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Friday, July 31, 2009

Pass the sick bucket...

Another day, another highly professional pro-Lisbon website crops up in Ireland. This time, it's "Women for Europe" (hot on the heels of We Belong, Generation Yes, Ireland for Europe, etc etc etc - you can see the whole list of links down the right hand side of 'Women for Europe').

Quite aside from our views on the Lisbon Treaty, and the growing number of suspiciously similar campaign groups (who's paying for all this?), there isn't a female in our office (including the one typing) who doesn't find this approach cheesy and patronising in the extreme.

The 'Why vote yes?' section for instance seems to suggest that tackling climate change, eradicating poverty, and protecting children and the eldery (which all have extremely tenuous links - if any - to the Lisbon Treaty) are issues that disproportionately concern the female of the species. Especially those who like attractively-iced cupcakes, judging by the nice photo in the Irish Times today.

Would "Men for Europe", staffed by a men-only team and complete with smug male photoshoots get away with this? Of course not. This is the opposite of equality in action.

On the question of who's paying for it - the whole thing smacks of EU Communications Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, who has (laudably enough) championed the participation of more women in EU politics. Another female EU Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, is photographed on the website, participating in a "Women for Europe" event. Oh and according to the Irish Times, the European Commission's most senior official, Catherine Day, will also be visiting the group ahead of the referendum on 2 October.

It's the latest shot in the European Commission-backed onslaught to make sure Irish people don't cock up its carefully-laid plans to grab control over dozens of new policy areas. No doubt many will fall for it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Law of unintended consequences

There's a detailed double page spread in the Evening Standard tonight about the case of Deborah Dark, a grandmother wanted in France under the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). The case relates to 21 kg of cannabis that was found in her car at the French border back in 1988 (21 years ago). Some of the details of her case are pretty shocking.

This is a classic case of the 'dangerous unintended consequences' of EU legislation.

The EAW was designed to facilitate extradition between member states for serious crimes, but is now routinely used for offences which were never discussed when it first came off the books.

The EAW was bulldozed through in September 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. The justification for it was that new rules were needed to tackle cross-border organised crime such as terrorism, in the uncertain new world.

The press release from Antonio Vitorino, then EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, said at the time, "The European Commission is calling for greater harmonisation and closer cooperation in combating terrorism and crime." Vitorino is quoted saying "Terrorist acts are committed by international gangs with bases in several countries, exploiting loopholes in the law created by the geographical limits on investigators and often enjoying substantial financial and legal treatment between states".

In a debate in the House of Commons in December 2002 on the Extradition Bill ,which implemented the EU Framework Decision on the EAW, the Home Office Minister John Denham said:

"In future, cases within the EU should take about three months, as opposed to nine to twelve months at the moment. The current timetable for bringing serious criminals to justice does a great disservice to the victims of crime... The European Arrest Warrant means that serious criminals accused of fiscal offences will no longer be able to hide within the EU."

There are a couple of instances where the EAW has been used to expedite the extradition of terror suspects across the EU and ensure they stand trial. But there is increasing evidence to suggest the legislation is taking on something of a life of its own.

According to an article in European Voice today, a report issued in May has revealed that while some member states examine each arrest warrant request to check if the crime is serious enough to transfer a suspect to another member state, other EU countries consider such a check superfluous.

The extradition of people like Deborah Dark was not what was intended when Ministers were thinking of ways to tackle serious and organised crime. But that's little consolation - the EAW hangs over her head, even though she has already been aquitted by two different courts.

And so she becomes another sad example of what happens when knee-jerk EU legislation goes wrong.

The Evening Standard article ends on a pessimistic note, with the recognition that because this is EU law, it will be a complete nightmare to overturn.

Bad for democracy

Further to yesterday's post on EU propaganda, see EUobserver today for some more snippets of what the institutions have been up to - and Open Europe's own experiences at the hands of the political campaign at the heart of DG Communications.

There is also a good piece on the International News Service, which repeats Open Europe's finding that the Commission has earmarked €885m to spend on efforts to promote a “common European identity” among the under-25s in a campaign which deliberately confuses the difference between information and propaganda.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Playing games

British business leaders have today been fighting it out on the newswires about the extent of the cost that the EU's new Agency Workers' Directive will impose on the British economy, as we struggle to lift ourselves out of recession. The BCC reckons it is going to cost the economy £1.5bn a year (see here for Open Europe's take on why the Directive is a bad idea).

Meanwhile, over in la-la land, a two-day conference is underway for 350 'experts', who have been bussed over to Goteburg at taxpayer expense from for a vital conference on "the creativity and cultural habits of children and young people."

Let's see... cultural habits of children... That will be, watching cartoons, building lego and dressing up? Playing sports? Or maybe practicising the piano or going to ballet lessons. That's fairly cultural.

According to the Swedish presidency of the EU, "the conference is taking place within the context of the European Year of Creativity and Innovation." Ah yes, the old EU-themed years.

Each year there is a different theme. 2008 was the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, on which the Commission splashed €7 million on efforts such as “information and promotion campaigns, particularly in cooperation with the media, at Community and national level to disseminate the key messages concerning the objectives of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue.”

2007 was the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, 2006 was the European Year of
Workers’ Mobility, and 2005 was the European Year of Citizenship through Education.

This all sounds very nice. Except that, it is just another example of the EU's far-reaching and multi-faceted propaganda campaign to try and sell the idea of EU integration. Underlying all of these kinds of cultural and educational initiatives is a clear objective to help engender support for 'building Europe'.

Don't take our word for it though - take Jan Figel's - who is EU Education and Culture Commissioner.

Referring to last year's 'theme' he said:

“There are plenty of good reasons why the Union should work on intercultural dialogue… Firstly, building Europe has always meant integrating histories, value systems, and world views. There is a strong sense in which our process of integration has always been a dialogue between cultures.... finally, intercultural dialogue is linked to a more political goal: creating a sense of European citizenship.”

Indeed last year's website states: “Intercultural dialogue has an increasingly important role to
play in fostering European identity and citizenship."

For more on this and other examples of the EU propaganda machine at work, see our December 2008 publication, "The hard sell: EU communication policy and the campaign for hearts and minds":

But hang on a sec. The EU has no mandate to legislate in the area of 'youth' or 'culture'. So what right has it got to spend money on these things anyway?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What do you mean you haven't got time?

For anyone who didn't catch our press summary this morning, the Government has admitted that it will not carry out an Impact Assessment (IA) on the EU's proposed new Directive on hedge funds and private equity - otherwise known as the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive.

The idea of an IA is to weigh the costs and benefits of proposed regulation to see if it is worth it.

In response to an FOI request by Open Europe, the team at the Treasury confirmed that,

"because of the foreshortened time scale on which the directive is being negotiated, we will not be publishing a formal impact assessment."

Foreshoretened time scale? Well, the proposal is certainly being rushed through at a worryingly fast pace. It's widely acknowledged that the Commission, in the wake of the financial crisis, was under immense pressure from the European Parliament and some member states to quickly produce a Directive on hedge funds (never mind that most commentators agree that alternative investments funds were not a cause behind the crisis as even the Commission's press release on the AIFMD states). The result was a very poorly drafted, unworkable and inconsistent draft Directive.

This is precisely why a good, robust Impact Assessment is so essential. The "foreshortened time scale" and the poorly drafted Directive make it even more important that the Government (in a transparent manner) assesses what the proposal will actually mean in practice and how it can be improved.

But does the Treasury really not have time? The proposal was tabled on 30 April, and will be subject to revisions and negotiation throughout the summer and autumn. We know EU documents can sometimes be a bit of a snooze-fest but surely there is a crack team at the Treasury who can put a partial IA together during this time period?

Government guidelines explicitly state that "any proposal that imposes or reduces costs on businesses or the third sector requires an Impact Assessment" and the BERR Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website instructs Ministers to "make use of the UK Impact Assessment when lobbying other member states to win support for the UK position."

In fact, back in 2003 Tony Blair promised:

"no proposal for regulation which has an impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies should be considered by Ministers without a regulatory impact assessment being carried out."

This might all seem a bit obscure, but it's extremely important. A rigorous IA can identify potential costs and benefits of EU proposals and identify the impact on jobs, competiveness, growth and the rest of it. Used properly, it can inform UK negotiators when arguing over the details of important EU rules in high-level meetings in Brussels.

Last year, we spent six painful months going through over 2,000 of the UK Government's IAs. In the subsequent report, we recommended that the Government use IAs as a bargaining tool, to lay out which aspects of EU proposals would be unworkable, or that would impose un unacceptable cost. Of course, this would require a rigorous IA produced in time to inform the UK negotiating position - which, again, is what the Department for Business also recommends.

As we've said before, if this were a proposal that affected the French agriculture sector or the German auto industry it would have been strangled at birth. Although the UK Government finally has begun to pay some attention to the AIFM directive, it needs to do far more to show that it's willing to fight the UK corner on this one.

Starting with an assessment of what the hell it's all about.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A lesson in caution against unnecessary EU rules

Over the weekend John Black, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, called for the Government to have the courage to "step in and suspend" EU rules which will bring junior doctors' hours down to 48 a week from Saturday.

Matt Jameson Evans, chair of campaign group RemedyUK, said: "We already know most doctors are against EWTD [European Working Time Directive], we just need the leadership to do the right thing here."

Let this be a lesson to all those in Europe - UK Labour MEPs included - who voted at the end of last year to abolish the opt-out from the working time directive as it applies to the rest of the economy. That includes firefighters, police officers, ambulance workers - and plenty of other people whose dedication and flexible workings hours are central to the health of the country. The vote triggered a tense round of negotiations in Brussels from which the UK Government eventually emerged unscathed, albeit by the skin of its teeth - but the current Swedish Presidency of the EU is keen on relaunching the talks, and the fight will be back on before long.

It is several years since the UK lost in negotiations to end the opt-out for doctors - when it was impossible to foresee the situation in which the rules would begin to apply in the future (EU regulations take an average of 2 years to come into effect).

Presumably, no-one imagined we'd be smack in the middle of a pig flu pandemic, for example.

Friday, July 24, 2009

London? So passé, chéri

If anyone is in any doubt about the motivation behind the recent, very controversial, tranche of EU proposals for financial regulation, they should take a look at the FT today. There can be no doubt that this is first and foremost about raising rivals' costs.

According to the paper:

Nicolas Sarkozy is planning a massive expansion of the business district on the north-western edge of Paris to challenge the City of London as Europe's pre-eminent financial centre. In spite of his tirades against financial capitalism, Mr Sarkozy wants a bigger slice of the business.

The blueprint for La Défense - which includes several spectacular skyscrapers and, eventually, a further 1m sq m of office space to the west of the arch - lies at the heart of Mr Sarkozy's plans for le Grand Paris : a vast programme of infrastructure improvements and governance reforms that he hopes will turn Paris into Europe's economic powerhouse.

The French government is intent on taking advantage of the City's woes and its battered reputation to turn Paris into a competitive financial centre. 'It is clear today that the City is in great difficulty and that is an opportunity for France to reinforce its financial attractiveness," Patrick Devedjian, the minister in charge of La Défense expansion, said last month. His ambition was to turn La Défense into a "great financial centre, rival to the City of London.

It continues:

French politicians and financiers have long supported regulatory harmonisation inside the European Union as a way of levelling the playing field with London. With the crisis sweeping aside political resistance, especially in the UK, they are closer than ever to getting their way.

French bankers are counting on EU rules on bank capital requirements to end what they see as the advantages afforded to British banks under existing UK definitions. France is also clamouring for an EU clampdown on hedge funds, which many in the industry in London regard as a protectionist onslaught against funds based offshore or in the US.

We just hope the Treasury have read their pink pages today.

After the Lords EU Committee criticised the Government for being "behind the ball game" in the ongoing negotiations on the proposed regulations in Brussels, it is increasingly felt that the Government simply isn't doing enough to fight the potentially damaging regulations coming from the EU.

Regarding the proposed regulations for hedge funds and other investment funds, for instance, in its recent White Paper on financial regulation the Treasury sounded about as tough as a bag of marshmallows:

"at the EU level, the European Commission published a proposal for a directive on Alternative Investment Fund Managers on 29 April 2009. The Government welcomes the Commission’s attention to this important issue and supports the principle of a coordinated EU approach to hedge fund regulation as part of a broader international effort. However, we believe that the proposal, which was produced in a very short time and with no public consultation, requires significant improvement. The Government will engage positively in the EU debate with the aim of developing a directive that achieves the necessary improvements in the EU regulatory framework, without imposing unnecessary burdens."

Gosh - watch out Europe!

The Government also fuelled fears this week about the proposals for increased EU supervisory and regulatory powers for EU bodies. Lord Pearson of Rannoch received a worrying set of answers from Lord Myners, the Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury, when he asked for clarification about the plans:

To ask Her Majesty's Government... whether they foresee overall control of the United Kingdom's financial system and its supervision resting with the European Union or with Parliament.

Lord Myners replied:

The European Commission has confirmed that day-to-day supervision of financial institutions should remain at the member state level.

It continued:

(Lord Pearson): To ask Her Majesty's Government... whether they have power to prevent overall control of the United Kingdom's financial system and its supervision passing to the European Union; and, if so, whether they will exercise that power.

(Lord Myners): The European Commission has indicated its intention to use Article 95 of the EC treaty as the legal basis for its proposals to establish a European System of Financial Supervisors. The European Commission has confirmed that day-to-day supervision of financial institutions should remain at the member state level.

Day-to-day supervision? What does that mean? Doesn't sound much like power or control to us. It's like the Chief Executive of a company being told by the Board that that they're in charge of the daily machinations of the office, but the real power - the decision-making - lies elsewhere. Great.

It's clear we need a much tougher approach. In fact, going back to the grand ambitions detailed in the FT today, as we wrote recently, the Government could learn a thing or two from the French approach to EU negotiations. Earlier this week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a speech to Polish ambassadors:

"In Europe, I have learned something - I should say that with President Sarkozy it is quite easy to see - you have to be determined, solid, a little bit demanding."


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Down the plug hole

Last week the European Commission published its annual "Fight Against Fraud" report 2008 (and annexes - see here and here).

It tells us about the "financial irregularities" in the €130bn yearly budget - in other words, the amount of taxpayers' money that has gone AWOL through either suspected fraud or loss.

It is basically accepted that a chunk of money (amounting to hundreds of millions) will go missing every year as a result of the hundreds of different people involved in executing the big EU projects such as the controversial Structural and Cohesion Funds, Agriculture Funds, and the so-called 'Pre-Accession' Funds, which go towards helping aspiring EU member states jump through EU hoops.

As usual with these types of documents, the report is long-winded and generally made to read as confusingly as possible. It's not designed to be read - especially not by journalists - as the Commission naturally doesn't want to draw too much attention to the hundreds of millions of euros lost every single year as a result of its byzantine policies.

However, it is possible to pull out some interesting snippets. In summary:

  • The overall number of irregularities for expenditure has increased from 6, 047 in 2007 to 6, 595 in 2008, although the estimated financial impact of irregularites decreased from €1 024 million in 2007 to €783.2 million in 2008.

  • Not all irregularities have to be reported. In Agriculture, for instance, Member States must inform the Commission of all irregularities involving an amount of over €10 000. This threshold was introduced on 1 January 2007, having been increased from €4,000. The number of reported irregularities in 2008 was a third of the number of those before 2007 - but clearly comparisons with previous years are useless.

  • The report acknoweldges that "a rather large amount of subsidies is below €10,000", meaning that many, if not most irregularities have, since 1 January 2007, been going unnoticed. Raising the bar for what constitutes an 'irregularity' seems like a clever way to ignore the problem, rather than decrease the amoun of money actually going missing.

  • In monetary terms, Italy reported the highest amounts affected by irregularities in the agriculture category - more than EUR 54 million, followed by Spain which reported a total amount of approximately EUR 15 million. Italy reported 1 case for the sector "fruits and vegetables" in which the total amount affected was approximately EUR 25 million.
  • Italy was responsible for more than 50% of reported budget irregularities regarding agriculture.

  • In terms of recovering incorrectly paid monies, in agriculture alone, €125 million was recovered during 2008 by the Member States from beneficiaries. € 32 million was declared “irrecoverable” during 2008.

  • A whopping € 1.254 billion in agriculture funds remained outstanding at the end of 2008 "at the level of the beneficiaries”

  • In terms of the regional funds, which are intended to help Europe's poorer regions catch up with the richer ones, the total amount affected by irregularities in 2008 was about EUR 585.2 million, EUR 528.9 million of which was from the Structural Funds and EUR 56.3 million from the Cohesion Fund.

  • Apart from a decrease this year, the cost of the reported irregularities is going up, with Spain, the UK and Italy reporting the most irregularities

The Commission likes to pin most of the blame on the member states for the loss of money. But there's no hiding from the fact that the Commission is the chief project manager of these enormous and unweildy policies. If the money wasn't first being filtered through the EU bureaucracy, before being distributed by member state governments, wouldn't there be a far smaller margin for error? As Derk Jan Eppink, a former senior Commission official (now a Belgian MEP) told an Open Europe audience a few years ago:

"The Commission is a good lawmaker but a bad projects-manager."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Enjoy your holidays, but keep EU law 2009/299/JHA in mind

Andrew Symeou, the UK citizen accused of causing the death of Jonathan Hiles while on holiday in Greece is to be extradited to the country today after losing a legal fight against extradition.

This is possible under the controversial European Arrest Warrant.

The shocking details of this story - including allegations of misconduct by the Greek police in obtaining evidence - can be found here and here. In this case, the UK could still have refused to extradite Symeo, but the Law Lords refused to hear the case. Had the UK blocked extradition, a trial in absentia would have been conducted in Greece, where, if convicted, a new request to extradite him would have been issued.

In the past, the UK would have been able to refuse this request, but not anymore. As of 26 February 2009, and the implementation of an EU Framework Decision on the “application of the principle of mutual recognition to decisions rendered in the absence of the person concerned at the trial”, member states must recognise judgements rendered in the absence of the convicted, and these apply under the terms of the European Arrest Warrant.

Some member states have still not implemented it. But, as the UK is one of the sponsors of the proposal, they haven't asked to postpone it to 2014.

Last year, we looked at the idea of trials in absentia in briefing paper, where we found that the proposal would make it much more difficult to resist extraditions to countries which have been criticised by international human rights group for their justice systems.

The rules mean you could potentially be extradited to a country where you've never even set foot, especially in the age of internet.

For instance, in 2005, Austrian artist Gerhard Haderer was convicted to a six month sentence, again in Greece, after depicting Christ as a binge-drinking friend of Jimi Hendrix, surfing naked while high on cannabis (see picture). The artist didn't even know that his book, The Life of Jesus, had been published in Greece until he received a summons to appear in court in Athens.

The judgement was rendered in absentia and in similar cases in the future Austria will lose the ability to refuse extradition of its citizens to fellow EU member states.

We're not trying to put you off your holiday in Greece. We're just trying to highlight the dangers of our own politicians sacrificing hard-fought civil rights to an EU security state.

Germans say 'Nein' to Ireland bailout

Over the weekend, several Irish newspapers reported on Open Europe's new poll of German voters, which shows that 70% are against the idea of bailing out other EU countries in difficulty in the recesssion, such as Ireland.

Voters were asked: "In the course of the current economic and financial crisis, individual countries such as Ireland and Greece have got into financial difficulties. The German Federal Government has indicated that Germany would be prepared to financially support countries like Ireland "which have been hit quite hard by the banking crisis". With this in mind, which of the following comes closest to your view?"

24.8% agreed with the statement "I believe that German taxpayers' money should be spent on helping countries like Ireland or Greece." 70.9% agreed with the statement "I believe that German taxpayers' money should not be spent on helping countries like Ireland or Greece." 3.4% said they don't know.

The results are particularly interesting given that , on the one hand, the German government is said to be considering such a bailout, and on the other, the prospect of the EU coming to Ireland's rescue is increasingly being linked to the outcome of the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Take this, for example. Among its top five reasons to vote 'Yes' to Lisbon ,the snazzy new 'Generation Yes' campaign in Ireland makes the extremely blod claim that a yes vote is:

"Our best chance for an economic recovery: Ireland can’t fight global economic forces on its own, in this financial storm the EU is Ireland’s safe harbour."

However, there is of course no explanation what they think this means. How, exactly, will the Lisbon Treaty help Ireland to weather the "financial storm", and what do they mean by "the EU is Ireland's safe harbour?"

Similarly, on 25 June, German MEP Jo Leinen said the Irish must vote "Yes" if they wish to continue to benefit from the "protective umbrella" the EU provides. Again, no explanation, and no effort from the journalist to press him on what exactly he means.

It is miselading in the extreme to tell Irish voters that if they just show their appreciation of 'Europe' and vote yes, then the EU will somehow come to their rescue. For one thing, any 'bailout' of Ireland completely depends on German taxpayers coughing up. As the respected German magazine Der Spiegel notes, Germans would pick up a quarter of the entire tab. One expert reckons it will cost the taxpayer €1.5bn a year (we're not talking about a one-off here).

No wonder they're not keen. See this piece in yesterday's Irish Mail for more.

Friday, July 17, 2009

EU Commissioner: People are too stupid for referendums

Spanish EU Commissioner Joaquin Almunia has told El Mundo that the Lisbon Treaty is too complex to be submitted to a referendum.

He said: “I think matters which are as complex as a constitution or similar must be discussed in the systems available to democracy, or rather, in parliaments”.

He added that it is not “very democratic” to hold a referendum on issues which require a specific knowledge from the citizen. He said “It doesn’t seem to me that this procedure is the best example of democracy because referendums, in order for them to genuinely be something which citizens feel comfortable with and not pressured, they must be presented with very clear and simple questions”. He had previously said “presenting someone with a treaty with around 300 articles which require, to be understood, a certain education in European law is very complex”.

What's so hard? The EU institutions are desperate to keep people under the illusion that everything the EU does is far too high-brow and complicated for them to worry their little wooden heads about. Yes, the Treaty is ridiculously long and complex, full of boring EU jargon (whose fault is that?) But it's not difficult to wittle it down to the simple question - do you want to give the EU more power, or not?

Anyway, why is he saying all this? It's not as if Spain is toying with the idea of a referendum. No, he is just joining a long list of European politicians sticking their oar into the upcoming Irish vote.

Perhaps the most interesting thing though is the seamless interchangeability of the words "EU Constitution" and "Lisbon Treaty", which he, just like everyone else, knows is exactly the same thing. Even the headline reads: "Only MPs should vote on the European Constitution". Funny that.

Play to Stop - Europe for Climate

See here for the EU's latest propaganda drive - an impressive website targetted at teenagers, offering them a trip to Sweden and a Moby concert as it promotes "EU action against climate change".

The Commission's favourite new partner for this kind of thing - MTV - is once again involved. Presumably they don't come cheap. The last round of expensive MTV ads didn't work - you know, the ones trying to persuade "young people" to vote in the European Parliament elections - so why are they persisting?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Oh look - it's already happening

According to an article that appeared in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, Birgitta Ohlsson of the Swedish Liberal party, a member of her country’s coalition government, has launched a campaign for the right to have an abortion to be considered a human right in all EU member states.

Called www.makenoiseforfreechoice.eu it plans to obtain the 1 million signatures required for its demands to be considered by the European Commission under the terms of the “citizens’ initiative” proposed under the Lisbon Treaty.

The website says that countries like Ireland, Malta and Poland are denying women their human rights by banning abortion and that the women of Europe can “no longer be ignored”.

It says: "It is time for the EU to secure the right to free, safe and legal abortions and render it a human right."

Clearly, the organisers of the campaign don't feel at all put off by the so-called 'guarantees' offered to Ireland at last month's summit - which stressed that the Lisbon Treaty will in no way threaten Ireland's laws on abortion.

Which is extremely interesting given that British Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford is listed as one of the key supporters of the campaign. She is a strong proponent of the Lisbon Treaty - but presumably will not be joining her colleagues in telling Irish people they have nothing to fear as regards their abortion laws?

The seeds of doubt are certainly being sown. John O’Reilly of the Irish Pro-Life Campaign, is quoted saying Irish abortion laws were reinforced by the legal guarantees surrounding the Lisbon treaty, “unless the guarantees mean nothing at all”.

Ahem. We're saying nothing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

EU Comedy Awards

In an earlier post this week we asked who on earth the European Parliament was giving snazzy medals out to, and what on earth for?

Well, courtesy of the Telegraph's Bruno Waterfield it turns out that Den Dover, the disgraced former Tory MEP who owes the taxpayer £500K in "unduly paid" expenses, has been awarded a medal for his "vital contribution to the public debate". Ditto Tom Wise - you know, the UKIP MEP who has been charged with fraud over claims of secretarial allowances worth £36K.

It's so stupid it's hilarious.

Does Ireland want Blair? Does anyone?

How fitting. The unelected, unaccountable Minister for Europe, Lady Glenys Kinnock, has today thrown her weight behind Tony Blair becoming the unelected, unaccountable new EU President.

According to PA, she told the European Parliament in Strasbourg today:

"The UK Government is supporting Tony Blair's candidature for President of the Council (of EU governments)".

Asked if the prospect of being Europe's president had been discussed with Mr Blair, she said: "It is the Government's position. I am sure they would not do that without asking him."

It shows a blatent disregard for the Irish for the Government to be talking about grabbing the cushy new jobs in the Lisbon Treaty, before it has even been ratified. But this is also a reminder to the Irish, as they prepare to vote again, that the creation of a new EU President will substantially diminish the influence of smaller countries in Europe.

Under the existing system, each EU country gets to chair the EU and set the agenda for six months at a time. That is no small matter for a small country whose politicians tend not to secure the higher profile jobs in the other EU institutions.

It means that the democratically elected prime ministers and presidents of each country are able to be EU President on a rotating basis. Nobody is pretending that this system is ideal. But it seems a damn sight fairer and more democratic than simply handing the post, complete with enormous new salary, perks, pension and prestige for two and a half years at a time to an ex-leader who has fallen from grace in his or her own country, as will be case under Lisbon.

Nobody even knows what this uber-President is actually going to do, given the total ambiguity of the Lisbon Treaty. How will his role differ from the super new EU Foreign Minister's?

The Swedish EU Presidency have today had a novel idea. According to PA, the Presidency "has suggested drawing up a proper job description - and then seeing which available political figure best fits the bill."

A job description??! Radical!

This just proves that the idea for a President is mostly about giving the EU a symbolic, political figurehead to help propel its wild dreams about becoming a world superpower. Otherwise why has noone ever bothered with the details?

Tony Blair may well be well respected around the world, and a weighty character for meetings with Putin and Obama. But he is also yesterday's news - he has no democratic mandate at all - and neither will any of the other contenders for the post.

Not only that, but according to a Populus poll for the Times in May, 63% of British voters don't want Blair to be EU President. So Glenys Kinnock is completely out of touch with the British people - quelle surprise.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hollow celebrations

Over in Strasbourg this afternoon there are some jolly celebrations going on to celebrate the 30th anniversary of European Parliament elections by direct universal suffrage.

Timetable of the event:
· 15:25 - Arrival of guests
· 15:30 - Opening of ceremony: Giuseppe Verdi: "la Forza del destino" overture played by the Strasbourg Philharmonia
· 15:40 - Raising of the European flag by a Eurocorps detachment
· 15:45 - European anthem, Ludwig van Beethoven: "Ode to Joy", part of the 4th movement from the 9th symphony played by the Strasbourg Philharmonia accompanied by the Petits Chanteurs choir of Strasbourg

And then at 18:00, there will be a "medal presentation ceremony to former MEPs."

Medals? What for exactly?

It's all very grand. An EU flag, an EU anthem, EU medals... Whoever said that removing the reference to EU symbols from the original Constitution (and renaming it the Lisbon Treaty) would actually spell the end of them? In fact they are alive and kicking and out in all their glory.

But what is there to celebrate?

Turnout in the European elections has fallen consistently since the first direct elections in 1979, with only 43% of Europe's population bothering to vote this new tranche of MEPs in.

Not only that but EU politicians - including the majority of MEPs - have deliberately ridden roughshod over democracy time and time again - most recently and dramatically with the French, Dutch and then Irish referendums on the EU Constitution, but also in lesser-known instances such as the European Parliament's outragous decision to ignore the Irish referendum even before it had taken place (see our work on the league table of MEPs).

It's almost embarrasing that the EU sees fit to splash public money on these pompous celebrations when actually, democracy has never been so conspiculously absent. There's something a bit pathetic about the whole thing... not to mention hypocritical.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ja, aber

The fall-out of the long awaited decision of the German Constitutional Court on whether the Lisbon Treaty violates the German Constitution (or "Basic Law") is ongoing, with German parties battling it out as to what it all means.

In a nutshell, the Court ruled broadly in favour of Lisbon but withheld approval for immediate ratification, demanding a law to guarantee the rights of the German Parliament in the EU decision-making process.

In its press release, the Constitutional Court noted that the German ratification act should be modified because the German Bundestag (Lower House) and Bundesrat (Upper House) “have not been accorded sufficient rights of participation in European lawmaking procedures and treaty amendment procedures.”

Handelsblatt analysed: “for the Court there is only one real basis for democracy in the EU: the national Parliaments”.

German ratification of the Treaty could be delayed until after the German national elections on 27 September because the Bavarian Christian Democrat CSU party and the Social Democrat SPD party, both of which are in government, have opposed fast-tracking the new law. With Czech President Vaclav Klaus vowing to be the last one to sign the Treaty, the German ruling offers him the opportunity to further delay the final step in Czech ratification. (Welt, 30 June; Handelsblatt, 3 July)

More widely, the ruling raises serious questions about the role of national parliaments and the Lisbon Treaty - shouldn't similar democratic safeguards be required for national parliaments in all member states?

This message has been echoed by publications across Europe, with French newspaper L'Alsace saying, "The German court has signalled that it is necessary - and possible - to convey rights upon the national parliaments in European decision-making. It's a pity such a message was not evoked by France". Dutch magazine Elsevier wrote, "What does this judgment mean for the sovereignty of other member states? Should they not also build a guarantee into their own legislation in order to secure their right to self-determination?"

In an analysis in English, German weekly Der Spiegel noted that the decision "very elegantly demolishes the old European idea that the recognised democratic deficits in the EU would disappear completely of their own accord by enhancing the rights of the European Parliament".

We will very soon return with our analysis of this extremely important question, looking at exactly what the ruling said and what changes are expected to be made to the German system of parliamentary scrutiny of EU law in order for Lisbon to come into force.

But reading through the long, and often awkwardly-worded English version of the Court's decision throws up several devastating conclusions in there that have so far escaped attention.

In particular, the ruling confirms what Open Europe has long been arguing - the simple fact that the Lisbon Treaty's extension of majority voting to so many new policy areas (about 60), necessarily means less influence for national parliaments in policymaking. Advocates of the Treaty have tried to ignore this simple and very logical truth, but here we have it from the Court:

"The status of national parliaments is considerably curtailed by the reduction of decisions requiring unanimity and the suprantioanlisation of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters."

It also clearly states:

"The Treaty of Lisbon does not lead to a new level of development of democracy."

With all these 'ifs' and 'buts', it seems unsurprising that 77% of Germans want a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, according to our new poll.

FAQ: What is wrong with you people?

In its fevered desperation to pass the Lisbon Treaty, the Irish government has now gone into total overkill.

In addition to its campaigning website on the Treaty itself, which is www.lisbontreaty.ie, and of course the suspiciously slick Generation Yes campaign, the Government has now launched yet another new website "to explain what the EU has done for Ireland." It is a frankly shocking example of propaganda financed by the public purse.

Absolutely no attempt is made to even pretend that this is neutral information written to help people's understanding of the EU (which we all agree is desperately needed).

Take this for example. Among the 10 'Frequently Asked Questions' about the EU are such gems as:

"Is the EU working to make sure my children's toys are safe?"

"What about the food I eat and the water I drink? How does the EU help to make them safer?"


"I bought a camera on my holidays last month in Spain, but it isn’t working. Does the shop in Spain have to fix it? "

Eh? Frequently asked questions? How about: "What is the European Commission" "What do MEPs actually do" and "What proportion of our laws are made in Brussels?"

This shameless, concerted and no doubt expensive brainwash campaign is the latest in a long, long list of examples of how too many people in positions that matter simply do not understand the desperate need for a fair and balanced debate about the EU and its future.

Not only that, but we also hear that crazed politicians around Europe have decided to have no qualms at all about wading right into the Irish debate and demanding that voters say yes - with the new EP President, Jerzy Buzek planning a trip.

All this is very depressing for a Friday afternoon.

This game is not over

This is from Swedish Radio:

Swedish Employment Minister Sven-Otto Littorin - whose country currently is at the EU helm - will next week sit down for a talk with the new chairman of the European Parliament's employment committee (most likely an MEP from the EP's socialist bloc). The objective is to revive the negotiations over the EU's Working Time Directive. As we reported on extensively as the story line unfolded, the negotiations broke down in April following a disagreement between the EP and the Council over the right of British and other European workers to opt out of the EU's maximum 48 hour working week, entailed in the Directive.

We've estimated that the Working Time Directive as it currently applies in the UK is already costing the economy between £3.5 billion and £3.9 - a cost that could rise to between £9.2 billion and £11.9 billion should the opt-out be scrapped.

The Swedes, alongside several other European countries, are primarily interested in changing the rules in the WTD which define all time spent on-call as active working time - a rule that has messed up rota systems in health care sectors right across Europe, and cost taxpayers billions (the rules were introduced following two absolutely ludacrious rulings by the ECJ).

As several member states are using the opt-out primarily to get around the on-call time rules, we fear a future deal between ministers and MEPs, in which the European Parliament agrees to revise the on-call time provisions, in return for removing the opt-out altogether. Critically, the opt-out has been an obsession for the socialists in the EP for some time, and a surprising number of MEPs in the EPP are also in favour of seeing it go.

In such a horse-trading scenario, the UK could suddenly find itself terribly isolated. Is anyone in Whitehall paying attention?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Stark contrasts

From very informative EU news site Euractiv:

France and Germany have apparently set up a 'working group' charged with blocking reform of outlining the future of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after 2013.

And there's little doubt over what the objective is. Following a meeting with President José Manuel Barroso last week, French Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire, bluntly said that "more regulation" will be France's guiding line in negotiations on the CAP.

The negotiations on the EU budget will kick off in November and, according to Euractiv, the Commission is due to table its first ideas on 'CAP reform' in September 2010. The franco-german 'working group' will now tour EU capitals, starting in London before going to Madrid, Rome, Bucharest and Warsaw, in a bid to convince EU partners of the undisputed advantages of the CAP (which, for example, include artificially high food prices, more global poverty, and allowing for non-farmers to be paid not to farm).

But quite apart from the issue itself, note the contrast between the franco-german approach to CAP negotiations and the UK Government's approach to the ongoing talks on more EU supervision and regulation of the financial markets - proposals with huge implications for the UK economy. We doubt that there were 'working groups' from the Treasury touring Europe to win support for the UK's position as these proposals were concieved (indeed many of them are still in the process of being worked out). It's widely acknowledged that Whitehall has struggled in putting its mark on the negotiations - despite the UK being home to by far the most important financial centre in Europe.

In fact, even the House of Lords EU select committee criticised the UK Government for being "behind the ball game" in the negotiations.

Perhaps the UK could learn a thing or two from the French here - at least when it comes to influencing the EU agenda at a much earlier stage, particularly in policy areas that are so significant for the UK economy.

Wish you were here

The Irish government is planning to spend millions of euros of taxpayers' money going all-out with a propaganda postcard campaign which aims to "explain" the so-called 'guarantees' offered to Ireland in return for holding a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Judging by the language on the Irish government's own Lisbon Treaty site, the information will be highly subjective, 100% positive about Lisbon, and there will be no opportunity for opponents to offer an alternative view. Sounds like a very fair way to spend public money.

The government is telling a lot of porkies and getting away with it. For instance, the Irish Times today unblinkingly reports that "The guarantees on taxation, on the protection of the right to life, the family and education and Irish neutrality will become legally binding, the Government says, immediately once the treaty enters into force." This is completely untrue - how can they become 'immediately' binding, when they have to wait for the next EU Treaty - probably the Croatian Accession Treaty, which might not materialse for years? Particularly given the current border dispute with Slovenia.

And while we're on this subject of what 'legally-binding' - the catchphrase of the moment - actually means, so far, nobody, including our own Foreign Secretary David Miliband, has been able to explain exactly why, if the guarantees are 'legally-binding' from the moment the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, they also then need to be ratified into EU law at a later date in the form of a protocol? See here for how the Irish government fails to answer the question.

Friday, July 03, 2009

one to watch

We've just come across an interesting piece on PA which says that this man, Jacques Attali, has claimed that Margaret Thatcher's famous budget rebate "victory" in Europe 25 years ago was actually a defeat which left her broken and "in tears".

He was a senior adviser to President Francois Mitterrand when Thatcher demanded "my money back" at an EU summit in Fontainebleau in 1984.

Now 65, he has said that Thatcher lost the rebate battle because she had to accept only half of her "embarrassing" demands.

On the BBC's Today Programme Attali said:
You will find the minutes of the discussion in one of my books... where you will see that Mrs Thatcher was asking something like 2000 ecus (a pre-single currency European accounting unit) and she ended up crying, crying in the middle of the meeting, accepting, begging half of it.
He contnued:
"Actually she cried. Mitterrand told me 'She's broken like a piece of glass'. And she actually was. I was surprised to see that, she was really broken when she accepted the final deal."
Mr Attali says the French considered the amount as not much more than "a tip", and in the end the rebate issue was just "an embarrassing appendix" at the Fontainebleau summit.

He explained:
"It was embarrassing begging for a tip and then we gave them (the UK government) half of the tip that she was requesting and we went on to very more serious issues."

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Not quite getting it

As noted previously, Sweden is now at the helm of the EU. For those of you not familar with the country's position on the EU, it can basically be summarised as follows: pretty much on track on individual EU policies (such as financial regulation, the EU budget and labour market regulation) - but lost on the big institutional questions - such as the Lisbon Treaty.

For instance check this out - it's from a magazine commissioned by the Swedish government to inform us about its Presidency. One of the articles, looking at the Lisbon Treaty, is particularly revealing. Torbjörn Haak - Deputy Head of the EU Coordination Secretariat at the (Swedish) Prime Minister’s Office - has clearly not quite grasped the debate surrounding the Lisbon Treaty - or how politically charged it is. Neither has the journalist writing on the government's behalf.

The article informs us that:

"Being the civil servant he is, Torbjörn Haak avoids taking a political stance but notes that the Lisbon Treaty gives both the European Parliament and national parliaments more power.
'It’s not a question of a massive transfer of power to Brussels,' he says. 'It doesn’t introduce any broad new policy areas.' But, he adds, national parliaments will be able to keep a check on their governments' EU policies and will also be able to scrutinise legislative proposals from the European Commission."

Ha! No, not political at all. Never mind this week's ruling from the German Constitutional Court, which alluded to the potentially detrimental effect the Lisbon Treaty will have on national parliaments. And never mind the damning verdict by the UK Commons European Scrutiny Committee, which said the Treaty offered no significant new powers for national parliaments. (See here for why national parliaments will in fact lose influence under Lisbon).

Failing to recognise one of the most basic politcal disagreements on the Lisbon Treaty at this particular moment in history is simply not okay - for key civil servants and journalists alike.

Sweden is a voice of reason on many issues in the EU. With the Lisbon Treaty now firmly on the home stretch, there couldn't be a better time for the country to start applying some of that reason to this vital debate.

Bye bye Blair?

We have learnt from the Indy this morning that Tony Blair may not have the job as EU President as sewn up as he would like.

Despite reports last month that David Cameron had said he would "not oppose" Blair becoming the EU's first full-time President if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified this year, it will not all be plain sailing.

Nicolas Sarkozy has thrown his support behind Felipe Gonzalez, the former long-serving (13 years!) Spanish Prime Minister. Gonzalez's spokesman reportedly said that "M.Sarkozy is in favour of Mr Gonzalez's candidature once the Lisbon Treaty is passed."

The article cites Le Monde's former editor Jean-Marie Colombani saying that M. Sarkozy is the key to the power game and political horse-trading over who will eventually seize the job.

We should mention that Gonzalez has reportedly, however, said he does not aspire to the job, so it might still be a clear field for Blair all the way to Brussels...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Heja Sverige

As Sweden takes up the EU hotseat today, we've published a guide to the Swedish EU Presidency, looking at the various nettles it will have to grasp - from the negotiations on the Lisbon Treaty and its impact on the EU's institutional setup (if it gets passed), to the slew of financial regulations and the efforts to reach agreement in time for the Copenhagen summit on climate change at the end of the year.

If the EU bullies leaders get their way, and Ireland votes 'yes' to Lisbon, this will be the last time a small EU country like Sweden will get to set the agenda in Europe for a very, very long time.