Friday, 29 January 2010
If Greece is bailed out by the EU, then there’ll be a strong precedent and expectation to do it again – and it could be called to do so again, as AFoE seems to suggest when you consider its articles on Spain. Of course, it may not come to a bail out, but already the EU is setting precedents through checking the Greek government’s figures and offering advice on the economy. Granted, the EU isn’t yet setting fiscal policy or writing Athens cheques, but it does show a growing need for greater formal economic co-ordination – and a certain willingness to do something about it.
There have been calls for more co-ordination in tax (which would be resisted by Ireland, among many member states).
Also, the Eurobond issue has been raised again, as it was when Ireland was the focus, and with the S&D group coming out in favour of its creation. It would make borrowing cheaper for countries like Ireland and Greece, but more expensive for countries in a better position, which in political terms looms large as Germany. Germany rejected the idea back when Ireland was the issue, and Berlin remains an obstacle to the idea. But if idea proves resilient and keeps coming back – as it probably will during what will likely be a long recession, and particularly if Greece does need to be bailed out – it could happen. Is it a necessary element of a stronger Eurozone?
The S&D group is also advocating the EU adoption of Obama-like plans for the banking sector. Given the UK’s unease with the prospect of financial regulation at a European level in the guise of a simple oversight system, and the dominance of the right generally, it isn’t really a serious prospect. Except... It is interesting that in the UK the Conservatives have, strangely, enthusiastically adopted Obama’s ideas and David Cameron has called on the Prime Minister to clearly come out publicly in favour as well. I doubt they adopt the same position in the EP.
Could Gordon Brown turn around and say, “Why, yes, of course we support such a plan – and we’re part of an EU-spanning political party that advocates it too. Given the international value of banking, and the single market, it would make sense to have common rules on the matter – and we’re the only party in the UK that has the political clout in Europe to make it happen.”? Well... no. Besides Britain’s euroscepticism and the government’s continued awe of the City, it would be too risky to support it at a European level because the S&D are in opposition, so there’s no guarantee that it would pass in the EP, never mind in the Council and Commission; the Commission, which would need to introduce any draft legislation on the matter, may not back the idea; it could end up playing as a victory for the French and a result of their “winning” an economic portfolio, even if it was originally Obama’s idea, etc.
Pity: the thought of Labour turning its European-dimension to its advantage on an issue (to show coherence and effectiveness on several levels compared with the Tories) is a nice thought, but still a fantasy.
Will European bonds translate into more co-ordinated action and a more structured way of working together in the future? Necessity might demand it, but there may not be the supply of political will.
Following the failure of the EU’s policy at COP15 - where there was no agreement on binding targets of any kind, never mind enough commitment from other countries for the EU’s offer of an increased commitment to a 30% reduction – the EU has decided to stick to the 20% reduction target. Disappointed by Copenhagen, Europe appears loath to push itself any further.
Obviously this is a blow to the Green movement in Europe, and people in other countries who may have been hoping for the EU to turn up the pressure of example. Without higher binding targets, there will be a worse impact on the climate. Putting off tougher cuts, even if the EU isn’t breaking its word by doing so, the EU’s power of example diminishes, and the green movement can charge the EU with lacking leadership with a certain justification.
But the political attraction of leading by example – which is still strong in Brussels – may have lost some of its shine. The moral high ground, and the offer to take on tougher burdens than the rest of the world, not only failed to produce a deal at Copenhagen - it failed to ensure a central role for Europe in negotiations! To the EU, the failure of COP15 is no doubt a huge blow to morale, and not just in terms of climate change. During the conference, South Africa had greater diplomatic access and importance at points, and to a regional bloc with concerns over its global position and that prided itself on moral leadership on this issue, the marginalisation was devastating.
If offers of greater targets and a past track record on environmental legislation got the EU no respect and little influence, then Greenpeace’s claims that moving to 30% on existing commitments as the only way of reviving talks loose their force. The question is: why should we? We’ve tried that approach.
The 30% offer was conditional, and a diplomatic tool, and as such future offers could loose their force if other countries thought that the EU would continue to forge ahead on its own whether they tagged along or not. It may dismay advocates of greater action, but the more realist diplomatic arguments may sound more convincing in Brussels in the post-COP15 world.
Will a more hard-headed negotiating approach help lead to setting down more binding global cuts, or is it just a diplomatic sulk that won’t achieve anything?
Cross-posted on Think About It!
Despite the attacks on Ashton's style, I have to say that I haven't heard/read a similar attack on her co-ordination efforts. There's probably more that can be done in this area, but if Ashton's opposition can't back up their criticism with evidence - or even claims - of effective policy failure, then it's just hot air.
Watching Ashton briefing the EP on Haiti, I was struck by how the government-opposition roles were reversed. The EPP is normally in government mode (it is, after all, the largest party, and controls the Commission - perhaps even forcing Barroso to lending more public backing to Jeleva then he wanted to). Yet here the S&D group was playing the role of the governing party: Michael Cashman gave a particularly vocal defence of Ashton while strongly attacking other parties (translation: EPP) for "political point scoring".
Which raises the question: was lobbying for such a high profile post politically wise?
The EPP is very much in power at the moment; it's the strongest in the EP and controls the Council and Commission. But while the S&D group has largely started to play a more natural (if sometimes grandstanding) opposition role, Ashton's prominence makes it harder to claim that they have nothing to do with the current Commission. On one hand, the S&D are making the best of an awkward hand - the state-centredness of the Commission means that unless the centre-left aren't in power in any member state, they will have at least one Commissioner. Nevertheless the S&D have strongly looked for some governmental power, and it's not completely free to play the constructive oppositional politics it needs to if it wants to have any hope of making an impact.
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
It's been almost 12 years since the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) which set up the devolved regional government in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had its own government from 1922-72 until the outbreak of the Troubles led to London imposing direct control (known as "direct rule"). The new system is a consociational one: in other words, both communities share power. This was to ensure that the institutions would have a broad cross-community support, which was absent from the first period of regional government. But while the Assembly and Executive are seen as legitimate, they're also seen as ineffective - after all, it's been 12 years and we're still stuck in the same old process, with the same old arguments.
It's hard to explain to people who didn't grow up in NI exactly what it's all about, and every time I try it always strikes me how ridiculous the whole thing must sound.
So, here it goes with the very, very brief and crude description of the state of play [Warning: may contain traces of exasperated cynicism]:
- The government (Executive) is a coalition of four parties, but the main ones are a party of former revolutionaries/rebels (Sinn Féin) and a party of reactionary fundamentalist Christians (DUP).
- Sinn Féin wants the devolution of police and justice powers to the Executive/Assembly because it would complete the set of devolved powers, and because the whole issue of decommissioning of the IRA's weapons has been resolved.
- The DUP want other issues to be settled in the deal, including the abolition of the Parades Commission (PC).
- The PC was set up to restrict/ban contentious parades, in practice this mainly concerns the parades of the unionist Orange Order (or the "Loyal Orders", which commemorate the overthrow of an English king and the enthronement of the Dutch Staatholder William of Orange in the 17th century [I know this might not make sense, but it's best not to think about it]). Some of their parades run through nationalist areas, and have been sources of what we might politely call tension.
- Sinn Féin are angry at what they see as a precondition to any deal, and feel that they shouldn't have to make many more concessions because the DUP have blocked the introduction of an Irish Language Act and other Sinn Féin pet policies. They don't want to look weak.
- The DUP are hurting from the Robinson sex scandal and are worried about loosing support to the more extreme unionist TUV party. Want a political victory and obstructionism worked well with decommissioning.
- DUP & Sinn Féin don't really want an election, but the brinkmanship may bring it about.
- The other 2 (more moderate) parties are angry about just generally being ignored; increasingly only get publicity involving them being angry about being increasingly ignored.
- IF a deal is reached, the minister who takes up the portfolio can neither be from the DUP or SF parties because they don't trust each other and it may be the leader of the (tiny) opposition cross-community party. Maybe.
The line in Yes, Minister that government isn't so much a team as a loose confederation of warring tribes is perhaps more apt in this case.
What's so dispiriting is that politics really hasn't changed. There is still the sense that a gain for one community is a loss for the other. Both sides are guilty of this, but the DUP is unbelievably explicit and brash in its approach - in other words, the biggest party of government and the holder of the First Minister's office (which is a joint equal office with the deputy FM, despite the name) sees gloating about keeping the leading nationalist party - their government partners - down and out as "good politics". Is it any wonder that more extremist parties and groups are emerging if politics aren't being normalised? Maintaining such attitudes legitimises the extremes while the paralysis of the Executive mean that moderate voters loose faith in the purpose of government and are less likely to vote.
When decommissioning was achieved and the DUP and Sinn Féin apparently reconciled, some people thought that people would move to more moderate politics, but the weakness of the moderate parties (who refuse to leave the government and set themselves up as a separate alternative) and the ineffectiveness of the government mean that there's little oxygen for the moderates.
So the perpetual peace process trundles on, forever on life support...
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Though it's only been around for a short time, the blog aggragator quickly became a focal point for the Euroblogging community, and I doubt that anyone can quite picture doing without it today. Bloggingportal.eu has made the Euroblogosphere more visible and accessable, and is a great resource to "harness" the best of the Euroblogosphere and make it more navigatable - an increasingly important role, since the number of Euroblogs as more than doubled over the last year, judging from the number of newly registered blogs.
The website is run by volunteers from the blogging community, and this has perhaps contributed to a greater community feeling in the Euroblogosphere. Though a lot has been achieved over the last year, the editors are always looking for ways of improving and expanding the site and making it more useful and user-friendly. So don't be afraid to make suggestions!
Over the last year I've found Bloggingportal.eu a great resource for finding new blogs and perspectives, which have influenced my blogging and reading patterns. My experience of the site may be from a blogger's perspective, but I hope (and I believe that) Bloggingportal.eu is just as great a resource for casual readers.
So happy birthday to Bloggingportal.eu, and may there be many more of them!
Sunday, 24 January 2010
This is foreign policy as the MEPs want to see it: glamorous, high profile, with the US praising the EU and talking up its role in the world. And Clinton did praise - the Lisbon Treaty was described as a historic event in world history. A wide range of topics was also discussed, such as Afghanistan and Iran, though the EU has little say in these areas. Nevertheless, no doubt the sight of Ashton and Clinton talking tough on Iran was a dream come true for MEPs, and it might leave them satisfied with theatrics abroad for the time being.
The question remaining from this and Ashton's meeting is what role will Ashton play with regard to Iran? Will she try to be proactive in shaping a common policy, or is Iran just an easy target for tough speeches these days?
Wednesday, 20 January 2010
" Ms Ashton's office already leapt into action on Wednesday (13 January) as news emerged of the scale of what looks like the worst natural disaster since the Asian tsunami in 2004.
Ms Ashton chaired a meeting in Brussels of European Commission officials from the foreign relations, development and environment departments as well as experts from the EU Council and the Situation Centre, the EU member states' intelligence-gathering hub.
The meeting agreed to trigger €3 million in emergency aid, signed off by development commissioner Karel de Gucht, and to look into further financial assistance, such as advance payments from the commission's €28 million annual development budget for Haiti.
It also decided to send officials from the commission's environment department to the earthquake zone to assess damage and to task an environment department unit to co-ordinate pledges from Belgium, Sweden, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Norway, Iceland and Luxembourg to send personnel and equipment."
But what got the most attention was Ashton's "failure" to visit Haiti personally. Her reason? That it was already hard enough for aid to get through without her travelling to the disaster zone. Did this satisfy MEPs? Of course not:
"The head of the centre-right group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul, said that the fact that Mrs Ashton was not present while her US counterpart Hillary Clinton travelled to the Caribbean island over the weekend was "regrettable." Just about everybody was in Haiti at the moment when these people are suffering, and Europe was not present," he said. "If it would have been in our hands, we would have sent someone."
To date, MEPs on the right have held their fire on Ms Ashton, who has the extra backing of the 27 EU countries, which unanimously appointed her to be the union's high representative for foreign affairs. The member states' deal was a careful compromise between left and right which saw the post of President of the European Council, the EU's other main external actor, given to a centre-right politician.
His attack on Mrs Ashton was later backed up by the leader of the Greens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
"I am very sceptical about Lady Ashton," said the French politician. "Her performance vis-a-vis the situation in Haiti has been insufficient and I think that what Mr Daul said in his communication today was not wrong."
Mrs Ashton's job means that she is supposed to be the public face of the EU in the case of an international crisis and to oversee the bloc's response. On Monday, the EU pledged over €400 million in aid to Haiti."
It's hard to see any practical difference that an Ashton-visit would have made. There is a pan-EP obsession with political symbols, to the extent that they seem to value symbolic tours of disaster zones rather than focus on any practical benefits in aid co-ordination. The inferiority complex with the US, and comparisons with Clinton have to stop: Ashton works in a different institutional environment, and it makes far more sense at this stage to focus on small, practical policy steps that provide actual benefits than wasting energy on political symbolism. Last week MEPs wanted to see a foreign minister, not an ambassador for 27 foreign ministers - well, what separates the two is that the former tries to coax the levers of power into action, while the other just represents on the spot.
MEPs should focus on policy, not PR.
Sunday, 17 January 2010
So how did she do?
To some people, she was a disappointment - there was no strong commitments or statements on policy in any single area. At most, the western Balkans - and Bosnia and Herzgovina in particular - where indicated as a priority, while every other foreign policy issue was, the MEPs were assured, of great importance and would be considered carefully. On one hand, it was a frustrating hearing - these are easy and natural things to say, and they hardly tell us anything that we couldn't already tell from a glance at the EU's interests in its own region. But then again, it's hard to know what we should expect from a foreign policy hearing. An incoming foreign minister (or high representative) doesn't want to annoy possible partners and allies, and you don't want to go around talking about strategies openly. The HR position also has the problem that a unanimous coalition has to be built up at home (or at least a position that nobody wants to veto) before the HR can set about implementing a policy.
Still, the liberal use of the phrase "as appropriate" in her answers means that already vague replies were rendered almost meaningless. The most interesting single statement was a strong-sounding statement against Iran building nuclear weapons, and in favour of non-proliferation regimes.
MEPs didn't exactly preform well: they may have been going easy on her to protect the deal over her candidature, but more searching and specific questions could have been asked to get a better feel of her personal attitudes, which would no doubt shape her tenure. MEPs had a strange obsession with getting the right to hold hearing and vet the appointment of senior EU ambassadors - which Ashton repeatedly, and sensibly, refused.
Towards the end the Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek made a good point - we want to know what Ashton is like, we don’t want an ambassador for 27 foreign ministers. While it's impossible to leave the 27 foreign ministers out of any equation, I don't think we got any deeper into what kind of HR Ashton will be, than the image of the "quiet diplomat" that she has been promoting over the last few weeks.
Indeed, the most important foreign policy statement we may have heard from the hearings could have come from the hearing of the Energy Commissioner-designate, Oettinger. Apparently, he wants the EU to deal with energy deals - ending bilateral treaties between member states and third parties. If the EU were to sign energy treaties collectively, then the EU's market size would come to bear, and it would upset Russia's "divide and rule" strategy when it comes to gas.
Wednesday, 13 January 2010
As the first episode of the year, we've taken the chance to look back on 2009 and look forward to 2010 and what it holds for the EU. Also, in this episode we've two new podcasters: Eurosocialiste and Ralf Grahn (as well as a welcome return by Linda).
Host: Conor Slowey
Panel: Joe Litobarski
Friday, 8 January 2010
A lot of the year was taken up looking at the Lisbon Treaty, and a few sideways glances at the strange creature that was Libertas. Stalled ideas came in the shape of a small German-language blog and a small mini-series (which I'll have to get back to at some point). One of the big events last year was the European elections - which I tried to cover, with some interviewing of the NI candidates and a piece on the NI constituency, and also trying my hand at a bit of post-election analysis. Covering the European election, despite the lack-luster campaign, proved to be too big to give a quick overview of every member state, but I've just under 5 years to prepare for the next one, so I'll try to build on it for next time.
Politically, the right won again, and the left fell into disaray - perhaps enough to be called a "lame duck opposition".
August and September saw me get more involved in different projects, with Bloggers for Europe and Th!nk About It, as well as co-founding "Chasing Brussels", a new EU politics podcast. The launch event of Th!nk2 in Copenhagen was a great experience, where I got to meet lots of bloggers (both experienced and just starting out), including some Eurobloggers. Th!nk2 also led me to interview an MEP, and stand in on a Christmas Lecture debate on nuclear power. (Th!nk3 is open for registration if you're interested in signing up).
There was also the standard (Euro)blogger's criticism of the mainstream media.
I've also taken part in some Euroblogging community building (very much on the participation rather than organising side of things), with the Euroblogger meet-up, and joining Bloggingportal.eu as a volunteer editor.
Given the growth of the Euroblogosphere, and the sheer amount of issues that will face the EU over the next while, I'm sure that there'll be a lot to look out for this year - and I'd encourage others to join in and set up their own blogs.
In the future I hope to add a bit more on party politics, though the blog will mainly stay the same. Given that it's my final year for my degree (final semester now!), the blogging rate will probably stay the same as it was in autumn (I don't think I'll be writing 35 posts in a month for a while!).
I hope you've enjoyed the first year of The European Citizen!
Tuesday, 5 January 2010
It seems that a security test was run, where explosives would be smuggled past airport security in Bratislava airport to see if they'd be spotted (much like the security test at public buildings in the US a few months ago). However, instead of using a civil servant or someone trained in the security sector, the explosives were simply planted on an unsupecting traveller.
Airport security missed the explosives, and the man flew on to Dublin, and went home, without knowing he was carrying illegal material. He didn't notice what had been planted in his luggage, and it wasn't discovered until Bratislava informed the Irish Gardaí (police) - three days later.
It just seems amazing that Bratislava could put someone who was essentially an unsuspecting passer-by through something like that, and that it took 3 days to contact Irish authorities!
This comes as yesterday the Spanish rotating presidency of the Council pushed for greater intelligence sharing to combat terrorism. Although it wasn't military intelligence in this case, information sharing between member states' authorities are meant to be made easier by the EU and the Lisbon Treaty - though it's not clear what the source of any communications problems were at this point.
Saturday, 2 January 2010
Examining the future of social democracy in Europe is fashionable (see Social Europe's blog, particularly the Ken Livingston video) after the defeat suffered by the centre-left in the European elections at a time when the economic project of the right had stalled globally. I'd encourage you to read the lecture, as it's very good at setting social democracy in a historical context, and it does help when thinking of the direction social democratic parties should take in the future.
Judt rightly observes that Europe is a place where social democracy has "won": there's been a consensus here for a long time over the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the state, and a political will to maintain a stable social order based on lower levels of income inequality. Though this has been eroded over the last two decades or so, such attitudes still remain and can be seen when the "European model" is invoked. This should be both comforting and discomforting to the left: it means that the basic set of assumptions they promise about society is largely accepted, but it also means it's harder to formulate what they stand for that's different and new. This challenge is made tougher by the left's adaptation and acceptance of the right's economic views, which has left the left far less able to adapt politically to the changes brought about by the recession than the right, as can be seen from the European elections.
"So long as the primary objective of social democrats was to convince voters that they were a respectable radical choice within the liberal polity, this defensive stance made sense. But today such rhetoric is incoherent. It is not by chance that a Christian Democrat like Angela Merkel can win an election in Germany against her Social Democratic opponents—even at the height of a financial crisis—with a set of policies that in all its important essentials resembles their own program.
Social democracy, in one form or another, is the prose of contemporary European politics. There are very few European politicians, and certainly fewer still in positions of influence, who would dissent from core social democratic assumptions about the duties of the state, however much they might differ as to their scope. Consequently, social democrats in today's Europe have nothing distinctive to offer: in France, for example, even their unreflective disposition to favor state ownership hardly distinguishes them from the Colbertian instincts of the Gaullist right. Social democracy needs to rethink its purposes.
The problem lies not in social democratic policies, but in the language in which they are couched. Since the authoritarian challenge from the left has lapsed, the emphasis upon "democracy" is largely redundant. We are all democrats today. But "social" still means something—arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides. What, then, is distinctive about the "social" in the social democratic approach to politics?"
At the same time, what does the left stand for on the European stage? What does it propose that's different from the right? Environment, financial regulation... it's not enough to say that the left will govern better and with the vague promise to be more socially minded - the left must develop politics that go beyond the economy, and offer a better an more comprehensive vision of fairness and justice. If it can confidently promote a more socially just vision, and seem less beholden to the same political mindset of the right without been utopianistic, then the left can set about rebuilding itself as a coherent and positive movement. Of course, this is all easier said than done.
Friday, 1 January 2010
So with two presidencies (well, two Council presidencies), there's two presidential websites:
The Spanish presidency.
Van Rompuy's presidency.
As uninspiring as the Spanish one is, it's clear that there's more money behind it than Van Rompuy's... remember when the President was supposed to be an ueber-powerful figure who could shoot directives from his eyes? Can't even find a good website designer, apparently.
Though not much has happened yet with the Spanish presidency, there are two interesting signals: the intention to set up a council with Van Rompuy to smooth out how to operate the two presidencies harmoniously, and the ambition to see a Palestinian state in 2010.
While the first seems to show that Spain doesn't wish to undermine the new permanent presidency and will willingly accept the Lisbon reforms in practice, the second could weaken Baroness Ashton's position as the High Representative politically. The HR organises the Foreign Affairs council (as it's called, but it might be easier to think of is as a committee) of the Council and sets the agenda there, so I doubt that the HR's position could be irreparably weakened by the rotating presidency, but it could be politically weakened. After all, the HR depends on the member states to agree with her to get anything done, so any loss of political initiative could be hard to win back, even if the position is one of consensus-builder.
How will Van Rompuy and Spain hammer out their respective political roles, and how will Ashton take on the political challenges raised by the Spanish Presidency? Ashton has stressed the consensus-builder role of the HR; can she skillfully present such ambitious goals as a Palestinian state in 2010, or take on the task of solidifying a common approach in the EU? And how far could she take control or ownership of foreign policy projects, or will she be buffeted about by the changing winds of the rotating presidency?
Could an unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence be Ashton's first test? The foreign policy field seems almost crowded at the moment with possible "first tests".
It's been an interesting year, and 2010 will likely throw up its own challenges and surprises. Likely issues will include the continuing negotiations and political fallout from COP15, the failed climate change conference in Copenhagen. The economic crisis will drag on for another while - reform of the banking sector at a national, European, and international level will be fought over, and in the end will it be enough to restore confidence and get the economy going again? Fears over the rise of China and its impact on the climate and the international financial system will continue, and Iran could be set for more internal uphevals as the Green Revolution refuses to go away. In the EU we'll see how the permenant E.Council Presidency will interact with the rotating presidency (which is now headed by Spain for the first half of the year), how EU foreign policy will develop (at least institutionally), and how the EP will develop (will the current batch of MEPs prove themselves?) in a post-Lisbon era.
Plus all the Berlusconi antics.
So bring on 2010! (Don't worry; the sooner we start, the sooner it'll be over with...)