Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Blair has waited and Blair has seen

Well, that didn't take long...

The Guardian: Europe's shattered dream: Blair to challenge Chirac

Amid surprise that Paris and Berlin appear determined to press ahead with the ratification process after a 55% no vote, Mr Chirac will be asked in private whether France will be consulted again in a second poll - the only way of reviving the constitution.

... A negative response from the French president will pave the way for Britain, the Czech Republic and Poland - which are all facing tough referendums - to cancel their polls on the grounds that the constitution is dead.

...A double no from two founding members of the EU in the space of three days would deal such a blow to the constitution that all sides may agree it is dead. This would clear the way for Jack Straw to announce the cancellation of the British referendum when he addresses MPs on Monday.
The Independent: Blair prepares for 'bruising battle' between rival visions of Europe
Mr Blair broke a holiday in Tuscany to make it clear that he now intended to use the forthcoming British presidency to lead a bruising battle between "old Europe" and "new Europe" over the reform of the EU economies. The French vote has placed the EU at the crossroads of a historic dispute over the future direction of the European Union.
And thus Blair's plans for his third term become clear. There's been speculation for ages that he had his heart set on becoming the first proper President of the European Union, but it seems to be more than that - it looks rather like he wants to reshape the EU in his own image.

Brilliant. A time of manufactured crisis, and who steps into the breach but one of the most mediocre minds in European politics... If Blair gets his way, be prepared for an EU that is even more style over substance than the current model.

Alternatively, Chirac could simply ignore the views of his electorate and ratify the treaty, making the EU look even less interested in democracy than it already appears.

Note to our political overlords - this constitution really isn't great enough to risk wrecking the whole bloody thing over. The easiest way out is not to have Blair spouting off, or for more referendums ratifying something which, without France, cannot be ratified.

The easiest way out is to throw up your arms and admit defeat, and try to come up with something more acceptable instead. And to come up with something more acceptable you want Blair as far away from any decision-making process as you possibly can...

Monday, May 30, 2005

Blair returns to EU wait and see

Probably the best bet at this stage:

"What is important now is having a time for reflection with the Dutch referendum in a couple of days' time and the European council in the middle of June where the leaders will discuss the implications of the votes that have taken place."
They certainly need to work out a fresh strategy. If, to keep the rest of Europe happy, Britain has to hold a pointless referendum of its own, let's get the bloody thing out of the way quickly to save time and money which would otherwise be sluiced off by a protracted campaign.

There was never any real hope of winning it in the UK. That was the whole reason for Blair delaying the referendum so damn long, hoping we'd be guilt-tripped into ratifying it if every other member state had already said yes or - probably in his most hopeful and unrealistic moments - that the debate in Britain would be so involving that the British public would be able to make an informed choice. And an informed choice, naturally, would be to vote Yes in spite of the treaty's flaws simply because it's better than what we've got at the moment.

But now that someone else has pipped us to the post and punched a 10% margin hole in the side of the constitutional boat (and the Netherlands will vote "Nee" in two days to boot) there is less than no point in waiting until September 2006 - just as there is, really, less than no point in having any more referendums at all. If they insist on persevering with the ratification process - for which I can understand the reasoning from a purely PR point of view - then they should get it over with sooner rather than later so that the real debate can begin: what now?

At least Blair's managed to avoid the hyperbole of some on the French Yes campaign, like chief strategist Dominique Moisi: "This is a turning point in the history of Europe -- there will be a Plan B in the technocratic sense, in that Europe will continue to function and exist, but psychologically it will cease to exist in the same way."

But still, Christ - you can see why they're taking this badly:

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Something to cause mirth in the aftermath:

Entirely unrelated to the French vote, but too stupid not to make a note.

Oliver Kamm: "Gerhard Schröder has proved the most feckless and unprincipled Chancellor in the history of democratic Germany."

Erm... At the risk of sounding like every internet spat about democracy ever - Hitler was elected...


C'est "Non"

According to the exit polls anyway. To be expected, really - the 55% estimate is in line with polls earlier in the week.

If the French have voted against, there is precisely no point in continuing with any other referendums, any other parliamentary ratifications, nothing. All they will be is a massive waste of time and money. The constitution is dead.

So now let the pointless perseverence with the thing commence. It'll be interesting to see what they come up with to try and get around this - but it's unlikely to involve the obvious, which is simply to go back to the drawing board.

Ho-hum. Fun times to be pro-EU...

Speaking of which, A European has been liveblogging the thing - considering he's been campaigning in Paris for a "Oui" his emotions seem remarkably in check.

Update: Reactions are starting to appear already - mine may or may not over the coming days, depending on workloads. Some so far are fairly sensible, some are defiantly the opposite:

"What one should now do is to remove the French from all EU offices and positions and take away all their EU gratuities and subsidies.
Erm... No. No one shouldn't. Don't be so silly.

Friday, May 27, 2005

"Europe is not ambitious enough"

Can't really argue with that. This is the problem with this bloody constitution - there's no vision behind it. There's nothing to inspire interest, enthusiasm or loyalty - even among the faithful. For a project as ambtitious as the breaking down of barriers between the disparate, once war-ridden nations of an ancient continent, you'd think they'd have at least tried to have given it a shot or two of pizzazz.

The trouble with this "constitution" (even the eurosceptic Scotsman accepts that it's really little more than "a 500-page pull-together of all previous EU Treaties") is, as I've said elsewhere before, that it's looking to sort out the present and the clutter of the past, not the future.

All good constitutions look to the future. They see what was wrong with the past and they try to make everything as perfect as possible.

So, in this constitution where's the drive for democracy? Qualified Majority Voting is kind of more democratic, but something tells me that's not what the critics meant. Yes, the elected European Parliament gains a say in far more areas, but where's the push for transparency in the Commission? Where's the insistence that national parliaments pay more attention to Brussels legislation?

Perhaps if Westminster was paying more attention they'd have spotted the working time directive a tad sooner, and have been able to do something. Perhaps if Westminster was paying more attention then Britain would cease to implement EU directives to the letter, sometimes causing problems, and find the more flexible interpretations that most other member states manage to run with. But MPs are not voluntarily going to take on more work - it's hard enough to get them to reply to constituents' letters or even make it to the lobby before the division bell stops ringing, so expecting them to read and understand complex EU missives and come up with alternatives without this being forced on them is somewhat unlikely.

Then, we might ask, why the need for one all-encompassing document anyway? The Treaty of Rome covered just six nations, yet each required opt-outs for varous clauses. The same has been the case with most subsequent treaties. Now that the Union has expanded to 25 members - including a number which have yet to recover from their decades of poverty and pillage under Soviet rule - how can anyone think that a "one size fits all" approach is the way forwards?

The coming of the Eurozone is the ultimate proof that the EU can function without everyone participating in exactly the same way. Why did the Convention which drew up this constitution not notice that?

If some EU states want to push ahead with political integration, and turn into the federal superstate of eurosceptic myth, why shouldn't they? There's no real practical reason why they have to take less keen nations along with them. So why can't there be an "A-list" membership, with various affiliate members at lesser stages of integration scattered around the edges?

What is the problem of allowing subsects to membership if we've already got the Eurozone? Why can't we set up something whereby if three or more nations want to band together with a different type of membership they can do so under the EU umbrella? That seems like a natural number - three BeNeLux countries, three Baltic states, the Scandinavian countries seem to agree with each other more often than not etc. etc.

That way everyone could be happy - sign up purely for those parts of the EU you want to - the only constant being the lack of trade barriers between all members. Then we could bring all the EEA and EFTA nations fully into the fold. Hell - we could even allow opt-outs in certain areas of trade and expand outside the continent if we wanted to. At the lowest level of membership it could simply be one step up from the WTO.

Instead, the attempt to impose uniformity on countries with so many little variants of interest, culture and history - yet nonetheless with a number of things in common and a number of shared interests - looks to be throwing the whole of the EU into crisis. Those countries who want to integrate further are being thwarted just as are those who feel integration may already have gone too far. With the current constitution, no one really wins - which is precisely why the opposition in France is largely on the left while in Britian it is largely on the right.

If you want a one size fits all EU, then the current constitution is the best compromise we're likely to get. But is that really what's best - either for the individual member states or for the EU itself?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

EU constitutional treaty referendum linkdump

The plan is to keep updating this with links to useful blog posts etc. with interesting things to say on the EU constitution and the ratification process, and whack a link to it in the EU Info section to the top left there for ease of access:

Actually Existing with a superb selection of quotes, everyone from Jurgen Habermas to Denis MacShane.

Hold That Thought has more detail on Habermas' latest take on the constitution, and here's the letter from Habermas and other German intellectuals to the French voters. For Habermas' old views on the need for a constitution from 2001, see here.

Meaders of Dead Men Left has a rebuttal to the above. And now there's a rebuttal of the rebuttal from Hold That Thought.

Eulogist of European Democracy explains in detail why he reckons the constitution is a good thing.

The World Socialist Web Site urges a "No" to prevent the entrenchment of bourgeois capitalism and aid the coming of the United Socialist States of Europe, something many on the right already claim it to be.

The superb Transatlantic Assembly on the myth of the "pro-European No", and again on French referendum pro-constitution propaganda,, yet again on the French left and the constitution, and once more on how the constitution doesn't really change anything. Hell, go and flick through their archives - there's a whole load of good stuff on the constitution there...

Is the French referendum a farcical piece of state terrorism?

Deutsche Welle reckons the EU can survive rejecting the constitution - just...

But EU president Jean-Claude Juncker reckons it'd be a disaster for the world and Timothy Garton Ash prays for a French Oui.

"Key thinkers" on the constitution - from Boris Johnson to Tony Benn. And part two.

The treaty text: why, who and what next - a handy Q&A - and some background to the constitution.

Why No? It's their economies, stupid.

Three vital ways to limit the damage in the miserable event of a 'yes'.

I wonder what he meant by that - the implications of the Dutch and French referendums against the constitutional treaty from a Conservative perspective.

Being Europe Par 2: After the Fall - implications for national politics.

EU, spell out internal disagreements - more implications.

Not the only fruit - the dangers of political short-termism and the future direction of the EU.

Le jour de glorie - the left and the constitution.

Good article (and ensuing discussion) on the Dutch referendum and the quality of debate over the constitution (and the problems with referenda in general) at Fistful by Frans Groenendijk.

And Diderot's Lounge chips in with a (rare, in this debate) decidedly rational take on the situation: To Suggest the French and Dutch Votes Pushed Europe into a Crisis is Nonsense

Open Democracy's series of articles on the constitution and the aftermath. A good range, but all .pdf downloads.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Blair government in "we're a bunch of abject bastards who don't give a shit about you or your stupid so-called concerns" non-shocker!

ID cards are back today. 12pm sees the launch of the "new" bill. Grrr... More later, if I get a chance.

And, in other news, they've gone and made John "fuck off or I'll twat you" Prescott head of the cabinet committee on electoral policy:

"Mr Prescott has made it clear to colleagues that there is no question of reviving PR for parliamentary elections."
Oh, and:
"In another decision that signals his opposition to PR, Mr Blair formally abolish[ed] the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC), he set up with the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown as a vehicle to discuss PR. The scrapping of the JCC slammed the door on the prospect of Labour-Liberal Democrat talks on voting reform and sent a powerful signal that relations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats have hit a new low. Mr Prescott has told colleagues: 'That's all dead now.'"
Grrrr... More on that later too, if I get a chance.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The French referendum debate

The French press, unsurprisingly considering their hard-fought referendum is due at the end of the week, has been analysing the EU like never before, with major newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro devoting reams of copy to dissecting that damned constitution from every possible angle. It's a great shame more of the French discussion isn't filtering to this side of the Channel, 'cos there's some interesting ideas and interpretations being kicked around.

Le Figaro currently reports the two sides split 53% to 47%, to the "Non" vote's advantage, though also notes that 29% still haven't made their final choice with just four days to go. These figures are based on an expected turnout of 67%.

Meanwhile, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing - old adversary of Roy Jenkins while he headed the Commission and the man responsible for drawing up the bloody thing in the first place - has been on the attack to win his fellow countrymen over to his baby. He actually makes some rather good points (as well as some overblown and unjustified ones, which I'll neglect to quote), and ones which would apply just as well to Britain, with the appropriate name substitutions, as to France (my substandard translations):

"1. Il n'existe aucune possibilité d'aboutir à un consensus des vingt-cinq Etats européens sur les thèmes, d'ailleurs contradictoires, avancés au cours de la campagne du référendum en France par les partisans du non. Nos partenaires estiment que la Convention est déjà allée très loin – et pour certains trop loin – en direction des demandes françaises. Nous n'obtiendrons pas mieux. Nous obtiendrions sans doute moins."

"1. There is no possibility of a consensus among the twenty-five European States on the areas, which are often contradictory, advanced during the course of the French referendum's No campaign. Our [EU] partners feel that the Convention has already conceded much - and for some too much - towards French requests. We will not obtain better. We would undoubtedly obtain worse."

"2. Le projet de Constitution ne menace personne. Son seul objet est de corriger les défauts actuels de l'Union européenne, jugée trop compliquée, peu efficace, et insuffisamment démocratique. Le rejet du projet nous ramènerait purement et simplement à la situation actuelle, qui fait l'objet de toutes les critiques, sans nouvel espoir d'en sortir."

"2. The Constitutional project does not threaten anybody. Its only objective is to correct the current deficiencies of the European Union, which is considered too complicated, inefficient and insufficiently democratic. Rejection of the constitution would purely and simply take us back to the current situation, which is the source of all these criticisms, without any hope of relief."
Meanwhile, in Le Monde, Pierre de Lauzun (a deputy manager of the French Banking Federation, apparently) has an interesting alternative take where we'd all be better off scrapping the current constitution and starting all over again:
"Au fond, on sait que l'Europe ne se construit que sur la base des Etats-nations. C'est pour cela que ce qu'on appelle Constitution est un traité international. Mais on n'en tire pas la conclusion : le mythe de l'Europe substitution est une utopie, et l'Europe est d'abord la mise en commun d'outils, dont les véritables autorités politiques, nationales, ont jugé qu'il valait mieux les mettre en œuvre ensemble que séparés. Et, si on voulait aller plus loin, il faudrait définir positivement ce que les peuples d'Europe ont en commun, objectivement, et cesser de procéder par construction abstraite.

"Mais on a préféré poursuivre le mythe politique. Faute de contenu, la solution retenue est donc procédurale : prendre des principes abstraits et juger de toute décision à partir d'une déclinaison de ces principes. Le procédural et le juridique envahissent entièrement le champ du débat. Il ne faut donc pas s'étonner de l'indifférence, et parfois de l'hostilité des peuples, malgré leur bienveillance a priori. L'Europe est ce paradoxe d'une construction non démocratique mais à fondement démocratique. Elle reste plus le fruit d'une volonté des élites que d'une construction populaire. Chaque étape a été décidée en haut et ratifiée au mieux a posteriori. Démocratique, son fonctionnement ne l'est pas plus, malgré le'Parlement européen' : il n'y a pas de débat public entre deux équipes ou deux programmes, sanctionné par les urnes, dans un espace politique commun."

"At heart, they know that Europe is not built on the basis of nation states. It's for that reason that what they call the Constitution is actually an international treaty. But they do not draw the right conclusion from this: the myth of substituting Europe is a Utopia; Europe is above all the pooling of tools, whose true political authorities - national - judged were better to implement together than separately. And, if they want to go further, it is necessary positively to define what the people of Europe have in common, objectively, and to cease trying to proceed with a constitution that's so abstract."

"But they prefer to continue with the political myth. Lacking content, the adopted solution has become procedural: taking abstract principles and judging any decisions based on their variation from them. The procedural and legal approach entirely invades the language of debate. We should not therefore be surprised by the indifference and sometimes hostility of the people, in spite of their previous benevolence. Europe is the paradox of a being an undemocratic construction based on a democratic foundation. It remains more the fruit of the will of the elites than of the people. Each stage was decided from above and was ratified, as well as it could be, after the fact. Being democratic is not its aim, in spite of the European Parliament': there is no public discussion between two parties or two programmes, sanctioned by the ballot boxes, in a common political space."
These are just two small examples from one day's press coverage, and d'Estaing is probably a poor choice to give an indication of the level of debate. In terms of detail, genuine desire to understand the implications, and respect for its audience's intelligence it far surpasses anything this country saw in the run-up to the general election (remember Polly sodding Toynbee and her "nose peg" bollocks?), and has doubtless already surpassed whatever passes for a debate over the constitution in the run up to our own referendum - should it ever happen.

Of course, round the edges there is political spin from both sides, and on the extremes have been name-calling, muck-slinging and stupidness, but the central debate itself has not felt the need to resort to simplifying what is not a simple matter. There has been little of the recent British tendency to focus in on single issues at the expence of the wider picture.

The French people are being genuinely well served by their press and are responding with genuine interest and engagement as a result in a debate which, in this country, has yet to catch the interest of the Prime Minister, let alone the man in the street. Vive la france, as they say.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Supranational vs. Intergovernmental - the EU and the prevention of war

Hew BG asks in a comment, "what is your view on the Supranational / Intergovernmental question? The Yes camp (up to and including Barosso, Margot ) are currently conflating supranationalism and the peace in (Western) Europe over the last 50 years which is, to be generous to them, "stretching" the achievements of the EU."

My web connection's being a bit spacky today, and I've got a few deadlines so I can't do anything too substantial at the moment, and haven't got time to dig out links or the like. But in short, and off the top of my head:

Assuming we take "intergovernmental" to mean based on unanimous decisions and "supranational" to mean that states can be compelled by others to comply, I'd say Wallstrom/Barroso have a point - albeit a stretched and somewhat flawed one.

The World Trade Organisation, for example, is supranational and because of its powers of compulsion has helped to remove/reduce various tariff barriers over the years thanks to the added power of collective compulsion the supranational framework allows. The UN Security Council, however, working on the intergovernmental unanimity principle, has often been hampered by not being able to get agreement - notably over the Iraq war, Kosovo etc.

So a supranational set-up can certainly help get things done - it's akin to the principle of a parliamentary majority vote, only with nations rather than MPs. Intergovernmental decisions, requiring unanimity, can lead to stalemate and stagnation, and in turn to the breakup of the organisations which require them - viz. the current debates over the effectiveness of the UN and the collapse of its League of Nations predecessor.

You already know my views on nation states - outmoded and arbitrary. Nation states being allowed to maintain complete sovereignty and act purely in their own national interest can work to the disadvantage of other nations and the international community. Having some kind of supranational organisation which can put an extra bit of pressure on to stop them from pissing about is, in my view, very helpful. Being signed up to a supranational group is a rather more tightly binding check on rampant self-interest than mere bilateral / multilateral treaties - as the Munich Agreement is testimony to, such treaties are too easily easily ignored / rescinded / rewritten.

But having said that, in terms of war I doubt any agreement between nations is enough to prevent it if any particular state wants one badly enough - war is, after all, by its very nature illegal. The added threat of a vast number of allies instantly being dragged in (as via NATO) may help to stop anyone being stupid enough to launch one, but not necessarily.

This has gone on a bit, so to summarise: in my view, the EEC/EU has been a handy extra layer to NATO/the UN, but in legal terms not a vital one, in keeping the peace in western Europe. What it has helped to do is foster closer, friendlier relations between the governmental machines of the various member states, allowing closer dialogue than was previously the case. The more there is dialogue between nations, the less is the chance of war. In that sense I think the EU certainly has helped maintain the peace - but not, as I say, because of any specific legal agreements.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

New collection of EU resources

Top left-hand column, see? Click for a drop-down list of links and stuff.

I thought it was about time I started something like that, but being technologically illiterate that's the best I can do for now - contains some handy bits and pieces nonetheless, even if it is a tad Wikipedia-heavy at the moment. I am, however, trying to keep this to information which is as impartial as possible - so anything from either pro- or anti- sources will normally either be ignored or flagged up - unless it's from the EU itself, in which case it should be fairly obvious...

If you spot anything good that I'm missing (probably a lot at the moment, as I've only just knocked it up), let me know. Ta!

Films and the future of the EU

I've just updated The Unseen Movie Review with a selection of May and June releases. As I still haven't seen most of them, I can't guarantee that there aren't any spoilers, but I think I managed to avoid most major ones. Of the ones that I have since seen, I got Kingdom of Heaven slightly wrong - it does have a political agenda, albeit a rather lovey-dovey, hardly overly serious one, but it's otherwise a big, fun, stupid movie. Having seen Revenge of the Sith last night, with it's top-notch opening 20 minutes followed by another three hours of wooden acting, awful dialogue and frequent mind-numbing tedium interspersed with decently entertaining computer-generated spectacle (which nonetheless leaves you feeling all "meh"), it seems I got that one pretty much spot on.

If you want some political style stuff, I'll suggest you check out The Japan Times' EU Special - a handy guide to the French constitutional referendum plus the EU's relations with the Far East, all in .pdf format. Quite interesting stuff, if coming from a right-wing US-centric viewpoint, with some useful observations which are made more so by this coming from relatively dispassionate non-EU observers. Having siad that, one of the most interesting pieces is Agence France-Presse Brussels bureau chief Philippe Ries on what might happen if the French vote "Non":

"the greatest consequences of a negative result on May 29 would fall on France first. A defeat at the polling station would likely turn Chirac into a lame duck president for the remaining two years of his mandate. On the left, the current leadership of the Socialist Party would be thrown into total disarray. They would have succeeded in an internal referendum to deliver strong support for the constitution but failed to carry the momentum to the finish line. The reform process would stall for good, and paralysis would prevail until the next presidential election in 2007.

"At the European level, it could be as bad. A failure of France to ratify the constitution would of course send the wrong signal to the countries where the ratification is not a given. Some may consider the cause as lost and not even bother to carry on with the process. What would be the point for Tony Blair to call a referendum in the U.K. when the risk of being defeated would turn into a certainty?
"At the institutional level, the European Union would still function with the current rules, last updated in the dreadful Nice Treaty. The constitution anyway is not to be in force until 2009. But it would be without any doubt a huge political setback.

"France and Germany, already reluctant to accept the consequences of the last enlargement, as shown by their criticism of the new member states alleged fiscal and social dumping, might turn even more defensive. Common policies that are not so popular with the electorate, like competition or the monitoring of state subsidies, would become even more difficult to sell to the public, with the legitimacy of the whole process very much in doubt.

"Repercussions may be far reaching on the international scene. What would be the mandate of the European Commission for the achievement of the Doha Development Round if there is a political malaise at home? Protectionism within and outside Europe, in retreat for the past several decades, could well raise its ugly head again. The euro would likely not suffer in the short term, but its prospects of challenging the dollar as a key reserve currency would be darkened. People and governments in Europe would be even more reluctant to abide to the budgetary rules set in the Stability and Growth Pact.

"...One of the worst fantasies entertained by the partisans of the ``no'' camp who claim to be pro-Europe is that the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by France would force the 25 member countries back to the drawing board. While that is very unlikely, at least for a number of years, it is a certainty that the result would be even less to their liking. What would be exactly the leverage of a French delegation to better the compromise painfully elaborated at the convention? The pro-Europe 'no'' is at best an illusionand at worst an excuse."

Friday, May 20, 2005

Help make MEPs more accountable

It is a constant and largely fair complaint that the EU is somewhat lacking in democratic accountability. Members of the European Parliament seem always to be ignored by the people they represent, and rarely - if ever - receive coverage in the local press to anything like the extent that our Westminster representatives do.

Not only do European elections always have shockingly low turnouts, but it is unusual even for those who vote in them to pay any attention to who won, or to who has ended up representing them in Brussels and Strasbourg. It is still more unusual for any regular member of the public to be able to say exactly what it is that an MEP's job involves - all we ever hear about are the allegations of expense-fiddling and petty corruption, not what actually goes on within the EU's corridors of power.

As such, this Early Day Motion, proposed by Labour MP Derek Wyatt (who scraped back in with a majority of just 79 on May 5th) deserves widespread support - whether you are pro- or anti-EU. After all, how is it possible to hold our representatives to account if we don't know what it is they get up to?
Derek Wyatt
* 1
That this House believes that, as Europe prepares to vote on the EU Constitution, MEPs in member countries should instead of repairing to Strasbourg once a month, return to their own national parliaments to report back on their work; further believes that this would give an opportunity for there to be a constructive debate between honourable Members and MEPs and would root the latter in both their national parliaments as well as the European Parliament.
As anyone who has worked at the House of Commons or who follows Westminster affairs will tell you, EDMs rarely, if ever, manage to achieve anything - they are there, at best, to make a point, and are effectively petitions to the government which Downing Street can ignore or not at its leisure. Nonetheless, this is one well worth supporting. If you want more accountability in Brussels, urge your MP to sign. You can contact your MP free of charge through FaxyourMP.com.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Sun Says... a load of old bollocks, apparently

Page two of today's Sun - Britain's biggest-selling newspaper, owned by the eurosceptic Australian tax-dodger Rupert Murdoch - is dominated by a huge banner headline about the proposed EU constitution stating "EU DEAL END FOR POUND". Considering page two of pretty much every tabloid is used for burying "boring" political news, the headlines are all that most Sun readers will have noticed - distracted as they are by the pert bosoms of some Essex slapper on the opposite sheet. (and yes, I know this makes me sound like an intellectual snob - but I was the one reading The Sun in a pub at lunchtime...)

In other words, this Sun headline - the size, the positioning, the alarmist language, everything - is deliberately designed to be taken on face value, and make the paper's three and a half million readers start fretting that their beloved coinage is in imminent danger of abolition.

This is, of course, total nonsense. Not only has Blair already stated that there are no plans to switch to the euro before the next general election - a significant step back from the last decade of "wait and see" uncertainty - but the constitution doesn't actually have anything much to say about the EU currency of choice.

In fact, should any of the Sun's readers be able to tear themselves away from the "charms" of the buxom lovely on page three, they'd see in the very first paragraph that the headline is entirely unrepresentative of the actual "story". A story which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, based on some propaganda from the newly rebranded "No" campaign (which made the utterly implausible claim on Newsnight last night that "none" of its members advocated withdrawal from the EU) - propaganda based on a "No" campaign-commissioned ICM poll of just 1000 people.

The story is the somewhat depressing but altogether unsurprising one that the British public are sorely uninformed about the EU, and specifically about the constitution:

"SEVEN out of ten people believe the Pound will be axed if Britain signs the EU constitution... They are convinced backing the EU’s new diktats will automatically kill off Sterling. They say Britain will be dragged into the euro whether we like it or not."
This is, of course, palpable nonsense - but then, it is the "Great British Public (TM)" who are allegedly saying it. Even if the constitution did have anything concrete to say about takeup of the euro, all three major parties are committed to holding a referendum over joining - another prime example of the buck-passing insanity of the damn things, but that's beside the point.

The Sun's article quotes the constitution's Article III-69 - which they say states "
The activities of the member states shall include . . . a single currency, the euro".

This is a slight misquote, due to a misplaced ellipsis. It actually says (with The Sun's quote in italics) "
the activities of the Member States and the Union shall include, as provided in the Constitution, the adoption of an economic policy which is based on the close coordination of Member States' economic policies, on the internal market and on the definition of common objectives, and conducted in accordance with the principle of an open market economy with free competition. 2. Concurrently with the foregoing, and as provided in the Constitution and in accordance with the procedures set out therein, these activities shall include a single currency, the euro"

The implication they are trying to make is that the constitution says that all member states must adopt the euro, and specifically adopt it as the national currency rather than merely for the purpose of trade within the bloc - lest we forget, inclusion and adoption are very different things. Of course, the vagueness of this particular article (as with the whole damn constitution) is such that that could be one interpretation, but - and vitally importantly, considering this is a legal document we are dealing with - there is no explicit statement that EU member states must adopt the euro as their sole or even primary currency - merely that the euro will play a part in the EU's economic activities.

Now I'm not going to try and deny that it is in the interests of the EU for every member state to adopt the Euro at some stage. Nor shall I deny that this is what the clause is hinting at. But there is - vitally - no timescale on the takeup of the euro mentioned anywhere in the constitutional text.

All the constitution says is that the euro will play a part in EU-wide economic activities (as will, surely, every currency of every member state - but the euro is the most logical one to use for intra-EU trade). There is nothing about member states having to adopt it as the currency of the high street, and the fact that Britain has partially been trading with euros ever since it came into being as the shoddily-named Ecu is, the way The Sun and the "No" campaign have presented their scare story, not important.

To those who are against the whole thing, what is apparently more important than what the constitution actually says - and allowing the British public to form their own opinions based on fact - is scaremongering headlines, selective quotation and partisan poll results designed to make the thing out to be forcing the country to adopt measures about which the constitution actually doesn't have an awful lot to say.

It's actually a very cunning approach. There isn't - apart from the headline - a single actual lie in the entire article. But it is, nonetheless, an opinion piece dressed up as a news story with a large and misleading headline which deliberately shepherds any unwary readers to accept that opinion as fact. We're going to be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing - from both sides - over the coming months. My advice - when it comes to debates over the EU, don't accept anything at face value.

A potentially pretentious pondering - perhaps propitious, perhaps palmary, possibly pertinent to peruse

Sorry about that - got all alliterative of a sudden.

Just an idea, loosely prompted by this meme from a few weeks back - anyone interested in participating in a blog-based book group? Could make a nice break from politics every now and again, plus help point us all in the direction of some genuinely good reads.

Basic idea would be I name a book (perhaps based on suggestions from participants) - probably broadly European, considering the focus of this blog - and set a date, probably a month or so later. Those who want to take part go off and read the thing then come back on the chosen date for a nice lengthy discussion in a comments section where we can all dissect the thing, suggest similar books, point out plot holes and the like.

Who's up for it? Anyone? If so, drop me a line in the comments. My initial suggestion is one I'm currently re-reading, and I'd forgotten just how good it was - Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco:

To give you a basic idea without ruining the plot, it's basically The Da Vinci Code if it had been written by someone literate, intelligent, with a superb grasp of character and plot, and who had actually bothered to do some original research. It is also a fantastic read - perhaps Eco's best.

What do you reckon? Worth pursuing? Am I being a pretentious twat? Different book to kick off?

Let me know in the comments if you're interested - if enough people are, I'd suggest we reconvene on Monday 20th June for a hearty literary debate. Should be enough time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Woo! Fancy new site logo thingie and stuff!

Post-election, and with all the joys of spring, some people have decided to opt for a complete redesign while others first went for a redesign and now profess to be thinking about giving up.

Me? I've opted for the middle-ground of a dinky logo type thingie for the masthead, like wot I just knocked up in Photoshop and stuff. And yes, yes that is a nosemonkey plonking its fat arse on Turkey. The buttocks/Turkey interface is not, however, meant to be symbolic in any way - and nor is the fact that the little bugger's turned his back on Europe. At least, I don't think it is...

Anyway - check out my mad photoshopping skillz. I rule.

George G. vs. George B.

Say what you like about George Galloway - and I frequently do - he turned in a largely impressive performance in front of the Americans yesterday. Chicken Yoghurt has a good take, while Martin Stabe has a roundup of US blog reactions, a particular highlight of which is this little gem:

"We won the Revolutionary War fergossake. This shouldn't be so hard."

Meanwhile, Respectites Meaders and Lenin seem to have been enjoying themselves - even Harry's Place had to admit George put on a good show, but it seems that the folk at the New York Post weren't quite as impressed:
"SOMEBODY, please inject our senators with a heavy dose of testosterone.
"Maybe then they'll be able to deal with thugs and bullies like George Galloway.
"...He insulted our administration. He decried the war against terror.
"...It gets worse.
"As he hijacked Congress to unleash his outrageous, insulting tirade, our senators did not pipe up.
"Rather, they assumed the look of frightened little boys caught with pants around their ankles, nervously awaiting punishment."
I say again - heh!

IslamOnline have a good press roundup for those who fancy some other reactions.

The only question now is will he ever get a chance to go off on a similar rant in the House of Commons, or will he (as I suspect) somehow fail to catch the Speaker's eye?

A quick plea for help

After spending the last few days churning out reams and reams of text on everything from the EU constitution to Samuel Pepys to Batman Begins (the latter two not here, obviously), I've hit a distinct lack of inspiration.

Come, faithful readers - assist me. I've got to knock up a 1000-1500 word article on the Celts in Britain - not Ireland - with an emphasis on places tourists can visit and which photograph well, and I've come entirely unstuck. It's become too in-depth for the middle-brow target audience and so far has precisely no travel aspect. Help me out, go on - I need suggestions of celtic sites and attractions more than anything. Ta. This is currently about 600 words - I need to cut some bits and add some bits to make it fit:

In the 5th century BC Heroditus recorded the Celts as living between the source of the river Istros (the Danube) and the Pillars of Hercules – effectively from Germany to Portugal. Their first recorded appearance was in c.400 BC, forcing the Etruscans out of the Po valley in northern Italy and clashing with envoys of Rome in the process. Marching on to the capital of the nascent Empire, the Celtic leader Brennus inflicted one of the worst defeats that Rome would see for centuries. A few decades later, in 335BC, Alexander the Great met a Celtic delegation on the shores of the Adriatic where, according to Ptolemy, they offered their friendship, stating that the only thing they were afraid of was the sky falling down around them.

According to 1st century BC Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, the Celts were “terrifying... They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane.” Another distinguishing feature, in a world where tunics were still the norm, was the habit of the men to wear bracae, or trousers.

Today, the descendants of the Celts survive predominantly in the British Isles – primarily in Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, though with strong remaining influences in the northern and western fringes of England, to where they were driven by successive invasions by the Romans and Anglo Saxons. But no one really knows how the Celts themselves came to Britain – were they the descendants of those who built Stonehenge, invaders or peaceful migrants? Some have even argued that they were merely an invention of 18th century Empire-builders, keen to create a sense of British national pride.

But the sense of mystery, the tales of warriors, the traces of complex and sinewy artworks and the ever-present legends of the Druids, not to mention the ongoing pride of the Celtic nations, has helped ensure that the Celtic peoples retain a very particular place in European, and especially British identity.

Despite their warrior origins, the Celtic tradition was, until the coming of Rome, entirely oral. As such, it was only after the Roman conquest that any written record of the Celts appeared in the British isles, and it is doubtless in part due to this that the Celtic tradition today is that of the plucky and oppressed underdog. Revolts in the 15th and 16th centuries to preserve the Cornish language have been followed in the 19th and 20th centuries by concerted efforts to revive Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, while Scottish and Irish immigrants to North America have continued to cling to their Celtic roots even while, like their forebears during the coming of Christianity, they have become integrated with their new culture.
Too tedious at the moment, isn't it? Damn. (Oh, and sorry - I wouldn't normally do this sort of thing; highly unprofessional etc.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Most "my government"s since 1999

I always wonder how Her Majesty can bring herself to read out the nonsensical drivel she's always handed for the state opening of parliament. This year's speech also had the added sick-making factor of seeming to want to identify itself more than usual with old Brenda - Blair's lot seem especially keen to remind the country that they are the Queen's government after their shaky election performance.

In a bored moment I decided to count up how many times her Maj was forced to refer to Blair and Co. as "my government". In an even more bored moment, I decided to do some comparison. The last time that phrase was used as many times was back in 1999, where the poor dear had to associate herself with Blair's lot 39 times. Back to Buck House for a few G&Ts after that one, methinks...

Is there any significance to this, or just an example of piss-poor repetitive speechwriting on the part of Downing Street? Who knows - but the last Queen's speech under a Tory government only used the phrase 14 times, and they're meant to be the royalists...

Here's the Blair/Brenda Queen's Speech love-in tally, for anyone interested:

1996 - 14
1997 - 27
1998 - 31
1999 - 39
2000 - 22
2001 - 22
2002 - 23
2003 - 27
2004 - 28
2005 - 33

(And no, I can't be bothered to go through counting the broken promises, or to trawl through the pre-internet speeches prior to 1996...)

Poor old Liz. She, after all, has to accept responsibility for all Blair's crap as the only person in the country who actually made him PM, and something tells me she's not exactly in a position to break with recent tradition and use her royal prerogative and get rid of the bastard. But you can tell from the look on her face she's not happy. Gawd bless 'er (etc.)

Religious and political hatred

The Queen's Speech today is going to announce the revival of this particularly stupid bill (among many other, equally stupid bits of legislation).

What I still don't get - an obvious point, maybe - is precisely how it is possible to ban incitement to religous hatred without banning religion itself?

Be it the Christians with their "one true God" (which is, of course, a slightly different one true God depending on which sect you belong to) or the Muslims with theirs, the whole POINT of religion is that you believe that you are right and everyone who believes differently is wrong - heathens, gentiles, infidels, whatever. If you are strongly religious - of whatever faith - you by definition have a massive superiority complex over all the unbelievers, as you have seen the way, the truth and the light and they have not. Such smugness breeds contempt on both sides; contempt leads to hatred.

In most interpretations of most different faiths, it is the solemn duty of any true believer to convert those who have not seen the light. Missionaries are sent out. Evangelists stand on street corners. They generally spout on about how we're all going to burn in hell unless we do and believe exactly what they tell us. (Sounds a tad like the government and their terror warnings, come to think of it...)

Does someone telling me I'm going to burn in hell for not embracing The Lord God Our Saviour Who Died For All Our Sins (TM) count as religious hatred? Does me telling them to fuck off and leave me alone? Does slamming the door in the face of a Jehovah's Witness count?

What about things like The New Humanist, which exist solely to dissect and challenge religious belief? Is the government proposing to ban The Rationalist Society? How about atheists - are they going to become illegal? They frequently mock and challenge religious folk and doctrine.

And in any case, isn't part of the point of having faith to be able to have that faith challenged yet to continue to believe? The Christian martyrs were tortured to death, yet held onto their conviction that their God was the true one. Are their spiritual heirs really so weak-willed that having a few people mock them and call them idiots will make them abandon Christ? If so their faith is already dead and pointless. We're doing them a favour.

According to that FAQ, the people affected by the new law would be

"Individuals and members of extremist and racist organisations and parties who stir up hatred of groups defined by their religious beliefs. Also, religious extremists who stir up hatred against members of other religions."
So, that would include not only every evangelist in the country, but also the entire Cabinet, all of whom have been complicit in the post-9/11 anti-Muslim tirades (which, naturally, were aimed solely at the extremists and fanatics, but which have nonetheless ensured that Musliims throught the country are now viewed with distrust and fear by the rest of the population). Will Charles Clarke have to arrest first the Prime Minister and then himself?

Of course, what this really is is merely another facet of the "anti-terror" legislation Blair and Co. keep trying to force through. The people most likely to use inflammatory rhetoric will not be Catholic priests or the beardily inoffensive Archbishop of Canterbury, but the hardline mullahs of the more extreme mosques.

After years of trying and failing to get rid of the likes of Abu Hamza for connections to terrorism (for which there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, but we allowed him to be extradited anyway despite his holding a British passport because, erm...), a law like this would enable an instant lock-up because their overblow language - not that different to the fire and brimstone sermons of the Victorian Church of England - can happily be interpreted literally.

In other words, this will all come down to semantic interpretation. The local vicar telling us how the pharasees and Jews betrayed and killed Our Lord Jesus Christ will be fine (because, you know, the fact that Jews have frequently faced attack from irate Christians over the centuries due to their involvement in the Christian God's death OBVIOUSLY hasn't come from Biblical blame-throwing...). But if someone at a mosque suspected of having terrorist links happens to use the term "infidel" then we'll lock him up and throw away the key.

By showing absolute contempt for religion in using it as a convenient veil for more suspect motives, is the government again in breach of the proposed bill? And what the pissing hell right does Tony fucking Blair have to dictate to anyone about religion in the first place? The smug little God-botherer. He was the one who incited me to religious hatred through his holier-than-though insistence that everything he does is alright because he "believed it to be the right thing to do". This belief stems from his Christian faith, so I hold his faith in contempt.

Oooh, I'm annoyed.

A bit of nice reading

While remaining overworked and uninspired, there are a couple of interesting pieces over at The Sharpener.

First up is Third Avenue with a great overview of precisely why referendums are so rubbish and anathema to the British political system. After all, how can a "yes/no" question possibly be enough to provide an indication of national feeling on issues as complex as devolution or the EU? Applying a strict monochrome interpretation to an issue which is decidedly greyscale is liable only to create further difficulties should the UK ever get to hold its referendum on the constitution.

Then we have Meaders on some of the faultlines which have sprung up after the general election, which is well worth a look. I think we can forgive him his partisan appeal just this once...

Meanwhile, the Curious Hamster has a handy linkdump of some topical stories from around the UK and the world amidst ponderings on what to do with his blog now that the election has finished and us self-appointed pundits have to try a bit harder to dig out engaging stories.

Still, expect some more of the usual trademark Nosemonkey wit and insight (*ahem*) tomorrow, probably - freelance deadlines are clogging up all my spare writing time. Hopefully by then I'll have my radio working properly again so I can get the inspirational news hit that is The Today Programme when I wake up of a morning. Radio 3 is all very well and good, but Rachmaninov is hardly conducive to prompting topical news analysis. (And by the way - can anyone explain the mentality of running a pirate drum 'n' bass station at seven o'clock in the morning? The absolute bastards have wiped out Radio 4 completely for me...)

Monday, May 16, 2005

The global revolution

Nope, I haven't turned into a commie or anything. I am, however, feeling rather uninspired - unlike those revolutionaries and rebels contained within the Carnival of the Revolutions over at Siberian Light - a handy summary of all the various revolts and uprisings currently kicking off around the world.

Uzbekistan is currently in the news following the slaughter of hundreds of protestors by government forces over the weekend, but central Asia isn't the only for pro-democracy activity. It's about time we started looking beyond our own back yards after the last few months of Anglo-centric obsession. A bit more foreign affairs will be returning to Europhobia over the coming weeks. Probably.

Update: Manic gets a tad miffed at the double standards and hypocrisy in the UK's official attitude to Uzbekistan. Good stuff.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

EU budget balls-up

As predicted, the negotiations for the EU's new budget were not exactly easy, and have ended in collapse.

Brussels really isn't trying overly hard to make itself seem appealing in the run-up to contentious constitution referendums, is it? Bloody shambles.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A way out of the EU constitution problem?

With the French referendum vote too close to call, if you’re a pro-EU pessimist like me this is getting a tad too nerve-wracking. Given that Britain will almost certainly opt for a “No” vote in any referendum, the whole exercise of constitutional ratification also seems rather futile.

To turn Britain's vote around would have taken a long, sustained period of campaigning which simply hasn't yet materialised. Now there is too little time - especially as the campaign won't kick off until at least after Blair's managed to consolidate and work out his post-election position, and thanks to the European Parliament voting to overturn the UK's opt-out from the working time directive, looking like yet more Brussels meddling, if a referendum happens, Britain will vote no.

If Britain is the country that scuppers the EU's chances of advancing, it will be well nigh impossible to regain the trust of the other EU member states when it comes to matters of the Union. The constitution has already been watered down to become more acceptable to the UK, much to the chagrin of the French, and it would be pretty tricky to dilute it any further without making the bloody thing even more pointless and meaningless than it already is.

So, if Britain rejects a constitutional treaty seen in a number of quarters to be pandering to British Euroreluctance (which is, I reckon, a rather more accurate description of the prevailing attitude in the UK than Euroscepticism), it is going to be pretty damn difficult to get our voice seriously heard in any post-rejection negotiations for an alternative. The tendency on the continent will simply be to think "sod that - we've tried our best to keep the rosbeefs happy already, let's just ignore the reactionary bastards" and progress without us.

This could, actually, be the best thing for the EU. Dump Britain - we're shit, merely acting like a ball and chain around your proverbial ankle.

It would, however, as much as the more hardcore Eurosceptics in this country may celebrate, be a disaster for Britain. By sitting on the sidelines while the rest of the EU moves ahead, not only would we no longer be able to influence the future direction of the EU project (after all, why would you listen to the kid who doesn’t want to play while you’re charging around the playground with your mates?), but we would no longer be able to maintain that wonderfully privileged position we currently hold of being one of the big three of European politics while maintaining a modicum of distance.

It is Britain’s ability to be involved - but not too involved thanks to our avoiding joining the Eurozone - at the heart of the EU which attracts non-European powers to us as a broker. Yes, us speaking the same language as America helps, but does anyone really think it is just a coincidence that the closest relationships the UK and US have shared in the post-war period have been since Britain joined the European Community?

Up until the early 1970s, the US refused to give us long range nukes, buggered up our chances at Suez, and repeatedly neglected to inform us of its Cold War plans. They were a rival as much as a friend - but a rival with far more power and against whom we had absolutely no leverage. After joining the EEC, Britain finally had something to offer - a subtle means of communication and influence with Brussels and the western European states, most of whom - at the time - resented the presence of US troops on their soil and the fact that it would be their homelands which would see the brunt of the damage in any hot war that grew out of America’s standoff with the USSR. Today, the US wants (though still doesn’t need) European support on the international stage - and Britain is its ambassador.

This position would be impossible to maintain if we are no longer close to the centre of EU power which, no matter how much anti-EU voices may claim we have little ability to influence anything in Brussels, at the moment we - along with France and Germany - most certainly are.

I am not claiming that if Britain fails to ratify the EU constitution there will be an instant implosion. In fact, there will be bugger all in terms of immediate change to our situation. But those EU countries which wanted to push ahead will resent what would effectively have amounted to a veto on their chosen direction from the British people. The attitude will be, if Britain is the only country to vote against, “fine - they don’t want to join in, they don’t want to move forward, so we’ll press on without them.” This won’t be immediate. It will take a few years, as the constitution is redrafted and renegotiated. But it will come. Britain is already seen as a reluctant partner - rejection of the constitution will tip this feeling over the edge into outright resentment.

The best outcome, if you take this pessimistic view of the constitution’s chances, is for any country OTHER than Britain to vote “No”. France would be an ideal choice, as the resentment would then be focused on to her - and there has been a lot of resentment of the French within the EU ever since Paris managed to negotiate various preferential terms for French exports and industry in the Treaty of Rome. France has continued to hold an influence in excess of her size or economic might ever since the 1950s, and a French “Non” would simply make this even clearer to the other EU member states. They would see France as voting against to maintain her own power, not for the good of the Union - and in subsequent renegotiations, France would find herself with too much resentment and opposition to get her way, just as would Britain.

But there is promise of a better candidate to both halt the constitution AND prevent acrimonious post-rejection squabbling. The "No" camp in Holland is currently leading in the polls with 60% - compared to just 21% for the "Yes" camp. That's even worse than in Britain - and the Dutch referendum is less than three weeks away, on June 1st.

While the Netherlands may be small, it was one of the original six, so its reservations really couldn't be ignored. There is far less history of anti-EU troublemaking there than in Britain, and Holland has less to lose than France from the constitution's attempts to bring greater equality to the EU.

If Holland rejects, then the thing would actually be able to be reassessed in a rational, non-confrontational manner. It may be possible to finally take our time over this thing, and produce a blueprint for future change within the EU which is not only better, but clearer than the rambling vagaries of the current document. And, of course, Britain would not get the blame - which really should be the biggest consideration for anyone in the UK’s pro-EU camp.

If Britain is seen to bugger up the rest of Europe's chances, the anger and irritation towards us will be even greater than that experienced by us towards the EU this week when we got told we had lost one of our opt outs. If Holland does it, the surprise will be such that genuine reassessment will be possible. Fingers crossed for June 1st...

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Tories and the EU

When ARE the Tories going to realise that the hardcore anti-European fringe are not their way back to power?

The anti-EU parties (including here UKIP, Veritas, the BNP and the Greens, not all of which are by any means solely made up of disaffected Tories) between them got 1,109,987 votes. But I'd say it's a safe bet that most people voting for the Greens weren't doing so for their stance on the EU, so knock off their total, you're left with just 852,229. Though this is more than the difference (in terms of popular vote) between the Tories and Labour, it's nowhere near enough for a majority - just 68,000 votes. On top of that the anti-EU vote tends to be readily mobilised, so it's unlikely there are many more of them knocking around.

I mean, I can fully understand why the withdrawalists reckon leaving the EU is the answer to all their problems (and it's not just because some of them are barking), but the Tories really need to reclaim the positive side of the EU. I mean, after all, the EU got a lot of its impetus from Churchill, it was Macmillan who tried to get us in to start with, Heath who finally got us there, and Thatcher and Major who signed us up to a bunch of the subsequent treaties. Britain's place in Europe is thanks to the Tories - it's about time they reclaimed it, even if they have to do so with a slightly sceptical take.

A reserved pro-EU stance - acknowledging its major faults but with a positive message of evolution and change (which will be much easier to bring about with the new member states on board, tipping the balance of power away from France) - may not only be a handy way for the Tories to bring together their various sects, but is also what the pro-EU camp in this country sorely needs.

This could in turn bring back to the Tory fold some of the semi-sceptics - those who don't like the way the EU is currently being run, but who don't want to pull out altogether - while simultaneously allowing those who don't really care much about the EU but who are put off by the often massively overblown rhetoric of the anti-EU camps to vote Tory without worrying that they're going to be tainted by association. A lot of the reason for the repeated splintering of UKIP is that sensible eurosceptics simply didn't want to be associated with the more rabid variety. The Tories need to appeal to the sensible ones while shutting out the mad ones, and work together with those pro-Europeans (like me) who want to make the EU better.

It is frequently fogotten, amidst all the invective, that there is actually a lot of common ground between the sensible eurosceptics and sensible europhiles - both groups can see the problems with the current EU. The Conservative party could make itself the place where they can come together to work out solutions.

(Inspired by and originally a dashed-off comment to this post on The Sharpener by our New York correspondent, Third Avenue.)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Glenda Jackson is great

I am very glad she is still my MP, despite my not voting for her, and have just emailed her to that effect. Those members of the Labour party who have maintained their principles and have the guts to speak out in the face of yet another propaganda offensive from the Blairite core need the support not just of traditional Labour voters dissatisfied with the current leadership (and I am not one of those, having only ever voted Labour once before), but of all of us who value a healthy, accountable democracy.

An edited extract:

"May 5 will go down in history as the day when the myth of the great Blairite coalition was finally exposed. Tony was able to secure the support of 2 million fewer voters than Neil Kinnock did in 1992, the election that supposedly represents the crucible upon which New Labour was formed...

"Of course, it may well be that Tony Blair and those around him will be able to reach out to the disaffected. David Blunkett's savage attack on "the self indulgent" voters who expressed disquiet over trivial issues like the death of 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians may well herald the dawn of a new progressive centre-left consensus - but I have my doubts...

"The fact is that the process of renewing the party has to begin, and it has to begin today. Not in four years, not in two years, but now. Those who are calling for a "moment of calm reflection" should reflect on just how calm we will all be feeling in 12 months' time if the collapse in our national support is repeated at the local elections or in a Euro referendum.

"That process cannot be started, never mind completed, by Tony Blair. Renewal cannot be accomplished by someone whose authority and popularity are so visibly eroding. We must move forward, not back. The prime minister has spent his premiership distancing himself from his party. Now the time has come for him to leave it for good."

Yet more electoral reform stuff

I was at that meeting at the Commons last night run by the Electoral Reform Society, and in the pub afterwards for the freaky experience of meeting a few other Britbloggers in the flesh. Open Democracy has a good write-up.

It was interesting, attempted to be realistic, had some bizarre moments, and Committee Room 14 (where I once had the fun of shaking Gorbachev by the hand, and where the Parliamentary Labour Party did their best show of loyalty to Blair earlier in the day) was packed to the rafters.

The overall message was simply that we have to make our voices heard, and the best way to do that at this early stage is keep as non-specific as possible. No suggestions of specific systems, just vocally pointing out the flaws in the current one. Build up the grass roots, push for local election reform first, and hope it builds momentum.

A few key quotes I managed to jot down:

Polly Toynbee (sub-par Guardian columnist)

  • "gross distortion of the whole political process... you have to treat the electorate as if they were all idiots" (hadn't noticed from your columns, Polly...)
  • "for the moment what we need is a spirit of rebellion and revolutiion, the chartists, the suffragettes... money... huge demonstrations... from whatever side of the political process"
  • "Let's target every marginal seat with a member who doesn't support reform" (this coming from the woman who only last week was telling her readers they were idiots if they voted tactically to send a message to Blair about Iraq... Just a tad hypocritical...)
Billy Bragg (Lefty singer/songwriter/activist)
  • "there's a huge amount of tribalism out there" (hence The Sharpener - trying to break down the ideological divide to enable proper, open debate with none of the usual petty protectiveness over individual party / ideological loyalties)
  • "The Conservatives - how willing will they be to reform a system where a 1% extra share fo the vote gives them 30-40 extra seats? ...we can't kid them this is their way back to power"
  • "take every opportunity to move the constitutional debate forwards"
Martin Linton (Labour MP)
  • "people who were for the Labour government but not going to vote Labour... voting Green or Lib Dem in a constituency like mine does mean letting the Tories in" (he won after three recounts with a majority of just 163...)
  • "probably the worst voting system in the world... we voted for a shift to the left and ended up with a shift to the right... it is the least sophisticated voting system in the world"
  • "it has needed reform since the 1860s... you can't toss a coin between three people"
  • "of the people who voted Labour... 1 million said they were voting to keep another party our and 1 million Lib Dem voters said the same thing... so the popular vote is a very bad indication"
Chris Rennard (Lib Dem peer)
  • "the simple fact we have to explain is that 36% of the electorate voted and got 55% of the MPs in parliament"
  • "tactical voting is what a rotten and corrupt electoral system requires"
  • "it is absolutely not about keeping the Conservative party out"
  • "The House of Lords ironically is more representative of the country than the House of Commons" (too true - currently we need to reform the Commons before the Lords, I reckon - at least the Lords is doing its job properly)
Peter Tatchell (Gay/Human rights campaigner - speaking from the floor)
  • "We need to learn the lesson of history for how people win democracy - chartists, suffragettes - the leaders will not listen to rational arguments... it is necessary to take to the streets, breaking the law"
In short, interesting, but with little in the way of concrete suggestions. There's a vigil planned outside Downing Street on Tuesday 17th to coincide with the opening of parliament, but beyond that it looks like being a slow process.

Europhobia's Matt chips in via email:
PR won't get anywhere if it's just mocking Blair and the tories. If it does that it links it too much to the political situation of today, and circumstances will change. If the Labour Party dumps Blair after next May's elections, and the tories are still an ineffective minority (both of which are likely), what will we need PR for?

The rhetoric has to be timeless. This is about a better system for the next century.

For similar reasons, I wouldn't take up the Chartists and direct action- smacks too much of class politics. We need to get the Conservatives onside. All the debates around radicalism in the 1760s revolved around creating a parliamentary system representative of and answerable to 'the People' (handily never defined). Perhaps its time to revive John Wilkes and Major Cartwright. Pitt the Younger was a reformer early in his career, too, so there's one role model for the tories.

But I have a horrible feeling that any pro-PR campaign will end up like the pro-Euro campaign, staffed by true-believers for true-believers.
Splitting into factions is inevitable, as everyone has their own preferred systems (viz. the anti-European campaign, with UKIP splitting, splitting, then splitting again). So for the time being, any movement for reform has to avoid advocating any specific scenario.

Even the phrase "proportional representation" should, I reckon, be avoided - it summons up too many images of the loss of local representatives, strict proportionality by popular vote, a succession of chaotic and impotent coalition governments and the like, none of which are necessary outcomes of PR, but which are linked with it in the popular imagination.

The call is not for proportionality. The call is for fairness.

The working time directive business

It's big news, the European Parliament's vote (378 to 262) to remove Britain's opt out from the working time directive. But the focus has largely been on the fact that Labour's MEPs voted with the Socialist group in the EP rather than follow the party's official line, which was to maintain more flexibility. As this blog is nominally supposed to have a bit of an EU focus, have some:

There have been scare stories of understaffing and job cuts if a 48 hour maximum week is imposed, and scare stories of overworked and knackered doctors and firefighters and whathaveyous if it isn't.

To be honest, I can see the merits of both sides of the argument. No regulations on working hours and employees can continue to be exploited (a certain person sitting not too far from me being obliged by contract to work as many hours as are needed to get the job done - without overtime pay); regulations on working hours and overly keen employees who have the luxury of getting overtime may miss out on extra pay.

Tricky, though I am beginning to lean towards the opinion of the eurosceptic Scotsman on this one. I also reckon it should be more than possible to prevent employee exploitation without putting caps on the number of hours they can work via better regulation of other areas of employment contracts. Because, let's face it, when you're offered a job you'll often sign up for pretty much anything - if you don't, someone else will.

Britain now has to gain a bit of extra support from our EU friends to get the thing thrown out at the Council of Ministers and then it'll take three years to come into force, so it's not over yet. Perhaps by the time that it is I'll understand it all a bit better...

More at the European Parliament, EU Observer and The Financial Times. There's also a handy working time directive Q&A from the Guardian.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Voting and democracy and all that other guff (again)

Via The Sharpener, a particularly fine defence of abstaining from the whole damn mess at Stumbling and Mumbling:

"there's something irresponsible about voting. A vote means you're giving 100 per cent support to your candidate; there's no room on the ballot paper for caveats. Isn't it irresponsible to give unqualified support for someone whom you cannot recall for at least four years, and who - even if you sack him at the earliest opportunity - will get a big pay-off? And, what's more, if this MP imposes costs onto the electorate through his stupid votes, you'll bear no higher a burden of these costs than anyone else. That seems irresponsible to me."
Good point well made. There's a lot more that's dodgy about the British electoral system than merely the lack of correlation between popular vote and number of seats.

Why is it only an MP's party / constituency association which can sack him/her, not their constituents? Why do the central parties have so much control over candidates? Why is there no separation of powers? (Important sections of both the judiciary and the executive are STILL part of the legislature.) Why is our executive wholly unelected? (And they are - as members of the executive - the elected members of the cabinet have only been elected as MPs, just as Tony Blair has not been elected as Prime Minister, merely as MP for Sedgefield.) Why are the parties even allowed to use the whips to get people into line when they could well have been voted for by their constituents because their stance goes against the party's on certain issues?

The whole thing's a mess. The only thing that's working as it should is the House of Lords - and that's both been bastardised with little reasoning and is the one section of parliament most likely to see reform take place.

I may well pop along to that meeting tonight, if only so I can hear how massively confused everyone is about the whole thing.

Britain's nuclear future

Considering that ex-CND member Tony Blair seems to be making noises about getting hold of more nuclear weapons and building more nuclear power-plants, I'm quite surprised that this little bit of news hasn't had more airtime:

"A leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid, enough to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, has forced the closure of Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant.

"The highly dangerous mixture, containing about 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, has leaked through a fractured pipe into a huge stainless steel chamber which is so radioactive that it is impossible to enter."
Christ... I mean, I'm all for having loads of nuclear power stations (efficiency, less pollution, potential to turn us all into superheroes etc.), but, erm... might it not be a good idea to make sure that our current ones are up to speed before we start pissing about with any more? Maybe we should be asking Iran for some pointers...

Reg Keys' Sedgefield speech

The certain highlight of election night was grieving father Reg Keys delivering a note-perfect speech having polled over 4,000 votes in Sedgefield against Tony Blair - the man he blames for his son's death (though it's nowhere near that simple - certainly not from Keys' point of view).

It was one of those speeches that the transcript does no justice to - it really had to be seen for the full impact to sink in, and seen in full - even the highlights can't give the full impression. The look on Blair's face - the combination of irritation, fear, genuine sympathy and humanity, and a constant awareness that the cameras were trained close on his face to catch every slight involuntary reaction to the razor-like barbs that were Reg Keys' perfectly-delivered, spot-on words.

This, Blair was fully aware, was footage that would crop up again and again in overviews of his time in office. This was his Thatcher crying in the back of the car moment, his John Major "the bastards" moment, his Bill Clinton "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" moment. He knew it would never go away.

But, coming as it did at ten to three in the morning, few were still up to see it live. Now, thanks to Dave of Talk Politics and Tim Ireland of Backing Blair and Bloggerheads, the full video is online (3.5mb .wmv file).

Watch, listen, watch Blair wriggle. Be satisfied with how uncomfortable he was, but be prepared to be uncomfortable yourself. This is a man talking about the senseless death of his 20 year old son. It is not easy listening. Blair's reactions also - almost - show that he may not be altogether beyond redemption.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

"Filthy Brussels Eurocrats back terror fund with taxpayers' money!"

is doubtless how this will be pitched by some of the more rabid on the Eurosceptic side, who are always happy to distort any positive EU news. And I can think of little that isn't positive in using some of the EU's fund to help the victims of terrorism to aid a family in their quest to track down their relative's killers.

By offering to help fund any civil action the McCartney sisters may take against members of Sinn Fein or the IRA suspected of involvement in their brother's murder, the European Parliament (for it was our elected officials, not the so-called Eurocrats - although this distinction often seems to be missed in certain quarters) could help not only avoid the need for direct British funding but also put even greater international pressure on Sinn Fein and especially the IRA.

Considering the high profile the McCartneys have managed to build, any court case would already have drawn interest, but now the attention of the whole of the EU will be caught up in it, as it is EU money funding this campaign against terrorists. They may not be the popular, dusky-skinned, desert-dwelling sort, and the murder may have been in a bar fight rather than a suicide bombing, but make no mistake, they are terrorists nonetheless.

This will, of course, at once be a long-overdue EU action on the Northern Irish situation at a critical time (now that the hardliners of both sides have increased their seats in the general election) and a handy bail-out for the UK justice system which may otherwise have ended up footing the entire bill. But I'm sure someone from the anti-EU camp will be up for trying to spin this to the EU's disadvantage anyway.

Either that, or they'll ignore it - just as the voters did the anti-EU parties on Thursday.

Wednesday Update: Sure enough, the ever-reliable Richard North of EU Referendum has tried to spin this against the EU - apparently the activities of a trans-national terrorist organisation based within one of the EU's member states is "none of its business". Genius. (Link fixed)

Wednesday update 2: Missed this - eurosceptic North Sea Diaries also has an anti spin, albeit a slightly more reasonable one - arguing that separation of powers should prevent the European parliament from meddling with the judicial process. This is actually almost a fair point - although it somewhat ignores the fact that the UK system doesn't actually have separation of powers, and seems to impy that a judge is going to be swayed by knowledge of where the funding of a civil action is coming from. This in turn implies that there should really be no state funding for any legal case lest the implicit support government money would suggest also affect due process... Still - a good effort...

More on PR



(See what I did there?)

The latter via Robin Grant. I may pop along - tomorrow 6:30pm, Committee Room 14, House of Commons.

Oh, and if you haven't yet, check out Jarndyce's rather special piece (fnarr fnarr...) on PR at The Sharpener, sign my petition thing, then sign Make My Vote Count's. Ta.

Internet's dodgy where I am at the moment - exploding HTML, ruptured php, instability in the scripts and rampant machete attacks in the electronic ether - hence lack of updates and being slightly behind with this. Sorry about that...

Monday, May 09, 2005

Has Labour found its Redwood?

Today's early edition Evening Standard (no, I didn't buy it, and no, there's currently no link to the story on the Standard's website) is carrying reports that London Labour backbencher John Austin is considering launching a leadership bid. Not through any belief that he's got a chance, but purely to force a proper challenge from some real big hitters.

Potentially interesting. Though let's not forget that John Redwood's opportunistic leadership bid against John Major in 1995 got precisely nowhere...

A clearer view of the election

This colour-coded map, comparing the results of the 2005 and 2001 general elections, gives a rather clearer indication of the way the country stands and how it has shifted in the last four years than any I've seen so far. Top work there from qwghlm. It also demonstrates quite amply how few clear-cut constituencies there now are, so - perhaps - how unfair the current FPTP system is.

In-depth analysis

Not from me, obviously - after over ten hours of liveblogging on Thursday night/Friday morning I've done my fair share of election coverage for now - but from Eddie of Left Out Liberal in a near-comprehensive series of posts, all jam-packed with insight, which starts with a bit of methodology. Probably best to leave this for your lunch break. Possibly tomorrow's lunch break as well. Somewhat in-depth, shall we say...

Sunday, May 08, 2005

A lazy weekend, can't be arsed kind of post

I've been in the pub all afternoon, watching a particularly dull Brighton/Ipswitch match and getting drunk, so read some other people's stuff.

The Sharpener is getting off to a fantastic start, which is very satisfying indeed. From the stuff that's been posted so far it's very hard to pick any particular highlights, because they're all good. Which was the point of the thing in the first place. Go read all of it.

Then, if you still have time on your hands, Tim Worstall, as ever, has a selection of top-notch reading matter from his latest Britblog roundup. Good stuff all over (and as I'm featured twice in the roundup, once here, once at The Sharpener, I guess I'm twice as good as everyone else. Hurrah!)

Right: coffee, newspapers, food then sleep. Ta ta.

Oh, I've also had a request for a link from Alan Ray-Jones of Politics - Where Now?. Haven't had a chance to check it much just yet, but the guy was apparently at the VE Day celebrations in London 60 years ago, so deserves a look at the very least.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

A bit of electoral maths

Following my last post about the Tories having a greater share of the popular vote in England than Labour, I've been doing some maths using the BBC’s final figures.

In the 645 constituencies which have declared (South Staffordshire having been delayed), there was a total of 27,132,327 votes. Divide that by 645, it means an average of 42,066 votes per seat.

Labour got 9,556,183 votes total throughout the UK. Divide that by 42,066, it translates to just 227 seats – opposed to the 356 they’ve actually got. A difference of 129.

The Conservatives got 8,772,598 votes, which translates to 209 seats, rather than 197. Not much change – they’ve only been cheated out of 12 seats.

The Lib Dems are the biggest losers from the current system with their 5,982,045 votes resulting in just 62 rather the 142 seats their share of the vote should net them – a difference of 80.

Following the same (admittedly flawed) logic, the Scottish National Party would have 10 seats rather than 6, Plaid Cymru would have 4 rather than 3, Respect would still have 1 seat, while non-scorers UKIP (618,898 votes) would have 15, the Greens (257,758 votes) 6 and the BNP (192,850 votes) 4 or 5. With 43,514 votes, the Scottish Socialists would be the smallest party to get a seat.

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