future of the Eurozone. I suspect that this will have a greater impact on Ireland’s economic and political future than the farce taking place in Leinster House. It’s a pity that the parties are focused on purely national budgetary policy, and don’t seem to be forming stronger Eurozone policies.

Saturday 22 January 2011

More Fianna Fáil drama

At 2 o'clock Irish time, Brian Cowen, announced his resignation as the leader of Fianna Fáil, but not as Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This comes at the end of a week which saw Cowen win a motion of confidence from the parliamentary party, the resignation of six ministers from the government, and his failure to appoint new ministers (due to the opposition of his coalition partners, the Green Party).

Cowen said that this would give the party a chance to elect a new leader to contest the election while he focused on getting the finance bill through the Dáil. The decision was taken after consulting his family, and on his own political judgment - it seems that he didn't consult senior ministers (though he did say that he spoke to ministers, but there was no question of his leadership). He told the leader of the Green Party, John Gormley, "as a matter of courtesy" about the decision 15-20 minutes before the press conference. While his resignation is a party matter, it will affect how the government (and coalition) is perceived. I wonder if this is tit-for-tat after the Greens forced an early election on Fianna Fáil and refused to permit a reshuffle of the cabinet.

The big question now, is will this arrangement work? The election will take place on March 11th: is this enough time for Fianna Fáil to elect a new leader, and present itself as renewed? In many ways it doesn't matter, because the electorate has largely made up its mind, but it doesn't give Cowen's successor much time to even try to do anything about it. The successor will also be tainted by the election defeat, even if only as someone slightly responsible. In terms of successors, the timing of the decision should be good news for Micheál Martin, the former foreign minister who resigned to openly vote against Cowen in the motion of confidence. Other possible leaders, Hanafin and (Brian) Lenihan, repectively voted against but didn't resign, and publically supported Cowen while encouraging others to vote against him, which was very damaging for both of them. So Martin's party political capital will have less time to decline, while other challengers have a tough job in rebuilding their political credibility.

And how easy will it be for Fianna Fáil to campaign with a party leader who isn't Taoiseach - when in Ireland it's an unwritten rule that the party leader of the biggest party in government becomes Taoiseach? Micheál Martin had proposed the idea that the party leader would be different from the Taoiseach if Cowen had been ousted (which makes a certain amount of sense: why change Taoiseach so close to the election?), but critics rightly pointed out that it would be hard, if not nigh-on impossible, for Fianna Fáil to sell the idea that Cowen was too bad a leader to lead the party, but it's ok for him to lead the country for a while longer. To a certain extent Cowen's resignation takes some of the contradictions out of this. By resigning, the choice is Cowen's own, and the arrangement can be portrayed as purely practical. But on the other hand, it will still be a Fianna Fáil party that has time and again refused to topple Cowen that will go before the electorate.

Fianna Fáil: the party who needed Cowen to go so badly that even he knew it, but which couldn't do it itself.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Fighting the Polite Fight

The last week has been interesting in Irish politics – something that’s hardly a comfort for those who wish that Irish politics would settle down a bit. Last week the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, was plagued by questions over the fact that he had been golfing during the long summer Dáil recess with Seán FitzPatrick, the head of Anglo-Irish bank a few weeks before the infamous bank guarantee that fixed bank debts to the state debt. Anglo-Irish turned out to be the bank with the worst lending record, and the bank has had tens of billions of Euros pumped into it, making it the symbol of Ireland’s economic woes.

Cowen spent a few days consulting the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party on his position as party leader, and a confidence vote was called for Tuesday this week. On Sunday the Foreign Minister, Micheál Martin, offered his resignation and declared that he would vote against Cowen. On Tuesday, after a secret vote (it was Tweeted that the result was 2 to 1 for Cowen), Cowen was declared the winner. Martin’s resignation was finally accepted, but despite his loss, it is Martin who has gained the most from the last week. Two other Fianna Fáil ministers – Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin – with some leadership designs did not come out of the attempted heave well, with Lenihan declaring support for Cowen before other minister and TDs (MPs) publically complained that Lenihan was encouraging others to vote against Cowen. Hanafin refused to declare her support either way, but has now admitted that she voted against Cowen. Factor in her refusal to resign, and she has greatly damaged her profile within the party.

All in all, this attempted heave comes much too late to matter: Fianna Fáil are now at 14% in the polls, which is the same as Sinn Féin, so there can be no question of the party leading any government any time soon. The question now is will Fianna Fáil even be the main opposition party (suggestions by Labour that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil might go into coalition are extremely unlikely considering the Civil War divide between them and how toxic they have become). The certain defeat and Fianna Fáil’s electoral toxicity means that there will be a wipeout in any case, and changing a leader won’t help. This might have saved Cowen this week, but after the election, there will have to be a new leader, and Micheál Martin has just made himself the front runner.

Much has been made by the party of the civilised nature of the heave, in comparison to the great turmoil of the party in the Haughy era, and the leadership challenge in the main opposition party, Fine Gael, last year. But in many ways the whole thing has been very much a side-show, with Irish Times journalist Miriam Lord, characterising it as a fight between:

Cowen, the dead duck; Martin the lame duck; Hanafin the gutless duck; and Lenihan, the superior duck who shot himself in the foot.”.

It also hasn’t stemmed the government’s problems. With Martin out of the cabinet a reshuffle was needed, and many ministers who won’t be running in the next election have bowed out – making a current total of 6 ministers that the Taoiseach had to find replacements for. It was always going to be a difficult task: Fianna Fáil backbenchers are more likely to get elected if they distance themselves from the government, and the Green Party did not be participate in the reshuffle. So Cowen has quickly reassigned the ministeral portfolios among the remaining Fianna Fáil ministers.

One good thing has emerged, however – we now have an election date: 11th March. It cannot come soon enough.

Thursday 13 January 2011

He is subject, You are supreme, but I am Sovereign

The EU Bill is still trundling its way through the UK House of Commons. The Bill is aimed at creating safeguards against future transfers of power from the UK to the EU, mostly by making referendums in such cases compulsory (though, oddly, not when it comes to enlargement, which will stoke suspicions in other Member States as to political ultierior motives behind the Bill). Earlier this week, proposed amendments by Conservative MP Bill Cash and other were defeated; these amendments were aimed at creating a version of parliamentary sovereignty that could not be interpreted or challenged by the courts (or, perhaps more accurately, to entrench the current, not entirely strictly defined, version of parliamentary sovereignty beyond the reach of the courts). Parliamentary sovereignty is the UK legal doctrine that parliament has supreme legislative authority, and its Acts cannot be challenged by the courts - it can do whatever it wants, except limit the power of its successors (i.e. the next elected parliament(s)).

The debate* was a strange one, centering around clause 18, the sovereignty clause. As the clause stands, it basically reaffirms the UK legal position that EU law applies in the UK because UK law (in the form of the European Communities Act 1972) says so. The ultimate decision is parliament's, therefore parliament remains sovereign. However the debate obviously contains several competing strands and ideas which see sovereignty in their own ways. It's incredibily hard to define them and tease them out, as they seem to be mashed up. I'll briefly look at some of the points raised (or perhaps half-raised unknowingly by some parliamentarians).

Everyday Absolutists v Ultimate Absolutists.

PS was sometimes defined as "could the UK opt out/disapply an EU law it doesn't like"? The different contributions seemed to indicate 2 lines of thought. 1. Yes, as we can ultimately withdraw from the EU. 2. Yes, we could pass an explicit law disapplying whatever we don't like (in legal terms inserting a provision that the ECA 1972 didn't apply, and it was enacting something different to the EU law). Both, technically, are correct, but the second option would place the UK in breach of EU law and it would be liable to fines - with the matter only being finally settled by withdrawal or the UK accepting the EU law.

Sadly it was only MacShane MP who highlighted that compliance is supposed to be a reciporcal act, using the fact the French had to let in British beef under EU law during the mad cow disease crisis when Commonwealth countries were rejecting it. EU law is not meant to be a pick-'n'-mix affair.

In any case, neither position would have been affected by the amendements either way.

Political reality Constitutionalists v Common Law "radicals".

This was the big debate, and the reason for the introduction of the proposed amendments. Bill Cash is seemingly worried about the power of the judges regarding parliamentary sovereignty. The problem is that Parliamentary sovereignty isn't actually written down anywhere. Of course, it's often said that the UK has an unwritten constitution, but large parts of it are written down; just not in the same place.

There seem to be 2 schools of opinion on the matter. First is the Fundamental Constitutional Principle one, which considers the principle to be outside of the common law (judge-made law) because it was the result of historial events (essentially parliament fighting the monarchy and winning). The second school (increasingly dominant), considers the doctrine to be a common law principle. This matters because the Common Law is an evolving body of judge-made law, where judges interpret and adapt the law. So if PS is part of the Common Law, that means that judges can interpret and adapt it - which is what Cash is worried about, and why he wants to exclude judging from deciding this constitutional matter.

PS is under some preasure from the courts, though there has been little direct conflict yet. In Thoburn v Sunderland City Council, (decided in a relatively low court) it was suggested that some Acts of Parliament should be held to be higher than others (such as the Human Rights Act 1998 and the ECA 1972), so they cannot be affected by implied repeal, but would have to be expressedly repealed by Parliament. This wasn't part of the effective ruling, but obiter, but if accepted it would be a change to PS, as a more recent Act wouldn't impliedly repeal a "constitutional" Act if it conflicited. More recently, in A v Jackson, it was suggested (again in obiter) that PS was a general rule and no longer absolute. The ruling was in the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court), and it was considered that if Parliament breached the rule of law, the courts may not adhere to PS.

Cash wants to prevent the courts from changing the concept of PS, so he wants to set it out in statute. As the Bill is on the EU, and not a general sovereignty Bill, this can't be done in totality, so he attempted to start restricting the courts' role in PS in the area of EU law first.

In some ways I'm reminded of the debates surrounding the constitutional role of the French Parlements (which were big general courts) in the French constitution before the French Revolution. Some Parlementaires wanted to push the idea that they limited the power of the absolute monarchy. As Louis XV retorted:

"...authority can only be exercised in my name... and never be turned against me. For it is to me exclusively that the legislative power belongs without qualification or partition." [Taken from Simon Schama's Citizens, p.87-88.

Obviously it's nowhere near a neat parallel - the UK is a representative democracy, after all - but there does seem to be the idea, gaining ground in recent years, that the courts could limit the Parliament (which claims to be absolute) if it breached the rule of law. The rule of law is a vague concept, but it may have recently gained more legitimacy simply by being recognised as a pre-existing Common Law principle by Parliament in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. (Indeed, protecting the rule of law is key to judicial concerns, so I suspect that their tentative moves towards adapting the PS doctrine is more as a result of recent anti-terrorist legislation than any influence the EU may have had).

I've spent far too long today reading about this, but naturally the question is complicated and you would need to deeply research this before you could really take a stab at an answer. However, I think I'll give my - perhaps crudely formed - thoughts on this. I am pretty firmly in the Common Law Radicals camp. Though PS isn't rooted in case law or a Parliamentary Act, I have trouble accepting that it should simply be regarded as a Fundamental Constitutional Principle because it was a political reality once political power shifted from the monarch to the Parliament (or, more accurately, from the Crown to the Crown-in-Parliament). It doesn't rest easily with me that the fundamental constitutional principle should be rooted in the argument "might makes right", or even "political reality makes right", with no reference to law - can there be a fundamental constitutional principle that's beyond the law?

More satisfying for me is the idea that PS is part of the Common Law. Courts have, after all, made pronuncements on PS, and if the suggestions in Thoburn or A v Jackson were accepted, then the courts would be changing and shaping the principle. (Ironically many MPs for the amendments cited Lord Justice Laws in Thoburn as supporting their side of the debate because he made it clear that the appliability of EU in the UK was a matter for EU law, yet his obiter thoughts would imply that PS is a Common Law principle!).

Having PS as a Common Law principle raises the problem that judges would have influence over such an important area of the law, but then is having a whipped Parliament in sole, unchecked, charge a better option? In my opinion it is not. A qualified principle of supremacy would mean that the judiciary would be a stronger check on Parliamentary power - but it wouldn't mean that the judiciary takes over all legislative power. Ideally the UK would adopt a constitution vesting sovereignty in the people rather than the Parliament - which brings us to the final strand.

Parliamentary Sovereignists v Popular Sovereignists.

The Bill is intended to make referendums on transfers of power to the EU mandatory. This goes against PS in that it makes the decision the people's, and not Parliament's, and it is intended to be a permanent feature of the constitution - in other words binding its successors (though Parliament could repeal the legislation if it wanted). This shows the political confusion over PS: some politicians obviously equate Parliamentary Sovereignty with popular sovereignty (where the people are sovereign), when they are politically and legally distinct ideas. Indeed, this part of the Bill could cause adaptation of the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty by the courts! To quote Professor Paul Craig, who was one of the legal academics who gave submissions to the European Scrutiny Committee (of which Cash is the chair), at page 23 (PDF):

"How far is a decision whether or not to hold a referendum a legal question, amenable to judicial review,
and how far a political question? The relevant considerations in answering this question are as follows.

(a) The EU Bill is framed in mandatory language. The holding of a referendum is not a matter within the
discretion of the government. It must be held where mandated, [...]

(b) The principal difficulty is that if Parliament enacts a statute approving the Treaty amendment or Article 48(6) Decision without holding a referendum then any judicial review action would be challenging this primary statute. A legal action would run into traditional sovereignty reasoning: the courts do not review the validity of primary statutes in the UK. There are nonetheless two possible ways to surmount this objection.

(i) An aggrieved citizen or MP might try to frame an HRA case, arguing that denial of the referendum violated one of the Convention rights brought into UK law by the HRA. The court would then review the Act of Parliament approving the Treaty amendment without the referendum pursuant to HRA sections 3–4.

(ii) An alternative would be to argue that while the courts will not review the validity of primary statute on substantive grounds, they can do so in relation to arguments of manner and form. This is the “New View” of sovereignty advocated by writers such as Jennings, Heuston and Marshall, who contend that if, for example, an Act of Parliament specified that it could only be amended or repealed by a two thirds majority, then a later statute that made such change by a simple majority should not be recognized by the courts because it did not comply with the conditions for its enactment. It might be argued that the referendum requirement in the EU Bill is, by analogy, a manner and form condition, such that if a later statute were enacted without a positive vote in a referendum then the later Act of Parliament should not recognized by the courts. This reasoning is reinforced because of the wording of Clauses 2(2) and 3(2). The UK courts have not directly pronounced on the reasoning underlying the New View in relation to a case concerned solely with the UK."

This Bill probably highlights tha problems and pressures of having (and trying to maintain) a point of absolute power within a system of devolved government and within the context of supranational and international law. It will be interesting to see if the British constitution can successfully evolve to deal with the legal and political challenges of the modern world, and a modern Europe, or if a more radicial break with the past is needed.

*[Hat tip to Nosemonkey for the debate link].

Tuesday 11 January 2011

SPD: EU must be more cohesive

The SPD (the German Social-Democratic Party, the main opposition party at the federal level) has called for more cohesion in Europe, speaking about a quantum leap towards political union (though it doesn't seem to be advocating that just yet):

"The SPD leader has said the euro-zone crisis had proven the need for a dynamic European social democracy with a clear focus on future progress.

The only sensible way out of the crisis, he said, was to impose more EU regulation and to sideline the “congenital defect” of the euro: the lack of a common economic and financial policy.

“We need a quantum leap on the way to political union in Europe,” wrote Mr Gabriel in the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily yesterday.

“The first step is an economic-political co-ordination and co-operation that earns the name. Particularly for us Germans, who feel the tremors in world trade, this development is finally evident. For that reason we have to be the motor of this progress in the EU.”

Europe’s social democratic parties are best-placed to bring about this change, Mr Gabriel said, because they are historically concerned with “sharing fairly the economic fruits of progress”."

The SPD has decided to support Eurobonds (Tagesschau):

"Anders als die Bundesregierung macht sich die SPD für gemeinsame europäische Anleihen - so genannte Euro-Bonds - stark, um die Schuldenkrise in der Euro-Zone einzudämmen. Den Ländern der Euro-Zone könne damit ermöglicht werden, sich bis zur Maastricht-Schuldengrenze zu refinanzieren.

[Own Translation: Unlike the Federal Government, the SPD is for common European bonds - so-called Eurobonds - in order to dampen the Eurozone crisis. The Eurozone countries would then be enabled to refinance to the Maastricht debt limit.]"

Now that the crisis is at Portugal's door, and it looks like there will be another bail out soon, it's increasingly clear that the current mechanism not only doesn't solve any of the underlying problems (after all, the facility is just another lender), but it has failed to sufficiently restore market confidence to prevent the crisis spreading. The PES also back Eurobonds, and there are voices in France's UMP party calling for Sarkozy to drop France's resistance to the idea. With an election coming up in Ireland, it's a question we should be considering more seriously.

The Stability Fund has given the Eurozone some breathing space to decide what to do next. Hopefully these voices will encourage real consideration of where to go from here - otherwise we might find ourselves with an empty piggy bank, and nowhere to go.

Monday 10 January 2011

Honohan on Irish debt uncertainty

The Governor of the Irish Central Bank, Professor Patrick Honohan, gave a lecture on the need to restore certainty regarding the Irish budget and on the banks to the IIEA.

It's well worth watching. Apart from some interesting insights into uncertainty, there seemed to be key messages which pose key questions for Irish and European politics:

1. The bail-out is just a stop-gap meeasure. It is a more secure, and cheaper, source of lending, but it doesn't solve any of the underlying problems of the Irish economy, nor the uncertainty that caused the Irish crisis. (Interesting to note is Honohan's thoughts on Europe insuring against the tail risk, which isn't part of the current bail-out. Should it be part of future Eurozone governance in these kinds of crises? Would an insurance element be enough?).

2. The Programme is drawn mainly from the 4 year plan already set out by the Irish government, and the next government would be in a position to change how the Programme is implemented after 2011 (since the next year's budget is set in more detail). This is not to downplay the fact that the IMF-EU bail-out limits Ireland's room for maneuver, but, as Honohan highlights, Irish policy making will be key.

It will be interesting to see how this will influence the policy and election debate.

Anonymous on Fine Gael's election website

The main Irish opposition party's election website has been the subject of some controversy (it is hosted from Miami, rather than employing Irish developers), and now someone inserted an Anonymous image yesterday with the words:

"Nothing is safe, you put your faith in this political party and they take no measures to protect you.

They offer you free speech yet they censor your voice.


(Originally discovered over at; hat-tip Maman Poulet. It looks like it was a link).

The site is down at the time of writing, with a holding message in place.

The new website had been set up to ask voters what they thought is wrong in Ireland, and what they would suggest to solve the problems. Clearly the idea was to reach out to voters and to portray Fine Gael as the party that listens, but taking down the party's policies to open up a debate on its website - one supposed to influence policy - damages Fine Gael's image as the party that has been producing researched policy up to now. It's well meaning, but a bad electoral move in my opinion. The point of a political party is to present a platform from an ideological perspective that they believe will improve things. When the biggest question mark over Fine Gael is whether Edna Kenny would be a good leader, this gives the appearance that Fine Gael simply want to become the next managers of Ireland, without any core beliefs, whatever the true situation may be.

This new website has turned out to be a lot of trouble this week.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Geographical Values

There's a new blog over at Blogactiv - "EUphobia", which has the tagline: "The Unofficial Troll Blog of the Hungarian Presidency". In its first blog post, The Party has Started, EUphobia doesn't defend the Hungarian media law (rather the opposite), but does defend the Hungarian government, comparing it to the previous government: while the laws may not be good, the argument runs, at least its better than the disregard the previous government had to laws and rights. In the comments section there is a discussion that touches on the political leanings of the EU and whether its values are "Western European values".

A part of the post which I found worrying was:

"Another important point is how to “purge” Hungarian media and state offices from the socialist plague?


Communism, national socialism and socialism are the same sort of ideological infections and should be quarantined. Comments reflecting these ideologies will be strictly deleted."

That's not to say that there aren't abuses in the media in Hungary at present (I don't know enough about the previous government and its relations with the media to comment), but if their political colour (the focus on socialism) is the popular rallying cry behind taking action, it does raise concerns.

I posted this comment (awaiting moderation at the time of writing):

"The EU is definitely not left leaning - the EPP have been in the majority in most of the institutions since 2004. I think that the values aren’t a left-right issue (though more specific political ideas and values clearly are), and that they are a part of most of the political parties at a European and national level. One of the worrying aspects of this (apart from the law itself), is the relevation of what seem to be the terms of the debate within Hungary. The last government was undoubtedly rotten, but the extent of the demonisation of anything approaching opposition is troubling - your own mention of “purging” adds to the impression that the whole thing is based on tribalistic party politics rather than any positive values of the Fidesz party itself. Which in turn raises worries about how the vague media law will be applied.

European values are indeed patchily applied, and Hungary is the focus at the moment because it is caught in a perfect storm of a bad law coming into force, mixed with worryingly tribalistic-sounding politics, and its assumption of a high-profile European post (even if the profile of the rotating presidency has fallen after the Lisbon Treaty). The EU is ill equiped to deal with rights issues within Member States - human rights is a ECHR/Council of Europe issue more than an EU one. It seems that rights issues are increasingly important in the EU - it could be a sign of how EU countries are growing closer together, with citizens taking more interest in rights issues in other Member States - as can be seen from the Roma crisis.

I certainly hope that “European values” are ones that Eastern Europe can ascribe to as well as Western Europe - after all, all the EU Member States, East and West, have signed up to these values in the EU Treaties, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and in joining the Council of Europe. Applying pressure and scrutiny to countries is, however, not very equal - as the EU isn’t well equiped to deal with such questions, power and state size become bigger issues in how countries are treated. There is the nuclear option of suspending a country’s voting rights, but this is unlikely to be used.

Past lapses in applying standards cannot be used as an excuse not to apply or aspire to such standards now. A wider issue how should the EU deal with these questions.

On the other hand, if it’s not a question of unequal application and Eastern Europe does have different values to Western Europe - what are they?"

How should the EU deal with values in the Member States, and does Eastern Europe really have different values (and, if so, what are they?), or is it more an issue of unequal application of principles?

Promising Political Reform

Political reform is high on the agenda in Irish politics these days. Labour now has a paper of 140 proposals (the Twitter approach, perhaps?) for "New Government, Better Government" (PDF). Generally, the papers proposals are fair enough - longer periods with the Dáil in session, greater opportunity for private members' Bills and amendments, greater transparency of executive decision-making (whether it was a minister or a delegated power to a level in his/her department)...

Some of the major changes have been highlighted in The Irish Times:

"-A 90-member convention to draft a new constitution within 12 months
-Abolition of the Seanad
-An Independent Electoral Commission [Note: several functions of this proposed body are currently split among government departments, local government, and independent bodies]
-50 per cent increase in Dáil sitting days
-System for citizens to petition Dáil
-New whistleblowers’ legislation
-An Independent Fiscal Advisory Council to undertake economic projections
-Restrictions on contributions to parties and politicians
-Spending limits on elections
-Ministers to be more accountable for decisions to parliament
-Comprehensive reform of the public service."

Labour would also call a Constitutional Convention to review the Constitution, and proposed changes would be put to referendum. The Convention would consist of 90 members - 30 politicians, 30 citizens drawn randomly as they are for juries, and 30 NGOs/academics. 30 citizens seems too small to me if they want to get a good cross-section of society, and what impact they would make would depend on how the Convention is structured - if debates are fragmented, it could be steered one way or another. I'm also not comfortable with NGOs being represented (or people being included because they are part of a certain NGO): surely Constitutional reform should be a matter of the common good, rather than being open to change by sectional interests? (It also raises the question of: which NGOs? The composition could affect the debate - how strongly, for example, should Catholic views [or religions in general] be represented, with voting rights in today's Ireland?) It would be preferable if NGOs could report to the Convention, but they would not have a vote.

Labour now support the abolition of the Seanad (the Senate). The upper house is elected by panels of outgoing Senators, incoming TDs and by local councillors, university seats, and by Taoiseach appointment (the appointments to ensure a strong government voice). Reofrm of the Seanad has been proposed many times, but has never got anywhere. Fine Gael first called for the abolition of the Seanad last year, and now Fianna Fáil and Labour have jumped on the bandwagon - so now the 3 big parties support Ireland becoming a unicameral state.

I'm not a supporter of abolishing the Seanad, despite it being in a desperate need for reform. There is a place for a legislative house that isn't purely directly elected, which can serve as a check on the whip-driven majoritarianism of the lower house, and which may have time for less party political or more expert debates (depending on how it is elected). Though that's not to say there aren't some good points to be made against having a second house, since there are dangers for duplication. It's good to see the report rejecting the idea of (partially) turning the Seanad into a specialised body for scrutinising EU law because EU law is a broad part of Irish law. This led to the report's best line - "There would be no more point in having a body dedicated to scrutinising EU laws than there would be in having one that specialised in laws passed on Wednesdays."

On relations between the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) and the EU, the report pretty much repeated a lot of what was in the Oireachtas report on the subject last year, though with a few tweaks. Still, it's good to know that Labour is promising to implement these measures.

Saturday 8 January 2011

"The European Citizen" - Two Today!

The European Citizen is two years old today! It's been another big year of crises for Europe, and the first full year of the Lisbon Treaty being in force.

Blogging-wise, this year has been a bit more quiet than the first - I still don't know how I reached the 234 article mark in 2009! Still, it's been quite eventual. I somehow managed to win a short essay competition on communicating Europe, taken part in an International Criminal Court mooting competition, represented the S&D group for Romania in the Model European Union 2010 and wrote about My Europe Day as part of My Europe Week. 2010 was the year the question was raised: should bloggers be accredited to have greater access to European institutions, and, if so, on what criteria?

Civil and human rights remain important issues in Europe, whether it's banning veils, deporting Roma, access to abortion, or freedom of the press.

While the nature of blogging and blogging's place in society is still a big debate, including difficult questions over influence, I've tried to do something useful with this blog by analysing the records of the Northern Irish MEPs in their first year of this Parliament, taking a look at Barroso's big speech, and by covering the Oireachtas's (Irish Parliament's) report on how it could deal better with EU affairs. Although I also tried to compile strange EU rhetoric definitions, so it probably cancels out.

2010 saw a return of the old favourites of EU debate, what is the EU for, and what do the statistics mean? In August I moved to the Netherlands, so I took a look at the Dutch government's outlook on the EU. I was also lucky enough to be part of a trip around EU institutions and other international organisations in Europe, and the influence of the EU versus other organisations and the European Parliament is becoming more apparent.

For the next year, I'll try to continue writing about some other organisations, follow the Irish elections, and reach out to other Euroblogs and national blogs. As a co-editor of - which organised the great #EUuk event - I'm enthusiastic about the upcoming year, and it's bound to throw up some interesting events and it will remain the hub of the Euroblogosphere.

Thanks for reading!

Friday 7 January 2011

Ireland: Election 2011

2011 is going to be a big year in Irish politics. Fianna Fáil, the ruling centre/centre-right party (currently in coalition with the Greens and some independents) which has been the governing party in Ireland for most of its history since independence, is consistently low in the polls (14%, equal with Sinn Féin in the latest one), and appears on course for the worst result in its electoral history. The next government, which is likely to be a Fine Gael-Labour coalition (a Grand coalition), will have to steer Ireland through the recession, and implement the IMF-EU Bail-Out agreement.

However, the two parties have different approaches to the crisis (though there is common ground). Enda Kenny, the FG leader, is widely considered to be lacking in charisma, though he has shown some killer instinct when facing down a major challenge to his leadership last year. Eamonn Gilmore, the Labour leader, is the most popular leader in the country according to opinion polls, but the upswing in Labour support in the polls has waned recently (which is damaging to their hopes of an electoral breakthrough to become one of the 2 main parties). FG is thought to have the most researched and well thought-out policies (it accepts the same targets that have been set by FF, and would adjust the budget by €6 billion this year, front loading the spending cuts), while Labour, despite churning out policies recently, is open to charges that they haven't been properly considered or thought-out (Labour's adjustment would be €4.5 billion this year, putting off more pain for later).

Both talk about some renegotiation of the bail-out deal, and both talk about the need for some investment in the economy (a sign that simple austerity has been devalued over the last 2 years). If any renegotiation is to take place, it will have to include a political vision and platform beyond Ireland - they would, after all, have to convince other EU Member States to renegotiate. At the same time, there is likely to be more crisis in the Eurozone this year, and different ideas of fiscal union will remain relevant. It's important that we know exactly what each party's stance on the Eurozone is, not just for Ireland's short term advantage, but for the effective running of the currency zone well into the future.

Debates about political and constitutional reform are very prominent and appear to be high up on the various parties' agenda, so if these plans are realised, then it could be a further great shift in the landscape of Irish politics.

In October, there will also be a presidential election - the first in 14 years.* It's a ceremonial office, but it could turn out to be a hard-fought race.

So I've decided that I'll try to cover some aspects of the elections - especially the European aspects. Doubtless there'll be plenty of blogs in the Irish blogosphere doing a better job than me (I'll still be writing about EU politics!), but politics in the Eurozone will be more important than ever this year, and the Irish elections are a good way to look at some of the arguments through both the national and European lenses. The post tag I'll use is "Ireland 2011".

* The presidential term is 7 years, and as nobody could get enough support to be nominated to run against Mary McAleese after her first term, she was automatically re-elected. Between Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, Ireland has had a female head of state for the last 20 years.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Schengen Wars

After France and Germany sent a letter to the EU opposing the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen zone (a decision each Schengen member state has a veto on), Romania has hit back with suggestions that it will delay Croatian accession (or that the CVM [Co-operation and Verification Mechanism] that applies to it and Bulgaria should be applied to Croatia as well), and that it might delay ratifying the Protocol allowing the 18 Lisbon MEPs from taking their seats in the European Parliament. France and Germany are blocking the expansion of the Schengen zone to include Romania and Bulgaria because of their failure to make good progress in combating corruption and organised crime. However, technically both Bulgaria and Romania have met the criteria for acceding to the Schengen zone, and the two sets of criteria are supposed to be separate.

Romania's fight-back has been couched in the language of the rights of small states against the power of the Franco-German core. Ironically, a few days before EUobserver reported the Franco-German letter, I heard this policy being held up as an example of successful small state diplomacy - the Netherlands was extremely reluctant to let Romania and Bulgaria join, and wanted to put pressure on them to speed up justice reform. (Justice, immigration and law and order are policy areas the Dutch government is very keen on). Though the Netherlands has a veto in this area, using the "nuclear option" isn't a great diplomatic technique, and it's much better to get wider support for their position, so the Dutch lobbied the other states (particularly France) on the issue. (Yet another example of the veto not being a practical tool in European politics, I think).

In any case there's the question of whether or not it's right to move the goalposts like this. Wikileaks, as the EUobserver reported, has shown the considerable frustration in the EU over the the failure of the 2007 accession states to effectively fight corruption. The EU has been lax and hasty in its enlargement, and there's little incentive for states to reform after they've joined. It is hard to see how corruption and organised crime can be divorced from the burden Romania and Bulgaria would have to assume in becoming the EU/Schengen zone's border. Would border controls be or remain effective?

It may be unfair to tie these issues together after the fact, and the EU should have perhaps linked them more closely earlier, but these issues aren't optional for Romania, Bulgaria or the EU, and we have to find some way of ensuring that they will be tackled. There is a big question over big states versus small states rights, but this is not the most glorious way of fighting the small states' fight - because in the end this is about Romania and Bulgaria living up to the commitments of membership, which will benefit them and and EU.

UPDATE: Romania has given up on this strategy. Also worth reading is Kosmopolito's critque of Romania's brand of EU politics.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

#EUuk: EU, media and blogging in Britain

Last month I attended Bloggingportal's #EUuk event, on the EU in the British media and the British blogosphere. The first panel's topic was how the British media deals with the EU, and the second covered the British blogosphere and blogging about the EU in general.

FIRST PANEL – “The EU in the British Media”


David Rennie – Political Editor and Bagehot Columnist, The Economist, Bagehot’s Notebook
Paul Staines – Blogger, Guido Fawkes
Mats Persson – Director, Open Europe
J Clive Matthews – Blogger, Nosemonkey’s EUtopia

SECOND PANEL – “The EU in the British Blogosphere”


Bruno Waterfield – Brussels Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph, Europe not EU
Gawain Towler – UKIP / Europe of Freedom and Democracy Press Officer and Blogger, England Expects
Sunny Hundal – Blogger, Liberal Conspiracy, Pickled Politics
Jon Worth – Blogger, Jon Worth’s Euroblog

The first panel (now on YouTube; first part here), was interesting, though it was a pity that David Rennie couldn't stay that long, as he was very critical of the British press generally, and had a few interesting angles, that would have been worthwhile exploring further. On the central question, the themes would be very familiar to anyone who's been writing or reading euroblogs for any length of time: the lack of interesting news to report in the first place. In the UK this is compounded by bad reporting in the press, spreading information that's patently untrue (such as on nursing, and on selling eggs by the dozen). Different issues were raised: the EU needs more personalities, there should be a simpler way of communicating with the EU (the separate departments [DGs] mean slow communication and reaction to the press), and (perhaps) better standards in the press (this last one I'm implying from the discussion of the media's treatment of EU subjects).

Personalities are probably the way forward, but it's hard to see anything that could be done about it in the short term. The new media strategy of the Commission, for instance, is supposed to focus on Barroso - yet Barroso is less visible and present in the media than Van Rompuy or Lady Ashton. And this is during the greatest economic crisis and challenge to the Euro, when ideas of fiscal union are in the air. The attention remains on the Member States, specifically France and Germany - which is no bad thing, as the Member States are extremely important. However, it does led to a lazy toting up of approximate national interests to calculate who "won" and who "lost", instead of facing the key questions of what should be done about the Eurozone (and what the alternatives are). Though the Europarties have done some policy work, little attention is paid to them, and they haven't been tested, simply because nobody believes they can do anything, despite the activism of the EP this year. It probably won't be until there are campaigns during EP elections based on the Commission President they'd elect, will it matter what policies or personalities there are, and what the wider debates might be.

Perhaps the Euroblogosphere, and national blogospheres could help uncover some of the choices for the next election (and debate what should be done now!), but this goes back to the idea in the middle of last year that there should be more interaction between Eurobloggers and national bloggers - hopefully this event (and future ones) will help on building up links.

So I'll try and do more to boost links - and as a reminder, I welcome comments in other languages on this blog.

The second panel (also on YouTube - the first part is here) was a brilliant debate on blogging generally, and on the EU. One of the main themes that developed, was that blogging and mainstream media journalism are increasingly converging, with journalists occupying more dominant positions in the blogosphere(s), and acting more like bloggers. The role of bloggers was also explored, and there was disappointment from some (Bruno) that bloggers didn't seem to be reaching their full potential in reporting on and exploring issues like the financial crisis and Irish bail out. For others (like Jon Worth) blogging was about adding your voice to a debate when you have something to contribute, and it wasn't up to bloggers to write about areas that are being covered well enough in the mainstream media. I've a lot of sympathy for this view - the main reason I didn't blog much about the Irish bail out was my lack of an economic background (I hope to read up more on economics and to blog more about it soon). Still, blogging is a great educational experience, and I hope it encourages more people to inform themselves and to form an opinion on matters so they can add to the debate. The future of the media and blogging after the Wikileaks Cablegate was also briefly discussed.

I was presently surprised to get a great plug from Telegraph journalist Bruno Waterfield (Part 5, 1:05-1:50):

“One of the reasons why Conor’s blog is worth reading is because he situates... his blogging in wider constitutional debates about sovereignty/shared sovereignty... It’s not usually polemical – it doesn’t have to be – but it’s interesting to read the EU through a much more reflective, much more considered prism about what should politics mean in the 21st Century.”

So cheers, Bruno!

[Thanks to the Commission Representation in the UK for allowing use of Europe House for the event, and to Mia and Joe for chairing the panels].

Saturday 1 January 2011

The Others: from navigating the Rhine to navigating the Skies

It's been a while since I blogged about my RIO Trip of the European institutions and organisations, so it's probably time for an update.

Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine.

This organisation has the claim to fame of being the oldest international organisation in the world, set up in the 19th Century after the Napoleonic Wars to promote the free navigation of the Rhine to encourage economic growth. There are 5 member states (France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland - though the US was a member at one point), and the organisation can adopt regulations for the Rhine on the basis of unanimity of its members.

Sound familar? There is also a kind of court system, with designated national courts to deal with disputes, and a CCNR Appeal Court. Though the court system is at arms length from the core organisation (it is, after all, a judicial branch), in many ways it, and the laws it upholds, are the most striking things about the CCNR. Old as it is, it's an impressive (and surprisingly early) example of international co-operation giving individuals enforceable rights.

[Image from Wikipedia].

Today the CCNR resides in an old German Imperial Palace in Strasbourg (apparently the Kaiser hated the place but his wife was rather more fond of it), and it's now called Le Palais du Rhin. The CCNR is still focused on economic freedom of the Rhine, but there are also issues of employment law and environmental protection. However, the EU has impacted on the CCNR - the EU works in the area of environmental protection and some areas of worker's rights, so the CCNR has to work differently to make its presence felt. Now it sees its role as that of an expert body, giving advice to its much younger sister Commission on the Danube, and other authorities, including the EU, and has worked on giving advice and expertise on shaping EU regulation in this area.

The grand atmosphere of the Palais gave the organisation a strange air: it struck me as an organisation that was very proud of its history, and resigned to a Europe of highly competitive international organisations.


Eurocontrol brust into the limelight recently during the Ash Cloud Crisis last year, when they experienced the very European position of being blamed for something which they didn't do: in this case for the closure of airports. Eurocontrol aims at the creation of a "Single European Sky", but generally deals with co-ordination between airspaces (there are still national airspace controls) and the collection of route charges.

Eurocontrol, like the CCNR, is not part of the EU system but heavily affected by it. I was struck by the enthusiasm while I was there and the focus of the Eurocontrol on competing with other organisations to provide more air traffic services to the EU and its member states. It continues to grow in membership - in fact, Latvia has become its 39th member today (PDF).