Tuesday 30 April 2013

Motion for same-sex marriage fails in Northern Ireland

Over the past few months same sex marriage has been approved in England and Wales and in France, with a strong recommendation for a constitutional amendment for same sex marriage in Ireland (from the Constitutional Convention). Yesterday a motion calling for legislation on same-sex marriage was rejected in the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont.

The outcome was not unexpected: a similar motion had failed in October last year. However, with same-sex marriage about to become a reality in England and Wales, Sinn Féin (United Left), supported by the SDLP (S&D), the Greens and Alliance (ALDE), tabled the motion to put political pressure on the Unionist parties, the DUP (Non-Aligned) and UUP (ECR). (The biggest unionist party, the DUP, has a strongly socially conservative outlook and a religious voting base, so it was always unlikely to support the measure).

The motion was defeated by 53 to 45. Not only was it defeated by a simple majority, but the DUP presented a Petition of Concern, which under the NI Assembly’s procedural rules, triggers a community veto. This means that the motion would have needed a majority in both the Unionist and Nationalist communities to pass. The Alliance Party tabled an amendment to the motion that would have stressed the right of religion to define marriage in their own way alongside civil marriage, but this was defeated by a similar voting coalition to the motion itself.

Amnesty International has stated that legal action, perhaps before the European Court of Human Rights, over the issue is likely. The Court has previously ruled that, based on a reading of the Convention and the lack of a European consensus on the issue, same-sex marriage is not covered by theConvention. However, the Court may reverse the decision, or focus on the fact that same-sex marriage will be available to the majority of UK citizens and make a more UK/NI specific ruling.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Draft EU PNR Directive voted down at Committee Stage

The LIBE Committee of the European Parliament has shot down the draft Passenger Name Record Directive by a vote of 30-25, with the Liberal, Green and left wing groups voting against and the conservative groups for the draft law. The Directive concerned the collection of the information passengers give to airlines when booking a flight by law enforcement authorities (in the form of national "Passenger Information Units (PIUs)" that would analyse the data and pass on information to other law enforcement authorities). The data would be collected to fight terrorism and serious crime, and is a key plank of the Commission's counter-terrorism strategy.

I wrote about the PNR Directive at length last year. The information gathered covers everything from the flight to the food you order, so the authorities would be casting a wide net. There would be some rights for people to have their data corrected or deleted, but:

"However the purposes for gathering and processing the data is so wide that it’s debatable how much substance there is to these rights. For example, PIUs can use the data for general analysis work and to update and create criteria for “objective assessment criteria” to identify unknown criminals – a very wide purpose to use and process data, so PIUs could probably refuse under the Directive to erase a person’s data even if they aren’t suspected of a crime. Also, this use of objective assessment criteria means that the PNR regime is open to the profiling of individuals by law enforcement authorities, where they might be put under closer scrutiny simply because they happened to match a certain pattern of behaviour. There are no safeguards for independent external review of these objective factors (the National Supervisory Authorities don’t seem to have the power to do so), and nor has there been an assessment of the effectiveness of this method in identifying unknown criminals versus the false identification of innocent people.


 There’s also little satisfactory evidence that PNR is necessary or effective for fighting terrorism and serious transnational crime. We already have the Schengen Information System, the Visa Information System and the Carrier’s Directive (Link) permitted the use of a less invasive Advance Passenger Information system in 2004, where airlines would transfer passport information of passengers and flight arrival/destination details (rather than the whole gamut of PNR information) – but there’s been no assessment of the effectiveness of API, or whether changes in it or the other systems could provide a cheaper and less invasive alternative. The main advantage offered by PNR is presumably the detection of unknown criminals. The Commission has used crime statistics to highlight the levels of serious crime and terrorism to establish the need for further security measures to be introduced and it has also used statistics on the of PNR data in drug seizures (see its impact assessment here: PDF) Interestingly, some of these impressive PNR statistics derive from some Member States which do not currently have a national PNR regime! (Like Belgium - PDF)."

While the draft parliamentary report (by LIBE rapporteur Timothy Kirkhope [ECR Group]) clarified some issues with the original text, it did little to address the scope of both the data gathered and the purposes that it could be used for (without further restricting and defining these, it would be very difficult for the system to be held to account in that most uses for the data would be lawful and citizens would have little substance to their data rights).

The draft Directive could still go to the EP plenary, where the full European Parliament could still pass the law.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Dalligate scandal deepens in Brussels

EUObserver is reporting that a confidential and highly damaging report on OLAF’s conduct of the investigation into allegations of corruption against Health Commissioner Dalli - by OLAF's own supervisors - has been sent to the European Parliament.

The "Dalligate" scandal has been rumbling on for a few months now in Brussels. Allegations of dodgy dealings on the part of Commissioner Dalli over his upcoming tobacco legislation and the snus (oral tobacco that is legal in Sweden but banned in the rest of the EU) industry led to his resignation in October last year. Dalli denies the allegations that he asked for bribes in return for legislative changes and hitout against Commission President Barroso, who effectively forced him in to resigning. Dalli is currently facing legal action in Malta.

In 2013 the scandal took an unexpected turn, however, when it was alleged that OLAF, the anti-fraud agency that launched the investigation against Dalli and published the report that led to his resignation, broke the law by acquiring communication information illegally (such as telephone information). It also came to light that the source of information for the meeting where Dalli supposedly asked for the bribe contacted OLAF to tell them that the meeting had never taken place, but OLAF allegedly told her to not tell the public. However Green MEP José Bové was told that Gayle Kimberley, the source, had not been to the meeting, driving OLAF back into the spotlight.

Despite the uproar over the handling of the case by OLAF and its head, Giovanni Kessler, with a proposal by the European Greens that the Parliament launch its own investigation (by setting up a committee of inquiry) into how the case was conducted. However the European Parliament dropped the idea on 11th April, with the EPP, S&D and ADLE groups against an inquiry – a blow for MEPs who had been calling for Kessler to resign.

But now the confidential report by the OLAF supervisors has breathed new life into the story. As EUObserver reports:

"[The report] accuses [Kessler's] office of conducting unlawful interrogations in Malta, of intercepting a private telephone conversation, of involving the help of Maltese authorities without a proper legal basis and of overlooking or rushing checks on the legality of its actions in order to speed up the outcome.


Given the complexity of the case, his [Kessler's] hastiness calls into question whether Olaf could have fulfilled all the necessary checks on the legality of its decision and on the credibility of the accusations, the report notes.

The supervisors add that commission President Jose Manuel Barroso wanted the investigation to get top priority.

In a violation of Olaf's duty to remain independent of Barroso's people, Kessler formally designated the commission as the source of the information on the basis of which he launched proceedings.

In a further violation of Olaf procedure, he made the designation despite the fact the information actually came from Swedish Match.

The supervisors also accuse Olaf of instructing the key Dalligate witness - a Maltese-based lobbyist called Gayle Kimberley - to lie."

With such a high-profile case (and a high-profile scalp in the form of a Commissioner), the serious questions over the handling of this case is deeply damaging to OLAF. While it's important to make sure that the court proceedings in Malta aren't interfered with, it's vital that there's a proper investigation into the conduct of this case. OLAF, as the anti-fraud office, is supposed to be irreproachable, and there has to be public confidence that it is able to carry out its functions independently, and in line with the rule of law. The European Parliament has to return to the issue of setting up a committee for inquiry.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Irish President Michael D Higgin's address to the European Parliament

Today President Higgins of Ireland addressed the European Parliament on the Union and citizenship. (The President of Ireland is a ceremonial head of state that is directly elected, and, sadly, it is difficult to imagine a head of government in Europe giving such a speech today).

I recommend the speech, but to quote a few extracts:

"[T]he inspiration and the achievements of the founders of the European Union we inherit as legacy cannot be taken for granted. Today, citizens in Europe are threatened with an unconscious drift to disharmony, a loss of social cohesion, a recurrence of racism and an increasing deficit of democratic accountability in some decision making of an economic and fiscal kind. These threatening clouds hang over a Europe that in more hopeful times, chose to base its anthem, rather than on anything contemporary, on Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘Ode to Joy’ and its musical setting by Ludwig Van Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony.

Parliaments do matter and must continue to matter. Centuries of effort have been invested by European citizens in securing the vote. It is to parliament citizens look for accountability, for strategic alternatives. If national parliaments, if the European Parliament, were to lose the capacity to deliver accountability where else might it be found? Is there an alternative that can meet the requirements of a deliberative democracy? I believe not and parliaments must draw on the resources of experience, of inherited intellectual capacity, in all its diversity and above all, from the best of contemporary intellectual work in a pluralist way.


We cannot, however, ignore the fact that European citizens are suffering the consequences of actions and opinions of bodies such as rating agencies, which, unlike Parliaments, are unaccountable. Many of our citizens in Europe regard the response to the crisis in their lives as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity with them in their threatened or actual economic circumstances.

They feel that in general terms the economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns; for example, by calculations that are abstract and not drawn from real problems, geared primarily by a consideration of the impact of such measures on speculative markets, rather than driven by sufficient compassion and empathy with the predicament of European citizens who are members of a union, and for whom all of the resources of Europe’s capacity, political, social, economic and intellectual might have been drawn on, driven by the binding moral spirit of a union.


Instead of any discourse that might define the European Union as simply an economic space of contestation between the strong and the weak, our citizens yearn for the language of solidarity, the commitment to cohesion, for a generous inclusive rhetoric that is appropriate to an evolving political union that is anxious to reach a future of peace, prosperity, inclusion, and in a sustainable way.

This is a serious challenge, not least because if we were to fail we run the risk of an economic crisis leading to a crisis of legitimacy for the Union. A Union that in its founding treaties is fundamentally founded on values – respect for personal dignity; freedom; democracy; equality; the rule of law and respect for human rights."

European Citizens' Initiative and Let Me Vote!

At the start of the month the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) turned one year old. The Commission has claimed it a success - Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič noted that:

"The Commission has received requests for the registration of 25 proposed citizens' initiatives, of which 16 initiatives were registered; two of these have since been withdrawn which means that we currently have 14 ongoing initiatives. The 8 initiatives that were refused did not meet the condition for registration in that they covered areas that fall outside the powers of the Commission. One request for registration is still under analysis.

Contrary to initial concerns, no – to speak with the language of the ECI Regulation – "abusive, frivolous or vexatious" ECIs have been submitted."

However the experiences of the Right2Water campaign may highlight the difficulties of running such campaigns under the "geographical balance" criteria and a variety of national rules on signature collection. As the Commissioner noted:

"So far, just one initiative, Right2Water, has managed to reach the goal of one million signatures – and well within a year, clear indication that it can be achieved with the right support and marketing. They are still collecting signatures, however, because they still need to meet the geographical balance required by the ECI regulation, and I wish them well with also reaching this target in due course."

Justin Stares has written over at Public Service Europe about the difficulties Right2Water faced:

"In Belgium, they have to give their date and place of birth plus their full address - meaning they have to write down their home country twice. If an individual fails to do so on the grounds that repetition must surely be redundant, there is a chance his or her signature will be invalidated. "If the authorities are very strict when checking our signatures then we can throw away half of them," says Sanchez. "If you write Stoke instead of Stoke-on-Trent they could say no, but there is pressure on the commission to be flexible." Requirements should be standardised across the EU, he says.

Country signature thresholds are based on a formula that produces sometimes bizarre if not outright ridiculous results: around 9,000 signatures are required in both Lithuania and Denmark, despite Denmark having a much larger population."

I'd recommend you read the full article.

The ECI legislation will be up for review in two years time. Despite the problems with the ECI, I hope people will keep campaigning and putting pressure on the Commission and European Parliament to consider their proposals. Without the pressure and voices of the campaigners, it may be difficult to push for reform of the problems with the system when the review is launched.

Stephen Spillane has highlighted on of the ECIs currently collecting signatures, Let Me Vote! This ECI is a campaign for EU citizens to be given the right to vote in the national elections of the Member State that they are resident in, giving them a voice in the policies of the country where they pay their taxes. Stephen will be looking at other ECIs over the next while too.

Monday 15 April 2013

Could Fidesz be expelled from the European People's Party?

Der Standard reported yesterday on a dinner of leading members of the EPP, including Joseph Daul and Commissioner Viviane Reding, to consider whether the ruling party in Hungary, Fidesz, should be expelled from the party:

"In der Europäischen Volkspartei (EVP) hat man die ungarische Mitgliedspartei Fidesz (Bund Junger Demokraten) Medienberichten zufolge zunehmend satt. Bei einem vertraulichen Abendessen im mondänen Klub der Festung Revelin bei Dubrovnik tauschten sich am vergangenen Donnerstag die Spitzen der EVP-Fraktion im Europaparlament, angeführt von Fraktionschef Joseph Daul, und die gleichfalls konservative EU-Justizkommissarin Viviane Reding über die jüngsten Verfassungsänderungen in Ungarn aus. Die Novelle festigt die Macht von Premier Viktor Orbán weiter auf Kosten von Justiz und Rechtsstaatlichkeit. Sollte Orbán innerhalb einer Woche keinen Rückzieher machen, werde man "Fidesz aus der EVP hinauskomplimentieren", soll bei dem Dinner vereinbart worden sein.

[The European People's Party (EPP) has become increasingly tired of the media reports of their Hungarian member party, Fidesz (the Alliance of young Democrats). At a confidential dinner in the Revelin in Dubrovnik last Thursday, leading members of the EPP Group in the European Parliament and Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding discussed the recent constitutional changes in Hungary. These changes have further consolidated the power of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the cost of the rule of law. The dinner concluded that if Orbán does not reverse course then Fidesz should be shown the door. (My Translation)]"

The EPP have rejected the story, but Der Standard's source for the story, a journalist from Új Magyar Szó (a Hungarian-language paper), says that Daul initiated the meeting. If the EPP is seriously thinking of expelling Fidesz, the party may try to join the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. That could be a boost to ECR numbers in the European Parliament, but it would be a controversial member to take on.

The pressure will be on Fidesz this week, with the constitutional situation up for debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday. Last week Barroso raised serious concerns over the latest change to the hungarian constitution, particularly because of interferences with the judiciary's powers, and it appears that the Commission is considering legal action:

"[Refering a Letter to Viktor Orbán:]

President Barroso indicates that, once the on-going legal analysis carried out by the Commission's services has been finalised, the Commission will have to take the necessary steps in order to start infringement procedures where relevant. "I strongly appeal to you and to your government to address these concerns and to tackle them in a determined and unambiguous way. This is without doubts in the best interest of Hungary and of the EU as a whole" – President Barroso says in the letter

The letter in particular refers to Commission concerns about the conformity with EU law of the new articles of the Hungarian Constitution on the clause on European Court of Justice judgements entailing payment obligations, the powers given to the President of the National Office for the judiciary to transfer cases and, subject to a more detailed analysis, the restrictions on the publication of political advertisements."

Concerns over Hungary's constitutional changes have been growing over the last few years. There was a blogging action over the new press laws and heavy criticism of the new constitution. Marco Dani, over at Verfassungsblog, highlights why these changes are important for the rest of us in an interesting piece on how the EU deals with these situations (and Article 7 TEU):

"[G]iven the interconnections between supranational and national decision-making, preserving national democratic processes from toxic elements is a way also of ensuring the democratic credentials of the EU institutions and political process. This is why Hungary matters not only for Hungarians but also for European citizens at large. And this is why, if European citizens are really affected by the authoritarian slide in one country, it is also up to them to react, especially when, as it is the case now, other institutional actors seem hesitant."

SPD Manifesto: A different course for Europe?

It's no secret that the European left are depending on a victory in Germany in this year's federal election before there can be some change of course on the Eurocrisis. With French, Italian and German elections within 18 months of each other (though the Italian one was more unexpected), the hope must have been to capture the big 3 Eurozone Member States to change the currency's political direction. It's an uphill battle: Hollande is struggling in the polls, the Italian centre-left failed to win a parliamentary majority, and at the moment Merkel's CDU are ahead of the SPD in the polls.

John Palmer over at Social Europe Journal, has questioned whether the SPD really do have the policy prescriptions that might help the Eurozone. Are the SPD putting forward vague promises or a more substantive platform for Europe? The SPD has published its election manifesto (PDF in German), where you can find the relevant European sections on pages 21-23 and 89-92.

Miteinander fuer mehr Soziale Marktwirtschaft in Europa - Working together for a more social market economy in Europe (pp.21-23):

"Wir wollen kein Europa, das Spielball der Maerkte ist, sondern eines, das im Interesse der Menschen handelt. Nur geeint und im festen Zusammenschluss der Europaeischen Union hat Europa eine Chance im globalen Wettbewerb von Ideen und Werten, von Politik und Wirtschaft. Aus diesem Grund wollen wir die Politische Union Europas weiter vertiefen.

[We don't want a Europe that is a plaything of the markets, but one that works in the interests of people. Only with a united European Union does Europe have a chance to compete globally when it comes to ideas, values, politics and economics. For this reason we want to further deepen the political union - (Own translation)]"
The SPD essentially agree on the need for a Banking Union with the ECB as a regulator for the big banks (but with national oversight for the medium and small banks), and are for a Bank Fund, funded by the banks, that will deal with future financial crises. They also want more harmonisation when it comes to taxation (including corporation tax). The commitment to Social Europe is repeated, with support for investment through a European Investment Fund and a further strengthening of the European Investment Bank.

Finally, the manifesto sets out the SPD's support for a European Debt Fund to ensure the capacities of the Eurozone members, in return for a binding debt reduction and reform plan.

Ein anderes und besseres Europa - A different and better Europe (pp.89-92):

This section is mostly rhetoric setting out the SPD's European identity and credentials in comparison to the governing parties. The SPD supports the development of the Commission as the executive of the EU, but with a stronger role for the European Parliament in electing it and holding it to account. The manifesto also highlights the PES primaries for their Commission president candidate. I'm glad to see the SPD explicitly support creating a parliamentary tradition on the European stage ("Auch so wird ein Stueck Parlamentstradition die in den Mitgliedsstaaten selbstverstaendlich ist, auch auf die EU Ebene gebracht" - Thus will a part of the parliamentary tradition of the Member States be brought to the EU stage).

Strikingly, the SPD places a "competence division" at the heart of the reform process - though the manifesto clearly aims towards a more European economic policy, the possibility for the return of powers to the national level is left open. Cameron's renegotiation policy may find more success if the more federalist opposition is elected than if his ideological neighbour is.

The SPD calls for a strong European Social Union, and an European economic government subject to European Parliament control, but these concepts remain vague (no doubt leaving more room for negotiation if the other Eurozone Member States accept the idea).


A victory for the SPD-Green opposition this autumn is not going to be revolutionary: the SPD support a lot of what is already in place or what will be put in place in terms of the Banking Union, Financial Transaction Tax and the bail-outs. But it would signal to the rest of the EU that a second pillar could be negotiated alongside the rigid rules for fiscal rigour.

It's still quite a vague vision, and a limited one. No mention is made of the possibility of a Eurozone budget and a Eurozone Parliament (or part of the European Parliament) when it comes to economic government, so investment funds, bonds and banks are the vehicles for economic investment. This means that essentially additions to the institutional architecture are being envisaged rather than a more flexible (and electorally responsive) vision of a central budget subject to the European Parliament. The manifesto may be more realistic when it comes to winning electoral support, but the worry on the left must be that these new bonds and institutions may not generate enough investment to counter the depressive effect of fiscal rigour in a recession.

Sunday 14 April 2013

European Elections in Croatia

Today Croatia goes to the polls to elect its 12 MEPs - the country will formally join the EU on 1st July this year. Those elected won't have too long to establish themselves with elections for the whole Parliament in 2014, and, on top of that, the number of Croatia's parliamentary seats will reduce by one due to the Lisbon Treaty limitation of the EP to 751 seats.

Though there are 336 candidates on 28 lists (the election is on the open list system), the campaign has been short and lacklustre, with the ruling S&D Group-aligned party predicted to win the poll on a 60% turnout.

If these predictions are borne out, it will provide a small boost to the centre-left S&D Group in the European Parliament, which is the second biggest group in the Parliament, but the centre-right EPP will comfortably remain the biggest party.

Best of luck to Croatia & vote if you can!

Friday 12 April 2013

The Eurocrisis and Industrial Relations

That the Eurocrisis has changed industrial relations in Europe is the understated conclusion of the Commission's new paper, Industrial Relations in Europe 2012. The report comes from the DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, headed by Commissioner László Andor, and focuses on:

  • how the outcomes of European social dialogue can make a real difference to the working lives of Europeans, for example on improved health and safety at work and working conditions;
  • industrial relations in the public sector (public administration, education and healthcare) in light of the government spending cuts in many Member States;
  • the state of social dialogue in Central and Eastern Europe;
  • the involvement of social partners in unemployment and pension system reforms and in the transition towards an economy that is more sustainable and less dependent on fossil fuels.

It's a hefty document at 338 pages, and in the light of the release of the Commission's in-depth review of macroeconomic imbalances earlier this week (see Social Europe Journal for an interesting critique of the Commission's approach here), it's may be tempting to see it as a note of dissent from one of the few Commissioners from the PES family, but he's insisted that there's no contradiction - and, reading it, the language is carefully constructed to portray support for dialogue with social partners as a part of the austerity process:

"This report argues that social dialogue mechanisms and instruments, which have served Europe well over many decades, are still relevant means of addressing the crisis and contributing to creating favourable conditions for growth and employment."

In itself the language is interesting as it shows how technocratic the Commission still is, years after Margot Wallstrom pushed for more politics in the Commission. Social dialogue is presented as a way of legitimising the implementation of austerity policies and of tailoring them to get the best results for employment and growth (comparisons between Ireland and the other bail-out countries are interesting here, although the renegotiation of the public sector Croke Park Agreement is facing some hurdles for trades union acceptance). The report's endorsement of social dialogue will be welcome for the left (as will it's call for progress on social dialogue in Central and Eastern Europe), though the failed attempt of the Commission to address concerns over collective action and the Viking and Laval cases and the review of the Working Time Directive show that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to practical policy.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Childers resigns from the EP Irish Parliamentary Labour Party

The Irish Labour Party has had a rough few weeks. Currently in government with the centre-right Fine Gael, it had finally become the second biggest political party in Ireland after the last election (an achievement for the main centre-left party that had always been the 3rd party in Ireland). However in government the Labour party has gotten the flak for aligning itself too closely with Fine Gael's conservative policies. Labour had promised "balanced government" through moderating Fine Gael's influence, but it has little to show for its concessions in government.

The shockingly low result for Labour in the Meath East by-election at the end of March - where they only managed 4%! - is an indication of just how angry the party base is with the parliamentary party. Nationally, Labour's support is polled at between 7-13%, but a combination of low turnout and disaffected grassroots led to the collapse in the Labour vote. If it's going to mitigate the damage at the next elections, Labour in government will have to make a greater show of defending their centre-left values. Without this, it will be hard to motivate the party base or convince other voters of the value of giving their transfers to Labour candidates (votes transferred from candidates eliminated for not attracting enough votes is important in the Single Transferable Vote system). Then again, if a centre-left party doesn't fight for its centre-left values, it's hard to see the point of it in the first place...

Following this defeat, Nessa Childers, the Labour MEP resigned from the parliamentary party because of its support for the government. Childers has been at odds with the leadership of the party for some time, so the resignation is being dismissed as the loss of a semi-detached member, but her suggestion that Labour values may be more effectively expressed outside the Labour Party will probably have a ring of truth with some people.

In Brussels and Strasbourg this will not have much of an effect: Childers remains a Labour party member and will remain part of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament. However, since she was the only Labour MEP to have been elected in the 2009 election (Labour's other two MEPs were substituted in after the resignations of the former seat-holders), it will be even more difficult for the party to retain these seats (electoral support in Ireland is more directly linked to the candidate than the party in comparison to other European electoral systems). Just a year before the 2014 European elections, it looks like the S&D Group will be lucky to retain even one seat in Ireland.