A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

Anything to say? Contact me at europeandisunion@yahoo.co.uk

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The 'Citizen's Initiative' is an Exercise in Hot Air

The 'Citizen's Initiative' is an exercise in hot air. Picture by JLogan.

We have just weeks to go until the European Commission launches the biggest experiment in participatory democracy anywhere in the world. It is called the 'citizen's initiative,' and, fittingly coming into play on April Fool's Day, is widely hailed as a landmark in democratising the European Union, and making it more accountable to the people. Political commentators and analysts have been gushing over it since it was first announced, welcoming it as revolutionary, uber-democratic, and impressive: a new era in direct participation, apparently.

Well, it may be revolutionary - this is the first time EU citizens have been given the ability to direct Commission (that is, executive) policy. But uber-democratic and impressive it is not. In fact, aside from the vaunting and adulation, it's pretty much worthless. It is a petition-based procedure: if a petition gets gather at least one million signatures from at least quarter of the EU's member states, the Commission will then take it upon itself to consider legislating in that field. That's right, consider. There's nothing legally binding to do anything other than think about it. If the Commission doesn't want to do it, it won't happen - regardless of how many people put their names to paper.

Second, that is an awful lot of signatures for a petition to get, taking into account language barries. Especially across seven states. What happens if the same petition pops up several different times, each in different languages? Each of them only has a few hundred thousand signatures, but together they have well over a million. What then? Do they count? At the Commission's convenience, most likely. If they are true to past form when it comes to public consultation, a la Irish referenda, they'll adopt anything they do like and ignore anything that they don't. You can bet that 'greater fiscal control for the Commission' will get passed with 'popular approval,' and, say, 'let's see Barroso's million-euro expenses forms' won't because it doesn't meet the criteria.

Thirdly, all the vaunting and adulation is missing the point - this isn't 'democracy' at all. This is evidence of a lack of democracy. Why implement a petition-based system where citizens have a chance at directing policy and legislation - if the lawmakers agree - when you could just make the lawmakers elected in the first place? That's true democracy - choosing who you want in government and telling them what laws to make. Not jumping through hoops to please unelected officials who might then deign to ignore you regardless.


In other news, a stunning example of why proper democratic oversight is sorely needed has been brought back from the EU's Valhalla. Jacques Santer, who resigned - along with most of his Commission - amid allegations of mass-corruption in 1999 is now chief of the debt-selling 'SPIV' - the fundraiser for the European Union's 'new' (read: latest) bailout fund.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Massive Blow for Parliamentary Neutrality

Martin Schulz has just taken over the Presidency of the European Parliament. The German leader of the Socialist parliamentary group was far and away the most obvious candidate to take the role, ahead of Green MEP Rebecca Harms, Conservative MEP Nirj Deva, and Liberal MEP Dianna Wallis. It was, in EU fashion, something of a stitch-up: the two dominant parliamentary blocs, the centre-right EPP and the socialists, had already agreed to share the presidency. This is more comparable to the Blair-Brown handover than it is a 'free vote' of MEPs, as Mr. Schulz insists. With most British politicians in the EU still suffering 'collateral damage' as a result of David Cameron vetoing their proposed European treat - or, as it ought to be known by analysts, 'pulling a French one' - the other contenders really didn't stand much of a chance.

But Schulz's appointment isn't just about foregone conclusions making a mess of democracy. It is of vital importance, from a democratic standpoint that the Presidency of the European Parliament remains neutral; something that Mr. Schulz is not, by any stretch of the imagination. Not only is it the only one of the six EU presidences to be subject to a popular vote, but it is also the only chamber of EU government that citizens get to see in action. Where the Commission and the Council are headed (or populated) by unaccountable, appointed individuals, the President of the Parliament is always an MEP. And, where the Commission and the Council are often highly secretive and sealed off from the media, the Parliament is always open - it even has its own television channel (Europarltv), the only glimpse into the workings of the European Union that citizens of Europe are likely to get. Parliament is also the only venue for views which differ from those of the Commissioners (who are almost exclusively from the centre-right EPP) can be aired. In other words, a vital asset - one whose premiership should be put beyond the reach of one side or the other.

The position itself is one of tremendous power. Although it may be largely ceremonial in the grand scheme of things, in the chamber, the President is king. This was exemplified by a 'riot' in the Parliament back in 2008, when eighty MEPs protested the decision to hold the Irish referendum again with banners and placards. The President of the Parliament ordered the banners confiscated, the MEPs escorted out, and had some of them disciplined. The punishments included fines of up to one thousand euros and explusion from the chamber.

But it was all decided arbitrarily. Although several MEPs had called for the protestors to be removed, the final say was the President's. In the end, thirteen MEPs faced discipline: one of them, according to Nigel Farage, had 'never shouted in her life.' And another, Andreas Molzer, was, as pointed out to Parliament by Mr. Farage, actually in Frankfurt. The President of the European Parliament has the power to evict MEPs at a whim, even when their innocence - for the crime of 'protesting,' no less - can be readily proven. That is not power that Mr. Schulz should wield.

Mr. Schulz was one of those MEPs that called for the protestors to be removed. He called them Communists and Nazis. Insults which he has employed repeatedly, although takes offence to when deployed against him. He once famously called a Dutch MEP a 'fascist' because he said that details of Barroso's expenses - over one million euros per annum - should be made public (the video has since disappeared from YouTube channel. But you can still see its husk here in all its uncontestable glory). He's as far from neutral as it's possible to get in the European Parliament. So why does he now hold the post where neutrality is most important?


In other news, the European Commission has claimed that 'it knows better' than ratings agencies when it comes to the financial viability of its rescue fund. It cited 'secret evidence' which, it claims, shows that European economies are in a much better financial position than it cares to admit. Although it sounds like bombast, we shouldn't dismiss this announcement too readily - after all, it knew Greece was fiscally incontinent a long time before it told anyone else.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Diane Abbot's Comments are Decades Out of Date

Map of Africa, pre-conquest. Divisions clearly visible.

Make hay while the sun shines. I have a feeling that the right-of-centre commentariat is going to make enough hay out of this one to fuel a medium-sized powerstation for a week. Diane Abbot, former Labour Party leadership contender and current MP for Hackney, has came out and made the kind of sweeping generalisation that, were she a Tory, and were any other ethnic community the object of her ire, would have prompted calls for her resignation from more than a lone Conservative MP. In a response to someone on the social network site Twitter, who made the profoundly sensible point that the term 'black community' is a load of bunk (and who, incidentally, is black), she tweeted: 'white people love playing divide and rule. We should not play their game,' and then tagged it 'tactic as old as colonialism' for good measure.

She denies what she said is racist, which it isn't (it's prejudice: racism, pre-PC, meant something rather more extreme), and apologised for the way it had been 'interpreted.' But there is no other way that a sentence beginning with 'white people love...' could be interpreted. If an MP stood up in the House of Commons and said 'black people love...,' there would be a collective intake of breath and there would be no fewer than three Guardian articles commissioned. But, racist or otherwise, it's quite wrong.

I am a white person. I do not wake up in the morning and think: 'how can I subjugate black people today?' At the risk of falling into a cliche, I do not have all too many black friends (at least not as many as a quota would suggest I should), but I do know and speak to black people regularly, and, funnily enough, the thought of emphasising their Ghanaian and Nigerian passports to stoke division and make it easier to oppress them does not enter my mind. I doubt it troubles many other members of the 'white community,' either. It is not the government's policy, and nor do white people have a collective conscience: our 'divide and conquer' tactics are entirely in Ms. Abbot's head.

She may have noticed that the only one, as far as I'm aware, to call for her resignation - loveably on the basis of 'offending' his constituents - is one Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-upon-Avon and an Iraqi-born Kurd. An African think tank, which purports to 'strengthen principled Afrikan Unity in struggle for Global Justice,' derided her generalisation. Her one prominent defender, George Galloway, happens to be white. There is no finer illustration of just how irrelevant racial lines really are in modern, mainstream Britain: her attitudes to race relations, where people only think in terms of their 'community' (which, in the case of the 'black community,' is a lot more diverse than the race relations industry gives it credit for), are stuck in the same century as those colonialists she thinks still exist.