Thursday, January 26, 2006

A note for the eurosceptics:

(Copyright Prospect magazine)

Friday, January 20, 2006

The latest wheeze of Dan Hannan and some other eurosceptic MEPs is to claim that the European Parliament is trying to 'gag' them!

Almost all parliaments have rules in order to protect themselves against disruptive behaviour aimed at preventing them from working. Not that the rules need to be used very often; but they are there to safeguard the democratic process.

Until now, the European Parliament lacked a clear set of rules on this - and it finally got around to adopting some yesterday. They are modest. They give the President of Parliament powers that are far less than the powers of, for instance, the Speaker of the House of Commons. They are strictly circumscribed and are combined with safeguards to reassure those colleagues who feared that the President might clamp down on any kind of behaviour that was in any way colourful or lively. It does not ban vibrant debate or even visual displays, but only behaviour that any parliament would find unacceptable. The President's powers range from giving a reprimand to a Member to suspending him or her for a maximum of ten days. (If suspended, the Member would still be able to vote.)

A coherent and proportionate set of rules to protect Parliament, if necessary, became clear after some recent incidents, such as one involving an Italian MEP who tried to disrupt a formal address by the President of Italy. And let us not forget that, at the last European election, Kilroy-Silk said his ambition was to wreck the Parliament and prevent it from working. In the end, he simply disappearded without trace - but, who knows, he might, in combination with others, have made a serious effort to stop Parliament from working.

The suggestion that these rules would gag a particular viewpoint is preposterous. All views, including eurosceptic ones, are freely expressed in Parliament - and always have been, in a Parliament that contains the whole political spectrum from communists to the far-right. In fact, this reform was drafted by a Green MEP - hardly likely to want to clamp down on colourfully-expressed minority viewpoints!

Dan Hannan's comments are therefore aimed at gullible journalists hoping to get an anti-Europe story out of nothing. Unless, that is, he really thinks that these rules will target him - in which case he is either actually planning to disrupt Parliament's work, or he is paranoid. Given his general attitude to the European Union – that every aspect of it is evil – I rather think it is paranoia.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

What to do about the EU constitutional treaty? That's the question we debated yesterday and voted on today.

There are at least two views. One is that this text of the Constitution is dead following the referenda in France and the Netherlands; that we had better start thinking of something else and preparing a different way forward.

The other view is to say: hang on a minute, this text has actually now been ratified by a majority of Member States. The 25 national governments themselves did not declare it dead. Instead, they extended the period of ratification and opened a 'period of reflection'. In that period of reflection we must listen carefully to those who said ‘no’, but we must also listen to the majority who have said ‘yes’ and find a way forward that can ultimately bring the two together.

Eurosceptics shout loudly about the French and Dutch referenda showing that "Europe" has lost touch with public opinion and that the constitutional treaty (presumably unlike any other treaty) was an elitist project which the public is now revolting against. They never mention the referenda in other countries which endorsed the treaty, nor the fact that, in total, more people voted in favour than against.

What we have is not a mass revolt, but a divergence of views. In the EU, when countries' views diverge, the traditional pratice is to talk things through to try to overcome that divergence and to find a compromise solution. In the past, when new treaties have been rejected by a member country, ways have been found, with the agreement of the country concerned, to reassure public opinion and to allow the treaty to be adopted after a new referendum.

This time, it is far too soon to draw conclusions as to the best way forward. The period of reflection has begun by addressing issues of context rather than the text. It is only now that several governments have begun to float ideas as to what could be done about the text.

Parliament concluded that the period of reflection must be extended at least until 2007 to enable a longer and deeper reflection. Until then, all options should be kept open. Of course – as is to be expected – Parliament would prefer to maintain the text, but it recognised that that would only be possible if measures were taken to reassure and convince public opinion. What those measures might be is left open. Parliament pointed out that there are, in theory, many options: supplementary interpretative declarations, extra protocols, rewriting part of the text, rewriting the whole text, drafting a new text and so on.

Which option is best and feasible will only emerge at the end of the period of reflection. The conclusion cannot be drawn now. But one thing is certain: the status quo – that is, the current Treaties – is not sufficient for this Union in its enlarged form to function effectively or democratically. This issue will not go away.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

An update on the campaign to halt the now infamous Europe-wide mailing scam that calls itself the 'European City Guide'. The last time I posted about this, it was good news: the international campaign against the ECG was starting to bear fruit, with police seizing evidence from the offices of a parent company in Switzerland and a criminal investigation underway.

Since then, there have been several developments. Firstly, the ECG scam turns out to be closely linked with a number of other scams, including 'Novachannel AG' and 'Construct Data' – in fact, a Swiss newspaper has recently uncovered that they are all owned by the same man! (Link to pay-only archive section of newspaper site.)

Secondly, and more worryingly, those people behind the scam have been concentrating their efforts on silencing those who are attempting to expose them. Their most recent step has been to target the main advice website for victims of the scam, entitled 'Stop the European City Guide'. Since 2001, this site has offered advice and support to thousands of companies across the UK on what to do if they are targeted by scammers. Site author Jules Woodell estimates that having an online support forum such as this has saved British firms hundreds of thousands of pounds in payments to organisations such as the ECG.

This isn't the first time that the 'Stop the European City Guide' site has been targeted by those it tries to expose. The method of bullying has changed, but the objective remains the same. In 2003, the site was successfully defended against an attempt by the ECG to silence it by making allegations of copyright infringement.

This time around, the strategy is different. Novachannel AG has employed a UK law firm to get the website shut down. Rather than contacting those involved in the site, the lawyers instead send threatening letters to the internet service provider which hosts the site. This hosting company plays no part in the campaign to expose the scams, so it has no reason to stand up to the threats. The result is that the website (www.stopecg.org) has been temporarily shut down.

What's so frustrating about this situation is that those people who campaign to expose the ECG and related scams would welcome a court case. Every time it's come to court (in both Germany and Spain), the courts have recognised the scam and ruled against the ECG. But, by bullying internet service providers rather than taking on the campaign itself, the scammers have found a way to silence their opponents without risking a court action.

These companies pose real threats to Yorkshire businesses, dozens of whom have been duped in the past. After 5 years of campaigning, I'm not about to give up. A major step would be to get the support website back online; the campaign continues…

Friday, January 13, 2006

One favourite eurosceptic line is that the European Union has developed with barely any reference to public opinion, and in fact without democratic support. This kind of claim is usually tossed into anti-European arguments as an aside, and therefore too often goes unaddressed.

It is, however, complete rubbish. In fact, I can think of no other topic which has ever been subject to quite as many referenda as the process of building the European Union. Specifically:
  • Between 1972 to 2005, no fewer than 34 national referenda have been held in EU member states on the subject of European integration - be it accession, treaty ratification, or joining the euro. Averaged out, that amounts to (more than) one referendum every single year.

  • The average turnout in EU-related referenda is two-thirds; the highest turnout is 91%, and only 4 of the 34 had turnouts of less than 50%.

  • Of these 34 referenda, 28 (82%) have been 'yes' votes. Of the remaining 6 'noes', two were later reversed in subsequent referenda.
If anyone can think of a political issue that's received more endorsement by plebiscite than this over as long a timescale, I'd be interested to hear about it.

And besides, there's a more general point. We in the EU are all parliamentary democracies; the UK has a longer tradition than most. It is our elected parliamentarians who deliberate and decide policy on our behalf, and must account for their actions at election time. Nobody claims that the NHS is undemocratic because it's never been subjected to a referendum, yet our national policy on this continues to be shaped by elected governments. In the UK, even constitutional developments are rarely put to vote, and still this is not seen as an omission which undermines their legitimacy. And we joined the UN, the WTO, NATO, and countless other structures where we share our sovereignty without any clamour to hold a referendum.

As long as our government remains accountable to Parliament for British policy towards Europe, and as long as we continue to elect the House of Commons, the claim that the EU has poor democratic legitimacy is always going to be shaky. All the more so when we also elect MEPs to represent us directly at European level!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"He who is limping is still walking."

Does this old Yorkshire (or is it Chinese?) proverb apply to the European Union? There is no doubt that the rejection of the EU reform package by France and the Netherlands last year has injured the EU and left it limping.

But it is still very much walking. Common European-wide laws continue to be agreed in those areas where member states consider that this would be mutually beneficial. A medium term budget has been agreed. Countries still outside the EU continue to join the lengthening queue to become full members. Even with a limp, Europe is still moving
ahead.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Don't just take it from me: even the Lib Dems concede that Tony Blair's presidency of the European Council was a success! So says Andrew Duff MEP:
Credit to Blair for a successful presidency

"…The prime minister’s most admirable performance came not at the start of his presidency but at the end, on December 20, when he reported back to MEPs after the critical meeting of the European Council the previous week.

"On this occasion Blair had to explain and justify the agreement on the EU’s multi-annual financial framework for the period 2007-13. For Blair it was much more than a public relations outing because the parliament has the power to approve or reject the package proposed by the European Council and, within certain parameters, to adjust figures between headings.

"His presentation – which skilfully mixed confidence and contrition - was admirable, not just for its content, but also for the way in which he bashed ‘reactionaries’ and derided ‘commentators’."

Friday, January 06, 2006

So Austria wants to review the EU constitution. I wrote in the Guardian on the subject:
"The reasons which led all 25 governments to agree that our enlarged EU needs a new rulebook have not simply disappeared. …

"The French "no" campaigners argued that rejecting the constitutional treaty would lead to a re-negotiation where the text could be "improved" - although they did not all agree on what those improvements might be. Nonetheless, it is clear that their intention was to kill the text but not the process - and possibly not all of the text.

"According to the most recent opinion polls, 64% of Dutch and 65% of French people want the constitution to be re-negotiated rather than killed off.

"In that sense, the ball is in the court of France and of the Netherlands. It is up to those countries to say exactly what it is they consider necessary in order for the process to be revived. If they consider that there is no scope whatsoever for agreeing anything along the lines of the constitutional treaty, they must say so and save the rest of us a lot of time."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The BBC were yesterday trumpeting a Radio 4 poll which produced some very odd results. The poll, organised by the Today programme's 'Who Runs Your World' season, apparently found that 22% of listeners believed Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, to be “the most powerful man in the UK”.

Considering that most people in the country don’t even know who Mr Barroso is, this is a curious result. But then, it was a pretty curious poll from start to finish. Setting aside the usual doubts about what exactly counts as 'power', listeners were asked to choose the most powerful “person” from a pre-selected shortlist of ten, which included a number of quite definitely non-person entities, including 'Parliament' and even 'Google'. (In no less than 300 words, discuss the merits of comparing the Prime Minister with an internet search engine…)

The results were even more odd: a supermarket chief executive scored more highly than the supposedly ‘dictatorial’ Tony Blair, who only made seventh place; while Gordon Brown, the ‘Iron Chancellor’, the holder of the strings of Britain’s biggest purse, managed to come joint last, tied with Shami Chakrabarti, who works for a political pressure group!

Something was clearly very wrong with the whole affair. According to the Yorkshire Post on January 3 (I couldn't find the online version of the article),
"the BBC did not say how many votes it received and there were signs that the number might have been quite small. Voters had to be keen enough to check into the Today programme website and were encouraged to make their own comments when they did. The last messages left before the final count were five days old and only one person wrote in to comment on the result yesterday."
The plot thickens.

Of course, the eurosceptics jumped on the bandwagon immediately. UKIP’s Roger Knapman crowed that Barroso is “a bureaucrat perceived as the most important man in this country and that is quite shocking”. (Wrong, as usual: Mr Barroso is no more a bureaucrat than Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten were. He’s a politician through and through, having previously been Prime Minister of Portugal! In his present post, he was proposed by the heads of 25 democratically elected governments and can remain in office only while he enjoys the confidence of the directly-elected European Parliament – just as our national ministers must enjoy the confidence of our House of Commons.)

Anyway, I was quite prepared to put this weird result down to a conflation of two euromyths in voters’ minds: the myth that the Commission makes laws (it can’t), and the myth that it is unelected (it isn’t). But then the final icing on the cake came in a report in today’s Guardian:
“The UK Independence Party admitted yesterday that it tried to rig the poll on the Today programme to find out who runs Britain. … UKIP and Dan Hannan, the fiercely eurosceptic Conservative MEP, both admitted to the Guardian that they had separately sent e-mails encouraging supporters to vote for Mr Barroso. … Mr Hannan said last night: ‘I had no idea UKIP were doing it. I was going to take sole credit for it.’”
So the mystery is solved, and another instance of UKIP’s media strategy lies exposed. All rather embarrassing for the BBC, of course, but sadly no surprise for those of us more accustomed to eurosceptic propaganda tactics. I won’t hold my breath for an apology from Mr Knapman, who, let’s not forget, claimed to find the results “quite shocking”.

But I’ll leave the last word to an indignant Ben Jones of the European Movement:
“Politics should be done through rational argument, not by manipulating the media.”

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The UK Presidency ended as the clocks chimed in the New Year, and it's worth evaluating what was achieved. The balance sheet is surprisingly positive; surprising, that is, compared to the assessments of many of the armchair commentators whose agenda precludes them from saying anything positive about the government or the EU.

The Presidency of the European Council is not an executive office, but the chairmanship of one of the EU institutions for a very short period. It has no decision-taking powers of its own, merely the opportunity to chair skillfully, to broker compromises, and to place items higher up the (largely inherited) agenda.

Within these constraints, the UK's achievements are not insignificant:
  • Managed to get a deal on the budget. (Enough has been said about this elsewhere on this blog.)

  • Secured agreement on the "European Consesus on Development" that will double EU countries development aid to $80billion per year by 2010, commits Member States to reach the UN target of 0.7% GDP by 2015, and re-orientates the EU's own programmes towards poverty elimination and meeting the Millenium Development Goals.

  • Begun a further round of CAP reform, with agreement to end all export subsidies over the next 7 years, to fit all the 10 new Member States and the next two (Bulgaria and Romania) within the current CAP spending ceiling, which will itself be reduced by 7%, to radically reform the sugar régime now and to have a new overall review of spending in 2008.

  • Got all 25 countries to agree to start accession negotiations with Turkey.

  • Persuaded Council to agree that its meetings on EU codecision legislation should be held in public, with immediate effect.

  • Made huge progress towards adoption of the REACH directive on protecting consumers and workers from dangerous chemicals.

  • Secured agreement with the European Parliament (rather than an intergovernmental shortcut) on the data retention directive, vital for combatting terrorism and serious criminality.

  • Persuaded Council to resume consideration of proposals to reform the "comitology" system of scrutinising the implementing powers of the Commission, in view of giving Council and the European Parliament equal rights to call back Commission decisions.

  • Set an example of how Council presidencies should interact withn the European Parliament, with a record number of ministerial appearences in Parliament and no fewer than four visits of the Prime Minister.

  • Hosted a highly successful meeting of the 104-country ACP Assembly in Edinburgh.

  • Launched EU Security & Defence missions to Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and to Aceh in Indonesia.

  • Made progress on climate change, leading the EU delegation to contribute to the agreement at the Montreal conference and putting together a package of assistance to China to clean up its coal-fired power stations.

  • Secured agreement in Council on the Capital Requirements Directive, an important part of the Financial services Action Plan.