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?
Sometimes 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.
Note: this is a very long bit of fun I wrote in June 2013. It is obscenely long, so you might want a biscuit and a nice cup of tea. Alternatively, you can download it here as a PDF for enjoyment later.
Part One: A woman named Valerie.
The image, of a sad looking Adolf Hitler wearing a blue armband with a European Union flag on it, said as much about The Daily Mail as it did its cover story.
“Freedom at last!” the headline declared, with a smaller picture of young Conservative activists burning an EU flag in Trafalgar Square. Inside, a well-known right-wing historian speculated, perhaps through the use of a medium, as to how disappointed Adolf Hitler would have been at the news of British withdrawal from the European Union.
A free “Dad’s Army” DVD was given away with each copy. Read more…
There’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.
The irony was that he was never into the European thing at all. Sure, he gave the usual pro-EU lip service when he was in the national parliament, but it just didn’t really float his boat. Then he became a minister, just as his member state took over the presidency. This, he thought to himself, is gong to be an awful drag, chairing meetings, flying off to Brussels at some god awful hour.
But the strangest thing happened. He loved it. One thing that was always said about him, he was a people person, a deal maker. That was how he got ahead in the party at home, but now, out here, it all clicked into place. Haggling with the Austrian fella in the corner, leaning on the Belgian, sympathising with the Greek, doing a favour for the Portuguese guy on his pet thing on the agenda, he was in his element. And what’s more, the other guys and girls liked him too. He cut through the bullshit, got actual decisions made, and got everybody out before midnight most nights. One thing about him: he didn’t have airs or graces, and wasn’t above pointing out “Look lads, if you’re all going to repeat what someone else said will you just say I agree with what she said, so we can fucking move on!”.
When the presidency ended, he was sure. This was what he wanted, to be out here, doing the business. Of course, the money was good too, and with him and the wife having parted ways the parade of stunning parliamentary assistants and stagieres didn’t go unnoticed either. The prime minister owed him a stack of brownie points, mostly for beating the crap out of the PM’s enemies in the parliamentary party, and so, sure enough, he was sent on his way.
It’s a different life: no constituents, actually getting to bed at a reasonable hour, and within a few months he has his parliamentary committee eating out of his hand by treating them as his new constituents, taking them for coffee or something stronger, working out their pet issues, remembering birthdays and kid’s names (that stuns them), doing favours where he can. The grub’s good too, he notices as he needs to treat himself to a new suit (or three, sure, he can afford it) on Avenue Louise. This, he thinks as he lies in bed on Sunday morning with a German MEP and divorcee who looked at bit like Catherine Deneuve, whom he sparred with only a day ago over subsidies to something or another, is the way it should be.
Posted by Jason O on Jun 23, 2014 in European Union
, Irish Politics
Check out Dr Kevin Byrne’s “Now or Soon” blog here, where he looks at some interesting issues of public policy. And no, that’s not an oxymoron.
Kevin comes from the book-readin’ wing of Fianna Fail, and so is watched carefully at all times by his party peers.
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?
Posted by Jason O on Jun 9, 2014 in European Union
, Not quite serious.
Wait until he gets to Brussels, he’ll show them! All those commissioners and council of ministers and their austerity and ignoring the voice of the real people! He’ll show them!
But of course, he doesn’t. He arrives in Brussels with another 750 MEPs, and suddenly, he’s just another cranky MEP.
But I speak for the real people, he protests.
No, says the fella beside him. I speak for the real people, and they’re sick of the Jews running the world!
Our hero shifts uneasily… “eh, steady on, I didn’t mean…”
“No”, shouts another fella with weird peroxide blonde hair, “it’s not the Jews. That’s ridiculous!” our hero feels breath of relief, maybe this guy gets it.
“No,” continues his new friend, “It’s the Muslims, they’re going to outbreed us.”
“No, sorry, that’s not my thing either, I’ve nothing against…”
“It’s the homosexuals, they’re the problem. They want to take CAP funding off good hardworking farmers and spend it on Pet Shop Boys concerts!” another looper bellows.
Our hero slinks away quietly, sitting in the corner of the Mickey Mouse bar, wondering what he’s let himself in for. I mean, he wants to protest, but those guys are nutters.
Then a nice woman sits down beside him. She even knows his name, introduces herself, and asks him has he considered joining her political group?
I’m an Independent, he says, I won’t be joining any groups or parties, sure I’ll sit with the Independents. Oh, says she. It’s just that, you didn’t look happy with them, and points over at the nutters, who are now fighting over whether Mussolini or Hitler gets first place on their brochure.
Sure enough, after a few weeks of aimless wandering around the parliament and sitting in his office playing CandyKrush, he bumps into her again, and asks can he maybe sit in on a group meeting, just to get a feel for it?
She’s delighted, and brings him along. They’re nice people, a little out there (there’s a woman from Holland obsessed with rights for badgers) but when the chairperson asks him his issues, he talks a bit about local stuff. They look uncomfortable, and he feels a bit of a spanner, because he knows they’ve nothing to do with Europe, but he’s been banging on about them during the campaign for so long that he can hardly stop himself, it’s like campaign Tourette’s.
But then he mentions an issue that is relevant, and their eyes light up. The Badger Lady is on the committee that deals with the issue, and if he wants to sit in and help her question the commissioner? Now we’re sucking diesel, he thinks, finally.
And so it goes. He gets to talk to the commissioner, and the group puts forward changes to the policy based on his ideas, and he’s staggered, STAGGERED, to find that the commissioner actually listens and changes some of the things he’s looking for.
Sure, he has to vote with the group on other MEPs stuff, but most of it doesn’t really matter to him. He sort of hopes the local media back home don’t twig that he’s voted for the Badger Lady’s votes for weasels thing, but sure, that’s the price of doing business in 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.
Posted by Jason O on Jun 2, 2014 in British Politics
, European Union
One of the key tenets of the last 200 years of British foreign policy has been to prevent the emergence of a single powerful force on the European continent. It’s been a very successful policy. Yet for the last 15 years, the insular nature of British politics has effectively called that policy into question. British withdrawal is now a serious proposition, but what’s more is that other member states are now beginning to wonder as to whether the cost of keeping Britain is actually worth it?
What would be the actual consequences of British withdrawal for the rest of the EU? Trade would continue, after all, it’s in no one’s interest that it doesn’t. Brussels would still set many product rules that UK manufacturers would have to obey anyway, only without a UK voice at the table. Reform of the EU would lose a champion, that’s true, but bear in mind that Downing Street’s obsession with placating the Daily Mail means that Britain has been pretty ineffectual in pushing through reforms at EU level anyway, despite the fact that Britain has allies. British withdrawal would almost certainly trigger withdrawal by one or two other countries, but the reality is that most member states, even with their own gripes about Brussels, see being at the table as the least worst option.
Secondly, whilst the days of the overt federalist United States of Europe are probably over, the gradual subtle process of integration, through technical methods such as the Fiscal Treaty, could probably speed up with British or Danish or even Irish withdrawal. The end outcome would be a European confederation of sorts, orbited by a number of nominally independent states who have to make nominally sovereign decisions whilst paying attention to the vast economic gravity of the politically united Eurozone. And all without worrying what the Daily Mail thinks about British soldiers wearing EU cap badges. I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing.