Friday, 28 November 2014

Juncker, Confidence votes and Parliamentary battles

The Juncker Commission easily survived this week's motion of censure in the European Parliament, with 461 against, 101 for and 88 abstentions. The motion was brought by a Euroskeptic bloc of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy with support from Front national (a particular point of controversy in the UK where UKIP said that they would not sit with FN in the Parliament but are working with them on this high-profile issue), on the basis that Juncker is unfit to lead the Commission in the light of the damaging Luxleaks scandal.

A majority of the EPP, S&D, ALDE and the Greens rejected the motion (the European Conservatives accounted for most of the abstentions) - the parliamentary majority that backed Juncker and his Commission so recently and after facing down the Council to put him there is unlikely to unseat him so readily. It would also be a very panicked response to ditch Juncker before the competition investigations (and perhaps one of the Parliament's own) is complete.

While the motion was at least in part a cynical ploy by the Euroskeptics - to paraphrase ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt - it was important to have this debate in the European Parliament. No-confidence votes are held in many national parliaments every so often, particularly where there's a scandal affecting the head of the executive, so miffed Europhiles shouldn't take it too personally. After all, just having the debate is a reminder that in the case of the Commission, the Parliament can not only giveth, but also taketh away...

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Darmstadt, Philae has landed

After 25 years of planning and working on Rosetta, the European Space Agency has managed to land a probe, Philae, on the surface of a comet – a feat never before achieved. The Rosetta mission is intended to take measurements on the composition of the comet to reveal its make-up and to provide new data, which could help us uncover new information in how solar systems like ours are formed and whether comets have a role in the origin of life on Earth.

Reading the news stories of the difficulty of landing the probe on the surface – and that there may yet be some danger from the probe’s “bounce” that it might not be fully secure on the comet – it’s hard not to be inspired. Touchdown was made at 17:03 CET on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after a 2 dayoperation.

The European Space Agency is a great example of European co-operation (it’s not an EU agency, though it receives financial support from the EU), but space exploration can’t be considered just a national, or even continental level, endeavour. Even on the Rosetta project, international help is given from other space agencies, such as when NASA helped track Rosetta from its Canberra station.

Hopefully this will inspire future scientists and scientific endeavours.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Juncker and the Luxembourg Tax Scandal

Last week it came to light that there were serious tax avoidance practices in Luxembourg that allowed companies to funnel profits through the Grand Duchy in order to avoid paying tax in the countries the profits were generated.  After avoiding commenting on the scandal for a week the “cool” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has denied that he was involved in anything illegal in Luxembourg, and says that everything was done in “compliance with national legislation and international rules that apply in this matter”.

The new Commission President was prime minister of Luxembourg for 19 years (as well as finance minister for most of that time), so the denial is hardly going to silence his critics. Juncker himself said that he was politically responsible for what happened throughout Luxembourg during his time in office. In an extraordinary debate on tax avoidance in the European Parliament, Juncker admitted that “there probably was a certain amount of tax avoidance in Luxembourg, as in other EU countries. We find this everywhere in Europe because there is insufficient tax harmonisation in Europe”.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is releasing 548 “comfort letters” (effectively private tax rulings that clarify for specific companies on how their corporate tax will be calculated) between 2002 and 2010 which Luxembourg provided to corporations for favourable tax treatment. The investigation that Juncker’s own Competition Commissioner Vestager will be looking into is whether or not Luxembourg’s support for these corporations through the tax system amounts to illegal state aid (earlier in October the previous Commission launched an investigation into the taxation of Amazon in Luxembourg). In the case of the FedEx Corp, the ICIJ found that Luxembourg agreed to tax only 0.25% of FedEx’s non-dividend income that flowed through the country through its tax arrangements.

There are two aspects to this: whether comfort letters for specific companies constitute illegal state aid (and the extent to which Luxembourg was using these), and the extent to which there is legal tax avoidance through tax competition. Europe has gone through years of austerity and it is politically poisonous to have tax avoidance at such levels where companies are only paying 0.25% corporation tax through certain Luxembourgish tax arrangements. If illegal state aid is found, then it will dramatically increase the pressure on Juncker.  If no illegal state aid is found then there could still be significant political damage – “how could such practices be allowed to continue?” would be the question in most Europeans’ minds.

In the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberals, proposed setting up a special investigative committee into tax evasion by the Parliament, saying “This is also a clear case where we need more Europe – to set up common tax compliance legislation and a convergence code not general harmonisation, because we don't know at what level to harmonise.” Such an investigation would require the backing of the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee and would probably look into the various ways companies limit their tax bills. Juncker wouldn’t have any say in such an investigation as it would be purely run by the Parliament.

This scandal is so toxic because it has a highly political idea of tax fairness at the heart of it. Juncker will probably be able to hang on in office if there are no or only limited infringements on state aid rules, but the first political Commission would be politically stunned if it could not properly address the tax avoidance issue. The Commission President has already stated that Commissioner Moscovici will “initiate proposals for an automatic exchange of information regarding national tax rulings”, but Junker, and the Commission, needs to go further.

Tax is a sensitive issue, and it would be difficult to bring Member States along with even mild proposals on tax systems, but Juncker needs to display political initiative by pushing forward on tax transparency and by articulating a position on corporate taxation in the EU. Juncker's political Commission could very easily be undone by politics and his own record as Luxembourg's premier - if he's to survive, Juncker has to show that his Commission can take a political lead that will address citizens' concerns on tax fairness.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Farage's EFDD Group collapses

The Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group in the European Parliament has collapsed after the Lativan MEP Iveta Grigule withdrew from the group. This means that the group no longer has MEPs from the minimum 7 EU Member States required to be recognised as a political group within the Parliament (it has more than the 25 MEPs required as the second criteria). Having group status wins the group more resources, claims on positions within the Parliament and speaking time, so the collapse of the EFDD will hurt its member parties, the biggest of which are UKIP and the 5 Star Movement.

There has been speculation over what induced Grigule to withdraw her support from the EFDD.  Farage and the EFDD have claimed that it's part of a scheme by the bigger pro-European parties to deprive the Euroskeptic group of a bigger say in the Parliament. They say that Grigule was bribed with a post on the Kazakhstan parliamentary delegation. However others have said that she left the EFDD due to differences with Farage over his pro-Russian stance (Farage has said that he admires Putin). Grigule's Latvian Farmers' Union is currently in coalition talks for a Latvian government.

Some of the main Europarties have acted to squeeze the Euroskeptics from prominent parliamentary positions, which is indefensible after the elections saw a boost in the Euroskeptic vote (no EFDD member holds a chair of an EP committee, while the United Left holds the chair of one committee).  there may be a parliamentary majority for a Juncker Commission, but the Euroskeptic voice should be heard within the EU; the pro-EU Europarties only shoot themselves in the foot by denying the Euroskeptics a say proportionate to their weight in the EP.

Currently the speculation is swirling around the former EFDD member parties: will some be poached by the Front Nationale and Geert Wilders' PVV in a new attempt to form a far-right grouping? Will the 5 Star Movement be lured off to the Greens (unlikely given the 5SM's anti-EU views)?

Pro-EU Europarties should beware of gloating too much at the EFDD's demise. Regardless of how easily it (or how difficult it will find it to) reforms, playing games with representation in the EP is hardly worthy political action. Rather, the arguments of the Euroskeptics should be tackled head on.  This way, the larger parties risk portraying themselves as childish (or worse, blundering if this paves the way to a more far-right grouping). They may not have been involved in this case (I think it could be a combination of dissatisfaction with Farage's pro-Russian stance and the parliamentary arithmetic of getting the delegation post), but the Euroskeptic representation deserves more representation in the Parliament than it currently has.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Federalism in the UK?: the Flexible Constitution warped

The referendum in Scotland was a great example of democracy, with high levels of engagement over a fundamental issue dealt with peacefully (though I suspect that if the result had been a Yes for independence, the negotiations for separation would have been less civil). The morning after the result, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that Scotland would get the extra powers the pro-Union parties promised, but that devolutionary measures for England would have to be brought in in tandem. Linking the two means that great constitutional change has to be brought about in the UK before the next election, which is a mind-boggling task.

Given the short time frame, the Conservatives were quick to promote their idea of "English votes for English laws". Since the Scottish Parliament will have wide powers on most domestic matters, such as health and education, the argument is that Scottish MPs in the UK Parliament should not be allowed to vote on draft laws that only affect England. It's a neat idea as, the Tories argue, it can be brought in quickly and without the need for more politicians, as the English members of the current UK Parliament can simply sit as the English Parliament for a day or two each week. However, the Labour Party, traditionally strong in Scotland, is suspicious that this is simply a plan to rob the Labour Party of a workable majority after the next general election if it wins by essentially disqualifying their Scottish MPs (the Conservatives are a very minor party in Scotland).

It's not just the worrying party-political nature of the proposal that's concerning, but there are other problems that carving a part-time English Parliament out of the UK Parliament would have.

First of all, it causes a problem with how the government is to be formed, since ministers are generally drawn from MPs (some ministers are brought into Parliament by being made Life Peers who sit in the unelected House of Lords). If the ministers of Education and Health work on an England-only basis, then there will be pressure for those ministers to only be drawn from English MPs. And these ministers would be accountable to the English Parliament within the UK Parliament, while other ministers would be responsible to the UK Parliament as a whole. There would need to be a "double majority" of English and UK-wide MPs to form a stable government. It seems odd that a Tory party that largely opposed the Alternative Vote on the grounds that First Past the Post produces (generally) stable governments, now want to introduce a divided government with loyalties to a divided Parliament.

It's not just that it would complicate the government, but that no real thought has gone into the powers and policies that need to be looked at from a UK-wide and a national or regional level. The NHS - the National Health Service - is supposed to be a UK-wide institution, and as England makes up the vast majority of the population and spending power within this, English decisions would have a bigger impact on the other parts of the UK without the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish having much of a say. If certain policy decisions on health were located at national and UK level this would be less of a problem, but it's a tougher question for taxation and spending if there isn't a divide between different pots of money (UK and English), which would cause plenty of government divides and tensions in itself. (Just as people have drawn parallels between the unionist case for Scotland staying in the UK and the UK's in-or-out debate on the EU, maybe we'll see some more being drawn if and when it's argued that the Eurzone MEPs should be the only ones permitted to vote on Eurozone matters).

Ironically for a proposal supposedly designed to strengthen the union by giving the English more powers, having a UK Parliament where large parts of the UK government are English-only would be a great symbol of English dominance within the union that won't help its image in the Celtic nations. Surely for devolution - or a federal arrangement - to work and really mean something, there should be a Union Parliament and government at one level, and state governments below it, with a thought-out division of responsibilities and powers?

Sadly in comparison to the Scottish referendum, little debate engaging civil society is taking place as Westminster MPs try to rush this to their Scottish timetable (to get Scottish devolution measures passed before the general election in May). Would the simple division of MPs into English MPs and the rest actually mean much more democracy for England? Hardly. There is no opportunity to explore the idea of English regions as states, empowering, say Yorkshire (which is about the same population size as Scotland), to make its owns decisions and rebalancing England as a whole away from the over-dominant South East and London. Regional parliaments may not be a hot topic in England at the moment, but the fact that there is no debate or discussion over it at all when English devolution is supposedly the topic is damning in itself.

The British constitution's strength is said to be its flexibility. Unfortunately this is a clear example of how such flexibility works in practice: (part of) the Westminster elite spots a potential constitutional issue, tries to quickly turn it to its advantage and shape reform according to its own interests, while closing out proper public debate. It's hard to see how this can result in good decision-making, never mind good constitutional reform, for either England or the whole UK - and harder to imagine that these decisions are really being taken in the best interests of the citizens in whose name they are being made.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Bulc Question: a good pick for the Commission?

When the Slovenian candidate to become the Commissioner for Energy Union and a Vice President of the Commission, Alenka Bratusek, was overwhelmingly rejected by the European Parliament's industry and environment committees, the Socialists and Democrats were quick to signal their support for the Socialist MEP Tanja Fajon as her replacement. The EPP also backed Fajon as she was the second choice of the Slovenian government over the summer.

The problem with this was that there has been a change of government in the meantime, with a completely new political party sweeping into office. The new Prime Minister, Miro Cerar, condemned the cross-party backing for the Socialist MEP as meddling with the decision of a national government, and selected a political newcomer Violeta Bulc as Bratusek's replacement.

Bulc has only briefly been a minister in Cerar's newly-formed government, and a minister for Development, Strategic Projects and Cohesion. She has experience as a businesswoman (EUObserver reports that she has also trained as a shaman and firewalker - she went to the Shamanic Academy in Scotland in 2008 [PDF]), but no really relevant policy experience for the portfolio of Energy Union. In fact, it's hard to get a grip on what her business experience is actually in, although the word "innovation" is mentioned a lot. Since Bratusek was rejected due to her terrible performance when grilled by MEPs, it seems odd to pick someone with less political experience, but then Cerar's party was only formed just before the Slovenian elections earlier this year in June, and Cerar himself is new to the political game.

And now it also looks like the opposition is pressing for an anti-corruption investigation into Bulc's nomination as her nomination was only passed by the Slovenian government due to a procedural rule which permits absent ministers' vote to be counted in favour of a motion. Bratusek herself was brought down as Prime Minister by the anti-corruption commission, and nominated herself as commission candidate before she was kicked out of office.

In the Parliament the Socialists have backed off slightly, stating that it will be Bulc's performance in Parliament that will matter and that they will only reject her if her performance is worse than Bratusek's. But with opinions of Bulc already low and her nomination subject to domestic political battles, the focus should still be on whether or not she's up to the job.

It is unlikely that Bulc will get the Energy Union post and there will probably be a small reshuffle of the posts to take into account how the candidates have been received by Parliament. Currently the Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship portfolio, which was controversially given to Hungarian candidate Tibor Navracsis, is the favourite as it will allow Juncker to shuffle Navracsis away to a less contentious post. Fajon, too, had little experience when it came to energy union, but as an MEP since 2009 who has been a member of the Parliament's Civi Liberities, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, she has more policy experience for the tipped new portfolio than Bulc.

Cerar is right that the nomination is Slovenia's choice and not the Parliament's, even if Parliament can reject her as part of the proposed Commission, but has he made the less credible pick? It certainly looks like that way at the moment, but the parliamentary hearing will be the big test for Bulc.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Detoxification was so last decade; say hello to UKIP-lite

David Cameron once told the Conservative Party to "stop banging on about Europe". Now, having let it be known that he could support a Brexit if there isn't sufficient repatriation of powers, it's hard to see how he's going to be able to stop banging on about Europe himself, never mind the Conservatives. It's yet another step the right wing of the party have forced Cameron to take: first he brought the Conservatives out of the European People's Party, then he tried to veto the Fiscal Stability Pact, then he held his big speech on Europe and promised a renegotiation and referendum by 2017. Far from bringing the right-wing of the party onside, the Tories are in a state of near civil war.

The Conservatives themselves have been hit by 2 defections by sitting MPs to UKIP: Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless.  Both of them have resigned their seats to contest by-elections, which appears to be a strategy to keep the political pressure and momentum running in UKIP's favour: with staggered out by-elections in the lead up to the general election, UKIP could have the Tories constantly looking over their shoulders for UKIP.

But if the decision to stay or leave the European Union is a pragmatic decision for Cameron (if, I suspect, one where the security of his premiership weighs quite heavily as a factor), it's a reckoning for others. John Redwood, a former Conservative cabinet minister, has warned businesses not to speak out in favour of remaining within the EU:

"If they don't understand that now they will find those of us organising the 'get out' campaign will then make life difficult for them by making sure that their customers, their employees and their shareholders who disagree with them - and there will be a lot who disagree with them - will be expressing their views very forcefully and will be destabilising their corporate governance."

It's not often you hear a Tory talk about destablising corporate governance! (I can't wait to see Redwood camped outside the Confederation of British Industry telling worker of the world to unite). For me this sums up how much leaving the EU has become an article of faith for much of the Conservative party. Leaving the EU itself seems to be a symbol for being able to push ahead with other right-wing policies: cutting red tape, getting even tougher on immigration, cutting taxes... When Cameron was first elected leader of the Conservative party, he wanted to detoxify the Nasty Party, but now much of the party is set on turning to "true conservativism" in the belief that this is the only way for the party to win (or be worthy of winning) elections. And increasingly the Conservatives are equating true conservatism with UKIP.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Merkel's CDU and Alternativ fuer Deutschland: the Saxon result

The euro-skeptic (rather than Euroskeptic) German party Alternativ fuer Deutschland won almost 10% of the vote in the state elections in Saxony, coming in ahead of the Green Party. The win has been a big boost for the party, propelling it into the Saxon Landtag while the liberal FDP and far-right NDP drop out as they didn't win enough votes to clear the threshold for entry.

The rise of the AfD has been reported on elsewhere on how it could impact Angela Merkel's CDU and her EU policy (it's hard to imagine even 5 years ago so much interest being shown in a German state election). But I don't see the result as one that would pressure the CDU to take a more Euroskeptic stance. It's important to note two facts when thinking about the AfD's impact on the CDU: that the CDU has retained almost 40% of the vote, its percentage dropping only slightly since the last election, and the turnout was very low at 49%.

Concern over the "splintering of the right" in Germany is another angle that's being reported on, but it also looks a bit overblown - the last federal elections saw the economically right-wing FDP party lose all their seats, with the CDU the largest beneficiary - a huge consolidation on the right, at least federally. In some ways the AfD, with its economically right-wing positions, is starting to fill the political vacuum left by the decline of the FDP.

Of course, the AfD is not the FDP: it's a protest party and hard to pin down on many of its positions, but its leadership is on the economic right and it has attracted a socially conservative membership who may have been former CDU supporters disappointed that the CDU has become socially more centrist (though there are still plenty of socially conservative voices in the CDU too). Saxony is also a state that has seen support for the far-right NDP, a nationalist party that is periodically the subject of banning attempts. So it makes sense that the AfD took votes from the FDP and a small number from the NDP (not to mention that it would be more respectable to vote for the AfD than the nationalist NDP). Oddly for a protest party, it looks like those who voted for it in Saxony are largely satisfied with their own economic position.

The CDU has kept its distance from the AfD, leaving the Social Democrats and the Greens as its two possible coalition partners for the state government, and a similar stance is being taken on the federal level. Its euro-skeptic stance and protest party style makes it an unsuitable and probably unstable coalition partner, and a coalition with it could toxify the CDU when it is the biggest of the 2 big tent parties and is comfortable with coalitions with the centre-left. The rising profile of the AfD could boost the socially conservative and anti-transfer union voices in the CDU, but at the moment the AfD hasn't actually eaten into the CDU's vote to a significant degree. And it should be remembered that the CDU is in coalition with the Social Democrats at the moment - a party that would like to ease austerity in Europe - so Merkel's government is probably relatively insulated from the AfD's politics.

Monday, 1 September 2014

President Tusk and High Representative Mogherini

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini are set to take two of the top EU posts: European Council President and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs respectively. So what does this choice tell us about the EU's direction?

President Tusk

The choice of Tusk for EC President is being hailed as demonstrating the importance of Poland - and the growing integration of the new Member States within the EU (apparently former Polish PM Jerzy Buzek being President of the European Parliament back in 2009 doesn't count anymore). Politically, Tusk is part of the centre-right European People's Party and has a close relationship with Germany. But in the UK Tusk is seen as a counter-weight to Juncker's federalism; it's reported that Cameron and Tusk have agreed on the need for welfare reform within the EU despite their previous bust-up over free movement rights.

In terms of treaty-change and EU reform, having a sympathetic EC President will be worth more to Cameron than a sympathetic Commission President. As EC President, Van Rompuy was often asked to look into economic and institutional solutions to the various crises over the last 5 years, so the EC President is well placed to influence the EU's institutional direction. However issues like welfare are largely controlled by the Member States, which is why the UK can change its laws in the way it wants already, even if there isn't that much of a problem to begin with.

High Representative

Mogherini was the most controversial choice. Like her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, back in 2009, Mogherini's great political strengths are that she balances out Tusk and Juncker as a (PES) woman in one of the top EU jobs. However, while she hasn't had much more than 6 months ministerial experience, unlike Ashton, foreign policy seems to be her area of study and expertise. How good she will be in the job remains to be seen, but it is worth remembering that it's hard to really use the office to great effect during a crisis. Ashton's foreign policy achievements - apart from trying to build up the External Action Service - were mostly where she undertook unglamourous and time-consuming negotiations, such as with Iran and Serbia and Kosovo.

So when concerns were voiced over Mogherini's actions in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, we should remember that the Council has taken the lead on this - and the Iraq/Syria crisis - rather than Ashton. The High Representative has a coordinating role, and Mogherini's background and linguistic skills appear to make her better suited to the job than Ashton when she first took the post. The office needs time and hard work to build up its effectiveness: under Ashton institution-building was the priority. Mogherini will probably be a more publicly active High Representative, and could help build the credibility of the office further - depending, of course, on how good she is at bringing the Member States together.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Attacks on "Welfare Tourism" are really political grandstanding

Worries over the free movement of people have grown into a huge political issue in the EU, with the idea that EU citizens are using their free movement rights to sponge off the welfare states of other Member States becoming more widespread. The panic is particularly pronounced in the UK, where David Cameron has announced changes that will "put the Britain first" by reducing the time EU citizens can claim benefits in the UK without realistic job prospects from six to three months. (So this will put the UK first on benefit claims for those without realistic job prospects?).

The rhetoric over the UK's supposed "magnetic pull" is now deeply ingrained, and hasn't exactly been informed by sober comparisons of the relative generosity of the British welfare system versus other Member States (there's no league table of European magnetism). Strangely, there was an article in the right-leaning Telegraph about how thousands of Britons were claiming unemployment benefits in Germany. And when we look at what the change in the law will mean for benefit claims, the BBC reckons that the change will only affect roughly 10,000 people.

This is a small number - which amounts to around 1% of all jobseekers benefit claimants - but apparently a big enough policy for the Prime Minister to announce it. Indeed, the numbers of EU citizens claiming benefits while not working are tiny across the EU. But the pressure to be seen to be tough on immigration and on the free movement of people is building in many countries, leading to many of the centre-right (and centre-left) parties to adopt tough language on immigration and welfare to win back support from voters who have voted for populist parties. The danger is that this political grandstanding legitimises the politics of populist parties while not winning back support as the measures introduced by the mainstream parties have no obvious effect. The small numbers affected by welfare changes will be read in this political climate as showing the weakness of the mainstream parties, rather than demonstrating that, in reality, the numbers that move just to benefit from the welfare system (rather than actually looking for work), are just that small.

Clearly it's easier to bang the welfare tourism drum and toughen welfare laws than to stand up for the free movement of people - ministers prefer to be able to say "ah, but we have been tackling the problem" rather than be called out of touch for standing up for the free movement of people or arguing for policies to actually improve public services. But it feeds the anti-immigration climate and paints mainstream parties into a corner. When people discover (or "feel") that the policies aren't having any effect, they will lose faith in the ability of the mainstream parties and shift their support to the populists.

Focusing on creating jobs and making the economy work for all is a much harder task but it should be the business of the mainstream parties. It's when they give in to the allure of easy political grandstanding that they fritter away their credibility on a game with the populists that they cannot win.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

EU-Canada FTA and Investor-State Dispute Settlement

The EU-Canada Trade Agreement has been finalised after German concerns over possible investor-state dispute settlement provisions were satisfied. The treaty still has to be passed by the EU and the Member States, so it's not a done deal yet (apparently the ratification process could continue to 2016), but the treaty is already being described as a model for the EU-US trade deal (or "TTIP").

Investor-State dispute settlement is a mechanism that allows foreign investors to sue host governments in special arbitration tribunals. Such provisions have been included in trade agreements in the past and have come under fire for allowing foreign businesses to litigate against environmental and public health regulations created by host governments - a way for private business to subvert democratically framed laws. This has been the most controversial issue when it comes to the TTIP, raising concerns that European standards will be eroded.

Reportedly Germany protested against the use of investor-state dispute settlement being a part of the Canadian treaty, and even threatened to veto the deal, but Canadian officials state that the disagreement was actually sorted out a while ago, without needing to re-negotiate the treaty. So it's unclear how far the treaty was actually changed, or whether there will still be ISDS provisions in the treaty. The fact that the treaty won't be public before September means that it's hard to welcome this as a victory for standing up against ISDS. (If the ISDS provisions have been removed, then it will show up Trade Commissioner de Gucht's rhetoric over how necessary they are for investor confidence to be waffle).

The treaty probably will be a model for the negotiations to come for the TTIP, not only due to similar issues that need to be thrashed out, but also because this will be a test case for public and parliamentary opinion in Europe. How will the European and national parliaments react - and will the public raise any concerns? The fact that this could be one of the early tests for the European Parliament could make it even more interesting.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Independence or Devolution?

Last week saw the first TV debate between Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling the leader of the pro-Union "Better Together" campaign in the run up to the referendum on Scottish independence. Salmond is known across the UK for being a shrewd politician and a great debater, whereas Darling, a former Chancellor, is seen as competent and dependable, but dull. So much was made of Darling's victory in the debate (according to the snap polls immediately afterwards), particularly with the Yes (pro-independence) side behind in the polls.

Darling won the debate largely because the independence campaign has stuck to a highly optimistic view of the transition to independence, so in a debate it comes across as if the Yes side aren't taking the concerns of the No side seriously (hardly a way to woo swing voters with similar concerns). And there are issues with the transition to independence: EU membership won't be automatic (though it hardly be a complicated process for a country that already complies with EU law), and creating a suitable currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK will doubtless be a complicated task.

But the real question is whether Scotland is not only different to the rest of the UK (read: England), but different enough that full independence is necessary to properly express that difference. From education to healthcare, there's no denying that Scotland is more social democratic than the rest of the UK (though it may just be more in line with the rest of Europe than England), and the political gulf between Edinburgh and London can be seen in the lack of Tories North of the border. But does devolution (with more powers to be shifted from London to Edinburgh in the event of a No vote) not enable Scotland to give voice to those politics while also retaining the benefits of union? The fact that the independence plan would keep so much of the union, from the monarch to the currency, suggests that the "best of both worlds" argument might have some attraction yet.

Looking at how the debate has played in Westminster and how the main UK parties have dealt with it, I can see it only being a matter of time before Scotland leaves. More devolution to Scotland is great, but the asymmetric nature of the union is a big problem for its future survival. Without any debate about what the union should be about and how it should work together apart from occasional devolution to the constituent nations, the union ends up on the wrong side of history. The momentum will stay with Scotland's drift towards independence, and the central institutions of the UK will not be reformed to reflect how the UK is developing. The UK needs to stop acting like a unitary state - really, the UK should take a federal approach to empower English regions as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, re-balancing the UK away from London and the South-East and making devolution and union part of the same political narrative.

That's not going to happen. England famously doesn't like to debate constitutional reform, trusting in a flexible, "unwritten" constitution (which underestimates the danger of bumbling through decisions and undervalues the virtue of democratically facing up to such decisions rather than leaving them to a cosy elite to sort out amongst themselves). A political atmosphere where the union is increasingly an English space that the Celtic fringe gets exemptions from is not a union of equals and this leaves very little in the way of common institutions or political narrative to justify sticking together.

Scotland's social democratic vision is a very attractive one - it's one that it can achieve as an independent country, and probably also as part of the UK. Independence will give Scotland something more indefinable than what Salmond promises: the freedom to reflect on, debate and shape itself. The real weakness of the UK may not be that it isn't giving Scotland the tools that it needs to forge its own path while staying inside the union, it's that it struggles to be about more than the London-centric Westminster bubble.

Friday, 18 July 2014

A role for national parliaments: giving substance to subsidiarity

Giving power to national parliaments is a common theme of EU reform. Expanding the power of the European Parliament, it's argued, has failed as can be seen from declining turnout. I don't buy the turnout theory, largely for the reasons Jon Worth has argued over at the LSE blog: there hasn't been a link between the European elections and the policy direction of the EU, never mind the people who run it, making the influence of the EP and the importance of the elections rather nebulous - and hardly exciting for citizens. It wasn't until Juncker was elected Commission President by the EP on the basis of the Spitzenkandidaten and election campaigns that the elections showed their true value, and we have to wait until the next election to see if the Europarty primaries and the campaigns generally come under greater scrutiny for their policy platforms.

The low turnout argument has led to some arguing that the EP should be replaced by the original assembly of national parliamentarians, or that there should be an upper chamber of national parliamentarians. But this wouldn't increase the legitimacy of the EU. The idea that national MPs would return home to discuss European decisions that have no bearing on their re-election clearly has no traction. Frankly, the hope here is that national MPs will socialise themselves into being more pro-European and this will tone down the anti-EU rhetoric at home - but European decisions are too political now not to have a direct democratic input. This is no solution for boosting EU legitimacy.

What about giving the national parliaments a red card power to block EU legislation? This idea has more merit, but to me it's coming at the question from the wrong angle. A system where you can block a lot, but where it's hard to make any decisions that are effective or that people can be happy with loses legitimacy simply by not working very well. By contrast, simple and direct democratic controls would give citizens a more direct route to the EU - compare the old way of picking the Commission President. Technically, it's still there - there's an election, the European Council considers the outcome and nominates a candidate that the European Parliament votes on. How is any voter going to engage in the elections based on that? But now that the winning candidate (with a majority in the Parliament) will be elected, it's a lot simpler and potentially more engaging.

It's the same with a blocking vote for national parliaments - it could prevent unpopular legislation, but it could also block solution-finding and decision-making so much that voters can't see how they can influence any outcome that they actually want. Which is why there needs to be a democratic European forum for European decisions.

But that doesn't mean that the national parliaments shouldn't have a bigger role at a European level. By building on the Yellow Card process, real substance could be given to subsidiarity. What decisions should be taken at what level is a political question that can't really be decided judicially, so it's up to national parliaments to help define what should be done at the national and European levels. But as Kosmopolito points out, the Yellow Card process is hardly used.

Maybe what the national parliaments need is a stronger institutional link with the EU. If they had an equivalent of the Committee of the Regions that could collate the views of national parliaments and give a joint opinion on legislation, and act as a secretariat that could help national parliaments use their Yellow Card powers more effectively. This could replace the Conference of Community and European Affairs Committees of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC), which is still a bit too informal to give the national parliaments the institutional support they need at the European level, and use IPEX as a basis. And by publishing joint opinions - or even a summary of the different opinions of national parliaments - this could give a more accessible expression of the different national positions and to the general parliamentary feeling on subsidiarity.

Of course, Member States could go further themselves and use the same system as the Danish parliament to scrutinise national ministers in the Council and give them clear mandates, but that's unlikely to be a popular idea among national governments...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Great British Cabinet Reshuffle

David Cameron has reshuffled his government for the last year of the parliamentary term, giving us the ministerial faces that will fight the next election. Reshuffles in themselves are generally not a major event for the European political sphere - Ireland had a government reshuffle last week, which might be of more interest to those still pondering Juncker's question of how to get elected after running an austerity government - but the UK government reshuffle has attracted some comment over the perceived Euroskeptic shift.

The last of the old Tory Europhiles, Ken Clarke, and some of the more pragmatic ministers such as Dominic Grieve and even William Hague (he of the 10 Day to Save the Pound fame) are gone. In their place is the new class of 2010, who are generally younger and more ideological. Richard Hammond, the Euroskeptic Defence Minister who publicly indicated that he would vote Out in an EU referendum unless there is enough to the reform package, is now the Foreign Secretary. The reshuffle has sparked fear in some quarters that it marks a turn for the worst that could signal the start of moves to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But we shouldn't get over-excited. The main focus of the reshuffle is domestic, like all other reshuffles. Promoting the younger generation of Tories is more about making the ministerial benches more diverse and slightly more gender-balanced while harnessing their zeal for the campaign. In Michael Gove's case (the highly divisive Education Minister), there has been a surprising demotion to Chief Whip (to reports of teachers celebrating in classrooms). The new cabinet is more Euroskeptic, but the focus is on the next election rather than on a big bust-up with Europe.

The next Tory manifesto will be the real test for how far the Conservatives will go. If a pledge to withdraw from the ECHR makes it into it, then we can be sure that Cameron has thrown in the towel on pretending to have a moderate European course. Membership of the ECHR is fundamental to membership of the Council of Europe and the EU, and a pledge to withdraw would indicate that Cameron himself could campaign for an Out vote. Nominating Lord Hill to be the next UK Commissioner may be a pragmatic sign (he's reported to be relatively pro-EU), but the Liberal Democrats would have had a say in moderating the government choice, so it's not exactly a clear signal. Hill is also an unknown figure with little obvious connection to a Commission portfolio, making it harder for the UK to get a good post (or harder for Juncker to reconcile with Cameron!), which could add to the narrative of Britain being sidelined in the EU.

In any case, the big fights will come after the next election, when a new cabinet would have to be formed. This reshuffle may be a Euroskeptic turn for the Conservatives, but it really doesn't tell us much new. Cameron's policy of appeasing the Euroskeptics has been heading this way for some time, and domestic political calculations are the biggest consideration here (Cameron is hardly famed for his long-termist thinking on Europe). It will be the next election manifesto that will be the true benchmark for how far Cameron is willing to go.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Juncker Programme

Yesterday the European Parliament elected the EPP Spitzenkandidat to the office of Commission President, putting the seal on the shift in power between the European Council and the Parliament. In his speech before his election, Juncker set out his political guidelines for the next Commission. Titled A New Start for Europe: My Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change (PDF), it's a pitch for the support of his social democrat allies while sending some signals to the right on subsidiarity and "welfare tourism". The coalition pact worked - not that it was ever in any doubt - delivering 422 votes where 376 would do, giving Juncker a majority of 46.

Juncker's "New Start" gives us a new political benchmark for judging the Commission - having set the goals such as coming up with a Jobs, Growth and Investment Package within the first 3 months of his Commission, the Commission President can now be judged by his own platform. This should breathe new life into the Commission, which under Barroso has largely been reactive to the ideas of the European Council. It also makes Parliament's scrutiny of the Commission more meaningful since the political programme is based on Juncker's majority - parliamentary attacks on legislation and the Commission itself for not delivering will be a lot more meaningful where the Commission isn't simply acting as the middle man for the European Council.

So what's in this New Start?

On the economy, Juncker has stressed the need to cut debt and to stick to the Stability Pact, while looking for more investment from the European Investment Bank. It remains to be seen how much the "Jobs, Growth and Investment Package" can actually deliver, but the PES should be happy that Juncker will continue backing for the Youth Guarantee, a big campaign for them over the last 2 years. Juncker has also pledged action on the digital single market within 6 months of his mandate: on data protection negotiations, reforming telecom rules and copyright rules and simplifying the rules for online consumers. Copyright is a particularly contentious issue after SOPA in the US and ACTA in the EU, so this could be an area to watch in the future.

On industrial policy, Juncker's headline goal is for industry to make up 20% of the European economy by 2020 (up from under 16%), though there is little here by way of concrete proposals yet, and it sounds like the measures envisaged are very indirect. Juncker has put forward the idea of a Capital Markets Union to complement the Banking Union and help cut the costs for raising money on the capital markets for SMEs. When it comes to the Eurozone and future "bail-outs", it's out with the trioka and in with "social impact assessments" to complement the "fiscal sustainability assessment" - a big issue for the PES.

The trade pact with the US was a big issue in the debates, and Juncker is still a big backer of it, though he has spoken about protecting European standards. Potentially the biggest change here could be the increasing parliamentary involvement in trade negotiations if Juncker lives up to his promise of more transparency on the negotiations.

On home affairs, there will be a Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, and Juncker is calling for a Directive to combat Discrimination. There will also be a Commissioner for Migration. The "Blue Card" legislation on immigration into Europe will be reviewed, and the new Commission will look into the support the European Asylum Support Office can offer Member States and third countries. Finally Juncker showed strong support for increasing the budget of the border agency FRONTEX. Perhaps linked to concerns over migration, Juncker has said that there won't be further enlargement of the Union for another 5 years - though it's unlikely that there would be much chance of a candidate country joining in the next 5 years in any case.

Politically the rhetoric has shifted leftwards, but I think the programme is still fairly centre-right. Gone are the earlier musings on a band of European minimum wages, though Juncker supports each Member States having a minimum wage, and it is hard to see how the talk on investment will really be translated into tangible action (there is a history of European politicians pinning their hopes on the European Investment Bank to fund their plans in the absence of a sizable EU budget). And while the debt-cutting targets or mechanisms may be softened or bought under more democratic control, the rules will remain in place.

Much of the programme is still a wish-list and we still have to wait to see what the Commission actually proposes (remember, the Parliament still has to grill and vote in the next Commission over the coming months before they can get down to work), but it represents a big departure from the old State of the European Union speeches that Barroso gave. Barroso's speeches where a fairly reliable guide to the legislative proposals the Commission would make, but where usually originally a Council idea or only put forward where the Commission felt that the Council would find a proposal acceptable. This programme, and probably future Juncker speeches, will probably be more significant for not merely being a list of legislation, but part of a political programme: some legislation won't make it, but it's also an opportunity to shape the EU agenda.

This is not to say that the programme, along with yesterday's speech, is earth-shattering or even if it's the right list of policies, but the political Commission is back. And that's a good thing.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Is the European Left riding high?

Coming second in the European elections was a very bad result for the centre-left across Europe: after years of austerity and the Eurocrisis, and the PES spurring the Spitzenkadidaten process, the S&D group in the Parliament are still 30 seats behind the EPP. However the need for a Grand Coalition to propel Juncker into office has provided an opening for the left, and, like the Grand Coalition in Germany, the essential status quo stance of the biggest party gives the junior partner greater scope for pushing its agenda.

This seems to be the case when it comes to important EU posts. With Juncker as Commission President, there is a domestic German deal to support Martin Schulz as Parliament president for another 2.5 years (with the EPP taking the post for the remaining half of the parliamentary term). Two of the front runners for President of the European Council and the High Representative are Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Danish PM) and Federica Mogherini (Italian Foreign Minister) - to the extent that the EPP are protesting that the PES can't have 3 of the top EU posts. Really, the PES would be wise to go for an economic post over the High Representative position: the presidency of the European Council will be important for negotiations over how the Eurozone will be run, while the PES hasn't a very strong position on European foreign policy (if one of Italy's priorities is immigration, then the Home Affairs Commissioner might be a better position to angle for).

Given the complexity of the EU system, any agreement on policy between the Member States would be hard to stick to, so it's important for the left to win offices that are relevant to their policy goals on the economy. This will be hard to do since it depends on the nominations from the Member States, the negotiations over posts, Juncker's own plans and how the candidates fair in the European Parliament vetting process. There's already plans to revisit the Eurozone budget rules and a deal to soften deficit reduction in return for reforms, so with Italy in the Council driving seat for the rest of the year it appears that the centre-left might have a window of opportunity to push for change.

In the end, however, the lack of agreement over the policy aims of the ECB or even on some form of Transfer Union will mean that the actual scope of opportunity is very narrow indeed. And the broader problems of the centre-left are deep: the fracturing of the old electoral coalition as the economy has become less industrialised, coupled with the decline of two-party politics in most Member States, has left centre-left parties in a difficult position. Uncertain about their domestic support and (to date) largely ineffectual in generating a public debate over a more socially minded Eurozone with greater fiscal firepower, any success over the next few month is in danger of being momentary.

The left in Europe still has a tough task to rebuild itself and shouldn't be seduced into believing that they're in a good position. Europe's centre-right may be more open to some centre-left ideas than you might think at first glance, and they could be well placed to continue capturing centrist and some soft centre-left votes. The centre-left needs to rediscover its voice and identity combined with a platform of reform if it wants to return a a vote - and power - winning force.