Friday, June 03, 2005

Random EU roundup

I'm off to Hay on Wye this afternoon for work purposes. Looks like it'll be raining. Joy. I'll also certainly be surrounded by far too many snobby "intellectuals" and wannabe authors for my liking (and unable to tell them that I already am one - twice - without sounding like a tit, as I did just then). Either way, it means no more posts until Monday. In the meantime, have this:

All About Latvia has a bit of background on yesterday's vote by the Latvian parliament which provides a nice bit of context.

Meanwhile, Margot Wallstrom, perhaps inadvisedly, seems to have started to echo Tony Blair - "we have listened and... we have learned something". She's also evidently been reading the comments section of her blog, for there are a fair few concessions/admissions to the sceptics in there: "This has been a project by the political elite" being a fairly major one. Well, she may have learned - but will the rest of them?

Meanwhile, the speculation continues - the Guardian's summary of some (but by no means all) of the possibilities - and Britain is pushing for more delay, apparently, which is the only sensible thing to do considering precisely no one has any idea how the hell to proceed (although is this just a bargaining tactic?).

Some are calling for more prevarication and an official cancellation of the British referendum (Ireland too is pondering halting its own); others - including the eurosceptic Sun - are calling for the vote to happen regardless (but considering Sun owner Rupert Murdoch pays no tax in the EU, what the fuck business is it of his anyway?). Then the equally eurosceptic Evening Standard reveals the Sun's poll that 75% in Britain would vote No should the referendum go ahead. It's high, but plausible.

Others in Europe are not so sure that the treaty is dead, some even arguing that referendum votes should be ignored and ratification continue.

No, no they shouldn't and no it shouldn't. Not unless you want to piss everyone off even more. Listen to Margot for a while.

And more crises threaten, as worries about the euro reach an all-time high, including speculation that some countries may wish to leave the Eurozone. Here's a handy round-up of other economic woes. Germany, meanwhile, looks ready to take one for the team and compromise over the divisive EU budget proposals. If Gerhard Schröder wasn't already going to be out on his arse in the next election, he certainly is now...

The current confusion and in-fighting is for some outsiders making membership a less attractive prospect (Norway) and for others means that the EU is no longer worth watching as a potential new way of working between nations (Canada), while yet others reckon that "the collapse of enlargement verges on national tragedy" (Bulgaria).

For those who hate the EU full-stop, and see this current confusion as a sign that we should disband the whole thing - and especially those who denounced all the "the EU has helped prevent war" stuff a week or so back - check this alternative opinion: "all outstanding issues in our region would be much more difficult to resolve if the EU membership perspective is cancelled".

The EU can be a force for good whether you like it and agree with it or not. At the moment they're confused, they're grapsing around for support. Now is the ideal time to get in there and propose alternative models. Who knows - they may even finally twig that a "one size fits all" is not the way forward...

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Come on, Latvia - pay attention

Someone appears not to have told the Latvian parliament that there's no point any more... They've just ratified the EU constitution, despite the thing being well and truly deceased. Good to see some enthusiasm, but really - what's the point?

Meanwhile, the BBC has a handy roundup of Dutch press responses to the somewhat catagorical rejection of the constitution, while The Guardian does the same for the UK press.

The immediate aftermath? The Euro hit an eight month low against the dollar yesterday, but an alternative take blames this on the dollar, not the referendums. More economics stuff I don't understand here - looks like the stock markets did something or other. I think it's good, but don't quote me on that... I hate numbers.

To things I understand: European Democracy liveblogged the Dutch result and has some good insights, while Guy from Non Tibi Spiro had a good overview of the Dutch situation at Fistful, which may help put the result in context.

Now, of course, we have to wait and see what they come up with. Even the Commissioners seem uncertain of where next.

Interesting times. For a politics geek who doesn't especially care who's in charge - I'm still going to get taxed and screwed - this is great. Time to sit back, put my feet up and happily spectate - while occasionally spouting off about stuff from the depths of the internet, naturally.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The EU constitution and democracy

The trouble is that we’ve got, to resort to cliché, a chicken/egg scenario when it comes to the EU.

The principle criticism against the EU is that it lacks democratic accountability. Which it does, and anyone who says not is a fool or a liar. All the other criticisms stem from that to one extent or another - the imposition of directives (in this country actually normally applied far more literally than necessary), the supposedly endemic corruption (which exists, but not much more so than in any other bureaucratic organisation) and, of course, the fact that the Commission has sole right to initiate legislation despite not being elected.

To tackle the democratic deficit - as the constant complaints from both sides run - you need engagement from the people. But the people are unlikely to get engaged until they feel their votes actually count for something, which at the moment they don’t, really.

This was part of what the constitution was trying to tackle (and it’s only right to talk about the thing in the past tense now). Voters are used to a state framework when it comes to elections and participation. But the EU is not a state, nor does it resemble one (if we’re honest) in anything more than a superficial sense. The flag’s there, the anthem, the civil service and the parliament, but they don’t really work as a whole, and there is precisely zero pan-European political dialogue below the level of the political elite (and the occasional blogger).

Add to that the fact that the interrelationships are so damn confusing and complex (like the guys I heard chatting on the tube the other day, both of whom seemed fairly intelligent and politically aware - they got on at Westminster - but one of whom was insisting that the Commission appoints the Council of Ministers…), it’s practically impossible to work out how the thing works. If people can’t understand or easily see how their participation matters, they aren’t going to bother getting involved.

At the moment we hear talk of “the EU says such and such”, but this could refer to almost anything - the EU Parliament, Commission, Council of Ministers, Central Bank, European Court of Justice, and sometimes even non-EU institutions like the Council of Europe or European Court of Human Rights. The constitution’s proposal of a president could have led to a more clear idea of what “the EU says” actually means. (A Commission spokesman - even Margot Wallstrom, the Communications Commissioner - does not, currently, necessarily speak for the whole EU.) Likewise an EU Foreign Minister. Nation states are defined as much as by what they are not than by what they are. Without a coherent EU foreign policy (even if - as would be necessary - only in a few areas), an understanding of what it means to be an EU citizen is well nigh impossible.

Now, although the constitution proposed greater powers for the European Parliament (and about time too), this would not in itself have been enough to create the kind of European demos which critics of the project so often cite the lack of as an example of how the thing can’t possibly work. A President and Foreign Minister could, simply by existing, have helped to shape a sense of EU identity which has been, since the project’s inception, sorely lacking outside of the political classes. They could have acted as a catalyst for the formation of some kind of EU-wide demos merely by being able to act as the voice of the EU, cutting down on the confusion which currently runs riot whenever any kind of statement appears from anyone who could - even vaguely - be mistaken for an EU spokesman.

Without a coherent understanding of what the EU is and does - which there most certainly is not at the moment (even with some otherwise politically-aware people, and I’ll include myself here, as I have been known to muddle up the Council of Europe, European Council and Council of the European Union from time to time) - greater democratisation would merely lead to more confusion.

Add to that the difficulty of the artifical binary split in attitudes towards the EU - pro or anti, with nothing in between - and greater democratisation as the EU stands at the moment would merely lead to further chaos. As can be seen by the reactions to the French “No” vote (likely to be replicated after the Netherlands reject the treaty today), with a binary split no message can really be taken. Some have claimed the French vote was a rejection of a supranational EU, others that it reflected national politics, others that it was against the “Anglo-Saxon model”. In fact it was all, none and much, much more.

But until there is a genuine, proper understanding of what it is that the EU is and does - in the same way that most people in Britain understand more or less how it is that Westminster affects their lives - it will be practically impossible to get away from this simplistic Yes/No divide and the wild claims that ensue from such splits. Democracy cannot work effectively on Yes/No at the kind of early stage at which the EU finds itself. Before the House of Commons votes on a bill there is a period of debate and discussion. In a healthy democracy, that debate extends to the population at large - as it has been with, for example, the ID cards bill. You don’t go straight to the vote unless you want people to make an uninformed choice on an insufficiently discussed issue. And if you want that, you can only expect resentment later on once people twig what’s happened.

In the EU, at the moment, the debate never spreads beyond Brussels/Strasbourg until after the fact. EU legislation is barely ever discussed in national parliaments, let alone among national populations, until it is too late for the people to have a say. The EU constitution would not have solved that fundamental problem. It could, however, have provided some kind of framework by which the actions of the EU became known about before they happened simply by the addition of recognisable twin spokesmen in the shape of the Foreign Minister and President. If, that is, they had approached these roles in the right way.

Of course, the irony of the current situation is that in seeing the constitution rejected, the EU is experiencing its first proper period of internal debate in which the people are actively involved - via letters pages, chats in the pub etc. - in its history. It could well be that this “crisis” (it is actually nothing of the sort, except for the elites who tried to impose this constitution on us) could be the best thing for the EU, simply for its ability to get the people talking about it for a change.

(Originally posted as a comment to this post at The Sharpener)

Blogs from the Low Countries

Some of these may prove useful today:

The Dutch Referendum

(Why does putting "Dutch" in front of anything make it sound rude? Very odd...)

Anyway, Non Tibi Spiro already has the result.

What's it going to mean when the Netherlands vote no as well? No one knows. Anyone who pretends they do is lying.

Isn't it exciting? More later - busy.

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.

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