Monday, 26 July 2010

Nuns on the Run

Nuns have been in the news this week a surprising amount (though maybe I'm underestimating the news-worthiness of nuns, I don't know). It's been reported by the Guardian that there are nuns on the run in France, where two octogenarian nuns have gone into hiding after their religious order had decided to end their teaching roles and move them to a retirement home 400km away.

"A third nun, who had also planned to disobey an order for the first time in her life, is recovering in hospital after breaking her hip, Le Parisien reported on Sunday. [...] The two nuns are refusing to leave their home since 1964, and are hiding in an apartment lent to them by a Christian charity, the owner of the flat told the newspaper."

I wonder where they might have gotten the idea from...

Also in the news is a group of nuns in Avignon who have been signed a recording deal with Universal music for a new Gregorian chant album. These nuns live in a closed-off cloister, so they'll have to do a lot of the recording and picture-taking for promotional material as outsiders aren't allowed into their communities in order to prevent their spiritual work from being disturbed.

"The deal follows the worldwide success of the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz whose 2008 Universal Music album, Chant: Music For Paradise, sold more than 1m copies. The monks have used the money made from their unexpected success to fund charitable works."

It just goes to show that reality TV shows aren't the only route to fame and an adventurous lifestyle. I wonder how long before we see a book release of "If I were a Spy" by Sister X...

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Oireachtas Committee Report on National Parliament involvement in EU legislation

The Oireachtas (both houses of the Irish Parliament) Sub-Committee on Review of the Role of the Oireachtas in European Affairs has published its report (PDF) on how the Irish Parliament should adapt to the new European institutional setting after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. There was a sense during the Lisbon II Referendum that the Oireachtas wasn't making the most of its powers under the old system (though changes had been brought in after Nice to improve oversight), and this Committee was promised to ensure that the Oireachtas would make the most of the increased power of national parliaments under Lisbon.

Under the pre-Lisbon system, the Oireachtas committees relating to the EU had access to Green and White papers (plus government department notes), considered EU legislation and had reports from the government on EU affairs. Irish participation in the Common Foreign and Security Policy is subject to the triple lock (UN, cabinet and Dáil [lower house] approval for all military missions) and opting-in to Justice and Home Affairs legislation is subject to a Dáil vote. The report had several key themes: prioritisation (focusing on important legislation), early engagement, better oversight (of Council positions), better co-operation (between national parliaments), mainstreaming (making EU matters mainstream in the Oireachtas so they're not just handled by a few parliamentary members), and domestic impact (improving transposition work on EU laws so that they fit in better with domestic circumstances). Before the report, 3 areas were highlighted as weaknesses for the Oireachtas: involvement in decision making, lack of transposition oversight, and organisation of EU business in the Oireachtas.

Proposals (summary):

1. The interim procedures for the Lisbon-amended EU (powers for the Committees in examining Eu legislation and recommending motions of subsidiarity, etc.) be made permanent.

2. There should be a weekly report for parliamentarians on EU documents and draft legislation. This should be presented to the Houses and published online.

3. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny should list proposals as limited or greater significance for Ireland. This prioritisation should help the Oireachtas maximise its role.

4. Annual reports are of limited value since thery're mostly historical. Greater use of 6-monthly reports designed to help the Committees prioritise the work ahead is necessary.

5. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny should analyse the Commission's Annual Policy Strategy (APS) and the Annual Legislative Work Programme (ALWP), and send reports to the Oireachtas to be debated in plenary. JCES views on the ALWP should be circulated to the other committees.

6. Before a Council meeting, the relevant Minister should be questioned by the relevant committee (at the moment, only the JCES can interview Ministers before hand, but it is rarely practised, and only happens for the General Affairs Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee in the Council). No binding decisions on the Minister's vote would be taken - the aim is for better scrutiny.

7. There should be a Question and Answer session in the Dáil before European Council meetings.

8. The Dáil should debate the European Semester reports of Ireland before they are forwarded to the Commission.

9. There should be a scrutiny reserve, so Ministers cannot agree on legislation before the parliament has finished looking at and has made the government aware of its views. A Ministerial override could be set in place, with the relevant committees able to scrutinise its use.

10. More work should be handled by the relevant sectoral committee. The current 2 European committees should be merged in the next Dáil to streamline its work as other committees adjust to their new responsibilities.

11. That committees strengthen links with their opposite numbers in other member states and that the Oireachtas hosts inter-parliamentary meetings on an annual/biannual basis.

12. That MEPs meet with the European committees and sector committees to facilitate co-operation with the EP (via video conference if necessary). Sectoral committees should also consult the EP rapporteurs on relevant legislative proposals.

13. The European committees should give support to sectoral committees with EU proposals and ensure that these are properly examined by "policing" the committees (sectoral committees should report back to the European ones). Also, using rapporteurs for EU proposals (though not all of them) would widen the number of parliamentarians involved in the EU legislative process.

14. There should be regular plenary debates on EU affairs, and a week in May devoted solely to EU affairs (involving parliamentarians more and boosting the public profile of EU matters).

15. Information on Regulatory Impact Assessments and Statutory Instruments should be circulated among all parliamentarians and referred to the European Committees for scrutiny. A Seanad (Senate/Upper House) panel should be set up to monitor transposition of EU laws. There should be a study of transposed EU laws that have cause public concern and a comparison with how other member states have transposed the laws.

16. An information kiosk on the EU should be set up in Leinster House (seat of the Oireachtas) to help inform citizens about the EU. Also more formal links with the Commission and EP offices should be made and:

"Initiatives that could be considered include the establishment of a planned tour for students which encompasses a visit to Leinster House and a visit to the EU Offices; the organisation by the Commission and/or European Parliament of outreach programmes, meetings and competitions, particularly in schools, which TDs and Senators could be invited to provide input."


This is a really strong report. It has considered the key weaknesses of the Oireachtas in scrutinising EU proposals, ensuring a good transposition of laws that are sensitive to local circumstances, and dramatically increasing the oversight of Irish ministers in the Council (without pre-empting the government's vote). The Sub-Committee has also clearly thought long and hard about how to involve more parliamentarians in the European legislative process. It might take some time for these reforms, if passed, to pay off, as it will be a steep learning curve for some TDs and Senators, but with the right support it will pay off. I'm also impressed with the commitment to push EU affairs out into a more public light: dedicating a week to EU affairs in plenary plus having debates on the European Council will help in particular (though it's the regular debates and committee scrutiny which will really pay off).

Will these reforms be implemented? Ideally they would be in their entirety, but it would require more resources - particularly in the areas that would make the most difference (sectoral committees taking on EU work, rapporteurs, scrutiny of transposition). These are the most important elements of the report, so I hope that they won't be lost when it comes to reforming the system. There's also a clear need for more public information on the EU - especially with legislative proposals so people can get involved, talk to their TDs and MEPs and take greater control of European issues. European election campaigns would definitely be better if TDs and political party members had more experience with EU affairs and knew what they wanted to change. Over time, this could help the debate and make the European elections matter more. It will require a lot of time and effort, however.

An interesting question is: could the Council become more transparent through national parliaments? It wouldn't be satisfactory to have 27 different parts of the story in different languages rather than a single source which had multilingual information on the goings-on in the Council, but it would be a start. Transparency has never been the Council's strong point, and it is still letting us down, even after Lisbon. More inter-parliamentary contact will hopefully mean that subsidiarity becomes a bigger part of EU politics, and perhaps this contact will help national parliaments hammer out the "best practice" for dealing with the Council. It still seems like the inter-parliamentary aspect is lacking, though; it will be based on personal contacts, and, along with the language barrier, the lack of formal channels may make inter-parliamentary connections weak and vulnerable to personnel changes.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Ireland proposes greater EU military action under the UN

Ireland has circulated proposals for greater EU military involvement under the UN in peacekeeping missions. Greater EU involvement in peacekeeping missions would lead to a higher level of co-ordination and coherence in national planning, and make the process cheaper.

“It would increase the standing, influence and visibility of the union as a whole within the UN, particularly in relation to peace-keeping/peace-building operations, as EU member states would not alone be promoters and financiers of missions, but also major mission contributors,” it says.

This would fit in neatly with plans to increase the EU's visibility and role in the General Assembly of the UN, can would add substance to the EU's drive for an international role. In some ways it might be surprising that Ireland is eager to start a debate on military co-operation; after all, Ireland is fiercely attached to its neutrality (and there is strong domestic support for neutrality). It may be an attempt to frame the debate on military co-operation before the Polish presidency of the Council in 2011 (defence co-operation is high on the Polish agenda). Military co-operation with the UN combines the efficiency and cost-saving of military integration with the multilateral, UN-centred foreign policy worldview of the Irish State. If the EU does start participating more in UN missions, Ireland won't be as isolated in the EU when it comes to military matters, while being able to stay outside any more conventional alliances and integration and being able to sell the missions to the domestic audience as being in keeping with Irish foreign policy tradition.

I think that these proposals sound good (it'll be a long time before we'll see how far they'll go). The EU and its member states have supported the ideals of a mutlilateral world which is largely based on law, and with a stronger role for the UN. Being more active in peacekeeping would be a good way to add substance to that - putting our money where our mouth is. It would also add relevance to the EU role on the world stage. Though not as glamorous as the more traditional diplomacy we usually think of, it is an area that the EU can add value to, and would be complementary to its other roles in development, etc.

There's an opinion piece in The Irish Times that gives a taste of how important UN peace-keeping and the developing world are to the Irish idea of foreign policy.

Holidays and Integration in Ireland

Over the last week there has been a bit of debate over holidays and integration in Ireland. This was started when a former Tánaiste Michael McDowell suggested that it would be a good idea to make the Twelfth (of July) an official holiday in the Republic of Ireland. The Twelfth is a loyalist holiday mainly celebrated by the Orange Order, which commemorates the defeat of an English King by the Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange (hence the Orange Order). If you're wondering why the supporters of the usurping King designates themselves "loyalist" and why the nationalist Irish are let down by the defeat of the English king, well... it's mostly about religion but has since become more about nationalism. It's best not to think about it too deeply, really.

The argument for is that it will help re-integration and that it would be a good signal to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland (and those Orange Order lodges in the Republic) that they are a welcome part of the Irish tradition and the Irish nationality. Also, the Irish flag is supposed to be a symbol of reconciliation between the "Green" and "Orange" traditions in Ireland, and support has been drawn from the secular nationalist/romantics in the Irish nationalist tradition (Wolfe Tone, etc.). Plus, it'd be another holiday!

The argument against is that the Orange Order is an essentially sectarian organisation with a history of burning effigies of the Pope, etc., and that celebrating a sectarian tradition doesn't aid re-integration. The Twelfth is marked in NI by the iconic Orange marches, and these have caused unrest since the marching routes run through Catholic/nationalist areas. Also, it seems strange to celebrate an event of monarchist history in a modern republic.

Generally people seem to be against it (see the Irish Times letters page). The marching season has been undergoing a PR re-invention in recent years with the events being portrayed as "Orangefest" and European funding going to them. However, the image within Ireland remains of a fundamentally Protestant organisation that is anti-Catholic (Catholics are not allowed to become members).

It is very hard for me to imagine the Twelfth being an inclusive holiday, and the goals and nature of the Orange Order mean that it's difficult to find a place for it in a modern secular(ising?) republic. There could be a place for it in the future if it's "modernisation" attempts achieve some success, but I don't think it's anywhere near "detoxified" enough to be an inclusive holiday - and the re-invention of the holiday can only come from within the Orange community; attempts to change it some outside (especially by the Irish state) are unlikely to work. But attempts of cultural integration and tolerance definitely need to be explored and promoted.

Another aspect of integration that wasn't explored during the debate is the great changes in Irish society over the last decade. Ireland is, despite the recession, much more open and European than ever before, and these trends are likely to continue, regardless of the pace of institutional European integration. There has been lots of immigration from Eastern Europe, and from elsewhere, and integration has been celebrated to some degree during the last St. Patrick's Day parade(s). But we do have a Europe Day that we're not making use of; one that would be perfect to celebrate the cultural diversity of modern Ireland, and a perfect way to have fun with festivals and promote connections between communities. It's strange that we're not making use of it.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Opening Up My Euroblogging: Language and Linking

I've been inspired by Mathew Lowry and Ralf Grahn to open up my Euroblogging and to try and reach out a bit more across the blogosphere(s).

The debate on the French Euroblogosphere (see Europasionaria) prompted Grahnlaw to introduce a policy on languages and comments on his blog - Ralf wants to promote greater connections by having a greater number of "commenting" languages available. Cracking open the linguistic barriers is one of the greatest obstacles to growing and connecting the Euroblogosphere and it's a great initiative to have to start welcoming more comments and debate in different languages. So I'm going to do the same for my blog. My linguistic ability only really extends to German (with a smattering of very, very basic French), so I will also rely on machine translation to help with responding.

Another side to this is commenting on other Euroblogs in different languages. Machine translation will be my (contrary) companion here, as the German Euroblogosphere seems to be very small. I'm not sure how bloggers will react to having strangely worded comments marring their blogs, but I'll try and bluster my way through. I have been following some non-English Euroblogs, though the number is quite small - hopefully by diving deeper across linguistic barriers will unearth some blogging treasures.

Finally, I need to start reaching out across national barriers (the second great divide that afflicts the Euroblogosphere). Earlier this week I wrote a mini-series on the Northern Irish MEPs, and I tried to make it neutral (given the divide in NI) and I tried to provide a context for those who aren't as familiar with the European Parliament. As far as I can tell, no Northern Ireland-based blogger picked up on what I wrote. Now this is fair enough - my writing style is a bit drawn-out and slightly academic (tips on how to blog better are welcome in the comments, by the way) - but there is no real debate on the NI MEPs in the NI blogosphere between elections, as far as I can tell.

This post is mainly about me trying to push myself to blog better and to cross barriers that I haven't found the time to in the past (I find blogging time-consuming, and comments take up time = particularly if you want to comment on several blogs). I haven't commented on NI, Irish and UK blogs that much, so I haven't been developing those relations between the blogospheres. It can be hard to know when to "speak", in that Europolitics rarely crops up in the NI blogosphere (though I've undoubtedly missed opportunities). So the lesson for me is: make more comments.

Mathew Lowry's post on making bridges and specialist bloggers in the Euroblogosphere makes me think there are 3 things the Euroblogosphere needs to do:

1. Grow! is up to 630 Euroblogs, so the Euroblogosphere is already growing quickly. New Eurobloggers are needed to replace those, like Julian Frisch, who have dropped out. A bigger Euroblogosphere will be better placed to make the connections between languages and national Blogospheres and support and encourage the growth of specialist Eurobloggers.

2. Reach out between linguistic barriers by commenting. This will help broaden debate and increase the impact of everyone's posts - after all, on European topics, if they're interesting, they deserve to be discussed across the Euroblogosphere.

3. Reach out across national Blogosphere lines (in my case, NI, Ireland and the UK). This will widen the debates and increase the influence of Euroblogging (and hopefully spur a greater interest in European politics (both in itself and in holding MEPs, etc. to account).

It may be a bad time for me to commit to this (I'll be a bit quite over the next few weeks), but I'll try to work at it and make it part of my routine.

And apologies to everyone who doesn't blog (but you should try(!)) and is a bit tired of the self-referential Euroblogging of the past few weeks!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Kosovo Independence does not violate International Law

The International Court of Justice has ruled today that the Kosovar declaration of independence does not violate international law. Serbia had claimed that it was a "'flagrant violation' of its territorial integrity".

Why has the ICJ ruled otherwise? It's hard to say - at the time of writing, the ICJ website was down and I was unable to get a copy of the judgment. Though the judgment is not binding, this is an important judgment. Politically, it obviously lends greater legitimacy to the Kosovar state (and by implication delegitimises the resistance of its Serb minority, though the judgment's examination of the right of self determination might raise interesting questions there too), and also supports the US and general EU approach to the state.

The judgment could also signal a change in the international legal culture on self-determination and independence. though there are 2 UN General Assembly Resolutions supporting the right to self determination, they were generally intended as anti-colonial, and the UN supports territorial integrity. An explanation can be that self determination does not necessarily mean independence. After all, it's hardly the best idea for international peace to encourage separatism - supporting the idea of ethnically/culturally homogeneous states would cause a lot of disruption, conflict and misery across the world if it was ever carried out.

Hopefully the ICJ website will be back online soon, so the judgment can be available more widely; the legal reasoning will be very interesting.

UPDATE: An EPP MEP, Doris Pack has called on the remaining member states who haven't recognised Kosovo to recognise it now.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

European Theology Season opens early on Euroblogs

Is it yet another sign of climate change? Usually Eurobloggers hang on for another week or so before they start musing on identity crises and the meaning of European integration, but today 4 bloggers started to ponder the purpose and direction of European integration: Charlemagne, Jason O Mahony, Eurogoblin, and Grahnlaw.

Grahnlaw ended his post with this line (and perhaps I'm just imagining the weariness):

"There is no end in sight for blogging on the high politics of EU fundamentals."

Integration Doctrine?

No doubt some people do see European integration in somewhat doctrinal terms, but it's not something I've seen a lot of Eurobloggers do (indeed, it's noteworthy that Open Europe recently seemed to advocate greater discussion on the "Integrate or not to Integrate" question rather than focusing on policy*). Charlemagne is right to say that doctrinal thinking on integration - to see opponents as nationalists and integration as a higher goal - is wrong. But it's important to note that there are many shades of integrationalism and that being for integration is no indication of being against subsidiarity and healthy local government. For example, I don't think even the most ardent federalist would support a single European social security system (the clue's in the name "federalist" - federalists believe in political power at several levels).

Anglo-Saxon Europeans

Eurogoblin has called himself an "Anglo-Saxon European": greater democracy at a European level is good, but the Council is and should remain the most powerful institution, and member states should remain the primary form of political organisation. In a lot of ways, I agree: member states do a lot of things better than the EU, and the subsidiarity principle needs to be strengthened and given greater practical effect. However, I don't think that the Council should remain ever-mighty forever: it needs reform to be made more transparent, open and responsive to national parliaments. It is the focus on the national and intergovernmental character of the Council that gives it political licence to work in the secrecy of diplomacy and intergovernmentalism.

"Rather than creating a centralised federal super-state, my support for the EU stems from my belief that the barriers between states should be melted away. I want a genuine European single market – with goods, services, capital, labour and knowledge swimming backwards and forwards across borders. Europe is working to reduce the arbitrary power of the state over the individual, and to let citizens travel, settle or conduct business wherever they want. The EU is a tool of decentralisation – encouraging devolution of powers to regions and local administrations and helping to settle (peacefully) nationalist conflicts."

Again, here I'd like to point out that federalism emphasises power being dispersed to different levels (though I think Eurogoblin was relying on "centralised federal super-state" as a turn of phrase - it is, after all, a cliché of European politics). It's hard to see, however, how the EU could be a tool for decentralisation without interfering in the make-up of member states, which would surely entail a massive centralisation of power in the first place. Unless it was only meant to be an example of federalism to be repeated within member states.

I actually think that integration is a flawed process and not a panacea - and, perhaps ironically, this leads me to the conclusion that a more politicised EU would be better. This would entail greater political prominence of the institutions and greater political competition within them (and also greater public participation). Especially if the dismantling of barriers is to make sense. Which leads me to the next point.

A political Union or a Union that's political?

People have argued against a more political EU because they say that the EU cannot get the support to decide on redistributionist policies, so therefore the EU should restrict itself to the internal market. Now the internal market will never be complete, in the same way that national markets aren't complete: economic and business innovation mean that regulations will always be evolving. Nevertheless the internal market has made remarkable progress and it pretty integrated. Further integration and barrier-breaking would necessarily entail a degree of redistribution: of chances and opportunities in the market, etc. As the conflict over the services directive show, further market integration is not a non-political question. Should we integrate further in the free movement of services and people, there will need to be choices on what level of European protections need to be set.

The EU is a lot more "redistributionist" in its decision-making than is realised. What about CAP and the Structural Funds? Are decisions of more or less regulation not increasingly about market protection, worker protection, etc., and do these decisions not affect the incomes and lives of people? The Euro, as we have seen, redistributes risk - not only in the sense that ratings agencies treated Greece the same as Germany, but the whole European economy is integrated: after all, Greek debt is owned by French and German banks.

Integration has brought economic development and growth, as well as greater freedom for citizens across the continent. But simply liberalising everything doesn't help everyone equally: there are losers in this process. Let's flip the question of greater democracy in the EU on its head: instead of "can a democratic EU retain the support of the people?" let's ask, "can an EU focused on a closed-off Council make these decisions and retain public support - or would a more democratic EU be better placed to make these decisions?"

I believe in further integration and democracy because I believe that not everyone benefits, even though integration and the internal market are necessary for our economy(ies). An integrated market provides the best guarantee for prosperity, but we need the scope for greater political involvement to decide how we run it, and to decide how we can make it work better for those who have lost out. This requires greater political integration; more pan-European elections that offer a choice in competing policies. This also necessarily means that the EU level will become more prominent versus the national egos in the Council, but the member states will remain in control of most of the areas that affect citizens lives. Put simply, we need greater integration and participation in the areas we are already "integrated" in, and more political control, because integration isn't perfect, and we all need to be involved in making sure it works for us.

*I disagree completely. The more the Euroblogosphere examines the policy questions, the more mature it is and the greater impact it can have, rather than just being an online club for discussions on integration theories. Discussing integration is good and necessary, but we shouldn't withdraw into a theoretical bubble.

UPDATE: Grahnlaw has written another article on the subject.

Secret and irrelevant Euro-Freemason Summit to be held Publically

Freemasons and Atheists will meet with the Presidents of the Commission, Parliament and European Council in a parallel summit to the annual religious leader's summit. This is to satisfy requirements under the Lisbon Treaty that spiritual leaders should meet with the leaders of the EU institutions. Atheists and Freemasons have been included because member states such as Belgium recognise humanist organisations on an equal level with religious organisations.

Some atheist groups are unhappy that they are being met separately (though they would prefer that religious organisations would be treated like NGOs), especially with the Freemasons, who they've ridiculed for their rituals and dispute their secular nature. Personally I find the whole thing a bit irrelevant. I don't mind these organisations being met together; it's a bit silly to see the Catholic Church worried about a "heirarchy of religions" - monotheistic ones are ok, but it's dangerous and overly "religiously correct" to include Hinduism, etc.

Ultimately, I think that there should be some consultation with religious organisations because they are a part of our society and culture. However, I'd object to the requirement for their consultation to be interpreted any more widely than a yearly summit or a few meetings on matters of interest:

"Beyond the annual summit, religious leaders interpret Article 17, which commits the EU to holding "an open, transparent and regular dialogue with… churches and non-confessional and philosophical organisations", as meaning regular meetings with senior civil servants, not just on grand themes such as Monday's topic of the battle against poverty, but on more concrete legislative measures dealing with climate change, education, immigration, social services and labour laws."

Going this far would be giving them too much access (though it's hard to say if influence would necessarily follow). Occasional consultation on matters that might directly impact on religious groups or practice is a good thing, but the separation of church and state needs to be maintained.

I just feel sorry for all those conspiracy theorists who might have injured themselves with excitement at the news of Freemasons and European summits...

Monday, 19 July 2010

Northern Ireland MEPs in the Wider European Parliament

My posts on the Northern Ireland MEPs' first year in the 7th European Parliament mostly focused on highlighting what their priorities/key policy areas are with a bit of analysis (mostly a loose comparison between their performance and the "models" of the Independent and Party MEPs). However, as Grahnlaw has highlighted, the 3 NI MEPs belong either to no Europarty or to one of the smaller ones, which affects their influence and the work they do:

"Besides influence in the political group and EP bodies, the drafting of committee reports (and opinions to other committees) would in my view constitute a crucial element when evaluating the influence of an MEP. There are huge differences in importance between reports, so here qualitative analysis is called for, and it is feasible due to the low number of significant reports and opinions drafted even by a well respected and connected MEP."

So I thought I should provide a bit of wider context about the European Parliament that our MEPs are working in and how that affects their roles.

Currently the EP is centre-right leaning (the centre-right won the Euro elections before as well):

European People's Party (Centre-Right Christan Democrats/conservatives) - 265 MEPs
Socialists and Democrats (the biggest centre-left party) - 184 MEPs
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (centrist) - 85 MEPs
European Greens (plus regionalists and the Pirate Party) - 55 MEPs
European Conservatives and Reformists (the Tory party's new EP grouping & party of James Nicholson) - 54 MEPs
European United Left - Nordic Green Left (far-left & Bairbre de Brún's party) - 35 MEPs
Europe of Freedom and Democracy (far right/nationalists) - 31 MEPs
Non-Aligned (Diane Dodds is in this group) - 27 MEPs

(Total: 736 MEPs - though this could be soon increased to bring it more into line with the Lisbon Treaty amendments of 751 MEPs)

None of the NI MEPs belong to the big 3: the EPP, S&D and the Liberals (ALDE), or even the 4th biggest, the Greens. James Nicholson belongs to the 5th biggest (or 3rd smallest) and Bairbre de Brún belongs to the 6th biggest (or 2nd smallest). The number and size of the parties gives an immediate impression of how hard it would be for an independent to get elected to a prominent Parliamentary position or to get an amendment passed, as the Europarties maneuver for influence (which is why I defined the Independent and Party MEPs as I did).

Belonging to the big parties has some advantage in that MEPs can try to influence the negotiating positions of the big players. And the European Parliament is increasingly important, so it does matter - for example, the EPP proposed Barroso for re-election as Commission President. Barroso was re-elected Commission President by the EP because the EPP won the election (though I don't think there were any EPP parties running for election in the NI or the rest of the UK when the Tories and UUP pulled out of the EPP). This was also partly due to the disarray of the S&D group, who couldn't agree on a candidate.

However, as the Commission is separate from the Parliament, the Parliament works more like a multi-party version of the US House of Representatives than the UK or Irish Parliaments as it's not controlled by the executive. So the parties generally make issue-to-issue coalitions. This means that the ECR isn't necessarily a key player in a pro-government coalition that can influence policy outcomes, so it can be outmaneuvered by the big 3. Indeed, that's what the report on the EP's first 6 months has shown: there tends to be a centre-left winning bloc on civil rights (ALDE + S&D) and a centre-right one on the economy (EPP + ALDE). The ECR hasn't been a big part of winning centre-right coalitions, but has been left out of the loop a lot - indeed the EPP hasn't been on the winning side as often as its dominance would suggest. Perhaps this will change as the term continues if the EPP and ECR draw closer together.

As there's a hierarchy of parties, the bigger parties can get their MEPs on the important rapporteur-ing jobs, etc. Now I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong with voting for the smaller parties or for independents - they play a role too, and you should vote for the party you want to strengthen in Parliament or the person you want to represent you - but we should be aware that the political battle-lines in Northern Ireland do not necessarily translate into the outcome we want in the European Parliament. If we don't discuss the question of Europarties at the Euro elections, then the election debate looses a lot of its potential value - and we have to ask if we're really making the most of our vote in that situation.

Lack of discussion of Europarties during the elections is widespread throughout the EU, but Northern Ireland is a rare example of a constituency that only returned MEPs that didn't belong to any of the main parties. I'd urge people to check up on their MEP ( is a very handy tool for this), and other bloggers and Eurobloggers to check up on and write about their MEPs.

The MEPs' profiles on the Parliament website give links to the speeches, etc., that each MEP has made. I read through these for the NI MEP series (speeches in the EP are generally set at about 1-1.5 minutes long), but for other MEPs in the bigger parties, the rapporteur drafts and Committee work could/should be bigger and provide better meat for investigation. Further into the term there should be more information for a better qualitative analysis.

Northern Ireland's MEPs: One Year On

The 7th European Parliament is a year into its first term since the June 2009 elections, so I’ve decided to take a look at the performance of the 3 Northern Ireland MEPs in the European Parliament over the last year. To do this I’ve looked over the questions and speeches of the MEPs from their plenary adventures on the European Parliament website, and the statistics of their voting patterns and parliamentary work from The articles on the 3 MEPs are summaries with analysis at the end, so this post will be an overview and contents page for the series.

The “reviews” of the MEPs are supposed to be neutral, and I try to summarise what the focus of each MEP’s work is and some of their general stances and look at the number of questions. All 3 MEPs had submitted under 10 written/oral questions to the Commission that were answered later (or are awaiting an answer). This is in line with MEPs in general: the vast majority seem to have asked 10 questions or less so far (with a few asking a lot more). Since they’re so close in the number of questions, I’ve looked at the “quality” of the questions (how specific they are) and, when assessing them in general, whether they are “party” or “independent” MEPs.

The model of “party” and “independent” MEP is generally:

- Party MEP: an MEP who is part of a Europarty group in the EP. Relevant to this role is how often they vote along with the party (since it shows how far voting for this MEP in elections is voting for that party and their policies/ideological leanings). Party MEPs would have more resources and are likely to be more specialised (focusing on a certain policy) and might depend on other MEPs in the group to deal with other policy areas. Party MEPs would be expected to be more likely to be spokespeople for their parties on issues and/or rapporteurs for the Parliament for a legislative proposal. (A rapporteur writes a report on the legislation and conducts negotiations between the parties to find an acceptable final package to put to the vote). In short: higher profiles and (assumed) greater influence but with less independence.

- Independent MEP: an MEP that doesn’t have the resources of the MEP as they sit outside the party groups. Assumed to be a more “generalist” MEP with time to focus on issues important to the constituency. So less rapporteuring, etc., and more time for asking questions and making speeches.

Nicholson (ECR/UCU-NF) and de Brún (GUE-NGL/Sinn Féin) are party MEPs and Dodds (No Group/DUP) is an independent MEP.

I’ve decided not to pass judgment on the low number of questions in this series – the general aim of the series is to give a loose assessment to show what the MEPs are doing (and give some criticism). This should show what policies they’re focusing on (because the EP does have power and it does do something!), and then you can decide how they’re doing and if you want to test them out for yourself with questions and constituency work. It should be noted that the info this is based on doesn't detail constituency work, so a lot of important contact with constituents isn't included. Nicholson and de Brún get a general “thumbs up” while I would question heavily the value and number of the questions Dodds has submitted.

Running through it is the theme of “independent” versus “party” MEP. I think that in a chamber of 700+ MEPs, having a party and connections is vital to get things done and influence legislation – not to mention providing some form of meaningful choice to the voter. That said, there are always arguments for and against.

James Nicholson (European Conservatives and Reformists/UCU-NF)
Bairbre de Brún (United Left [GUE-NGL]/Sinn Féin)
Diane Dodds (Non Aligned/DUP)

UPDATE: I've added another post to the series, this time looking at the wider context of the European Parliament, and why the bigger parties matter more.

P.S. recently did a study on how the Europarties voted over the first 6 months of the Parliament. I’ve blogged about it here.

Diane Dodds MEP: One Year On

[Part of the series on Northern Irish MEPs' first year in the 7th European Parliament]

Diane Dodds (NI) (DUP). Member of: the Agriculture Committee and the Delegation for Relations with Israel (Substitute on: the Fisheries Committee and the Delegation for Relations with Australia and New Zealand).

Statistics (VoteWatch Profile):
Attendance in plenary: 87.27%
Loyalty to Europarty: N/A
Loyalty to national majority: 46.15%
Speeches: 54 (In plenary, 49 [via VoteWatch, which wasn’t updated as recently])
Parliamentary Questions: 5
Motions for resolutions: 0
Written declarations: 0
Reports Amended: 5 (3 on the Future of the CAP after 2013 and 2 on the Draft Report on the Green Paper on the Reform of the CFP)
Drafted Reports: 0
Opinions: 0

Dodds’ speeches mostly refer to agriculture. According to these speeches, she supports a localist approach (speech on the amendment to regulations on agriculture in the outermost regions of the Union, and supporting local rather than EU geographical indicators when it comes to labelling ). She also raised the issue of the penalties against Northern Irish farmers due to allegations of fraudulent claims with Commission President Barroso during the Question Hour, and Barroso defended the procedure as objective, highlighting that the member state has space to present its case (though the matter is really one of the regional Northern Irish government). When it comes to the Common Fisheries Policy, she made a speech in favour of its regionalisation as set out in the Green Paper on CFP reform – however her ideal would be for the scrapping of the CFP and a return to member state control. From her speech on Icelandic accession to the Union, however, she seems to feel that Icelandic fishery policies on mackerel are unsustainable and that letting Iceland into the EU would damage UK fisheries; she opposes Icelandic entry on the basis of fisheries and the Icesave crisis.

Diane Dodds has also made speeches on the Israel/Palestine conflict and on terrorism in NI. She seems very supportive of security services, technology and intelligence: see here for her speech on body scanners at airports. She also voted for the EU-US SWIFT agreement (on the sharing of bank transfer info for terrorist investigations).

The 5 Parliamentary questions generally follow the same trend as the speeches. (4 of them were submitted on the 2nd July 2010, with the other one submitted back in December 2009, judging by the European Parliament website). Topics include: the EU-Libya cooperation agreement negotiations, the volatile diary market, the right to fish, and discrimination against producers and processors. Apart from the 2 questions asking for an update on how negotiations with Libya are going, the other questions concern work and discrimination of products; two of these ask for clarification on if/when discrimination is allowed (the producers and diary questions – though the questions are short and don’t provide a background or context so it’s unclear exactly what circumstances Dodds is asking questions about).

Only one question refers to a specific law (rather than just asking what the law is). This question asks whether restrictions on fishing conflict with the rights to find an occupation and engage in work in the Fundamental Charter of Rights.

In general the main focus of Dodds’ speeches are agriculture, fisheries and security/terrorism, which fits in with the rural character of Northern Ireland and the DUP’s general stance on security issues. If you want to check out her speeches and stances in more detail, you can find them here. You can check her voting record here.


Diane Dodds’ national party, the Democratic Unionist Party, isn’t aligned with any of the Europarty/political groupings in the European Parliament. Groups get certain resources and being part of a political group increases your chances of forming alliances and getting high profile roles such as rapporteur, etc. So in some ways the role of an independent MEP can’t be compared easily to that of a party MEP: party MEPs gain profile, political advantage and political leverage by influencing their party’s position and working to get more influential posts; while independents may be more constituency focused and focus on a wider range of issues based on their constituents’ interests. Party MEPs may be more specialised and become a party’s spokesperson in a policy area (and so depend on other party MEPs to defend their common interests in other policy areas and ask questions/table amendments there), while an independent might not have the time or resources to be experts on everything, but have the time (and freedom from the party line) to work on constituency concerns more directly.

In my opinion, the role of an independent MEP is to ask questions, make speeches, and table amendments on a wide range of issues that matter to the constituency – and can’t be blamed necessarily for the lack of report drafting, etc. Dodds has made a lot of speeches in the key areas of interest for the constituency, but there are few questions and amendments, considering that there is no Europarty work and my “model” of an independent MEP. Do the questions and amendments serve her constituents well? I doubt it. Questions are few and vague, and I doubt that they’ll get much more than a copy-and-paste reply of the general law in that area. Questions would need to be direct and specific to tease out a good reply; otherwise it seems as if she is just asking the Commission’s opinion to a question a constituent might have asked so she can pass the answer on. The statistics don’t show or measure other constituency work, however, so there could be other areas of local work that just aren’t highlighted by this.

How you judge Diane Dodds’ performance as an MEP may depend on how you view the role – as one of making speeches on matters important to the constituency, constituency work, asking questions or submitting amendments, and what combination you think is important. Apart from the question of ideology is also the question of party alignment: do you think an independent or a party-aligned MEP would be better? The European Parliament has gained new powers after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and is now equal to the Council (member states) in nearly all areas. Though the EP is no longer the talking shop it once was, Dodds seems to treat it as if nothing’s changed.

[For analysis on the other Northern Ireland MEPs and an overall analysis: link]

Bairbre de Brún MEP: One Year On

[Part of the series on the Northern Irish MEPs' first year in the 7th European Parliament]

Bairbre de Brún (GUE-HGL [United Left]) (Sinn Féin). Member of: the Environment Committee, Petitions Committee and the Delegation to the EU-Croatia Joint Parliamentary Committee. (Substitute on: the Regional Development Committee, Delegation for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council, Delegation to the Euro-Mediterranian Parliamentary Assembly).

Attendance in plenary: 84.31%
Loyalty to Europarty: 89.88%
Loyalty to national majority: 53.02%
Speeches: 16 (In plenary, 14 [via VoteWatch, which wasn’t updated as recently])
Parliamentary Questions: 8
Motions for resolutions: 7
Written declarations: 0
Reports Amended: 8 (Mostly regarding reports on Climate Change, transport, biodiversity, and the treatment of animals (pets)).
Drafted Reports: 1 (Report on a proposed regulation on animal health requirements for non-commercial movement of pets).
Opinions: 0

De Brún’s speeches mostly cover climate change and animal welfare. On climate change she gave a speech in January advocating a binding international treaty on climate change, and urged for 40% cuts in CO2 emissions by 2020 and of 80-95% by 2050 for the EU, as well as funding for developing countries to combat climate change/clarity on the funding. These figures appear in several speeches and she has spoken for her political group on the matter a few times. Bairbre de Brún has also given speeches on the report on regulations for animal treatment (of pets while being moved) as rapporteur. The legislation concerns the transportation of pets and controls on rabies. In the end a few technical amendments were recommended.

[NOTE: A rapporteur prepares a report on a piece of legislation for the relevant committee and helps conduct negotiates between the political groups on it. The final report contains recommendations to accept, reject or amend the legislation].

When it comes to the Irish language, which is an important issue for de Brún’s national party, Sinn Féin, she gives her speeches in Irish. She has also made a speech on the legislation (now passed) on the access to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings criticising aspects of it where the native tongue might not be used/translated into [Text in Irish, but if you click on video and scroll down the speakers, you can find a translated video speech].

On Parliamentary questions, the 8 questions are on a range of topics. Though there’s no one topic, there is a theme of the environment for a few of the questions. Topics include: Lough Neagh Eels, Genetically Modified Organisms, Foreign Lecturers in Italian Universities (equal pay question), the movement of animals in Ireland, cross-border use of childcare vouchers and the failure of certain member states to implement EU law/questions on whether or not the law was being applied correctly in a certain case. Questions are asked regularly (i.e. roughly monthly rather than a bunch of questions at once), and tend to refer to specific situations and refer to a specific law.

The motions for resolutions are mostly procedural – motions to finish the debate on an issue, etc. The other resolutions are political declarations, and not legislation, on topics such as the Gaza flotilla incident and AIDs.

The reports that de Brún submitted amendments on mostly concern reports on climate change, transport, biodiversity, and the treatment of animals. This shows a specialised role that probably leads on from her membership of the Environment Committee.


Bairbre de Brún’s national party, Sinn Féin, is part of the GUE-NGL group (United Left-Nordic Green Left), so you could say that she plays the role of a party MEP. Groups get certain resources and being part of a political group increases your chances of forming alliances and getting high profile roles such as rapporteur, etc. So the role of the party MEP would be different to an independent MEP. On the whole, it looks like de Brún is asking specific, detailed questions, submitting amendments and motions that are around the same amount as most other MEPs (10 or less for each, though some few MEPs submit a lot more), and drafting/co-drafting a report. She seems very specialised in the environment policy area, and how good this is depends on your idea of the role of the MEP. Specialisation suggests that she is well positioned to influence environmental EU law, and has good party connections (whether or not the party has policies you agree with in this or other areas is another question). But perhaps this means that she doesn’t have as much time for questions/amendments in other policy areas (see the above linked video on the translation legislation, where she claimed not being on a Committee that dealt with that legislation meant that she’d less time to read it and come up with amendments). Other constituency work isn’t measured – we can’t say that these statistics and info show everything an MEP does/can do. Is she doing a good job in her area? Is she doing enough?

My personal opinion on the independent/party MEP aspect is that in a Parliament of 700+ MEPs, you need alliances on policies to get things done, and having them along ideological lines means that the voter can vote for a party that represents a broad line that they can support – pretty much like any other Parliament. Of course there are other advantages and disadvantages to each role. De Brún has voted with the United Left the vast majority of the time (shown by the high “group loyalty” percentage), so voting for Bairbre de Brún as an MEP is a vote to strengthen that party in the Eruopean Parliament, and their policies/ideology can be taken as a rough guide to her political behaviour as an MEP. In my opinion, Bairbre de Brún does a good job as a party MEP.

[For analysis on the other Northern Ireland MEPs and an overall analysis: link]

James Nicholson MEP: One Year On

[Part of the series on the Northern Irish MEPs' first year in the 7th European Parliament]

James Nicholson (ECR) (UUP). Member of the Agriculture Committee, Vice-Chair of the Delegation to the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly. (Substitute for the Environment Committee, Regional Development Committee, and Delegation for relations for the Korean Peninsula).

Attendance in plenary: 98.28%
Loyalty to Europarty: 91.58%
Loyalty to national majority: 81.14%
Speeches: 29
Parliamentary Questions: 6
Motions for resolutions: 6
Written declarations: 0
Reports Amended: 10 (Mostly on the CAP and agriculture, but also on cancer, organ donation and transport, and food information for consumers).
Drafted Reports: 0
Opinions: 0

Nicholson’s speeches mainly focus on agriculture and food security, but he has also given speeches on cancer, organ transplants and donations, animal transport, the South Korean Trade Agreement, and on CFP reform. He’s spoken on behalf of the ECR group a surprising number of times: on the debate on agriculture in non-diary sectors, the EU-South Korean Trade Agreement, on Europol (deputising for the ECR rapporteur), the regulation on agriculture in the outermost regions of the Union, and the transportation of animals (he was in this case the “opposite number” Bairbre de Brún, the rapporteur for this piece of legislation – at least for this debate).

James Nicholson’s main focus is agriculture (where he, for instance, supports country of origin logos and opposes an EU logo), and, from these speeches, supports a limited role for Europol (stressing the sovereignty of member states), considers the 2002 CFP reform a failure, and is supportive of the legislation on animal transport and the report on organ donation and transport.

The 6 Parliamentary questions cover negotiations with Mercosur, property ownership in Spain, EEC pensions, tyre pressure safety regulations and the EU strategy against organised crime. Some of the questions are oral and some are written. Some of the written questions are fairly detailed, but all seem specific – asking about the details of EEC pension payouts, impact assessments of Mercosur trade and agricultural imports, etc.

The motions for resolution are mainly to wind up the debate on a topic or used to make a political statement, e.g. on North Korea or the diary crisis. The amendments to reports are mostly agricultural, and several are for the Future of the CAP After 2013 report. There are also amendments to the reports on organs, consumers and agricultural product quality.


James Nicholson’s national party, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force, is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists, so his role is that of a party MEP. Groups get certain resources and being part of a political group increases your chances of forming alliances and getting high profile roles such as rapporteur, etc. So the role of the party MEP would be different to an independent MEP. Nicholson hasn’t acted as a rapporteur in the first year of this Parliament, though he has deputised for one in plenary and he has spoken on behalf of the ECR group on several issues. The questions seem to be specific and show the concern for free trade agreements and anti-red tape stance that you might expect from the right-to-centre-right, free trade, sovereigntist-leaning ECR, and the focus on agriculture in his speeches and his position on the Agriculture Committee echoes the rural interests of the constituency. The high attendance rate and high loyalty rate with the ECR group shows that he supports the ECR Europarty – an advantage in that you can vote for him or not based on the policies/ideology of the party and that the group is a voting bloc that can form alliances (whether or not it’s very successful at that is another question). According to his website: “Due to his experience and expertise in this field, Jim was appointed as coordinator for the ECR group for this policy area at the beginning of the new legislature.” Other constituency work isn’t measured on or put on the European Parliament website.

The number of questions and report amendments seem to both be generally 10 or under for most MEPs (though there are a few that ask a lot more). Though the number is low, it’s roughly equivalent to the performance of the rest of the MEPs. I think that Nicholson is generally doing a good job as a party MEP.

[For analysis on the other Northern Ireland MEPs and an overall analysis: link]

Thursday, 15 July 2010

I've an influence of 49.17 and I'm not afraid to use it!

According to the Waggener Edstrom report, I'm the 22nd most influential blogger (15th in the EU General section) with an influence of 49.17 (PDF via Jon Worth, the 5th most influential). It's flattering, in a way, but I'm not entirely sure what it's supposed to mean - I honestly doubt that I influence the opinion of other bloggers that much and insiders of the Brussels Bubble less so, so it's hard to escape the feeling that the sums have gone wrong somewhere. Especially since it only included English language blogs (an seemingly not even those which blog in several languages, including English...).

Eurogoblin has torn into the report and has raised serious questions over the methodology of the report. A key symptom of the is the placing of "The Digger" in third place, despite the low number of posts. Mathew Lowry is a bit more gentle - citing it as at least an attempt to understand the Euroblogosphere more - though still critical. I think Waggener Edstrom deserve some credit for trying to create a ranking system (measuring influence is probably a hard thing to get right in an overall sense given the wide range of issues and audiences that the EU is composed of), but I agree with Eurogoblin's critical analysis of the methodology.

Meanwhile, Europasionaria is picking up on the French Euroblogosphere's debate on its reach and influence, and I think she's right when she approaches the question of influence (or appeal of the Euroblogosphere) as a need to be more broad in outlook to draw in more people and to spark more interest in the EU and the political side of Europe (meaning the day-to-day issues rather than solely the integration question). I know that I tend to be drawn to blogs that have broader ranges of topics (though I do have a specialist interest in the law and Blawgs as well), and I think this hits on a fundamental rule of the internet: people generally just look up what they're interested in. So for the European institutions this means that accessibility of information is the key (so it can be useful and "on hand" for people who need it, and is more likely to be examined and picked up on by the media and bloggers), while for bloggers, a broadness of touch is an advantage unless you want to focus on more specialised blogging.

In the end, though, blogging is a personal hobby, and the way the Euroblogosphere is now probably accurately reflects the people behind it. Finding new blogs, promoting them and encouraging a wider and broader 'sphere is key, and a big part of the mission of Europaeum has come up with a new hashtag to help the promotion and discovery of new Euroblogs: #bkae "Better Know a Euroblog". It'd be great to get this hashtag up and running and promote new Euroblogs and submit them to so they can reach a wider audience.

French Deputies ban marriage in attempt to eliminate domestic violence

Yesterday the National Assembly in France voted by an overwhelming majority to ban the institution of marriage, as it was found that domestic violence took place within this form of relationship. The large majority was due to the abstention of the Parti Socaliste, which decided to refrain from voting against despite being very critical of the proposed law, claiming that it was going overboard to ban marriage outright, particularly as domestic violence can occur within cohabiting relationships. The PS had originally suggested that instead of banning romantic relationships, a ban on the participants living in the same house should instead be instituted.

Well, ok, that didn't happen. And I in no way want to make fun of domestic violence - it's a serious problem that ruins lives. But like the fears over the oppression of women due to the burqa - bans of which are working their way through Belgium and France - it's a complex problem to approach, and outright bans of the institutions or traditions that can sometimes hide or be a symptom of the oppression won't help.

If the French National Assembly were really interested in preventing religious oppression of women, then they would fund initiatives and build relationships with local communities to provide services and support for women to turn to (and build up the trust with the individual/community to make it more likely that such service would be used). Of course, that would be a costly and complex, long term approach. What the ban of the burqa is essentially doing is replacing the oppressive husband telling his wife what to wear, with a state telling all women what they're not allowed to wear.

Now, unlike the banning of minarets in Switzerland, these bans aren't explicitly aimed against the burqa or a specific group: the ban is against covering the face. So in a sense it's a more equal ban, since it affects all people, though it may be felt more by some groups. But it does suppress the freedom of the individual to wear certain clothes (and could infringe the right to religious expression or to a private life) - these rights are qualified and can be curtailed by the state if the measures are proportionate to a necessary goal. It might be necessary to ban the burqa, masks, etc., when there's security needs or a need for identification, such as being questioned/identified by police, or for passport photos/control, etc. However, for such situations a partial ban or being required by law to remove the covering in that situation is all that's strictly necessary to the situation. Banning the wearing of masks or burqas while going for a walk in the park isn't really connected to any security needs...

UPDATE: Other Eurobloggers have written about this topic too - see A Bit More Complicated... and MountEUlympus. (We've also been debating the topic on MountEUlympus' blog).

Friday, 2 July 2010

Votewatch's Report on the European Parliament's First 6 Months have released a report on the status of the Euro-parties in the European Parliament (PDF; as reported in the EUobserver and flagged up by Writing for (y)EU).

Like in the last Parliament, Europarties in the 7th Parliament are increasingly cohesive along Europarty lines rather than national lines. The big increases in cohesiveness were on budget and civil liberties, and deceases in environment and agriculture. The general trend is towards increased cohesion along ideological, Europarty lines, meaning that it's more important for voters to know which Europarty their candidates will sit in when they're electing them.

"In the current European Parliament, MEPs vote primarily along transnational political lines rather than along national lines, as in EP6. Proof of this is the fact that cohesion rates of the four largest European political groups (EPP, S&D, ALDE, and G/EFA) are invariably higher than the cohesion scores of member states’ delegations of MEPs. The only policy area where this does not hold is on agriculture: here, the European political groups are significantly less cohesive than on other policy issues and some national parties (particularly the French and the Scandinavians) vote independently of their group colleagues."

The big surprise is that, despite the big gains in the 2009 elections and the collapse of the S&D vote, the centre-right EPP is less successful in terms of being on the winning sides of votes than in the last Parliament. Likewise, the S&D group is marginally more successful. How did this happen? The answer is that ALDE, the liberal group, is aligning itself more with the S&D group, particularly when it comes to the budget and civil liberties - important areas, given the increased power of the EP in the justice and home affairs and budget areas of policy. Perhaps the centre-left are the overall/marginal "winners" of the Lisbon-era powers of the European Parliament (at least in the first 6 months)? What is known is that the Liberals' kingmaker position is stronger than ever, since with fewer EPP-S&D coalitions, the position of ALDE in forming coalitions with either party usually decides an issue. So this Parliament is general centre-left on civil liberties and the budget, but centre-right on internal market and industry.

The ECR, though I never expected them to be very successful, have turned out to have had a disappointing first 6 months. Despite saying that they will vote with the EPP when they have common interests, it doesn't seem as if the party has been able to form many coalitions with the EPP (or should that be vice-versa?). It should be noted that the ECR has fallen behind the Greens on size since the start of Parliament. The ECR are one of the least successful parties, just ahead of the far-left United Left and the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group (the latter trials as the least successful and cohesive group).

But the question is, will the resilience of the centre-left continue to be as successful over the next six months or over the rest of the Parliament's mandate? The ECR and EPP may grow closer together as time passes and the wounds of the Tory-EPP split are put behind them. With the Tories in a coalition government in the UK (a strange ECR-ALDE coalition in EP terms), and a voice in the Council, the ECR may draw closer to the EPP and general Council line, encouraging more centre-right coalitions. On the other hand, if the centre-left continue to build stronger links between them, perhaps come election time there could be more common campaigning (perhaps even coalition campaigns for the Commission presidency?)? (Of course, that's pure speculation - the Europarties have to decide on how common their own campaigns can be first...)

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Belgium Assumes the Council Presidency

Today Belgium takes over the rotating Council Presidency from Spain. The rotating presidency chairs the Council committees in the different policy areas (justice and home affairs, economy and finance, etc.) apart from the foreign affairs committee, which is chaired by the High Representative for CFSP, Baroness Ashton. What will make this presidency interesting is the fact that there isn't yet a federal government in Belgium since last month's elections. In the elections the Flemish nationalists came first, and the French speaking Socialists second. Given that they're not exactly ideological allies, it will probably take several months before they can form a coalition. Like the Czech presidency, the Belgian presidency will have a caretaker government run the presidency.

It will be interesting to see how much the European Council President, Van Rompuy (a former Belgian Prime Minister), will fill the void left by the stalled federal government. The President's Belgian roots might make it easier for the caretaker government to let this be "Van Rompuy's Presidency". Whether this could lead to a more permanent empowerment of the E.Council presidency is harder to say - even a country as pro-integration as Belgium will want to preserve the role of the rotating presidency to a large degree, and Poland has big plans for its presidency in 2011, so it's likely that any inroads that Van Rompuy makes would be quickly recaptured by an assertive member state government with a vision.

The website of the Belgian presidency is here.

European Electoral Reform

There is a draft report to the EP Committee on Constitutional Affairs on reforming European electoral law so there'll be a uniform approach throughout the EU (PDF).

It goes beyond simply having the same PR system used in all member states (or, at least similar ones), and sets forward several interesting proposals:

- Restricting the voting days to Saturday and Sunday (it's Thursday and Friday in the UK and Ireland respectively). Also, it's proposed that European elections should take place in May, and not June, in order to give MEPs time to prepare to elect the Commission President before the summer recess - clearly the proposal wants more time for coalition-building, which would mean that the EP would be in a better position to decide on a presidential candidate(s) versus the Council, which would be confronted with a clearer EP outcome earlier, and be less able to present it with a fait accompli.

- Having regional constituencies for countries with a population of over 20 million (personally I think that the population threshold is too high here - there's four constituencies in Ireland, with a population of just over 4 million, and I think that having constituencies makes it clearer that MEPs are meant to represent the citizen directly).

- Having (possibly) a transnational EU-wide constituency (a figure of 25 extra MEPs is floated - the main question here is whether these are 25 extra MEPs on top of the 751 in the treaty, or a reassignment of other MEPs to transnational constituencies? From the draft report it reads like the former is being proposed [Note: on reading the legislative amendments, the latter appears more likely], but there may be legal questions over either option). Transnational lists would have to be gender-balanced, and consist of candidates from at least 1/3 of member states. So there would be one constituency vote, and one transnational vote per voter.

- An electoral authority would be established at European level to monitor the transnational constituency.

- Introducing a mathematical formula to redistribute seats according to demographic changes to depoliticalise the process. The allocation of seats will remain "degressively proportional": each state will have a minimum of 6 MEPs, and there's a maximum of 96. The allocation would be reviewed during the mandate of each Parliament.

- Electoral systems should be either open party list or voting for a candidate. The open list system will be a big improvement over the closed list system in the UK - if this is adopted, UK voters will be able to vote in preference for candidates on the party list of their choice, rather than voting for pre-set party lists that gives a lot of power to the party organisation.

- The proposed voting age is 16, and to stand for election, candidates must be 18 or over.

In addition to this, the proposal advocates that European parties and member states encourage EU citizens residing in states other than their home states to exercise their right to vote. It also calls for national laws to be harmonised on when someone can or can't vote in national elections - the implication is that, if you're an EU citizen, you should be able to vote in the national elections of the Member State you are resident in (and as a consequence, cannot vote in the national elections of your home state). In some member states these rights are already enshrined in law: for example, in the recent election in the Netherlands, non-Dutch EU citizens resident in the Netherlands could vote.

The Council has to agree on electoral reform, and though the proposal was discussed in the Committee on the 2nd June, it will be discussed with national Parliaments on the 30th Spetmeber, so it should be stressed that, despite the number of changes prosed, it's very much in the early stages. Generally the proposals seem sensible and will make the elections more European in character. The actual language of the amendments themselves (included in the annex of the PDF) shows a change in how the MEPs want themselves to be presented - not as national delegations (though the numbers are preserved as national delegations in the Treaties), but as "representatives of the citizens of the Union", which is the political rationale of the EP in any case.

[One thing I have been wondering about changing, though, is removing the restriction on and MEP being a member of the Commission... But then I'm drawn to the parliamentary model, and that kind of change might be best left for a separate reform and discussion.]