Friday, 30 January 2009

Czechs (and others) and the Lisbon Treaty

The Czech parliament will not vote on the Treaty until the 15th of February. This will give the parliamentary committee time to make sure they've scrutinized it enough (is the official reason, so hopefully they have definitely read it through, unlike some Irish politicans). The EUobserver reports that the majority of Czechs are in favour of the parliament ratifying the Treaty, although this seems to be based mainly on concerns about prestige, and levels of knowledge about the Treaty itself are still very low.

In other news, Daniel Hannan has blogged that the Commission plans to extend its term against the rules. Now, I seem to remember that the extension of the term was agreed back in the December European Council, so that the next Commission would be chosen in a manner consistent with whichever way the next Irish referendum goes. Since the retension of a Commissioner is one of (if not the) key concerns of the Irish, and since under the Treaty of Nice the next Commission must have fewer members than the EU has member states, the extension is key to respecting the Irish vote - something Hannan and others claim to do and call for.

This could be an honest mistake (though as an MEP, you'd think that Hannan should be aware of these things...); a stranger position to me is that of the Polish President. Lech Kaczynski says that he will not sign the Lisbon Treaty unless the Irish vote yes in the next referendum. Ireland is rightfully proud and defensive of its constitution, and would be outraged if our president refused to accept the will of parliament because of a vote in another country.

We need to decide on rules of engagement on other European politicians when is comes to debating European issues. When is it acceptable and to what degree is it acceptable for other European politicians to become involved in national debates on European issues?

Would accepting Nord Stream be a blow to European interests?

Angela Merkel is pushing for the EU to back the Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline, which should supply gas to Germany, bypassing Eastern transit countries.

But with energy security an increasing concern - with the Czech Presidency even describing the South Stream project (a Russian pipeline to go through the Balkans) as a "threat" to the EU's plans for an alternative non-Russian controlled pipeline through Turkey ("Nabucco"). These new pipelines will reduce the political insecurity of gas supply which has dogged European countries over the last few years, but they will mean that EU countries will remain dependent to a large degree on Russia for its gas.

It would be easy to overstate the threat involved here. Russia is not forcing anyone to buy its gas, and these pipelines will not prevent the EU from developing green energy sources and finding other suppliers. However, the political courage to take any of these energy security measures it largely (if not solely) one of necessity. At a time when Obama is making the right noises about investing in green technology and promoting a green economy (of course, it's too early to tell how this will work out), the EU has weakened its committment in December. Could Al Gore be right when he said that only the US can lead on climate change?

The weaknesses of our politicians in making tough decisions in this area is a lot harder to overstate.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Yet more Constitutional challenges for the Lisbon Treaty?

A new legal challenge to the Lisbon Treaty is being launched in Germany. The challenge concerns the Maastricht Treaty, the court's ruling on how it would affect the EU/EEC, and how the EU later evolved, and this concerns the Lisbon Treaty because it does nothing to overturn these unconstitutional changes which were brought about through the Maastricht Treaty.

If the court accepts this challenge, then it could delay the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty for months. This challenge wasn't lodged with the original challenge (made by another person) as they want "to have their argumentation proofed separately by the court" (to quote the EUobserver).

With the court about to finish work on the original challenge (hearing dates are 10-11th February), it is natural to see this as a stalling tactic.

That the court is considering whether or not to look at this challenge suggests that they could dismiss it.

Does anyone know whether they can dismiss it only on the grounds that it's not a good challenge or are there procedural grounds, such as not raising the challenge within a certain time period?

In other news, Russia has decided not to deploy missles in Kaliningrad. Yet.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Dreams of Presidency (3)

The EUobserver has interviewed Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberal Group in the EP who is hoping to become the President of the European Parliament after the European elections. The suggestion that the EPP and the PES have already decided on the next two presidents does not bode well for Watson's campaign. German Liberal MEP Alexander Alvaro, though he supports Watson's candidature as a positive move, has said in an interview that without a PES-EPP split, Watson's chances are "close to zero". (Alvaro's interview covers a lot of other topics related to the EP elections).

Several issues are covered in Watson's interview, including ALDE's prospects at the next election (Watson hopes to retain the same proportion of seats, of course), the environmental impact of the EP, and his campaign for the presidency. While he highlights the need to bring the EP, and the EU as a whole, closer to citizens, no specific examples of how this could be achieved were given.

Watson has a website especially set up for his campaign, and there's a section where you can ask him questions, if you want to be more activist.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Should Europe accept Guantanamo detainees?

Since President Obama issued the executive order that the Guantanamo Bay Base be shut down within a year, there has been some debate over what will happen to the detainees. Those that will be released will be sent back home, but some cannot be sent back for fear that they will be tortured and/or killed in their home countries.

The Portuguese have suggested that European countries take some of the detainees, and EUobserver has an interesting article on how the EU is considering it, with France proposing an EU fact-finding mission to Guantanamo and for 60 of the detainees to be taken by EU member states, and the Czech Republic favouring a more state-centred version, where each state decides for itself on a case-by-case basis. Countries in favour of taking some detainees include: Sweden, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK.

But the big question is: should Europe take the detainees?

On one side, Europe has a moral obligation to do so. European countries have long criticised the US over Guantanamo and called for its closure, and European countries have been complicit in the detainees' treatment through the extraordinary rendition affair. This (along with our championing of abolition of the death penalty, torture, and our support for the rule of law) creates a moral obligation to offer help to at least some of these 60. We wanted their release if they could not be found guilty in a fair trial. It becomes a question of acting to live up to our own rhetoric.

On the other hand, this is largely the US's fault. The US has the largest moral obligation to compensate those detainees who are innocent and to resettle those who cannot return home. It would be difficult to integrate them into the society whose government has wronged them, but it is up to that government to right the wrong; it is not up to European governments.

I favour accepting some detainees. We comment so much about the US being credible and living up to its values, yet time and again we show embarrassing hesitation on living up to our own.

There are a lot of technical issues that would need to be addressed: integrating the detainees - they may need language training, counselling, etc - who will pay for their integration, European governments or the US; and security checks for the detainees before they're accepted, etc.

However if the technical issues can be sorted out, then Europe should accept them.

The Euroblog Network, Condensed

Just a quick note, though anyone reading is probably aware of this already by now, that Jon Worth, among others, has set up a site which brings together all the EU related blogs for easy reference. I've linked the new in the self-explanatory "links" column down the left-hand side of the page (as "EU Blog Portal").

It's a great idea, and though it is supposed to show all EU related blogs (it aggregates 281 blogs so far), it's still very flattering that I'm already on it, seeing as I've only been blogging for just over 2 weeks.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

What role should the EU play in the Israel-Palastine Peace Process?

Despite my very gloomy view of the value of international input into the Middle East conflict when it turns hot, I think that the EU has the ability to play an important part in the peace process. In the end, change must come from the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, but the EU can and should play a role in creating conditions which would encourage this.

There is a very interesting article in EurActiv on this topic.

The EU finds it very hard to coordinate foreign policy in this area, as can be seen from the argument over whether or not to call for an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Gaza and into the bombing of UN buildings by Israel.

As formulating common policy from crisis-to-crisis is almost impossible, the EU should play to its strengths. The EU's power and influence is mostly economic and institutional: the size of the single market gives it economic power concerning access and entry, and institutional make up of the EU gives it the attractive political lure of membership, etc.

So a more successful, and possibly more easily sustainable, EU policy on the peace process may be to make a massive commitment to the region based on the common end goal of the two-state solution. An "objective" institutionalised mechanism for engagement would offer a more coherent and effective policy towards the region. It would be objective not ideologically - it would be clearly committed to the two-state solution - but "objective" in that it would involve a progressive ladder of incentives and sanctions to which the member states would be committed, and which would reduce the scope and effects of differing political viewpoints based on recent flare-ups in the conflict.

So the EU could commit to a system of rewards and punishments for progress on peace, based on negotiations leading to a two-state solution and on economic links and security between the two states. For Israel, incentives would include better relations with the EU and more access to the single market, and sanctions would be the lessening of such links and access. For Palestinians, development aid and state building would form the basis of the incentive/sanction scale. If eventual membership is a possibility, it needs to be placed in the context of a successful peace that is proven to be sustainable.

The Quartet could also participate in a more institutionalised peace process, but the EU should not leave it completely to others to determine its approach to the conflict.

Libertas in the Czech Republic

Libertas has found someone to head its operations in the Czech Republic, in the form of Vladimir Zelezny. Or if not to head, at least join.

Mr. Zelezny is already an MEP, and is currently under investigation for tax fraud. He has also described himself as a Eurosceptic, something which was apparently an issue for Libertas with Mr. Mach (although perhaps that was only after Mach said that he wouldn't run on the Libertas platform).

Libertas is still incoherent ideologically, though this may not be a problem if it only runs as a one-issue party.

Shades of Democracy

The Irish Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has, I think, been covered well elsewhere already so I thought I would make a few observations on how "democracy", the buzzword of the Referendum has been used and how people have gone about using their democracy in practice. Democracy will feature heavily as the No side will likely focus on what it means for democracy to re-run a referendum after just over a year. So here's an incomplete, and not entirely serious, guide to the various versions of "democracy" during the campaign:

If You Don't Know, Don't Vote!: Not a very popular version, so it doesn't get its own acronym (see IYDKVN! below), this version of democracy is supported by those that think that those who are paid to make decisions are trying to avoid work, and those who are suspicious of people who can talk for ages about something that they claim is incomprehensible. Possible problems: if you don't vote, you may loose your say. Being replaced with a similar - result-wise if not otherwise related - If You Don't Care, Don't Vote! version of democracy.

Bloc Democracy: Could also be labelled "Interest Group Democracy" or "Brinkmanship Democracy". Involves groups (e.g. Irish Farmers Association) using their possible support for the issue at hand as a way of getting their way on an unrelated issue of particular interest to them (e.g. WTO Trade Talks). Possible problems: the Group may not be able to persuade its members to vote in line with a recently changed position.

"IYDKVN!" Democracy (If you Don't Know, Vote No!): Could also be labelled "Soundbite Democracy". The theory that if an issue cannot or has not been reduced to 5 verifiable soundbite points or less, then the proposition should be rejected for incomprehensibility. Pluses: people always know what they're getting. Possible problems: may make it hard to make decisions on complex issues; if used, it could become harder later to claim that "No means No!" if the decision is to be retaken (especially since, technically, "No Means I Didn't Know!") - however, this can be countered by switching to the "Exclusive", "Sacred Say", and "Don't Make Me Repeat Myself" versions of democracy.

Democracy of Gratitude: The theory that states that good proposals or decisions come from the people, or the ideology, who have made good decisions in the past, and so such proposals should be passed (e.g. if EU integration has been good in the past; or if the current government has handled the economy well). Possible problems: people are still people, and can still mess things up - or they could have concealed past mistakes.

Irritable Democracy: The theory that people should vote based on whatever issue is currently annoying them, regardless of whether or not it's related to the issue in question (e.g. voting for or against a side based on how they would have/have dealt with the local hard water problem). Possible problems: decisions made on the basis of this theory could lead to more irritable issues (e.g. voting in a local council based on national politics may lead to having an ineffective council...)

Sympathetic/Paternalistic Democracy: The theory that people should vote based on how it would effect others (e.g. if other people cannot vote or have a say but it would affect them nevertheless). Good points: it takes into account other interests which would be affected which cannot be expressed. Possible problems: it's not always clear how these other people would vote; it may lead people to vote against their own interests; can lead to criticising other countries constitutions while refusing to listen to any comments or criticism of your own country's system and a certain feeling of superiority. Specific Lisbon Treaty problem: since the Treaty would grant the EP and national parliaments greater power and oversight of EU legislation, voting against it denies people more power for their votes in national and European elections on a regular basis...

Exclusive Democracy: the theory that people should vote on an issue purely on how it would effect them, even if it would affect others - this theory includes not listening to any opinions from outside a certain area/group, and considers the airing of any such opinions as meddling to be condemned. Good points: should ensure that people vote in their own interest. Possible problems: the wider debate could be ignored and this may lead to some points not being raised.

Sacred Say Democracy: the theory that any democratically expressed opinion is sacred, to the extent that any outside influences must be ignored completely. Good points: tries to ensure that the democratically expressed will is acted upon. Possible problems: could force a position on a polity and not leave it enough room for manoeuvre to change policy if necessary; all outside influences may be condemned as "bullying" and not given a fair hearing or serious consideration; could lead to a frame of mind where democracy is about expressing an opinion and having that opinion respected, rather than a way of people sharing in the responsibility of government; may lead to ignore important factors/political realities.

If You Don't Care, Don't Vote! Democracy: an increasingly popular theory that people shouldn't vote if they don't care. Good points: the people who do care are more likely to get the result they want, so everyone's happy. Possible problems: people who don't vote don't have a say; decisions against their interests could be taken without their input.

Don't Make Me Repeat Myself Democracy: the theory that people should only have to make a decision once. Good points: tries to ensure that the democratically expressed will is acted upon. Possible problems: could force a position on a polity and not leave it enough room for manoeuvre to change policy if necessary.

This isn't a serious article, but there is a tension between variants of direct democracy and representative democracy, and it's interesting to see how people define their own version of democracy and how people assume that there is little variation in models of democracy. And this can sometimes lead to confused rhetoric.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Elections, the European Parliament, and a Europe-wide debate

The European elections are very disappointing for those who want to see European issues debated in a way that informs the public and gives them a choice that matters in the EP, instead of local issues dominating the EP elections and devaluing the EP's legitimacy. Low voter turnout and a poor public knowledge of the EP also detract from the democratic legitimacy that the EP lays claim to.

The EUobserver has recently reported that "vast majority of EU citizens remain unaware that European elections will take place later this year". The article also mentions some of the measures that have been taken to raise awareness of the EP and the up and coming elections. While some of these measures are good, in the end the local will always dominate if the national media cannot be induced to report on the elections in any way other than through national eyes.

It would also help if the EP party groups would take the elections more seriously. As Julien Frisch has noted, the biggest group, the EPP-ED, hasn't even bothered to mention the elections on its website.

National parties dominate the EP through the group structure, and this is especially so at election time, as the national parties are the ones to pick the candidates. Local involvement in picking candidates is good if done well, but in having "nationalised" European parties and debate, this does little to dispell the EP election's character of being a "second-order" election, where the national government and opposition parties are pitted against each other.

I previously advocated having pan-European televised debates between possibile EP presidental candidates. Now that I've thought it through more, I don't think that it would fit the EP president race. However, I still see merit in the idea of a pan-European televised debate between the group party leaders, either as a one off, or as a series leading up to the elections, each based on a different set of issues.

It is far from a cure to the problems faced by EP election campaigns, but it would be a start in breaking the stranglehold of very narrow national debates on the EP elections. It may even start to break the link between the "vote against the government" impulse, if people can see that it's European issues and politicans that they're voting for or against (and if they know more of what they can do), and not just the usual national figures.

The Return of Ken Clarke

Ken Clarke's return to the Tory front bench has been widely reported and commented on on the Internet. Apparently, his economic wisdom is boundless and will help right the wrongs of the British economy which were inflicted by Brown.

However, despite his seemly vast economic knowledge, according to the Tories, his opinions on the Euro are heresy, and something which shouldn't be taken too seriously since it's not something he would know about anyway. Pro-Europeanism and views on the largest project of economic integration in the world are also outside this economic genius' remit, as is anything that would challenge the Tory's conventional wisdom.

I mean, he would have to have been Chancellor once for anyone to consider his views seriously, wouldn't he?

On a serious note, I do think Clarke is a capable politician and minister, and he's probably a good choice for Cameron's shadow cabinet. He may hold views that go against the Conservative party orthodoxy, but I'd say that he'd toe the line now (or at least make more of an effort to) now that he's back in frontline politics. As a "big-hitter", he could be a very valuable weapon for the Conservatives.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Hessen Vote.

The FDP (and the Greens) have been strengthened in Hesse following the state elections on Sunday.

This makes a CDU-FDP coalition almost a certainty, and poses big questions for the SPD, who are down 13% since the last state election in Hesse last January. While this was widely predicted, elements of the SPD have reacted by proposing a change of the voting rules in the Bundesrat, which represents the 16 states of Germany, following the FDP's increase in power there. The reasoning behind this seems to be that the federal Grand Coalition will find it harder to pass legislation, which is especially dangerous in a time of recession, when governments may need to act quickly.

There may or may not be valid reasons for a constitutional change, but these suggestions can hardly be taken as anything but a power play by the SPD (and a very poor one at that). It smacks of desperation when a political party, even if just elements of it, start talking of constitutional change straight after an election defeat. The SPD needs to get itself sorted out, and fast. Franz Muentefering thinks it can be done. But I can't see it happening.

*All links are in German.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Anglo-Irish Bank to be Nationalised

The Irish Government is to nationalize the Anglo-Irish bank, a move which some critics say should have been made as far back as September when the government famously guaranteed the deposits of the six biggest Irish banks. If Cowen was hoping to get some positive press about his visit to Japan, then this will make sure it has no effect. The Commission will examine whether or not the nationalization complies with state aid rules.

It's hard not to feel outraged when you hear some of the stories about Anglo-Irish, like how Chairman of the bank Sean FitzPatrick loaned some €84-87 million to himself, and managed to keep it from the bank's auditors. This amounts to over half the bank's current market value with the bank currently valued at just over €160 million (down from €13 billion at its peak). And now it turns out that the actual figure for the loan might be much more.

The government should have replaced some of the chairmen of the six banks (one analyst called for 5 of them to go at the time of the guarantee) back in September. I can only hope that the government is keeping a close eye on the other banks which it's guaranteed, and now re-capitalizing. Though I wouldn't hold my breath.

In other news, the recently-made-ex-boss Rody Molloy of Fás, a state body set up to provide training programs, will get a six-figure severence pay packet. His is a man who had to resign following a scandel over the lavish wasting of money by Fás. Hardly a way of cutting public expenditure, is it?

Turkey's PM to arrive in Brussels on Sunday

Turkey's PM, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hopes to kick-start the accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU during a three days of meetings in Brussels starting Sunday. (Well, accelerate – the negotiations are still ongoing, but at snail’s pace).

Other initiatives designed to get Turkey back on the yellow brick road to Europe include finally appointing a full time EU negotiator. Turkey has also made some progress in the area of minority rights, such as launching the new Kurdish-language channel,
TRT 6, which is hopefully an indication that further progress will be made.

While there are many issues for Turkey to resolve before it can accede to the Union, most notably regarding human rights and Cyprus, the most frustrating thing for Turks must be that, as much as they may reform, their EU destiny is largely out of their hands. The threat of a French referendum on Turkish entry, which would most likely result in a "No", is one example of this.

The term used to explain this is "enlargement fatigue" on the part of the EU; the idea that the EU can only take on so much. While a lot of this is quite true - the institutions need reform to handle deals between 27+ member states and peoples - it is only part of a wider "change fatigue".

The EU has gone through a protracted period of reform - there have been 5 Treaties (including the Constitutional Treaty and Lisbon) and 3 enlargements since 1992. The pace of change has been disappointing to some and terrifying to others, and the EU is probably unique among international organisations for the rate of reform it has seen. However the perception of change may be much greater than actual change, and the perception that the EU is a project out of the control of the electorate means that however much change is needed, it doesn't always sit well with the electorate.

This is partially to blame on the member states, who have not been far-sighted in their reforms of the EU. Too much dithering over how democratic and effective they should make the EU (or how little reform they could get away with to not upset each other and protect their positions within the system) has resulted in an inflated number of treaties without the necessary public engagement to ensure public consent to further change, never mind encouraging public interaction with the European project.

The consequent feeling of a loss of control has led to an unwillingness to accept further change. In some states, this has focused on Turkey for historical and cultural reasons (and in some cases, outright anti-Islamic reasons). For France and Germany, the size of Turkey - it will be the first country of the 1st rank in population terms to join since Britain in 1973, if it manages to join - means that whatever fears they have over loss of control have and added potency.

However, to refuse Turkey, a western-orientated country for decades with cultural and historical links to Europe, entry into the EU club would damage the EU's celebrated "soft power" not just in the Islamic world but elsewhere. Most of the EU's soft power comes from its openness and its willingness to enlarge. If Turkey reforms itself successfully, it must be welcomed into the EU.

Refusing entry to Turkey won't help restore people’s, or states’, feelings of control over the European project, only a proper debate and meaningful engagement with the electorate can.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Hessen to vote on Sunday. And general ramblings on German politics.

The German state of Hessen (of Frankfurt am Main fame, though its government is based in Wiesbaden) is gearing up for elections this Sunday. The result is tipped to be a CDU-FDP win as the two right-wing parties, which would ensure CDU leader Roland Koch remains at the head of the state government as Minister-Praesident.

Hessen (German spelling; it's Hesse in English) has been a particularly interesting state over the last year. The elections in Jan 2008 saw the CDU greatly weakened, losing its majority, but struggling on as a minority government since the SPD couldn't form a workable coalition to oust him. The rest of the year saw many bizarre and frankly embarrassing attempts by SPD leader Ypsilanti desperately try to form a minority coalition with the Greens which was to govern with a supportive Die Linke (which would remain outside the coalition).* Ypsilanti's tactics resulted in widening the left(er)-right(ish) split in the SPD, and helped (accelerate) SPD party chief Beck's downfall.

The whole thing could end up helping to cost the SPD the next Bundestag election. Ypsilanti remains a divisive figure (German).

Not that the Conservatives have had it all their way this year either, with the CDU's sister party, the CSU, loosing its majority in Bavaria for the first time in 46 years. They're still in power though, just with the FDP.

Germany is now a five party system (CDU, SPD, FDP, Buendnis 90/Die Gruenen and Die Linke), sparking some fears that there will be instability from now on: "Jetzt wird es zu bunt! (Das Volk entscheidet: Ist die Republik regierbar?)".**

With the two biggest parties in a Grand Coalition at federal level, there could be a bigger movement to the smaller parties than would normally be the case if dissatisfaction with the government continues to grow. But pushing the government at the ballot box may cost Germany the stability it needs to get through the economic crisis.

As for the EU, it is never a good time for one of the "big 3" to become ineffective.

* Long-winded explanation:

Die Linke are the successors to the ruling Communist party in the old east Germany.

Since the SPD don't deal with them outside the eastern states (much in the way governments refuse to negotiate with terrorists... most of the time), Ypsilanti's political games split the SPD into those who wanted to work with Die Linke, and those who saw them as a threat and refused to talk to them.

**"Now it becomes a rainbow! (The people decide: Is the republic governable?)" [The "rainbow" is a reference to the German habit of naming coalitions after the colours of the parties. CDU-FDP would be Black-Yellow. With 3 parties involved they get more creative names, like the "Jamaican Coalition," made up of the Black-Yellow-Green of the CDU-FDP-Gruenen; or the "Traffic light coalition": the Red-Yellow-Green of the SPD-FDP-Gruenen.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Dreams of Presidency (2)

Graham Watson has produced his 5 priorities (or "themes") for his presidency of the European Parliament, should he be elected after the EP elections later this year. A new website has even been set up for his campaign.

Unfortunately, the themes outlined aren't that original or surprising (raise public debate and awareness of EP, make it more citizen-focused, etc.), so the week taken to mull them over is a bit odd. It will be interesting to see any proposals on how to further these aims, and I look forward (hopefully not naively) to seeing them emerge soon.

Still, despite some of my doubts over the worth of running for the EP Presidency (as apposed to trying to promote a Commission President candidate), and the likelihood of his campaign being a success, I can still see merit in running for the post, if a push is made to thrust the campaign into the public consciousness (perhaps as part of the EP election campaign?). Maybe Watson can do this.

"I will be pleased to debate my platform publicly with any other candidate prior to the vote."

It maybe far too much to hope for, but if there was a televised debate aired in all member states (and aired at a decent time of day), perhaps with an audience who could ask questions, it would be a great boost to the EP's image and to the EP elections generally.

Of course, other parties would have to put up candidates who'll agree to this; it would have to be organised, probably quite quickly; broadcasters in all the member states will have to be brought into it and there will be technicalities with broadcasting simultaneously (Perhaps the European Broadcasting Union's experience could help here?).... Also, a presidential-style debate may not be the best for the post, considering that a style based on consensus is perhaps a better style for a parliamentary speaker. And at the moment I remain blissfully unaware of the funding of the EP campaigns and how much such a debate would eat up money for campaigning on the streets.

But maybe the idea is worth mooting, if only to try and boost the EP's legitimacy. A simple parliamentary debate within the EP isn't going to do too much for the public's awareness, and Europarltv won't reach enough people for it to only be shown there.

Edit: There's a BBC Blog on the EP at the moment. In the entry for Wednesday 11am, it talks about Watson's EP presidental bid and quotes him several times. Extracts below:

"He believes it is in serious need of reform: "One of the things that frustrates me about this place is that it has never quite convinced me as a Parliament.""

"He believes the Parliament lacks the self-confidence to punch its weight and says it needs "to be a little bit more citizen-friendly and little bit more open". Crucial to this, he argues, is greater openness and accountability on allowances."

"The current EU President has also set up a working group for Parliamentary reform - but Mr Watson thinks this does not go nearly far enough. He wants to raise the profile of the Parliament's policies and personalities "so that people will be more motivated to go out and vote". That does not mean just televising Parliamentary debates - "because watching a Parliamentary debate is like watching paint dry" - but packaging the type of work Parliament does "so that people understand how we arrive at legislation"."

"He wants the European Parliament to work more closely with national Parliaments "on the design of legislation that is going to work" and on the implementation of policy. He says the European Parliament has grown in power since he first entered it, when the Commission was all-powerful. Now the power resides in the Council of Ministers, but that institution is increasingly bogged down in disputes between the 27 member states, and with its new power to recall legislation which is not working, he believes it could flex its muscles much more. Like most MEPs, he is frustrated by the lack of coverage in the British media, compared with France, Germany and other countries. Britain is "uniquely and anachronistically" focused on Westminster, when many of the real decisions are now taken elsewhere, including in Europe, he argues."

This sounds more promising. Hopefully his plans will be expanded on a lot in the run up to the election.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

EU Foreign Policy

The EUobserver has a good article on the effectiveness of EU foreign policy in the context of the Gaza confilict.

If the French presidency showed how successful an EU presidency can be, then Sarkozy is now revealing how powerless the actual post is. In any form of governance, it's always bad to have to rely on "the strong man" (or woman) to do the job. It would be a big exaggeration to make a link with the culture of the "strong man" running the state in Russia, but strong institutions are the best way to make the system work, and the Presidency is far from being a strong institution.

It should be noted that the CFSP has only ever been run by Solana. I doubt he is seen as a "strong man" by the public (though perhaps he's a strong man institutionally within the CFSP), but could his long tenure end up having a negitive effect on the effectiveness of the CFSP when the time comes to find a successor?

At what point does having a strong leader or a long-serving experienced one become damaging to the role they are trying to fulfill?

While the more permanent presidency under Lisbon will have a lot of the underlying weaknesses of the post, it is still a definite improvement.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Ireland and Lisbon

It has been reported that there is a poll showing a majority in favour of Lisbon:

"The Sunday Independent / Quantum Research survey carried out last Friday showed that 55 per cent of the 500 people asked would support the treaty while 37 per cent said they would oppose it and 15 per cent said they were undecided."

However, as the article also points out, confidence in the government and the Taoiseach has collasped (and with good reason in my opinion).

While Fianna Fáil have been the senior partner in the government for more than a decade now, leading to the natural political reaction of blaming them for the state of the economy (and it is in a state, with reports that the government will have to borrow €45 million a day to sustain its budget this year), I think the collapse in support for the government has little to do with Lisbon (not that this was implied in the article). Most of the backlash began in September when budgetary proposals threatened to slash public spending in very uncomfortable ways (the issue of means-teasting free medical care for over 70s (Ireland isn't famous for it's "welfare state" in the first place) led to particularly bitter protests). The poor leadership of the government since hasn't improved matters, and probably indicates a collapse of confidence in itself, never mind on the side of the voters.

So the big question is can the referendum be won dispite this. The Irish public are very... sensitive, or rebellious if you want to put a more glamourous spin on it (and I make this generalization as an Irishman), so there are a lot of things for us to take "offence" at. (I will try to post later about the Irish Referendum in detail). The organisation and effectiveness of the No side (which is very good) in making the appeal to this side of the public will probably be the deciding factor. Though never underestimate the incompetence of the Yes side...

In other news, Declan Ganley has failed to find a local to wear the Libertas badge in the Czech Republic, at least so far. The Free Citizen's Party has been set up by Petr Mach to campaign on an anti-Lisbon platform. Ganley has declared that he is pro-EU, while Mach is eurosceptic, so that's ok then.

Of course, I know nothing about how their talks were carried out, but that they were talking about Mach running on a Libertas platform come election time gives me the impression that the "vetting" stage should have already taken place. So if it's important that Libertas is both "pro-europe" as well as anti-Lisbon, then it has clearly only become important recently.

Mind you, vetting isn't really needed when all they have to do is get elected, and then... well, nothing. Libertas sets itself up explicitly as a protest vote (and supposedly a very specific one at that), nothing more.

Besides all the arguments based on democracy,* why should taxpayers pay people not to do their jobs for 5 years?

*Including, but not limited to: Shouldn't the people have a voice during the 5 year term of the EP? Does it not damage the democratic legitimacy and effectiveness of the EP if its members are sent there without any policy platform? For a party which claims to want the EU to be reformed to have more democracy, is it not counter-productive to say the least to stand on a platform which will dent the effectiveness of the only directly elected institution in the EU?

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Dreams of Presidency

Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament has decided to run for the Presidency of the Parliament (basically running for the position of "speaker" of the EP).

Traditionally the position has been "shared" by the two biggest parliamentary groups, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, with a MEP from one group holding the position for 2 1/2 years and then a MEP from the other for the next 2 1/2 years (the MEPs are elected every 5 years). But Watson's ambition is to bring the debate on who should be president away from "backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms." (Maybe a smoking ban in all EU buildings would do the job just as well?)

Considering that the office of President doesn't have much power associated with it (it would mostly involve representing the EP at official functions and meetings and ensuring that the procedural rules of the EP are followed by its members as well as chairing debates), it may be a better move to come up with a candidate for the Commission (either a Liberal one or a joint one with another party) and through the EP elections pressure the Council to accept its choice. But if you can do both - and they try to - then all the better.

But I'm nit-picking about this. Any move to try and make the selection of EU office holders more open and transparent is very welcome, and it's good that Europarliamentarians are trying to come up with ways of pushing this agenda.

It will be interesting to see how much this move will actually make a difference in the debate. Since the president is elected by MEPs, and the post isn't one which excites the public, debate is unlikely to extend much further than the EP itself. Also, MEPs do tend to vote with their groups - it would have been hard to keep the Grand Coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists going for so long if they didn't - so as the Liberals are only the third biggest group, Watson will have to attract the support of MEPs from the other groups. If he is unable to break the Grand Coalition (which did break down briefly in the last parliament (1999-2004)), will he be forced to change his platform to please the groups further to the left and right of the Grand Coalition? Or will he stick to his platform, either hoping to the end that he can break the Grand Coalition, or simply with the aim of setting a precedent, not really aiming to win?

In terms of what Watson would be like as President, I can imagine him doing a good job at representing the EP, if only because it seems that he seems to be on Europarltv more often than any other MEP (as far as I can tell), and he seems to communicate quite well. If he can use the post to promote the EP in the wider public consciousness (and he would have to go beyond Europarltv for that), it would be a great service for the EP and promoting the democratic side of the EU (a big if, as it'd be a huge task).

The priorities of a Watson presidency will be released next week.

Friday, 9 January 2009

EU Gas Flow Monitors

Russia has agreed to let the EU monitor the flow of gas through the Ukraine, though negotiations over how the monitors will function are still on-going.

The inability of Ukraine to pay its bills and suggestions that Ukraine has been taking gas bound for the EU has provoked this move. Sarkozy has also questioned Ukraine's dependability as a partner.

While this in no way solves the core problem of Ukraine's gas bills, it does mark a step in the EU trying to ensure that the member states will get the gas they pay for, and that Russia has no excuse to turn off the tap to those who pay their bills. Of course, this is also in Russia's interests, as it makes the question of Russia's dependability as a gas supplier less pressing - which is important at a time when Russia needs all the business it can get.

Gaza Conflict

Both sides have rejected the UN ceasefire resolution, it seems.

There has been some criticism in the media over the responses of the US, EU and the international community in general, but I think (though I'm not anywhere near an expert in this area), that there is very little that the international community can do in this instance and in the Israeli-Palastinian situation in general. Both sides need couragous people to take the necessary steps for peace.

There seems to be two options:

1. Gaza and the West Bank become part of Israel with the Palatinians as full citizens with full human rights, etc. (Which is not really an option).

2. The two state solution is implemented. This means that issues of borders and Jerusalem, etc. will need to be dealt with seriously and with a willingness to make talks work. Such a solution cannot be imposed from the outside but can only be brought about by the two sides engaging and compromising with each other.

All of this is hardly a great insight, but the international community can only encourage, not impose a solution.

With respect to the EU and the difficultly of taking a strong common position in the crisis, I'm not sure it really makes too much difference. The EU states agree that the two state solution is the one that's needed. There would be little the EU, or the international community, can actually do in the current crisis other than try and repair the damage later; sending peace monitors, etc. Does anyone seriously expect - or even advocate - that the EU or the UN should send in troops now to forcefully end the fighting?

What has happened - whatever the rights, wrongs, reasons or excuses behind the actions of either side - will have inflamed passions further and made renewed peace efforts improbable, if not impossible for the time being. All the international community can do is to reduce the suffering as much as it can, and encourage and call for new peace efforts. It cannot make such efforts for them.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Who Does What Now?

A very quick description of who does what in the EU. (Since the EU is currently divided into 3 areas, or "Pillars" and not every institution has the same amount of power in each, the question of "who does what" can get confusing...):

The European Commission: A cross between a government and a civil service. This is made up of unelected Commissioners, with one appointed by each member state every five years under the current system. It can propose laws but it can't pass them, and this power is also limited to certain areas and certain circumstances (mostly Pillar 1, which is mainly about the single market and other technical issues). It is supposed to enact EU legislation and/or make sure that those who should be doing this, are. So if you read that "the Commission has decided...", it very rarely gets to decide anything: its main function is suggesting and drafting laws.

The European Council: This is made up of the heads of government (who are also heads of state in some cases), and they meet at least twice a year. This body decides the big political issues. The presidency of this body is taken on by each of the member states in turn for 6 month long presidencies under the current system.

The Council of the European Union: the main legislator. Made up of national ministers from whatever area the issue in question involves (agriculture ministers if the issue is the CAP, etc), although the vast majority of the work is done by national civil servants. NO major legislation can be passed without this body's say-so. Can ask the Commission to draw up legislation. The main institution in all legislative areas.

The European Parliament: made up of directly elected MEPs. In most of Pillar 1 they have an equal say on legislation (amending, rejecting or passing it) as the Council of the European Union, but in Pillars 2 & 3 (foreign policy and home affairs) they have no real say. Can ask the Commission to draw up legislation under Pillar 1.

The European Court of Justice: a Court which decides on issues of EU (or "Community") law. This includes constitutional matters (which institution has the right to do what), and interpreting Community law for national courts. Has little to no role under Pillars 2 & 3, however.

The Court of Auditors: the accountants. They check and investigate the finances of the EU and its institutions.

Note: the Council of Europe has nothing to do with the EU. It was a body born out of the federalist movement, but it is an intergovernmental body and is most famous for the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.



Welcome to The European Citizen. This my attempt to voice some (hopefully) thought-provoking opinions about Europe, the EU and European politics. I am a student studying Law and Politics, and through class and reading about events (current and past) in European politics, I became interested in, well, European politics.

This is my first attempt at a blog, and I hope to do two (maybe three) things:

1. Write a bit about EU basics and give a quick overview of the EU. This will be very general at first, to give a general idea of who does what (since this is covered a lot elsewhere), but I might add to this in the future.

2. Write about current European and EU political issues and a bit about the "big" questions of the EU. The big questions of the EU (e.g. integration, democracy, etc) seem to always follow some well-established lines, but I will try to add some new thoughts and ideas to the debate.

3. My first language is English, but in the far future I hope to write a few posts in German. Warning though, as my German is rubbish.

And hopefully someone will find it a bit interesting at least.