Thursday, February 26, 2009
According to the Parliament.com, EU Budget Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite is quitting her job to run for the Lithuanian Presidency. Helps to explain why the much-awaited EU budget review, which was due to report "in 2008/2009" is being postponed until October, as we reported this morning. (The bigger reason, no doubt, is the desire to avoid any public debate about the fundamental problems with the budget until the second Irish referendum is safely out the way).
Meanwhile, a seperate article tells us that Latvian MEP Valdis Dombrovskis has been nominated as his country's new prime minister and been asked to form a government.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
You will recall that at December's EU summit, 'political commitments' were offered to Ireland in exchange for holding a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and included 'guarantees' on military neutrality, among other things. These vague commitments were never elaborated on and now we come to the real nitty-gritty as to what these will actually mean.
Irish neutrality expert Dr. Karen Devine wrote a series of articles explaining the impact of Lisbon on neutrality, and arguing that "opt-out protocols are the only way to avoid" the Treaty's mutual defence obligations.
It will be interesting to see what exactly the Irish will be offered on this issue as they are told to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty.
Friday, February 20, 2009
The reason behind Steinbrueck's U-turn is not all that clear - at least partially it could well come down to the overexposure of Austrian banks to the economic woes of Central- and Eastern Europe. The WSJ reports that Eastern European borrowers need to repay about $400 billion in debt owed to Western banks this year. According to a report by Swiss bank UBS, much of that amount is denominated in foreign currencies, making the situation worse as Eastern European currencies have lost value. In other words: Europe could soon be faced with a subrpime crisis of its own, this time coming from the East. Also Swedish, Greek, Italian, and Belgian banks are heavily exposed. So Steinbruck wants to help.
Issing thinks that in order for financial discipline to prevail every member state must be responsible for its own debt and deficits: “without this there would be no end”, he says.
In an article in Der Spiegel, the current ECB Chief Economist Jürgen Stark concurs, saying: "the ban preventing the EU and its member states from taking responsibility for the debts of partner countries is an important foundation needed for the currency union to function."
- Direct aid,
- The creation of a large fund through the European Investment Bank, which would buy up the bonds from countries in difficulties, or
- The common issuance by members states of bonds.
In any case, there is a "no bailout" clause in the EU Treaty, so the discussion should really be academic at this point. Because we all know how good the EU is at sticking to the letter of the law when things get a bit hot...
Thursday, February 19, 2009
And reading the report it is easy to see why. It says: "Common defence policy in Europe requires an integrated European Armed Force which consequently needs to be equipped with common weapon systems so as to guarantee commonality and interoperability". (See here for detailed analysis from Richard North)
A Conservative press release notes that 16 out of 19 Labour MEPs voted for the proposals, including their leader Glenis Willmott.
And yet it was only on Tuesday that Europe Minister Caroline Flint wrote to the Guardian shouting: "Let me be clear - there are no plans for a European army."
Over on his Telegraph blog Bruno Waterfield brings us news of the furore caused by Czech President Vaclav Klaus' speech to the European Parliament today. Fine Gael MEP Avril Doyle (EPP) apparently objected to the speech, stating that debate is a "recipe for chaos in our corridors". She said: "Please ensure that the bureau (the parliament's administration) does not allow it to happen again."
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Platini argued that, "Professional football is no more a financial service than it is an agricultural activity. It is just as absurd to want to regulate football through the automatic application of competition law as it would be to do so through the Common Agricultural Policy."
Platini was hoping to see off any interference from MEPs in Uefa's plans to regulate football.
He has criticised the big spending of Europe's top clubs before and he once again called for a cap on player wages and transfer fees.
His latest proposal, though, is to outlaw international transfers of players under the age of 18. He argued that, "The European Commission talks of free movement of workers from the age of 16. This might have seemed reasonable in the 1950s, but is that still the case today for most skilled jobs, at a time when many European countries have raised the school-leaving age to 18?"
In a hefty tug at MEP heartstrings, Platini added, "Some people talk about the free movement of workers. I am talking about the protection of children."
This proposal provides another test for EU free movement rules and will potentially deprive talented young football players of access to the best training and opportunities. In an increasingly competitive profession, which is usually over by a player's early 30s, this looks like a proposal too far.
We're inclined to think the EU and Europe's big clubs will agree...
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
In Venezuela, a proposal to end presidential term limits was one of a package of 69 constitutional changes narrowly rejected in a referendum in late 2007.
No problem for President Hugo Chavez, who organised a new referendum last Sunday, which he has won, and which will allow him now to run for a third six-year term in 2012. 54% voted in favour, 46% against.
The BBC notes that "one factor was probably the change in the wording of the question, so that this time voters decided on whether term limits would be lifted for all officials not just the president."
The WSJ further reports that the win "comes as little surprise, given that Mr. Chávez controlled all aspects of the electoral process, ordered up favorable TV coverage and mobilized government institutions to get out the vote."
Asking people to vote again when the answer was "no", and trying to pretend you're asking a different question... Abusing your powers for propaganda purposes in order to affect the result... No doubt he has also accused the opposition of being financed by the CIA.
Sounds familiar eh?
Monday, February 16, 2009
Whilst initiatives aimed at increasing voter turnout should of course be welcomed, the Commission seems to have, once again, completely confused the concept of providing information with promoting the EU.
According to a report on the parliament.com, at the launch of the 'information' campaign Lieve Fransen, Director General of the Commission’s Communications Directorate, "said the overall aim was to sell the merits of the EU to an often-sceptical public."
A new Bill will be introduced in Parliament, which according to Conservative Home will be about:
- Allowing consumers to make informed choices about the food they buy
- Preventing non-British meat being labelled as British
- Supporting British producers by allowing consumers to identify genuine British meat
- Promoting superior British produce by highlighting the advantages of British produce
- Restoring trust and confidence in British food and labelling in general
The only problem is that food labelling is an EU competence - this is not something the UK can introduce unilaterally. Trying to bring in compulsory country of origin labelling would certainly rock the boat with the Commission and other member states - even if the UK only extended this rule to UK producers selling within the UK.
France, Belgium, and Finland have in the past introduced similar domestic rules on beef, but this was in the wake of the very public health scare caused by BSE and after permission from the Commission. This eventually led to EU-wide rules for compulsory country of origin labelling for beef in order to restore confidence in the market and inform consumers.
These rules were introduced only after a lengthy dispute between the UK and France over the safety of British beef. Implementing this campaign is likely to spark long and difficult political negotiations at EU level.
Speaking in front of business representatives in Brussels, he said, "The preparations consist mostly of planning meetings and coordinating with the current Czech Presidency. 6,000 meetings in different working groups will be held in Brussels during the Swedish Presidency.”
Bearing in mind that the EU completely shuts down for the month of August - making the second presidency of the year a 5-month one - this means there will be around 300 meetings a week - that's an eye-popping 60 meetings a day!
And that's only the Council sub-meetings. The 'working groups' the ambassador is referring to are the meetings where civil servants and ambassadors prepare the work for the Council meetings of EU ministers - such as the Foreign Ministers' meetings, or the Justice Ministers' meetings. It doesn't take account of the no doubt thousands of meetings which will go on within both the European Parliament and the European Commission.
Some examples of the types of groups we're talking about can be found here. Let's see - you've got the “Horizontal Working Party on Drugs”, the “Working Party on New Buildings”, the “Working Party on the Staff Regulations”, the “Police Cooperation Working Party”, the “Working Party on Olive Oil”, and the “Working Party on Youth”. Etc.
So 60 of these, every single day for 5 months.
What on earth can there possibly be to do in all these talking shops? And at what cost?
Thursday, February 12, 2009
And during the hearings De Fabio certainly had some things to say about the Lisbon Treaty. Pointing out that the Treaty involved a clear extension of the EU's competencies, he said, “One has to ask soberly: What competences are left with the Bundestag (the German parliament) in the end?” He also bluntly asked "whether it would not be more honest to just proclaim a European federal state".
Furthermore, he questioned whether the transferral of powers to the EU really means more freedom for EU citizens, asking "Is the idea of going ever more in this direction not a threat to freedom?"
His collegue Judge Herbert Landau said new EU powers in criminal justice affected "core issues" of German legislative authority and Judge Rudolf Mellinghoff asked whether the Treaty wasn't already "in an extensive way" being applied when its comes to the area of criminal sanctions in environment issues, as the European Commission already has the mandate to sanction companies for pollution.
Reportedly, all judges agreed that the Treaty was very hard to read. EUobserver notes that “less-than-clear passages from the treaty were read out aloud, guaranteeing a laugh”. Check out our side-by-side comparison between the European Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty, and you'll see where they're coming from.
Five of the eight judges must approve the ratification Bill for Lisbon in order for it to come into force. Incidentally, five of the judges pursued a line of critical questioning yesterday, suggesting that they are not convinced by the German government's assurances that the Treaty is harmless.
Suedeutsche Zeitung notes that the Court may ask for a referendum if it finds that the Treaty detrimentally affects the German Constitution. The paper notes that “if the judges intervene…it will be because important transfer of powers to the EU is not followed by a corresponding increase in democracy. Europe suffers from lack of democracy”. This is very striking since the Federal Republic of Germany has never held a referendum, not even in the process of its unification in 1990.
Article 146 of Germany's Constitution provides that a referendum may be called if the German constitutional order is to be changed. Gesine Schwan, who was the Social Democrats' nomination for the German Presidency, has said she would support a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
A German referendum would put the whole Lisbon Treaty project into question. As the Wiener Zeitung notes: "while it might be easier to ignore Irish rejection of the Treaty, that is certainly impossible in the case of a 'No' vote in the Union’s largest member state. If that happens, there is no future for the Treaty."
It will take at least three months for the Court to reach a verdict. Don't hope for too much. Although not impossible, it would be sensational if the court ruled in favour of a referendum. Still, the judges' comments highlight the serious reservations that exist across Europe about the Lisbon Treaty - and they certainly give some perpsective to the Irish 'no'.
Well, not quite. While the debate has picked up, a poll published yesterday showed that support for the euro actually is on the decrease in Denmark compared to a few months ago. In fact, public opinion is split right down the middle - 42% in favour, 42% against. In November last year, 51% were in favour.
Meanwhile in Sweden, there has never been a majority in favour of joining the euro, although the opposition has weakened somewhat lately. The latest poll from Statistics Sweden shows that 47% of Swedes would vote "no" in a referendum on joining the euro, 38% would vote "yes", and 15% "don't know".
The European Parliament has decided to take new, radical action in the fight against climate change. Tomorrow night, all lights will be turned off in the Parliament's buidling between 6 pm and 7.30 pm...
As the EP's Secretary General Harald Römer explained in an internal email:
"In the context of the fight against climate change, the European Parliament has committed itself to cutting down its carbon emissions by 30% by 2020. This is to be achieved through various activities, based on detailed studies, and under the political guidance of the Bureau. The European Parliament is also participating in various activities which aim at drawing the attention of European citizens to this goal.Very impressive indeed - and what better way to exemplify the EU's global leadership in tackling climate change...?
Like the previous year, the European Parliament will play its part in this event by switching off all the outside lights and the maximum possible of inside lights in the buildings at Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, between 18.00 and 19.30. All of the Members and the staff in these three places of work and in the Information Offices in the Member States are invited to switch off, at the same time, the lights in their own offices."
For those of us not living on Planet Brussels, perhaps a better place to start would have been to end the Parliament's montly travelling circus. This utterly ridiculous exercise means that 5,000 people are transported between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, generating an extra 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year - for no good reason whatsoever.
In any case, as Johan Ingero points out, turning off the lights in the EP on a Friday afternoon shouldn't be much of a hassle , given that at that time virtually all MEPs are long gone for the weekend already.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Nice. So pleased to see we have representatives in the EP who are up for the democratic debate they're meant to be there to excercise - not.
The UK, alongside Ireland, France and Sweden, tabled the proposal back in 2004. However, the Commission changed the legal base of the directive - from justice and home affairs to the single market. In EU law, single market issues can be agreed in the Council of Ministers by qualified majority voting, while issues relating to justice and home affairs must be subject to unanimity.
The proposal was therefore agreed in the Council by majority voting, contrary to what the countries tabling the proposal had envisioned.
Ireland was particularly unhappy about this and asked the ECJ to rule that the decision had been made on the wrong legal base.
To little avail, it turns out. The ECJ essentially said in its verdict yesterday that differing rules between member states on data retention would distort the single market, and in the Court's mind it followed that the directive must be an issue for the single market.
Why is this shift important?
Well, we came across this issue when combing through 2,000 impact assessments, for our latest publication on EU regulation.
The impact assessment for the proposal noted that, although proposing the Directive, the UK government did not know what legal base the Directive rested on by the time it was transposed into UK law.
In other words, up til yesterday the Govenrment had no idea whether it in future could be outvoted in the EU on such a fundamental issue as data retention. This is curious, not least given the fundamental importance of the issue vis-a-vis individual liberty.
The Irish government is not happy, neither is the Swedish. As Svenska Dagbladet puts it, "The ruling means that the Swedish government will end up with a law which it doesn't really want" - despite originally tabling the proposal.
Examples like these are unhelpful for those who say that most laws now sourced to the EU would have been introduced anyway - such as Michael Connarty did on the Politics Show in reponse to our report showing that 72% of the regulatory cost in Britain is EU-sourced.
"Probably 90%", he said, of all regulations now attributed to the EU would have existed in the UK anyway, critisising us for including "everything that may at any time have touched a desk in the Commission".
Apart from it being somewhat strange that the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee is criticising us for scrutinising EU legislation, his claim is worryingly arbitrary. First, our estimates are based on what the Government's own impact assessments told us about the source - and no IA we came across said anything about commission desks.
Secondly, as the Data Retention Directive shows, once tabled, an EU proposal can take on a life of its own. Legal bases and objectives can change, or worse, governments can be outvoted or subject to complicated backroom deals, with the final product bearing little resemblence to the original proposal.
Fact is, the changed legal base of the Data Retention Directive means that the UK Government has lost siginficant control over its own proposal.
And that's why knowing the source matters.
It seems outspoken Czech President Vaclav Klaus has had a dig at Sarko's hunger for power during a debate in Paris.
Following on from tensions between the two countries over Sarkozy's apparent call to protectionism in a speech last week, Klaus said of Sarko: "I know he'd like to remain a permanent president" of the EU, adding, apparently sarcastically, "It is very human." He also said that to have a good European presidency "It's not necessary to be hyper-active and to organise a European summit every weekend."
The upcoming summit that the Czechs are organising will be very interesting. According to the BBC's Mark Mardell, an insider has said "essentially it's to tell Sarkozy to shut up". And the Independent reports that the Czech PM yesterday referred to the summit as a "shoot-out", saying, "If the result of our shootout is an agreement... that we will not be using this type of media competition and that we will halt protectionism, then this shootout will have served its purpose."
Despite all this Klaus said this morning in Paris that he "didn't see tensions between the two countries", and blamed the Franco-Czech spat on "some politicians and journalists who want to create tensions just for a political game."
According to the press release:
During 2009, cities across Europe will be staging circus-themed events about social rights. The campaign is inspired by “social circus”, an educational movement that uses circus arts as a teaching tool to help troubled youths. For example, the theatre company involved in the event in Lisbon works with school dropouts.
It strikes us that a circus theme is quite appropriate for the EU Commission's increasingly bizarre PR efforts. We're less convinced however, that it is going to do much to close the gender gap. According to the Commission the impetus behind the circus is:
When it comes to social protection, the EU has some of the strongest laws on the books. But many Europeans don’t know their rights and so don’t exercise them. For example, women continue to earn 15% less than men and are less likely to have top jobs. The EU is striving to close this gender gap, however, people must be made aware of their rights first.
Check out the animated campaign videos:
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Last year, too Bos voted against the budget, for the first time, "thereby annoying the European Commission". It may only be a symbolic gesture, but it's something.
The European Court of Auditors has already said that the spending of billions of euros has not been properly accounted for in the EU's 2007 books, and this is the 14th year in a row that the accounts have been criticised. On a Dutch radio show last night Wouter Bos said: "In the Netherlands a Finance Minister would never approve this".
You would have thought that in no country would it be deemed acceptable to have billions of euros being squandered, with for example 54% of the Structural Funds projects and 31% of agricultural transfers being subject to "material errors" in 2007.
But it seems the Netherlands will be the only country making a stand. According to Bos, "an increasing number of countries agree with the Netherlands, but fear being punished financially should they vote against the statement."
This is despite the pledge by Ian Pearson, the Treasury’s Economic Secretary, who recently said about the mismanagement of the EU budget: "I want to be clear from the outset that the Government considers the situation to be entirely unacceptable.”
Empty words, of course.
It reveals that members of the European Scrutiny Committee - the handful of experts charged with filtering through the mountains of EU legislation on behalf of all MPs - have often been double-booked for European debates in the Commons. These debates happen only very occasionally - about three times a year - with only the very most important EU issues being discussed.
Michael Connarty, the Chairman of said Committee, told the House (Column 664):
"European debates are a bit like buses--we wait for one for ages, then three come along at the same time. For the first time, we are holding the debates on a Tuesday--they normally happen on a Wednesday to ensure that many members of the European Scrutiny Committee have to choose between its Committee meetings and the debates in the Chamber... I am pleased to be here, given that, as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, I would not normally get to debate the subject on a Wednesday."
Blimey. What possible justification can there be for holding a rare debate on the floor of the House on important EU issues and then making sure that the only EU experts in the whole place are not able to take part?
It's bad enough that less than 5% of the thousand or so pieces of EU legislation the Committee sees every year is actually subject to debate - especially given that EU legislation is responsible for 72% of the cost of regulations in the UK. It's also pretty bad that there are only 16 MPs who regularly track all this stuff. But now, we find out that on those rare occasions when there is a debate among MPs, the only EU experts in the place regularly cannot attend.
Oh and guess what - it is the Government that's in charge of the scheduling.
Friday, February 06, 2009
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
For our take on it, check out our briefing here.
We find it extrordinary that everyone is referring to a series of ECJ rulings, arguing that these cases have undercut domestic wages in the UK. But no one seems able to explain exactly how these cases have damaged the pay and working conditions of British workers.
We suspect that what people are protesting agaist is not these Court cases nor the Posted Workers Directive, but the very principle of free movement itself - and we tell you why in the briefing.
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
Also on the programme were Labour MPs Gisela Stuart, and Michael Connarty, Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee.
Mr Connarty wasn't too impressed by the findings, saying they were meaningless because "If the EU didn't exist, most of the regulations would be in law in this country anyway". He went on to say that "When it [a proposal] eventually becomes a regulation... people ignore the fact that we want it or we had it in the first place."
While it may be the case that, in some instances, EU legislation is not unwelcome, there are two important points to make here. Firstly, although the UK might have wanted a proposal originally, that doesn't necessarily mean that that would still be the case once it has made its way through the lengthy European legislative process.
Secondly, it is fundamentally important to understand where legislation has come from - otherwise how can we possibly think about attempting to de-regulate? As Gisela put it on Sunday: "I think you need to look at where legislation is made, who's responsible for what and whether it's been properly assessed of what the kind of impact and what are sometimes called the unintended consequences of legislation are, so I think to rubbish a report that just looks at the decision making process seems strange to me."
Mr Connarty may well not be interested in looking at the decision making process and understanding where legislation comes from, especially considering he voted against a Bill back in October to require Statutory Instruments to state whether they were the result of a decision made in the European Union or not.
Mr Connarty went on to suggest that if the EU did not exist, "probably 90% or more of those regulations would still exist because we need them." We are not quite sure where he has plucked this figure from.
If he finds time to read our report, he will see that about 50% of the number of regulations introduced in the UK in the last ten years originate in the EU, yet these are responsible for over 70% of the cost of regulations , suggesting that EU regulation imposes a higher burden on the UK economy than domestic legislation does. The Working Time Directive is only one example that springs to mind of an EU regulation that would not exist without the EU. If the rest of the 10% is like that one, it would be a very costly minority indeed...
According to the press release "The pan-European competition offers journalists from the UK and across Europe the opportunity to reflect and express their views on the enlargement of the European Union."
Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Enlargement, said: "Young people are important opinion leaders for their generation and the competition gives them an opportunity to share their experiences and visions of our European future."
This is the second year of the competition, and the Commission has created a new category for radio journalists in 2009. "The theme of all applications for both categories must refer to the enlargement of the EU or the future vision of Europe or both."
Looking through the competition website it is clear that this is all part of the Commission's wider strategy to promote EU integration. There is much on there to perusade young people about the 'benefits' of being an EU member and to encourage them to write about them in order to win a prize.
It's doubly interesting because over the past couple of weeks several people (especially in Brussels) have taken issue with our new research on the EU's campaign for hearts and minds, claiming that money from areas of the budget outside DG Communication, cannot be considered as part of calculations for spending on EU promotion. (This is in spite of the fact that, as admitted by the spokesperson for EU Communications Commissioner Margot Wallstrom last week, many of the EU's culture, education and citizenship projects actively seek to promote EU integration.)
But the launch of this new competition by DG Enlargement is a clear example of how the EU's efforts to 'communicate' (or should we say sell) the EU are by no means exclusive to the EU Communications department. In the book, we note the difficulty of trying to quantify how much the EU is spending on efforts to promote the EU becasue of the sheer opacity of the enormous budget - and the fact that many budget lines are dedicated to activities which are not obvious from the name of the budget line. For that reason, our estimate that the EU is spending around €2.4 billion on efforts to promote EU integration every year, is probably a huge underestimate.
Whether or not you think EU integration is a good or a bad thing, and whatever your opinion on EU enlargement, the question remains: is it right for the European Commission to be funding prizes for young journalists? Is there not some kind of inherent propaganda value in a public body which relies for its very existence of support for the EU project paying for young people to write about Europe? Especially when you read what the jurors on the panel who will be awarding the prize have to say about European integration.
On the 'Your Mentors' page the first quote is: "As a matter of fact, the European Union is the most successful project of the 20th century having provided its members with a state of peace unprecedented for the continent as well as helped them develop as democratic countries and advance in economic matters."
If this isn't about promoting the EU, then we don't know what is.
Sunday, February 01, 2009
It follows Open Europe's Transparency Initiative, launched last year, which called on UK MEPs to answer some simple questions about how they spend their expenses and staff allowances.
It's great to see that David Cameron meant business when he told the Party conference in October that he would crack down on "Expenses and allowances that wouldn’t stand for one second in the private sector", and said that this applied also to the EU.
Unfotunately (there's always one), Christopher Beazley declined to join in and publish his expenses. When we tried to get information out of him last year, he told us: “I would have to question the legality of these questions. What right do you have to ask these?” He argued that MEPs' taxpayer funded expense claims were not "a public matter", that it was "private". Ironically, he also insisted that, "everything I do is as transparent as possible”.
But apart from that black sheep, the Conservatives should be praised for taking this step and producing information that is - ridicuously - not required of them by the rules of the European Parliament.
Now we call on Labour and the Lib Dems and all the others to follow suit.
The figures themselves make for some interesting reading. By our calculations, Conservative MEPs have on average cost the UK taxpayer £36,303 each for expenses, travel and allowances in 4 months alone. So over a year that is £108,910 each. It's a fair bet that this will be no different for all our MEPs.
If you times that by the number of members of the European Parliament (785) you're looking at costs per year of an eye-watering £85,494,350 for the whole of Europe.
And that's not allowing for the fact that many MEPs will be spending far more than British MEPs on travel between home and the European Parliament.
It also doesn't even begin to cover their salary and staff costs, of course.