An Occasional Guide to EU politics: The twitching British Eurosceptic.

It’s a form of political colour blindness. No matter what the result, there’s a peculiar type of British Eurosceptic view that interprets things in a way completely different from the rest of people on Earth.

When 75% of voters vote for pro-EU parties, that’s a massive endorsement for euro scepticism. When a former prime minister of Luxembourg, publicly nominated months in advance, is picked for Commission President over an unnamed invisible nominal alternative candidate pushed by the British, that’s  a slap in the face for democracy.

There’s a whole “Fog in English Channel, continent cut off” feel to the thing, that the opinions of the editors of The Daily Mail or the Daily Express matter more that the votes of millions of Europeans, and if you can’t get that it’s you, sir, that has a problem!

It’s not that euroscepticism is not a legitimate point of view, or even isolated just to Britain. It’s that weird brand of British Euroscepticism that borders on a neurosis.

It causes grown adults to ask for the flag of an organisation Britain has been a member of for over 40 years to be removed from camera shots for fear of triggering emotional hysteria amongst people who are politically special.

It causes them to turn their backs when a specific piece of music is played.

It causes them to genuinely believe that there is a comparison between the European Union and the tyranny of the Soviet Union, a country of secret police, one party rule and slave labour camps.

These are actual adults, the fathers (in UKIP’s case, grandfathers) of children, people who have held responsible jobs.

What’s most striking is that such behaviour would be regarded on any other subject as just plain odd. If Sinn Fein MPs did the same over the Union Jack or God Save The Queen, or Tory MPs over the Zimbabwe flag, they’d be regarded as not the acts of rational people. Yet when it comes to the EU, all manner of surreal behaviour is tolerated.

One can’t help wondering is there a massive case of emotional transference going on here? That mostly middle aged angry men have seen their society change, seen women and minorities and gays all no longer defer to them, and have lashed out at social change, stumbling across a symbol of all that change? Has the EU, as a symbol of trying to manage modern global change, become the epitome of the change they hate, the very antithesis of The Good Old Days when the darkies and the poofs and the skirt knew their place?

Europe elects its first Prime Minister and nobody notices. But they will.

JCJ2Sometimes it’s the little things. In 1989, after failing to win a majority in the Irish general election, Charles J. Haughey was forced to formally resign as Taoiseach. People forget this now, because Haughey remained as acting Taoiseach until Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats did the business and assembled a Dail majority to re-elect him as Taoiseach proper.

But it set an interesting precedent, because it means that in 2016 Enda Kenny could return to the Dail with a mere 40-50 TDs, and remain indefinitely as head of a Fine Gael minority government if there is not an agreed majority to replace him. It’s not enough to lose the election: the Dail has to agree on who actually won, and looking at the recent RED C poll, that could be anybody’s guess.

All because of the Haughey precedent of 27 years previously.

The little things matter, and the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission is going to be another one of those things that will snowball into something much bigger in the future.

Juncker was nominated in Dublin last March by the European People’s Party, the largest centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, and the party of both Angela Merkel and Enda Kenny. The Socialists, Liberals, Greens and the Left in the European Parliament also nominated candidates. All with the same understanding: that whichever party won the most seats would supply the next President of the Commission.

It’s this which large elements of the media (and, it would seem, David Cameron) missed. Even now, when you ask people about the European Parliament (you know, the way you do, down the pub) you get back the “powerless talking shop” quip.

Except it isn’t true. It used to be. But now the EP can hire and fire the Commission, block or amend almost any EU law, including the EU budget, and now, as David Cameron has discovered, threaten to veto any European Council nominee for President. The European Parliament just took on Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and beat it. Powerless talking shop? They’ll be wearing “Our Parliament can beat up your prime minister” tee shirts in the Espace Leopold this week.

For years, Europe’s leaders kept getting stick every time they negotiated a new treaty. Europe, they were told, isn’t democratic. Their response was to throw a few bones down the stairs into the basement where they kept their pretend parliament. But nobody seemed to notice that the parliament was gobbling up everything it was given, and growing, and suddenly there’s a banging on the basement door and Europe’s leaders discover there’s a fully grown parliament standing in front of them, and it’s not happy living in the basement anymore.

Jean Claude Juncker can see the new reality. For the first time ever, we have a European Commission President who didn’t get his job purely from the gift of the EU’s presidents and prime ministers, sitting around a dining table and holding an Election by After Eight. His name was one the table early, picked by the EPP, and the Parliament was adamant. The Council has the power to nominate whomever it wants, but Parliament was only going to accept one name.

Juncker is Parliament’s man. He knows it, they know it, and if he wants a second term, he’ll have to remember it too, and being the savvy old operator he is, there’s no doubt he will. He is the prime minister of a majority of the members of the European Parliament. They are the hand that feeds, not the member states.

After all, do you know who (and only who) has the power to sack Juncker? The Parliament. Not the member states. Yet another bone the member states threw down the steps without thinking, hoping it would keep the shouting from the basement down. Now look what they’ve done.

The whole affair can be looked at two ways. One, the British way, is of an old Euro Federalist playing the game much better than Britain’s poor outclassed prime minister. Britain outsmarted once again by devious backroom continental dealers with their compromises and Everybody Must win A Prize ways.

Or there’s another way.

How was Juncker’s outgoing predecessor, Jose Manual Barroso picked ten years ago? The answer: out of the blue days before the vote, pretty much unknown to anyone who wasn’t Portuguese.

Yet those of us who actually care about this stuff (the Trekkies of international democratic politics) have known that Juncker, the Socialists’ Martin Schulz and the Liberals’ Guy Verhofstadt were the names on the table. In a debate before the European elections, transmitted on telly (with an RTE host, by the way) and hardly watched by anybody, Schulz said very clearly, with Juncker to his side, that the next President of the European Commission would come from one of the candidates on the stage.

This wasn’t some secret backroom deal. This was the most transparent process for we have ever had for choosing a Commission President ever, and whilst it’s true that most Europeans didn’t even vote in the European Elections, that’s a choice in itself. The whole point of being a democracy is that you can’t make people participate in it, only have the right to participate.

But this all matters. In 2019, when the next European Elections come around, will the media and the member states pay closer attention to the nominees of the European parties? You’re damn right they will. This is a game changer.

Humility, President Juncker, Humility!

JCJ2There’s a rumour floating about that there’s a plan for a imperial-style presidential inauguration ceremony for Jean Claude Juncker, to be held at the European Parliament.

Please, in the name of God, don’t let it be true. There would be nothing more grating than for the rest of Europe to watch thousands of EU employees, all on the taxpayer’s eurocent, applauding another EU employee for getting the Job of Jobs. This is the sort of stuff that would make The Daily Mail do an “Oh my!” in a southern American accent and faint.

Seriously, understatement is the key here. A small group witnessing JCJ take an oath, quietly and elegantly, is the tone to set.

Where? Well, the location should underline a theme of the incoming presidency.

Perhaps the Estonian-Russian border?

Will it annoy UKIP? Almost certainly. But who cares what Putin’s Party thinks? If UKIP don’t like it, let them go back to Moscow.

David Cameron’s Federalist Fetish.

JCJ is coming to get you! Woooo

JCJ is coming to get you! Woooo!

Let’s start with a few facts about the European elections:

1. It’s hard to claim Jean Claude Juncker won a democratic mandate for anything. That’s just not how most Europeans outside of a section of Brussels actually vote in European Parliament elections.

2. Having said that, it’s hard for British eurosceptics to claim that the result went their way either. Even in Britain a majority of voters voted for parties that support the European Union. In France, where Marine Le Pen scored a very handsome result, most French voters didn’t vote for her vision of an EU-free Europe.

3. The tendency of British eurosceptics to co-opt results for their own use, either deliberately or through incompetence and genuine ignorance, continues unabated. You would easily think, reading the British media, that Marine Le Pen was some sort of free market fellow traveller. The truth is, JCJ’s vision of Europe, with a European single market at its heart, is far closer to David Cameron’s vision than Marine Le Pen’s.

4. But the biggest fact is that David Cameron has once again, by pandering to the never-to-be-satisfied maw of British eurosceptics, sabotaged a process in which Britain might get some of the things Britain wants. That’s the bizarre thing: watching the British PM get humiliated over JCJ you’d be forgiven for not knowing that Britain is A) the second biggest country in the EU, and B) that British reforms do have some considerable support with other member states. Yet through either incompetence or gutlessness, David Cameron has managed to not get Britain what Britain says it wants.

And for what? To stop a “federalist” becoming European Commission president? THAT’s what he wanted to fight on? Really? I mean, by British standards, isn’t every single European Commission president a federalist?

More to the point, who cares? It’s the same with the new British obsession with the phrase “ever closer union”. To put it in context, getting upset over these essentially symbolic things is sort of like France obsessing over the fact that Britain, like Iran, has a state religion, with religious leaders in political office and the prime minister effectively choosing bishops. Do you know how weird that looks? Yet the reality is that it barely matters in the day to day affairs of the United Kingdom.

And, let us not forget how JCJ was picked in the first place. Because David Cameron insisted upon pulling the Tories out of the European People’s Party. Cameron pulls the Tories out of the largest centre-right force in Europe, and then bitches and complains about that same centre-right force choosing a candidate he doesn’t like? Seriously? Come on, admit it: who really screwed up here? This was all entirely predictable years ago, yet David Cameron’s obsession with genuflecting towards the political fetishes of the Tory right and their media pals results in him getting an outcome directly in contradiction to what he says he wanted. And we’re supposed to feel sorry for him?

The reality is that Europe’s voters neither voted for or against JCJ. But a majority of them probably expected there to be a European Commission president at the end of the process, and JCJ, like Schulz and Verhofstadt, put his name on the table early, where it is no less legitimate than anyone else, and surely an improvement on the “Election By After Eight” process behind closed doors that used to choose the Commission president.

Where was David Cameron’s candidate? More to the point, who is David Cameron’s candidate? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Should we abolish the European Parliament?

The sad thing is, the European Parliament behaves, in a lot of ways, exactly the way people would like their national parliaments to act. Many MEPs take their legislative duties seriously, carefully studying proposed regulations and directives. Furthermore, many MEPs show more independence from the party whip than national MPs. Finally, and this is a big one: unlike in many national parliaments, the executive is genuinely afraid of parliament.

Those are the good points. The bad, however…sadly there’s plenty. For every hardworking MEP, it feels like there’s some party hack sent off to Strasbourg. For every serious legislator, there seems to be one fiddling his or her expenses, and let’s be honest: the parliament has been its own worst enemy when it comes to expenses fiddles. After all, it took a courageous Irish lawyer, Ciaran Toland, to take the parliament to the European Court of Justice to reveal it’s own report into expenses abuse. One top of that, the parliament also gets abuse for something which isn’t its actual fault: the ridiculous moving of the parliament every month up and down the road between Brussels and Strasbourg: it would surely be cheaper just to send a single MEP to walk around the streets of that lovely French city handing out  a few million in €50 notes to its citizens.

But the situation is even worse than that. One could argue that parliament does a reasonable job as a parliament, but one thing is unarguable: as a house constructed to speak for the people of Europe, it has failed. Six out of ten European voters don’t bother voting for it, and those that do use it as an excuse to kick the crap out of their national governments. Most Europeans would struggle to pick their MEPs out of a line up. As for making the parliament elections a de facto election for the President of the Commission? It looks great on paper, it feels real in Brussels, but the truth is, most Europeans felt more of a connect with the bearded Austrian cross-dresser who won the Eurovision than Jean-Claude Juncker.

So what’s to be done? How do we make European democracy look more like what Europeans expect democracy to look like? It won’t be easy. In national elections there are winners and losers, something by its nature doesn’t happen in European elections, as we’re not voting in or out a government.

Let’s consider the ultimate option: should we abolish the parliament altogether? Certainly, it’s hard to imagine there’ll be huge crowds taking to Europe’s streets in protest, and secondly, the member state governments would hardly shed a tear. But is it really in Europe’s interest to just let the European Commission off on its own, watched over by a Council of Ministers preoccupied with domestic politics? I’m not sure that’s a better solution.

Pre-1979, the parliament was made up of national MPs. Could we return to that? It’s possible, but would that create a parliament that holds the Commission to account as it does now, or would it be populated by loyal national backbenchers given a little reward for being good boys and girls at home? Again, it’s hard to say it would be a better parliament. More likely a political doss house.

We could do something really radical, like replace parliament with a senate of say, three directly elected senators from each member state, and with a senate that votes with a double majority of states and population. The senators would at least be well known in their respective member states, but would such a senate be big enough to do the work?

Or we could be more creative: We could start by reducing the size of the current 750 members. Would any non-MEP seriously object to a parliament of 300-400 members, and the savings made?

Then we could consider how they’re elected. Some member states (Ireland, part of the UK, Belgium, Finland and Malta) let voters vote directly for individual candidates, but most don’t, and as a result most MEPs aren’t really known, never mind accountable. In Ireland, however, the ultra-personalised STV voting system requires candidates to put themselves forward. Would it be the worst thing if MEPs had to be elected in their own right? At least they could be held accountable for their expenses and attendance.

Finally, there’s an outside the box option to boost turnout and stop voters using the European Parliament as a dumping ground for mid-term weirdoes. Instead of holding a European election every five years, there’s always the option of letting each member state elect its MEPs on the same day it has its general election. This would instead create a parliament with a rolling, changing majority, not dissimilar to the German Bundesrat, and allow parliament to change as the national political landscapes changed. But it would also, most likely, result in voters voting for the parties that THEY themselves regard as sensible enough to elect to national office, as opposed to the mid-term tantrum brigade. It wouldn’t be a perfect solution by any stretch, but it would be hard, having been elected by the same voters on the same day as national parliaments, not to claim the same legitimacy, and that’s got to count for something.

Europe’s First General Election?



Repost from November, with updates: It’s funny how things happen in Europe. Rarely with big bangs, but instead incrementally, bit by bit, tiny step by cautious tiny step. Next year, another step may be about to occur, an action which has potentially huge consequences for the future of the EU. Yet nobody seems to be noticing.

The Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament has nominated Martin Schulz MEP, the German President of the European Parliament, as the “common candidate” of the group for the European Elections in May of next year. This decision was ratified in March at a S&D party congress. What does that all mean? It means that the S&D group, the second largest group in the parliament, has a designated candidate for President of the European Commission. The centre-right European People’s Party, the largest group, nominated Jean Claude Juncker their own candidate in Dublin in March, as did the liberal ALDE group (former Belgian PM Guy “Tintin” Verhofstadt). The Greens nominated two candidates, Ska Keller and Jose Bove.

Of course, the European media for the most part ignored this whole dimension, and focussed on the usual local bunfights that are European Elections. However, the real fun will happen after the elections, when the member states move to nominate a new European Commission. What happens when they encounter a bolshy parliament which has, in its own mind, fought a European wide general election style campaign and has winners and losers, and designated candidates for the highest office in the EU?

But no one has heard of these people, the member states will shout, and they’ll be right. Ah, but we have, and we’ve just all been elected in a free and fair election, the parliament will reply, and they will, curiously, be right too.

But surely, the media across Europe will ask, surely the parliament is just a talking shop that can be ignored by the member states? But that’s just the point. Both the national media and indeed the national governments seem to have not quite grasped how much power they have given the European Parliament in every EU treaty, to the extent that the EP can actually block the member states’ nominee for president.

So what happens then? Well, if the member states, through the European Council, do accept the nominee of parliament, that changes everything, because once parliament gets to pick the Commission President once it will hold onto that power for ever more. That means that parliament gets to choose the Commission President into the future, and that means that we now would have an executive both chosen and dismissible  by the parliament, albeit held in check by the Council acting as a powerful senate.

And that, my friends, means that Europe has now become a parliamentary democracy with a de facto prime minister answerable not to the member states but parliament. After all, the council can’t dismiss an incumbent President of the Commission, only the parliament can. And if that president is Martin Schulz, the outgoing President of the European Parliament and a man with more ties to the parliament than the national capitals…

Yet say this to the national media, and they look blankly at you.

Six things that Eurosceptics just don’t get.

The EU: like the water supply, taken for granted, but would be missed if it weren't there.

The EU: like the water supply, taken for granted, but would be missed if it weren’t there.

1. Pro-Europeans believe in European unity for the same moral reasons you don’t.

2. If you succeed in dismantling the EU, you’ll have to find something/someone else to blame for your problems. Europe isn’t what bugs you. Modern life is.

3. Everything isn’t a conspiracy. I’ve met EU commissioners. They complain about how they’ve no power.

4. Every country in the EU complains that other countries are calling the shots. Even the Germans.

5. European countries have to choose between living in a world dominated by China or Russia, or standing together. Brits have more in common with Belgians than Beijing.

6. If we didn’t have the EU, we’d have to come up with something that pretty much does what it does anyway. The world is just too integrated to manage inside national borders. The EU is a tool for helping small countries manage a complicated world of 7 billion people.