Friday, September 30, 2005

I only attended the first couple of days of Party conference as this year it clashed with a European Parliament session in Strasbourg. Most years we manage to vote through a Parliamentary timetable that clashes with Tory Party conference - something obviously went wrong this time!

It's all right for MPs of course - they are in Parliamentary recess until October. We MEPs, however, are back in Parliament already in the last week of August.

There are eleven fringe meetings on Europe this year - but not the traditional meeting of the Labour Movement for Europe. Instead, there is an officers' meeting of this organisation, which has been largely dormant over the last few years, and we agree that it needs to be revived. A set of initiatives are planned, including setting up a website and an email list. If any readers of this blog are interested in joining, please send us an email.

Although I miss most of Party conference, I am able to keep up to date on the European side of things thanks to a weblog for New Statesman co-written by my Press and Publicity Officer, Toby Wardman.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Much of the debate in Strasbourg this week centres on Turkey's application to join the EU and the envisaged start of negotiations on 3rd October, which Parliament gives a somewhat lukewarm approval.

My own views can be seen in the new, super-accessible record of debate on Parliament's website (eat your heart out, Hansard!):

"I fully support the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey this autumn. They will no doubt be long and difficult, but if agreement can be reached and if Turkey meets all the necessary conditions regarding the functioning of democracy and respect for human rights including the rights of minorities then there is no reason of principle why it should not be entitled to join the European Union.

"I reject the arguments of those who object to Turkey’s membership on the ground that Turkey is not 'European'. That argument was settled years ago when we accepted Turkey’s membership of the Council of Europe. Opponents of Turkey’s membership try to equate 'European' with 'Christian'. Yet Islam has played a part in Europe’s history and culture for centuries. In any case, the motto of the European Union is 'unity with diversity'. We are not trying to harmonise cultures but to find ways of working together whilst keeping our various identities. By reaching out to Turkey we underline that the EU is not based on an exclusive European identity, but of an inclusive one."

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Foreign Policy Centre and Community, the union, have jointly published an excellent brochure designed to contribute to the left's debate on Europe and the EU. I can heartily recommend it.

From the introduction:
"The insight that the peoples of the World are united by common
interests and a common humanity is obviously not a recent product
of the global era; it has been central to the socialist idea since its
birth. Yet the democratic left has often failed to translate its
internationalist values into the practical reality of a progressive World
order built on strong and effective institutions. The European Union
is certainly not perfect, but it is the most advanced and successful
international organisation that has ever been created. For all its
faults, it is living proof of humanity’s capacity set aside deep national
differences and order its affairs in common. That is too precious an
achievement to be squandered lightly or eve jeopardised by neglect.

"Europe must be more than a marketplace
for the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital. It must
be an instrument for regulating markets in the public interest and
restoring human values to the economic life of our continent and the
wider world. This is Europe’s rationale and its real achievement: not
simply the promotion of free trade, but the creation of a framework
that allows trade to be managed in accordance with rules and
institutions that are politically determined by elected governments.
In the real world this is something that even the largest European
countries can no longer hope to achieve on their own and must now
do by acting collectively. Real progress has already been made on
consumer standards, environmental protection, social rights and
much else. But Europe has the potential and the need to do a great
deal more simply because the greatest challenges, opportunities
and threats it faces today are transnational in scope.

"The purpose of this statement is therefore twofold: to restate the
democratic left case for the political and economic integration of
Europe and to set out a vision of how the European Union could be
reformed to make it a more effective instrument for social and
economic progress. No one imagines that this will be easy, but the
alternative of disillusionment followed by disintegration would be a
catastrophe for progressive politics and the security of nations."

Friday, September 23, 2005

Last week, I attended the reception ("wake") for the winding up of Britain in Europe, the organisation set up to run referendum campaigns on the euro or the constitutional treaty. With neither looking likely for the next few years, Britain in Europe is being effectively wound up for now.

Its disappearance could be a problem. While the anti-Europeans remain vociferous and well-financed, and are actually upping the ante in that many of them are now openly calling for British withdrawal from the Union, there is not much left organisationally or financially in terms of making a pro-European case or even of simple rebuttal capacity against eurosceptics.

Some argue that the European Movement is the obvious place to continue the battle and should be strengthened. Indeed, two members of Britain in Europe staff who have been dealing in press and rebuttal work are joining the European Movement. It is also the only structure that actually exists on a non-party political basis.

Others point out that the European Movement is extremely small. As a membership-based organisation with many ageing members (many having joined during the 1975 referendum campaign) and a cumbersome structure, the need not to offend any party constrains its ability to act forcefully.

There is some talk of a new organisation or unit being set up, but no indication of where its finance would come from, how it would relate to other organisations (including the European Movement), or who would run it. Although these issues have now been discussed for several months, no concrete proposal has yet emerged.

In the meantime, the European Movement is all that there is on an all-party and non-party basis. Let’s hope it can mee the challenge, and help beef it up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Via New Statesman's Conference weblog, I picked up this shrewd observation from the Independent (you need to subscribe to read the full article):
“Charles Kennedy is the most successful leader his adolescent party has ever had. He has now come to sufficient prominence for people to want to get rid of him.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Guardian yesterday summarised the opening of the Lib Dems' conference as follows:
The rising star Nick Clegg MP will kick off the agenda with a motion on Europe, seeking to steer Europhile activists towards a more hard-headed approach. As a former MEP, he is well-placed to persuade them that reform does not mean rejection of the European project.
Mr Clegg is indeed a rising star in the Lib Dems, as well as being a good writer and a Yorkshire MP. But as a former MEP, he presumably thinks he has pro-European support in the bag and is trying, like Laurent Fabius, to reach out to the eurosceptics in his party.

He needs to be careful: this is a tactic that many pro-Europeans have succumbed to in the past, and it's backfired on them. Some, hoping for cheap gallery applause from the eurosceptic media, put career before principle and end up helping the cause they oppose. They reap the whirlwind.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The German election results are most interesting.

Far from being the predicted landslide for the Conservatives (CDU) and meltdown for Chancellor Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD), the campaign allowed the latter to steadily regain ground and come to within about three seats of the former. It might yet be even tighter, as the poll in one seat (Dresden) was postponed due to the death of a candidate (just as in South Staffordshire in Britain!) and this seat is likely to be won by the Social Democrats, with a corresponding effect on the top-up proportional seats. In other words, it's a virtual dead-heat!

However, even with their preferred coalition partners (the Greens for the Social Democrats and the Liberals for the Conservatives), neither side has a majority. The balance is held by the Left party – largely the former East German Communists.

What seems to be happening at present is that everyone is ruling out the various alternative coalition options:
  • No-one wants to make a deal with the Left Party.

  • A “grand coalition” has been ruled out by Schröder (rightly so in my view: a coalition of opposites is bound to run into trouble, and if people later want to vote against the government, they have only extremist parties to vote for).

  • A Socialist-Green-Liberal coalition has been ruled out by the Liberals.

  • Neither the Liberals nor the Greens are very keen on a Conservative-Liberal-Green coalition (perhaps they have observed what has happened to Leeds City Council!).

So what will happen? The Chancellor (their equivalent of Prime Minister) is elected by the Bundestag (equivalent to our House of Commons) by a majority of all elected members (as opposed to a mere majority of those voting – a requirement that has in the past occasionally forced ill or pregnant members to attend when votes are likely to be close). This takes place in a secret ballot on a proposal of the Federal President. If the person proposed by the President is not elected, the Bundestag has 14 days to elect another candidate, also by a majority of its members. If no-one reaches this majority after 14 days, then a new ballot takes place in which the person obtaining the largest number of votes is elected. If the person elected obtained the votes of the majority of the members of the Bundestag, the President must appoint him as Chancellor, but if the person elected does not receive this majority, the President may either appoint him or her, or dissolve the Bundestag and call a new general election.

This means that it is possible to have a minority government, if the President appoints a Chancellor without the necessary majority. Not many people know this, however, as it's never happened since the restoration of democracy after the war. (Today, I even had to point it out to a German MEP spokesman on constitutional affairs!)

A minority Conservative-Liberal coalition could therefore elect their candidate (presumably Frau Merkel) for Chancellor 14 days after the Bundestag re-assembles. It could govern, but it would have to bargain with one or another opposition parties whenever it wanted to get legislation through the Bundestag - just as the previous government had to bargain to get its legislation through the upper house.

A Social Democrat-Green coalition, however, would require the support of some others to elect their candidate for Chancellor (presumably Herr Schröder). For instance, the Left Party could say that, while not joining the government, they would be willing to vote for Schröder rather than see Merkel form a government. He too would have to bargain to see its legislation get through, but perhaps with more options.

Schröder sees that his economic reforms, which were initially unpopular among traditional Social Democrat voters, are beginning to bear fruit. Germany has just become the world’s largest exporter and unemployment is beginning to fall. That's why voters returned to backing him in unexpectedly high numbers.

He sees that he occupies the middle ground between the consrevative-liberal alliance who wanted faster, harsher reforms and the Left Party who opposed any reforms. Neither the right nor the left alternative to Schröder gained a majority. Politically, he feels vindicated. Legally, the constitution allows him a way to get back. And if the President prefers to call a new election rather than have a minority government, he is equally well placed to build on the momentum of his comeback. We will watch the situation unfold with interest!

Friday, September 16, 2005

Despite several days of anticipatory panic-buying, the threatened fuel protests failed to materialise on Wednesday. According to the BBC, campaigners were quick to declare that they never really wanted a big turnout anyway:
"Organisers said the campaign was meant to be symbolic and that it had put the government on the 'back foot'… Mr Spence, who was among a small group of protesters at the Shell refinery in Jarrow, on south Tyneside, said: 'We didn't want a lot of people here, I would rather there was just a handful of us'."
But the most amusing part of the report was from a refinery in Cheshire, where apparently two demonstrators turned up, only to be "frightened off by the size of the media pack"!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

There was a bit of a media frenzy this week on the European Court judgement which allegedly gives the Commission "power to legislate in the area of criminal law" (according to the BBC!). Predictably, the Daily Mail described this as a "sinister new judgement" and reported that:
"unelected bureaucrats, answerable to no-one, will be able to order British courts to fine or put people in prison for breaching EU laws".
Complete rubbish in every respect, of course. Other publications were only slightly less reactionary: compare coverage in the Times and the Guardian, not to mention the tabloids.

Rather than wearily pointing out for the millionth time that, with or without this judgement, the Commission has no power at all to legislate in any area (because it merely makes proposals and carries out what has been agreed), I decided to look into the detail and find out what the Court's judgement actually said. Here it is in full. And a quick glance at the Court's summary here also reveals that the headlines are, needless to say, grossly exaggerated.

Interestingly, there was no dispute at all about the actual content of the environmental legislation that gave rise to the court case. All parties agreed that it was necessary to classify certain infringements of environmental legislation as criminal offences in countries' domestic law. These offences are listed in a framework decision originally agreed jointly by national ministers, and include:
(a) the discharge, emission or introduction of a quantity of substances or ionising radiation into air, soil or water which causes death or serious injury to any person;

(b) the unlawful discharge, emission or introduction of a quantity of substances or ionising radiation into air, soil or water which causes or is likely to cause their lasting or substantial deterioration or death or serious injury to any person or substantial damage to protected monuments, other protected objects, property, animals or plants;

(c) the unlawful disposal, treatment, storage, transport, export or import of waste, including hazardous waste, which causes or is likely to cause death or serious injury to any person or substantial damage to the quality of air, soil, water, animals or plants;

(d) the unlawful operation of a plant in which a dangerous activity is carried out and which, outside the plant, causes or is likely to cause death or serious injury to any person or substantial damage to the quality of air, soil, water, animals or plants;

(e) the unlawful manufacture, treatment, storage, use, transport, export or import of nuclear materials or other hazardous radioactive substances which causes or is likely to cause death or serious injury to any person or substantial damage to the quality of air, soil, water, animals or plants;

(f) the unlawful possession, taking, damaging, killing or trading of or in protected wild fauna and flora species or parts thereof, at least where they are threatened with extinction as defined under national law;

(g) the unlawful trade in ozone-depleting substances;

when committed intentionally.
The Court case simply turned on which treaty article should be used for the adoption of such agreements. The Court ruled that, as it concerned the protection of the environment, it was appropriate to use the environmental articles of the treaties. The definition of the offence, and the severity of the penalty that would apply, remain a matter for member states to decide individually as they see fit.

The losing side in the case agreed that joint European-level action was necessary and that the offences listed should be classified as criminal offences - but they argued for a different treaty article to be used in order to enact such legislation. Using this article would simply have sidestepped the need for parliamentary approval while leaving the content of the legislation intact.

The Court's judgement therefore didn't touch the question of whether the principle of member states laying down criminal penalties could be agreed at European level - since this principle was already agreed by all parties (pace the UK's eurosceptic media). Instead, the net effect of the judgement is to rule that parliamentary scrutiny is required for these decisions, so the Council of Ministers is not allowed to adopt them unilaterally. Surely this is a valuable democratic safeguard worth having - for any legislation?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

In a month when nobody seems willing to further the debate about the future of Europe, it was refreshing to learn of the following resolution passed by the conference of the Co-operative Party (link to Word document):
This Conference supports the proposed new Constitution for the European Union. Conference notes that it has received support from the overwhelming majority of socialist parties across Europe and from the ETUC, and is so strongly opposed by the far right and the UK Conservative Party.…

Conference believes that the new Constitution will respond to many of the criticisms that have previously been levelled at the EU, making it clearer, more efficient and more accountable. It is a progressive step towards a more democratic and social Europe.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Breaking news: the suspected London bomber who was arrested in Rome is to be extradited to the UK within a week. (Previous blog entries here.)

More coverage of yesterday's blogging debate is now on Parliament's website.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Via the vigorously eurosceptic European Foundation Intelligence Digest, I learn that a German paper (Handelsblatt) is reporting as follows:
"SWEDISH FEMINISTS WANT TO ABOLISH MARRIAGE

"The newly formed Swedish women’s party, Feminist Initiative, wants to abolish both marriage and gay civil partnerships. At the founding congress of the party in the central Swedish city of Örebro, the initiators stated that they wanted legal rules for completely open forms of cohabitation between two or more persons, irrespective of their sex.

"'The history of marriage is not a question of love and living together,' said Tiina Rosenberg, 'but instead a question of property.'

"Pollsters have put the party’s electoral potential at some 20 per cent. The post of party leader is expected to go to Gudrun Schyman, 57, a former head of the Left Party."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

I'm delighted to report that the company behind the 'European City Guide' scam is finally being brought to justice.

On 6 September 2005 the Swiss authorities announced that raids had taken place at the headquarters of a number of companies that had been under investigation during July. The move was taken following a number of complaints from all over Europe (including from Richard himself) relating to misleading forms sent directly to businesses across Europe. These forms appear to ask for information and display the phrase "cost free" prominently whilst hiding in the small print the fact that returning the form will lead to bills of almost €3000.

The European City Guide is one of a number of unscrupulous companies which is affected by these raids. The company moved to Valencia from Catalonia following a court case in 2003, when it was shut down for a year and fined.

Three other so-called business directory firms, one Swiss, one Austrian and one German, are also linked to the debt collection agencies which are under scrutiny. Therefore there does seem to be reason to suspect an international scheme of dubious business practices.

The Swiss Ministry for the Economy has submitted requests for proceedings to commence with prosecuting authorities in various cantons within Switzerland.

Until this criminal investigation is completed, however, the scams can continue. To help stop these unfair business practices occuring in the future and for more information on supporting victims and petitioning the European Parliament for legislation to deal with this problem, visit the campaign website at www.stopecg.org.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A strange non sequitur arises (not for the first time) in a piece by Dirk van Heck, researcher for the European Foundation, an organisation whose innocuous name conceals a heavily eurosceptic agenda.

Mr van Heck surveys the results of the French and Dutch referenda on the constitution, and attempts an analysis of what went wrong. He makes some valid points:
"The prevailing view in Britain is that France's current malaise owes much to its beiong part of the eurozone and that it has not undergone necessary free market economic reforms in the way that the UK has. In France, however, the prevailing view is that it is the advance of the Anglo-Saxon economic agenda at EU level that is undermining the French economy and ultimately French society."
But here's the non sequitur. Mr van Heck is keen to insist that voters were indeed objecting to the constitution itself, and not to other, more general worries about their governments, their economies, or the EU itself. Yet he then goes on to report:
"Many polls and countless interviews in the course of the campaigns helped to establish what was uppermost in voters' minds. French concerns included: the free market elements of the constitution; the prospect of Turkish entry to the EU; lack of influence in the EU, post-enlargement; and persistent low growth and high unemployment."
The problem is, only one of these four elements is even vaguely related to the constitution, namely its supposed "free market elements" - and, of course, these elements, such as they are, are identical to the existing treaties. So the conclusion demonstrated by Mr van Heck's own research is that the French did not oppose the constitution itself so much as aspects of their own domestic politics and EU policies.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Chris Heaton-Harris and Roger Helmer, two Tory MEPs in the East Midlands, have launched a 'Great Kilroy Hunt', and are putting their money where their mouths are…

Friday, September 02, 2005

I suppose it’s still the silly season, and even the broadsheets — which seem to shrink by the day, as the Guardian becomes the latest quality daily to announce it’s going tabloid (or 'Berliner', to be precise) — are scrabbling around for stories. An article in the Times today takes a brief remark from President Barroso, the kind of remark that might normally have made a two-line story on page 30, and constructed a vast, hyperbolic exegesis about the death of the constitution from it, complete with tabloid-style interpretations of to “startling admissions” and “genocide stalking the Continent”.

The Guardian also jumped on board:
The last rites were finally delivered to the European Union constitution yesterday when Jose Manuel Barroso, the commission president, declared that there were “no magic formulae” to revive the measure. …This is the first time that a European leader has all but declared the constitution dead. … Arch-federalists… will be disappointed.
Talk about making mountains out of molehills! What Barroso actually said was that he couldn’t see a “magic formula” for reviving the constitution, which is quite different from saying that there’s no possible way ahead; and that there will be no new constitution in the near future, which is quite different from saying that EU reform is now impossible. On top of that, Barroso’s remarks carry no official weight anyway, since the European Commission has no say in what EU countries choose to do regarding the constitution.

In other words, the Guardian and the Times are engaging in some rather irresponsible hype, following the very British trend of ramming nails into coffins before the coroners have even given their verdicts.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Many readers of today's Telegraph are getting rather excited about the prospect of a Conservative party led by Ken Clarke, but one writer stood out in particular.
Sir - I can picture Kenneth Clarke standing for his party's leadership - but running?