Thursday, March 31, 2005

There was a letter in the Yorkshire Post yesterday from a regular eurosceptic correspondent, Keith Johnston. His latest theme is that the constitution is an anti-Christian document and the EU is a humanist conspiracy:

In our ever-closer union in Europe, this is a fundamental point to be considered when we vote on the Constitution. Is God to be relegated and humanism to take over?…

One can see it at work in the European Union, with its Charter of Fundamental Rights, and its unending stream of laws, regulations and decisions of the courts affecting all aspects of our lives.
There is no such conspiracy, of course. In fact, the constitution recognises our rich “religious and humanist” heritage, which seems to cover all the bases. Nowhere does it state that “humanism [is] the ethical basis of the European Union”. In fact, it explicitly commits us to respecting Europe’s cultural and religious diversity when we take decisions at European level (Article 82).

Mr Johnston also brings up the old myth about rejecting a Catholic Commissioner:

It was there, too, in the rejection of an Italian commissioner who was a devout Catholic.
Now, we certainly did not vote against Rocco Buttiglione because he was a Catholic! Religion didn’t come into it. After all, several other Commissioners are also devout Catholics – this really isn’t a problem.

But Mr Buttiglione expressed views about homosexuality, women and the family which ran directly counter to the fundamental principles of equality already agreed by all EU countries. Incidentally, many Christians also found his views unacceptable. He was, of course, entitled to express them, but he was not entitled to let them affect his decisions as a Commissioner – and he was unable to guarantee that he would not.

MEPs from several parties therefore felt unable to give him a vote of confidence, and the President of the Commission responded by withdrawing his nomination. Quite how this could be seen as a victory for humanism over Christianity is a mystery to me!

Anyway, Mr Johnston's assertions about Christianity have been undermined somewhat by this breaking news: the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), representing Catholic bishops from across the EU, has given its backing to the constitution and commended it to Catholic congregations:

While regretting that the Union had not heeded calls by John Paul II to include a reference to Christianity in the text of the Constitution, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) has commended it to their congregation. The Constitution is a "breakthrough for Church and society" which "reflects core principles of Christian anthropology", the Bishops said in a statement.

In a meeting with President Barroso on 11 March, COMECE affirmed the backing of the Church for the goals and values of the Union. The Bishops approved the Lisbon aims of economic progress, the rule of law and a strong civil society and pledged support in particular for the creation of an EU fundamental rights agency.
That last point is particularly interesting because, elsewhere in his letter, Mr Johnston claims that the concept of fundamental rights is a humanist concept that runs counter to Christian thinking. The bishops disagree!

Edit: I wrote a few days ago about the fact that Muslims support the constitution "unequivocally" and, in particular, that European Muslims are also committed to the principle of human rights. Some humanist conspiracy…

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

It is interesting to see how some people claim the new constitution is a great victory for federalists. That is certainly not the view of many federalists whom I know.

From a federalist perspective, the draft constitutional treaty can be strongly criticised. It fails to set up a European Federation and, indeed, it contains a number of steps away from the federal dream and in the direction of a Union of nation states. Under its terms, the Union remains based on a treaty which can only be amended with the agreement of each and every member state. Several key areas of decision taking remain subject to unanimity. The Commission is potentially weakened, both in terms of its composition (one per country until 2014, equal rotation thereafter) and in terms of the creation of a separate President of the European Council. The latter will be appointed by national governments with no input from the European Parliament and will strengthen the inter-governmental features of the Union at the expense of the supra-national dimension.

Even the creation of a European Minister for Foreign Affairs is not the step forward that many federalists might have hoped for. On the contrary, the structure envisaged could mean that the external relations powers of the Commission are captured by the Council. In effect, the current "High Representative for Foreign Affairs", appointed by the national governments in the Council, takes over the position of External
Relations Commissioner as well and the relevant Commission departments could be removed from the Commission to come under his/her authority.

The Common Foreign and Security Policy amounts largely to a co-ordination of national positions and is only "common" if all member states agree on the same position. There is no scope for harmonising taxation, as this still requires unanimity.

I was interested to read in the FT (full article here - but you need to subscribe) that the House of Commons library has estimated that EU legislation only accounts for about 9% of new regulations adopted in Britain each year, rather than the 50% or more often claimed by eurosceptics.

The library has analysed all statutory instruments adopted over the last five financial years, up to April 2004 and showed that the proportion arising out of agreements reached at European level come to about 9% per year - and many of them rather technical rules concerning trade or agriculture.

Don't count on the eurosceptics dropping their silly claims that we are being sucked into a super-state that dictates all of our laws from Brussels. They have never let the facts stand in the way of their claims.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Dr Mustafa Ceric, who I gather is Europe's most senior Muslim cleric, has told a gathering of Muslim leaders in London that a declaration from them should:
contain a clear message that European Muslims are fully and unequivocally committed to the European Constitution, the rule of law, the principles of tolerance and the values of democracy and human rights.

The Law Society of England and Wales has examined the new constitution and published a guide for legal practitioners. It is excellent.

It begins by summarising the main aims and characteristics of the new treaty:
The Constitutional Treaty brings the above existing treaties together. The main watchwords of this new Treaty are transparency and flexibility. On the one hand, the new Treaty is seeking to improve the functioning of the EU by making it work more flexibly, even with an increased membership; on the other hand, it should also increase the transparency of the workings of the EU by consolidating, simplifying and explaining how it works.


It then continues by examining in detail the changes brought about by the treaty, and in particular how they affect solicitors and their clients in the UK. The whole thing is well worth a read, but here are some choice quotes.

The simplification of different procedures for making legislation and the presumption that the ordinary procedure will be used unless otherwise specified, makes it a lot easier for non-experts to understand how any particular piece of legislation will be passed.
The greater involvement of the European Parliament in most EU legislative decisions is welcome as this will contribute to greater transparency in the legislative process.
The method of incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights should not lead to fears of a mass of new rights-based litigation being realised as it will not create new fundamental rights of general application in national law. It will however ensure that a number of new rights (e.g. data protection) are protected in European law.
Although the Constitutional Treaty could have gone further in granting direct access to the European courts for individuals and organisations other than the EU institutions or national governments, it represents an improvement on the current situation.
The greater involvement of the European Parliament in the negotiating of trade agreements could make the ratification process of international trade agreements harder. On the other hand, it creates greater transparency in the debate leading to the adoption of such agreements.
It is often said that EU sourced laws are ‘superior’ to domestic laws. This means that once an EU sourced law is applicable in the UK, it would be contrary to the EU treaties for the UK to keep or pass any laws that contradicted the EU sourced law. This principle has applied in the EU since the Court of Justice developed it in the Sixties, before the UK joined the EU. The Constitutional Treaty would therefore not change the current position.

However confused the Tories’ policy on Europe is, it seems there are some Tory candidates whose position is crystal clear. They want out. Their lines are so close to UKIP that they are making a mockery of the official Howard position of wanting to stay in the EU.

According to the East Anglian Daily Times,
opposition leader Michael Howard is being challenged by Labour to say why he is allowing candidates to fight the election on a platform of European withdrawal, which is not party policy.

The Tory candidate [in Harwich, Douglas Carswell], who is receiving funding directly from Lord Ashcroft…, has just issued a leaflet stating his opposition to the European Union/

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

When the EU’s Court of Auditors were unable to sign off the EU accounts fully this year, I knew that some politicians back in the UK would try to make political capital out of it. So I made sure I read the report very carefully to find out what it actually says.

The auditors found that the EU’s accounts were “legal and regular as far as the revenue, commitments and administrative expenditure are concerned”. In other words, everything the Commission manages centrally is in order. The auditors also point out that reforms introduced by Neil Kinnock are working.

Where, then, does the problem lie? The auditors say: “owing to persistent weaknesses at member state level in systems for supervising and controlling the implementation of the EU budget, payments were still affected by the same types of error occurring with the same frequency as in previous years”. In other words, it’s national governments, not the EU centrally, that are causing the problems!

One last, very important point. The Court does not mention a single case of fraud anywhere in its report! The “errors” reported are either procedural or to do with accounting systems.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Going against the general tide of pro-European business, the Institute of Directors has historically been a bit sceptical about the EU. Not so in the latest policy paper from the UK's SME representatives, reviewing the Lisbon Strategy from the point of view of small and medium-sized enterprises. In fact, they make many constructive suggestions about how ministers and Parliament can improve the effectiveness of EU lawmaking:
It is imperative that individual member states implement EU legislation promptly if SMEs, in particular, are able to buy and sell goods and services across borders. The Commission must ensure even transposition across the EU and consistently take measures against member states that fail to comply with their obligations.
Review clauses should be built into EU legislation by the Commission. The Parliament must thereafter play a greatly enhanced role: re-examining the original aims of the legislation, assessing its effectiveness in meeting those aims and analysing any unintended consequences for SMEs and, indeed, other stakeholders.
It is business – employers and employees alike – that will ultimately deliver the economic dynamism necessary to meet European citizens’ social expectations and environmental obligations. However, responsibility lies with politicians and officials from the EU institutions downwards to create a legislative framework that encourages enterprise and innovation and allows SMEs to drive Europe’s growth and employment.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

I am pretty fed up with spending time in airport lounges.

It's now a total of 32 hours I've spent so far this year in airport lounges as a result of delayed or cancelled flights.

That's on top of the usual time one spends in airport lounges.

Think of what other things one could do in 32 hours. That's four normal working days.

All in all, I'm pretty sick of the sight of airport lounges.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Eurosceptic blogger Tim Worstall has stumbled across the modern equivalent of cinematic subliminal messaging:
Sitting in the pub last night, in the usual communal huddle trying to do the Mail on Sunday crossword (hey, we really know how to live it up down here in Portugal!) over a quiet pint or two, we came across this set of clues:

Concise: "Make States Co-operate."
Cryptic: "Lies are fed out to produce governmental union"

Answer: Federalise.

Now I know the Mail is pretty biased on these sorts of issues, as I am myself, but isn’t it going a little too far to stick these things into the bleedin’ crossword?

Friday, March 11, 2005

The new website for the European Unit of Kirklees (Huddersfield) Economic Development Service is now live: www.kirklees.gov.uk/european

The new site includes an overview of the EU, a summary of the different types of European funding, and a list of links to other websites to help with applying for funds.

Monday, March 07, 2005

I recently picked up an interesting brochure entitled ‘Portrait of the European Union’. It contains detailed demographic information about the 25 countries of the EU and it’s a goldmine of useless information…
For instance, did you know that…
  • Malta is tiny but crowded? There are 1266 people per square kilometre on the island, which has only 400,000 people in total. The most sparsely populated nation is Finland, with only 17 people per square kilometre there.

  • Irish people are the most fertile? Ireland has the highest fertility rate, with 1.98 children per female. The lowest rate is Cyprus, with only 1.16. Here in the UK, our average is 1.71.

  • Spanish women and Swedish men live longest? More precisely, women live longer in Spain than anywhere else in the EU, but men are best off in Sweden. Life expectancy for females is 83.7 years in Spain, compared to an EU average of 81.1 years. Men live an average of 77.9 years in Sweden, but 74.8 EU-wide.

  • Sweden has high taxes? Its tax revenue is 51.4% of its GDP (and it has a correspondingly high level of public services). The lowest level is Latvia, at 29.1%. British taxes are just below the halfway mark, at 37.1%.

  • One in six EU citizens is aged less than 15?

  • Greece has more doctors? There’s 458 doctors for every 1000 people in Greece, compared to an EU average of 328 in 2001.

  • People learn for longer in the UK? As of 2003, 21.3% of 25-34 year olds were in education or training here. The only EU country with a higher rate is Sweden.

  • If you add the 2003 GDPs of every EU country together, the total is nearly ten thousand billion euros (£6 895 billion)?

  • The UK has more service-sector workers than any other country?

  • There are 80 mobile phones for every 100 EU residents? But in Luxembourg there are more phones than there are people.

  • The EU has 200,000km of railways?

  • Slovakia has the fewest cars – only 24 per 100 people?

  • 12.7% of EU energy comes from renewable sources? But only Austria is past the 50% mark.

With all the current hyperbole surrounding the new EU constitutional treaty and how terrible it's going to be for Britain, I thought it would be instructive to revisit the calm, measured report produced by the House of Lords when its EU scrutiny committee examined the draft back in July 2003. Although there were some changes made to the final version of the treaty in 2004, these minor alterations don't affect any of the conclusions drawn by their Lordships in their report - which eurosceptics would do well to note. Here are some choice quotes from the abstract of the report - the full text is available here:
The draft Constitutional Treaty for the European Union is a significant document, meriting serious scrutiny and wide public debate. With ten new countries set to join the EU next year, it is necessary to agree a new Treaty now, as it is generally agreed that the present institutional structure would not function satisfactorily in a Union of 25.
Whether or not the draft Treaty is a "constitution" is of less importance than what it says and how it will affect all our lives.
The draft Treaty reforms the institutions of the EU.
The draft Treaty enhances the role of national parliaments.
…much of what [the Treaty] provides for is not new.
Does it confirm the EU as a union of Member States, rather than a state in its own right? The report concludes that the answer to [this] first question is yes.
…it is precisely because the EU is not a state that the Treaty does not provide some of the direct mechanisms (such as the power to remove a government) that would exist in a state.
Compare these last points to the following claim at eurosceptic.com:
The superstate is here!

The Treaty Establishing A Constitution for Europe, a draft of which has just emerged from the constitutional convention in Brussels, would, if adopted by the Council of Ministers, be the coup de grace for the European nation states. If the Government were to submit to such a constitution, it would be acquiescing in the abolition of our parliamentary democracy and the creation of a European superstate.
How can anyone justify such outrageous hyperbole - flying in the face not only of the content of the treaty itself, but also contrasting so sharply with the measured tones of our own House of Lords?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Every year, a staggering 100 million citizens of the European Union travel, live or work in a member state other than their own. This opportunity for the free movement of people is one of the principle benefits that membership of the EU has brought to all of us – and one that is widely recognised.

What is less widely recognised is that this free movement of peoples is supported by a number of measures designed to make our lives easier and safer. For instance, did you know that it’s possible to dial the emergency services anywhere in the EU by using a single number? The number is 112.

If you dial 112 in the UK, you get patched through to the emergency services exactly as if you had dialled 999. In other countries, you get similar assistance from the country’s own emergency services. No national numbers are being replaced – 999 and other national numbers will continue to work as normal – but the extra number guarantees that you don’t need to memorise 25 different numbers for the 25 countries of the EU. It makes sense.

So why choose 112? The answer is simple. 999 was originally selected as a number in the days of old-style telephones with circular dials. To dial 9, you simply turned the dial all the way around until it stopped – which made it much easier to dial in the dark than any other number. These days, modern touch-tone phones make it much more difficult to locate the 9 key in the dark, but it is very easy to find the upper left-hand corner of the keypad – the digit 1. So the number selected for the emergency services was 112.

The website of the European Emergency Number Association is here.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

My colleague Linda McAvan MEP helps to raise public awareness of an MEP’s day job with this letter in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph:
The EE legislation Ronny Jillings refers to (Viewpoint January 27), is designed to stop misleading health claims being made about food. Should companies market products as 90 per cent fat free, implying they are good for you, when they are full of sugar? Should high salt, high sugar foods, be targeted at children? These are the kind of questions MEPs are looking at.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The BBC website has an interesting article about the significance of different European cities in the history of the EU:

Nowadays, things have become more difficult. Since EU leaders decided to hold all their summit meetings in Brussels, the scope for naming treaties and processes after cities has narrowed.

But then, for eurosceptics, the word "Brussels" itself requires no further explanation.

There may be no "Brussels process" or "Brussels strategy", but the Belgian capital does appear in common phrases such as "Brussels rules against merger" or "Brussels cracks down on bent bananas", where the city is simply used as a pejorative (and not very helpful) term for any of the EU's institutions.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The result of the EU constitutional treaty referendum is far from a foregone conclusion - according to Will Hutton in the Observer earlier this month, who suggests nine reasons why we might get a positive result:

The pros start today only 2 per cent behind. This referendum can be won. If so, it will be one of the sweetest moments in British politics for years, cementing a progressive consensus and Britain's membership of the European Union alike. Tony Blair, famously a lucky politician, may be about to get lucky again.

I found the following in the excellent Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia:

Some opponents [of the constitution] argue that certain important rights, such as that of habeas corpus, are not provided for or recognised by the Constitution. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union forms Part II of the Constitution, and habeas corpus is not explicity mentioned among its provisions. However, Article I-9(2) of the Constitution says: "The Union shall accede to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms", Article 5 of which includes the following:

Everyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court and his release ordered if the detention is not lawful.

Consequently, while the Constitution makes no explicit mention of habeas corpus, the Union must still uphold it because it is constitutionally bound to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights. Advocates of the Constitution often allege that in cases like this, eurosceptics seek to mislead the public by encouraging them to think that if the Constitution is adopted, habeas corpus will be abolished or might not be guaranteed in the future.