Monday, February 28, 2005

I was shocked to read a eurosceptic website actually attacking UKIP because its MEPs voted in favour of a Parliament resolution condemning anti-Semitism! (Read the full article here.)

Just occasionally, I do feel a bit sorry for UKIP’s ragtag bunch of MEPs. Since being elected in 2004, they’ve barely made a positive contribution to anything. On the occasions they bother to turn up to Parliament at all, they invariably vote against everything. But on the occasions when even they can’t bring themselves to object – for instance, to a resolution condemning the Holocaust and expressing concern over the rise of xenophobia – they then come under attack from their own side for betraying their principles!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Today, a new euromyth is born. I pick up a Tory briefing in which I learn that the European Commission is planning to ban – wait for it – that bastion of British society, the Honey Monster! To wit:
“The European Commission is attempting to interfere with the way breakfast is advertised. Proposals have been made that would make it illegal for companies to invent fantasy characters such as the Honey Monster and Coco Monkey. The [Commission's] thoughts behind this [are] that such characters encourage children to eat food which [is] high in sugar, fat and salt and ultimately lead to an unhealthy diet and obesity. Breakfast cereal on our shelves would have to be marketed and packaged in new ways if the proposal comes into force."

Hah! I know eurosceptics like to exaggerate sometimes, but that’s the first time I’ve heard anyone accuse the Commission of being a cereal killer…

Friday, February 25, 2005

I had a look today at the website of Dan Hannan MEP. Dan is a leading Conservative euro-sceptic and ardent campaigner against its new constitution in particular. He is also a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph.

So, I thought that what he wrote on the European constitution would be full of incisive arguments and devastating insights into the constitution as he sees it – or, at least, a reasonably coherent exposition of the eurosceptic standpoint.

But I was wrong. Instead, I was disappointed to find only a set of 10 bullet points, every single one of which is either wrong, misleading, or portraying as negative something which should be celebrated as a significant advance.

Let's examine them in more detail.

This constitution shall have primacy over the laws of the member states (Article 5a)
Well, yes. The primacy of European law over national law was established well before we joined the EU - it's not something new created by the constitution.

But it also makes absolute sense. What on earth would be the point of agreeing common laws with our neighbouring countries if any one of us was then free to ignore them? This clause isn't saying that new laws can be handed down from "Brussels" and imposed on us; it's just saying that, when we make an agreement, we're expected to stick to it.

And it's as well to remember that European law can only be adopted
  1. on those subjects where we have all agreed that the EU should have competence, and
  2. with the agreement of the EU Council of Ministers, i.e. elected national governments.

The European Commission will be given power over Britain's economic and employment policies, making the question of whether we keep the pound largely redundant
This is mischief making at its worst. I can't see anything in the new constitution - or in the current treaties, which are virtually the same regarding this policy area - which gives the European Commission any such powers.

The treaties do already provide for member states to co-ordinate their economic policies when their finance ministers meet in the Council. But this is something that's up to the member states themselves to agree. It gives absolutely no policy-making powers to the European Commission.

The constitution creates a European foreign policy, complete with an EU Foreign Minister and diplomatic corps
No. It was the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, not the new constitution, that created a "Common Foreign and Security Policy" for the European Union - but only in those policy areas where every single member state agrees a common position. Where we don't agree, there is no common policy. Where we do agree, Europe's voice in the world is amplified. How can this be a problem?

As to the so-called "Foreign Minister", this new post is simply a merger between the existing High Representative for foreign policy (Javier Solana) and the existing Commissioner for External Relations (until recently Chris Patten). The new "minister" has no new powers. He or she can speak for the Union only where member states have already agreed a common policy.

So the only really significant change here is that the field of external representations, currently carried out by the Commission, will instead be given to the new "foreign minister" who is accountable directly to national governments.

Member states shall support the EU's common foreign and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity (Article 15)
Yes, absolutely. If member states jointly agree on a common foreign and security position then of course they should support it. Not to do so would be double standards - agreeing one thing with our neighbouring countries and then doing the opposite. But let me emphasise again that the common policy will only exist when member states agree that it should. When they don't agree, we can each go our own way.

The clause quoted, by the way, has been in the treaties since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. It's not new in the constitution.

The constitution creates a European criminal justice system, with a European Public Prosecutor and an EU legal code; this runs directly counter to our own common law tradition
No, the constitution does not create a European criminal justice "system". All it does is enable member states to cooperate in this field - as they should when facing a growing number of transnational problems, including transnational criminal gangs, traffickers and terrorists.

But, as ever, it is member states themselves who remain in control of what common rules we agree at EU level. Where there is majority voting, there is also an "emergency brake" allowing any country to block a decision and refer it to the European Council which acts by unanimity.

As to the European Public Prosecutor, this is not "created" by the Constitution. The Constitution merely enables the Council to set one up in the future - but only if every single member state agrees!

43 national vetoes will be abolished, and the powers of MEPs extended to 36 new areas
Well, there are two points here.

First, on the veto: yes, there will be an extension of QMV - but it is in those areas where Britain wanted it to be extended. After all, the veto is a double-edged sword. If we have one, then so does every other of the 24 member states, allowing them to block things that we want. This is something that has consistenly worked against Britain in the past.

On the other hand, we retain unanimity (i.e. the veto) in every single one of the 'red line' areas specified by the British government: including over tax, social security, foreign policy, defence and changes to the treaty itself. (Martin Stabe has posted a revealing analysis on just how powerful Britain's position is in this respect.)

As to the extension of the powers of the European Parliament, this is something that even eurosceptics should welcome - because it represents an additional safeguard. New EU legislation needs to be vetted and approved not only by elected governments but also by directly elected MEPs in the European Parliament. Two checks, two balances, two quality controls. And rightly so: we should be extra-careful before adopting legislation which applies to a whole continent. That's why the safeguards - high majorities in Council, and approved by Parliament - are built in.

Brussels jurisdiction is specified in virtually every area of government policy: transport, energy, public health, trade, employment, social policy, competition, agriculture, fisheries, defence, foreign affairs, asylum and immigration, space exploration, criminal justice
Ah, "Brussels jurisdiction" - a favourite term of the eurosceptics! But who is "Brussels"? Is it an alien external body imposing its will on member states?

No. It's simply the place where the member states themselves meet to agree (or not) on areas of cooperation.

So of course the list of subjects where we may wish to co-operate is a long one. In today's world, there are very few areas of policy where we are entirely unaffected by what our neighbours do. But it is up to the member states to determine the degree and intensity of EU action in each area. In many of these areas, EU action is simply co-ordinating or supporting what individual member states choose to do. In others, we co-operate more closely to ensure that our joint actions are effective. This is entirely as it should be.

But it is not the Commission that adopts legislation. The Commission merely proposes: it's the Council of Ministers, members of national governments accountable to national parliaments, that decides - and this must also be double-checked by the European Parliament.

Member states shall exercise their competence to the extent that the EU ceases to exercise, or chooses no longer to exercise, its competence (Article 11)
This reflects exactly the same principle. If member states do not chose to exercise competencies jointly at EU level, or if they cease to wish to do so, then of course it should be up to each country individually to exercise these competencies.

The day that the constitution enters into force, all previous EU treaties will be dissolved; the Union will cease to be an association of states bound by international treaties, and become a state in its own right
Now this comment really is mischievous.

The constitutional treaty will indeed replace all previous EU treaties, which are to a large extent codified within it. But quite how this is supposed to change the nature of the Union into "a state in its own right" is anyone's guess.

After all, the new constitution is itself an international treaty, signed and ratified by sovereign states, just like all the other treaties have been. If Dan objects to the word "constitutional" in its title, and thinks that means that it is a state, then how does he account for the fact that the World Health Organisation and the Universal Postal Union both have "constitutions", without anyone thinking that they might be a state?

States have a standing army, powers to tax, a serious central budget and administration. The EU has, and will have, none of these things:

  • There is no EU army. There are joint EU forces which member states may, if they so wish, contribute to, just like UN forces. We already have EU peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Macedonia.
  • There is no central power of taxation.
  • The EU budget is a mere 1% of public expenditure (compare that to any centralised or even federal state!).
  • The central administration has fewer employees than Leeds City Council. So much for the mythical centralised superstate!

The Union shall provide itself with the means necessary to carry through its policies and pursue its objectives (Article 52)
Of course, when our countries establish common policies at EU level they must at the same time provide the means to carry them through. There would, for example, have been no point in agreeing to send a joint peacekeeping force to Bosnia if no member state wished to supply any troops.

All Dan's objections are based on a single flawed premise: that "the Union" (or "Brussels") is some sinister external entity, imposing its will on member states. But this is entirely backward. The Union is created by the member states, has only the responsibilities and powers that member states agree to give it, and can act only under the control of the member states themselves through the Council.

The EU is nothing more than an extensive co-operative system that we have built up in our continent over the last half century. To turn our back on it now would be madness. Not only has the EU helped create an area of peace and stability in Europe, in contrast to so much of our history, but it is also a sensible, pragmatic mechanism for coping with - and taking advantage of - our inevitable interdependence. It is the forum where we agree common policies, and sometimes common rules, with our neighbouring countries, in areas where this is of mutual benefit: common rules for the common market, environmental legislation and so on. It is the generator of much of our economic prosperity - and vital for Britain with nearly 60% of our trade being with the rest of the EU.

To tear up this co-operative system and to walk away would seriously undermine Britain's national interest. To turn our back on a new treaty which most of Europe considers to have been a triumph for British negotiators would confirm to the rest of Europe that our country has fallen into the hands of swivel-eyed, nationalistic europhobes who are totally divorced from reality.

Sadly, Dan Hannan's website is an example of those views.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Cheeky Simon Carr, a sketch-writer for the Independent, accuses MEPs of being a waste of space. In particular, he seems to think that MEPs are unable to do any legislative work! I wrote him a reply, with no particular hopes of its being published.

But I later learned that the European Parliament office in London had also written as follows:

“Simon Carr (Sketch, 10 February) does not appear to know the difference between an elected parliamentarian and an appointed functionary, or 'official' as we call them in English. Insulting MEPs just compounds his error.

“Of course MEPs amend and indeed sometimes reject legislation; that is partly what they are for. And MEPs have other functions - remember the fates of Mr Buttiglione and Mr Santer?

“MEPs take decisions on all sorts of things that affect the citizen: the EU budget, legislation on the environment and on the internal market, to name just a few.

“Time to visit Strasbourg? Be our guest, Mr Carr.

“Yours functionally…”

Monday, February 21, 2005

So the Spanish people voted yes to the constitution, overwhelmingly. While this might not be a surprise – Spain has always been staunchly pro-European – it is still good news. Four down, twenty-one to go.

Predictably, the UK media has tried to find a way to interpret the result negatively. They must have struggled, because they’ve eventually settled on complaining about the turnout. 42% is admittedly pretty low, but we always knew it would be low – with both main parties in favour, opinion polls predicting a large victory, and everyone recognising the result as completely uncontroversial. If it had been a more close-fought contest, I suspect voters would have turned out in their droves.

Besides, there is a whiff of hypocrisy here. The turnout in the first Irish referendum on the Nice treaty, which narrowly rejected the treaty, was down in the thirties – yet eurosceptics hailed that as a triumph for democracy!

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Other myths about the constitution are surfacing – or re-surfacing – this week.

The Times intimates that Britain and France might lose their seats on the UN security council in favour of a European foreign minister if the constitution is adopted.

But this is false. In fact, the text reads as follows:
“When the Union has defined a position on a subject which is on the United Nations Security Council agenda, those Member States which sit on the Security Council shall request that the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs be asked to present the Union's position.”

So Britain and France will therefore keep their seats and their votes. The only difference is that, when the rest of the EU agrees with our position, we’ll benefit from the extra weight of the entire EU behind us too! Surely this is an unambiguously good thing?

The Telegraph resurrects the hoary old myth that the primacy of EU law is (a) new and (b) bad. But this was a well established principle of the EU long before the UK joined. It is also true of other international treaties - there would be little point in making international agreements in the first place if the signatories were not agreeing to be bound by their provisions!

In any case, EU law only operates where we have already agreed that it should. The constitution makes clear that the Union may only act "within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States" (Article I-11.2). Moreover, "the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member State, either at central level or at regional or local level" (Article I-11.3).

The constitution commits Member States to supporting a common EU foreign and security policy, just as the present treaties do. But this policy only exists when every single country agrees on a common line – so we can never be forced to do anything against our will. When there are disagreements, each country simply goes its own way.

Friday, February 18, 2005

I visited Spain this week to take part in debates before their referendum on the new EU constitution. As in Ireland, I'm impressed with the quality of their debate when compared with the UK’s. Spain has its eurosceptics and its No campaigners, but they tend to be much more moderate (and honest!) than our own myth-makers.

It’s also interesting to notice that the debate in Spain goes in the opposite direction to the UK debate. There, the No campaign’s main objection to the constitution is that it is too cautious, too nation-statist, too British. This is actually the case in much of the EU – the British conspiracy theorists who pretend that the constitution is a great leap forward in federalism are definitely in the minority.

That’s another reason why a no vote would be a rather dangerous leap in the dark, by the way. If we reject the constitution, it would not be a simple matter of amending the draft and trying again. After all, what would a No vote mean? That it’s too integrationist, as our eurosceptics think, or not integrationist enough, as the Spanish No campaigners think? That it’s too British, as much of the continent thinks - or that it's not British enough, as the British think?

Good news: the Greens have added their name to the list of political parties from across Europe which endorse the new constitutional treaty. The Green group in the European Parliament had already decided to support the constitution, and now this position has been confirmed by an overwhelming majority by the Council of the European Green Party.

This article (posted by the Maltese Greens) explains the reasons behind their support:

"The Council of the European Green Party:

"1. Taking the text of the draft treaty that was decided upon unanimously by the heads of government and state of the 25 Member States;

"2. Supports the Green Group's resolution and accordingly considers that this TCE makes significant improvements in relation to the existing Treaties which it would replace, in particular regarding the extension of supranational parliamentary democracy and the consolidation of the aims of sustainable development, social solidarity and full employment."

So the constitution now has the wholehearted support of all mainstream parties across the EU: the conservatives and Christian Democrats, socialists and social democrats, liberals and Greens.

This expression of support from all across Europe contrasts sharply with the negative position adopted by the UK Green party. In the light of their colleagues' ringing endorsement, our own Greens look curiously isolated.

In the past, they tried to suggest that the new constitution is somehow unacceptable to Green politicians. This claim has now been blown out of the water completely as their sister parties from across the EU have rallied around it.

I can’t imagine why the UK contingent should insist on taking such a negative line – unless they are trying to score quick political points at home from the UK’s eurosceptic tabloids. I wonder how they explain this to their colleagues from other countries?

I must admit, it’s not helpful that fellow Socialist and Spanish PM José Zapatero has remarked that he would like to see the future replacement of Spanish national embassies with EU ones. I predict that this remark will be picked up by the UK eurosceptics, who will pretend that Zapatero thinks the constitution will do this. It does nothing of the sort, whatever Zapatero might like to see in the future.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Good news – EU-wide compensation rules for airline passengers came into force this week. Labour MEPs were at the forefront of pressing for these new rules, which guarantee that passengers who are deliberately “bumped off” their flights, or who suffer severe delays or cancellations, are entitled to financial compensation, hotel accommodation, meals, and the option of alternative flights or a refund.

While most organisations welcome these moves, predictably, some of the budget airlines aren’t too happy. Why, they ask, should they have to compensate passengers to the tune of several hundred pounds when their ticket only cost a tenner in the first place?

The two responses to that complaint are obvious. Firstly, if you’re bumped off a flight, the price paid for the ticket is often the least of your worries. The compensation is not meant to be just a refund - it also takes into account the inconvenience of missed connections, missed package tours, reneged-on hotel bookings, messed up holidays etc which all follow from serious flight delays. And secondly, bumping off happens as a result of deliberate and mischievous overbooking by airlines - if they stopped doing that, they would stop having to compensate people for it!

Friday, February 11, 2005

Some interesting pieces in the press this week!

The FT thinks that the new EU constitution would be “a damning indictment” of how far apart politicians and people have grown, if it fails to be ratified because one or two countries vote against. (The article is no longer available on the web.)

But there is overwhelming support for the European project across the EU. It's highly likely that the treaty will be endorsed by an overwhelming majority of member countries, whether by parliamentary scrutiny or by national referendum.

The catch is that an overwhelming majority is not good enough. We need the grand slam of 25 yes votes from 25 countries. But if nearly every country votes yes, and just one or two reject it, that would hardly be a sign of widespread hostility!

Elsewhere, I’m somewhat amused to read Nigel Farage, a UKIP MEP, complaining in the Telegraph: “The bias towards big money in politics is getting considerably worse. This is building up to being a big money election”. Now, who was it that spent more money than all three mainstream parties put together in the 2004 European elections? Wasn’t it UKIP?!