Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Common wisdom has it that France has always been the motor of European integration. If this is the case, then it has always been a rather stuttering and unreliable engine – and rarely able to rise above first gear.

We wrongly have the image in Britain of France as an enthusiastic leader in the vanguard of the European project. Granted, some major European initiatives, not least the original Coal and Steel Community, were initiated by French statesmen such as Schuman. But this has never been a matter of all-party consensus in France: rather each step in the history of the European Union has been a matter of profound national controversy.

In other words, we should not be surprised by the result of France’s referendum on the new European Constitution. It is in line with a long history of deep-rooted euroscepticism in France.

This history of euroscepticism goes back as far as the original treaties. These which were ratified by the French Parliament, but by rather small majorities. Then France rejected the European Defence Community Treaty in 1954, plunging the still nascent European Community into its first major crisis. Later, it ratified the Maastricht treaty only by the narrowest of margins.

For ten years, France held up the first enlargement of the original EC to include Britain, Ireland and Denmark. It also blocked direct elections to the European Parliament for almost twenty years.

For six months, Charles De Gaulle boycotted all ministerial meetings in the European Union, trying to bully the other member states into concessions to France on the CAP and on allowing it to exercise a veto even where the treaty provided for majority voting. This led to the notorious ‘Luxembourg compromise’, whereby member states, at France’s insistence, should not vote whenever a matter was defined as an important national interest – and France defined virtually everything to be an important matter for its own national interest!

It is at France’s behest that the European Parliament is legally obliged to move its entire operation from Brussels to Strasbourg for four days a month, at considerable expense to Europe’s taxpayers. Not even Parliament itself supports this ridiculous arrangement – though it usually takes the rap.

France has one of the worst records in doing what it agrees to do at European level. It has been taken to the European Court more times than most other countries for failing to transpose EU agreements into national law.

Looking deeper into France’s internal politics, it is striking that every European Treaty until the 1980s has been opposed by both the far right and the far left, both of which are larger in France than in any other major European country, and by the centre-right Gaullist party. Together, these elements have always constituted over 40% of the French electorate. Every European treaty has therefore required rock-solid support from the remaining centrist parties and the Socialists in order to be adopted. In the early 1990s, the Maastricht treaty was only ratified when Chirac – who then had some wider credibility than he has now – switched to a pro-European position bringing most (but not all) of the Gaullists behind him.

This is not to say that France is universally awkward when it comes to Europe. The country has strongly supported those aspects of the European project from which it benefits – from Parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg to the high level of funding under the Common Agricultural Policy. All that seems to be missing in France’s European outlook is a sense of solidarity with other countries on matters which are not of direct interest to the French!

If the supposed motor of Europe is stuttering, perhaps now is the time for Britain to take the driving seat?

Monday, May 30, 2005

So the French have voted no:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4594693.stm

Where now? Well, we must respect the decision of the French people not to support the constitution at this time and we must find a solution that respects this.

But we must also bear in mind some other important factors. So far, ten countries have said yes and one has said no. We must take account of the democratic will of the majority of EU nations as well as the minority in finding a solution.

Every EU country has the right to have a say. France cannot alone decide for the whole of Europe.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Hearty congratulations to Liverpool FC on their victory against AC Milan in the European Cup Final! And how they performed. With a Finnish centre-back, a German midfielder and a wondrous Polish goalkeeper, they thrilled an entire continent with one of the most astonishing comebacks of all time.

There is surely no greater symbol of what can be achieved when Europeans work together than the sight of Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez holding the Cup aloft as they stepped off the plane in Liverpool.

However, there is now some controversy over Liverpool's future in the tournament. UEFA's rules don't currently allow the winning team to defend its title in the following year unless that team has qualified for the tournament via its own domestic league. This has never been a problem before, but it generates an awkward situation with Liverpool, who finished fifth in the English Premiership, just outside of the qualification zone.

The signs are that UEFA will consider changing their rules to correct this anomaly. I've tabled a written declaration in the European Parliament encouraging them to do so. Obviously, this is an area in which the EU has no influence, but there seems to be a groundswell of opinion and every little helps…

Thursday, May 26, 2005

EU ministers surprised and delighted aid agencies around the world this week when they agreed a dramatic increase in financial assistance to countries in Africa and the rest of the developing world. (BBC News story here.)

The deal comes just 6 weeks ahead of the G8 industrialised nations' summit at Gleneagles, and will mean a virtual doubling of the EU's combined aid by 2010. This unexpected success in Brussels will intensify pressure on other rich countries, notably the United States, to increase their own efforts to make poverty history.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A eurosceptic, writing last week in the Scarborough Evening News, makes some rather unnerving claims. (The letter was published on 13 May under the headline NEED FOR KNOWLEDGE ON EU VOTE, but it's not available online as the Scarborough Evening News appears hardly ever to update its website.)

First, a sensible point:
"If… we have to vote, the British must be informed about [the constitution]'s content. From my enquiries I believe that hardly any of my countrymen and women have any idea of this."
But then it starts to get worrying:
"Even those who, like myself, have obtained a copy (it is in the library) and studied it may be fooled. This is because it has been drafted, redrafted and polished by lawyers and the whole thing reads as being quite innocuous."
Think about this for a minute. The writer isn't saying that the constitution is dangerous but for some reason those evil politicians are trying to convince us it's not - I'm used to that kind of claim. Instead, the writer is saying that he's actually sat down and read the constitution and seen it to be harmless, and yet he still believes that the wool is somehow being pulled over his eyes. Now that's the ultimate paranoid conspiracy theory. I wonder what evidence it would take to make him realise there is no conspiracy?

Monday, May 23, 2005

I recently debated the new EU constitution with Marc Glendening, a prominent anti-EU campaigner, in the pages of The Ecologist magazine. Marc argued that decisions are best taken locally and that this is a reason to abandon the EU. In reply, I point out that decisions should indeed be taken locally wherever possible, but there are some issues that cut across national borders - including many environmental issues. Pollution, for instance, does not respect national boundaries. In these areas, acting in isolation is simply ineffective, and the new constitution therefore provides a democratic and efficient way of acting together with our neighbours.

A full transcript of our debate is available here on my website.

The Fabian Society is a UK left-wing think-tank and a forum for debate on all areas of progressive politics, including Europe. I was interested to read just such a debate in the Spring edition of their journal, Fabian Review - though I was a little surprised to read an analysis by pro-European contributor Mark Leonard, discussing the popular mandate for EU integration, which was wrong in every detail! Mr Leonard concludes:
"On the rare occasions when citizens are asked if they support [EU] integration, they have answered no."
Yet, in the past thirty years, there have been no fewer than 32 national referenda in European countries on further EU integration, and all but four have produced pro-integration majorities, often as high as 89 or 90%, and often with very high turnouts.

A record of 28 victories out of 32 - that's 88% - would be regarded as a remarkably positive result in any national election campaign. Yet eurosceptics seize on the very few occasions where one or another country has said no to a particular development, half of which were later reversed, in order to suggest that the whole EU project has been bereft of public support and will be rejected at the first opportunity! Mr Leonard does the cause no favours by perpetuating such myths.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

There's been some coverage in our regional papers (both the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post) of a debate about whether feta cheese has to come from Greece in order to be called 'feta'. But there's precious little information provided in the articles in order for readers to get a handle on the story - so here's some background.

The ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ scheme is an agreement among all EU countries to identify and protect certain unique local foods across the European common market. As with all EU decisions, the scheme was agreed by elected governments and elected MEPs – not by the Commission, whose job is only to carry out the agreement.

Many UK products are protected in this way – including West Country farmhouse cheddar, Jersey Royal potatoes, and Cornish clotted cream. You can buy a bottle of Newcastle Brown anywhere in Europe and be confident that it really was brewed in Newcastle. The same goes for Normandy camembert, Black Forest ham and so on.

There's currently a debate about whether Greek ‘feta’ cheese should be added to the list of specialities. Britain isn't the only country which thinks ‘feta’ is more of a generic term these days: both Germany and Denmark have also asked the courts to adjudicate, and a judgement is expected later this year. So it's not a feta-ccompli.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Apparently, seven out of ten people believe that the pound will be axed if Britain ratifies the new EU constitution - according to The Sun yesterday.

Yet there’s absolutely nothing in the treaty that says this. In fact, it says exactly the opposite – the UK will never have to join the euro unless it wants to.

So what does this so-called ‘news story’ tell us? Simply that people are confused about what’s in the treaty. Wouldn’t it be more useful for The Sun to cut through the confusion and report the facts – rather than muddying the waters further?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Another nail in the coffin for the argument that the constitution is 'pro-federal'. The Union of European Federalists passed a resolution in its Brussels committee that
"criticises that the constitution falls short of what is needed in many respects, mainly:
  • "by not abolishing the unanimity rule in many important fields...; in particular in foreign, security and defence policy and for the multi-annual financial framework;
  • "by not introducing a procedure that makes the entering into force of the constitution possible when all but one or two member states have ratified the text;
  • "by foreseeing a revision procedure which does not allow the constitution to evolve in a flexible and efficient way."
The UEF is just one of several pro-federal European organisations which have complained that the constitution does the opposite of what they want: it cements a firmly nation-state, firmly British view of the EU for the future.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Conservative Lord David Howell wrote to the Financial Times yesterday to say that, although he likes the EU in its current incarnation - he describes it as "a subtle balance between the obvious efficiencies of collective action and the equally obvious imperatives of national identity and belonging", and amen to that - he has serious problems with the new constitution, which he thinks inflicts all kinds of damage on our sovereignty, independence, budget, democracy and so on.

This is a rather fine line to try to tread - especially when you consider the very straightforward fact, highlighted by the BBC just the other day, that vast amounts of the new treaty are simply lifted from the current treaties. "If you complain about the constitution, as you are entitled to, you also have to complain about the Treaty of Rome".

But anyway, Lord Howell makes a much more fundamental mistake. Underpinning virtually every aspect of his lengthy tirade against the new constitution is one all-pervading misconstruction.

He sets out to describe a sinister creature which he calls “the Union”. In his mind, this monster can “assume whatever powers it likes”, has “the final word” on our laws, and will “impose a new and higher legal order” on our country. He conjures up the vivid image of twenty-five valiant but helpless nation states, each struggling to maintain independence against the menacing domination of a sinister alien will.

This is, of course, utter hogwash. “The Union” is nothing more than the co-operative framework that we ourselves have agreed with our European neighbours. Its decisions are taken by member governments, double-checked by the directly-elected European Parliament. They are not foist upon us by some higher authority, least of all the European Commission, which has the power only to make proposals.

And the scope of the Union’s competence is determined entirely by member governments themselves. The new constitution enshrines the ‘principle of conferral’ as a fundamental tenet, meaning the EU has no powers at all except those conferred on it by its member states. This point is made extraordinarily clearly at the very
beginning of the constitution (Article I-11). But Lord Howell has “studied every draft” – so he must know all this. Whence the confusion?

We have nothing to fear from the new constitution, in whose drafting Britain did, after all, play a decisive role. Nor have our European neighbours. What Lord Howell calls the “subtle balance” of Europe’s evolution so far need never be upset – because we remain firmly at the tiller.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

There's an interesting piece in yesterday's Telegraph, reporting that we're close to an EU-wide common approach to help crack cross-border organised crime.
"The European Commission believes that a failure in one country to deal with organised criminals has an impact elsewhere, because international gangs simply look for the easiest place from which to operate.

"'They appear to be able to operate easily and effectively both within the European area and elsewhere in the world, responding to illegal demand by acquiring and supplying commodities and services ranging from drugs and arms to stolen vehicles and money laundering,' said the commission in its proposal sent to the Government.

"The proposed new offence would make it possible to target crime chiefs who have made themselves almost untouchable by hiding behind a network of legitimate businesses.

"This approach has been adopted in America for many years under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organisations law that has put several senior gangland figures behind bars.

"The Home Office estimates that about 1,000 organised criminal groups are operating in Britain, run by about 150 bosses backed by a group of around 750 lieutenants. Between them they control assets worth hundreds of millions of pounds."
Obviously, it would be next to useless for Britain alone to try to target cross-border organised crime - but, acting together with our EU neighbours, we can make a difference.

Monday, May 16, 2005

It will be interesting to see what difference this makes, if any:

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The BBC website has an incisive new article on the constitution debate in France:
"A charge often made against the proposed EU constitution by its opponents in France is that it is an "Anglo-Saxon" document - a plot to enshrine Thatcherite policies which will devastate the social balance of European economies. As an example, they point to the phrase used in Article I-3 (2) which states that there shall be 'an internal market where competition is free and undistorted'. …

"The problem with such an approach is that in many key areas the constitutional treaty essentially repeats existing policy.

"The original Treaty of Rome from 1957, which established the then European Economic Community, also said, in Part One, Article 3 (c) that there should be 'an internal market characterised by the abolition, as between Member States, of obstacles to the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital'. And further, it said there should be 'a system ensuring that competition in the internal market is not distorted'.

"The principles of the 'free and undistorted' internal market were established from the start. So if you complain about the constitution, as you are entitled to, you also have to complain about the Treaty of Rome."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Parliament held an afternoon debate today commemorating the anniversary of the end of World War II. It's quite moving in a Parliament with members from the countries that suffered most during the war. And German members, too, regard 9 May 1945 as a day of liberation.

Jean Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg Prime Minister and current President of the European Council, gave a an excellent speech. It was pitched at just the right level and won an unusual standing ovation, with all but UKIP's MEPs standing. (Is there nothing they can ever admit to finding positive in what they hear in the European Parliament?)

We voted today on the revision of the working time directive. The Labour MEPs have negotiated a compromise which, whilst recognising that the opt-out is bound to be phased out in due course, gives employers and employees greater flexibility in allowing the calculation of the 48-hour week to be made over a 12-month reference period. This will allow for large variations over the course of the year and will be welcomed by many small businesses, especially in those sectors where activity varies over the year.

This was a first reading by Parliament - in other words it is a package of suggestions submitted to the national governments who will consider it in the EU Council. They can accept it or amend it, notably to take account of any particular national concerns, and then send it back to Parliament for further consideration.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Under the typically hyperbolic headline THE RAPE OF OUR MEADOWS, today's Daily Mail claims that "the EU Commission has offered farmers inflated prices for their products". (The article is on page 13 of today's issue, but it isn't available online.)

The article places the blame on entirely the wrong shoulders. It's not the Commission that has showered taxpayers' money on the farmers - far from it. It's national governments of the EU's member countries who bear responsibility for this matter.

Year after year, the Commission has proposed to cut or restrain agriculture prices. Yet, year after year, the governments in the EU Council have watered down their proposals and agreed on price increases.

It's fashionable to blame the Commission for less popular EU policies. But the Commission can only make proposals. It's governments that take decisions.

I'm in France to join in the referendum debate on the constitution.

First I visit a group of 30 journalists, then an association of mayors, and finally I go to the picturesque half-timbered village of Scheibenhardt (link in German) on the Franco-German frontier at the northern end of Alsace.

Few villages could better illustrate the benefits of the EU. The village was split into two in 1815 when the Congress of Vienna drew the frontier straight through the middle of it. Suddenly, neighbours, siblings, cousins and friends found themselves belonging to different states - and, when war came, fighting each other in different armies.

Not surprisingly, the mayor described the development of the European Union as a liberation - in fact, a series of liberations. First, it eliminated the threat of war and made it easier to develop commerce accross the whole village. Then the Schengen agreement (which abolished frontier controls between EU countries) made it possible for the inhabitants to walk through their village without having to show their passports. Indeed, our event was held at the spot where the customs post used to be, now an attractive little park (and the customs house has now been sold and is now a private house). Finally, the euro has meant that they can now go to both cafés in the village and use the same currency instead of having to walk around with two wallets!

Not surprisingly, the locals are enthusiastic supporters of the European Union!

Monday, May 09, 2005

It's Europe Day, a pan-EU celebration of the peace and unity on our continent. This is predictably ignored by the British media and government, but when I visit Austria to contribute to their national debate as co-rapporteur on the constitution, I find it's a major event.

As well as the national celebrations, there's a public debate on the constitution. I take my seat alongside the Austrian Chancellor (the equivalent of our Prime Minister) and other government ministers to contribute to a discussion which is widely reported in the national media. It's an open and inclusive debate, entirely free of the myths and scaremongering that often pervade our discussions of Europe in the UK.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Green party has a lot to answer for - including the backdoor Tory victory in my home constituency of Shipley. The previous Labour MP, Chris Leslie, was defeated by only 400 votes - while the Greens managed to garner 1800, almost entirely from Labour voters.

The result? We've ended up with an MP from a party that's far less environmentally minded than Labour, having consistently opposed environmental legislation in both Westminster and the European Parliament. Green voters in Shipley must be kicking themselves.