Thursday, January 26, 2006

A note for the eurosceptics:

(Copyright Prospect magazine)

Friday, January 20, 2006

The latest wheeze of Dan Hannan and some other eurosceptic MEPs is to claim that the European Parliament is trying to 'gag' them!

Almost all parliaments have rules in order to protect themselves against disruptive behaviour aimed at preventing them from working. Not that the rules need to be used very often; but they are there to safeguard the democratic process.

Until now, the European Parliament lacked a clear set of rules on this - and it finally got around to adopting some yesterday. They are modest. They give the President of Parliament powers that are far less than the powers of, for instance, the Speaker of the House of Commons. They are strictly circumscribed and are combined with safeguards to reassure those colleagues who feared that the President might clamp down on any kind of behaviour that was in any way colourful or lively. It does not ban vibrant debate or even visual displays, but only behaviour that any parliament would find unacceptable. The President's powers range from giving a reprimand to a Member to suspending him or her for a maximum of ten days. (If suspended, the Member would still be able to vote.)

A coherent and proportionate set of rules to protect Parliament, if necessary, became clear after some recent incidents, such as one involving an Italian MEP who tried to disrupt a formal address by the President of Italy. And let us not forget that, at the last European election, Kilroy-Silk said his ambition was to wreck the Parliament and prevent it from working. In the end, he simply disappearded without trace - but, who knows, he might, in combination with others, have made a serious effort to stop Parliament from working.

The suggestion that these rules would gag a particular viewpoint is preposterous. All views, including eurosceptic ones, are freely expressed in Parliament - and always have been, in a Parliament that contains the whole political spectrum from communists to the far-right. In fact, this reform was drafted by a Green MEP - hardly likely to want to clamp down on colourfully-expressed minority viewpoints!

Dan Hannan's comments are therefore aimed at gullible journalists hoping to get an anti-Europe story out of nothing. Unless, that is, he really thinks that these rules will target him - in which case he is either actually planning to disrupt Parliament's work, or he is paranoid. Given his general attitude to the European Union – that every aspect of it is evil – I rather think it is paranoia.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

What to do about the EU constitutional treaty? That's the question we debated yesterday and voted on today.

There are at least two views. One is that this text of the Constitution is dead following the referenda in France and the Netherlands; that we had better start thinking of something else and preparing a different way forward.

The other view is to say: hang on a minute, this text has actually now been ratified by a majority of Member States. The 25 national governments themselves did not declare it dead. Instead, they extended the period of ratification and opened a 'period of reflection'. In that period of reflection we must listen carefully to those who said ‘no’, but we must also listen to the majority who have said ‘yes’ and find a way forward that can ultimately bring the two together.

Eurosceptics shout loudly about the French and Dutch referenda showing that "Europe" has lost touch with public opinion and that the constitutional treaty (presumably unlike any other treaty) was an elitist project which the public is now revolting against. They never mention the referenda in other countries which endorsed the treaty, nor the fact that, in total, more people voted in favour than against.

What we have is not a mass revolt, but a divergence of views. In the EU, when countries' views diverge, the traditional pratice is to talk things through to try to overcome that divergence and to find a compromise solution. In the past, when new treaties have been rejected by a member country, ways have been found, with the agreement of the country concerned, to reassure public opinion and to allow the treaty to be adopted after a new referendum.

This time, it is far too soon to draw conclusions as to the best way forward. The period of reflection has begun by addressing issues of context rather than the text. It is only now that several governments have begun to float ideas as to what could be done about the text.

Parliament concluded that the period of reflection must be extended at least until 2007 to enable a longer and deeper reflection. Until then, all options should be kept open. Of course – as is to be expected – Parliament would prefer to maintain the text, but it recognised that that would only be possible if measures were taken to reassure and convince public opinion. What those measures might be is left open. Parliament pointed out that there are, in theory, many options: supplementary interpretative declarations, extra protocols, rewriting part of the text, rewriting the whole text, drafting a new text and so on.

Which option is best and feasible will only emerge at the end of the period of reflection. The conclusion cannot be drawn now. But one thing is certain: the status quo – that is, the current Treaties – is not sufficient for this Union in its enlarged form to function effectively or democratically. This issue will not go away.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

An update on the campaign to halt the now infamous Europe-wide mailing scam that calls itself the 'European City Guide'. The last time I posted about this, it was good news: the international campaign against the ECG was starting to bear fruit, with police seizing evidence from the offices of a parent company in Switzerland and a criminal investigation underway.

Since then, there have been several developments. Firstly, the ECG scam turns out to be closely linked with a number of other scams, including 'Novachannel AG' and 'Construct Data' – in fact, a Swiss newspaper has recently uncovered that they are all owned by the same man! (Link to pay-only archive section of newspaper site.)

Secondly, and more worryingly, those people behind the scam have been concentrating their efforts on silencing those who are attempting to expose them. Their most recent step has been to target the main advice website for victims of the scam, entitled 'Stop the European City Guide'. Since 2001, this site has offered advice and support to thousands of companies across the UK on what to do if they are targeted by scammers. Site author Jules Woodell estimates that having an online support forum such as this has saved British firms hundreds of thousands of pounds in payments to organisations such as the ECG.

This isn't the first time that the 'Stop the European City Guide' site has been targeted by those it tries to expose. The method of bullying has changed, but the objective remains the same. In 2003, the site was successfully defended against an attempt by the ECG to silence it by making allegations of copyright infringement.

This time around, the strategy is different. Novachannel AG has employed a UK law firm to get the website shut down. Rather than contacting those involved in the site, the lawyers instead send threatening letters to the internet service provider which hosts the site. This hosting company plays no part in the campaign to expose the scams, so it has no reason to stand up to the threats. The result is that the website (www.stopecg.org) has been temporarily shut down.

What's so frustrating about this situation is that those people who campaign to expose the ECG and related scams would welcome a court case. Every time it's come to court (in both Germany and Spain), the courts have recognised the scam and ruled against the ECG. But, by bullying internet service providers rather than taking on the campaign itself, the scammers have found a way to silence their opponents without risking a court action.

These companies pose real threats to Yorkshire businesses, dozens of whom have been duped in the past. After 5 years of campaigning, I'm not about to give up. A major step would be to get the support website back online; the campaign continues…

Friday, January 13, 2006

One favourite eurosceptic line is that the European Union has developed with barely any reference to public opinion, and in fact without democratic support. This kind of claim is usually tossed into anti-European arguments as an aside, and therefore too often goes unaddressed.

It is, however, complete rubbish. In fact, I can think of no other topic which has ever been subject to quite as many referenda as the process of building the European Union. Specifically:
  • Between 1972 to 2005, no fewer than 34 national referenda have been held in EU member states on the subject of European integration - be it accession, treaty ratification, or joining the euro. Averaged out, that amounts to (more than) one referendum every single year.

  • The average turnout in EU-related referenda is two-thirds; the highest turnout is 91%, and only 4 of the 34 had turnouts of less than 50%.

  • Of these 34 referenda, 28 (82%) have been 'yes' votes. Of the remaining 6 'noes', two were later reversed in subsequent referenda.
If anyone can think of a political issue that's received more endorsement by plebiscite than this over as long a timescale, I'd be interested to hear about it.

And besides, there's a more general point. We in the EU are all parliamentary democracies; the UK has a longer tradition than most. It is our elected parliamentarians who deliberate and decide policy on our behalf, and must account for their actions at election time. Nobody claims that the NHS is undemocratic because it's never been subjected to a referendum, yet our national policy on this continues to be shaped by elected governments. In the UK, even constitutional developments are rarely put to vote, and still this is not seen as an omission which undermines their legitimacy. And we joined the UN, the WTO, NATO, and countless other structures where we share our sovereignty without any clamour to hold a referendum.

As long as our government remains accountable to Parliament for British policy towards Europe, and as long as we continue to elect the House of Commons, the claim that the EU has poor democratic legitimacy is always going to be shaky. All the more so when we also elect MEPs to represent us directly at European level!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"He who is limping is still walking."

Does this old Yorkshire (or is it Chinese?) proverb apply to the European Union? There is no doubt that the rejection of the EU reform package by France and the Netherlands last year has injured the EU and left it limping.

But it is still very much walking. Common European-wide laws continue to be agreed in those areas where member states consider that this would be mutually beneficial. A medium term budget has been agreed. Countries still outside the EU continue to join the lengthening queue to become full members. Even with a limp, Europe is still moving
ahead.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Don't just take it from me: even the Lib Dems concede that Tony Blair's presidency of the European Council was a success! So says Andrew Duff MEP:
Credit to Blair for a successful presidency

"…The prime minister’s most admirable performance came not at the start of his presidency but at the end, on December 20, when he reported back to MEPs after the critical meeting of the European Council the previous week.

"On this occasion Blair had to explain and justify the agreement on the EU’s multi-annual financial framework for the period 2007-13. For Blair it was much more than a public relations outing because the parliament has the power to approve or reject the package proposed by the European Council and, within certain parameters, to adjust figures between headings.

"His presentation – which skilfully mixed confidence and contrition - was admirable, not just for its content, but also for the way in which he bashed ‘reactionaries’ and derided ‘commentators’."

Friday, January 06, 2006

So Austria wants to review the EU constitution. I wrote in the Guardian on the subject:
"The reasons which led all 25 governments to agree that our enlarged EU needs a new rulebook have not simply disappeared. …

"The French "no" campaigners argued that rejecting the constitutional treaty would lead to a re-negotiation where the text could be "improved" - although they did not all agree on what those improvements might be. Nonetheless, it is clear that their intention was to kill the text but not the process - and possibly not all of the text.

"According to the most recent opinion polls, 64% of Dutch and 65% of French people want the constitution to be re-negotiated rather than killed off.

"In that sense, the ball is in the court of France and of the Netherlands. It is up to those countries to say exactly what it is they consider necessary in order for the process to be revived. If they consider that there is no scope whatsoever for agreeing anything along the lines of the constitutional treaty, they must say so and save the rest of us a lot of time."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The BBC were yesterday trumpeting a Radio 4 poll which produced some very odd results. The poll, organised by the Today programme's 'Who Runs Your World' season, apparently found that 22% of listeners believed Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, to be “the most powerful man in the UK”.

Considering that most people in the country don’t even know who Mr Barroso is, this is a curious result. But then, it was a pretty curious poll from start to finish. Setting aside the usual doubts about what exactly counts as 'power', listeners were asked to choose the most powerful “person” from a pre-selected shortlist of ten, which included a number of quite definitely non-person entities, including 'Parliament' and even 'Google'. (In no less than 300 words, discuss the merits of comparing the Prime Minister with an internet search engine…)

The results were even more odd: a supermarket chief executive scored more highly than the supposedly ‘dictatorial’ Tony Blair, who only made seventh place; while Gordon Brown, the ‘Iron Chancellor’, the holder of the strings of Britain’s biggest purse, managed to come joint last, tied with Shami Chakrabarti, who works for a political pressure group!

Something was clearly very wrong with the whole affair. According to the Yorkshire Post on January 3 (I couldn't find the online version of the article),
"the BBC did not say how many votes it received and there were signs that the number might have been quite small. Voters had to be keen enough to check into the Today programme website and were encouraged to make their own comments when they did. The last messages left before the final count were five days old and only one person wrote in to comment on the result yesterday."
The plot thickens.

Of course, the eurosceptics jumped on the bandwagon immediately. UKIP’s Roger Knapman crowed that Barroso is “a bureaucrat perceived as the most important man in this country and that is quite shocking”. (Wrong, as usual: Mr Barroso is no more a bureaucrat than Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten were. He’s a politician through and through, having previously been Prime Minister of Portugal! In his present post, he was proposed by the heads of 25 democratically elected governments and can remain in office only while he enjoys the confidence of the directly-elected European Parliament – just as our national ministers must enjoy the confidence of our House of Commons.)

Anyway, I was quite prepared to put this weird result down to a conflation of two euromyths in voters’ minds: the myth that the Commission makes laws (it can’t), and the myth that it is unelected (it isn’t). But then the final icing on the cake came in a report in today’s Guardian:
“The UK Independence Party admitted yesterday that it tried to rig the poll on the Today programme to find out who runs Britain. … UKIP and Dan Hannan, the fiercely eurosceptic Conservative MEP, both admitted to the Guardian that they had separately sent e-mails encouraging supporters to vote for Mr Barroso. … Mr Hannan said last night: ‘I had no idea UKIP were doing it. I was going to take sole credit for it.’”
So the mystery is solved, and another instance of UKIP’s media strategy lies exposed. All rather embarrassing for the BBC, of course, but sadly no surprise for those of us more accustomed to eurosceptic propaganda tactics. I won’t hold my breath for an apology from Mr Knapman, who, let’s not forget, claimed to find the results “quite shocking”.

But I’ll leave the last word to an indignant Ben Jones of the European Movement:
“Politics should be done through rational argument, not by manipulating the media.”

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The UK Presidency ended as the clocks chimed in the New Year, and it's worth evaluating what was achieved. The balance sheet is surprisingly positive; surprising, that is, compared to the assessments of many of the armchair commentators whose agenda precludes them from saying anything positive about the government or the EU.

The Presidency of the European Council is not an executive office, but the chairmanship of one of the EU institutions for a very short period. It has no decision-taking powers of its own, merely the opportunity to chair skillfully, to broker compromises, and to place items higher up the (largely inherited) agenda.

Within these constraints, the UK's achievements are not insignificant:
  • Managed to get a deal on the budget. (Enough has been said about this elsewhere on this blog.)

  • Secured agreement on the "European Consesus on Development" that will double EU countries development aid to $80billion per year by 2010, commits Member States to reach the UN target of 0.7% GDP by 2015, and re-orientates the EU's own programmes towards poverty elimination and meeting the Millenium Development Goals.

  • Begun a further round of CAP reform, with agreement to end all export subsidies over the next 7 years, to fit all the 10 new Member States and the next two (Bulgaria and Romania) within the current CAP spending ceiling, which will itself be reduced by 7%, to radically reform the sugar régime now and to have a new overall review of spending in 2008.

  • Got all 25 countries to agree to start accession negotiations with Turkey.

  • Persuaded Council to agree that its meetings on EU codecision legislation should be held in public, with immediate effect.

  • Made huge progress towards adoption of the REACH directive on protecting consumers and workers from dangerous chemicals.

  • Secured agreement with the European Parliament (rather than an intergovernmental shortcut) on the data retention directive, vital for combatting terrorism and serious criminality.

  • Persuaded Council to resume consideration of proposals to reform the "comitology" system of scrutinising the implementing powers of the Commission, in view of giving Council and the European Parliament equal rights to call back Commission decisions.

  • Set an example of how Council presidencies should interact withn the European Parliament, with a record number of ministerial appearences in Parliament and no fewer than four visits of the Prime Minister.

  • Hosted a highly successful meeting of the 104-country ACP Assembly in Edinburgh.

  • Launched EU Security & Defence missions to Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and to Aceh in Indonesia.

  • Made progress on climate change, leading the EU delegation to contribute to the agreement at the Montreal conference and putting together a package of assistance to China to clean up its coal-fired power stations.

  • Secured agreement in Council on the Capital Requirements Directive, an important part of the Financial services Action Plan.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Their good work is ignored by the media - yet they are at the receiving end when the tabloids, or even serious newspapers, wrongly blame them with their far-fetched fantasies.

Sound familiar? But this time I'm not talking about MEPs - but about Britain's Food Standards Agency. This month's Prospect magazine contains an interview with John Krebs, the scientist who headed the Agency for the last five years. He too knows what it is like to be rubbished by second rate journalists.

His explanation? That media is more geared to "villans and heroes than of providing equal weight to all sides":
A good media story, like a good film or a good play, works best with villains and heroes… People like conspiracies too and I think you have to accept that is the way the world works.
No doubt. But if you combine that liking with a deliberate agenda on the part of a substantial proportion of the media to go out and get you, then you have an uphill struggle to get any sympathy - whatever the facts.

Monday, January 02, 2006

It is with immense sadness that I learned of the death of my friend and colleague Phillip Whitehead MEP on New Year's Eve.

At 68, Phillip was the oldest Labour MEP, but seemed young for his age, remaining extraordinarily active both in Parliament (where he chaired the Committee on Internal Market & Consumer Protection) and outside (where he still found time for the occasional TV production, such as the recent BBC series on Catherine the Great, which he co-produced).

In a long career, he had been an MP for 13 years (and even captained the House of Commons cricket team, if my memory serves me well), a writer, a TV producer (winning an Emmy award), Chair of the Fabian Society (Britain's oldest think-tank) and an MEP for 12 years, including a stint as chair of the EPLP (the Labour MEPs).

He was a respected intellectual with a fine analytical mind. This, combined with his vast experience in politics and the media, made him a formidable parliamentarian. His devotion to public service, his sagacity, open-mindedness and sense of fair play won him the respect of all sides of the political spectrum.

Phillip was a committed European who believed that Europe's nations should work together for the prosperity, stability and peace of the continent.

He was above all a good friend with much sound advice to offer and a wonderful companion. He will be sorely missed.

The following is his last article, published on his website on 23 December, at the start of what would be his last Christmas break. It is a witty but pertinent analysis of Tony Blair's achievements in his 6 months as President of the European Council.

Blair's presidency

"It was the fourth coming: Tony Blair back in Brussels once again to wrap up the 6 month UK Presidency of the European Union. No one in his position has been so often, nor brought tardy parliamentarians back to their duties in Christmas week. It's a job for six months, but the first two get lost in the summer break, if you have the second half of the year. And this is not little Luxembourg where all the public jobs are swapped around and the prime minister's duties are part Rutland, part Ruritania.

"Let us remind ourselves. July began with the Olympic triumph and that extraordinary dash across the world to snatch the prize from Chirac. Within hours the Gleneagles G7 summit (which Blair has also chaired) was stupefied by the worst terrorist attack on our shores and its consequences. He has had Iraq as a running wound. He has had to take his government through the climate change negotiations in Montreal, the world trade talks in Hong Kong, and keep the EU show on the road. And this was no ordinary show. Enlargement meant more costs. The rejection of the constitution meant more confusion. All this came bang on the button when the EU budget perspective for the next seven years had to be agreed among twenty five member states who are only just learning to work together. That too came down to the Brits.

"So when Tony Blair walked into the overcooked atmosphere of the European Parliament last week his opponents were voluble. Never has there been such a turnout of the massed ranks of the United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP (or 'we speak, you-kip', as it's often called) was wide awake now. A semi-circle of snowy-haired Rotarians, weighed down by their pound signs, sat behind their toy flags. These turkeys thought Christmas was for them. Surely here they could get across the message that Johnny Foreigner, the 'cheese-eating surrender monkey', had cheated we honest patriots. Enlargement, to them, is all cost, no opportunity. 'Spending money on the sewers of Budapest', their leader called it. UKIP's fellow travellers pitch in. One, whom I vaguely recognise, waved a copy of the Sun, and talked of treason. I reach for my moral scruples. This sort of hooligan talk is no more typical of our politics than the skinheads on the terraces are representative of the great game they demean. Most of our colleagues know that, but some must have doubts when this uniquely British phalanx of misty-eyed, deerstalker-wearing loons hits town.

"Blair must have seen them as a godsend. Every politician prays for a heckler persistent enough and brash enough to be the perfect foil. These, after all, are the clowns who solemnly held demonstrations in favour of the French winning the 2012 Olympics. These are the prodigies of paranoia, who claim that Britain is, like Chechnya, due to fight its way out of the evil empire. Some of them inveigh against corruption, accounts not signed off and the like, without much evidence that they can read an expenses form themselves.

"So I confess to a great surge of Christian spirit, of the rightness of things, when Blair hit back. Here is a man beset, not just on policies, but by new, younger rivals (poor dozy Charlie Kennedy will be collecting his P45 any day now) and fractious rebels. He has upset many of the complaisant traditions of the EU 'pledge now, pay later' culture. Federalists and habitual big spenders dislike him with a Ukippian fervour. Yet he was, on his feet in the last round, the consummate politician. Travelling back to the airport in a van with a whole platoon of the grumpy old men I found he had stirred UKIP too. "Class act",…"not a word wrong", the super patriots were mumbling, happy that he had eaten them alive on TV.

"How well did he do over these six months? The best audit thus far comes from Chatham House, which calculates that the UK achieved about 80% of its objectives for the Presidency. It has made a better budget deal possible, which reduces the amount spent on agricultural support, raises that for research and development, and fields a proportion of the British rebate to help pay the cost of enlargement and world development. A tenner a year for that, if you believe in diminishing the gap between rich and poor, doesn't look like treason to me. If you don't want safer chemicals, or data retention to combat international terrorism, or action on climate change - and many people don't - this presidency is not for you. The budget doesn't begin to do enough for consumer protection, or culture and education. The Parliament still has to have its say on that. The big review of the CAP, so long obstructed by the French, will be in the massive hands of Gordon Brown by 2007: no surrender monkey he! There is more work on that front. Others may seem less of a success with time. The Brits launched entry talks with Turkey, and rightly. But the sight of our former Europe Minister Denis McShane being duffed up in a Turkish court, where he was a courageous witness for free speech, reminds us that enlargement is bumping up against its own frontiers.

"So I feel a sense of festive cheer. The mince pies will taste better on Sunday, with the sweet sense that our country played fair and played hard. Even the massed ranks of UKIP could scarce forbear to cheer."

Phillip Whitehead MEP
23 December 2005