Thursday, June 30, 2005

The campaign continues against a pernicious direct-mail scam known as the European City Guide.

The organisation works by sending a form directly to businesses across Europe. The form appears to be asking for info rmation and prominently displays the phrase ‘cost free', but hidden in the small print is a notice that returning the form will lead to costs of almost €3000 per year.

Since the year 2000 I have received complaints every year recently about the activities of this organisation. Already this year, more than a dozen constituents have asked me for help after having been duped into signing these dodgy contracts. It is targeting Yorkshire businesses again – and I myself received a mailing today!

My advice to anyone who receives a mailing from the European City Guide is to throw it away!

The ECG concentrates on small businesses and individuals, and once it has obtained a signature by deception it pursues a strategy of intimidation and bullying to try and extract payment.

The company has previously been pursued vigorously by Trading Standards and the Office of Fair Trading. It was eventually traced to the Catalan region of Spain. In 2003, a Spanish court fined the company heavily and shut it down for a year.

It now seems to have switched bases and is operating from Valencia. But its unscrupulous methods are the same.

A website has been set up which gives up-to-date information and support for victims of the scam: click here.

I also strongly support a petition to the European Parliament for legislation to deal with this issue.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Migration is "good for everybody"!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Not for the first time in its history, the EU has been plunged into crisis. Or has it?

Here in the UK, it's traditional that the media only takes a serious interest in EU affairs when it can shout about the terrible turmoil engulfing Europe and threatening the very fibre of our collective being. But just how plausible is talk of a crisis?

Perhaps we shouldn't complain too loudly. Perhaps any coverage is better than no coverage - at least it gets people involved in the debate, which we desperately need. And to be fair, there's certainly an unusual atmosphere at the moment. The EU's proposed new rulebook, the constitutional treaty, seems to be stalling after hitting a number of bumps on the road to ratification. This, together with a new, sharper edge to the familiar row about the Union's long term budget, has given new impetus to our discussion about the future of Europe.

The most obvious sticking-point is the constitution. So far, thirteen countries have voted in favour of the new treaty, and a fourteenth yes vote, from Belgium, is imminent. But two countries—France and the Netherlands—have said no.

So, of the countries that have so far expressed an opinion, a clear majority are in favour. Even in those countries where a referendum was held, if you add them together, the total numbers voting in favour outnumbered those voting against. If this trend continues, we will find ourselves in a situation where most, but not all, of the EU has endorsed the treaty.

But we need more than just a majority: we need unanimity. What is to be done?

There are various extreme possibilities. One possibility is that the whole constitutional treaty might be abandoned. But the problem with this option is that the need for reform which the treaty was designed to address hasn't gone away. We can't simply say, "Oh well, it was a nice idea to make Europe more effective and democratic, but never mind". In fact, without the most crucial of the constitution's reforms, the Union risks eventually grinding to a halt.

Another extreme possibility would be to ask those few states that have rejected the constitution simply to vote again, without further ado, in light of its acceptance by the majority. This is also a dubious option. It would give the impression of forcing the constitution through without listening to people's objections. This perception would do nothing to aid the European cause in the long run. The issues, fears, misunderstandings and genuine concerns raised in the referendum debates must be addressed.

When EU leaders met in June's European Council, they rejected these extremes and instead called for a 'period of reflection'. However, nobody has proposed a structure or a timescale for this period, nor a method of reaching conculusions from it. In the meantime, individual countries are free to continue with their ratification procedures on a timescale of their choice.

It's far too early to know whether our reflection will give rise to a revision of the treaty text, and, if so, how fundamental that revision would be. But, as Tony Blair said in his speech to the European Parliament, before we re-examine the text we must address the context.

Several issues have overshadowed the debate on the constitution: the EU budget, enlargement, reform of the CAP, the proposed services directive, and not least, getting the economies of France, Germany and Italy moving again. Many of the discussions in the referendum campaigns, when they were not concerned with domestic politics, were around issues such as these. None of them are easy to solve, but they cannot be left to fester. If they can be addressed to general satisfaction, perhaps it will be easier to see a way on EU reform in general. First the context, then the text.

In the long term, it's conceivable - though optimistic - that the current text could be salvaged, perhaps with protocols appended to address specific concerns. It's more likely that parts of the document itself will be rewritten. Part III, a compilation of articles from earlier treaties, is an obvious candidate for rework since this part was never thoroughly examined by the Convention which drafted the treaty. It was widely perceived as entrenching out-of-date policies, and was also the part that made the constitution excessively long and detailed. Part I, by contrast, might need little or no adjustment - or perhaps just clarification where its terms gave rise to serious misunderstandings.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the best way forward might be to enact a number of smaller treaties to implement separate aspects of the constitution's planned reforms, starting with the less controversial ones. This might, of course, be possible—but it would unravel the package. And, of course, these will still need to be ratified by every country, yet what is controversial in one country is not the same as what is controversial in another.

Also, some aspects of the constitution, such as the requirement for the Council of Ministers to debate new laws in public, could be put in place without treaty changes—though, relatively speaking, these provisions are not the most crucial ones and not very numerous.

In all this, there is a danger that piecemeal tweaks could lead to ineffective reforms while failing to address central issues. That would please no-one. Wherever we go from here, it must be in a direction that maintains the EU as a democratic, responsive and efficient way of addressing the common challenges of our continent. Only then can the Union can continue to earn the majority support from citizens across Europe which it has enjoyed for most of the time since its inception.

Monday, June 27, 2005

While sitting in a meeting earlier this week, I observed that some organisations just can't do anything these days without first hiring a consultancy to research the options.

And then I picked up this snippet in the Yorkshire Evening Post:
"Men from Leeds wash their cars for longer than anyone else in the country. Research commissioned by Flash Car Wash showed one in three Leeds men will spend over two hours cleaning their car."

Friday, June 24, 2005

Yesterday, Tony Blair appeared before the European Parliament to outline his priorities for the UK’s presidency of the European Council, which starts on 1 July. His speech was excellent (the full text is here) and he maintained a refreshingly positive tone. The British presidency will be a great opportunity to address current challenges in the EU.

Back in Yorkshire today, I was astonished by the media’s wide range of interpretations of the Prime Minister’s reception at Parliament. Were they at the same debate?!

Financial Times:
"Tony Blair, prime minister, won unexpected support in Brussels yesterday with his vision of a revitalised European Union that could embrace free markets and face up to the challenges of globalisation… Mr Blair was praised by EU MPs for a passionate speech which sought to chart a route out of the continent's political malaise… [His] speech was consensual in tone and received applause from a parliament that had been expected to give him a rough ride."
and:
"As a political performance it was brilliant; as an argument, compelling. Watching Tony Blair speak to the European Parliament in Brussels yesterday was to remember why this British prime minister is Europe's most successful leader."
Independent:
"Mr Blair escaped unscathed from a debate in the European Parliament… [Y]esterday most Euro-MPs seemed won over by a speech in which Mr Blair described himself as a 'passionate pro-European' while making a powerful plea for reform to deal with the forces of globalisation."
Times:
"It was a vintage performance… the clapping became more and more frequent."
Sun:
"He won new allies as they applauded him 15 times during the 30-minute keynote address."
Le Monde:
"The new strongman of Europe"
Then, on the other hand, Guardian:
"His speech… prompted a few jeers and catcalls from MEPs."
Telegraph:
"BLAIR DOES A THATCHER TO THE EU, ONLY RUDER

…He was met with scattered applause, some heckling and long periods of sullen silence from MEPs."
Finally, somehow the Daily Express manages to come up with an utterly inverted analysis, reporting on the performance of the self-proclaimed ‘passionate pro-European’ as follows:
"Tony Blair took his new Eurosceptic agenda into hostile territory yesterday as he unleashed a devastating attack on the European Union."

Thursday, June 23, 2005

At long last, an end is in sight to the European Parliament’s embarrassingly outdated system of pay and expenses. We voted today by a huge majority to endorse a new members’ statute. The long-awaited new rules need to be approved by national ministers too, but this ought to be no problem.

First and foremost, the new agreement settles the issue of MEPs’ salaries. At present, each MEP is paid the same as a member of his or her national parliament. This leads to huge discrepancies among the sum being paid to different MEPs for doing essentially the same job: Italian MEPs earn €12 435 per month before tax, while Hungarians are paid just €840. The agreement is now that, from the start of the next parliament, all MEPs will be paid the same sum of €7000 per month — which will naturally be a pay cut for some MEPs (including the British), but a rise for others (including the poor Hungarians).

Another big breakthrough is the reform of travel expenses. MEPs are currently paid a lump sum for flights to and from Parliament, equal to the cost of an economy class ticket for every flight. This leads to problems since many budget airlines these days offer tickets at substantially cheaper rates than standard economy class, but there is no mechanism for taking account of this. The loophole quite rightly tarnishes Parliament’s reputation. Under the new agreement, fares will be refunded on an actual-cost basis, as they always really ought to have been.

As for the other expenses, namely office and staff allowances, these remain very similar to the House of Commons system. (For a detailed comparison of the current system, click here.)

For the record, all Labour MEPs have their accounts examined by external auditors every year to ensure they have only been used for legitimate expenses with proper receipts. We wish other parties did the same!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

I have a lot of time for local Skipton & Ripon MP David Curry, who is one of the more sensible Tories, at least on Europe. Writing in the Yorkshire Post yesterday, he discusses the prospects for the Conservative party during the UK presidency of the European Council:

"In a nutshell, the Conservatives have been presented with the chance to take part in a real debate about the future of Europe, rather than pursue the comic-style caricatures of the EU with which they have been frightening themselves for the best part of a decade.

"…Because Europe operates by consensus (however hard-won) on major issues, the sooner they are plugged into the network of European centre-right parties, the better. As such, [they] have an opportunity to move from beating their breasts on the fringe of the debate to becoming mature participants. But will they take it? … If David Davis or David Cameron (to pick two names at random) really do believe that the party has got to re-invent itself, then ending the tabloid portrayal of Europe must be part of the process."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

In the darkness of the current EU crisis, there are at least a few moments for me to enjoy.

I'm particularly fond of the comment of the Irish Commissioner Charlie McCreevey in the most recent issue of European Voice:
"For the great majority of people, transatlantic dialogues, inter-institutional committees, gender institutes and the like hold little interest. They are people who just want to earn a decent living, be able to afford a few pints, go to a game of football and have a bit of sex."
And, enjoying that particular press freedom that not even politicians would dare entertain, the Guardian says that:
"the European democratic deficit is not only a matter of secret or unresponsive leaders but of muddled and unrealistic citizens."
This is not something that any politician could get away with saying, even if some of them no doubt think that!

Monday, June 20, 2005

I was interested to read a short letter from a certain O Minton, of Pontefract, in the local Yorkshire Evening Post. The entirety of the letter was as follows:
"I would like to take this opportunity to give notice of the commencement of the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of our so-called European Membership."
Does he know something we don’t?!

Friday, June 17, 2005

In The Times letters page on 17 June (no longer online), George Guise is one of many who are now moaning that, without the new EU Constitution, we remain lumbered with the currently unreformed treaties.

Isn't this something they might have thought about before they opposed this useful package of reforms?

Anyway, the four “immediate objectives” he seeks are based on four incorrect premises. First, despite what he thinks, there is no rule preventing the repeal of existing directives. Second, both the European Parliament and ministers in the Council have the right to request the Commission to bring forward proposals. Third, social policy is already a matter for the governments of member states, except on those few subjects where they agree to make decisions jointly at European level. Fourthly, EU law already has primacy over national law – and rightly so, since there would be no point agreeing common rules with our neighbours if each country could then ignore those agreements back home.

Rather than inventing non-existent problems which are untouched by the constitution anyway, europhobes could better focus their energies on how to make our enlarged Union work more effectively, but with greater democratic accountability. After all, that was the intention behind the constitutional treaty they were so quick to rubbish.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Irish has been officially recognised as the EU's 21st working language! More information here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Bit of a shocker in the Times a couple of days ago, which refers to:
"a constitution that would have institutionalised the poverty of the vulnerable and provided bragging rights for a sanctimonious élite."
That's it. No attempt at argument, no analysis or discussion, just that. Trashing the EU constitution with a few empty soundbites is something I've come to expect from eurosceptic campaigners, but it has no place in a Times leader.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Columnist Andreas Whittam-Smith recently wrote in the Independent (subscription required) that "every country should subsidise its own farmers".

Frankly, only one thing could be worse than the Common Agricultural Policy – and that would be to have twenty-five separate agricultural policies, each with its own competing subsidies, each with its own protectionist measures. That would ultimately cost the economy, the tax-payer and the environment far more.

It's far better to pursue further reforms of the CAP – reforms which we have already made a start on, and where we have had a significant measure of success, for the first time in thirty years.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Politicians in Europe often try to speak each other's languages, with mixed results.

English is the most widely spoken lingua franca, but has its pitfalls. For instance, the letter "J" can be pronounced as in 'jam' or as in 'jugoslavia'. Perhaps this explains why the Swedish Prime Minister announced his priorities for the Swedish Presidency of the EU Council as "Yobs, Yobs, Yobs".

Not to mention the MEP who said, when it was time to leave a meeting, "Alors, c'est l'heure", only to find that one of the British MEPs thought he said "Hello sailor"!

Even monoglots can make linguistic cock-ups. Brian Simpson MEP, debating the proposed "open skies" air travel agreement with the USA at a time of embarrassing revelations about the US President, referred to Mr Clinton's support for an "open flies agreement"!

Friday, June 10, 2005

The dust is settling on last week's referendum results and we're in a position to take stock.

Ten countries have voted in favour (52% of the EU population), and many others have indicated their intention to continue their ratification procedures. France and the Netherlands have said no.

So we're likely to be in a situation where the constitutional treaty has the support of a majority of member states, but not the necessary unanimity. What is to be done in this situation?

Well, it's essential that the European Council meeting next week agrees collectively on a way forward acceptable to all member states. Unless they do, controversy, division and gradual dissipation of the whole process will cause massive damage to the European Union.

When considering the options, there are two implausible extremes:
  • The whole constitutional treaty is definitively abandoned as a ‘nice idea’ that unfortunately didn’t get sufficient support and should now be forgotten. This is implausible because the reasons which gave rise to the drafting of the Constitution remain on the table: the need for an effective EU post-enlargement, for a better functioning institutional system, for a greater capacity to deliver policies, and for greater democratic accountability and transparency. Most member states wish to continue the reform process.
  • All countries continue to ratify, and that the two (or, by then, perhaps more) that have rejected the constitution be asked to vote again in light of its acceptance by the majority. This strategy has three problems:
    1. it runs the risk of further “no”s additional to the French and Dutch results;
    2. it is politically very difficult to ask countries who have rejected to vote again on exactly the same text without further ado;
    3. it gives the impression of forcing the Constitution through without listening to people’s objections and forcing countries to keep on voting until they give the ‘right’ result.
Between these two extremes, we can imagine a number of more sensible intermediate scenarios. None are without difficulty.

Firstly, the European Council could call for a pause for reflection in the ratification process. Member states due to ratify in the next few months could continue to do so if they wish.

Secondly, member states with reservations – namely, the two who have rejected and any other member state that considers it may have difficulties in securing ratification – could be given time to evaluate their position and make proposals on how they see the way forward.

A new Convention could then be convened for a serious and wide-ranging debate. Its role would be to re-examine the text of the constitutional treaty and submit a new proposal – either a new draft, or the same draft with interpretations, clarifications or additions. It could be that the Convention wishes to give particular consideration to part III, which was never discussed properly in the previous Convention.

The advantage of re-convening a Convention is that this gives time and space (and a place!) for further reflection. It means that the “pause for reflection” will not be an indefinite postponement but will actually generate reflection and have a focal point for it to reach conclusions.

An IGC alone would not be good enough: it would give the impression of returning to the old ways of secretive, diplomatic negotiations. A public and pluralist Convention, with greater input from civil society, would be much more helpful in this respect, and it would certainly generate far more interest than did the previous Convention.

No one should be under any illusions that this will not take time. But a solution acceptable to all member states, that takes account of the concerns of those who voted no as well as those who support the constitutional treaty as it stands, must be found.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I was recently talking to a eurosceptic who thought that EU decisions were taken by unelected, foreign bureaucrats.

Unelected? No. All EU decisions are taken by elected MEPs in Parliament and elected governments in the Council.

Foreign? No. Everyone in these institutions is an EU citizen.

Bureaucrats? No. The Commission, the EU's equivalent of the civil service, has no power to take decisions. It can only make proposals and carry out what has been agreed.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Europe-wide mailing scam is resurfacing this week. This morning I received a letter from the European City Guide inviting me to "update my details".

The organisation works by sending a form directly to businesses across Europe. The form appears to be asking for information and prominently displays the phrase ‘cost free’, but hidden in the small print is a notice that returning the form will lead to costs of almost €3000 per year.

Since the year 2000 I have received complaints every year recently about the activities of this organisation. It's now targeting Yorkshire again.

The European City Guide concentrates on small businesses and individuals, and once it has obtained a signature by deception it pursues a strategy of intimidation and bullying to try and extract payment. My advice to anyone who receives a mailing from the European City Guide is to throw it away!

The company has previously been pursued vigorously by Trading Standards and the Office of Fair Trading. It was eventually traced to the Catalan region of Spain. In 2003, a Spanish court fined the company heavily and shut it down for a year. It now seems to have switched bases and is operating from Valencia, but its unscrupulous methods are the same.

A website has been set up which gives up-to-date information and support for victims of the scam: http://www.stopecg.org.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Contrary to common belief in the UK, for many years the Swiss government has had a policy of pursuing EU membership in the long term. The details of their policy are here, but to summarise:
"The longer term aim of the Federal Council’s European policy is to take Switzerland into the European Union. The Federal Council is convinced that in the long-term our country can better safeguard its interests within the EU than outside it. Today, many problems can no longer be resolved through the lone actions of individual states, but only in acting together at European level."
In fact, Switzerland is in many ways already more integrated with the EU than we are, and of course, like Norway, they pay substantial amounts into the EU coffers in order to benefit from a complex series of bilateral free trade agreements, while not being able to influence EU decision-making.

News today is that Swiss voters have approved another two steps towards integration: joining the EU's passport-free zone and opening their borders (the 'Schengen agreement'), and sharing crime and asylum information (the 'Dublin agreement'). Even the UK has an opt-out from the former agreement.

From the BBC today:
"The 'Yes' vote is a relief for the Swiss government, which wants closer integration with the EU. In the wake of the French and Dutch rejections of the European constitution, opinion polls in Switzerland had indicated support for the government's position was slipping away.

"Karin Gilland-Lutz, a political scientist at the University of Berne, says many people simply fear losing a way of life they regard as superior.

"'There is a feeling in Switzerland that there are certain elements of life here which are important, which make Switzerland special - direct democracy and neutrality for example. These are both emotionally quite heavily loaded for most people here.'

"At the same time, many political and business leaders have become concerned about Switzerland's growing isolation. The EU is Switzerland's most important trading partner, with 60% of Swiss exports going to EU member states."

Friday, June 03, 2005

The europarliament.net site is back online after nearly a year's downtime. This site does for MEPs what the Public Whip does for MPs - it takes their public attendance and voting records, and breaks them down into useful information for citizens.

The European Parliament, like Westminster, keeps a record of all its debates and votes and publishes them online. (Actually, all our discussions are public, unlike the Commons where committees meet behind closed doors - and we keep a record of which members attend which debates, while the Commons doesn't.)

But it can be difficult to analyse this raw information - and the official europarl.eu.int site, while nowhere near as gargantuan as europa.eu.int, can still be quite intimidating for novice users.

The europarliament.net site is a very useful shortcut. With a single mouse click, you can learn which MEPs have the best (and worst) attendance records - whether more Brits turn up than Poles, or more liberals than Tories, or more women than men. You can also find a complete list of past votes in Parliament, the results, and the names of everyone who voted in favour, against, or abstained.

The site is independently run and unofficial, and it sometimes gets details wrong. Plus it's still in its infancy design-wise, with only a few of the many advanced facilities that its UK counterparts have developed over the past few years. But no doubt these will come as the site itself increases in popularity over time.

In the meantime, if you're interested in European parliamentary democracy, it's definitely worth a look. Here are a few interesting pages to get you started:


(edit 25/07/05: the site is down again!)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Within the same week, France and the Netherlands, two founding Member States, rejected the European Constitution with 54.87% and 63% against respectively. These results are seen by some as the death of the constitution. But are they?

So far, ten member states have ratified the Constitution, nine via their national parliaments (including Latvia just today) and one by referendum. Those states represent about half of the EU population. Twelve other countries have indicated that they will continue with their ratification procedures despite the French and Dutch results.

We are therefore likely to arrive at a situation where the constitution is approved by a large majority of states and people - but not the grand slam of 25 victories formally required for ratification.

What to do in such circumstances? The views of the majority surely deserve at least as much consideration as those of the minority. Above all, the reasons that led all 25 EU governments and the elected Parliament to conclude that the EU needs reform remain on the table. We cannot simply say “too bad: it was a nice idea to make the EU more effective and democratically accountable, but now we can forget it”. Even a large number of no-voters in France said they want to go further with European integration.

There will obviously need to be some accommodation negotiated with the countries which said 'No'. Interpretations of the treaty, footnotes, opt-outs or even a re-negotiation of parts of the text will, no doubt, all be contemplated. But the momentum towards the reforms encompassed in the constitutional treaty must not be allowed to fizzle out.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Adam Smith Institute is a right-leaning think-tank which describes itself as
"the UK's leading innovator of free-market policies. Named after the great Scottish economist and author of The Wealth of Nations, its guiding principles are free markets and a free society. It researches practical ways to inject choice and competition into public services, extend personal freedom, reduce taxes, prune back regulation, and cut government waste."
It's intriguing to learn, then, that in its recent paper on deregulation, written by Tim Ambler of the London Business School and regulation expert Keith Boyfield, the institute comes out strongly in support of regulation directly at EU level where this is appropriate:
"We do not need both local and Whitehall governments tackling one topic, nor Whitehall and Brussels regulating one another. The concept of Directives (Framework Laws in the new Constitution) provides some national flexibility; but since flexibility is only additive (you can do more than the minimum demanded, but not less) Directives give rise to gold-plating. This adds to the burden on business in certain Member States, and means that the precise trading rules are different in each country, adding to the information burden on business. Accordingly, the UK government should press for EU legislation to appear as Regulations only, not as Directives."
This makes sense, of course. Regulations (laws) are directly applicable, while Directives (framework laws) are transposed by national governments. Where we need common rules for a common market, it's more sensible to agree one set of rules for the whole EU than to agree basic principles and then leave it up to individual countries to implement the principles in different ways.

Eurosceptics could learn much from these free-marketeers.

Download the full report here (PDF).