Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Youth Guarantees and Youth Unemployment

Youth unemployment is a serious problem across recession-hit Europe. In each country there is increasing concern that the crisis is producing a lost generation denied the opportunity to get into the workforce, and of a brain drain as people educated and trained at home cannot find that economic opportunity once promised to them.

Last weekend youth unemployment was the topic of a Relaunching Europe conference organised by UK Labour and the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament. I went along to the conference, and I had the opportunity to talk to Hannes Swoboda, leader of the S&D group, and Glenis Willmott, the leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.

Youth Guarantees, EU budget and joint campaigning

From the Party of European Socialists Conference in September, the Youth Guarantee was clearly the centrepiece of the PES's policy on youth unemployment: €10 billion Euro from the EU budget to help guarantee jobs and training for young people. But how would that work, and what would the money be spent on?

Hannes pointed to his own experience with Youth Guarantees in Vienna, where a collaboration between local government, unions and business could link unemployed young people with opportunities in work and training if they had been unemployed for a certain amount of time after leaving education. The idea for Member State youth guarantees supported by EU money (the €10 billion would come from the European Structural Funds), with the EU facilitating the exchange of expertise from countries like Austria and Finland who already have guarantees in place. Funding for education and European programmes such as Erasmus was also highlighted by Hannes, who said that the increasing centrality of mobility to the workforce underlined the importance of the programme.

With €10 billion the proposed price tag, the EU budget would clearly be an issue. Labour is behind the youth guarantee with its proposed jobs fund as its version of the national guarantee, but Glenis had to defend Labour's EU budget position. She said that Labour's aim is to shift the focus from CAP spending towards investment and guarantees like the youth guarantee. However, with CAP, rebates and cohesion backed by national vetoes and with the European Parliament as the sole defender of investment programmes under the budget (some of which are already under threat), I can't see how Labour's rationale for a real terms cut in the EU budget will achieve this. Shifting money in the European Structural Funds to a new project was always going to be difficult in itself, but winning EU funding for youth guarantees in a climate of budget cuts is going to be an uphill struggle. Glenis and Hannes made the argument that the Member States are hypocritical when it comes to wasteful spending, with offices for the European Patent system shared between Britain, France and Germany. I agree, but sadly this doesn't change the voting situation.

So given these divisions would there be much of a pan-European election campaign for the PES and Labour in 2014? What would the effect of a PES presidental candidate for the Commission be and will there be a common manifesto? Glenis reflected on the last campaign, saying that the last common manifesto didn't get much press attention, and that the lack of PES candidate for the Commission presidency was a handicap when it came to electing the Commission - "why were we [Labour] supporting a conservative candidate [Barroso]?". She seemed optimistic about PES cohesion and the manifesto for the next campaign, given the anti-austerity stance of the party as a whole (Labour agrees with "about 80%" of S&D positions). For Hannes, while the PES will be putting forward a candidate, no candidate will be able to have name recognition and appeal across all Member States.

I understand the caution over the presidential candidate - the lack of appeal for a single candidate across 27 or 28 Member States is part of why I favour a parliamentary Europe - but with the primaries being held over winter 2013, and the caution in the air over how to use a candidate in the election, it feels as if there's a real possibility that the PES could not make the most of an electoral asset out of fear. The pro-European left desperately wants to make it clear that current European policy is the fault of the Coservatives in power, but it will hard to do that at election time if they're not bold about putting up an alternative vision with alternative candidates.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Youth Unemployment, Europe and Campaigning: Relaunching Europe Impressions

On Saturday I was at the Relaunching Europe event in Nottingham on Youth Unemployment, where I got to meet Hannes Swoboda, S&D Leader, and Glenis Willmott, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, who organised the event. It was an interesting conference, with debate jumping from local to national to European level, as well as debate on Labour as a party.

Youth unemployment is unfortunately a very live issue at the moment, and there were several deeply personal stories from people affected by unemployment, from the Oxford graduate unable to find a steady job 2 years after graduating (and with many friends in similar positions), to an unemployed Labour councillor who had been advised by her JobCentre to quit the council to help her job prospects. The big idea of youth guarantees (more of which tomorrow) would lend some EU help to reducing youth unemployment, but the very personal nature of unemployment means that any help must also have a strongly local character.

Employment and social protection are areas where the EU has very little influence and not much financial firepower. Attempts to help workers retrain and find new work under the Globalisation Fund, which is under severe budgetary pressure, shows how difficult it is for the EU to have an impact without the money necessary to act. Some of what the S&D can do is working on changing the single market rules to help employment - Glenis Willmott highlighted work on the new Public Procurement Directive to strengthen social and environmental criteria for public authorities when placing orders with businesses. The more abstract nature of EU work was reflected in the debates, however, as most of questions and panel discussions centred around making Labour more campaign-orientated and focusing on what could be done in universities and locally by counsels to boost employment.

All of this is important, but little explicit link was made between these local campaigns - or local party members - and engagement with the European party or European campaigns. Is there support for Labour party members not only to launch local campaigns, but also to try and launch grassroots European campaigns? What about the Youth Guarantee - there is a website dedicated to the Youth Guarantee, but it is well known locally in the party and are there ways for the local party to get involved in the campaign? Also, can Labour counsels get involved in the campaign and link up with local authorities in Austria and Finland, where such guarantees already exist to see what they can already do without EU funding (or just with PES/S&D support)?

There were a lot of interesting debates around unemployment on Saturday, but it still felt like there was an invisible wall between the discussions on action at a local and national level, and on action at a European level. The raw material for linking them together, getting local party members involved in European projects, and bringing Europe closer to citizens seems to be there, but they need to be drawn together. If Youth Guarantees are about bringing EU policy, national policy, business and unions together to enable young people to find their way into the workforce, then perhaps there also needs to be a stronger party version of pathways into participation on European campaigns and policy.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Relaunching Europe: Nottingham Event Tomorrow

Tomorrow I'll be at the Relaunching Europe event on Youth Unemployment in Nottingham, to see the Relaunching Europe project of the Socialists and Democrats Group in practice.

I've previously posted on the PES's Congress here (and the S&D Activity Report) and on Relaunching Europe here, with an article on questions for Relaunching Europe here.

I've also written about UK Labour and the EU earlier this week.

If there's anything you want me to look out for, or if you've any questions or arguments on youth unemployment, I'd be interested to read them (either comments below or you can Tweet me @EuropeanCitizen), and I'll try to Tweet and Blog about the event on Saturday/Monday - internet willing.

And let me know if you'll be at the event too!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Return of the Currency Commissioner?

The Commission has just launched a blueprint for Economic and Monetary Union (PDF). I haven't had time to read it yet, but from the EUObserver article, it looks like the idea of a Currency Commissioner has returned:

"This time frame would also see "further budgetary coordination (including the possibility to require amendments to national budgets or to veto them)," says the paper.


Other steps to consider would be giving "clear competence for the EU level to harmonise national budgetary laws and to have recourse to the Court of Justice in case of non-compliance." Final steps to full economic and monetary union would only be taken in the "longer term" and would require "major treaty reform" suggests the paper.

This would likely include a possibly large central budget with stabilisers – meaning money would be transferred to member states in trouble.

“As a final destination it would involve a political union with a central budget as its own fiscal capacity and a means of imposing budgetary and economic decisions on its members.”"

Back in October Germany's Finance Minister, Schaeuble came up with the idea of a currency commissioner that would be able to veto national budgets. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now - federalism does not mean this sort of centralisation. As I wrote last month:

"You cannot "depoliticise" the fundamental matter of national budgets, because you cannot pretend that budgets and economic issues are simply matters of technical wizardry, with expert options being implemented for desired outcomes - desired outcomes are political matters, and deserve a meaningful airing in a publically accountable body: the national parliament. While there is an argument for certain budgetary contraints on Eurozone Member States to ensure the functioning of the common currency - in exchange for solidarity between Member States, it should be stressed - at the end of the day Member States should be able to set their own budgets.

Rather than trying to come up with tighter and more rigid and better enforced rules for the Eurozone, we should be working to divorce banks from the sovereigns to make banking a European matter within the Eurozone, and creating a system where Member States can go bankrupt, without endangering the system and with some support for recovery after bankruptcy. A flexible and politically accountable system would work much better than Schaeuble's approach - there needs to be political accountability for national budgets at the national level, and at the European level for those elements of European solidarity."

This idea should be killed off, and killed off quickly.

Blairite Europe

Yesterday former British PM Tony Blair made his big speech on Britain and the EU at the Business for New Europe event. You can read the speech in full here. So after writing at length about Labour and the EU on Monday, is there anything in the Blairite vision of the EU?


On the Eurocrisis, I partly agree with him.

"...the flagship policy of Europe is listing dangerously. As I have said before, to save it, I believe, requires a kind of ‘Grand Bargain’ approach rather than incremental steps, in which Germany agrees, effectively, to some form of mutualisation of debt; the debtor countries carry out profound structural reform; and the ECB stands fully behind the bargain. There are some signs this may happen. But even if it does, Europe will suffer for some time to come."

There have been calls for some form of debt mutualisation for a while now (and some Parliamentary amendments pushing for it), and it's hard to see how the current bailouts - which in Greece's case have led to the country's debt ballooning to 190% GDP rather than falling - actually help solve the fundamental problems of the Eurozone rather than  helping the balance sheets of creditors.


Blair pushed for a change in the narrative away from peace towards power:

"...the truth is the rationale for Europe today is stronger not weaker than it was back 66 years ago when the project began. But it is different. Then the rationale was peace. Today it is power. Then it was about a continent ravaged by war in which Germany had been the aggressor and Britain the victor. Today it is about a world in which global geo-politics is undergoing its biggest change for centuries. Power is shifting West to East. China has emerged, with its economy opening up, one which will grow eventually to be the world’s largest. Its population is three times that of the whole of the EU. India has over a billion people. Brazil is two times the size of the largest European country, Indonesia three times and there are a host of countries including Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines and Egypt larger today than any single EU nation.

What is more, as technology and capital become globally mobile, in time there will be a re-alignment of GDP and population i.e. the larger your population, the bigger your economy. The USA remains extraordinarily strong, its military easily the largest and best equipped but the time when it has been the world’s only superpower, is passing."

The speech was clearly intended as an argument for Britain's membership of the EU, and as an attack on Euroscepticism in the UK, so the speech doesn't offer much in terms of the direction that Britain should go within the EU. He restated the case for membership based on economic advantage and global power. In a sense I agree - on Monday I was arguing that collective European decision-making should give the people and the Member States more opportunity to decide their economic and social future - but Blair's vision is almost completely dominated by the terms of international power relations.

It's a vision with some truth to it, but little appeal. Most Britons aren't as concerned with Britain's global position as Blair is - indeed, Blair's premiership isn't exactly an encouragement for British global involvement. The message, without much on sharing the economic and social power democratically among citizens, and the messenger, who comes across as being more concerned with the power of great office-holders than anything else, does not make a convincing narrative and is not really one that the left should or could adopt.


If it doesn't quite live up to being a bankable European narrative, it is good to have a public figure talk publicly about the advantages of EU membership, although many pro-Europeans on the left, myself included, will not enthusiastically welcome a Blairite vision of Europe. When it comes to the EU, there needs to be a place for political families of the right, left and centre. The pro-European voices from these families will inevitably conflict, but the Eurosceptic voices from the same families will have their own arguments and will need to be engaged with on their own terms. Yesterday Blair couched his argument in terms of the national interest, and the basic pro-European argument may need to be made there, but it's limited in providing a narrative that goes beyond the balance sheet approach.

Tony Blair for president?

There's been some speculation about whether Blair still wants to get a position in the EU, and he launched a Twitter account yesterday dedicated to his views and work on Europe. (There was also an unconnected website (mockingly) advocating him for the European Council presidency). I wasn't a fan of the idea the first time 'round...

Monday, 26 November 2012

UK Labour and the EU

In Britain, Labour is in a curious spot. After it allied with Eurosceptic Tory rebels to defeat the government on a non-binding motion on the EU budget, Labour Leader Ed Miliband tried to outline a sort of pro-European realism (interview with The Telegraph here), which has managed to convince neither the Eurosceptic Telegraph or pro-European Jon Worth. Jon Worth argues:

"Would Labour dare say it has a “hard-headed” approach to schools or hospitals? No it would not, because being seen to be harsh on such issues is at odds with the values of the party, the values that we are all better off if we work together to achieve collective goals.

Labour’s rhetoric should be that to achieve what we need to achieve in the UK, we also need the European Union. An unrestrained free market, with Britain outside the EU, would mean less social protection, more of a race to the bottom on tax, harsher conditions for workers. The social systems of countries across the European Union should be an inspiration for the UK. Labour has made noises saying the German social model is to be admired; the means to achieve it is at EU level."

Leaving aside the tactical issues with Labour trying to present itself as an option for those who want to be tough on the EU (see Jon's post for more), the central issue for Labour when it comes to the EU is that it finds it almost impossible to articulate a centre-left vision on Europe. Occasionally there are noises on the left that leaving the EU would lead to a more deregulated (and unequal) Britain, with less economic and political clout. But such a basic idea is hard to express, since the major narrative in Britain on the EU is of the internal market as an indisputably good, but fundamentally technical, arrangement that has been cluttered up by the EU "extras" of social, environmental and home affairs policy. (I have previously argued that as the trade-off for opening up and giving up national controls, Member States projected parts of their social contract [parental leave, etc] on to the European level to balance the socially negative parts of market liberalisation out, as a kind of quasi-European Social Contract).

Labour, while realising that the internal market is political when it comes to employment rights and the social impact of competition across Member States, mainly accepts this narrative - at least in general - and only occasionally defends established benefits won at the European level. This basically means that Labour agrees that the EU is just an intergovernmental deal-making machine, but the UK happens to come out of the cost-benefit analysis a bit better than the right thinks. This argument isn't a credible position because it doesn't deal with Euroscepticism either in general or on the left - that the EU goes too far in the technocratic imposition of free-market policy - and it says nothing of the issues of democratic deficit or even suggest a vision for the reform.

Also, the idea that the EU's credibility problem could be solved with a few reforms - and vague and undefined reforms at that, because apparently just demonstrating the ability of the UK win any reform will prove the EU's credibility - is a patently tokenistic approach. It focuses too much on bringing trophies back from EU summits: a short-term and shallow way of conducting politics that will not make a convincing EU policy.

So what should Labour do? It may seem academic at first, but Labour needs to look at it's values, and build up from there. It needs to say why, from a centre-left perspective, (a) a European level of governance is a good thing to be a part of, and (b) what participating in that means in terms of reforming the EU, and what Labour stands for in the EU.

A Social Democratic/Labour vision for Europe

I've already written about the failings of the intergovernmental argument for the EU - the basic peace argument and a simple cost-benefit analysis of membership doesn't answer the pressing questions of representation and participation. Earlier this month, the Guardian/Observer outlined a harsh anti-vision to parallel that of the Eurosceptic press in Britain: that withdrawal will mean less economic sovereignty and more deregulation - essentially that the UK will have less power to steer itself through the global economy. A more positive vision from the centre-left would be to articulate a vision where participation in the EU enhances not just the UK's position as a Member State, but allows the people to participate in economic decision-making to a greater degree than if the UK wasn't a member. Implicit in the concern on the left that withdrawal will lead to deregulation and rising inequality is that the EU, by building the richest market in the world, gives the UK a share in the economic power needed to maintain its social contract.

When it comes to the internal market, it should not just be accepted that the internal market is a good technocratic arrangement - the left doesn't think that the market at home is an unalloyed good or that it's unpolitical, so why should it be accepted on the European level? The idea of the internal market not just being about free markets, but fair markets would reconnect Labour's Europe policy with its values, and give it something to stand for during the European elections. At the moment, Labour can hardly be said to be giving people a choice at elections, or thinking much about why it wants seats in the European Parliament at all. What connection does budget cuts on a European level have with Labour's domestic mantra that more investment in the economy is needed? What connection does Labour's rejection of a European Financial Transaction Tax have with its position on the financial sector? What's Labour's position in the Socialists and Democrats Group in the EP compared to the Tories' ECR on the internal market?

This also speaks to the type of reforms that would matter at the EU. Trophies won at EU summits have a short political shelf-life and exclude people from power, rather than opening up the EU to democratic participation. It may be argued that being part of the EU gives the UK more influence, but what use is that to people if the power is wielded more by diplomats than democrats? The national interest does not define everyone, and people should be able to participate in the opportunities that pro-Europeans argue being a member opens up for the Member States. Reconnecting Europe policy with centre-left values would link up questions of economic regulation, social justice and democratic representation and participation in a way that lends itself more to a credible and coherent vision.

Labour and the EU

Of course, my opinions on the left and Europe are far from representative of the UK Labour party, so you couldn't just turn Labour around into advocating that the EU becomes more democratic and less intergovernmental. But looking again at Labour's values when it comes to market regulation and social justice should be the starting point when formulating its position on the EU. It needs to ask itself if it thinks that being part of the EU means that the UK is more able to construct the kind of social and economic future that Labour would be in favour of,* and what kind of future does Labour want to articulate.

This doesn't mean that Labour politicians should ramble on about Labour values and the EU any time it comes up - this is more about knowing where you're coming from so you can be credible in where you're going. For example, when employment rights and the EU comes up, Labour could talk about being for the internal market, but that it needs to be fair (e.g. protect parental leave across the EU so a minimum standard cannot be undercut), and that the rights of all workers should be protected. Labour could also say how they want the internal market to be more effective or fairer, and contrast its position with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. (Having examples of what Labour is doing in the European Parliament would be a help too).

Being able to say what you're for and what you want to change is, obviously, an essential part of being a political party. If Labour can't say what it's for based on its claimed values, then it shouldn't draw attention to its lack of ideas on Europe.

*The right could do just as well politically in the EU, however.

Postscript: UK Europhiles

Jon Worth also made a good argument about the bad position of UK Europhiles, though I disagreed with him on having a "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to winning referendums:

"I don’t think the “letting a thousand flowers bloom” model is a viable one for a pro-[anything] side in a referendum. A strong case – and persuasive narrative – needs to be built around the rationale for the EU, single market, etc., if it’s to win support. Pick and mix when challenging the status quo (which is the UK’s mindset towards the EU no matter how established the EU institutions may be) will not work. Personally the lesson I’ve learnt from referendums in Ireland is that political parties are simply not designed to fight them properly, and that civil society groups win referendums."

While I stick to that, if Labour, and other pro-Europeans on the right and centre, articulated their own narratives for why EU membership is good, that would strengthen the pro-European position. It would supplement the core argument by giving people of different political backgrounds a path to buy in to the core argument. However, for a referendum, the core argument of a campaign for something would need to be pretty coherent for it to win.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Veto of Diminishing Returns

Back in 2010 I wrote about the then Dutch government's approach to the EU, and noted that it wasn't particularly fond of vetoes, despite the perception that they're better for smaller Member States to protect their interests. This is because when there must be unanimity, the bigger states can rely on their greater power to get a greater say since they don't have to be afraid of being outvoted. However the UK's veto policy is showing that the value of waving the veto around - the nuclear option in EU politics - doesn't really work for the big states either, and that use devalues the veto heavily.

But it's not just the use of the veto, it's how it's being used. It's ridiculous to announce the circumstances of when you'll use the veto before  negotiations, because if you declare yourself to be uncompromising, then it will be harder to find allies to hammer out a winning position - that process inherently means compromising. Aggressive use of the veto means that the UK becomes less attractive as a negotiating partner, and the focus will switch to building a majority with the rest. Which potential ally could be sure that a British PM could get their minor compromise through the British Parliament - would it not be better to spend time on building a majority that would be more useful in the annual budgets after the UK wields its veto? The majority position after the veto will probably be the basis for any final deal when it comes to finally hammering out the multiannual financial framework, so why waste time on an unreliable partner like the UK?

With officials considering just using the back-up annual budget procedures, which are decided by qualified majority voting, there's talk of EU officials trying to "find a way" around the British veto. It's not trying to find a way around it - the annual procedure is what happens when there isn't agreement and the vetoes are used. If a Member State walks in with hardline conditions and little room for compromise no wonder everyone else in the club turns to what the follow-up will be.

And this brings us back to pre-vetoing (or should that be premature veto-casting?): vetoes are their most effective when at the end of a negotiating process, at the early hours of the night, when everyone else is invested in getting things done that particular way. By pre-announcing the veto and giving the other negotiators time to get used to the back up procedures and situation - maybe even turning to negotiate on that basis - you effectively devalue the veto before you even get to use it.

The veto will also be devalued back at home. The hardliners who cheer every time the veto is used won't be long in complaining that it has no discernible effect whatsoever. This veto policy is not only ineffective for the British government on the European stage, but is poisonous to its European policy generally - it will lead to more paranoia that the UK is not listened to within the EU institutions, and grow more disillusioned by its lack of allies, all while missing the fact that negotiations are not simply about other people listening to you.

In any case, this blogger supports the rise in the EU budget, since there wasn't enough money for the last one, and the policy commitments made by the Member States need to be paid for.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Politics of Appointing Borg

The European Parliament has to decide whether or not to confirm Tonio Borg as the new Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy after John Dalli was controversially brought down by an OLAF investigation. Borg has met with opposition in the EP for his conservative views, particularly on divorce, abortion and cohabiting couples. The Greens, ALDE, United Left and Socialists and Democrats have concerns over Borg suitability and might reject him. Although Borg performed well in last week's hearing, saying that he will stick within the treaties and Charter of Fundamental Rights, these concerns remain, and the Parliament has released a check-list for consenting to his appointment:

"[Borg] should publicly commit to the following:
  • The delivery of the legislative proposal on tobacco products by January 2013;
  • The adoption of legislative proposals on animal cloning and novel food by mid-2013;
  • The full respect of the March 2013 deadline for the ban of animal testing for cosmetics;
  • Better enforcement of EU law on animal transport;
  • Full respect of the EU Charter on Fundamental rights, in particular of Article 21, as well as of EU anti-discrimination legislation and case-law;
  • Recognising the innate dignity of all citizens of the EU, regardless of their sexual orientations, actively working to address health inequalities and to acting against stigmatisation of people with HIV and AIDS;
  • Actively supporting EU policies with regard to women’s rights."

There seems to be some confusion over the concerns these political groups have over Borg's appointment and  their connection to his prospective portfolio. While the battle over values echoes that of Rocco Buttiglione's rejection, the wider ideological battle is less obvious because the EP isn't electing the Commission en bloc, but is deciding on a replacement Commissioner, so the debate within the EP has been a bit more focused on the specific portfolio, so critics have been linking his conservatives views to the area of health, despite the EU's lack of power in this area. As Martin Holterman writes in his great article on how political Commissioner appointments could/should be:

"Judging, for example, from the headline of this opinion article on Public Service Europe, Mr. Borg’s critics seem to consider their objections to concern his “suitability” for the Health and Consumer Affairs portfolio in particular. They are not worried about the ideological balance of power in the College of Commissioners, and they are not even necessarily worried about ideology in general, but rather they seem to argue that his ideology will get in the way of his job performance in concrete ways. The author of this opinion article,Monika Kosiñska from the the European Public Health Alliance, for example, lists the candidate’s views on abortion, homosexuality and immigration as being particularly problematic. This is particularly curious because I’m not entirely sure how the Health and Consumer Affairs portfolio touches on these fields."

But while the views of the candidate and his or her specific competence are important, the general ideological  views of the candidate and the political make-up of the Commission does matter and is an important political issue. Commissioners vote on draft proposals before they are put to the Council and the Parliament, so the political viewpoints of each Commissioner matters for all areas of Commission policy, not just his or her own portfolio. Just this week Commissioner Reding introduced a watered-down version of her boardroom quotas law - watered down due to opposition that included fellow Commissioners who could vote to block the proposal.

This collective responsibility of the College of Commissioners means that its political make-up is a valid issue for the Parliament in deciding on new Commissioners. The fact that respect for women's rights is included on the list, and that the Commission is putting forward draft legislation in this area, shows that the ideology of the candidate is a relevant and live issue, and MEPs in the centre-ground and on the left should make it clear that the Commission should reflect the political make-up of the Parliament (or, better yet, the majority in Parliament). How will he influence policies in the areas of employment, social affairs, or justice and home affairs? For the political groups on the left, they should not vote for a candidate who holds such emphatically opposing political views unless something is won by way of coalition or concession.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Police Commissioner Elections and Devolution

Yesterday I voted in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales. The Police and Crime Commissioners will take over the role of the police authorities, through which local council members and independent members. The PCCs will control the budget of the police force and be able to hire/fire the chief constable. They will also set local policing priorities.

The idea for PCCs was presumably partly inspired by the de facto firing of chief constable Ian Blair in London by London mayor Boris Johnson, and the desire to bring the police under local democratic control. While I think there should be democratic oversight of the police, it's wrong to politicise policing so directly - it would be better for democratically elected councils with several responsibilities to hold the police accountable rather than a directly elected individual to do the job.

The campaign hasn't grabbed the national imagination - or the local for that matter - and in general the candidates have stressed that policing will stay independent, so there hasn't been the politicisation of policing that opponents to the plan, like me, feared. But with the powers of the office limited to setting the overall vision of the police, deciding on the chief constable, and making budgetary decisions where the PCC has little control beyond allocating the resources given to him/her, in the future the PCCs are likely going to turn into super-powered elected lobbyists for their policing region, lobbying for more money for more police. To some extent this has happened with the position of London Mayor, so it seems more likely to happen to this smaller office.

It would be better for local democracy to decide on the size of the area that's best suited to bringing decision-making in general closer to people without it being too far removed. If bigger local councils or regional assemblies could decide on matters such as policing and also have some control over the purse strings, then it would give people more control and responsibility over how to approach policing locally. This could be part of a more general devolution of power locally, though this runs up against the unpopularity of regionalisation in England.

Empowering local democracy is a good aim, and some lobbying for the local area is a good thing - after all, MPs are supposed to represent their constituency in the national debate on issues and bat for it - but it needs to have some rational structure that allows people to engage fully with what the priorities across several local issues should be. Proper devolution would create bodies big enough to take on responsibility for their areas and have the power to make substantive decisions, without being too far removed (a tough balance). This would open up a more engaged local debate and boost turnout, rather than creating a English and Welsh political landscape that's littered with elected offices of varying sizes with little rhyme or reason as to how they join up to make streamlined, effective and accountable local government.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Abortion in Ireland: X Case Revisited Again

Ireland has become a much more liberal country over the last few years - for example, around 73% of people support same sex marriage - but abortion is still a bitterly fought issue. In referendums in 1992 and 2002, the Irish people voted for abortion to be permitted where the mother's life is at risk, but no such legislation has been passed in the 20 years since the X Case that prompted the debate. Tragically a woman has recently died after a miscarriage, sparking an intense debate over the law and reproductive rights in Ireland.

From the Irish Times:

"...pro-choice campaigners have called on the Government to legislate for abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, following the death of Savita Halappanavar after she miscarried at University College Galway last month.

Ms Halappanavar (31) was 17 weeks pregnant when she presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st. Her husband Praveen Halappanavar claims she was denied a termination despite asking for one several times following her miscarriage diagnosis because the foetal heartbeat was still present.

She spent two days "in agony" until the foetal heartbeat stopped and surgery was carried out to remove the dead foetus. She died of septicaemia on the 28th."

I've blogged in 2010 about the A, B and C case decided by the ECHR in Strasbourg, which ruled that Ireland had breached the convention by not legislating to make right to abortion as described under its own laws accessible to women. Note that this ruling did not change the law on abortion in Ireland, but rather stated that not giving effect to rights decided on nationally breached the convention. The current rules on abortion are very strict, and there is a danger of a chilling affect on doctors, making them afraid of breaking a law that is uncertain, or perhaps even allowing them to refuse abortions by using the legal uncertainty as cover.

While the government has called for people not to prejudge the result of inquiries into Savita Halappanavar's death, it is clearly an on-going scandal that there is no clear law in this area despite two referendums and human rights rulings. There is no excuse for the lack of legislation on this 20 year old issue, and the government needs to act to bring clarity to the law, as voted for democratically and in compliance with the courts. There must be no more hiding behind inquiry after inquiry and report after committee report: it's long past the time for action.

The Council of Minister of the Council of Europe, which oversees compliance with ECHR rulings, will report on Ireland's compliance with the A, B and C ruling at the start of December.

Monday, 12 November 2012

A quick thought on the Electoral College

Last week President Obama was re-elected in the US under the electoral college system. It's been described as "arcane" on this side of the Atlantic, which got me thinking about the possibility of a directly elected Commission President in the EU.

I've discussed in more detail here why I think a parliamentary system would be better for the EU than a directly elected President (or indirectly in the US case). But if we introduced a "directly" elected president in the EU, could we do it without weighting the votes to protect the smaller Member States? I don't think so: a simple majority vote would render campaigning in the small(er) Member States less useful and there would be fewer incentives for candidates to overcome language barriers.

And if we would need an electoral college, why not just have a parliamentary system, with the European Parliament acting as that electoral college?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Labour and the Commons vote on the EU Budget

The UK government was defeated in a non-binding vote in the House of Commons yesterday, with rebel Tories being joined by the opposition Labour Party to call for a real terms cut in the EU Budget (307 votes for, 294 votes against). Though David Cameron signalled support for a budget cut at yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions, it's clear that he doesn't think that anything more than a real terms freeze can be negotiated.

The debate over the EU Budget is depressing. There is no discussion of what the spending priorities should be, so the argument for cuts seems to have crystallised into a moralistic tale of mutual cuts, rather than a rational debate focused on what our priorities and values should be and what our capacity to find them is. As Olaf Camme in The Guardian wrote:

"The size of the EU's budget is not the actual problem and its reform will require more than opportunistic lip service and national point-scoring. At the very least, it will need to involve governments and opposition parties alike entering a serious debate about where Europe can add value and what kind of financial governance can best provide for it. Both dimensions are somewhat found wanting in the British debate, on the right and the left. Yet failure to do this would only underline the saying, often attributed to Henry Kissinger and paraphrased here: the politics (around the EU budget) are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

Labour's decision to side with the anti-EU wing of the Tory party to attack David Cameron is crass party politics.  Labour argues that the EU should cut its budget when EU Member States are implementing austerity flies in the face of their rationale for slower cuts and more investment in growth and job creation. Earlier this month it was revealed that an emergency budget is needed to plug the gap in the Globalisation Fund that is directed to helping workers retrain so they can find employment. What does Labour say about the various EU programmes to help boost growth and competitiveness in the poorer regions of the EU? Even if the UK is a net contributor, how often have we heard over the past two years that the lack of growth in the EU has hurt the UK economy? Should supporting recovery in the UK's main export market not be part of its recovery strategy? (Though the health of the UK economy is mostly in the UK government's hands).

Again: the gap for the Globalisation Fund was €10 billion, and the proposed increase in the EU budget is €9 billion. There needs to be a practical debate for how we shape the EU budget to best serve us during the recession and strengthen everyone's position in the single market. And this needs to be done as part of a negotiated solution - remember, every Member State has a veto! Supporting massive cuts in the absence of any reasoned debate beyond a "austerity for all" mantra does not make a credible budget policy.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

European Stability Mechanism before the ECJ

Irish independent TD (MP) Thomas Pringle’s case against the European Stability Mechanism has reached the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, referred there for interpretation on 3 questions by the national court. The 3 questions, are:

(1) Whether the European Council Decision 2011/199/EU of 25th March 2011 [PDF] breaches the EU Treaties or general principles of EU law (i.e. is it valid law?);

(2) Whether Eurozone Member States are entitled to enter into extra-EU Treaties on the Euro, and if this infringes on the EU’s exclusive competence over the Euro; and

(3) If, should the European Council decision be ruled valid, Member States are only allowed to enter into (ratify) the ESM Treaty following its entry into force (1st January 2013)?

The case will be very important for 3 reasons. First, it will help decide if the stability mechanism is compatible with EU law; second, if non-EU treaties can be used to change the governance of the Eurozone or if the EU’s exclusive competence over the Euro means that the EU treaties would have to be changed; and third, the extent to which the European Council can amend the EU Treaties. All obviously important not just for solving the economic crisis, but for how the EU and the Eurozone is governed generally.

RTÉ has reported that all 27 of the court’s judges will sit on the panel for this case – an unprecedented for a case referred to the court by a national court. On the proceedings before the court, RTÉ reported:

“Michael Cush SC for Ireland said the ESM amendments were "fully compatible with the treaties".

He countered that the ESM "will not affect the union's exclusive competence regarding monetary policy for the euro area nor will it increase the limited competence that it has in respect of the coordination of the member states' economic policy."

Thomas Henze, a lawyer for the German government, said there was no indication of any infringement of EU law.

He countered Mr Rogers' assertion that the ESM should not have been ratified when the relevant treaty, the Fiscal Treaty, did not come into force until January.


After three hours and 30 minutes of questioning, the ECJ Judges asked legal representatives to stand over their statements.

Most of the questioning of the bench was focused on the oral statements from the European Commission and the European Counsel, although Mr Rogers was called to clarify and justify his arguments on several occasions.”
The ruling is expected by the end of the year in what could be a landmark judgment.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Agreement to agree on maybe agreeing. Perhaps.

The European Council once again agreed to agree on a Banking Union. It says a lot about the state of EU politics that this is a positive sign. The Guardian commented:

"What we are left with is a political fix which remains vulnerable to the fiscal equivalent of the next extreme weather event to hit the eurozone. The ESM, if it ever opens, is a cash machine. It will not solve the underlying factors that caused the mounting debt in the first place. That extreme event could come from a halting Chinese economy or double-dip US recession. Or it could come from mounting social protest. Europe-wide protests will grow because it is now clear, even to those who proposed radical cost-cutting at the G20 summit two years ago, that austerity is not working. The amputated limbs of the euro economy are not growing back of their own accord."

It's right to point out the vagueness and vulnerability of the agreement, but I'd go further: it won't take an extreme economic weather event to throw the agreement into doubt. Where was the extreme weather when Germany, Finland and the Netherlands tried to bury the June Agreement in Koenigstedt.

Yesterday the Journal.ie reported that the Irish dimension to the June Agreement may be revived:

"TAOISEACH ENDA KENNY and the German chancellor Angela Merkel have issued a joint statement affirming that Europe remains committed to splitting Ireland’s banking and sovereign debts.


The two “reaffirmed” that deal, where heads of state told the 17 Eurozone finance ministers “to examine the situation of the Irish financial sector with a view to further improving the sustainability of the well performing adjustment programme”.

The statement said Ireland was recognised as “a special case”, given the circumstances under which Ireland was frozen out of the bond markets, and said the finance ministers would take this into account when examining how to improve the terms of Ireland’s bailout deal."

While this is welcome, it still represents a regression from the deal struck in June: what is the purpose of the banking union if it doesn't divorce sovereigns from the banking debt, and how can it help in the current crisis if it doesn't affect the banking debt of Spain and Ireland? That there was a need to negotiate to return to a partial form of an earlier agreement demonstrates the farcical depths to which European politics has fallen. How can Member States progress on solving the crisis if they now have to work hard to ensure that the deals made aren't unravelled by ad hoc groups of Member States?

The European Council was hardly a shining beacon of good decision-making before, but this naked and self-defeating display of national interest politics is simply something else.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Merkel and Barroso's Speeches to the EPP Congress

I haven't had the time to look at much of the European People's Party's Congress this week, but I saw the speeches of Merkel and Barroso.

Angela Merkel's speech echoed some of the "strivers" rhetoric of David Cameron's speech, though EPP parties in general seem to be able to carry off compassionate conservativism a bit better by integrating the "social market economy" into their rhetoric.

I have to take issue with Merkel's approach on democracy, however. It's not just about demonstrations or press freedom (not that all EPP parties have had a spotless record on the press), but about influencing policy. The calls by Merkel and Schaeuble for rigid budgetary rules and therefore dilution of national democracy is not the way to handle the crisis: Eurozone solutions should focus on preserving national democracy, and deepening European democracy where there needs to be common policy.

Barroso, who could throw his hat into the ring to be the EPP's candidate for a third Commission Presidential term, also spoke at the Congress:

Barroso stressed that the crisis was caused by a lack of regulation in the financial sector and public debt (only partially right when it comes to Ireland and Spain), and pushed for more integration. He pitched for the EU institutions to retain their current structure and not be divided because integration should be seen as a way to deepen solidarity, "...and not as a way of creating new walls because in Europe we definitely need no more walls".

Barroso used the opportunity to drum up support for the current Commission programme on EMU reform. He also called for support for the EU budget as a way for investing in growth, and tried to portray EU spending not as welfare, but as money for common objectives. He'll have a hard time building his "coalition for growth"...

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Nobel Prize Collection

As postscript to the award of the Nobel Prize to the EU, it's been decided that the presidents of the 3 EU institutions - Commission, European Council and Parliament - will go to collect the award in Oslo. It's not been decided who will give an acceptance speech.

I'll not spill any more digital ink over this, but clearly there needs to be a ceremonial "head of the EU" status given to one of these posts since for such situations because the current arrangements aren't working (the Lisbon Treaty hasn't proven a solution to the representation problem here). It would make sense to give it to the Commission President, I think, with a protocol for when it is the whole EU that needs to be represented, and not just the European Council.

Schaeuble's Currency Commissioner

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, floated the idea of a currency commissioner in the run-up to this week's European Council summit. The currency commissioner would be able to veto national budgets, and would be independent of the rest of the College of Commissioners (the Commission takes decisions by majority vote) to "depoliticise" the role.

This idea is clearly bonkers. You cannot "depoliticise" the fundamental matter of national budgets, because you cannot pretend that budgets and economic issues are simply matters of technical wizardry, with expert options being implemented for desired outcomes - desired outcomes are political matters, and deserve a meaningful airing in a publically accountable body: the national parliament. While there is an argument for certain budgetary contraints on Eurozone Member States to ensure the functioning of the common currency - in exchange for solidarity between Member States, it should be stressed - at the end of the day Member States should be able to set their own budgets.

Rather than trying to come up with tighter and more rigid and better enforced rules for the Eurozone, we should be working to divorce banks from the sovereigns to make banking a European matter within the Eurozone, and creating a system where Member States can go bankrupt, without endangering the system and with some support for recovery after bankruptcy. A flexible and politically accountable system would work much better than Schaeuble's approach - there needs to be political accountability for national budgets at the national level, and at the European level for those elements of European solidarity.

Even on the European level of accountability, Schaeuble's plan fails: an independent currency commissioner would be free of the restraint of the rest of the college of commissioners (and here the issue of the nationality of said commissioner would come into political focus), and the ability of the European Parliament to hold him or her to account is also muddied. Could the EP sack this independent commissioner or only as a part of the Commission as a whole? Where's the balance between independence and accountability here?

Schaeuble's approach here reveals an underlying philosophy that's plan wrong. Money and budgets are political, and there needs to be democratic accountability and participation both nationally, and Eurozone-wide for the Euro to work. Once Schaeuble and others take account of this basic fact we might get to see more realistic and workable plans being suggested.

Eurozone Exit of the crisis countries could cost world €17 Trillion

As the European Council meets for its summit to decide on the way forward for the Eurozone based on Van Rompuy's recommendations, Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung has reported on a study by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, which found that if the crisis-hit countries of the Eurozone left, it would cost the major world economies €17 Trillion up to 2020:

"Bei einem Austritt Griechenlands aus dem Euro hätten die wichtigsten Volkswirtschaften bis 2020 einen Verlust von 674 Milliarden zu tragen. Ein Ausstieg der Euro-Länder Spanien, Italien, Griechenland und Portugal könnte sogar bis zu 17,2 Billionen Euro an Wachstumsverlusten führen, schreibt die Stiftung.

Das höchste Minus beliefe sich in Frankreich auf 2,9 Billionen Euro, in den USA auf 2,8 Billionen Euro, der Verlust in China auf 1,9 und in Deutschland auf 1,7 Billionen Euro. Die wirtschaftlichen Einbußen in Deutschland wären dann mit 21.000 Euro pro Kopf teilweise noch höher als etwa in Griechenland mit mehr als 15.000 Euro.

[Own Translation: A Greek Exit from the Euro would cost the major economies €674 Billion by 2020. An exit by Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal could cost up to €17.2 Trillion in loss of economic growth, the foundation writes.

The biggest lost would be in France at €2.9 Trillion, in the USA at €2.8 Trillion, the lost in China would be €1.9 Trillion, and in Germany €1.7 Trillion. The economic loss in Germany would be €21,000 per capita, which is higher even than the pro capita loss in Greece at over €15,000.]"

The isolated withdrawal of Greece would be manageable, but would also trigger a recession that would spread to the US and China. The Bertelsmann Stiftung also says:

"Für Griechenland wäre das Szenario mit einem Staatsbankrott, einer massiven Abwertung der neuen griechischen Währung, Arbeitslosigkeit, Nachfrageverlusten u.v.a. verbunden, was sich bereits schnell auf seine direkten Handelspartner auswirkt. In dem südeuropäischen Land selbst würden sich die anschließenden Wachstumsverluste bis zum Jahre 2020 auf 164 Milliarden Euro oder 14.300 Euro pro Einwohner belaufen. Die 42 wichtigsten Volkswirtschaften der Welt müssten in der Summe aber bereits einen Verlust von insgesamt 674 Milliarden Euro verkraften.

Da aber nicht auszuschließen ist, dass ein Euro-Austritt Griechenlands massive Folgen für weitere südeuropäische Krisenländer hätte, wurden die Berechnungen auch auf diese Szenarien ausgeweitet.


In ihrer Gesamtbewertung kommen die Autoren zu dem Fazit: Ein zunächst isolierter Austritt Griechenlands und sein Staatsbankrott wären zwar ökonomisch verkraftbar, könnten aber mit ihren schwer kalkulierbaren Folgen die Weltwirtschaft in eine tiefe Rezession stürzen, die auch vor außereuropäischen Volkswirtschaften keinen Halt machen würde. Neben den rein ökonomischen Konsequenzen ist auch mit erheblichen sozialen Spannungen und politischen Instabilitäten zu rechnen – vor allem in den Ländern, die aus dem Euro ausscheiden, aber auch in anderen Volkswirtschaften.

[Own Translation: For Greece a bankruptcy scenario along with the devaluation of a new Greek currency would mean unemployment, loss of demand, etc, which would have a rapid impact on Greece's direct trading partners. In Southern Europe the economic loss up to the year 2020 would be €164 Billion, or €14,300 pro capita. The 42 biggest world economies would have to reckon with a total loss of €674 Billion.

However it must not be rulled out that a Greek Exit would have massive consequences for the southern crisis-hit countries, so the calculations were applied to these further scenarios.


Overall, the authors came to the conclusion that an isolated Greek Exit and its bankruptcy would be economically manageable, but the unpredictable consequences could lead to a deep global recession that would not stop at Europe's borders. Apart from the purely economic consequences, there are also the high social tensions and political instability to consider - especially in the exiting countries, but also for other economies.]"

Not a time to be rowing back on the progress that's already been made.

Update: The EUObserver has an article on this in Englisgh here. And the calculations were done by Prognos for the Bertelsmann Stiftung, rather than by the Stiftung itself.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Why not have a referendum on justice co-operation?

In the UK the Conservatives have been blundering about with EU policy again. Home Secretary Theresa May, who talked about rolling back the free movement of people not so long ago, is now talking up the possibility of the UK opting out of the area of freedom, justice and security altogether. The coalition LibDems have not exactly killed the idea, but pulled the rug from under May when he said that no decision had been made, leaving May to provide the House of Commons with an empty statement about the government's "current thinking".

There's a lot of comment about how short-sighted it is to pull out of justice co-operation, and on how the Conservative approach to the EU has been a shambolic case of issuing announcements with little thought and then scrambling to deal with the aftermath. While I agree that opting out of the JHA area en bloc is a terrible idea that would weaken the UK's security, I'm confused over why the Tories have been so inept over this issue: why not have a referendum on justice co-operation?

Seriously. If Nick Clegg will only go as far as saying that nothing has been agreed yet (suggesting that the LibDems might be reconciled to the opt-out if the UK opts back into several JHA measures), and ministers are going to engage in such policy kite-flying, then why not put the issue to the people or make noises about doing so? It would give the people a referendum on the EU, let people express an opinion on at least one aspect of the EU relationship that the Conservatives want re-balancing (and why not gauge opinion on what aspects of the EU the public want to buy into?), and would allow the Conservatives to partly deliver on their promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (in this case opting in or out of the post-Lisbon justice area).

The Home Secretary would not have been able to make a statement straight away, but the Conservatives could have started agitating for a referendum, and there is general agreement that some EU referendum has to happen sometime soon. It would have given the Conservatives space to test waters and refine their position and avoided statement grandstanding while winning a political point on the issue. Sounds like a better strategy than the current farcical posturing.

So why not have a referendum? Perhaps it's because it would be awkward for the party of law and order to campaign for opting out of law and order co-operation - maybe it's just simply politically uncomfortable as a gamble, with little likelihood of success. It's hard to sell the idea that the justice system won't suffer from the opt-out because we'll go back to the EU and negotiate specific opt-ins: not exactly a great rallying cry. And even a total opt-out with no subsequent opt-ins would be a hard sell.

In other words, if you hold a referendum on justice co-operation, the Europhiles would probably be the winners. Now that would be a Tory nightmare worse than their own bungling.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

OLAF investigation brings down Health Commissioner Dalli

An OLAF investigation into attempts by the tobacco industry to influence EU legislation has led to the resignation of Maltese Commissioner John Dalli, who had health as his portfolio.

The investigation was into whether a Maltese entrepreneur had used contacts with Dalli to influence future proposals on tobacco legislation. The complaint to OLAF was launched by the company Swedish Match (a tobacco producer) in May 2012, and the report was delivered to the Commission yesterday. The report found:

"...that the Maltese entrepreneur had approached the company using his contacts with Mr Dalli and sought to gain financial advantages in exchange for influence over a possible future legislative proposal on snus. No transaction was concluded between the company and the entrepreneur and no payment was made. The OLAF report did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation of Mr Dalli but did consider that he was aware of these events."

So while Dalli did not accept any bribes, OLAF considers that he was aware of these dodgy dealings. It is now for the Attorney General of Malta and the Maltese judiciary to decide on further action.

Dalli rejects the allegations.

Employment and Social Affairs Committee on Economic and Monetary Union

The European Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee adopted an opinion last week on its position on economic and monetary union, pushing, naturally enough, for employment and social matters to be given more weight when it comes to European economic policy. You can read it here: PDF. The non-binding opinion was adopted on a vote of 27 for, 16 against and 1 abstention.

The Committee's basic attitude is reflected in this paragraph (p.6):

"...any upgrade of the role of the Commissioner for economic and monetary affairs will need to be echoed by an upgrade of the role of the Commissioner for employment and social affairs so as to ensure a balanced approach of the social market economy, in the same spirit the EPSCO Council [Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council in the Council of Ministers] should be upgraded and organized in a euro zone formation."

The opinion calls for minimum social benchmarks and for the Commission to look into the feasibility of introducing a minimum unemployment allowance for the Eurozone. The Committee also calls for an "integrated employment and social policy framework", and that increased worker mobility should be complimented with access to social protection and the portability of pension rights.

The recommendations reflect some of the amendments in the parliamentary reports on the 2-Pack of legislation: a Social Pact, employment and social benchmarks to make up part of any troika programme, for there to be a representative of the International Labour Organisation added to the Troika, and making the European Semester more accountable to the European Parliament. Cooperation on tax is also cited as necessary to prevent the free movement of capital from undermining tax systems - probably the most controversial idea if it gained any ground in public debate: tax competition versus certain common bands to prevent an undermining of tax systems within the internal market.

The European Conservatives and Reformists hit out against the opinion:

"The document also called for a minimum unemployment allowance and integration of civic initiatives, trade unions and other social groups at all levels of political decision-making. Such a populist proposal would, however, cut back on powers of democratically elected representatives in favour of lobbying organizations."

While I don't agree with everything in the opinion (there's a crazy paragraph on linking access to capital to the potential for employment in the investment) , I would support support some minimum social standards. The problem we face at the moment is that the policies at the EU level are far too focused on sovereign debt and the banking system, to the determent of employment and social policies (and the internal market has by definition a social dimension) - and while introducing minimum social standards is necessary to make the internal market work for all and to help preserve the Member States' own powers in this area, there needs to be political debate and support for these programmes.

I hope the parties that voted for this opinion will put these ideas and policies into their manifestos come election time so we have a chance to vote on them.

Monday, 15 October 2012

European Congress Season

We've just had the Party of European Socialist's Congress at the end of September, but the congresses of the other Europarties are still coming up. The European People's Party will hold their Congress this week in Bucharest on the 17th and 18th, which you can follow here.

The other Europarty Congress dates are:

European Liberal Democrats: 8th-10th November, Dublin.

European Greens: 9th-11th November, Athens.

I wasn't able to find Congresses for any of the other political parties, but I did find that the European Alliance for Freedom (part of the anti-EU Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group in the European Parliament) held a Congress on the 24th-27th June in Malta. You can find it here, but there doesn't seem to be much in terms of policy or tactics that came out of it.

So though there are 12 recognised Europarties as of 2012, there only seems to be Congresses for a minority of them (though they are the big mainstream Europarties). Their activity needs to ramp up next year in the run up to the 2014 election if they're to prove their worth.

The Nobel Peace Prize Debate

The news that the EU will be awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was quite a surprise, and it caught a continent off guard. Praise for the EU? The constant drip-drip of bad news and mini-crises bubbling up as the Great Recession rumbles on has made any major show of support for the idea of European unity, beyond crisis-fighting necessity - almost unthinkable. It was a controversial decision, and I've mixed feelings about it.

Ironically, I wrote a post two months ago arguing that pro-Europeans should move away from arguing for the EU based on its peace mission, and now it's the focus of continental debate. While I agree that the EU deserves the prize, I do have a few reservations about the timing and the manner of the award.

The EU deserves the Peace Prize

The EU has been amazingly successful as a peace project in Europe, ensuring the reconciliation between France and Germany, it has helped anchor European states in democracy and it has provided a structure of rules and constant negotiation that promotes and secures a culture of problem-solving that rests on diplomacy and even transnational democracy (if a flawed transnational democracy). As I argued in my post on retiring the pro-European peace argument, purely military alliances do not build such a culture and allies, such as Greece and Turkey, could even have their relations collapse and move towards serious conflict.

It's important to stress that peace - and particularly a sustainable, lasting peace - isn't simply the absence of war, but the presence of a working system and culture that brings countries together in a way that solving problems peacefully and cooperatively becomes not just more workable, but the norm. The EU provides a system of cooperation and negotiation that is constant, building a community of values and interests that helps bind Europe together and sustains that culture of peace between the Member States. Of course peace wouldn't collapse tomorrow if the EU disappeared, but without a sustainable system the norms underwriting peace would be eroded. Like the burning of financial regulation and the gradual disappearance of a culture of restraint within the financial sector that could lead to abuse and a hollowing out of the system, the peace in Europe requires constant maintenance.

The arguments against the EU deserving the prize seem weak to me. That the EU did not bring peace to the Western Balkans in the '90s is a low point in its history, but the EU didn't (and doesn't) have that kind of foreign policy and defence power if the Member States don't act. That's not to say that the EU would have done a fantastic job if it did have those powers (who can guess what might have happened?), but the EU's capabilities for promoting peace outside its borders are restricted to the carrot of enlargement, peacekeeping, and foreign aid - not dealing with hot conflicts. The soft power brought by the EU to the former Yugoslav states through the promise of enlargement - integration into the peace and economic system of the continent - has helped boost the movement toward the democratic and peaceful European mainstream in those countries.

And while I feel that there are issues with the timing, I don't think the EU deserves the award any less now for what it has already achieved. The current economic policies may be wrong, but the mission of creating a Europe where war is unthinkable has been largely achieved thanks in large part to the EU.

Problems with timing and intent

Though there's peace between the Member States and no suggestion of armed conflict, the social problems that have scared the lives of millions within the EU as a result of the economic crisis and misguided economic policy led by the European Council makes the award ring hollow. Though the EU deserves the prize for its work, the motive behind the award seems to lend the EU some political capital to help it solve the crisis. A Nobel prize awarded to boost peace efforts is by definition controversial and is vital and necessary work for the Nobel Committee. But here the questions for resolving the crisis are essentially questions of domestic policy, and I think it's a bit too far removed from the classical peace building work. It would have been preferable if the award was given in circumstances that better recalled the good work of the EU, rather than being delivered as a pointed reminder that we risk messing up our continent and the global economy.

Highlighting the EU's Shame

Increasingly, the intended message behind the prize seems to me to shame the EU: it has achieved a lot, and it could achieve more by way of solving its own crisis, but so far it is failing. Pro-Europeans should not see this simply as a boost to the credibility of the EU (as if credibility could be so easily boosted), but take seriously the challenge of conflict resolution. The current EU system is failing at resolving the conflict and tensions within it, and the solution applied to the crisis should not just be about finding the right technical remedy, but in fashioning a system that all Member States and citizens can buy into. This means a greater European democracy, baked up with substance - a project not to be left to elites, but dependant on citizens too.

Using the Nobel prize to help boost a political position that is largely domestic (as in the case of awarding Obama with the prize), devalues the Nobel Prize. Even though the peace aspect is less indirect in this case, it's still a bit of a stretch in the current climate. The EU deserves the Peace Prize and it needs a shot in the arm, but it's unfortunate that it was the Nobel Committee that felt it had to take it upon themselves to make an argument for the EU. We should be doing better than this.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Activity Report of the Socialists and Democrats

At the PES Congress the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament submitted its activity report (PDF). It gives an interesting snapshot of how the parliamentary party views itself, as a party of opposition within the EU institutions.

The poor election results of 2009, the dominance of the EPP and Liberals in the Council and Commission, and the failure to select a candidate for the Commission within the PES have cut deeply, and seems to be the motivation behind a lot of the changes within the PES recently. The need to increase coordination between PES ministers before ministerial meetings (like the EPP and Liberals do), and to promote dialogue between national parties and national parliamentary parties to help build a workable alternative comes across very strongly in the report.

It's good to see that there is an awareness there of the challenges the PES and S&D face in order to increase their representation across the EU, and, more importantly, it's good to see that the direction is towards a more coherent party that can deliver a political alternative at elections. Easier said than done, but it's an important debate for the party and political group to have.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Cameron, Eurozone budgets and the Single Market

David Cameron signaled his support for the competence review to look at whether the free movement of people should be changed on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. You can watch the interview on BBC iPlayer if you're in the UK (the interview starts at 28.45, the European section starts at around 43.30).

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, first issued a call for the free movement of people to be looked at in order to control migration within the EU more. At the last election, the Conservatives promised to cap immigration and they've been criticised for ignoring the free movement of workers within the EU as the major source of immigration. Given the difficulties of the Tories in government, perhaps Cameron wants to repatriate Conservative voters from southern France and Spain!

Changing the free movement of people is a big ask. It's one of the fundamental freedoms of the single market (remember, the single market the Conservatives are supposed to be in favour of?), and the rights of free movement of EU citizens are already pretty much subject to a worker test (i.e. you have to be working or have worked in a Member State before you can claim benefits there). So it's not really a question of EU nationals "pulling their weight", but whether they should be allowed on the job market at all.

This really points to a shallowness in political thinking. The only form of regulation the Conservatives seem to believe in is regulating the movement of people! But the point of the single market is to have a more open and dynamic market where people can enjoy more goods, services, business and working opportunities. Tightening the screws on the movement of people within the EU is of little use if the aim is to protect British workers, because they will still be in a competitive European market, and businesses and capital can still move within the EU. It would be much better to improve the social side of the European Union to help drive social and economic standards up across the Member States to prevent a race to the bottom while allowing us to enjoy the benefits of the single market, including the free movement of people.

This just highlights the fact that the single market is a political project.

On the EU budget, Cameron said that the UK would veto any big increase. But he also indicated that a separate Eurozone budget may be required for fiscal transfers within the Eurozone, and that such a development would be welcome. It's a very interesting point, because a separate budget would mean that there would need to be a division in the European Parliament for it, and divisions within the EU institutions would raise further questions of diluting the UK's influence in the EU generally. And the official reason for the veto last year was that there weren't enough safeguards in the (not yet negotiated) Fiscal Compact to protect the UK's political influence in the single market! Cameron seems to be aiming for a kind of EEA membership within the EU: the perks of the single market plus the political influence without the obligations and financial responsibilities. He'll have a hard time walking that line.

PES Congress 2012

Last week the Party of European Socialists (which sits in the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament) held its 2012 Congress in Brussels. There they adopted a resolution "Together for the Europe we need" (PDF). The resolution set out what the PES has to do:

"We need to convince people that a progressive European Union can be the answer to their problems. To do this we need to be a confident, relevant and visible political force. We need to create the conditions for our own success. Revitalised active democracy is needed to move the European Union forwards. Since the beginning of the crisis we have seen that despite feeling alienated from the establishment people do want to engage with what is happening in their societies. They want their voices to be heard. We must listen to what women and men across Europe are saying."

What is the PES alternative?


A Financial Transaction Tax is still the centrepiece of the PES economic programme as far as defined policy goes. The general economic strategy focuses on longer periods for budgetary consolidation and greater investment at the European level. The PES mention a European redemption fund as a possible measure to help solve the crisis, but it's merely referenced as a possibility so it looks like there's not a consensus on this point within the party yet.

Along with advocating stronger regulation of financial markets, the PES supports measures against tax evasion and avoidance (no defined policies are name-checked here). When it comes to the EU budget, the PES says:

"A long run solution to the crisis would entail tackling the strong divergences of the economies in the euro area through common economic policies and common investments in innovation, growth and decent jobs. We need to implement effective policies in order to halt the fiscal race to the bottom."

It's a good aspiration - I hope to see some policies on this coming out for the 2014 elections.


Here the PES is more radical, calling for a €10 billion EU programme to aid employment and a Youth Pact to ensure that young people have access to further education or training:

"A European youth guarantee must be gradually implemented in all Member States, giving a state guaranteed right to every young woman and man to a new job, training or further education at the latest four months after leaving the education system or becoming unemployed. A European Employment Programme of at least 10 billion Euros must be introduced immediately, financing the creation of new jobs and supporting better education and training. A strong gender perspective must be included in this programme in order to prevent bigger gaps between women and men in the labour market and across society at a later stage. Improving the competitiveness of European companies is essential for Europe’s economic success. Instead of the Conservative recipe of weakening social protection and lowering wages, the following structural reforms must be pursued:

- Investment in education, training and active labour market policies should be increased.

- Europe´s industries must play a central and dynamic role in transforming our economies and developing our regions by fostering world-class innovation and green growth. Therefore, a reindustrialisation process must be launched. The manufacturing sector, especially Small and Medium Enterprises, as well as microenterprises - which represent a motor of the European economy, need to receive more support and a high-quality infrastructure must be built, for example on access to clean, reliable and affordable energy, broadband networks and transport. To this end, a growth-oriented review at EU level of the relevant state aid schemes is necessary.

- Energy and resource use must be reduced with an emphasis on reducing carbon emissions.

- More efforts are needed to support all dimensions of innovation and more resources need to be invested in research and development.

- The representation of male and female workers in companies must be strengthened, giving them an active role in the economy. We need to remove barriers to women's entry to the labour market. Furthermore, we have to provide women with equal opportunities to access decision-making positions within companies."
The Social Pact is another key policy, aiming to fix Member State and EU spending on education and training at 6% of GDP for Member States, and 6% of the EU budget, and preventing a race to the bottom on social standards within the EU. There are quite a few ambitious aims under the Social Pact heading.


The PES wants to strengthen the European Emissions Tradings Scheme and the introduction of an EU Carbon Tax. They also note the need to ensure that the EU's biofuels policy does not harm food security.

Institutional Reform and Democracy:

The PES wants the European Parliament to be strengthened along with Economic and Political Union, and wants an effective European monitoring of democratic standards not only for candidate countries, but also for Member States. The PES has promised to produce concrete proposals for strengthening the European Parliament.

Foreign Policy:

The PES supports enlargement of the EU in the Western Balkans, and wants to extend its domestic policies (FTT, climate change, etc.) to the EU's multilateral relations, dubbing it a "Global New Deal".

As a political programme, it's surprisingly ambitious for a European political party in some areas. It's a good statement of principles, and it gives us a statement to track PES policy development with. Personally, I think that there needs to be a more social alternative presented at the next election - too often, the EU is seen just as a mix of the internal market and CAP payments, as if there should be not social dimension to the EU (and as if the internal market is not a social and political project in itself). The challenge for the PES is to produce a more detailed manifesto for the 2014 elections along with choosing a candidate for the Commission Presidency, and to present it through a credible European campaign - after all, the programme is only credible if the national parties are selling it on the doorsteps as a programme that they stand for on a European level.

The PES confirmed that it would select a candidate for the European Commission Presidency for the 2014 European Elections through party primaries.

Monday, 8 October 2012

An Emergency EU Budget

The Commission will table an emergency EU budget - a "supplementary amending budget" - to plug an estimated €10 billion funding gap across several EU projects, including Erasmus and the European Social Fund. Erasmus is probably one of the EU's most famous projects, funding the exchange of European students across the continent, but the European Social Fund is meant to deal with employment, and is linked with the Lisbon Strategy:

"In order to support the Lisbon Strategy the ESF adopted the following priorities in the 2000-2006 period:
  • active labour market policies to combat and prevent unemployment
  • equal opportunities for all in accessing the labour market
  • improved training and education, as part of a lifelong learning policy to improve access to the labour market, maintain employability, and promote job mobility;
  • a skilled, trained and adaptable workforce and new forms of work organisation
  • entrepreneurship and conditions facilitating job creation"

The ESF takes up around 10% of the EU's budget, so to have such a key area "insolvent since the beginning of the month" is clearly a big problem.

The European Parliament has also backed the Commission's budget proposals for a 6.8% increase for the next 5 year budget, compared to the Council's position of an increase of 2.8%. It's been argued that the Lisbon Treaty and the projects voted for by the Council has added to the expense, while the Member States are unwilling to pay for the policies they bring in on a European level. The Member States have argued that the EU shouldn't increase its budget at a time of austerity.

It should be noted that the 6.8% increase in the budget would be an extra €9 billion - and if the EU's struggling to cover a gap of €10 billion in the budget, it's hard to see how programmes on employment and regional development won't be affected. The regional funds and funds aimed at aiding employment - like the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund - help the poorer and more crisis-hit countries in the EU. EU budget austerity will end up hurting those countries and regions that need it most, as modest as the help can be when the budget is only 1% of the EU's GDP.

Whether or not you agree with EU austerity, I think there is a good argument for adapting the timing of the EU's 5 year budget plan ("Multi-annual Financial Framework") to bring it closer to the European Parliament election cycle. Passing the budget is a main task of the Parliament, and if cuts or increases are to be made, then making it a more prominent part of the election campaign would bring more legitimacy to the process.