Archive for March, 2012

Single EP seat wars – it’s that time of the year again

Like Christmas, the debate on a single seat for the European Parliament comes round once a year.

This time last year MEPs backed amendments calling for the Parliament to have a single seat. Today during the vote on this year’s budget report drafted by Labour MEP DerekVaughan, a whopping majority – 429 to 184 with 37 abstentions – voted in favour of a single seat for the European Parliament. Meanwhile, the Secretary-General of Parliament, Klaus Welle, will draw up a paper looking at the cost of maintaining the current arrangement before the summer recess in July. The most recent estimates put the annual cost of theStrasbourgtravelling circus at a fraction over €200m.

Yet despite its absurdity, there is precious little chance of MEPs getting the single seat they are after. This is because – as we all know – a single seat requires a treaty change, which requires the unanimous support of all member states and, guess what, there is more chance of seeing penguins on the moon than there is Nikolas Sarkozy and Jean-Claude Juncker giving up the Parliament buildings inStrasbourgandLuxembourg. Even the new Citizens’ Initiative with a petition signed by millions of Europeans will do little change the minds of the French and Luxembourg governments.

This is a shame because the problem is not going to go away. There are still a handful of people who open their well-thumbed copy of the EU treaties and remind us that the Parliament does have a single seat – inStrasbourg, but the reality is that the politicians and bureaucrats have already voted with their feet and chosenBrussels. The national embassies are all here; the Parliament buildings are well equipped and resourced; the European Commission and Council are across the road. The palace of glass and concrete on PlaceLuxembourgis a well-functioning, working Parliament.

Now don’t get me wrong -Strasbourgis a beautiful city, rich in culture, history and political symbolism. But its Parliament is simply not fit for purpose. To be honest, I don’t think anyone really enjoys the monthly travelling circus down to theAlsace. After spending a full-day travelling because the transport links are so poor, MEPs and officials arrive at lonely buildings on the outskirts of town, and to offices that are as inviting (and roughly the same size) as the average broom cupboard. Late night committee meetings and debates mean that you are condemned to a solid week’s sleep deprivation and caffeine induced frenzy.

When I think of the current ‘three-seat solution’, I’m reminded of ‘Yes, Minister’ and Sir Humphrey Appleby’s withering remark that basing the EU executive inBrusselsand the Parliament in Strasbourg is “like having the House of Commons in Swindon and the Civil Service in Kettering.”

But although the de facto seat of Parliament is inBrussels, the buildings inStrasbourg can still be used well. The Council of Europe sits next door and the Louise Weiss and Churchill building could easily support European Council summits or aEuropeanUniversity.

Over the past 30 years the European Parliament has been transformed from a talking-shop to one of the most powerful legislatures in the world. It deserves to be taken seriously. The current three-seat arrangement is a public relations disaster, a terrible waste of public money, highly inefficient and environmentally damaging. Let’s hope that one dayEurope’s leaders see sense and admit that it’s time to end this expensive charade.

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Closing the EU’s democratic deficit

Talk about the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ has been a popular debate amongst federalists for decades but, as the European Commission and Parliament have become more powerful, it has become a particularly acute problem. The Economist’s Charlemagne column devotes 1000 words to it.

The European Parliament undoubtedly has a legitimacy problem. Even though the Parliament has been transformed from talking shop to the most powerful legislature in Europe since direct elections were introduced in 1979, few people know who their MEP is and even fewer know about the pan-European political parties. In turn, the way that the Parliament works on legislation is baffling to all bar political anoraks.

The Parliament’s election system hardly helps matters. Most member states elect MEPs through the utterly impersonal closed party list system, where MEPs do not represent a local constituency and people vote for a party rather than a candidate. With closed lists the power of election lies almost exclusively in the hands of party bosses – the voters have very little scope to hire and fire their representatives.

Liberal Andrew Duff has led the charge to improve the efficiency and accountable of Parliament and is, quite rightly, one of the most respected MEPs in the House. But he has ruffled a few feathers with his latest report on the system for electing MEPs.

Mr Duff’s main proposal is to set up a new 25 MEP euro-constituency – a transnational list composed of candidates from at least nine member states and nominated by the European political parties. The idea is simple and has been discussed for years. He has also complained about the unhelpful role of national parties during European election campaigns.

Of course, Duff is right that European elections are not particularly ‘Europe’ oriented. The political parties do common manifestoes, but anybody who thinks national parties campaign on it is sadly misguided or touchingly naive. Moreover, since the College of Commissioners are appointed by the member states, the parties cannot seek a mandate to govern.

The question is whether the ‘democratic deficit’ exists because there isn’t a European polity, or because we don’t have transnational lists and strong pan-European parties. I suspect that it’s a bit of both.

There are obvious flaws to the Duff proposal. For example, it would create two classes of MEP, and a transnational list would probably favour candidates from the larger member states. But, on balance, there’s no harm in innovation. It’s certainly an idea worth experimenting with.

But it’s not the only avenue of reform. I would like to see MEPs elected through open-list systems – where people pick their favoured candidates from the list – which are much more effective and democratic. The evidence from the likes of Finland, Malta and Northern Ireland indicates that allowing voters to actually vote for a candidate leads to livelier campaigning, genuine accountability and higher turnout and voter engagement.

I would also like to see members of the European Commission being selected from the elected Parliament. Electorates have to be given the chance to ‘kick the bastards out’ and they need to have the opportunity to vote for individual candidates not party lists.

However, while there is a clear need to reform the way our MEPs are elected, let’s not overegg the pudding. Yes, turnout for European elections has fallen from 63% in 1979 to 43% in 2009, which hardly paints a picture of a healthy democracy, but this figure needs to be taken in context. Turnout for national elections has also been in decline, and the 43% figure is about the same as turnout for local elections and, indeed, for elections to the US Congress, the most powerful legislature in the world.

Unfortunately, I am sceptical about the chances of Mr Duff’s report surviving the plenary vote. There is nothing more frightening to a politician than the thought of losing their seat, and so I suspect that even Duff’s relatively modest ideas will look far too much like radical reform or turkey’s voting for Christmas.

But reform is needed. With a Parliament representing 27 nations and 500m people the lines of accountability are likely to be weaker than for national or municipal elections, but increasingly powerful EU institutions demand the most democratic control possible. Without it the Parliament will remain important, opaque and unloved.

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Let’s hear it for ‘Team Culture’

The Danish Presidency launched a 12-person culture ‘taskforce’ in Copenhagen this week. Among an impressive bunch of luminaries are former European Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, and Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum.

The culture big-wigs have been given a pretty stiff challenge. Danish Culture Minister Uffe Elbaek says that he wants the Culture Team to seek examples of art stimulating “new ideas in terms of identity, community and economic growth”, and to draft a manifesto on the role of the cultural sector in the economic crisis that will be presented in June at the end of the Danish EU Presidency.

In an op-ed in the Guardian by Elbaek and Culture Commissioner Androulla Vasilliou said “Art is not only a pleasurable icing on the cake; it is also a way of thinking and a practice of working innovatively with reality that can inspire us all to do better.”

Amen to that.

It’s surely right that access to culture is more important than ever in times of economic struggle. Keeping museums, galleries and theatres open with good exhibitions and performances is an invaluable public investment.

But one of the ironies is that cultural spending is invariably one of the first sectors to be cut when governments tighten their belts. It also tends to fare less well with the public purse than sport, its sexier rival. For example, the UK government is expected to spend £24bn on hosting the Olympic games this summer. No doubt it will be a fantastic fortnight of sport and will, hopefully, have a lasting and positive legacy for some of the poorest parts of East London, but the London 2012 budget is still roughly 50 times the size of the entire annual budget for the UK’s Arts Council.

Slashing culture spending is also a real case of cutting your nose to spite your economic face. The experience in the UK, and doubtless across Europe, is that for every pound or euro in public subsidy, arts organisations generate three from the private sector. Indeed, the reality is that culture generates economic wealth in all sorts of ways, with intellectual property and tourism the most significant.

However, the European Commission wants the EU budget to buck the trend of budget cuts. Its Creative Europe project, which brings together the existing EU culture programs under a single budget heading, would allocate €1.8bn over seven years to cultural spending. This would be, in relative terms, a sizeable funding increase of just under 40% and works out at about €250m per year out of a total EU budget of around €130bn-€140bn. Not a huge amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but certainly a sum which, combined with national programs, should fund plenty of valuable projects.

It is too often the case that politicians’ lack of interest in the arts leads to a failure to articulate how art and culture contribute to a vibrant and innovative society. One of the results of this is that when budget cuts arrive, politicians think they can use the remaining funds to pick cultural ‘winners’. But really we should treat artists like any other innovator. For every big financial success, there will be failures – that is the way innovation works. Ideally, governments should treat artists like any other entrepreneur. They need to be given the  opportunity to succeed, but also to fail.

It will be interesting to see how the Creative Europe project works out. Hopefully, it will see more money going to artists and enhancing Europe’s rich cultural tapestry. After all, there is nothing wrong with art for art’s sake.

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