Thursday, 27 February 2014

Are the European Conservatives passing up a great political opportunity?

The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists have announced that they will not be putting forward a candidate for the Commission presidency in the 2014 elections. As an anti-federalist party, the main reason being given is that participating in the presidency contest will play into the hands of the more federalist parties. But are they giving up an electoral opportunity by giving the "federalist" candidates a free run? And does their main argument fit in with the AECR's general political position?

Obviously the AECR must consider it a good tactical and electoral move. Presumably the AECR is setting itself up to oppose any move by the European Parliament to prevent the European Council from ignoring the contest when it nominates the next Commission president, but their support of a nominee will probably be more dependent on how closely he or she reflects their free market and anti-federalist positions. The biggest advantage is probably the freedom of movement it gives the AECR's member parties, such as the UK Conservatives, in the elections. European elections have typically been viewed through a national lens, and AECR parties will be free to highlight the any embarrassing policies that their opponents may be connected with through their European political families.

The common decision to not run a candidate gives the national parties a good Eurosceptic response to any questions over why they're not supporting a candidate, which could help protect them on their Eurosceptic flank. Finally, the AECR is unlikely to go from fifth to first place in the European Parliament so they are not going to miss out on a chance to actually win the office of Commission President for themselves. Therefore it probably seems to be a small sacrifice for a potential tactical advantage.

Despite these advantages, I think that the AECR have missed an opportunity. While it was left to Daniel Hannan to give the Europarty's reasoning for the decision (that the EU doesn't have a common demos and therefore the contest cannot be democratically legitimate), unlike Hannan the AECR is not for withdrawal from the EU but for a looser, more free trade orientated Union. This means that it's not necessarily ideologically inconsistent to take part in the contest: votes for a common candidate espousing a more decentralised EU wouldn't by definition contradict the demos argument (agreement on an anti-federalist message should logically indicate an unwillingness to identify as a pan-European demos). It's not as if the European Conservatives don't want the European Parliament to have a stronger say over the Commission - they called for reform of the confirmation process of nominated commissioners back in 2010!

Politically, it is a missed opportunity to promote an anti-federalist but pro-free trade message. If the European Conservatives want to revise the free movement of people, then a common candidate will be able to put that opposing viewpoint to the other candidates in the televised debate, and the national parties could draw on their alliance - and perhaps the opinion polls - to argue that their proposals for changing the EU are possible and have support. The European Conservatives don't have a member party in each Member State, but the campaign could raise those issues where they haven't been raised before and it would help set the AECR up as an alternative political home for the more Eurosceptic member parties of the centre-right European People's Party, or put pressure on the EPP to move closer to them politically. When it comes to the televised debates, the AECR is probably betting that they won't attract much attention, but there is a risk that they might, and that the conservative viewpoint doesn't get that air time.

The European Conservatives believe in the single market and the EU as a market (though they are increasingly questioning the free movement of people) but want to return some powers to the national level, so the question is if they can advance that view within the EU. A common candidate could be a valuable tool in campaigning for that version of the EU, while surrendering that political space to more federalist parties actually makes it harder for the AECR to differentiate itself from the out-and-out anti-EU Eurosceptics. Without a credible voice for a more decentralised Union, the European Conservative position will lose support to parties like UKIP. After all, if the EU appears to be captured by the other Europarties, then the supporters of the AECR may increasingly wonder if their approach is worthwhile or if they should just abandon the hope of changing the EU. Not running a candidate is a political move that is more likely to benefit the Hannanite position than the Cameronite one.

I may not be a supporter of the European Conservatives, but their decision not to run a common candidate could be a loss to the quality of the public debate as well as a missed opportunity for the AECR itself.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Campaign will be Televised

The European elections will have televised debates between the Europarties for the first time. The European Broadcasting Union, which works on the Eurovision Song Contest, will be organising debates between the candidates for the presidency of the Commission. Screening the debate live is optional for the public broadcaster members of the EBU, so the event is unlikely to get equal coverage across the Member States, but it's a big step forward in giving the elections a "European" flavour. There will be two debates: one between the candidates of each of the political groups in the European Parliament (on the 15th of May) and one between the two main candidates (on the 20th of May).

European Voice reports that the first debate will be between the candidates of each of the Europarties (which are made up of like-minded national parties), rather than just between the candidates of the largest Europarties that are more likely to take the presidency. This means that the debate will need to be very well managed. With five or more candidates debating, the moderator will have to have a firm grasp of proceedings to make the most of the opportunity. The second debate between two candidates can develop more naturally, but here the moderator will have to ask good questions designed to highlight the differing positions of all the candidates and draw out the main policies as well as policing speaking time. 90 minutes isn't a lot when divided between 5 speakers!

The language of the debate will be an interesting issue. Apparently, the EBU wants the candidates to debate in English to prevent awkward translation delays that will break the flow of the debate, but candidates have the choice of speaking in their native language. Will the candidates plump for English in the hopes that they can reach a wider audience (and perhaps avoid potential translation errors from tripping them up), decide to debate in their own language (showcasing linguistic diversity - or simply being a more natural way to debate for a candidate), or a mix of English and their native language? There will probably be a mix in practice - if candidates can communicate well to voters in different languages, then they will probably try to make that connection.

Who will debate is another topic. The European Greens have two "top candidates" to choose from: Bové and Keller. Fielding Bové may be a good way of boosting the Green vote in France, and as an anti-globalisation campaigner he may have a bit more name recognition (though Keller may appeal to a broader swathe of voters in practice). Since there will only be one televised debate with a Green representative (unless they poll very strongly), the Greens will have to make the choice. Apart from the Greens, the European Conservatives and the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group aren't fielding any candidates for the Commission presidency - will they put forward one for the debate?

The debates will take place one week before the elections on the 22-25th of May. Given the traditional low interest in the European elections, it's probably a good idea to stage the debates close to the election date, though this might leave little time for the second debate to have much of an impact. The impact the debates make will be a factor in deciding whether selecting candidates for the Commission presidency really is the potential political bonus that most Europarties think it could be. But they should give the media big ticket events to report on (as long as they are interesting debates!). They should certainly put the parliamentary orientation of the national parties in the spotlight, as journalists can ask the awkward question: so, do you agree with your pan-European candidate on...?

Forget 2014 being Europe's Twitter election - the more interesting question is could it be a TV election?

Monday, 24 February 2014

Scottish Independence and the EU

The debate on Scottish independence is heating up: within the last few weeks we’ve gone from emotional appeals to keep Scotland in the UK to declarations that if Scotland leaves the UK it will lose the pound and EU membership. Commission President Barroso made a surprisingly strong intervention into the debate on the Andrew Marr Show, saying that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to be accepted back into the EU.

Although there are some interesting arguments on the legal obligations of the Member States in this area, and the assertion is disputed, it probably will be difficult politically for Scotland to re-join the Union. Still, an agreed referendum on independence is different from a unilateral declaration of independence (which is Spain’s real fear), and it shouldn’t be “impossible” for Scotland to gain membership. The 2016 deadline of the Scottish National Party is another story: Scotland may be up-to-date on EU law, but the negotiations would probably drag on.

What’s strange about the debate is that there’s little discussion about the UK union as a whole. (As noted in The Guardian, 100 years ago the situation was different). The polls on independence may be narrowing, but a vote against is still the likely outcome. But even if Scotland stays in the UK, further devolution of powers is on the cards. Without a debate on how the UK should be run – whether there should be devolution to England or the English regions, and if power should be devolved more equally with the central government holding on to limited and clear powers – there is a sense of drift. If devolution is just about the nations and regions claiming opt outs from the central government, rather than part of a broader discussion about how the UK should be run, then the direction of the political narrative is towards exit: maybe not today, but perhaps tomorrow.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Swiss vote puts EU to the test on Free Movement

The Swiss referendum on immigration restrictions for EEA nationals - effectively a vote on ending the free movement of people in the single market for Switzerland - was passed by a very narrow majority of 50.3%, but it has big consequences. The bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU form a dense and developed relationship; there are some 120 individual treaties. But the treaties are inter-related: should Switzerland breach one of the free movements, then the other single market provisions will be brought to an end. So Switzerland could potentially be exiting the single market.

As The Economist notes, this puts the EU in a bind: does it bring these agreements to an end and uphold the single market, or does it try to accommodate Switzerland for fear of inflating the Swiss vote? The Commission is quick to highlight the sanctity of free movement at every opportunity, but it is a delicate situation: the referendum doesn't have immediate effect, as the quota system needs to be drawn up and implemented. So when and how should the EU approach the question of bringing the single market agreements to an end? The EU should not come across as heavy handed - above all the decision of the Swiss electorate must be respected. But the relationship runs in two directions, and the Swiss should not be allowed to benefit from the single market without extending the same rights to the rest of the EU.

In the end, the issue will have to be confronted. Accommodation of the dilution of the single market unpicks the EU and the commitments Member States, and in this case also Switzerland, have made. If Switzerland chooses to opt out, then that's their choice, but it entails opting out of the single market, not just the parts they don't like. The EU should wait for the Swiss proposals, while making clear that they will stick by the treaties with Switzerland.

For Eurosceptics, the Swiss result is a victory, but the real question is if it is accommodated by the EU system. If it is, then the question will be: why not restrict free movement within the EU? It is one thing to say that the free movement rights are key to the single market, it's another to stand up politically for the benefits they bring and for the integrity of the single market as a whole. In the referendum, the impact of the result on Swiss access to the single market was debated. If Switzerland breaches its EU treaties and brings them to an end, that is their decision.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

First Thoughts on the First World War

This decade is going to see a lot of centenaries – the beginning and end of the First World War, the Spanish Influenza that killed so many afterwards, the rebellions and independence of so many European countries, the Russian revolution, the suffragette movement – and the commemorations will probably not only be about what we remember but how we remember it. Already there’s a debate in the UK over how the First World War is remembered: a time of patriotism, a disaster, a war that Britain never should have got involved in…

I’ve not had much patience with Michael Gove’s emphasis on patriotism (which seems to be more about deference to authority and the government of the day than anything), but I’ve been wondering if the debates and commemorations this year will change my view of the war. Like many people the First World War is an immense tragedy, and the horrors of trench warfare are unimaginable. The war need not have happened: sabre-rattling had been going on for a long time without war, and it did not necessarily have to break out in 1914.

However I have some understanding for how and why the war broke out. In a Europe ruled by the logic of the balance of power and bound up in alliance blocs, once the situation got out of hand and war started, it was hard to stop. Geopolitical and tactical considerations – whether Britain’s need to keep the Low Countries free to protect its coastline, or Germany’s aim to knock France out first via Belgium to prevent a war on two fronts – propelled the war forward, making it harder and harder to back down.

From today’s standards, it’s hard to see the First World War as just. We just don’t act like that in Europe anymore – our borders are virtually undisputed (and where they are disputed, war is unlikely), and it is not the empire-driven dog-eat-dog world out there anymore. Expansion and geopolitical positioning no longer drive our thoughts on our place in Europe, so it’s harder to think of going to war in the same circumstances. The shock of what the First World War actually cost pushed us away from the culture and assumptions of pre-war Europe, so it has become more of an alien concept to us today.

Before the First World War periodic Great Power wars were simply part of the balance of Europe: they happened when the other states felt that one country or another was getting too strong and threatening their strategic position, so there was a war to contain the growing power of other countries. The shock of the World Wars and the end of the age of imperialism has moved us to a stage where “just wars” are wars of defence or maybe of humanitarian intervention. So we should probably be a bit wary of projecting our values back on to the people of the time.

I wonder if our view of the war is not only coloured by the Second World War, but because the First may have straddled a shift in attitudes. The War of Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Franco-German War – we don’t seem to single out these wars out for being wasteful in the same way as the First World War, despite being similar Great Power wars in many ways. But the First World War did popularise the concept and phrase “never again”. The League of Nations was set up. Though the Second World War swept it away, the United Nations replaced it and the attitudes to war continued to shift from the pre-WWI outlook.

This is simply my impression at the moment and I wonder if this year of commemorations will bring new viewpoints and change my own. But there’s no question that it was a war that changed us.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt and the “Federalist Cause”

Guy Verhofstadt, who has led the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament for the last few years, will be the Liberals’ candidate forthe Commission Presidency in the May elections. He has fended off Olli Rehn, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs for the candidacy. It was unlikely that Rehn would have much appeal across Europe – he is the face of Eurozone austerity in the bailed-out countries and would represent a very fiscally hawkish face for the liberals – but he had a lot of support among the ALDE member-parties. The two will run together on a the same “ticket”, with Rehn proposed for another “senior post”. Perhaps the thinking is that if Verhofstadt doesn’t get the Presidency, he might stay as leader of the parliamentary group…?

Verhofstadt is probably a better bet than Rehn in that he’s a former Prime Minister (or Belgium) and has experience in both the European Parliament and in the European Council. He failed in his last attempt to become Commission President when Barroso first got the job in 2004… and I can’t see him having much hope this time around. Though some in his party have noted that he’s more centrist (and therefore more likely to be able to deal with either a right- or left- leaning Parliament), the liberals are probably going to have a very tough election. Two of the biggest liberal contingents – the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the FDP in Germany – are battered, with the FDP thrown out of the Bundestag last year and the Lib Dems predicted to come 4th in the UK in the May poll.

Verhofstadt is an interesting choice given his very outspoken federalism. Having written a federalist book – The United States of Europe – and given tub-thumping federalist speeches in the European Parliament, I’ve come to think of him as the federalist Farage. He has tried to set out his vision of federalism as more democratic:

However, I can’t see a more nuanced version reaching people. And, as I said at the start of the last Parliament, a focus on federalism and pro-Europeanism is not the way to go. Federalism is a concept for organising things rather than a proper ideology that sets out values and priorities. Really, competing ideas for the Eurozone, economic growth, the CAP, etc., need to be put to people and then the decision is make on how much to do at the European level, and how to do it.

The Liberals, and Verhofstadt, will need to come out with credible policies to make their brand more bankable. It strikes me that civil liberties and data protection could be a good issue for them if they tap into it – certainly it would chime with a lot more people than vague sermons on “federalism”.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Stripping Citizenship

Last week the UK House of Commons voted on an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would empower the Home Secretary to strip foreign-born terrorist suspects of their UK citizenship, even if it would render them stateless. (Those with dual citizenship can already be stripped of their British citizenship). The amendment reads (p.3):

"(4A) But that does not prevent the Secretary of State from making an order under subsection (2) to deprive a person of a citizenship status if—
(a) the citizenship status results from the person’s naturalisation, and
(b) the Secretary of State is satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good because the person, while having that citizenship status, has conducted him or herself in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom, any of the Islands, or any British overseas territory.”

The decision doesn’t have to be made following a court ruling and it isn’t made by a court – it’s made by the Secretary of State herself. The amendment was proposed by the Home Office Secretary of State, Theresa May, and was reportedly aimed at drawing Tory back-benchers away from an amendment that would have limited criminals up for deportation’s ability to rely on the right to family life under the European Convention on Human Rights. That amendment was defeated with the help of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The vote is another example of how difficult it is for Cameron to control his back bench, which will be worrying for him come the European elections. At the moment the Conservatives are expecting to come behind UKIP in the May poll, but even with that factored into their calculations, the back benches may take the result as a spur to become even more rebellious.

Disappointingly, the anti-immigration rhetoric has meant that the other parties have failed to take a firm stand on the issue of taking away citizenship. On Question Time on Thursday, the Labour and Lib Dem representatives weren’t able to give a clear “yes” or “no” on whether or not they supported the idea. UK politics seems to be stuck on an illiberal course…

Monday, 3 February 2014

Keller and Bové to lead the European Greens in the elections

The online European Greens primaries ended with anti-globalisation campaigner and French Green MEP José Bové and German Green youth leader and MEP Ska Keller heading the election campaign.

22,676 people voted in the online primaries, and the four candidates debated in ten different cities. The turnout for the vote is disappointing, but as an exercise in democracy it was a good effort – with all the primary campaign hype in the Social Democratic camp, the Greens are the ones that actually held a competitive election.

The challenge for the winners now is to really add a European dimension to the campaign – visiting campaign events across the continent and explaining Green positions can not only add that dimension, but give extra credibility to the value of a vote for the Greens if they can show that they are an engaged and active parliamentary group worth supporting.

The idea of common candidates is becoming normalised now, with the main Europarty groups planning to run (at least) one. It’s unclear how much influence they have on the common platforms of their respective parties – the Green candidates appear to be campaign leaders, rather than being picked as parliamentary group leaders or potential Commission candidates – but there will be an incentive there for the candidates to promote themselves and their party platform.

It’s very much open whether the media and electorate will be attracted to these common candidates, but already the election is looking to be a more engaging prospect than last time around.

Monday, 27 January 2014

5 Years of Bloggingportal!

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

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

So here’s to another 5 years!

Monday, 13 January 2014

No Free Movement Rights for the Working Class?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 January 2014

European Parliament wants to question Snowden

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Poland says No to watering down Free Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Which Generation are we saving here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Yet More Widening and Deepening

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

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

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

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