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.