Archive for category EU
For most of the past fifteen years, pro-European Conservatives have been on the endangered species list in British politics. In 2008 only three Conservative MPs out of a caucus of nearly 200 voted in favour of the Lisbon treaty. Thatcher government was dominated by europhile big-beasts – Douglas Hurd, Leon Brittan, Ken Clarke, Chris Patten and Thatcher’s nemesis, Michael Heseltine, just to name a few. Of these, only Clarke remains in David Cameron’s government, like the last europhile dinosaur waiting to be made extinct.
The decisive movement was the passing of the Maastricht treaty in 1993, which cost Prime Minister John Major his majority in Parliament, and caused a decisive split in the party which took a decade to heal. To the eurosceptic rebels, this was the moment that the EU ceased to be about trade and became a political union hell bent on destroying the nation state. To the rest of the country, it is symbolic of a time when the Conservative party decided to make itself unelectable.
Even now, the degree of anti-EU vitriol in the Conservative party has to be seen and heard to be believed, and one of the best places is the Conservative Home site. Last week Robert Buckland, elected as a Tory MP in 2010, penned a thoughtful and fairly innocuous article to the effect that Britain is starting to assert itself in the EU and that this was a good thing. Fairly uncontroversial stuff, and quite hard to disagree with considering that it is only a fortnight ago that David Cameron teamed up with Angela Merkel to win a 3 per cent cut to the EU budget.
In fact, the comments on Buckland’s article by fellow Conservatives illustrates why the party’s moderate wing has tended to keep quiet and why Tory europhilia was – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – like a love that dared not speak its name. Anybody who doesn’t think the Brits should close up the Channel Tunnel and thumb their nose at the continent is in the pay of ‘Brussels’ and/or a “quisling”. Quite how supposedly intelligent people equate support for British EU membership with Nazi collaboration is beyond me.
But, dare I say it, the green shoots of a more moderate eurorealism in the Tory party are starting to show. Several weeks ago, Buckland was one of a group of backbench MPs that launched the European Mainstream group within the Conservative parliamentary party. European Mainstream becomes the second pro-European campaign group to be set up in 2013, following the equally clunky-named cross-party Campaign for British Influence through Europe.
Since then, the EU has announced plans to negotiate a series of bilateral trade deals with G20 countries, with the jewel in the crown being a trade deal with the US – more manna from heaven for free marketeers you might think.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Tory party has not suddenly morphed into a hotbed of federalists. For the time being, there are only 12 MPs declared as members – with the Financial Times reporting that there are another 10-15 who are still too nervous to declare themselves public.
Neither is the party’s eurosceptic rhetoric likely to be toned down. The Tories are scared that losing votes to UKIP could cost them a parliamentary majority in 2015 and lead to a humiliating defeat in next year’s European elections. Taking a hard line on eastern European migration and complaining about the iniquity of ‘regulations from Brussels’ will remain the party’s default setting.
But it is significant enough that they feel brave enough to put their heads above the parapet, and are seemingly prepared to face down critics from their local constituency party. This may turn out to be part of the slow drift of MPs taking sides in advance of an ‘in/out’ referendum. But it just might be a sign that the Conservative party’s silent majority is finally ready to challenge the eurosceptics.
A common phrase was on the lips of pundits this morning – only in Italy.
With the centre-left scoring only the narrowest of victories, leaving them with control of the lower house – the Chamber of Deputies – but a good 40 seats short in the Senate, it is hard to imagine a set of results less amenable to the creation of a government.
The results will have sent shivers down the spines of breakfasting EU officials just as it has spooked the hell of the markets. The Italian stock market has already dropped by 5%. Interest rates on 10 year government bonds have jumped 0.4% to 4.8%.
Last month, the outgoing finance minister of Mario Monti’s technocrat government, Vittorio Grilli told MEPs on the European Parliament’s Economic committee that the country would run a balanced budget in 2014. Then, last Friday, the Commission’s economic Winter Forecast indicated that Italy’s finances were returning to good shape, with the budget deficit to fall below 3% in 2013. In the space of less than 24 hours, eighteen months of painstaking work to claw back credibility and market confidence risks being undone.
However, taking a step back from the economic panic caused by the stalemate, there are so many fascinating sub-plots in this election that it is difficult to know where to start.
What is the main story? Silvio Berlusconi’s refusal to give up on politics after three separate terms as Prime Minister and enough scandal to fill over 100 unprintably salacious novels. What about the inexplicable reluctance of the Italian electorate to finally kill off the 76 year old dinosaur? How it is possible for a convicted fraudster currently on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute, to claim 30% of the vote?
Then there is the failure of Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic party, who could only secure victory by the skin of their teeth, separated from Berlusconi’s Freedom party by fewer than 150,000 votes in the elections to the Chamber of Deputies and less than 1% in the Senate. Indeed, the centre-left was also dogged by allegations of scandal over its involvement in the Monte Paschi bank collapse.
What about the sudden emergence of Beppe Grillo, who has made a comedy career out of lampooning Italy’s political class, and now holds the balance of power?
Or, last but not least, the routing of Mario Monti? The favourite politician of Brussels (and Berlin), who could only finish a dismal and distant fourth place with 10% of the vote in his first election contest.
What next you might ask?
Well, short of a Bersani/Berlusconi grand coalition, it is difficult to see how a government of any colour could take office, let alone be able to survive for more than a matter of weeks. The centre-left and right blocs are both well short of the 158 members needed to form a majority in the Senate even with the support of the 18 members elected on Monti’s ticket. For his part, Grillo has so far insisted that he will play no part in a government with either of the mainstream parties. Italians are likely to be sent back to the polls sooner rather than later.
That said, however, the election produced such a fragmented result that it is far from likely that fresh elections would deliver a majority government. In any case, the instability caused by months of inaction could well take Italy back to the mercy of the financial markets.
A week ago, the EU and the watching world would have scoffed at the idea of a maverick comedian holding the balance of power in the eurozone’s third largest country. They’re not laughing any more.
EU leaders started their first summit of 2013 in fine fashion. First talks set to begin at a civilised 4pm were delayed until 8.30pm – a cruel interruption into carefully laid dinner plans. Then there was no formal proposal tabled by Herman van Rompuy until 6am. Several hours later on Friday morning it was back for the second round of punishment. The deal – when it came – concluded 24 hours of talks. An impressive display of sustained ‘jaw-jaw’ even by the EU’s high standards.
After the succession of crisis summits that have blighted many a Thursday night and early Friday morning over the past couple of years, I suppose we should be grateful that the politicos are merely dealing with how the EU’s farm subsidies and structural funds are going to be divvied up for the next few years rather than yet another bail-out.
But, ultimately, it’s hard to avoid a sense of frustration. €959 billion sounds like a lot of money but that’s not what is being haggled over. Politicians left the Justius Lipsus building in November with a proposal of €973.5bn in commitments from Herman van Rompuy. With Germany and the UK leading a group wanting further cuts, but the “Friends of Cohesion” and “Friends of the CAP” both anxious to protect their slice of the pie, the amount of room for manoeuvre was limited. In the end, it came down to splitting budgetary hairs. For example, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte held up agreement for hours until he got an extra €45 million to go home with.
It is also far from clear whether or not the painfully reached compromise will be chewed and spat out by MEPs. The European Parliament is preparing to play hard-ball because it says that having payments worth around €910bn based on commitments for €960bn is a recipe for debt and deficit. Last night, Martin Schultz told reporters that the Commission would be forced to table an emergency budget in the coming months to cover a €16bn hole in this year’s budget. Without guarantees that the EU will have the cash to pay for its bills, he wouldn’t sign.
All this after a senior EU official told me that basically what’s at stake is 0.002% of EU GDP. Hardly worth staying up all night for.
Conversely, a handful of bland paragraphs in the post-summit communique could be rather more significant. EU leaders gave a green light for talks on a free trade agreement with the US, a deal that could generate 2% of GDP on its own. While the budget talks were uppermost in most people’s minds, it is the prospect of trade accords with Japan and the US – as well as the soon-to-be-finalised trade deal with Canada – that has the Brussels diplomatic corps excited. EU officials think that an EU/US agreement could translate into €275bn per year and 2 million new jobs.
In fact, taken in this light the budget talks are a microcosm of what the EU used to be and what it could and should be. A seemingly never-ending inward-looking debate about subsidies and investments in Europe by Europe. Ironically, the sections of the budget spending outside the EU- development aid and cash for the countries negotiating accession deals to join the EU – were among the items targeted by the biggest cuts. Meanwhile, outside the Brussels-bubble, the world goes on.
David Cameron’s EU speech attracted vitriol from the usual suspects last week. Guy Verhofstadt accused him of “playing with fire”, the Socialist group’s Hannes Swoboda said it was “tragicomic” – and those were some of the kinder, printable comments.
And, yes, there is something particularly tiresome about the self-satisfied smugness of many British eurosceptics whenever they launch into yet another tirade on the innumerable evils and iniquities of “Brussels” and then, within minutes, reveal an impressive level of ignorance of the EU decision making process.
But, in truth, it’s hard to disagree with much of what Cameron actually said. The Working Time directive – which Britain (and other countries) have opposed for years – was the only piece of EU law singled out. Even then, the Prime Minister didn’t give an idea of what opt-outs or exemptions he wanted from renegotiation. With his remarks about the EU’s democratic deficit, the need for the institutions to be closer to Europeans, for national parliaments to take a greater role in EU law-making, and for the bloc to become more competitive and outward-looking,
Whether officials in the EU institutions like it or not, it is a plain fact that – and I say this as someone who spent several very happy years working in the Parliament – the institutions feel remote from most Bruxelloise, let alone the rest of Europe. And the same officials are kidding themselves by suggesting that this gap, or the democratic deficit, has not grown wider as a result of the eurozone crisis.
Pro and anti-Europeans can surely agree that the crisis has seen a huge transfer of economic powers from national governments to the Commission and the European Central Bank. Lest we forget, neither of these institutions is directly elected. Without rigorous checks and balances and clear lines of accountability this cannot be sustained, and the evidence from the first two years of the European Semester indicates that national parliaments are doing a far from effective job in scrutinising the EU’s revamped economic governance rules. Closing this accountability gap should be a top priority for the EU as well as national institutions.
As far as the wider implications for Britain are concerned, my sense is that Cameron played a bad hand about as well as he could have done last week and managed – albeit only briefly – to unite his party. But he has still started the clock ticking on a time-bomb that will detonate at some unspecified and unknown point in the next five years. There are far too many “known unknowns” that could derail his plans to renegotiate. There may well not be an inter-governmental conference in the next five years if the eurozone crisis abates and, in any case, there’s no guarantee that Conservative eurosceptics will be prepared to wait that long. The Tories might also lose the next election.
But regardless of whether Britain’s terms of membership within the EU change or not, those who want the EU to survive and prosper should listen to the latest leader of la perfide albion. Just because he’s a British eurosceptic doesn’t mean he’s always wrong.
Last Wednesday I was bracing myself for yet another failed EU crisis summit followed immediately by the usual flight of capital courtesy of panicky financial traders. It was a relief to find that Italy scored a surprise diplomatic win over Germany just hours after their football team did the same in Poland.
But after marathon talks, during which Messrs Monti and Rajoy refused to budge until they had obtained measures to reduce their borrowing costs, Angela Markel finally backed down and we have the first significant breakthrough in response to the crisis for over a year. The EU’s permanent bail-out fund, the European Stability Mechanism, will be able to directly recapitalize banks and buy government bonds without tough conditions. The ECB has been appointed as supervisor of the eurozone’s banks and may well have the powers to wind up broken banks.
At last, we have got some realism about how to stave off the crisis.
As ever, the devil will be in the detail, particularly about the new powers for the European Central Bank as the eurozone’s bank supervisor. The current ECB statute and the treaties do have a reference to the bank acting as a ‘prudential supervisory’ role, but I doubt that the draftsmen had the idea of the ECB being a super-regulator in chief of the continent’s banks when they drew up its mandate.
It also remains to be seen how the ESM will directly prop up the banks. There are still no plans to give the EU bail-out fund a banking licence or to increase its size, but I imagine that EU leaders will choose to cross those bridges when the time comes. Once the precedent of buying bonds and propping up banks is established, it will be difficult to put a stop to it.
However, while we undeniably have the tools to stave off bond market pressure onItaly and Spain, and should protect them from needing a full rescue package, the long term future of the euro is still uncertain. For all Merkel’s protestations, it is difficult to believe that some form of debt mutualisation will not be needed. The German Redemption Fund proposal is probably the most likely solution – pooling the excess debt beyond the 60% threshold laid out in the Stability and Growth Pact into a fund that must then be paid off each year. The Redemption Fund uses the same logic as the economic governance’six pack’, with countries required to reduce their excess debt by at least 5% each year.
Crucially, it might well be possible to set up a Redemption Fund without a treaty change, although I wouldn’t recommend saying this to a German politician.
In any case, with any serious talk of debt mutualisation still off limits for Germany, leaders did the smart thing by parking the issue with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. Van Rompuy, who, as usual, played a quietly important role in brokering the summit compromise, will now draw up a detailed proposal to be discussed in the autumn.
Last week’s summit is just the first step, but for the time being, we should now enjoy a long overdue period of relative calm. Here’s hoping…..
Now that the dust has settled on the second Greek general election in as many months it is striking to realise that the two elections have not achieved a lot. A coalition of Pasok and New Democracy is going to be replaced by – you’ve guessed it – a coalition between the same two parties, although with New Democracy as the largest party. Of course, the seismic shift has been the sudden emergence of the radical left Syriza party, which has completely broken the mould of Greek politics by routing the socialist Pasok party which won over 40% of the vote and a parliamentary majority at the last elections held in 2009. However, while Syriza has so far refused any overtures to join a grand coalition, preferring to go into opposition rather than government, Greece will still have a government with a working majority.
That, though, is the easy part. The real challenge will be whether Greece will be able to stick to the tough conditions of its bail-out agreement and start to slow and painful process of dragging itself out of recession and reducing its debt burden. I think we have seen enough in the past two years to accept that the bail-out package on its own will probably not be enough. Greece is in its fifth consecutive year of recession. GDP has fallen by a quarter since 2007
A few weeks ago a friend of mine was at a conference in Greece with delegates from a number of European countries. He pointed out that Germany’s economic recovery of the 1950s and 60s would not have taken place without the Marshall Plan. Although I hesitate to make the analogy, it is becoming increasingly clear that Greece needs its own Marshall Plan if it is to recover.
After over a decade of overspending and two statistical frauds you might ask why Greece deserves special treatment. But the reality is that a country marked by the high levels of social unrest and desperation as we have seen in Athens has knock-effects on its neighbours.
Indeed, Greece’s difficulties have huge effects on the rest of Europe that are social as well as economic. For example, massive public spending cuts to border patrols has meant that Greece is really struggling to control its borders. Thousands of illegal immigrants from Turkey and other parts of Asia and North Africa are entering Greece each month on their way to the Promised Land of wealth, milk and honey in northern Europe.
There are tools that can immediately be used. The European Investment Bank should be encouraged to bankroll more infrastructure projects to boost employment and help re-build the country. The European Commission should allocate extra structural funds and project bonds. It is not even about solidarity so much as common sense. Our neighbour’s destitution inevitably hampers our own quality of life.
Even with a targeted EU stimulus package and a €130 billion bail-out Greece’s recovery is going to be slow and bumpy. But regardless of whether its politicians deserve help, the Greece people certainly do. Even if they didn’t a Marshall Plan for Greece would still be a good idea. If EU leaders have any sense they will stop the moralising and accept that the sooner the cradle of democracy becomes a more stable and hopeful country, the better for us all.
Christine Lagarde is paying the media price for some unwisely strident remarks about the plight of Greece. Asking during an interview over the weekend whether she felt any sympathy for ordinary Greeks struggling against the background of deep spending cuts and big hikes in tax, the IMF head honcho remarked that she get in with it and pay their taxes, reserving her sympathy for”children in Niger”.
Predictably, newspaper letters pages and TV news reported the – entirely justified - furious reaction of Greece to this latest international humiliation.
Lagarde’s comments were politically maladroit considering that the IMF and the EU are terrified at the prospect of the GReek people electing anti-austerity parties led by the left-wing Syriza in the country’s second election in as many months. Having yet another international politician criticise their failure to keep their house in order is hardly likely to increase the election prospects of Pasok and the centre-right New Democracy.
They were also aimed at the wrong target. Most Greek people paid their taxes and were not big beneficiaries in the relatively untroubled first seven years of Greece’s euro membership. The spoils of the boom went to Greece’s wealthier professional classes and the establishment. They are now the ones expected to foot the bill thanks to the corruption and incompetence of successive governments and the venality of their business class.
In fact, Lagarde’s ire should have been aimed against wealthy Greeks who for years regarded tax paying as an optional extra and got their cash out of the country when the scale of the debt crisis became clear in early 2010. The scale of tax evasion in Greece has been estimated at around €8 billion most of which is the result of tax-dodging by the rich. It is an open secret that the property markets in London and Paris have and continue to enjoy the patronage of rich Greek ex-pats getting out before the ship sank.
However, before we dismiss Lagarde’s patronising and insensitive remarks out of hand, it is important to note that she is not the only alone. The reality is that she was voicing the opinions held by millions of Europeans and most political leaders in the EU, impatient at the two statistical frauds committed by the Greek government and reluctance to implement the terms of the rescue package. From my own, albeit limited, anecdotal evidence, I can say that most of my British, Dutch and German acquaintances would endorse what Lagarde said. After two years of bail-outs along with constant political and civil unrest the well of patience is now well and truly dry.
It goes back to a point I made on this blog a couple of months ago about ‘reform fatigue in the south and support fatigue in the north’. When asked about the scale of the cuts required by Greece, many people point to the equally tough austerity measures in 2008 and 2009 made by the likes of Latvia and Estonia and, more recently, by Ireland and Portugal as part of the terms of their own rescue package. The reforms were accepted without complaint by their citizens.
Regardless of whether they stay in or leave the eurozone living standards in Greece are going to deteriorate for a number of years. More than any other EU country, Greece lived far beyond its means, and two of its governments fiddled the figures on an impressive scale . For this reason, while the EU and IMF would be well advised to pull out all the stops to keep Greece inside the eurozone and be more compassionate to the considerable suffering of millions of Greeks, one of the central points made by Lagarde’s is true: it is time to pay-back. The only question is how.
Not that you’d know it from the peculiarly damp and dismal weather that has afflicted Brussels over the last month, but summer is rapidly approaching. In two months time politicians and hacks will be on their holidays or (in my case at least) enjoying the London Olympics and Euro 2012 football tournament.
Sporting festivals are not really complete without a couple of diplomatic rows to fill up newspaper column inches over the silly season, but the political wrangling over Euro 2012, which will be co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, has much more substance to it.
The European Commission and other political leaders are planning to boycott the event because of the alleged ill-treatment of the country’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who has been on hunger strike for several weeks after photographs were circulated of a battered and bruised Mrs Tymoshenko – allegedly at the hands of her prison guards.
Awarding co-host status to Ukraine along with Poland must have seemed like a great idea for UEFA back in 2007. Poland was and is still one of Europe’s fast growing economies, bucking the trend in a continent wracked with recession and, back in 2007, the 2004 Orange revolution which brought a pro-Western government to power meant that EU-Ukrainian relations were strong.
Then things changed. Yanukovych took power and Mrs Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years after a trial that, if not a bona fide show trial, at least gave a pretty good impression of being politically motivated.
Lots of people say that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. But the reality is that they very often do and not, it has to be said, to the credit of sport’s governing bodies. Euro 2012 is not the first and will not be last. Last month, the lucrative Formula 1 circus arrived in Bahrain and, despite the continued wave of anti-government protests and police violence, motor racing’s millionaires got on with their race, oblivious to what was going on around them.
Famously, the Cold War meant that the Olympic games of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 were boycotted first by the US and then by the Soviet Union, but the most obvious case of a sporting event that should never have been allowed to take place is surely the 1978 World Cup.
Football’s biggest event went ahead in Argentina against the backdrop of General Gaultieri’s brutal fascist regime. One of the chapters of Simon Kuper’s wonderful book “Football against the enemy” details the lengths that the military junta went to giving the appearance that everything was peaceful, fine and dandy, even though thousands of political prisoners continued being tortured or ‘disappeared’ while the football was going on. There is also pretty convincing evidence that at least on of Argentina’s matches hinged on a massive bribe paid to Peru. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Argentina won the World Cup and the generals had themselves a wonderful sporting success to keep some of their people happy. It was not football or governing body FIFA’s finest hour.
It would be nice to say that sport learned its lesson. But the reality is that the 2004 Olympics were held in China, while last year, FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar – a country not known for possessing either a football heritage or a rosy human rights record.
What impact would a boycott of Euro 2012 by political leaders have? The most likely answer is: a bit of embarrassment but little lasting damage. It would obviously be embarrassing for Ukraine, and also for Poland who are understandably keen for their day in the sun not to be ruined.
As a result, Ukrainian’s are now pleading their country’s case. Heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who leads one of the main opposition parties, had an op-ed in yesterday’s Times calling on international leaders to come and show solidarity with Ukrainians. Meanwhile, Oleg Voloshyn, spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign affairs ministry, complained less honourably that “Euro 2012 is sport, not politics” adding that an EU boycott would be like “employing Cold War methods”.
It’s a slightly disingenuous position. The Ukrainian government has spent an estimated $10 billion on co-hosting the tournament and Mr Yanukovych will have been desperate to get some photo opportunities with world leaders and the footballing great and good.
But to boycott or not to boycott is a difficult question. Ukraine should not be hosting the tournament just as the Grand Prix in Bahrain should have been cancelled. And if there are no other more effective ways to pile pressure on Mr Yanukovych and his thuggish regime – which I am sure there are – then the boycott should go ahead. But we shouldn’t expect the sport to stop. History suggests that boycott or no boycott, the beautiful game will still carry on.
It’s become difficult to escape legislation on Internet regulation. In Europe, and across the Atlantic to the US, the governance of cyber-land hasrisen to the top of the political agenda. In January the European Commission released legislation to re-write the data protection directive, while the Commission and the European Parliament are also haggling over the little-loved anti-counterfeit treaty Acta.
Meanwhile, the Obama White House published its own ‘Internet bill of rights’ in February and blocked two anti-piracy acts from going through Congress after a concerted online campaign involving Wikipedia and Facebook earlier this year. Last week, the US Congress actually ignored protests by the Obama administration and backed legislation aimed at helping to thwart electronic cyber-attacks on critical US infrastructure and private companies. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) will, in the unlikely event that it gets through both houses of Congress and Presidential approval, encourage companies and the federal government to share information collected online.
One thing is for sure – the backlash against Internet regulation has made politicians on both sides of Atlantic very nervous. In the Pirate Party – which already has several MEPs, planning to run a pan-EU campaign at the next European elections and, incredibly, is currently polling in third place with around 10% in Germany – a political party has been spawned in response to the debate on the future of the Internet. Considering that the Internet has been widely available and used for less than 15 years, this is a remarkable development.
But should we be surprised?
Probably not. The world-wide web is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most valuable inventions of the 20th century. Ever since Tim Berners-Lee, the civil servant who invented the web, gave it to the world for free, it has certainly changed the way we work and live. It has – for the most part – also been an overwhelming force for good and is now considered a public service with access to it a human right. But, unlike virtually every other sphere of life, the Internet is a largely unregulated legal ‘wild west’. It is perhaps inevitable that it is now becoming politicised.
At the root of the debate are two polarised arguments. If we were going to caricature them we would say that the first contends that everything on the Internet should be accessible and free; while the other holds that people involved in illegal downloads or file-sharing are breaking the law and should be punished.
This (albeit very broadly) is not completely dissimilar to the classic libertarian vs authoritarian argument which emerges whenever the question of how much personal data should be required by government comes up.
It reminds me of the (unsuccessful) attempts by the last Labour government in the UK to implement compulsory ID cards with biometric personal data. The two polar opposite arguments were along the lines of: ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear’, and, on the other side, ‘why should the government/police etc have my personal data?’ Although the policy was in successive party manifestoes, fears about the potential cost of the scheme, as well as an effective and well-resourced anti-ID card campaign, killed it off. It was no surprise when the incoming Conservative/Liberal coalition quickly abandoned the idea.
Somehow, I don’t think that attempts to regulate the Internet will be quietly abandoned. The online world is simply too big, too valuable and, if left unprotected, too dangerous. But it is clear that, like reforms to the welfare state or the tax system, regulating the Internet is now politically charged.
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.