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].