Tuesday 31 December 2013

Free Movement Night's Eve?

"Who cheats, flies", runs the campaign of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria. Fear of an influx of Romanians and Bulgarians seems to be at fever pitch, with Tory activists in the UK petitioning the Prime Minister to use an emergency clause to limit immigration and the new CSU campaign, which has angered its coalition partners (the CSU is part of Merkel's governing coalition). From tomorrow, the transitional restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens from enjoying the full rights of EU citizenship will expire and they will be able to work across the EU under the same conditions as other citizens.

Counter arguments, that Germany and others benefit from migration, that migrants contribute more than they receive in benefits and that the freedom of movement is a two-way street, don't seem to have broken through. However that doesn't mean that anti-immigration arguments and rhetoric are necessarily well-received. The "Go Home" campaign piloted in Britain - where a van pulling a billboard urged illegal immigrants to contact the Home Office and "go home" - was a laughing stock, with people cheekily trying to use the contact number to ask the Home Office to arrange for their trip home across London. Similarly, the "Who cheats, flies" - Wer betruegt, der fliegt! - campaign was mercilessly ridiculed online, with pictures of prominent CSU ministers on planes appearing under the slogan.

And a recent poll in Britain suggests that integration rather than immigration is the crux of the concern, with a majority of people accepting of immigration if people play by the rules. This is probably why the clumsy attempts to tar groups of immigrants - actual or potential - with the same brush has struck such a hollow ring with people. In this day and age scapegoating a group of people is simply not acceptable. The concern is more over pressure on the welfare state, public services and integration into the local community. These are issues - and it's sad that evidence of migrants' contributions haven't had much traction yet - and they also seem to be tied up with the wider debate over the welfare state and who deserves help: the old concept of the deserving poor.

The image of people flying in just to cheat the system may be ridiculous, but in tougher economic times there is a fear of cheaters. Announcements to reduce and cut away at the welfare state are not just about austerity, but also tinged with suspicions that some are milking the system, even as demand for charitable services like food banks rise. But as the welfare system is made tougher, it's made tougher on everyone... The political battles over immigration and welfare will continue into the new year, with parties bidding to be tougher on immigrants and welfare "scroungers". Past experience with populist campaigns may have jaded the public to these stunts, but we are drifting towards a tougher society.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

In Search of the Citizen - European Year of Citizens

It was, Commissioner Viviane Reding declared, "A fight against indifference". Speaking at the closing conference of the European Year of Citizens, she correctly noted that the EU is "more than a market", but the story of "freedom, prosperity and stability" no longer worked as a European narrative. Europe certainly doesn't feel so prosperous anymore. From citizen dialogues to reaching out to civil society, the EU is not just trying to reach out to be closer to citizens, but you get the sense that if they could just deliver what people wanted, hopefully a new narrative will spontaneously emerge. Reding didn't say what Europe's new story was - she had to leave quickly for another Citizens' Dialogue in Lithuania.

How to make Every Year a Year for Citizens was the conference's theme, with discussions running from civil society organisation's at EU level to freedom of movement to the upcoming European elections. Hosted by the Lithuanian Presidency in Vilnius with the help of the European Year of Citizens Alliance ("EYCA" - an alliance of national civil society organisations), the conference was very much about how civil society can influence and interact with the EU - and above all the Commission.

And they do have something to say. Organising against the discrimination of the vulnerable in society, speaking out and even intervening in court cases in defense of the marginalised who try to exercise their free movement rights, and advocating giving a voice to 3rd country nationals who come to the EU. Proper consultation! was the cry, not "Insultations"! "Insultation" - shorthand for consulting with civil society groups just to tick boxes without really listening to them - was definitely the word of the conference. EYCA took the opportunity to hand Reding their recommendations for making the EU more open and democratic for citizens.

Here is the public the Commission yearns for - it's active, wants to participate and it has learnt the jargon, from your Charter of Fundamental Rights to your institutional triangles (even if this still proves a barrier to civil society organisations when it comes to knowing who to talk to). They can be disappointed, pleased, listened to or ignored. Most importantly, they talk.

It's a public, but are we talking about European citizens here? At times it felt more like a year of civil society organisations rather than a year of citizens. It's understandable - who else to you invite to this kind of event if not them? Apart from the bloggers, pretty much everyone present represented a civil society organisation (which went some way to slowing down the Q&A sessions, with each audience member taking the chance to explain what their organisation does). But though civil society makes a valuable link between the EU and citizens, you will probably only get that sense of a European public if and when the European elections start to feel European.

One of the most surprising speakers was the new head of the European Movement, Diogo Pinto, who - surprisingly for the EM - said that while the European Parliament does have new powers, it's still rational for citizens not to vote at European elections, because it's hard to see what changes in terms of power. Hopefully having candidates for the Commission Presidency in the election will change this, but it would be a slow process. The political drama of parliaments and elections is where you'll find citizens and a sense of citizenship emerging rather than targets and outcomes.

In future - the theme of citizens will unofficially continue because they couldn't think of a theme for 2014 - it would be good to have a citizens' dialogue as part of the conference (I assume that they were held separately due to falling under different institutions - the Council and the Commission). Having the chance to watch ordinary citizens put their questions to the Commission would bring up interesting issues and would actually be citizens participating.

So was the conference and the Year of Citizens a success? It depends on who you wanted to engage, but there is a sense that a wider public rather than simply campaigning civil society organisations was desired. At the opening of the conference it was admitted that it was "a mistake" to involve PR companies so much because it led to more of a broadcasting campaign than more engagement. After the European election promotion campaign in 2009, I hope the Parliament was listening!

Monday 16 December 2013

Ireland exits the Bailout, but not Austerity

Today Ireland has exited the EU bail-out programme - the first country to do so - but it doesn't mean an end to austerity. Appearing on TV last night in a State of the Nation Address, Taoiseach Enda Kenny praised the sacrifices of the public and said that Ireland had regained its international standing. However, "prudent budgetary policies" will continue, meaning that there will be further austerity. The transport minister has also cautioned against any "giveaway budgets" on the basis that the public will be skeptical of them.

Ireland still needs to repay the bail-out loans and reduce its debt, and monitoring of the national finances will continue at the EU level (although now it will be based on the semester system in line with other Eurozone states, rather than the more controlling Troika process). The senior coalition partner, Fine Gael (EPP), is hoping that exiting the bail-out will generate enough satisfaction that things are slowly going in the right direction, even if people aren't feeling any benefit in their lives or in their communities.

For the junior partner, Labour (PES), this strategy is unlikely to work. Having campaigned in the election on a platform of "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way", there is little gain for Labour in a slow recovery (despite its attempts to capitalise on it). And not only is the economy bad for Labour, but when it comes to popular, more liberal, stances on social policy (abortion and same sex marriage, for example), it doesn't seem to boost Labour's position.

Whatever the position of the governing parties, there is really little to be excited about on the Irish economy. The stronger export sector has been an advantage, but with the general economic malaise in Europe and high levels of private debt in Ireland, it's hard to see where the growth is coming from. The bail-out and banking debts that the public have been saddled with results in continuing austerity with Kenny aiming for 2020 as the year recovery will be complete.

Ireland may be the star pupil of austerity, but it hardly demonstrates that austerity is a star policy.

Thursday 28 November 2013

A Strong Europe?: What the Grand Coalition has in store

Two months after the German elections the Grand Coalition deal between Merkel's CDU (and their sister party, the CSU) and the SPD has been signed. It's not a done deal until the SPD membership has endorsed the coalition treaty, and there is some resistance to it given their anti-Merkel election campaign and the frequency with which Merkel's coalition partners have the political life sucked from them. Still, the SPD leadership are likely to have their way, and with a membership vote on the deal the coalition will have a firm foundation for the next 4 years.

The headline policies, such as the minimum wage and reduced pension age (SPD) and road tolls for foreigners (CSU) have tended to be driven by the junior partners of the coalition. It's been suggested that the leadership style of Merkel's CDU (focusing on her leadership rather than policy) may have worked well in the campaign, but was a weakness when it came to coalition negotiations. So how is Germany's Europe policy shaping up?

The coalition agreement can be read here (PDF - in German), with the European policy at pp.15, 156-167.

Eurozone and the Single Market

The big one and, despite the hopes that the SPD may have moderated the austerity-centric policy, there is really no change here. In fact the strongly conservative tone is startling - there's plenty of talk about reducing debt and deficits and working on competitiveness, but when you turn to the "social Europe" section the rhetoric is pretty much repeated: austerity is the only way to ensure a social Europe seems to be the message.

On banking union there is little new. Yes, there must be banking union, and, yes, private banking debt must be separated from public debt (with banks taking the hit first). However the deal underlines that releasing funds under the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) or otherwise will remain subject to a vote by the Bundestag and emergency credit lines are a last resort only. The agreement both stresses that there will be no common liability at the European level since budgets are a national competence, and that budgets must be effectively overseen and co-ordinated at the European level. (It appears that the joined-up thinking demanded of Brussels has not similarly been applied here...). The SPD's leanings towards Eurobonds have apparently been stamped out altogether for the purposes of coalition.

On the future of emergency credit and the "reform contracts" that are supposed to accompany them, the German government supports the contract idea, though such deals must be "democratically legitimised". Presumably this means that the national parliament of the bail-outee will have to ratify the contract before being lent money.

Interestingly, the agreement states that there will have to be changes to the treaty basis of the currency union - a bit hint in favour of treaty change.

The new German government will support the completion of the single market, to which you can add the usual talk of both requiring further harmonisation to help create a level playing field and also ensuring the reduction of red tape, etc., etc., that always bolted on statements about the single market these days (and apparently copy-pasted here for emphasis). The stand out policy here is on posted workers, which should be "developed" to ensure that posted workers work under the same pay and conditions as nationals of the host country would.

Social Europe

Not much here at all. Under this heading the austerity rhetoric is repeated, perhaps on the basis that since times are tough austerity will have to stand in to reduce the number of policies, ironically causing a policy deficit in the process. There's not much here that isn't already long-standing policy at the EU level. Youth unemployment is bemoaned (the answer is held out to be structural reform and making free movement of this young educated workforce easier). Social and wage dumping are to be fought, and the new government will be supportive of tax harmonisation, which will have the alarm bells ringing from Dublin to Helsinki.

Money from the European Investment Bank has been promised for several types of projects and policy. Honestly, so many people have promised EIB money for so many things at this point that I'm starting to wonder if the next financial crisis will be when it collapses. It seems that when the EU budget is so small and you're cutting it, the answer is to promise to get the EIB to lend money for it. Just wait til the Europarty manifestos come out....

EU Democracy and foreign Policy

Enlargement, while supported, will face a tougher Germany: criteria must be more strictly applied, and Turkey's accession process won't "automatically" end in membership. Berlin also wants to beef up EU foreign policy through its humanitarian and development aid policies - and even military planning. It foresees a close cooperation between the EU and NATO here, which is probably something that would happen to a certain degree, directly or indirectly, though the neutral Member States may not be so happy with this.

When it comes to EU Democracy, there is nothing new: more education about Europe and supporting a more uniform electoral code seems to be the extent of the coalition's thinking here. There's not even a mention about how the 2014 elections can be used, never mind how they might affect the formation of the next Commission. Berlin will, however, want to see German on a more equal footing with French and English as a working language of the EU - it will be interesting to see how it pushes for this in practice.

Overall, very disappointing, if not entirely unexpected. For those of us on the left, the agreement's European paragraphs appear to contain no "social democratic handwriting". For those hoping for a change to Germany's Eurozone policy there is not only nothing, but a vigorous restatement of that nothing. For those looking for renegotiation there is an encouraging hint here, though the passage on social standards and the attitude towards the posting of workers will - or should - worry some British politicians who perhaps project too much of themselves into Germany's pro-single market outlook.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

EU Budget: a victory for the Council

The passing of the EU budget last week by the European Parliament was definitely a win for the Council and the fiscal hawks amongst the Member States. For the first time the EU budget will be cut, and cut by €35 billion (3.5%) over the next 7 year period (this "Multi-annual Financial Framework" allocates the budgets for 2014-2020).

While the European Parliament was able to wring a few concessions from the Council, given that it supported an increase, it's hardly a sign of parliamentary muscle. The centrist alliance of the European People's Party, the Liberals and the Socialists and Democrats bloc were key to passing the budget (537 to 126 votes), with the Greens, United Left and the Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group being the main opponents. The centrist alliance made a few demands that were mostly reflected in the concessions.

In return for its support, the Parliament got:

- Protection of EU funds for research, humanitarian aid and border controls from cuts;
- Retention of unspent funds by the EU, so that these can be used elsewhere (instead of returning to Member States);
- Agreement to ensure the payment of existing commitments under the 2013 budget;*
- Review of the EU's own resources (money directly received by the EU rather than given by the Member States).

The cut in the budget was also reduced from the level demanded by countries such as the UK.

The rationale behind the cuts is that the EU budget needs to reflect the austerity of the Member States - a bizarre idea if the austerity currently practised is supposed to be a policy of necessity rather than ideology, since the EU as an organisation has no debt or deficit. This is because the EU cannot borrow money. The "need" for the EU to reduce spending for the same reason as the Member States is therefore an ideological position rather than an actual attempt to balance a budget or EU public finances. The end result is a reduction in the already low fiscal transfers from the EU in investing in the poorer regions of the EU - taking away an important, if small, support at a time when money is being sucked out of vulnerable economies. So much for solidarity.

It is even more perplexing when a supposedly centre-left party takes this approach.

* The EU budget in 2013 seems to be in a similar position as in 2012, with Member States ironically happy to sign up to spending commitments and then not budget properly for it...

Tuesday 12 November 2013

The European Cloud - Europe's Response to the NSA Scandal?

Negotiations over the EU-US trade deal reopened yesterday, demonstrating that the NSA affair has not halted progress here despite the calls from the European Parliament for talks to be suspended. At the same time the Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) continues to hold sessions on its inquiry into the spying allegations. Neelie Kroes, the Commissioner that heads the Digital Agenda policy, has said that while the spying revelations are shocking and unacceptable, the spying will probably continue - "Let's not be naive". Instead Kroes argues that Europe should focus on building its digital infrastructure and single market in the internet.

In the EU the spying scandal does not look like it will produce any sharp changes in policy direction, but rather an acceleration of existing policies as the Commission and others capitalise on the political fallout from the affair. For the Data Protection Regulation this has already meant a reversal of the bill's dilution that had been brought about under the influence of lobbyists, and for Kroes it means pushing the European Cloud.

The European Cloud Strategy was adopted by the Commission last year, aiming to boost European cloud computing by sorting through problems of technical standards, data portability, clear cloud computing contracts and user trust. The policy is mostly economically focused, noting that cloud computing can generate jobs and economic growth while providing opportunities for cost-cutting for small and medium businesses. However, cloud computing concerns issues of data protection as well as copyright issues. As the EU works through its data protection reforms, the fact that 85% of cloud computing services are US based will surely raise concerns not only over how much the EU needs to do to catch up in this market, but also over how effective European privacy rules will be in practice.

With European expert groups meeting on how to approach cloud computing contracts and a European Cloud Partnership mulling commercial strategy, the technical discussions seem removed from the headlines in the media, but the Commission probably does see this as part of the solution (as well as using the crisis to promote its policies). First, the Commission's strongest in the single market, so boosting European internet businesses so European consumers (and others) have an alternative to the US-based cloud is one of the few things they can actually do, so they would be naturally inclined to favour this policy. Second, the best way for Brussels to exert its regulatory power in an area (and one of the few ways it can exert any power) is to have a strong market in that area and then come up with high standards for it, setting the pace in the global marketplace.

In a sense, Kroes makes a good point. It is hard to imagine that the Franco-German push to put transatlantic spying on a "legal footing" will do much, if anything, to reduce actual levels of spying. Improving the market position of the EU would help provide an alternative and allow the EU to stamp its data protection philosophy on to the global economy more effectively - and the political impetus behind such an economic policy is unlikely to fizzle out as quickly as the focus on spying may do.

However, this isn't enough - we should and need to push more forcefully to ensure that security services here and in the US are more politically accountable. It is not enough that what they do is legal: after all, it would hardly solve the problem to provide that legal backing wherever it's currently lacking. Rather we need to have a more critical approach to the demands of security for ever more information and resources, and to have a real debate over how we balance safety and security and civil liberties.

Because while we can never have total security, we can run out of privacy.

Monday 11 November 2013

The European Green Primaries Open

The primaries of the European Greens opened yesterday, and anyone in the EU over 16 and who supports Green values can register and vote in them. The primaries will be open until January 28th.

Four candidates are running: José Bové, Monica Frassoni, Rebecca Harms and Ska Keller. They've already gone through two stages before the open primaries - first they have to be nominated by a national party of the European Greens, and then get the support of at least four member parties. This threshold is lower than the PES's (of 6 member parties), and coupled with the maximum limit of 8 supporting member parties, probably encouraged more candidates to come forward and be selected.

The primaries will select 2 leading candidates for the European Greens who will represent them in the election campaign and in debates with other Europarty leaders.

The Candidates

José Bosé is a French Green MEP who has been in the European Parliament since 2009 and is Vice-Chair of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. He got into the Green movement as a farmer in France and has campaigned against nuclear power and GMOs. He is against fracking. Bosé is anti-globalisation and campaigned for a No vote in the French referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He has criminal convictions for destroying GMO crops and a McDonald's in France.

Monica Frassoni is the current co-president of the European Green party. In the last parliamentary term (2004-9) she was a co-leader of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, but did not retain her seat in the election. She supports a "Green New Deal" and is a European Federalist. There has been some controversy over Frassoni running in the Italian elections on a list that competed with the Italian Greens (the Left Ecology Freedom list), which caused the Young Italian Greens to demand her resignation from the European Greens co-presidency.

Rebecca Harms is a German Green MEP who currently leads the European Green/EFA group in the European Parliament in debates (along with Daniel Cohn-Bendit). Harms was a landscape gardener before becoming a politician, and has also led the Green group in the Lower Saxony state parliament between 1998-2004. She got into the Green movement through the anti-nuclear campaign in Germany (over the infamous nuclear waste dump in Gorleben) and has spoken on energy transition and climate change in the EP. Harms supports further EU integration. As co-chair of the European Parliamentary group, she'll probably top the primary.

Ska Keller is a German Green MEP and the candidate nominated by the youth wing of the European Greens. She grew up behind the Iron Curtain and has worked on cross-border solidarity in her home on the Polish border. Keller is a member of the Committee on International Trade and a substitute on the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. Her specialisms in the EP are migration and EU-Turkey relations, and she is for better protection of refugees.

It's great to see an open primary get off the ground. Probably inspired by the French Socialist presidential primary that engaged people from outside the party, the European Greens will hope to get people interested first in the primary, and then in supporting the member parties come election time. It will be interesting to see how many participate.

If you're interested in voting, you can vote here.

Friday 8 November 2013

Merkel, Automaticity and Commission Independence

"I don't see any automaticity between top candidates and the filling of posts," says Merkel, pouring cold water over the idea that the winning Europarty's candidate will become Commission president. Apparently the Merkel who argued for a directly elected Commission president just a few years ago was merely exhibiting the naivety of youth (merely CDU policy?). The European People's Party may be suffering from Merkel's new-found reluctance to engage in candidate-selection or manifesto-building.

Article 14(1) of the Treaty on European Union (PDF) states that the European Parliament "shall elect the President of the Commission". Digging deeper into the Treaty, the actual mechanism is that the European Council, acting by qualified majority and taking into account the results of the European elections, nominates a candidate, who the European Parliament can elect or reject (Article 17(7)). So Merkel's correct that the European Council isn't required by treaty law to nominate the winning party candidate, but that's not to say that a political convention of nominating the winning candidate cannot - or shouldn't - evolve. Just as it's now accepted in the British system that the Queen appoints the winning party leader Prime Minister (although it may get more complicated if coalitions start becoming a regular feature), it should become accepted practice for the European Council.

I can see why Angela Merkel has difficulties with this. The PES candidate is from across the political isle and would cost her the ability to nominate a friendly CDU/CSU candidate as a Commissioner, losing her power within the Commission and patronage within her own party. Other Member States may start to have difficulties with it as well, either simply because they don't like the winner or because they realise that their own power to nominate Commissioners could be undermined if a coalition is needed to elect the Commission and its president - a coalition that may include Commission portfolios as part of the deal...

It could be argued that this democratisation of the Commission leaves it too dependent and close to the European Parliament. Article 17(3) TEU states:

"In carrying out its responsibilities, the Commission shall be completely independent. Without prejudice to Article 18(2), the members of the Commission shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or other institution, body, office or entity. They shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties or the performance of their tasks."

The nomination of Commissioners (that can be rejected by the Commission President) is the only exception to this independence rule. So the argument is that giving the Parliament such a big role would damage the Commission's independence.

But the Commission is already, by treaty, responsible to the European Parliament and can be voted out of office by it (Article 17(8) TEU). Despite the complicated nomination-and-election procedure, there is clearly a tendency towards political accountability to the Parliament and the electorate. The means are there to make the Commission more democratic, and the opportunity should be seized. The concerns over the "independence" of the Commission are therefore more a defense of the status quo than anything.

The principle that the Commission consists of representative of all (or a representative rotation) of the Union's nationalities is a kind of consociationalism - a way of making sure that all groups feel that they are represented. But why should the nominees to this office be so naturally assumed to have the political colour of the nominating Member State? Surely this ends up replicating the political balance of the Council, rather than the Parliament? It seems odd to stress the dangers to independence of the Commission from a Parliament that can hire and fire it, but not the political influence that comes from basically replicating a snapshot of the political balance of the Council in the Commission.

The Commission will always be sensitive to the political make up of the Council and Parliament, since it has to get their consent to pass legislation. Independence therefore should be seen more strictly, as concerning direct instructions from governments and outside bodies and propriety in office, rather than independence from the Parliament and the electorate. Political accountability matters, and we need more of it in the EU - so come the election the new Parliament should make a stand on the issue of who the European Council nominates. It should be the winning candidate.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Martin Schulz: Political, Left-wing and Federalist

Yesterday Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, was announced to be the Party of European Socialists' candidate for the Commission Presidency.

So who is Martin Schulz? A former binder and book-shop owner, Schulz's only experience in political office outside of the European Parliament was at the local level as a councillor and then mayor of Wuerselen in Germany. He was elected to the European Parliament in 1994, was head of the PES/S&D group between 2004-2012 and has been president of the Parliament since 2012.

This experience is both a weakness and a strength. The current trend for Commission presidents is for them to be selected from the ranks of former prime ministers, and it's easy to see why. Name recognition, executive and diplomatic experience and (for members of the European Council) an understanding of national leaders. While Schulz doesn't have this, he clearly knows the EU institutions inside out and currently leads one. Speaking German, French and English and having lead a multi-national political group in the Parliament for 8 years, he should have a good grasp of EU political issues, how the institutions work (and how to work them) and how to build coalitions at the European level. Compared to a former prime minister who is offered the job, Schulz clearly sees the Commission presidency as the top job in his career and will probably be more politically ambitious in the role.

As a more openly political Commission president, a Commission lead by him would probably be more combative. Schulz sees wants the election to be a battle of ideas. As president of the European Parliament for almost 2 years, he hasn't actually voted on many of the most recent and controversial policies (as it's not the role of the president), but he has been a vocal president (no doubt with an eye on the upcoming campaign). In the last few months he's called for immigration reform (and wants Germany to take more refugees), supported pausing the trade talks with the US over the spying affair, supports a smaller Commission, sees the balance between large and small Member Sates shifting too much towards the larger ones, and is anti-austerity and wants Eurozone reforms (including a Currency Commissioner who chairs the Eurogroup). 

It's an open question how far he can take this combativeness from the Commission - the Commission still needs Council and Parliament approval to pass legislation. However, having an outspoken President could be a positive for small member states who want the Commission to do more to counterbalance the big countries, provided that they feel they can hang on to their Commissioners. Those who want an active Commission or to change the economic direction of Europe could see him as the man to pin their political hopes on, but Schulz will need to build broad support across Europe to get the votes he needs, and it might not be the biggest electorate in the world. Though with Eurosceptic parties established as the protest vote and rising in popularity, the PES probably can no longer simply rely on anti-incumbency sentiment to boost its vote. A more coherent anti-austerity vision may actually be the better than national parties simply going their own way. Politically and rhetorically, Schulz is to the left of several of the PES's member parties, though his main Eurozone and anti-austerity ideas are not too far outside the mainstream of the pro-integration centre-left.

How much Schulz's opinions will make it into the PES election manifesto remains to be seen, but Schulz has used the EP presidency to set out his leadership style: political, left-wing and federalist on the Eurozone and not afraid to annoy the bigger Member States. Whatever your political opinion, you can't accuse him of being another Barroso. Obviously this makes him an unlikely choice as the European Council's pick for the Commission, which makes electoral success all the more important for Schulz. He not only needs the PES/S&D to emerge as the winners of the election, but he has to be a visible and successful part of the campaign so that he can't be sidelined by the European Council. As I said yesterday, the lack of an open primary contest makes this more difficult.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

The Primary will not be Televised

Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, has become the candidate designate of the Party of European Socialists for the Commission Presidency. You didn't have to work for the NSA to know that Schulz wanted to run - it's been widely known for over a year that he has been the front runner in the centre-left camp - but the fact that his candidacy has pretty much been confirmed today was a surprise.

It certainly surprised me that the PES announced their candidate today. A few weeks ago I'd written about the PES primary process, so I thought that the nominees would be announced today, with a primary campaign being waged until the end of January. It turns out that out of all the names touted for the role - Helle Thorning Schmidt, Pascal Lamy, Margot Wallstroem, etc. - only one was nominated. So, with 19 member parties of the PES supporting him (out of 32), Martin Schulz has been elected PES candidate unopposed.

Bad for the PES, bad for Schulz

I'm sure Schulz is glad to have it in the bag, but the lack of a proper primary is a bad result for both Schulz and the PES. The primary race was going to be a way of connecting voters (or at least party members) with the European elections, which would boost the profile of the nominees and eventual candidate, make the elections more European (both within the national parties and in the media for the elections) and help energise and inform the grassroots for the election campaign. These factors would have supported and re-enforced each other. However, without a proper campaign, member parties are not so attached to their candidate and Schulz has lost out on the publicity that he will need (as a candidate who was never a prime minister and so not very well known outside the Brussels bubble). The PES have also heavily diluted out on their chance to boast about how democratic they are in comparison to the European People's Party's more intergovernmental horse-trading approach.

It is probably a sign of Schulz's success in his campaign for the nomination that he was the only candidate in the end. He will now spend the primary time touring member parties to talk to them and raise his profile. But it is a loss not to have a contest.


The good news is that the PES have a candidate! In a way this is a bit ridiculous to have something so basic as running a candidate to be a plus for a political party, but the PES failed to run one last year. Having a candidate will be a plus if placed within the campaign properly. Schulz is right to want a left-right debate in the elections, and it's the PES's best chance to win more seats. Especially within the Eurozone, the PES need to present themselves as the political group with policy alternatives, and a working alliance (demonstrated by having candidates for executive office) that can change things. The centre-left have done very poorly in polls nationally, and with the prospect of a strong Eurosceptic showing, simply waiting for voters to come to them as the party of opposition in most Member States will not work. (Whether Schulz is the best placed for this I'll leave til tomorrow).

The Merkel Factor

With Merkel re-elected, an PES win would complicate things. Schulz, as a German, would be taking the German slot in the Commission and despite the prize position, Merkel would probably be uncomfortable with loosing the power to pick a more CDU/EPP friendly person for the post. In fact, she has already spoken out against the winning Europarty candidate automatically becoming the Commission president. At the same time, the issue of Germany's Commissioner job has not come up in coalition talks between the CDU/CSU and Schulz's SPD (and Schulz has been involved in these talks). Having a CDU-SPD government should make the idea more realistic at the same time.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Is Russell Brand the UK's Beppe Grillo?

Last week comedian Russell Brand guest edited the left-wing New Statesman, and called for a revolution in his editorial. In TV interviews he's gained a lot of attention, both supportive and derisive, on his views of political apathy and his message to young people not to vote.

So is Brand the UK version of Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian that's rocked the Italian political establishment through his blogging and the success of the 5 Star Movement?

No. The answer is no. He's not.

And actually comparing Brand to Grillo should give people pause for thought, because it's in the differences that we can see what Brand's prospects of success are. Supporters say that Brand has made a lot of good points about how ineffectual the current system is, and detractors point out that Brand hasn't got anything to replace the current system with. Brand does make some good points about invested interests and now the left needs to boil its abstract thinking down to real life experiences. But it's the childish focus on revolution where the whole thing unravels.

Vive la révolution?

First thing's first: Brand is actually calling for a revolution. Brand doesn't just assert that apathy is a rational response to a system that has failed to cater to the needs of the population - he urges people to stop voting for the explicit reason that it's a release and that opting out of the electoral system will speed up the growth of tensions leading to revolution.

This point needs to be addressed. While supporters have defended Brand for not coming up with a post-revolution system to work towards (he's been busy editing a magazine), this isn't good enough. A revolution involves the use of force, either in taking lives or injuring people, or by taking away people's political rights. (When Brand says "I take the right!", it should be remembered that a revolution removing a government would negate the political voices of the people who had voted). It's because of this use of force in the context of a democratic system, which is geared towards discussion and majoritarian rule, that people demand to know the alternative before they are supposed to violate the rights of others.

So when Brand says that it's up to those in power to provide answers, he's making a flashy statement and promptly denying responsibility for it. The joke excuse of having a magazine to write is a slap in the face - the point of that opportunity was for him to set out his political stall. He could have just criticised the way politics worked and people would have agreed and left it at that; it's because he called for a revolution that people rightly are asking what would that entail.

Earlier I said it was a childish approach to revolution, and that's because of his attitude to violence:

"At this point I’d attended a few protests and I loved them. At a Liverpool dockers march, the chanting, the bristling, the rippedup paving stones and galloping police horses in Bono glasses flipped a switch in me. I felt connected, on a personal level I was excited by the chaos, a necessary component of transition, I like a bit of chaos however it’s delivered. The disruption of normalcy a vital step in any revolution. Even aesthetically, aside from the ideology, I beam at the spectacle of disruption, even when quite trivial."

Coming from a part of the world where we have riots and protests over political symbols and wouldn't mind a bit of normalcy, I'm not so comfortable with this "bit of a laugh" spin on things. In fact, it starts to sound as if it's the fact that politics bores him, and only this kind of politics entertains him enough to be worthy of the name - which is a very self-obsessed outlook to have on things.

He's no Grillo

While Grillo doesn't seek to be elected to the Italian parliament, his 5 Star Movement has entered parliament with a bang, winning 25.55% of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies and 23.79% in the Senate elections. They're not in power, but they've made it much harder for a government to be formed (it's a Grand Coalition), and they are able to use this as a campaign for their core issues, including political reform. Grillo and the 5 Start Movement are "anti-politics" in the sense that they're against corrupt politicians and want to see politicians serve the people more, but they haven't rejected the ballot box as a means of change or political activism.

Taking parliamentary seats - and depriving mainstream parties of those seats - is probably the most disruptive political activism of all. It denies the system from ignoring your legitimacy, it disrupts or even prevents the exercise of power by the targeted elites, and it provides the institutional power an positions as a platform for change. As Brand has not formulated an alternative to democracy, I assume that he's not against democracy as a concept and doesn't have much of an argument against this except the "all politicians are corrupt liars" line. Until he comes up with an alternative, then he hasn't explained why people shouldn't use elections to try to change things, and he certainly hasn't put a good case forward for the institutional reasons why the current system could never work (just that these politicians are all in bed with big business).

In truth it would be harder for Brand to achieve the same results in the UK due to the first-past-the-post electoral system. But the point is that this kind of campaigning implies organisation, working with others and, well, lots of work. And I can't see Brand committing himself to that. Waiting for the inevitable revolution (while getting to talk about it in the media, naturally), seems to be more his style.

P.S. Humour and politics

Strangely Brand doesn't seem to get what a good mix of politics and humour could be. Humour spices up a political message if it shows up the opposing argument, highlights the ridiculousness of the current situation, or adds character. But there's also a danger that you just shoot yourself in the foot with it and show up your own message. Brand's own example is this:

"When Ali G, who had joined protesters attempting to prevent a forest being felled to make way for a road, shouted across the barricade, “You may take our trees, but you’ll never take our freedom,” I identified more with Baron Cohen’s amoral trickster than the stern activist who aggressively admonished him: “This is serious, you c***.”"

Humour to deflate, highlight and add character works in politics - humour painting your own side as hopeless kind of stops people from taking it seriously. I can see how an activist might be worried that a celebrity is just using them for a laugh, rather than actually being for that cause (especially if they turned up as a comedy character known for showing people up). It's the difference between having a laugh while doing something, and ending up being the laughingstock. And as a comedian, Brand really should get that...

Friday 25 October 2013

EU reaction to the NSA Affair

The fallout from the NSA Affair and Snowden's leaks continue, with revelations that Angela Merkel's mobile phone was hacked causing worldwide headlines (though there's been some criticism of Merkel for taking so long over these allegations, and indications that the NSA has been spying on German citizens, seriously, as Der Standard pointedly notes with the headline "Und ploetzlich ist es ein Problem" ["And suddenly it is a problem"]). The Guardian is reporting that the number of tapped heads of government is probably much higher, and the European Council has finally been roused too - it turns out that prime ministers don't like to be spied on. Now everything from the halting of data-sharing agreements to cancelling the free trade talks is on the table (after all, it's much harder to negotiate if you're being spied on).

The European Parliament has also signalled its displeasure, voting for a motion calling for the end of the SWIFT agreement. It's not binding, and the Commission has responded by stating that there is no indication of wrong-doing under the SWIFT Agreement (or "Terrorist Financial Tracking Programme" - PDF). Parliament's issues with SWIFT aren't new to the NSA revelations, however. After a troubled birth (the Parliament voted down the first agreement before passing the second after lobbying from Vice-President Joe Biden), last year the report before Parliament on the implementation of the safeguards in the agreement caused disquiet - it turned out that the full report wasn't even made available to MEPs to review. (Notably, the European Data Protection Supervisor had criticised some of the key provisions of the draft SWIFT Agreement).

The Commission has said that the agreement has effective safeguards, and that it's waiting on the response to a request for reassurances from the US. It's not planning to suspend the agreement.

Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament has also said that the free trade talks with the US should be suspended in the light of the spying affair.

The most notable moves, though, probably come over the draft Data Protection Regulation. The European Parliament has adopted its position on the law this week, which has hardened. The subject of intense lobbying, the biggest impact of the Snowden-leak was to reverse the watering down of the proposed law, with the security of citizens' data in the hands of US companies a key concern. The bill still has a long way to go, and it has to be agreed with the Council before it can be signed into law.

But what does this all add up to? At the end of this week the EU still transfers the same kind of data to the US as at the start, and there is little coherence in the EU's position. Most demands amount to the suspension of agreements or negotiations, and it will take a while to see what actually comes out of this. If we are ever going to see better data protection standards and a more regulated approach to intelligence and police work, we have to have clear standards and guidelines on how we shape these laws. When it comes to the EU, a proper regard for the necessity and proportionality of proposed security laws within the EU and agreements with third countries has to be stressed. And the Commission must drop its deference of the security services if it is to enforce and monitor agreements - or even draw up laws.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Breaking the link between Governments and the Banks: Tales from Statusquoland

The Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is in Brussels at the European Council with 2 aims: (1) ensure that Ireland has access to an emergency line of credit (the "Enhanced Conditions Credit Line") with as few conditions as possible to smooth Ireland's exit from the bailout programme, and (2) to have the European Council re-agree what they agreed back in June 2012.

That's right: a major win for Kenny would be the re-agreement of something that the European Council already agreed over a year ago! I'm not joking.

Back in June 2012, the European Council agreed that a Banking Union was the way forward (PDF). The banking debts had to be severed from sovereign debts because Member State governments cannot bear the cost of this most Europeanised of market sectors. The Banking Union should also create a way for banks to be re-capitalised or wound up on a Eurozone basis, so that the debt crisis would not happen again. The European Council even decided to review the case for breaking the link between sovereign debt and existing bank debt - something that would do wonders for the balance sheets of the Irish and Spanish governments and ease the burden on their people considerably

This outbreak of good sense didn't last very long. In September 2012, Germany, along with The Netherlands and Finland, declared that not only will past banking debt not be severed from sovereign debt, but the European Stability Mechanism would not recapitalise banks instead of governments. Instead the order for recapitalising banks in the future would be: private funds, then Member State governments, and only then would the ESM step in. So three Member States had decided to completely void European policy agreed between 27 countries just 3 months ago, and they completely ruined the idea of a Banking Union. Why should countries bankrupt themselves saving banks, for the Eurozone to help out the banks directly more than the countries? It would be pure madness.

So now Kenny wants to return to the June Agreement:

"Speaking at an event in the National Gallery in Dublin celebrating the 50th anniversary of charity group Chesire Ireland, Mr Kenny said he would again urge European leaders to fulfil their pledge to break the link between sovereign and bank debt.

“One of the failings or inadequacies of the European Council over the years has been an inability to actually complete programmes where decisions are made,” he said

“In this regard, I refer to the decisions that were made last year in respect of banking union. For Ireland and for other countries, it is absolutely critical that we follow those things through to completion before moving on to any other agendas.”"

It's a farcical position to be in and it shows how little progress is being made, and it shows that Merkel is perhaps the most conservative Chancellor ever: she literally does not want to change anything, and will only sanction limited change if its aim is to make sure things stay the same. Once, Merkel described the internet as Neuland - "New Land" - but even as  the digital agenda is being discussed in Brussels, it feels like Europe is stuck in the twilight of Statusquoland. Even the German powerhouse economy can only expect 0.5% of growth this year.

So as Ireland, the Eurozone's star pupil, is preparing to leave the bailout programme, it's hard to be optimistic. Austerity has hardly worked wonders on the Irish economy, with government debt higher than at the start of the progamme, and employment soaring after 5 years of cuts. Without even the rewards of agreed Eurozone reform, many question how worthwhile the status of "star pupil" really is.

Statusquoland: If at first you don't succeed, apply the same rules more strictly.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Primaries Update #2: ALDE and EPP

Last week we took a quick look at how the primaries are progressing with the Party of European Socialists and the European Greens. On the centre and centre-right, ALDE (Liberals) and the EPP (Christian Democrats) have also set out their process for selecting their candidates for Commission President.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) will open up their nominations process at the end of November (28-30th) during their London Congress, where they will also adopt their election manifesto. The nominations will be made at a Congress on December 20th.

ALDE has introduced a role for their associate members as well, with nominees being put forward by at least 2 member parties from more than one member state, or by 20% of the ALDE Party Congress voting delegates (the December 20th Congress). This will include the associate member delegates, which have already been elected. It's a small role, but it's good to see a Europarty ensuring that its members can play an active role beyond just being members of national parties.

The ALDE candidate will be announced at a special Electoral Congress on February 1st in Brussels.

ALDE timeline:

  • 28-30 November Nominations opens & Election Manifesto adopted at London Congress
  • 19 December       Pre-Summit liberal leaders meeting to discuss nominations received
  • 20 December       Nominations formally close
  • 1 February           ALDE Party Candidate to be announced at special Electoral Congress, Brussels

The European People's Party will hold their special Congress announcing their candidate on the 6-7th March in Dublin. The 2,000 delegates at the Congress will select the candidate and vote on the election manifesto.

It's a late start for the largest Europarty in the Parliament, and you have to wonder if this could be damaging to this election campaign. Given that the Europarty campaogns and election manifestos have made little inroads in European elections so far, and that the EPP essentially stand for a continuation of current Eurozone economic policy, the EPP probably doesn't have that much to fear on this. But if the other parties manage to create a bit of a media splash with their candidates, then they could add to the struggle the EPP will have as the incumbant in many EU member states.

Friday 18 October 2013

Electric Shock: Oettinger finds out that Green energy doesn't attract the most subsidies

Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger seems to have gotten quite a shock over energy subsidies. The German commissioner, who also proposed a list of Common Interest infrastructure projects this week, has long maintained that Green energy receives more in subsidies than other non-nuclear power sources and asked for a report from his Directorate-General. But the Sueddeutsche Zeitung has reported that the results weren't quite what the Commissioner expected, and claims that he has had the more embarrassing figures removed.

The SZ uncovered that the figures for the energy industry for the 27 Member State bloc (i.e. before Croatia joined) were: €30 billion on renewable energy, €35 billion for nuclear, and for fossil fuels €26 billion in direct subsidies, with a further €40 billion in subsidies delivered indirectly. The embarrassing numbers didn't make it into the final report (the SZ provides the draft and the final report in the article).

As the paper notes, it is strangely reminiscent of the behaviour of the CDU-FDP German government in editing the report on inequality in Germany. This report initially reported that the inequality gap in Germany has grown in recent years but the final report had key sections altered to suppress this finding, allegedly at the behest of the market liberal FDP.

In any case, the numbers indicate that subsidies and state intervention are a pretty key part of the energy sector in Europe. The politics of slamming renewables for being "expensive" to support need to give way to a broader debate about the energy industry. What does it say about this market that it requires such a high level of state support - and what do we get in return? And are our priorities right in what energy sources we are supporting (coal being part of this mix)? Are these subsidies cost effective?

Cost effectiveness will be a key point, particularly for renewables that are supposed to be the growing market sector. Are we getting the growth in this sector that we should be?

Thursday 17 October 2013

European Elections 2014 Update: State of the Primaries

After the failure of the European political families to turn the 2009 elections into a true battle for power with the lack of presidential candidates, the Europarties have started to set up their own procedures to select the men and women they'd like to see steer the ponderous European ship.

The Party of European Socialists have opened their nomination period this month, to close at the end of October. The timetable for the PES is:

  • 1st October 2013: opening of nominations - candidacies, letters of nomination and support should be sent to the PES
  • 31st October 2013: close of nominations 
  • 6th November 2013: PES Presidency meeting to check that all criteria are fulfilled – Official announcement of the candidates’ list
  • 1st December 2013 – 31st January 2014: internal selection process within each member Party/organisation.
  • February 2014: PES Election Congress, to ratify the votes on the candidate and adopt the Manifesto – Launch of the PES European election campaign
  • May 2014: European Parliament Elections

The timetable is actually the biggest weakness of the PES's process - will there really be much of a campaign over the winter months? It will be nigh on impossible to generate media interest in the candidates unless they're former prime ministers, and hard to engage the party base when everyone's geared towards spending more time with family.

(This raises a question I've heard hinted at by a few people - are prime ministers the only talent pool that is suitable to draw Commission Presidents from? I'm not so sure, but with such a small, barren window of opportunity for the PES to pick a candidate, it's hard to imagine them successfully establishing anyone from outside that pool).

The European Greens have also opened up their nomination process for their leading candidates. This call for candidates closes on Sunday, so if there are any Greens who'd like to give it a shot, they'll have to apply soon! Nominees will need at least 4 member parties supporting them to be successful in their bid for leadership positions. It's not clear if the Greens see these leadership positions as potential Commissioners in the event of a coalition, or if they are intended as parliamentary leaders.

I haven't found anything on the European People's Party's selection process so far, but EPP MEP Gay Mitchell (Dublin) has called for the EPP to nominate a candidate this year. Mitchell also proposed former Irish Taoiseach and EU Ambassador John Bruton for the job.

Friday 4 October 2013

Axing the Upper House? Ireland votes on the Abolition of the Seanad

Voters are heading to the polls today in Ireland to vote on the abolition of the Seanad (or Senate), the upper house of the bicameral Oireachtas (parliament). It's accepted that the house has largely failed to demonstrate its relevance to Ireland today: there is little to report of changes brought about by the house, and it is not known for standing up to the government. With supporters of abolition claiming that getting rid of the Seanad would save €20 million and cut the number of politicians, it's a message that chimes with a lot of people.

The Seanad is a strange creature. It has limited powers and by and large can only delay Bills (see the Referendum Commission's website for more detail). It is elected by "vocational panels", with the aim of representing different strands of society (this was inspired by Catholic thought about society in the 1930s). However the vocational panels were never really properly set up, and 43 out of 60 of the members of the Seanad are in practice elected by local councillors. 6 Senators are elected by graduates of Trinity College and the National University of Ireland, and 11 are appointed by the Taoiseach (prime minister) to help ensure a government majority.

Claims of "jobs for the boys" and general ineffectiveness have plagued the house, with abolitionists pointing out that it didn't stand up to the government during the financial boom years. This seems a strange argument to me. The strong parliamentary whip system and the weakness of opposition on economic policy from the political parties in both the Dáil and the Seanad is more to blame than the simple institution itself. In any case the idea of an upper house should not be to build into the constitution an institution measured solely by the dissent it generates (a belated show of resistance popping up this week) or to copy the democratic mandate of the lower house, but to bring in more expert voices on specialist areas to add their knowledge and experience to the legislative process. The pros and cons of setting up a upper house that can bring in expert and minority voices into the debate, and the alternative of relying on bringing experts before Oireachtas committees is the central question. That all attempts to reform the Seanad to make it more effective have been scuppered makes a constructive alternative Seanad seem fantasy.

But when it comes down to it, I'm more in favour of keeping the Seanad than abolishing it. Getting rid of the Senate doesn't dilute the dominance of the executive in the Irish political system, or tackle the issue of the over-powerful whips. It won't save much money in the grand scheme of things either. On the other hand I can see the valuable contribution that an upper house can bring. The House of Lords in the UK has many, many flaws - you can't get much more "jobs for the boys" that the Lords! - but its active members have actually done well in generating reports and in the job of legislative scrutiny. A mix of direct elections and selection from vocational panels may be a way of strengthening the Seanad's legitimacy and expertise while keeping it in balance with the Dáil.

Frankly, I'm just being idealistic about bicameralism and what I'd like to see happening. When people go to vote today, they'll be voting against the background of decades of failed reform and ineffectiveness, and it's a tough ask for people to back vague reform. It's sad that the opportunity to refer the Seanad to the Constitutional Convention and then have a referendum was missed.

[There's also a second referendum on today, which more usefully would create a Court of Appeal to help ease the workload of the Supreme Court].

Monday 30 September 2013

Austrian Elections: The Grand Coalition lives on

As the results of the Austrian elections came in yesterday, it was clear that the Social Democrat-led Grand Coalition will live on, if a little battered. The result will come as a relief to the Party of European Socialists, and Werner Faymann who can look forward to continue to lead the Austrian government after having failed to unseat Merkel last week.

Grand Coalitions are practically an Austrian tradition, with the majority of governments consisting of the centre-left SPOe and centre-right OeVP carving up power and ministerial posts between them. (This was a reaction to the turbulent politics of the Inter-War period, when Austria was very ideologically divided). So a Grand Coalition is not really a surprising result.

More notably, the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) has increased its share of the votes to 21.4%, in an election with asylum as a hot topic. This increase of 3.9% should be since in the context of the other far right party, BZOe, (set up by Joerg Haider splitting away from the FPOe) losing 7.1% of their vote, dropping to 3.6% (the BZOe have tried to become more liberal/libertarian recently). The new Liberal party, NEOS, did slightly better than the BZOe, while the Greens also increased their vote marginally. The biggest winner of the election is probably the businessman Frank Stronach who set up a political party ("Team Stronach") as his personal political vehicle, winning 5.8%. Team Stronach are an economically liberal, Eurosceptic party, though it's not focused on the immigration issue in the same way that the Freedom Party is.

The 4% threshold to enter parliament means that apart from the BZOe, all of these parties will get in. Despite the centre-left lead coalition, the right has grown in Austria, with various strains of populism doing well. Having continuous Grand Coalitions probably doesn't help: without a clearer contest in the centre ground, the political space in opposition is left more open to populist parties.

In the end this election brought even more of what the German election last week brought: continuity.

Monday 23 September 2013

Bundestagswahl 2013 - Merkel stays in control

The big headline - that Merkel remains in prime position after the German federal elections - isn't a big surprise, for Germany or for Europe. The shape of the next governing coalition and the impact on German and European politics, however, it a more complicated matter. As a parliamentary election, the German media have been calling the election too close to call, despite Merkel's CDU (and sister party CSU) having a 17% gap from its nearest rival, the centre-left SPD. Still, the Christian Democrats are within a few seats of an overall majority by themselves, so they are clearly in the driving seat for the next parliamentary period.

The SPD have improved on their electoral performance since the last elections, but it was nowhere near enough to challenge the CDU, with the Christian Democrats also increasing their share of the vote (and by an even greater amount than the SPD). The Christian Democrats have done extremely well, particularly given the leftwards drift of German politics. Over the last parliamentary term, there has been Fukashima (which tarnished the image of the nuclear industry and caused Merkel to U-Turn on the issue by promising the phasing out of nuclear power), the end of conscription (something the opposition wanted, and which shocked CDU traditionalists), and a sharp increase in the inequality gap in Germany.

But for each of these issues, Merkel has moved into the territory of her centre-left opponents, and essentially prevented them from making political capital out of these issues. The CDU has even gone into the election supporting a minimum wage! When Merkel has come to embody prudent management (despite passing remarkably little of her programme over the last two governments), the opposition has to offer change to get in. And if Merkel steals their policies for change...?

The Left Party and the Greens have lost votes in this election. While the Left Party had been in decline throughout the last few years, the Greens had been riding high, having even taken the senior coalition partner position in the Baden-Wuerttemberg Land government. Controversy over their tax policies has played badly in the media despite their best efforts to explain them, and has been a factor in losing support.

The biggest losers though are the junior coalition partners of the current government: the market liberal FDP. They have not met the 5% hurdle necessary in order to get into the Bundestag. CDU voters have not given their second vote to the FDP to make a right-wing coalition possible. On the other hand, the Eurosceptic party, Alternativ fuer Deutschland, has done quite well, and might just make it into the Bundestag.

Coalitions and Political Courses

All this means that a centre-left government is not going to form. The SPD have not done well enough, and the Greens have lost support, making the opposition coalition-in-waiting without a majority. If they add in the Left Party, they could forma majority, but the Left Party, with its East German Communist roots, is still not trusted on the federal level by the centre-left parties. Peer Steinbrueck, the SPD candidate for Chancellor, has ruled a coalition with the Left Party out, confirming that the CDU will lead the next government.

Therefore the CDU/CSU will probably form a Grand Coalition with the SPD (without the SPD candidate for Chancellor serving in the government, but that's not such a big problem for the SPD). There is the possibility of a CDU/CSU coalition with the Green party, as the Greens have gone into coalition with the CDU in Hamburg before, and the SPD are wary of Grand Coalitions since their experience in the first Merkel government, with Steinbrueck sounding negative about the idea. I still think that a Grand Coalition is the more likely outcome, however.

So what will be the effect on German and European politics? On the Eurozone, the opposition were in favour of Eurobonds and more radical action, so this option may find more favour with the next German government, though strong conditions would no doubt be attached. Within the next coalition, this could cause problems with the Christian Democrats' right wing, and the (relative) success of the Eurosceptic AfD might encourage more backbench rebellions from the CDU/CSU's right. (Notably, the AfD has claimed to be the inheritors of the FDP's political space).

That said, the good performance of the AfD probably won't have the same impact on the German political scene as UKIP have had in Britain. First of all, the AfD have only gained around 5% of the vote, and secondly, the CDU/CSU have increased their share of the vote by more than that - and specifically for the reason of Merkel's leadership, which includes the Eurocrisis. Finally, small parties tend to have a tough time in Germany. Though the Greens have done very well in becoming established, the rise and fall of the Pirate Party, and the more obvious collapse for the FDP, shows for the CDU as a Volkspartei (broad-church type party), that they can wait small parties out.

Continuity will be the watchword in German politics. The coalitions may chance, but Merkel remains in control. she dominates the political scene, and has set the pace of European politics. Freed by this win the speed of EU institutional reform may speed up, but I don't expect much divergence from the Merkel plan.

Merkelpolitik remains.

Thursday 4 July 2013

European Parliament passes resolution on Hungary's Constitution

The European Parliament passed a resolution yesterday calling on Hungary to reform its constitution to bring it into line with EU values and norms. The resolution was passed by an EPP-S&D-Greens-United Left coalition, so it notably gained support from the European People's Party, which the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary is a part of.

The resolution is very detailed, outlining the background of the recent changes and the Parliament's objections to them in the areas of judicial independence, the media, the extensive use of cardinal laws (laws that need a 2/3s majority in the Hungarian parliament to pass, and therefore would be highly entrenched), changes to the data protection authority, the change in the electoral law, and the treatment of minorities.

The Parliament also called for a rethink of the EU's Fundamental Right Agency's role, suggesting that is could be used to monitor Member States' compliance with Article 2 TEU (which sets out the values of the EU), and that there could be a "Copenhagen Commission" to monitor compliance with these values and the Copenhagen Criteria before and after accession to the EU. (I've posted some similar thoughts previously). The resolution leaves open the possibility that it might try to trigger an Article 7 sanction against Hungary, tasking the Parliament's Conference of Presidents (the EP President and the leaders of the political groups) with considering the move.

Mostly the resolution echos the Council of Europe's Venice Commission's opinion on Hungary's constitution (PDF). This Commission provides legal advice to the Council of Europe's Member States on how their constitutions and constitutional reforms can comply with European human rights standards. I recommend reading the opinion, which is more detailed but also clearer then the resolution in its analysis of the Hungarian constitution.

The Parliament's resolution isn't binding on Hungary, but it does show that the Parliament is moving (slowly) towards using Article 7 TEU to suspend Hungary's voting rights in the EU. That the Commission is introducing a score-card and the Parliament is calling for a better institutional mechanism for monitoring and enforcing fundamental rights within the EU shows that patience is running out. Taking an Article 7 action would break the taboo over using the "nuclear option" - while the situation in Hungary has been a concern for a while, it has highlighted the need for the proper mechanisms and the political will to properly defend the Union's values.

Here are a few extracts from the resolution:

"8. Considers that while the use of two-third majority laws is common in other Member States and has been a feature of the Hungarian constitutional and legal order since 1989, the extensive use of cardinal laws to set forth very specific and detailed rules undermines the principles of democracy and the rule of law, as it has enabled the current government, which enjoys the support of a qualified majority, to set in stone political choices with the consequence of making it more difficult for any new future government having only a simple majority in the parliament to respond to social changes, and thus of potentially diminishing the importance of new elections; considers that such use should be re-evaluated, in order to ensure that future governments and parliamentary majorities are allowed to legislate in a meaningful and comprehensive manner.


19. [The Parliament i]s also extremely concerned about those provisions of the Fourth Amendment which repeal 20 years of constitutional jurisprudence, containing an entire system of founding principles and constitutional requirements, including any potential case law affecting the application of EU law and of European human rights law; notes that the Court already used its previous decisions as a source of interpretation; is concerned, however, at the fact that other courts may not be able to base their decisions upon the previous case law of the Constitutional Court.


30. Considers that the premature termination of the term of office of the Supreme Court’s President violates the guarantee of security of tenure, which is a key element of the independence of the judiciary.


38. Recalls that the redrawing of electoral districts, the adoption of the Act on the election of members of parliament of Hungary and the electoral procedural law considerably change the legal and institutional framework for the next elections due in 2014, and therefore regrets that these laws were adopted unilaterally by the ruling parties, with no broad consultation of the opposition.


46. Deplores the fact that the creation of the state-owned Hungarian News Agency (MTI) as the single news provider for public service broadcasters, while all major private broadcasters are expected to have their own news service, has meant it has a virtual monopoly on the market, as most of its news items are freely available; recalls the recommendation of the Council of Europe to eliminate the obligation on public broadcasters to use the national news agency, as it constitutes an unreasonable and unfair restriction on the plurality of news provision.


53. Notes with concern repeated changes to the legal order restricting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, for instance by seeking to exclude same-sex couples and their children, as well as other varied family structures, from the definition of 'family' in the Fundamental Law; stresses that this runs counter to recent European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence and fuels a climate of intolerance vis-à-vis LGBT people."