A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Posts Tagged ‘EU’

A Collection of Thoughts

In Economy, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media, Uncategorized on December 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

By polarii for the Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

So here’s time for a big apology to any regular readers – between us all at the Daily Soapbox, we haven’t had any time to put down some ideas for a blog post. That’s not for want of things to say (and how much we have wanted to say!), but for lack of time. So it’s our fault for not finding time. Sorry.

If you want the blog to be fuller, and you enjoy what you read, and maybe even reckon you could do better, why not join us? Email: dingdongalistic@gmail.com and we’ll set you up as the latest Soapbox contributor.

So to kick us back off, here’s a couple of thoughts from my ice cave in the Arctic… or Germany, as everyone outside the BBC calls it.

Euroscepticism

Why has everyone forgotten Cameron is a bona fide Eurosceptic in his own right? Sure, he doesn’t foam at the mouth with quite the aplomb of Daniel Hannan, but this is a good thing. In the Conservative leadership election (in the heady days of 2005), he was elected on and later delivered a promise to take the Conservative party out of the EPP and form a soft-eurosceptic bloc, which was further than David Davis (who is more ‘right-wing’) was prepared to go. While ConHome and others have been whingeing about the lack of a referendum, Cameron has managed to a) move the European issue to a more central stage while b) uniting his historically divided party behind a moderate Eurosceptic stance and c) not banging on about it. Clever or what?

A further thought: Labour wouldn’t have signed up to these agreements either, but that’s not half the fun of it. These agreements will enforce a statutory deficit-limit stricter than the ones in the Maastricht Treaties. The Maastricht Limit is 3% of GDP, so presumably the Merkozy limit will be 2% or 2.5%. But Labour’s ‘Darling Plan’, even on their own (overly optimistic) reckoning, will only halve the deficit over four years. Our deficit is currently about 10% of GDP. In the event that Britain was bound by the Maastricht or Merkozy Treaties, Labour would have no plan to bring the deficit within the legal limits. Brussels would throw Labour’s budget back in their faces, impose hefty fines, and tell them to follow Osborne’s plan. Now who thinks Merkozy’s scheme is in our national interest?

Euro

The charge levelled against Cameron is that he has left Britain without allies. This is, of course, untrue, because most every country outside the EU is taking a position very similar to Britain’s, especially the United States.

But even within Europe, he isn’t as isolated as some claim. Mads Persson correctly notes that the Irish, French, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles all have not insignificant problems with the agreement as posed (see also this surprisingly excellent Indy graphic). But then, let’s look at some other countries, particularly Italy and Greece. There have been close votes in both parliaments on European issues, and it is not an unreasonable parliamentarian who, having been subjected to EU budget targets for the next ten years, objects to handing over control of their country’s budgets over to the EU for the rest of history. Rebellious parliaments can rebel again, and it’s hard not to imagine Eurosceptic parties like LAOS (Greece) and Lega Nord (Italy) doing quite well in upcoming elections. Of course, I could be completely wrong. But I wouldn’t write anything off either.

BBC

In case you missed the gratuitous sideswipe at the BBC in the preamble, it’s coming again. If you didn’t miss it in the preamble, I am actually going to make a point. The BBC is getting into the habit of presenting things out of context. I’m normally annoyed that the BBC displays institutional (but not conscious) bias against Conservatives and Christians, but others complain about biases in other directions, which I assume means the BBC is doing a decent job (since it’s clearly not doing an atrocious one).

However, there were two glaring errors in this week’s programming. The first was coverage of Cameron’s veto. The one report suggested that the EU was suggesting the UK was separate and even inferior because Cameron was the last to sign Croatia’s accession agreement. The context: all countries sign in alphabetical order. The United Kingdom, being the last country alphabetically in the EU, signed it last. Snub? Hardly.

The other error caused me less apoplexy, but the public more. David Attenborough juxtaposed an Arctic female polar bear making an ice-den (in which polar bears give birth to their cubs) with some polar bear cubs in a den in a zoo in Germany. The seamless transition implied to many people that the BBC was actually filming wild polar bear births. Which is stupid because the cameraman would certainly have his head bitten off if that were the case. Nonetheless, in both cases, the BBC failed to properly explain the context of what was going on, and in each case, their coverage suffered because of it. The BBC is slowly metamorphosing into an institution that doesn’t care about the truth, rather sensationalism.

Leveson

Did you know who Neville Thurlbeck was before the Leveson inquiry? If you did, you read the News of the World regularly. Shame on you (unless you were his colleague or his relative).

On a serious note though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the public doesn’t care. This was evident because, although Ed Miliband made hay with it during the summer, the polls didn’t budge. And neither BBC Parliament nor Sky News is broadcasting Leveson live. It’s a Westminster Village thing.

Miliband

Ed Miliband is a completely unsuitable leader of the Labour party. Everyone who wasn’t in the Labour party knew this as soon as he was elected, yet only now have the socialists collectivised their brain cells enough to realise it. Read around, with people like Dan Hodges getting incredibly close to calling for him to go, if you still think Milibland is cutting the mustard.

However, who is going to run against him? If Ed Balls runs, everyone will laugh. If Yvette Cooper (aka Mrs Balls) runs, she cannot dispose of Labour’s least helpful asset, her husband. If David Miliband runs, Cameron can drag out the feuding brother story indefinitely – a back-to-backstab if you like. The only plausible candidate is Jim Murphy. “Who?” I hear you cry. “Precisely”, say I. Labour don’t have the talent or the policies to win the next election.

Osborne

So now let’s do the same for the Tories. Boris will win London 2012 (somehow), and will step down in 2016. He will win a by-election by 2017, which will give him time enough to be well positioned enough when Cameron goes sometime between 2019-2022. After a term and a half of Boris (for all I admire him, I don’t think he has a sufficiently grand vision to drive the country), the natural choice is Jeremy Hunt, a man of such impeccable composure that it is truly inconceivable he should never be leader of the Conservative Party. For all they seem worlds apart, both BoJo and Hunt are suitably amicably placed with George Osborne and William Hague to mean that they can come in without wholesale change of the top table. Osborne’s best bet is not to run himself, but pick the winner, keep the political strategy as a sideline, and go down in history as the kingmaker and the chancellor who fixed Gordon Brown’s mess.

Unemployment

Once again, I find myself in a statistical quandary. ONS says unemployment went up 128.000 people in November. Yet it says only 3,000 people signed on to Jobseekers’ Allowance. Which gap have those 125,000 people fallen into? They are either a) retiring early, b) decided not to work for the next few years and make home instead, c) in receipt of a sufficiently generous redundancy package to make claiming JSA unnecessary, or d) moving their labour into the ‘black market’ – taking cash payment and not declaring it to the Exchequer. Now, most people won’t be doing a) given how poorly pensions pots are performing. The general move of our culture has been away from b) for some time; there can’t be too many people who worked for long enough at a high enough wage to be in position c), so thousands of people are in position d). Really? Or are the unemployment figures inflated by people who otherwise wouldn’t be reckoned as part of the workforce (e.g. students) taking part-time jobs and then losing them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the more important figure is the JSA claimant count, which is about 1.60 million. So hardly as bad as the 2.64 million Labour like to moan about. Incidentally, in 1992, pretty much everyone who was unemployed according to the statistics was also a JSA/Unemployment benefit claimant. By 2001, the gap between unemployed and claimants was 0.5 million, and now it is now over 1 million. I’ve had no brainwaves about why this gap is increasing so quickly. Any ideas?

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Up the Greek Without a Paddle

In Europe, Foreign Affairs on July 1, 2011 at 1:39 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Amid cheers inside the Greek Parliament building, and near-riots outside it, Greek legislators voted through a tough packet of austerity measures, which enabled them to receive billions of Euros to pay off their next installation on their debts. The broad consensus is that this will buy time for a “haircut” – as it less-euphemistically known, a partial default. Standard and Poor’s, the credit ratings agency, has now reduced Greece’s credit rating to CCC, four notches away from listing Greek debt as a certain default; Greece’s previous rating of B stood for roughly a 50% chance of default.

Meanwhile, in Greece itself, the austerity is curtailing growth. Raising taxes hurt business, cutting public sector funding to so great an extent risks undercutting the 40% of GDP the public sector provides. Increasing taxes have meant that increasing numbers of Greeks have begun to find ways to avoid paying their taxes. Increasing numbers are leaving the country altogether. The public mood is so opposed to the government that, when elections come round next year or the year after, the ruling Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement is sure to lose. With debt now topping 150% of GDP, Greece needs a bail-out; there is no way it can continue paying its debts. However, it also needs to address more structural issues – an over-dependence on small business and lack of industrial diversification, state overspending and ‘brain drain’; losing too many educated graduates (and their tax) overseas.

Firstly, there are several areas where Greece can cut, and is not cutting greatly, without any major consequences for the economy. The Greek government currently salaries the clergy (both priests and monks) of the Orthodox Church in Greece. While the public are against it, disestablishing the Orthodox Church would save Greece many hundreds of millions. The Orthodox Church has a considerable number of congregants, estates, and works of art that can be used to fund its activities in the event that Greek government funding is withdrawn.

Greece suffers from chronic complications in its tax code, which also enables abundant tax evasion and deters investment. Greece ranks 109th on the ‘ease of doing business’ index, putting it below powerhouses such as Zambia and Yemen, and has the lowest level of economic freedom in the EU apart from Poland. It suffers from widespread tax evasion and corruption, being more corrupt, according to indices published by Transparency International, than Saudi Arabia and Namibia. Tax code simplification and cuts in rates of business taxes are not silver bullets for these issues, but they will go some way to helping Greece score higher on the indices and attract more investment. This will also enable Greece to cut down on its stiflingly inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy.

Another area for cutting is defence. Greece currently spends 4.3% of GDP on defence, whereas its NATO commitments only require 2% of spending. Since Greece does not have much of a defence industry, much of the money spent on defence – mostly planes and tanks – goes abroad. Consequently a cut, mostly achieved by selling off hardware, can find upwards of 1% of GDP to go towards the government’s debts. The reason that Greece maintains such a large force is due to the instability of the Balkans and traditionally difficult relations with Turkey, which disputes several Aegean islands, and, most importantly, Cyprus. A bold government would sit down and thrash out as many issues as possible with the Turks. While selling off islands to Turkey would be so impolitic as to be impossible, accords could be reached that Turkey will renounce some of its claims if Greece will support (tacitly) its EU membership bid. This is a distant enough possibility, given German opposition, to take a calculated risk. While they’re at cutting the military, they could also abolish the compulsory nine months national service, and establish a professional army, usually considerably more efficient and cheaper to maintain. While this would create further youth unemployment, monies saved could be redirected to investing in business to counter that.

Greece ‘sends’ 60,000 students per year to foreign universities, compared to 100,000 from China, which has over 100 times the population. The root of this is the constitution, which forbids private providers of universities to establish themselves in Greece. Aside from the obvious conflict with EU competition law, it means that Greek students must go abroad for the best education. Once they have left, they tend to stay in the country of their tertiary education, get a job and pay taxes there. New Democracy, the opposition party, attempted to amend the constitution at the start of this decade, but was blocked by the Socialists. Immediate reform in this area, to allow private tertiary education, is required to enable Greece to retain more of its graduates, making Greece’s economy more attractive to investment.

If Greece were to be bold, it would leave the Euro. This would give the government additional levers over the economy, and would allow it to pursue quantitative easing, which it currently cannot do because the Euro serves however many other countries who do not need it to the extent that Greece does. The problem with this move would be that all Greek debts are currently denominated in Euro. A change back to the drachma would be incredibly complicated, and may amount to a total default on all debt. But, given how low Greece’s credit rating is, a total default may remove the burden of debt repayment without significant increase in the rate of interest that future loans would incur. It may also scupper the Euro project, and trigger fears, if it works, that Ireland might do the same, and, if it doesn’t work, that Ireland can’t do the same.

A brief flick through recent Greek politics will reveal that few of these solutions are new. In fact, most of them are about ten years old and proposed by Kostas Karamanlis, the former leader of New Democracy. They are all sensible solutions, and will help address some of Greece’s structural problems. Karamanlis was unable to pursue them because of opposition from the public and from the left parties – the Socialists and an influential coalition of Communists and Greens. But even these reforms, even on a very generous reckoning, account for only around 4% of GDP, when the current deficit runs at 10%. These are comparatively painless reforms; whatever happens, Greece will have to stomach a lot of austerity.

The Greeks are known for being innovators, not least the Athenians. In the late 500s BC, they could not choose between various types of aristocrats, and so invented democracy. A similar thing – a new party, or a minor party coming to the fore – could happen. But if it doesn’t, Greece needs to begin to take its debt problems seriously. The option the Ancient Greeks tended to pursue in such circumstances – a brief war against some rich yet weak city or kingdom – is not open to the modern Greeks. The politicians and public have to start taking bold decisions. The EU and IMF, after all, are not unlimited pots of money.

UKIP Waiting In The Wings…

In Europe, Home Affairs, Party politics on April 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For sure the most interesting element of upcoming local elections will be to what extent (or not) the Liberal Democrats are wiped off the electoral map. But that’s not what the Tory bloggers and Conservative strategists are worried about. In the (very) unlikely event that Labour takes every single Liberal Democrat local council seat, the Conservatives will still be the largest party in local government. And the Tories might even be hopeful of picking up a load of Liberal seats in the South-West, where Labour, for the most part, doesn’t really offer effective opposition.

It is not the Liberal Democrats that are vexing the Tories, but UKIP. Since the Conservative party’s formation in the 1830s, it has had exclusive or strong claim from the centre (Social and Economic or Classical Liberalism) through the centre-right (Red, Wet or One-Nation Conservatism) to the right (Thatcherite, Dry or Social Conservatism) of British politics, which has always ensured it is in the running for government. It has taken left parties, notably in Labour’s case, Blair, to move to the right in order to inhabit the centre. Cameron is the first Tory leader for a long while to bring his party to the left in order to win an election – no other leader since WW2 readily comes to mind. But now this seemingly natural position, encapsulating the right-leaning centre and the out-and-out right (NB not the far-right, which is fascistic, and rarely has ‘right-wing’ economic policies) is under threat from UKIP.

UKIP was initially founded as an anti-EU movement. However, Nigel Farage, who has entered and left and entered again through the revolving door of his party’s leadership, has sought to broaden the party beyond Euroscepticism; UKIP submitted a full manifesto at the previous general election. Stuart Wheeler, who, it is calculated, gave £5 million to the Conservatives, jumped ship to UKIP in 2009. UKIP came second in the European elections, taking 12 seats in the EU Parliament. At the last general election, it took more votes than the Green party, polling at 3.1%.

However, the popularity that these European results suggest is not mirrored elsewhere: it has far fewer local government representatives than the Greens. It has previously enjoyed the backing of one Tory defector in the commons and a few more in the Lords, but it has never won a Westminster seat through the ballot box. At the general election, the eloquent Farage failed to beat the Speaker and an independent, coming third. The party has struggled to shake off allegations of racism and has fallen foul of normal rules of decency in the European Parliament.

Why then are Conservative party supporters worried about UKIP? On a general level, UKIP takes a position to the right of the Conservative party. While the strains of coalition are being widely felt and reported in the Liberal Party, the right of the Tory Party is not terribly happy cuddling up to a party that wants to abolish nuclear weapons, pervert the voting system, make the Lords elected, introduce copious quantities of business regulation, raise taxes, become European, and generally be lefties. While the Conservative party is remarkably solid despite its breadth, its electorate needn’t be – and UKIP is an attractive proposition, with promises to charge a flat rate of income tax, abolish National Insurance, hugely deregulate, and invest heavily in defence, aside from the flagship policy of leaving the expensive and invasive EU.

There are, however, more contingent factors. In a recent by-election in Barnsley, UKIP came second, polling more votes than both coalition parties combined. There should be a caveat – this was a by-election in a safe Labour seat; the Tories had never done well, and the tuition fees u-turn was still fresh in Liberal minds. But it made people think, and the UKIP people began to chatter about making a proper emergence onto the political scene. In addition, a large number of EU issues have come up during this Parliament – the UK having to contribute to bail out debt-laden Eurozone economies, the European Court on Human Rights handing down verdicts on allowing prisoners to vote, and not allowing people to be permanently kept on a sex offenders register. Cameron may rightly claim that has no legal wriggle-room – and the reality is he probably doesn’t have political wriggle-room either, since he depends on the Liberal Democrats – but there will be an impression in the body politic that the Conservatives are failing to defend British sovereignty from the encroaching EU. Resentment also lingers about Cameron’s decision not to offer a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon (and those of you going ‘how could he offer one once it had passed?’ will not be heard by a significant section of grassroots Tories).

However, several factors mitigate against a sudden UKIP surge. Firstly, most people can’t name three UKIP politicians; Farage is the only one with any profile of note. Secondly, there is still the perception that UKIP is a single-issue party about the EU. Thirdly, UKIP has not attracted any important defections from the Conservative party – the loss of a donor, admittedly a generous one, did not really matter to Cameron, and nor did the defection of Bob Spink MP. Who he? Exactly. He was thrown out by his electorate at the next opportunity, and most Tory MPs will not be keen to follow his example. Fourthly, most UKIP voters would rather like a Conservative government; and they may be reluctant to vote after UKIP after their previous leader told them to back Eurosceptic Tories in 2010’s general election, and the swing to UKIP seems to have cost Cameron an outright majority. A similar potential UKIP nadir arose in 2004, but was blown out of the water by the singularity that was Robert Kilroy-Silk. While Farage seems more level-headed, it is important that UKIP has failed to convert from this position before.

And Cameron can kill UKIP’s electoral prospects at any point he wants. All he has to do is wait until UKIP claims a major victory (say, is the first party at the European elections) and say he is listening to the will of the people, and will give them a referendum on EU membership. He will have the Liberal Democrats over a barrel, seeing as they supported an in-out referendum when the Treaty of Lisbon was being ratified. There should also be enough Labour Eurosceptics to ease it through should Clegg take exception – after all, every time Miliband gets up to oppose it, Cameron will just say ‘Lisbon’ and he’ll retire in shame and embarrassment that the cabinet of which he was a part truckled so readily to the Eurocrats.

So don’t pay too much attention to the comment strings on Conservative Home blogs, or to the ramblings of UKIP members. A nadir of right-wing politics may be on the horizon for the UK, but UKIP will not be how it comes about; more likely, it seems, to come from Murdoch’s favourite Daniel Hannan, or a dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservative like Michael Gove. Cameron has nothing to fear from UKIP. Yet.

Libya: Winners and Losers

In America, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Government Spotlight, Parliamentary Spotlight on March 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

The no-fly zone is up-and-running after a tense few weeks of events in Libya and tough diplomacy. The events that have led up to UN Resolution 1973/2011 have been complicated, and they have had political impacts on both individuals and nations. This isn’t as complete or detailed as it could be, but it includes some of the major movers, particularly in the UK. This was written shortly after the no fly zone was implemented, and the flow of events may have altered some of the analysis here.

Col. Moammar Gaddafi: Has fared badly in international eyes, most recently breaking a promise of ceasefire, but generally sounding rather detached from events, and indeed reality. However, in Libya, the picture is split; he’s managed to maintain popular support in the capital, and defections from his cause have not damaged his capacity to deploy aircraft and heavy weaponry. He still retains some loyalty, or some visage of terror, or both among the Libyan people. Anti-Imperialist rhetoric may play well to the people of Libya, but in rebel-controlled areas, there seems no evidence of this. He may take some pleasure from the fact that no-one in the English world knows quite how to spell his name.

UN: Despite questions whether a UN resolution was needed to impose a no-fly zone, all the countries involved chose to go through the UN. This will raise its damaged status as a body, and also encourage further interventions to be cleared through it. Resolution 1973 has been called a watershed for what the UN could hope to achieve in further crisis, as and when they arise in the Middle East and around the world. There are, however, questions as to what actions the UN will be forced to take in other countries this year, such as Bahrain.

USA: Has remained aloof and silent for much of the crisis, but eventually fell on the side of those calling for a no-fly zone, which added much weight to the case for intervention. The rebel faction in Libya seems well pleased with the decision to intervene, and some of this goodwill will rub off on America. The surreptitious transport of weapons across the Egyptian border to the rebels, quite probably at US instigation, will also have improved America’s image. However, in the broader international community, the country’s slow and cautious action will contrast with its previous history of reckless and large-scale intervention, and this has vastly improved its standing.

Barack Obama: Has taken a cautious approach, and has seen little change in his standing. Many in America would have wanted action more quickly; however, he secured a UN mandate and eventually delivered action. Prolonged silence had previously risked undermining the influence and leadership the President of the USA is expected to wield, but the silence and the risk was ended by his forthright support of UN Resolution 1973.

John McCain and John Kerry: Both these former American presidential candidates were vocal and early advocates of a no-fly zone, and now that it has come about, their gravitas has been augmented as they have been seen to give the right policy advice to the White House, which was eventually taken. Although this represents a coalition of opinion between a leading Republican and a leading Democrat, their influence is unlikely to secure a more consensual Congress for the rest of the Presidential term.

UK: Negative reports were abound concerning the previous government’s close relationship with Libya and the poor contingencies put in place to evacuate British nationals. These were compounded by what seems to be one of the worst special operations missions in recent history. However, international leadership on the no-fly zone will have regained some of the nation’s democratic capability. A broader debate regarding whether the UK has the requisite military capacity to sustain a lead role in the no-fly zone has died down, but will weigh heavily on the minds of MoD staff.

David Cameron: Despite all the above, he has risen to the challenge of mobilising many reluctant countries to support a no-fly zone, and many in his own party and country. His campaign has been high-profile and high-minded, avoiding some of the dissent said to be at work in his cabinet. The no-fly zone will reflect well upon him.

William Hague: Blunder has followed blunder, from ill-advised comments that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela to poor management of aircraft and special forces. Although many from his party gave him plaudits for his work with UN delegates, his position is more precarious than it was, his aura of competence rather tarnished.

Douglas Alexander: Hague’s shadow sensed opportunity in his blunders and attacked him at every turn. However, if Hague now has egg on his face, Alexander now has boiled eggs on his face; his opposition to a no fly zone has led to an embarrassing and high-profile U-turn; though the damage to Labour does not seem to be too great, Alexander’s almost impeccable reputation is now bathing in the mud.

Michael Gove, George Osborne and Liam Fox: The most vocal advocates of intervention, along with William Hague, have won over the government and the Commons. Their standing in Cabinet will be increased at the expense of those opposed to intervention. In particular, Liam Fox is well placed to argue for fewer cuts in his budget, and since Osborne is on his side, it would not surprise me to see more money channelled towards defence at the budget after next, particularly if there is a windfall.

Bob Stewart: This mostly unknown Conservative MP (Beckenham) has become increasingly prominent due to his experience as a military commander in Bosnia, where a previous no-fly zone has been implemented. His expertise in this area has undoubtedly swayed government and international opinion, and he is likely to receive a ministerial portfolio before long, especially if he continues to sound so authoritative during interviews.

France: The Republic suffered embarrassing revelations about its foreign minister in the Tunisia crisis, but a quick sacking, a trial of a former President, and a well-managed evacuation managed to submerge most of the opprobrium. Meanwhile, vocal support for a no-fly zone will have won it kudos in diplomatic circles, however, undermining the EU’s nascent diplomatic efforts may in turn undermine attempts to centralise defence and foreign policy at the EU level.

Nicholas Sarkozy: Has had a good crisis, being seen to lead the world, and actually leading it. French fighter jets were the first to enforce 1973, and this show of strength will strengthen his upcoming election campaign. His name is, according to reports, being chanted on the streets of Benghazi, and the Guardian suggests that his handling of the crisis has saved him from electoral ruin.

EU: Has had quite possibly its worst crisis since the former Yugoslavia broke up. Two of its three major members have argued with the third, and it has been unable to build consensus among a Europe strongly divided on the issue. Its failure to secure the support of Malta and Cyprus for intervention will cost the coalition enforcing 1973 dearly. Any diplomatic efforts it made were largely or completely ignored, which will underline an impression of disunity and impotence; the UK and France will pursue their foreign policy almost without heed to the opinion of the EU.

Angela Merkel: Has had to balance the German public’s desire not to get involved in any foreign war with EU and US alliances. Due to an impending election, she has favoured the people’s view, and Germany abstained at the UN. Whether this will gain her many votes (coupled with withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, she may convince the German people that she is indeed a pacifist) is yet to be seen. A good call – no permanent damage seems to have been done to bilateral relations, though any chances of diplomacy through the EU seem to be wrecked.

Lebanon: Tabled resolution 1973 at the UN, and had it carried by the necessary number of votes. A potentially clever move as it re-entrenches European (especially French) support for the embattled democracy. And the Lebanese public do not seem to mind their country inviting the US to bomb fellow Arabs.

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi: Previously the hope of reform in Libya for the West, he has shown a ruthless streak, both handling the media with some guile and promising destruction to Libya’s enemies. Nonetheless, his political capital in the West has decreased. With his assets now frozen in most countries, he will struggle to find a way in life if the West does not make an accord with Gaddafi. His standing in Libya itself has also been harmed, as he is one of the few Gaddafi males not to be in command of a military unit, and his vision of a Libya reconciled with the West seems to have collapsed completely.

The London School of Economics: Was badly damaged when it was found that it had accepted large donations from the Gaddafi clan. Previously an institution with a reputation of spreading enlightenment throughout the developing world, it has pledged to return all the donation it can to the Libyan people, and made grovelling apologies to the government. There has already been one resignation, and another could shortly come from Shami Chakrabati, director of Liberty UK, who sat on its governing board. Harrowed appearances suggest that the folks at Liberty do not take kindly to her approving donations from sponsors of terrorism, though she denies the connection.

The Scottish National Party and the Labour Party: Both these parties curried favourable relationships with Libya during their terms in office at Holyrood and Westminster respectively. However, despite some cheap shots from some ministers, both seem to have emerged relatively unscathed from such a potentially toxic friendship. That said, Scottish voters have yet to have the opportunity to punish the Holyrood government at the polls, although it is unlikely that foreign policy will be a major factor at the elections in May.

Overall, the no-fly zone has been well-received in the international community. The first military Arab League involvement will shortly come through Qatari air jets; meanwhile, the normally pacifist Norway has also committed jets. The no-fly zone doesn’t seem to have stopped the civil war from either rebel or Gaddafi’s side, but it seems to have the desired effect of reducing the damage to civilians, particularly from Gaddafi’s aircraft and heavy armour. The issues that seem to be arising next are whether Resolution 1973 allows UN-affiliated forces to target Gaddafi himself, and, more broadly, what the exit strategy might be. Polling suggests strong division among the British public regarding whether this intervention is the right policy, and this may create political problems further down the line. The situation is still in flux, and the political consequences are still not settled.

Blooming Stupid

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Calling anyone a Nazi is a serious allegation. When it is unfounded, it is also extremely offensive. Particularly when you are a German. Such thoughts did not perhaps pass through the mind of UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, when he made such a remark in the chamber of the European Parliament. Or maybe they did, and he meant to cause grave offense. In either case, he was forthwith ejected by a vote of members, and had to be escorted out. The incident raises strong questions of what people can and cannot say in a democracy which guarantees free speech.

I’ll just make my position absolutely clear – the comments Bloom made were completely wrong and inappropriate. But that’s tackling it from quite a staid dignified British view; as well as one that respects the targeted MEP, Martin Schultz (SPD). But that, to a certain extent, is beside the point. The question is whether Bloom has the right to say such things whether I approve or agree with such sayings or not.

We must first consider that Bloom is a UKIP MEP for Yorkshire – one of the regions that elected a BNP representative. Given that it has also elected a UKIP member and two Conservatives, we can infer that it’s a pretty Eurosceptic constituency. Moreover, those voters that voted UKIP want to see the EU brought down as soon as possible; consequently, if Bloom believed that making such comments as he did would accelerate that process, he might argue he had a democratic mandate to make them. However, I somehow doubt that most Yorkshiremen would even wish to hear those comments, much less associate themselves with them. While they might distrust the EU, and resent its level of control, that does not mean they see Europhiles as Nazis.

But on a broader level – Bloom has been elected by the people of Yorkshire to represent them how he deems best; and he is accountable through the ballot box whenever there is a European election. By having him barred from the chamber for a period of time, the EU Parliament implicitly denies the people of Yorkshire to receive their full representation for a time. The converse is that the people of Yorkshire should also have to accept the consequences for electing an offensive idiot, and the European community generally is condemning a most malicious attitude. In the multi-member constituencies of the EU, the people of Yorkshire also have other representatives, to whom they could turn should they be unable to wait the brief period of time until Bloom returns. But, if they were single-member constituencies, the problem would be exacerbated. And it may be that the people of Yorkshire have particularly strong views on an issue that comes up while Bloom is suspended, and their MEP is unable to cast his vote.

The balance here is between rights and duties, freedoms and consequences. Bloom has the right to speak howsoever he wishes – but, as an elected MEP, he has a duty to speak in accordance with acknowledged norms of the European Parliament. He has the freedom to be racist in the chamber, but he must also accept its consequence – suspension. Similarly the people of Yorkshire – they have the right to elect their representative, and the duty to choose him wisely. And even if they supported their representative to the hilt, the rest of the Parliament feels they have sufficient support in their constituencies to vote for his suspension.

But I think it is unreasonable to exclude him from voting; it is his speech that has earnt him this suspension, not his voting. To suspend people from debate is one thing; denying people the right to be democratically represented is another. If he could still vote, the Parliament could maintain its decorum, and the people of Yorkshire could maintain their voice in it, albeit in truncated form.

Some justify this course of events using the notion of a free market of ideas, and saying that this sort of speech doesn’t contribute new ideas, and merely tarnishes the ideas already in the market. While this has merits from a certain viewpoint, it nonetheless reduces someone’s inalienable right. It says that there is only value in free speech insofar as one uses it to contribute, rather than it simply being of immense value itself. This, for a while, muddled the issue in my thinking. Bloom has the right to say what he will, and he must accept the consequences of what he says. His ‘contribution to the free market of ideas’ is neither here or there. It may be of consequence to whatever debate was going on at the time, but, insofar as his right to speech is concerned, it is incidental.

One point that Nigel Farage made in the debate about whether to suspend Bloom is that several people in the European Parliament regularly label members of his group as Nazis with relative impunity. No-one bothered answering that point in the debate, and, to my knowledge, no-one has bothered since. If that is the case, there is an imbalance that Farage is right to complain about. But otherwise, the right thing seems to have been done.

One last thought – Bloom was twice offered the opportunity to apologise. If he had done this, he could have retained both his seat and whatever point he had happened to be making at the time. Instead, he lost both. While it takes guts for a politician to apologise, over such an unimportant thing, it surely here must have been the right thing to do. I don’t think there is any credit to be had anywhere on this issue. Better not to call people Nazis.

£7bn, 1 Province and 13 Miles of Sea

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs on December 6, 2010 at 7:46 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

George Osborne has made the incredible announcement that he will provide a £7bn direct loan to the Irish Republic, to support its struggling economy. Incredible because it belies a surprisingly good relationship between the Kingdom and Republic. Which we might not have assumed given the history between the two countries. That Osborne has chosen to do this by means of a direct loan rather than through the EU, or the IMF is explicit and public affirmation of this close relationship. However, there is a fair degree of self-interest at work as well.

The primary cause of concern is that Britain’s banks are now exposed to the tune of £50bn in the event of the Irish economy collapsing. Obviously, this would be a near-fatal blow for the economic recovery we are now beginning to see, but, on a more immediate level, the government is guaranteeing a sum of the deposits in British banks, some of which rest upon the debt held by Irish banks. When we consider that a collapse in the Irish economy may well lead to a crisis of confidence in the Spanish economy, where Santander is based, the ramifications of not supporting Ireland are actually quite staggering for the British economy.

In another area, the Northern Ireland economy has been hit particularly hard by the recession, and, of all regions in the UK, unemployment runs highest here. The collapse of the Irish economy would hit this area particularly hard, as it is estimated that 40% of NI exports work their way into the Republic. This is also true of most of Britain’s agricultural output; but the situation is at its most accute in Northern Ireland. The relative stability in recent times in Northern Ireland is, in part, due to an period of economic prosperity, which could well be undermined by spending cuts, and would certainly be undermined if the Republic also collapsed as an export market. To see this loan as a massive bung to Northern Ireland may be a slightly cynical viewpoint, but it goes some way towards justifying George Osborne’s decision.

Perhaps there is further political machination going on here: if the UK supports the Eurozone, though not a member, it gives further bargaining power to Cameron around any future European table; it also allows him to say to Europhiliacs that he is supportive of the European ideal, in general terms. The Euroskeptics in the Conservative party have turned round and asked whether this is prudent; Cameron can justify it amply on grounds of national self-interest too.

The one objection is that £7bn is more or less the figure that will be saved by public spending cuts this year. The British public, who may not fully grasp the potential problems that beset Northern Ireland, the Eurozone, or the banks, may, understandably, feel a bit peeved. But, as we have seen, the loan is firmly in Britain’s interest, and moreover, unlike loans to mega-banks, we actually have a legal and diplomatic apparatus to eventually get it back – the Irish Republic can’t move its accounts offshore. Plus Ireland’s credit ratings will be absolutely shot if they refuse to pay it back. Though it would ultimately be financed by yet more borrowing, it would be a really stable and sensible investment rather than an injection into the less certain realm of public service; at any rate, saying we can borrow more so we should spend it on services is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. This money is being spent on keeping us out of another one.

And here’s where we can take the discussion in all sorts of interesting directions. We could discuss whether the Euro has helped or hindered Ireland. We could discuss whether the free market or state ownership should be the answer to the underlying problem. We could also discuss if there is an underlying ironic narrative that Ireland is being bailed out by an Ascendancy aristocrat, the likes of whom it was so eager to get rid of.

But I want to take it in an historical direction. For at least 800 years, the English have been interfering in Ireland. By the early 1800s, Britain and Ireland unified into one state. About 100 years later, most of the groundwork was in place for the two countries to split. During WW2, Ireland did not join Britain against the Nazis, not because it was secretly fascist, but because it did not want to be seen on the same side as the English. Hostility continued right up into the 1980s and 1990s, until the Northern Ireland problem became so serious that Major had to involve the Republic in sorting it out. Since the Good Friday agreement, The Kingdom and the Republic have been not merely on speaking terms, but positively friendly – quite probably the best ever sate of Anglo-Irish relations. Hence the loan.

But the loan, for me, begs a much broader historical question. To what extent is Ireland viable without being intimately intertwined with the UK? At which point does Ireland become so intertwined that we’ll have to unite again? And is it better for Ireland to be united with the UK anyway? Of course, popular opinion in Ireland would probably not stomach such a union, but, when the UK decides to throw Ireland £7bn, when their economies are so inter-related,  with so much culture and history being shared, a union between these two seems a much more reasonable prospect than a united Europe. And perhaps here is the broader comment on the European project: if countries who share a land border, around 30% of trade, a language and much of their history can club together in times of need, then there is hope for Europe. But if 13 miles of sea and 1 province is a big enough gap to make union seem absolutely impossible, even when it seems really very logical and sensible that  the countries should join, then Europe should simply stick to a loose alliance, and not hope for anything greater.

Foreign Affairs Debate – predictions

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2010 at 10:07 pm

By Stephen Wan

With a high rise in the polls for the Liberal Democrats, and a higher approval rating than Brown and Cameron put together, Nick Clegg has the most pressure, and the most to lose, in tonight’s foreign affairs debate shown on Sky News at 8pm (if you don’t have Sky, the Guardian is streaming the debate live on their website). But how much impact will this debate have in comparison to last week’s one? Relatively little I think – firstly, foreign affairs doesn’t register highly in the public’s top issues, with the economy, immigration, employment, education, health etc. (all but the first of which were covered last week). It therefore doesn’t matter so much if Clegg does lose this one – foreign affairs are unlikely to dominate this election anyway. Secondly, the number of people watching this debate will almost definitely be lower than the 9.8 peak viewer level of the first one; there aren’t as many people who have Sky News, myself included, and some people I’ve talked to are turned off watching it because of how boring the last one was. Perhaps the first election debate had a novelty factor, but the second one does not. Still, nothing should be taken for granted, and given a fairly high level of public interest in these leaders debates now, there’s still a lot to play for. What will be discussed? And who, if anyone, will come out top? My guesses on what will come up tonight is Afghanistan, the role for Britain in international affairs, the future Defence Review, Trident, Europe and the EU, our ‘special relationship’ with America and possibly dealing with rising superpowers such as China and our relationship with them. Iraq, though important a few years ago, has mostly been eclipsed in the media. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something on international climate change agreement as well. Brown, as the Prime Minister for the past couple of years, is an international figure – he’s been said to be more popular overseas than here in his own country. He was responsible for the applauded for the G20 summit, continues to have strong ties with America, strongly pushes for a continued presence in Afghanistan, wants a strong trading relationship with China, wants to renew Trident, and is neither anti-Europe (Lisbon treaty) or particularly pro-Europe (no Euro). Out of all three of them, Brown is easily the most experienced in international affairs; he knows the game, and he’s known by the leaders of the countries very well. If he pushes the influence he’s had over the global financial stimulus, and his strong reputation abroad, he could well win it. His weakness will be on Iraq (although again this isn’t a prevailing issue), his handling and funding of Afghanistan (helicopters is a word I’m expecting to hear quite a lot), and denying Britain the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which will probably be the most damaging. Cameron, as leader of the Opposition, is never going to match up to the credentials of Brown, although I can’t think of a less experienced Conservative leader hoping to become Prime Minister since WW2. He likes lots of alliances, so keeping with the US, but not too much political intergration, so no to EU influence. Wants to keep Trident, although apparently to protect against rogue states like China, so no strong relationship with them. Promised a referendum on the EU if they got into power, but had to backtrack from that after the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. Angry about the lack of funding to our troops in Afghanistan, wants to introduce a government pledge to look after our troops – a military covenent. Took the Conservatives out of the pro-European grouping in the European Parliament, into a anti-federalist group with arguable far-right nationalist parties. Cameron I think is weakest here, with both a lack of experience and seemingly a lack of tact (calling China a nuclear threat for example). If he wants to win, he’ll need to appeal strongly to the eurosceptic part of the country, constantly attacking Brown and Clegg for handing, or wanting to hand, powers over to Brussels. He can also push against Brown on funding for our troops, and our patriotic duty to look after them. Clegg is again the wildcard here, because nobody’s quite sure what he stands for. He seems less keen on the US, and wants stronger ties with the EU. International agreement on Climate Change is a big priority, and is more anti-Afghanistan than the other two. Voted against Iraq with the Lib Dems in 2003, so maybe a couple of brownie points there. Wants to include Trident in the Defence Review, so he doesn’t want to renew Trident, preferring some other alternative system. No idea what he thinks the UK’s role in the future is though – he’s never really had to talk about it. Definitely weak on being recognised on the international stage – at least Obama stopped by Cameron for a quick chat. Being pro-EU more steadfastly than the others may repel some people, but may bring others around to him. Any attack by Cameron on Clegg wanting to join the euro will definitely deflect off – Clegg can simply deny that, because they don’t. Weakness may well be on Trident, since the majority of polls shows we support having a nuclear deterrent; however, if he can get the argument across that the cost is too great, and we can have a cheaper alternative, that may do it. Overall, I think Brown to win, and Clegg a close second, with Cameron last. However, don’t think I’m willing to put money on it. Really, this debate is a slight misnomer, because a government’s stance in foreign affairs is primarily pragmatic, particularly for Britain, than it is ideological. In a sense then, a lot of what is said in these debates is meaningless, because it is the Foreign & Commonwealth Office that pushes the agenda on the international scene. Still, should be a good watch.

Get our own house in order first – by David Weber

In Europe, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs on November 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm

“The EU is undemocratic”, “The EU is anti-democratic”, “We have our lives dictated to by unelected EU bureaucrats”, “Nobody was given a say over the Lisbon Treaty”, “The Conservatives have now reneged upon their promise to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty”…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

I’m sorry, what was that? I was just dreaming of a constructive debate about the EU, of actually looking at what we can do to improve it and engaging for once, rather than moaning incessantly about it whilst ignoring the many ways we can still influence direction.

The magic word for Eurosceptics is “undemocratic”. They simply cannot help themselves, it’s a gift of a word: everyone hates it, no-body entirely understands what they refer to by it, and it goes way beyond the normal nationalistic base of the Conservatives and appeals to all who broadly oppose the EU for very different reasons. And no-one has had the guts to take them on over it.

The fact is the democracy begins at home. Before moaning about the EU as an institution, we need to get our own house in order, and look at how we could improve democracy purely by our own, independent, action. And the answers appear to be blindingly obvious.

Before I go on, let me try and, in a very simplistic fashion, analyse the various structural elements of the EU, that people believe ought to be democratic, and consider how democratic they actually are.

First off, we can exclude the European Court of Justice fairly easily. I don’t think there are many, even among extreme Eurosceptics, who genuinely believe that justices ought to be elected.

Now, the legislature of the European Union is divided into two parts. The weaker of the two (although, allegedly, made slightly stronger by the Lisbon treaty) is the European Parliament. The European Parliament is, currently, the only directly elected institution of the European government, at least in this country. It is elected by proportional representation (which seems a reasonably democratic ideal), through a closed-list system (which doesn’t) in all regions barring Northern Ireland, in 12 separate regions of the United Kingdom (The 9 regions of England and the 3 other countries in the Union, so a degree of localism exists).

Now, these elections use an abominable system called closed-list, which incorporates pretty much every flaw known to PR. There is no individual accountability, as one can only vote for the party, not for the person. The regions are big enough in England so to dilute any concept of direct representation thoroughly, but small enough so to lead to absurdities in the system, such as the BNP gaining two seats, on a smaller swing than the Green party received for nought.

There is no possibility of transferable voting, and indicating preference between candidates and parties, as there is with STV (although this is part of the reason why STV is not true PR, as such a feature invariably leads to disproportional results). So closed-list minimises choice whilst placing parties firmly in control over the election of their preferred candidates.

Now, there is no reason why this must be the case for elections to the European Union. EU rules only specify that the system should be a form of ‘PR’, which it specifies can include the Single Transferable Vote (but, confusingly, don’t appear to set down in any detail how big the constituencies should be which would seem to indicate that the Alternate Vote can be PR, an absurdity). I think I am right in saying that the list classification could also allow the Additional Member System, further adding to the flexibility of elections to the EU. So the government could easily make the EU more accountable and democratic through abolishing closed-list and putting in its place a reasonable, accountable system of ‘PR’ or STV. Almost any reform would improve it, even through simply introducing open lists, although my preferred way would either be the introduction of STV or a change to an Additional Member System, which would introduce more direct representation and bring representatives closer to the people.

So, that’s the EU parliament out of the way, the only directly elected institution of the EU. Fine, you might say, that’s the easy part over and done with, but this hardly transforms the EU. Fair enough, I’ll admit, so I’ll move on to the other institutions and show you how wrong you are.

Secondly, we have the Council of the EU (formerly known as the Council of Ministers, and not to be confused with the European Council, or the Council of Europe [the latter not even being an institution of the EU]). This is the more powerful of the two legislative bodies, and is the principle decision-making body in the EU. It is not directly elected.

However, it is comprised of ministers of state in national governments. Which actually means that a lot of the decision taken that parties decide to conveniently “blame on Brussels” are, in fact, signed off by a collective meeting of the relevant national ministers of state. Which indicates that actually, many decisions allegedly taken by “unelected bureaucrats” are in fact taken by our secretaries of state, weighed up in the national interest, so a lot of the fuss is actually smoke and mirrors. Which means, if you really want to know how effective democratic decision-making in the EU is, it would be better to analyse the voting records of our ministers in the Council of the EU. Strangely, hardly anyone seems to do that.

The Council has a rotating presidency, which is a truly national concept of democracy, in that each country gets an equal right of participation, rather than the position being elected by majority. So much for the EU “undermining the nation state”, in key ways, it acts to preserve it in intergovernmental decision-making.

The Presidency, incidentally, also chairs the European Council, which is similar in constitutional nature to the head of state of a country, although it is a political decision-making body, unlike our own Head of State in the United Kingdom. The European Council is a meeting of the heads of state or government of all member states, which meets in summit around 4 times a year. This, however, will change with the Lisbon treaty, just to add confusion, an additional post of president will be created, separate to the rotating presidency, who chairs the European Council. The new president will not hold any national office, which strikes me as a little absurd, as he will be chairing a meeting of nothing but holders of national office.

This brings me on to the new position of the president of the European Council, which is not elected, and is often cited by Eurosceptics as the greatest evidence of increasing federalism. I say it is not elected, but it would be better to say that it does not have to be directly elected. Instead, it merely has to be elected by qualified majority vote by the European Council.

However, in practice, it would be absurdly easy to introduce democratic contribution to the election of the post — a law could simply be introduced to bind the head of government to the decision of the people in a prior election of all official candidates held in the UK. This would undoubtedly cause turmoil in the ranks of other countries contributing to the European Council, and could easily have a knock-on effect.

The same also applies to the European Commission, the embodiment of the notorious unelected bureaucrats referred to by the Eurosceptics. The Commission is roughly comparable to the government or executive of a nation state, and is not elected (similar, in fact, to our own government). Each country is responsible, however, for appointing a commissioner — so why not make the post subject to national election? What better way to reinvigorate the interests of democracy in the EU than by making commissioners accountable for their actions in office? Again, this could easily have a knock-on effect, with other countries seeking to follow suit. It would not lead to greater presidentialism, as each country contributes its own commissioner, meaning that the values of national democracy would be strengthened — and again, as with every other suggestion above, this is entirely possible unilaterally. It would require no consensual decision-making within the EU; it is a reform that could be introduced quickly and easily by the national government.

Other suggestions have been made — there is no end of ways of making MEPs more accountable to their constituents, through creating incentives to hold more regular constituency surgeries, to splitting regions up into districts which each MEP has individual responsibility for. Eurosceptics generally moan about the state of European democracy, but they singularly fail to realise that democracy, much like charity, begins at home. The EU was founded through intergovernmentalism, and it can be improved by the actions of national governments first and foremost. Unilateral action could introduce the type of dynamic agenda for European democracy that many people have longed for since the establishment of the EU — and the only thing stopping this from happening is the selfishness of national governments.