Monday 27 January 2014

5 Years of Bloggingportal!

Today is the 5th birthday of Bloggingportal! In the years that Bloggingportal has been linking Euroblogs and trying to make discussions more accessible, the number of blogs has ballooned from barely 100 to over 1000. The Euroblogosphere is still relatively small, but the Eurocrisis and Europeanisation of national politics has spurred the increased debate on the EU.

Bloggingportal has been around for almost as long as this blog, and I’ve found it useful in following different opinions and news. But 5 years is a long time and the site is definitely showing its age. Editors have drifted off as work and life have become more demanding, but the people at Bloggingportal towers have been planning and working on a renewal and relaunch of the site. With the 2014 European elections coming up in May, it’s important to keep up with the debate across the continent, and hopefully Bloggingportal will soon be able to make it easier to do so.

So here’s to another 5 years!

Monday 13 January 2014

No Free Movement Rights for the Working Class?

The debate over the free movement of people is continuing to grow. It's worth remembering that EU citizens currently have the right to reside in another Member State for 3 months to look for work, with no obligation on the host Member State to provide benefits (Citizen's Directive, PDF). They can stay longer than 3 months if they are employed, self-employed, or have the resources to support themselves. When they're a worker (an employee), then they have access to the same social and tax advantages as the host country's nationals (Directive 1612/68).

In the UK, some Tories are calling for a 2 year period before EU citizens will have access to the welfare system. That's 2 years of living, working and contributing in a country without being able to draw on the same support open to other citizens. Given that so many supported by the welfare system are in work (an indication of how wages have stagnated and the worrying necessity to support those in work to ensure that they can actually make a living), such a long period would greatly disadvantage poorer people from exercising their Treaty rights in practice.

Labour appears to be thinking of controlling intra-EU migration for the skill levels of the migrant, as Chuka Umunna said on the BBC's Question Time last Thursday:

"Umunna said the EU should change its rules to prevent citizens from travelling to other member states in search of work, with a focus on banning highly skilled workers from less affluent EU members taking low-skilled jobs in richer member states.
He said this would revive the spirit of the EU's founding fathers, who wanted to encourage freedom of movement for highly skilled workers to highly skilled jobs."

I'm not sure what founding father he's talking about; he didn't quote any and I can't remember any famous quotes about Europe only being for graduates. Labour's position is very confusing. They seem to be talking about preventing movement to other countries to find work (so you'd already need to have a job before you move), preventing highly skilled workers from the new accession countries from taking lower-skilled jobs in the older Member States (which sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare to define and enforce, never mind getting all the Member States to sign off on it), and limiting the free movement rights to the highly skilled.

This last point, which seems to be the most likely, is an odd position for the Labour party. So the highly skilled (presumably also those from more privileged backgrounds) should have these rights but the less well skilled shouldn't (which is hard to define and probably just means "poor")? It's a sad state of affairs when the Labour party is for disenfranchising the poor in Europe rather than opening up more opportunity and creating work and security...

Even the Liberal Democrats have voiced support for limited access to benefits. Perhaps someone can explain the electoral rationale behind this move, because I can't see it. Nobody who wants a tough stance on immigration is going to vote for the Lib Dems over the Tories because of this. The net result is that there's no real political voice that is speaking out in defence of free movement rights.

It's widely reported, and accepted by supporters for tougher immigration controls such as Migration Watch, that EEA migrants claim less than locals, and contribute more to society and the economy than they receive in social welfare. The political weather has changed so much that even the politicians that make this argument are supporting a dilution of free movement rights. This political cowardice just lets the panic over immigration to grow. Without dissenting voices, the political culture as a whole shifts in an ever more anti-immigrant direction - you could say that it's a microcosm of the overall EU debate in the UK.

Political attitudes of the CSU in Germany are also hardening on this, though opinion polls suggest that a majority thinks that Germany has benefited from immigration and that it has benefited from EU membership overall.

Friday 10 January 2014

European Parliament wants to question Snowden

The European Parliament's LIBE Committee's Inquiry into the Electronic Mass Surveillance of European Citizens is not due to be published in March, and the Committee has voted to question the whistle-blower Edward Snowden via video-link. However The Guardian has ran a story on the draft of the report in which the Inquiry says the actions of the NSA and the UK's GCHQ "appear illegal".

The draft report states (PDF; main findings start at p.16):

"[The Inquiry] Condemns in the strongest possible terms the vast, systemic, blanket collection of the  personal data of innocent people, often comprising intimate personal information; emphasises that the systems of mass, indiscriminate surveillance by intelligence services constitute a serious interference with the fundamental rights of citizens; stresses that privacy is not a luxury right, but that it is the foundation stone of a free and democratic society; points out, furthermore, that mass surveillance has potentially severe effects on the freedom of the press, thought and speech, as well as a significant potential for abuse of the information gathered against political adversaries; emphasises that these mass surveillance activities appear also to entail illegal actions by intelligence services and raise questions regarding the extra-territoriality of national laws


[The Inquiry] Stresses that, despite the fact that oversight of intelligence services’ activities should be based on both democratic legitimacy (strong legal framework, ex ante authorisation and ex post verification) and an adequate technical capability and expertise, the majority of current EU and US oversight bodies dramatically lack both, in particular the technical capabilities."

(Points 9,and 60 of the main findings).

Along with calling for the US and EU Member States to prohibit blanket mass surveillance activities and demanding that the UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany revise their national intelligence laws in line with the European Convention on Human Rights, the rapporteur, S&D MEP Claude Moraes (UK),  called for the SWIFT Agreement with the US to be put on ice.

The SWIFT Agreement allows for the transfer of financial transaction data to the US, and has come in for a lot of criticism. The first attempt at agreement failed, but the European Parliament voted through a second renegotiated SWIFT deal earlier during this parliament.

Tagesschau reports that the inquiry may show that French and German intelligence agencies have also been carrying out similar surveillance programmes. This is probably widely suspected anyway, but for a parliamentary inquiry to finger France and Germany after the outrage expressed by those two countries would be very embarrassing. It would be particularly uncomfortable for Merkel, who is seen to have reacted to the NSA Affair slowly, and due to the controversial nature of the EU's own data retention laws in the country.

The European Parliament report won't have any binding effect, but the Inquiry is a strong political statement. As well as being a fundamental issue that needs investigation, this is a ticket to the central political stage. Questioning Snowden would be a major coup and turn the Inquiry into an international event. Though the Inquiry overwhelmingly wants to question Snowden (only 2 UK Conservatives on the Committee voted against the proposal), it is depending on Snowden wanting to use the platform - something that the US Congress fears and has warned against. It's hard to see why Snowden wouldn't take this opportunity to state his case personally and publicly.

EDIT: Ralf Grahn drew my attention to the draft report online, so I've changed the blog to include links and some extracts to it.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Poland says No to watering down Free Movement

The Polish government has made it clear that it will veto changes to the free movement of people in the EU Treaties. Since the EU Treaties can only be changed by unanimity, this is a blow to calls from Cameron's UK government (and from the Bavarian CSU) for changes to the system.

I've written before about how the UK debate seems to frame the single market as the only good thing about the EU when the social elements are such a big part of the bargain. This is desire for the single market to respect national social protections gives rise to a kind of European social contract - a kind of minimum (and from the left's point of view it is very minimum) level of protection that limits the single market in undercutting national welfare and social systems (though the single market has had a big impact on these). But now the debate has shifted to reviewing and limiting one of the fundamental freedoms of the single market.

The fears over EU immigration in the UK (with the ending of the restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens) has been the main spark for this, and the idea of being tough on immigration is popular. And because a "market" is seen as just goods you buy in a shop, rather than an economy people live in, the free movement of people is perhaps seen as not really being part of the single market. Despite this, there are polls indicating that Britain would be welcoming of immigrants who play by the rules, so the panic may be more linked to the rhetoric over benefits and the young than might be seen at first glance.

Watering down free movement rights is likely to come up against fierce opposition from many Member States - not just Poland, but also Spain, Ireland, Greece, and other countries afraid to see their citizens treated as second-class EU citizens - so it's unlikely to work. But watering down further the social side of the EU will make everyone more economically insecure and could further undermine support for free movement rights and solidarity in the wealthier Member States, and ultimately support for the single market.

For Cameron to be able to claim victory through renegotiation, he will have to get something big in the area of social policy now that so many other areas are sealed off (the UK is outside of Schengen, the Euro and has an opt in to justice legislation). The undermining of social rules and standards needs to be resisted.

Gove's bashing of "left wing" historians is a sad indication on how he views history

The UK's Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has been in the news lately for complaining about left wing academics and their insufficiently "patriotic" version of the First World War, which feed into a likewise unhappy media image:

"Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles - a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths."

It's interesting that pointing out the failures of the military leadership of the war is equated with denigrating the courage of those who fought - the very phrase lions led by donkeys is meant to highlight their courage in contrast to the leadership - and it almost seems like Gove's definition of "patriotism" is loyalty to the elite. Question the soundness of General Haig's strategy of repeatedly making soldiers walk slowly across open ground towards machine-gun fire? Clearly you have little love for the troops or Britain.

More worrying is the approach taken to academia. Debating the history and the merits of generals or the justness of the war is a good thing - and critical thinking and discussion needs to be encouraged. But using politics as a shorthand to exclude arguments is sloppy and wrong. This is the man responsible for the education system calling academics "left wing" to imply that they and their academic work is untrustworthy and biased. Are papers on history published in academic journals by authors with left wing political views less reliable or worthwhile simply because of their political views? Of course, this "left wing" view of history isn't necessarily reserved to the left. Notably, Oh! What a Lovely War is inspired by a book by a Conservative MP.

If Gove personally distrusts the work of historians simply because it appears to have, in his opinion, a left wing bias or because it finds itself at odds with the government's aims (or the war propaganda at the time), then that's his business. But it's a poor basis for teaching history or commemorating the war.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Which Generation are we saving here?

British Chancellor George Osborne said yesterday that another £25 billion in welfare cuts are needed to close the deficit:

"Do we say: the worst is over; back we go to our bad habits of borrowing and spending and living beyond our means - and let the next generation pay the bill? Or do we say to ourselves: yes, because of our plan, things are getting better. But there is still a long way to go - and there are big, underlying problems we have to fix in our economy."

With the pensions part of the welfare budget protected under the Conservative promise of the triple lock - that pensions will increase in line with average earnings, inflation or by 2.5%, whichever is the largest - and the under-25s the targets of most of the cuts, it's an odd rhetorical direction to take. It's traditional austerity rhetoric to insist that the costs of borrowing mean that the next generation is being weighted down by debt instead of the current generation dealing with their own problems.

But the under=25s are the main target of these austerity policies, be it an end to housing benefits or employment benefits. It's difficult to claim that the generation that finds itself under the 25 year threshold played a part in causing the current deficit or economic crisis. When did they speculate on house prices or recklessly run financial institutions? Are these people not the "Next Generation"? Even if they're not, presumably the benefits will still remain withdrawn for whoever this Next Generation turns out to be until they are 25.

This raises a few questions about what the morals behind the Tories' version of austerity. Why should the under-25s have access to fewer benefits than the rest of the population? At 25 you can vote, serve in the army, pay taxes, are entitled to the full minimum wage... but you can't be trusted with housing benefit? Which implies that you won't be seen as a full citizen in the eyes of the British state until you're over 25, and that you're really expected to live with your parents in tough times.

Protecting pensioners - a key voting group for the Conservatives - might be seen as a cynical political ploy (and to an extent it is), but I think you can see the basis of the Tory view of the state in the targeting of the young to close the deficit. The state, or the welfare part of it, it really a giant insurance vehicle in the Conservative view: benefits should really only be paid out to those who pay in. Pensioners have paid in, so their contribution must be protected; under-25s cannot safely be assumed to have paid much tax yet, so they should not have access to the same range of benefits as other citizens. Taxpayer payment to (or investment in) the state should be prioritised.

The problem with this view is that young people start off with nothing or not-very-much (unless they have a generous family) because they are just starting off in life and have yet to establish themselves in work and the world at large. Generally there is a redistribution of resources to the young (education, etc.) to equip them with the skills to establish themselves (and to give the state higher earning workers who will pay higher taxes). People established in careers are expected to pay not only because they have benefited from the system in the past, but also because they want their children to have a good start in life and they want later generations to continue to be able to pay for the state (including eventually their pensions).

By focusing so much on who pays in as a taxpayer, and that on an individual level they broadly get what they paid in back out in the end, it misses the point that the state acts as an investor. Taxpayers matter more than citizens, so if you can't be assumed to have paid much in, then it's not that big of a deal to withdraw benefits. So if you are in (university) education, you're expected to pay tuition fees and to take on debt to do so because you're investing in yourself, and if you're under 25, you don't deserve access to the same benefits as anyone else because we can't assume that you've paid in yet. Of course this kind of thinking means that the welfare state becomes more about those who can or have been able to pay at some point, leading to more inequality.

This attack on the young is an extremely clear sign that we aren't "all in this together", particularly as youth unemployment remains high.

Ironically it seems to be the "pro-business" Conservatives that don't know much about investment - after all, the Royal Mail was sold off at a bargain basement price while the government guaranteed its returns for a year, and the oldest student debt was sold off at a loss rather than the government even bothering to maximise the returns on even the loan system. No wonder the Tories think the private sector can do it better when they do it so badly.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Yet More Widening and Deepening

2014 dawns and the EU continues to widen and deepen. Latvia is now part of the Eurozone, bringing the total to 18. What has Latvia got itself into, you might ask, until you realise that it has pushed itself through a harsh austerity regime just to get into the club. Trepidation might be the right word for Latvia's entry into the Euro; that troubled zone where predecessors have encountered price rises. But with the trial by fire that was the last few years of austerity and Eurozone entry, the country is likely to prize its membership and look unkindly on the periphery's pleas for (debt) forgiveness.

Another event to be marked is Mayotte's move into the category of Outermost Region of the EU. 5 years after it voted to become a department of France, it's been added to the "outermost" category (and being of the coast of Madagascar it is fairly outermost from Europe's perspective), which is an enlargement of sorts. As an outermost region, Mayotte will be in the Customs Union and have the Euro as its currency. It remains outside of the Schengen zone, however. And of course, the restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria have expired today, giving their citizens the full rights of European citizens.

This is after a year where Croatia joined the Union and Ukraine saw huge protests for closer relations with the EU (though it's important to remember that the EU is not promising membership and may not be willing to offer more than the agreement that was on the table). But 2014 will be remembered (in EU circles) as a moment of truth in the European elections. It's a challenge to offer a proper choice when citizens go to the polls, and, as always, it partly depends on citizens demanding that choice. The European Year of Citizens may be rolling on, but we'll not get much in terms of primaries, and for the candidates to make themselves known there'll need to be some key policies to catch the public's attention.

A tough call - but a vital challenge. The 2014 elections will shape the EU for the next 5 years to come. It's not just that the European Parliament is a co-legislator now (the Member States in the Council need its  agreement for most EU legislation), but the coherence and impact of the campaign will determine how the next Commission President will be elected and how European politics and the Eurocrisis will proceed. If there's a strong verdict delivered for a more social or less united Eurozone at the election that will influence the outcomes of the political wranglings for the next half a decade. Now we have a new year, can we make the most of it?