Archive for January, 2012

Election not acclamation

Important elections took place this month – a new President of the European Parliament was elected, as were the heads of its legislative committees. However, while they generated plenty of gossip and back-room political fixing in Planet Eurocrat, few outside the Brussels bubble will have known or cared.

The European Parliament is not a sexy institution. With a couple of honourable exceptions, the Parliament is largely devoid of glamour politicians, preferring instead to concentrate on using its law-making powers and trying to increase its control over the Commission. This is fair enough – despite what some of its protagonists might think, politics is about law-making not showbiz – and, having worked in several other Parliaments, I reckon that the EP is often unfairly criticised, particularly in the British press. Although it can have the perception of being remote, the Parliament has made itself very accessible. Anyone can watch a plenary session or committee either online or in person, while Parliamentary reports, amendments, questions and speeches are also easily available.

But when it comes to the elections for its key positions the Parliament does not help itself. Politicians that laud themselves as being the elected representatives of the peoples of Europe divvy up the top jobs like a bunch of used car dealers or, much, much worse, student politicians. There are no open elections for the Parliament’s presidency – instead the EPP and the Socialist group take it in turns to put up the winning candidate.

Meanwhile, the rest of the positions are divided up in a grand deal at the start of the legislative term by the main political groups. After the EPP and the Socialist group have decided who’s going to be President, the committee posts are then divided up amongst the largest national delegations. It’s good news if you are German, French or British, but MEPs from the smaller member states are completely shut out of the picture.

The other problem with the system is that it creates far too many titles. By my count – albeit off the top of my head – there are over 100 Vice-Presidents in the EP, including fourteen Vice-Presidents of the Parliament. And that’s not to mention the five Quaestor’s, with their titles straight out of the Harry Potter novels.

Of course, most political deals are still done in smoke-filled rooms by ‘the men in grey suits’, and I don’t expect that many people are going to lose sleep over who the next Chairs of the Budgetary Control or Petitions committees are going to be. But the election of the Parliament’s President and the big committees – such as Foreign Affairs, Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Internal Market – should be open and transparent.

That is why the Parliament’s ‘elections’ need to be proper contests. No more stitch-ups, no more election by acclamation. The truth is that even without the deal with the EPP, Socialist Martin Schultz would have easily beaten British Liberal Diana Wallis and Conservative Nirj Deva as Parliament’s President. But MEPs and citizens deserve an open contest. So hopefully messrs Daul, Swoboda and Verhofstadt can get together in a smoke-filled room and make a deal to end the deals.

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Would pan-EU licensing mean cheaper TV? Don’t bet on it

Being a sports fan who cannot bear to be parted from the England cricket team and the football, my subscription with Sky is a necessary, if expensive, evil. Likewise, I have a subscription to watch NFL American Football games. While I may be a fully paid up member of the web-generation, it is amazing to be able to watch TV on my lap-top.

But there are two things which are vexing. Firstly, my Sky subscription is useless when I am outside the UK. Secondly, because Sky has also bought rights to NFL games, I find that a few games (usually the ones most worth watching) are ‘blacked out’ when I try to watch in the UK.

Not only is this unfair – after all, I have paid for both subscriptions – but it also highlights one of the reasons why selling broadcast rights on a country- by- country basis often screws over the consumer. You pay through the nose to watch the best and most popular shows only to find that, once you’re outside one Member State, you either have to pay again or do without a service you paid for.

It looks as though the ‘Premier League’ ruling by the ECJ marked a line in the sand. The Commission communication on e-commerce indicated that the era of country-by-country deals may be drawing to a close. Collective rights-sales and pan-European licensing are on he cards. It can’t come a moment too soon for me. After all, if a digital single market is to exist in the EU then it is logical that we have pan-European or multi-territory broadcasting rights. This should apply for all commercial television. The irony is that the likes of the BBC, ZDF and RTE tend to be available to cable-tv viewers across the EU, despite the fact that it is more difficult to justify state-backed channels being available.

So there is every reason to expect that watching our favourite programmes should become easier within the next couple of years. But although some saw the ‘Premier League’ ruling – which decided that it is perfectly legal for individuals to buy decoder cards and TV subscriptions from other countries to undercut the subscription fees for Sky Sports – I don’t expect the value of rights, which is then reflected in the size of the subscription fees, to dramatically decline.

The big money-spinning broadcasting rights deals are for football, of which the English Premier League is the biggest single collective rights sale, with BskyB currently paying £5bn for a three year deal. The deals for the rights to show Barcelona and Real Madrid matches, which are sold by the clubs themselves, are similarly large. Instead, I would expect the Premier League, and all other rights-holders to copyright more elements which they could then require their TV partners to air. For example, UEFA uses a copy-righted anthem in the broadcasts of its Champion’s League matches, and the scope for introducing new copy-rights is extremely wide.

So those of us who baulk at the prospect of paying 40 or 50 euros per month in subscriptions shouldn’t hold their breath in assuming that collective rights will cut costs. Nonetheless, if EU legislation cannot make TV cheaper to watch, it should certainly make it easier. And that in itself would be a big step forward.

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Lighten up! 2012 is not the year of doom

The Christmas season has been unusually mild for us north Europeans. However, our political leaders have seemed determined to bring a bit of chill. In fact, so gloomy have their new year’s message that I suspect Merkel, Sarkozy et al have organised a sweepstake to see which of them can come up with the gloomiest new year’s message. Merkel and Sarkozy started by warning that 2012 would be another very tough year, with the heavy rhetoric about saving and stabilising the euro and the European Union – not to mention the world economy. Europe’s getting poorer, more spending cuts are needed, economic Armageddon still needs to be averted.

Forgive me for having heard it all before. The eurozone has apparently been in the ‘last chance saloon’ for so long that I’m surprised there have been no sightings of one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Of course, Europe is in the midst of a difficult economic depression. Many of our banks are still teetering on the brink of bankruptcy despite hundreds of billions of euros in taxpayer bail-outs in 2007-8 (although scandalously they still think it’s acceptable to award themselves massive bonuses); unemployment, particularly amongst young people, is dangerously high; a number of country’s have high debt and budget deficits; and a few years of economic stagnation beckon.

But while it would be daft to underestimate the perils facing Europe are things really that bad?

The simple answer is: no. Average incomes in Europe have more than doubled over the last 40 years and increasing life expectancy means that we will live longer to enjoy it. Yes, it’s true that we won’t be able to retire in our 50s or early 60s like many of our parents did, and the job market is far less secure than 30 years ago, but compared with most (arguably all) European generations, we have a pretty good lot.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe, not to mention long overdue peace in the Balkans, with Croatia set to become the next nation to join the EU, demonstrates that Europe is more peaceful and prosperous than ever before. If, as seems likely, we are set for a few years – perhaps even a decade – of slow growth and budget cutbacks, then we will need to learn how to achieve greater prosperity without growth. This shouldn’t be too difficult. The economic pie may not get much larger, but we can easily divide its rewards more fairly.

As for the next year, I would expect the EU summit count to keep rising as leaders edge towards a new governance structure that stabilises the euro’s future and resolves the crisis of banks exposed to risky sovereign debt. Meanwhile, the elections for the French Presidency and German Bundestag will be fascinating. Will the post-crisis trend of incumbent governments being beaten continue with the defeat of Sarkozy and Merkel or will the European left continue to struggle?

2012 will be challenging, difficult and painful for many. But most Europeans will enjoy a happy and prosperous 2012. So my message to Europe’s leaders is to go easy on the doom-laden rhetoric. This year should be enjoyed not endured.

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