EU so misunderstood…

Debating the EU is tricky because it’s always easier to listen to those shouting: 
“EU, EU, EU – out! out! out!”
than to those saying: 
“What do we want?
A technical yet plain language discussion of the practical implications of the benefits and costs of addressing issues at different levels of political decision-making including European level, reappraisal of each and an institutional structure that faciliates this, accessible for and engaging with all!

When do we want it?
Within a reasonable timescale that allows for genuine debate without dragging on!”

I’ve been having a debate on the EU on Facebook. Dangerous I know, but sometimes I can’t help myself. After all, while I will always defend everyone’s right to free speech, I sort of feel that statements made about the EU should try to be based on fact rather than just statements. Facebook does not allow for the expansion of arguments and referencing that are needed in this sort of discussion so I’ve brought the discussion over here.

The FB status that I replied to read: TOTALLY SHOCKED! I did not know that the European Parliament only votes on laws proposed by the unelected commission, it can’t make or propose any laws itself! Democracy… NOT. Millions spent in the pursuit of jobs for the boys (& girls)

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly sensible position for someone that believes in democracy to take.
Most political systems allow for the legislature as well as the executive to propose legislation (and the USA only the legislature).
But the EU is not a state, it is a different sort of entity, governed by Treaty and where the administration holds the right of initiative in order that there is a balance of power between the governments of the Member States and the European Parliament.
I wanted to know too who the “jobs for the boys and girls” refers to – given recruitment to the EU institutions is through open competition? If it refers to appointment of the Commissioners, well, yes, that does come about from appointment of candidates by governments, but more on that later.

So I replied:
I used to teach EU and constitutional politics. We are looking at a different separation of powers at EU level than in the UK. It’s in three parts: European Commission, European Parliament and the Council of Ministers (member state governments, also called the European Council when heads of state and government are the ones attending).
The EU is not the USA – in the USA it is indeed congress and not the executive that proposes legislation. 
In the UK, legislation is proposed by the government, drafted by the civil service (parliamentary counsels, the specialist legislation drafters). Only private members bills are proposed by the parliamentarians themselves, and only stand a chance of becoming law if supported by the government (i.e. the drafters can be made available). The EP has a process of own initiative reports which are usually incorporated into the Commission proposals on any related issue and also has the right to ask for specific legislation to be introduced. 
The Commission has the official right of initiative to keep the balance between the directly elected EP, and the member state governments, to whom electorates usually say they feel closer. Its five year work programme is agreed with the EP and also with the Member States in the Council of Ministers, and a refreshed version each year in-between. That doesn’t mean nothing but the work programme happens, but it means that anyone elected and looking to get something specific done can get it done. 
The European Commission is for the most part a civil service, and is quite small given what it does (there are more people working for the UK Home Office than the European Commission). This is muddied by the appointment of politicians from different member states to the top level who we in the UK insist on describing as a kind of government (EP get a veto on those appointments). 
I’ll shut up now, but basically I don’t think that the EP constitutional set up on the right of initiative is shocking. Other stuff yes, but this seems not to be far out of line with what happens in Member States…

What I don’t think I expected was the response I got.
Er…. those proposing life changing rules, are not elected or accountable, just have very big expense accounts and pensions. What I don’t understand [rose22joh], is why you defend them so passionately?

What have the expense allowances and pensions of the European Commission officials got to do with who proposes legislation? I thought about this for a while. I guess you could say that, by paying people well, you make them out of touch with “real life”.
But equally, in proposing legislation that affects the lives of nearly 500 million people, I would want the people proposing it to be intelligent, well informed, realise the impacts of what they propose on real people’s businesses and employment, and to get them to be able to do all this, and without encouraging corruption with financial incentives from interest groups, I would pay them well and have strict rules on ethics and propriety. As for their relative value compared with others in other jobs, that’s another debate for another time.

By the way, I don’t think all lobbying is a bad thing. When it comes to making legislation, you have a choice:
i) have it drafted by people that don’t work in the affected sectors and with no contact with those sectors (such as politicians, civil servants or academics), so that it is “pure” but might have unexpected consequences;
ii) have it drafted by people in those sectors, but who come with vested interests for the status quo or particular change that would advantage one group over another;
iii) have it drafted by the first disinterested group but with input from that sector, and other groups with an interest, balancing the relative arguments and impacts and constructing a way forward that takes them into account, or not, depending on the political directions given.
Lobbying is a process for getting the information from experts to people drafting legislation. If it is more than that, with financial incentive for example, then it is bad and wrong, but I don’t believe it is wrong for knowledge and expertise to be shared.

Would it be better if it was all done by elected people? Well, I don’t think so, but then I fully recognise that I’m a bit of a technocrat. There’s an art to drafting legislation, and it needs to be learnt precisely so that you don’t end up unintentionally impacting people’s lives and livelihoods.
Are elected people able to be less beholden to self enrichment and interest groups than technocrats? Er, no. The evidence is pretty clear from the duck house and paperclips claims in the UK and all the various stings by newspapers. This might be due to the sort of people that are willing to put themselves forward for election, or the notion that power corrupts, or other factors.

However, simply getting a proposal out is the beginning of a long and complex process. And I believe in good administration, it is something I feel passionately about.
So I replied:

I’m not defending, I’m explaining. The proposal is important but not the end of the process. The proposal goes through three detailed complicated negotiations, with the EP and the governments views negotiated separately and together. The end result can be very different from the initial proposal and legislation can fall if it is not actually acceptable to the parties involved. You can vote for your government, you can vote for your MEPs, those are the people that decide on the legislation, not the Commission. If you want a directly elected Commission, that’s a very different sort of Europe (I don’t necessarily think it would be a bad thing, but I’d be a half-hearted member of a very tiny minority of people if I wanted to campaign for that!)
I care because simply the fact that we pay people to do a responsible job is not to me scandalous. I do believe we underpay other people doing very important and valuable work in society that affect the lives and quality of life for many people, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

I pretty much guessed what the response would be:
I have no time for unelected law proposers who cost us a fortune and are part of an organisation where massive and corrupt expense claims are the norm I’m in favour of a Euro Parliament in some form. The corrupt, interfering gravy train we have ended up with should not be defended. They are a disgrace.

I didn’t defend it, I explained it. Defending it would be to say that this is an amazing system. It’s not, it’s just a system although actually it allows for more of the aspects of the legislation to be debated than the UK two chamber parliamentary system does, which can sometimes leave chunks of text under-scrutinised.
And I could go back with a step by step rebuttal, but do you know, I’m getting fed up with it because once you get to this “corrupt interfering gravy train” line of argument that frankly can be applied to any political system, then you know that it is not an argument you are going to win.

So instead a few related thoughts:

  • It costs me 41p a day to be part of the EU. I don’t think that’s a fortune considering what I get out of it (see this video).
  • What massive and corrupt expense claims? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – not defending, remember – but I’d like to see the evidence of this. Is it a reference to Edith Cresson’s dentist eleven years ago? The Commission has cleaned up its act a bit since then, introducing OLAF, not a big strong Swedish guy to fight the bad guys, but an anti-fraud office. Corruption seems to be a massive problem across the EU including the UK, but the EU institutions need to be seen to be above reproach and leaving them out of the EU-wide corruption report feels like an own goal.
  • It is intensely difficult as someone that sees so much good coming from our EU membership when the EU does things that seem completely indefensible from a democratic point of view – even if done for a “common good” beyond national democratic boundaries – installation of an emergency Prime Minister in Italy, say and much of what happened in Greece since 2008. I’ve blogged before about the new issues of democracy that this raises. Also sometimes its Member States re-run referendums to get “the right result” (Ireland).
  • The EU is not close to the people (what organisation covering 500 million people can be without a pledge of allegiance???), and when the people do have a chance to vote for a directly elected representative, they often either don’t turn out or vote on national issues, or choose to vote for people that say explicitly that they will not actually represent their interests there because they don’t believe in the process. Then they say the EU does nothing for them.
  • The voting system puts power in the hands of the political parties – so it seems that party loyalty is a more important quality than being able to actually secure decent legislation?

In conclusion, I am glad my friend agreed we need a European Parliament.
We need decent MEPs because basically what I can’t get across is just how important that amending of legislation proposed by the European Commission actually is.

The entire structure of a piece of legislation can be changed, and the legislators, that is the directly elected people in the European Parliament, do that. They do it in Committees – becoming report leaders (“rapporteurs”) and by submitting amendments. They do it as Committee chairs. They can also submit amendments as non-Committee members in Plenary session, that is, gatherings of all MEPs at which they vote on the drafts produced in the Committee.
But if you don’t know that, don’t understand that, then the system could seem as if the power rests in the unelected, unaccountable Commission.
On most things it doesn’t.
Now, the Council of Ministers, that is a whole other story…

Jake Goodman’s 5 EU predictions

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to introduce a guest blogger today, Mr Jake Goodman. I won’t say much more, as he is more than capable of blowing his own trumpet…

Thanks Rose22joh. Hello, Jake here, novelist, comic, basically I write for a living. That means I spend a lot of time tapping at my computer. Then I turn off Twitter and stare out the window. Then I write at midnight. Much to my wife’s irritation.
Rose22joh’s “about” section suggests I should add married father of two, atheist, serial philande – better stop there. Busy mind. I have albums of stamps from childhood.

I wanted to write about the EU. Are you still there?

I read a TV producer saying they often get pitches for TV series set in the EU institutions. A bit Yes Prime Minister, a drop of Alan B’Stard, six parts The Thick of It, a smidgen of Mr Bean, Erin Brockovich, Legally Blonde (thanks, wife, for that reference).
They always turn it down. The EU isn’t recognisable enough to the public to be of interest, and much of what happens is beyond satire.

But this shit is important, as they say.
It is easy to mock the EU (I hear Stephen Fry’s Professor Trefusis in my head as I write that. The Liar, page 68.Oddly enough though I’ve never found it easy to mock anything of value. Only things that are tawdry and fatuous. Perhaps it’s just me”).
On this I disagree with the eloquent philologist. It is also easy to mock that which is poorly understood, little known and on which you can write just about anything, add the words “barmy eurocrats want YOU to” in front of it and people believe it.
The EU is an organisation that has helped stop war and foster prosperity, with no more or less corruption than other administrations, not all that tawdry and fatuous. Post 2008, the crash when the Euro’s poor planning was revealed for all to see, I come over all Trefusis. No, forget I said that, unfortunate phrasing.
The EU can be a comedian’s dream. If you add in cherman axents for spokesmen, beer drinking nationalists in every member state saying how different they are from each other and a French President having an affaire with an actress and you can see why us comics are itching to get that first script approved!
I’m digressing. Rose22joh was in Italy being an ancient Roman and asked me to come up with something so I said I would make five EU predictions.
Let me put my serious face and newsreader glasses on. The clairvoyant headscarf doesn’t suit me.

1) UKIP will win the 2014 European elections
Fish in a barrel, this one. Fourth in 2002, third in 2006, second in 2010, so maths says first in 2014.
People normally use European elections to punish the government midterm in a consequence free environment. They don’t usually vote on Europe in the European elections. I reckon they will this year, but the majority of don’t cares won’t turn out so UKIP will do well on a low turn out.
An extra prediction for you. The Lib Dems will LOSE a lot of votes but not by as much as it looks like at the moment, percentage wise. Europhiles that are not Labour activists don’t have much choice on who else to vote for and are going to want to make some sort of statement. That assumes europhiles are pragmatists and are not so depressed at the moment they cannot get out of bed.

2) UK influence in the EU will decrease after the 2014 European elections
You don’t think the EU does anything worthwhile for the UK so you send MEPs there that don’t vote. Or vote NO to everything (even if it might have been good for the UK). They don’t get any of the powerful Committee chair or rapporteur roles because that would be playing the game they don’t believe in.
Bingo! You have created a self-fulfilling prophesy. The votes in the parliament therefore don’t take the UK into account and the UK has decreased influence. No wonder rules made there seem like diktats.
You weren’t there when they were being discussed. Better places to be. Like off drinking beer alongside the other nationalists whom you have nothing at all in common with save a wish not to be making rules in Strasbourg or Brussels.
The next parliament is going to be a bit different. Not all of those fellow beer drinking nationalists are nice affable chaps who don’t mind the economy dropping off as long as the drawbridge can be pulled up. No, many of them are far right.
That means that UKIP could find itself isolated as the far right groups form a bigger group to the right of them. Or they may join it but that wouldn’t fit the nice bloke Dad’s Army image.
Also the ECR (the group the UK Conservatives are in) could vanish as the Conservative vote goes to UKIP and their partner parties either rejoin the EPP centre right group or align themselves further to the right. Without as many members in their group and isolated from the main centre right group, the UK Conservatives could have fewer committee chairs and places and rapporteur roles. So less influence.
The swing to the nationalist parties across the EU means this could therefore be the least “federalist” (in the UK sense meaning centralising) parliament ever.
Of course the rise of the extremes could mean a grand coalition of centrist parties pushing ever closer union.
Or it could mean less legislation getting through, or more nation state focused policy but with the UK voice missing. Irony, much?

3) No renegotiation will ever be enough
The problem here is that I want an elephant and a lion as pets. I don’t care that rules say I can’t keep them in my house, rules don’t matter to me when they’re not fair and I want something.
I don’t want to go to the zoo with everyone else with loads of other animals there too. I don’t care that I help fund the zoo by providing the elephant and lion and a few more animals. I don’t care that the zoo’s elephants and lions keep mine company and can breed more elephants and lions. But I want my own elephant and lion and I am not going to pay for that zoo any more.
Everyone else will still want to see them if I take them away, and they’ll still want to let me in the zoo without paying the entrance fee because I’m their best customer and come loads of times. But I can take my elephant and lion to all the other zoos everywhere and you can’t stop me. I know you regard it as a safari park and are all taking them everywhere anyway, but my elephant and lion being at what I consider a zoo stops me doing anything else with them, don’t you think?
So what good does it do me if you reckon you can get me a llama and a sheep back? I can get a herd of sheep, a spittoon of llamas. And I could feed them to my bloody lion if I had him back.

4) Labour will commit to an in/out EU referendum
Rose22joh last blogged on fairy tales.
Here is mine.
Once upon a time, a man had a nightmare. “It was awful. Labour won the 2015 election, just,and that wasn’t the worst bit. Cameron stepped down and several ran for leader, but all lost to Boris who took Cameron’s seat in the by-election. Boris was popular, witty and free from the responsibilities of government, it was left to Labour to make the case for Europe and do any renegotiating needed. The Opposition adopted the ‘better off out’ line their backbenchers loved so much and which could attract back the voters lost to UKIP in the 2014 European election and 2015 general election.
Labour was goaded by the Conservatives and the press, and  with their pollsters warning that they were losing the white, working class vote to UKIP over immigration, they matched the pledge for a 2017 in/out EU referendum. But like every government of recent times, they liked to portray success in the EU as a fight against the odds, the EU system, inferior to Westminster democracy, and they just didn’t have the time or the media support for the carefully nuanced explanation of EU benefits that was needed, or to persuade the other member states of how serious this situation was. That meant the 2017 referendum was basically fought as a YES from the decimated Lib Dems, a qualified YES from business and the Labour government, and a NO from the right, some of Labour’s backbenchers and the media.
Somehow, staying in was presented as less predictable than leaving the biggest and nearest political and trade bloc to us with absolutely no idea of what this would mean for the economy or our political future.
We suddenly found ourselves outside the EU. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”.
He woke up and found it was still 2014. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
When you look at it from the outside like a fairy tale, Labour promising a referendum as a way of winning the 2015 election, and then winning the election, is the most likely scenario for Brexit (Britain’s exiting the EU), in accordance with the law of unintended consequences.

5) Scotland makes everything even more unpredictable
Oh Scotland. We English love you really with your gorgeous scenery and distinctive culture that doesn’t find my comedy funny enough for a show at the fringe… But enough about me.
We agree with you to allocate quite a lot of money under the Barnet formula and suspect that if you were offered devo max you’d vote for that.
Business are warning they don’t think they can be based in you if you go it alone. You’ve big dreams of a resurgent economy. You’ll have new partners across the world that we stop you from having. You’ll have an international role in the organisations you want on your own terms. You’ll not only be civil with your ex partner but share with us the things you want, again on your terms, naturally.
The arguments for Scottish independence and for Brexit are basically identical.
Yet those on the right argue in favour of Scotland in the UK and against the UK in the EU.
They try to say that a vote for Scottish independence is a vote for the unpredictable. A vote to leave the EU, on the other hand, is the safe option as the EU itself is unpredictable.
It is as if the UK is the perfect size of nation state, and Westminster is the epitome of governance. The former is clearly bollocks – China and New Zealand are both valid nation states despite their population size difference. But seriously, where was this latter argument during the expenses scandal I call Duckhouse-gate?
The Scottish vote is before the general election. If it goes independent, we will need a new flag. Let’s do the Welsh dragon hugging St George and with a St Patrick’s cross sunset! Or just relabel the saltire’s blue as the sea, the white cross as the white cliffs and so no change necessary.
Losing Scotland means the UK, rather than being the EU’s largest member state by 2025 as is predicted, will be smaller than Germany and France and could lose Council votes and European Parliament seats. And therefore influence in decision making.
So Scottish independence makes the europhobe’s argument truer? It’s no joke. Maybe an independent Scotland would offer nationality to Brits that didn’t want to leave the EU, assuming the Spanish would ever let them in again.

That’s five predictions. Turns out there is a bit less humour in here than I intended. Leaving the EU suddenly seems no laughing matter.
Stuff that me and my mates take for granted is not a given,  it is part of being in the EU. Everyone keeps saying its no risk, but seriously, how do they know? The question is do you trust our political class to negotiate to keep them all and not get screwed over by the French? Or insert other belligerent, jilted European here. And we’d be dealing with the rest of the world as a country of fifty, sixty million rather than 300 million.
Bloody hell. I had better make sure I am registered to vote. Oi, Rose22joh, you knew this would happen!

I’ve been Jake Goodman and you’ve made it to the end of my euroramblings. You deserve a champagne. Or a whisky. Or an ouzo. But probably not by the pint. Goodnight!

The world post Mrs T

Whatever you think of her politics, Mrs Thatcher had a massive impact on Britain and around the world.

Her death today, peacefully, from a stroke marks the end of an era. For one thing, I was two when she became Prime Minister. Her union-crushing, cabinet-squashing, war-waging, handbag-wielding characteristics defined a way of being Prime Minister against which all of her predecessors have been judged, no matter how different the political circumstances in which they govern, even 34 years later.

For women, she was the first female Prime Minister. But while she used her femininity to her advantage especially when dealing with the private school and nanny brigade of men that formed her cabinets, she famously said that she owed nothing to feminism.
She promoted few women to the top ranks of politics, and did little to further the lot of women in society. Perhaps if you are the wife of a millionaire you see little need to help women balance their work and home lives if you chose not to.
But she is so totemic that she still inspires women of all political persuasions onto politics and any woman seeking to hold that top office will always be compared to her. And not just in the UK – Angela Merkel is forever described as Germany’s iron lady, and as a woman of the centre right the Thatcher comparison is apt.

It is interesting that Thatcher was sometimes misunderstood.
While she said that there was no such thing as society, the rest of the quote makes clear that she expected individuals and families to look after themselves rather than expect things to be handed to them, and then to look after their neighbours, not because the government said that society was to be structured so, but because her Christian upbringing and normal human decency meant this was the right and proper thing to do.
And on Europe, the much alluded to Bruges speech that set out her eurosceptic position looks positively pro-EU moderate compared with some of the language used today. She was after all the woman who agreed the Single European Act, the legislation that paved the way for the single market, which is one of the most far reaching and positively regard pieces of sovereignty pooling legislation ever agreed.

Mrs Thatcher made the role of Prime Minister presidential. In part this was because of her personal affinity for Ronald Reagan and the American way of doing things. In part, it was because she truly believed herself the most competent person for the job. But through her overshadowing of cabinet government (so brilliantly sent up in Spitting Image – Thatcher and the cabinet out to dinner “I’ll have the steak” “And the vegetables?” “They’ll have the steak too”), her embodiment of the nation on the world stage, holding her own alongside the USA in the cold war imagery… She set the tone for the cult of the leader and the televised Prime Ministerial election debates and the sound bite culture that is second nature for us now.

Thatcher was the most successful Prime Minister in terms of winning elections until Tony Blair. While we might talk of Prime Ministers of the future being the “heir to Blair”, we shouldn’t forget that Blair himself was keen to show himself to be as strong a leader as Thatcher had been, and ever Gordon Brown sought to bring a little authority and star dust to his premiership by wheeling out Mrs T to pose by the famous front door of No 10 Downing Street alongside him.

There is bound to be a load of comments about whether the world is a better or worse place after Thatcher, mourning and comments on the decline of the nation since in the right wing press and ding dong the witch is dead from the left wing commentators. I’m sure we’re about to get the state funeral debate.

But one thing is clear, she changed the political debate in Britain.

Life since Thatcher is different.
The cold war is over.
The “enemy”, the other, is much less easy to define.
The Falklands are still British.
The selective education system that enabled a middle class bright but poor girl like Thatcher to get to Oxford, get a good job and give her experience of work outside politics is reviled. Many politicians these days have not worked outside the political world.
The UK is still part of the EU although there is less consensus about what the EU is or should be and do than those simple days of rebate debates and ever closer union bicycles.
Britain retains its place at the world’s top tables, but the power balance in the world is shifting east, far east.

It is not possible to understand British politics today without knowing about Margaret Thatcher.
Not bad for a grammar school girl from Grantham.
That’s some legacy.

New for 2012…

Hello again!  It’s been a while, but I’ve had a lot going on that have taken me away from the online world.  If you think the blog has been underused, then my Twitter silence will have come as no surprise…

So what’s new for 2012:
- I’ve tried and failed as yet to get excited about the forthcoming London Olympics.  It might be the greatest show on earth but for me it’s a few months of transport hell;

- My newest novel attempt has reached 28,000 words. Please ask me more about this!

- We have a whole bundle of health issues going on chez Rose22joh, and are praying for a swift and happy resolution;

- I can blog about the EU again if I feel the need – and there’s a lot going on that could do with some reflection.

- I’m TIRED!

So voila: this year’s offerings are likely to be on writing, politics, parenting, faith and of course feminism. Probably.

And the fact that my New Year post is up before February? I’m counting that as a win!

Euro(w)s… Democracy versus Sovereignty

Croesus Pyre urn – if only his money were available to the Government in Athens right now and not burned up…

A few thoughts from watching Greece…

If one sixtieth of the population turns out on the street (e.g. marching against the Iraq war), our recent experience in the UK is that this is not sufficient for our government to change its policy.

There are riots, anti-cuts camps etc. in the streets of Athens.  The Greek Prime Minister has sacrificed his Finance Minister for someone that the Daily Mail tells me is “a populist” whose biggest achievement to date was delivery of the 2000 Olympic Games along with the crippling expense and squandered legacy that when with them.
But will the Greek government change its policy requiring more austerity measures?

I very much doubt it.
For much the same reasons.

There is understandably a lot of news coverage of the unpopular measures that the Greek government is going to need to take in order not to default and thereby avoid a financial crisis worse than 2008.

Much of the coverage has chosen to put the street protests in Athens in the context of the “Greece as cradle of democracy” story.

The question is whether the Greek government can or should decide that they don’t need to make the cuts being talked about (including 20% cuts to services and jobs in the public sector).  Given there is already 16% unemployment, this scares an enormous number of people there. According to Professor Peter Morici, writing in UPI:

Greece is slipping from a liquidity crisis into downright insolvency. Bond investors are demanding yields 20 percentage points higher on Greek debt than on comparable German debt. Rolling over existing bonds, as those come due, will be prohibitively expensive and the collapse of Athens’ finances seems inevitable.

But even if not inevitable, could Greece just be allowed to declare itself bankrupt? Could it default, if it were the will of its people?

This is where the difference between democracy and sovereignty comes into play.

Wikipedia defines democracy as:

a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. It can also encompass social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.

There are concepts that sit alongside democracy, such as the rule of law and moral behaviour codes which require the honouring of commitments undertaken.

Wikipedia defines sovereignty as:

the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided. In theoretical terms, the idea of “sovereignty”, historically, from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes, has always necessitated a moral imperative on the entity exercising it.

While ancient Athenian democracy was direct democracy (open to all men who had done their military service, but not to women, slaves, freed slaves, resident aliens etc.), modern democracy is generally representative democracy, with decision-making passed to elected representatives of the people on the basis of the greatest number of votes gained at democratic elections.

While the United Nations requires only that a State is sovereign by having effective and independent government within a defined territory, modern states are – needless to say – a bit more complicated than that.

Money is behind much of the complexity.  The money required for a state to operate is equally international, with each country’s balance sheet containing in addition to its citizens taxes loans from the private sector and other purchasers of gilts and bonds.

In a democracy, sovereignty is granted to the government by the people and actions are carried out by the government in their name.
But countries can be seen to give over some of their ability to act independently (sovereignty) to their financial creditors – the added finance available to the country being for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

Greece’s position as a sovereign nation is also in the twenty first century inter-connected world context.  In addition to the national we also have supranational (e.g. EU and euro) and international (e.g. UN, IMF) layers of governance, providing us with both responsibilities (defence, finance, market access, honouring of commitments) but also support (financial, market access, political and military).  This is made contractual through Treaties – pooling of sovereignty granted by the people to the government shared with others at supra- or international levels for the general benefit of the people of the nation.

The question is that old point of “no taxation without representation”.  In a bailout situation between states, it is not only the taxpayers of Greece who have a legitimate interest in how Greece handles its debts but the taxpayers of the countries providing the help via the IMF and the Eurozone… welcome to the complicated world we live in.

So who can legitimately tell a country what to do is indeed a bit more complicated.

There is talk of just “letting Greece default” and cutting Greece loose from the Euro.
This is not something to be flippant about.  While a Greece-with-Drachma could devalue its currency against others in a way that Greece-with-Euro cannot, Greek default could cause a shockwave across the economy in the way that Lehman Brothers collapsing did.

If the Greek government were to default, it would not only be Greece that was affected – in taking money from others, Greece is part of an inter-related global political and financial system.

Nor would it only be Eurozone countries affected – French, German and American banks in Greece’s market and with Greek government gilts and bonds would be hit directly. This would affect the network connections between banks (that’s the way in which banks hold national debts, lend to each other and buy and sell loans).

And while Eurozone countries would be hit because of the common currency they have with Greece and the money they have put up to keep it afloat, it would also because of the inter-relatedness of their economies.
If Greece has its debt restructured (i.e. it pays out on its debts at less than 100 cents to the euro), Eurogroup leader (and Luxembourg Prime Minister) Jean-Claude Juncker has already warned of the contagion effect and potentially bleak prospects for Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy and Belgium. Greek debt restructured would be the mark-to-market of other European countries’ national debts.  And as Norman Lamont pointed out a couple of days ago on Radio 4 – it would beg the question whether a Euro in Ireland, Portugal etc. was worth the same as one in Germany – and when that happens the Euro itself fails. No sensible person could want that.

While the UK is not part of the Euro, we are also bound into this.  The UK has loaned money to the Greek government – we’ve already done so as part of our IMF responsibilities and would have to do so again.  It’s part of the deal in our pooled sovereignty at  international level.  And in case we are telling ourselves we should just think national, we ourselves have had an IMF loan within my lifetime, so it is part of our international role and responsibility.  The wider interconnectedness of international finance means our banks and our pockets would be badly hit by a destablised Euro.

That said, it seems the £95bn loan last year didn’t help because the cuts hit any prospect of financial growth and the markets don’t want to loan money to Greece.  Evidence of this is that Greek government bonds are already at 30% return rates (compared with 3% for the UK and 5% for Spain).
It remains to be seen whether throwing more money (another £196bn?) is enough to tip the balance or simply good money after bad.

But is there anything else that can be done?
In May 2011 at a conference in Lisbon hosted by Left Block and GUE/NGL, Unitarian Left at the European Parliament, French researcher Benjamin Coriat proposed an alternative to IMF bailouts:

  • the European economy should “break with financial markets”, imposing “conducting audits on public debts so that can be identified who owes and what owes and so we would see that after all creditors have to pay more than borrowers“;
  • The “European Central Bank must buy government bonds on the primary market in order to lower interest rates and leave the rating agencies out of the game”;
  • This would be accompanied by establishing a fair and balanced tax base in order to “reverse the counter-revolution” in which the rich get tax breaks;
  • there should be changes to macro-economic coordination in Europe towards achieving a balance between the centre and the periphery because “Germany can not only take the benefits of Europe and leave the disadvantages to the others”.

But this is in the realms of fantasy – and I can only assume that there were neither Germans (who are pretty annoyed with bailing everyone else out) nor anyone with a grasp of the sums of money involved in actually doing any of that in the audience?
Realpolitik also suggests that if the Euro is not seen to be functioning brilliantly, politicians are unlikely to want to grant more powers to the ECB.

Are there any other ideas out there?  Well, if Greece were a company, others would be sniffing round to buy it up at a bargain price rather than bail it out with the current management.  But happily for democracy, the crossover between capitalism and politics has happily not gone this far yet!

Anything else? American (and some German) economists propose a strong-economy Euro (e.g. Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands), cutting loose weaker economies (e.g. Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain) for the good of all.  I can’t help thinking that one would go down particularly bad with the French…

But one thing is clear – the Greek government cannot give in to the street protesters.
Well, of course they can – but they’d need to think through the global consequences of doing so.
But if the street protesters want to change the government for another, democratically via the ballot box, that is of course their right.  Storming the parliament is not the way to do it.
But in a democracy, sometimes what is for the best for the people overall is not what is going to be popular.
Sometimes we have to elect people to do what we individually could not.
And honouring our international obligations matters, whether we’re debtor or creditor on the ask.

 

 

Hungary for wider Europe…

(image copied from the excellent http://www.runawayjane.com/first-impressions-of-budapest/ until I can download ours)

Jó napot!  We’re back from a long weekend in Budapest.  I know, leaving it late in the day for the Hungarian Presidency but since I stopped working full time on EU stuff, it has been increasingly hard to visit each country at Presidency time.

Arriving at Budapest airport we were immediately impressed with the efficiency (and price!) of the taxis from the kiosk there.  The half hour trip to the Buda hills took us through the city and across the Danube.
In the last few years I’ve been lucky to travel to several of the newer EU member states.  There’s a lot of difference, and a lot of similarity in the mix of the beautiful past and the Soviet past architecturally.  Like many cities Budapest is a mix of old and new, elegant rococo confections and bunion-topped towers alongside utilitarian boxes and brutalist concrete.   The Buda hills felt a bit like a more verdant Hollywood – they share that orangey-yellow colour on the Spanish-style villas, the beautiful, massive mansions and mansion blocks so at odds with the tiny tenements in the suburbs of the city.

We spent our three days on three different things.
The first day, in 30 degree heat and high humidity, we took our toddler on reins around old Buda. This was a mistake – we ended up carrying him for most of the time.  Definitely take a pushchair even if it uses up some of your flight luggage allowance.
We caught a bus to Moscow Square (Moszkva tér, which has just been renamed in Parliament as Kálmán Széll tér) - a weird transport hub with tatty 1970s kiosks at the centre, crumbling concrete steps and the older, nicer buildings around the outside branded with the universally familiar American corporate logos of McDonalds and KFC.  I liked the fountain and the plastic bottle-and-chicken-wire-filled plaster of Paris seating blobs though.  We though the underground loos – clean, thirty florints cheaper than most, take the prescribed number of sheets off  the communal loo roll at the pay station – was hilarious and very ex-communist in approach.

We walked a bit randomly – we had our map but our hot, tantruming toddler refusing to walk and instead of taking the short walk to the UNESCO protected castle district we ended up down on the riverfront directly opposite the gothic splendor that is the Hungarian Parliament building.  We had a coffee (and a toddler nap) while we found our bearings.  On the way to the castle we found Batthyány Square which includes an old train station that has been converted into a shopping mall and yummy pastries are sold in the entrance hall, and the St Anne’s church – a hidden gem of Buda.
We didn’t visit the royal palace but instead headed for Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion) the light grey stone turreted walls around the Matthias church which look like castles should look if designed by little girls with a craving for real life Disney.  There’s a cafe up one turret if you fancy a drink rather than paying to walk the walls and the views are outstanding.
Amazingly, the steps there are in really good condition and perfectly spaced for climbing in the humidity of a Budapest summer.  The same cannot be said of the crumbling concrete steps and walkway at Moscow Square.
Oh yes, and to stamp your tickets on the bus, the manual ticket punch requires that you put your ticket in the top of the black plastic hole and tip the whole black bit towards you. The electronic ones don’t require you to pull them about at all!

On day two, we borrowed a pushchair, crossed the river on the tram and went into Pest.  We got out at Oktogon (junction of Nagykörút -Grand Boulevard- and Andrássy út – Budapest’s Champs Elysees).  Given that during the Nazi era, Oktogon was named Mussolini Square it seems fitting that the Terror Museum was located nearby.  Having been to the Latvian equivalent a couple of years ago, I knew pretty much what to expect there, but it was still moving.
The museum dedicates roughly equal time to the Nazi occupation and the Soviet era despite the different lengths of each period.  There is a massive black tank in the building’s internal courtyard, and the building itself is significant, having been both the Hungarian Nazi headquarters and used by the Communists.  Taking the stairs or the lift, you walk through a room of exhibits and film footage straight into a Hungarian Arrow/Nazi dining room complete with model in brown uniform, blackshirts on the wall behind you and crockery bearing the Nazi insignia.  Along with the wartime how-to film for correct wearing of your official uniform, Soviet-era listening equipment, the video testimonials of ordinary people and the interactive map of the gulags with prisoners’ belongings in cones, the biggest impact comes from the basement level.  It only takes a moment to realise, but the cells and chambers down there are real – prisoners of the regimes lived, were tortured and died there.
The specially composed music adds to the feeling of terror and you pretty much just want to get out.  The point is I guess that what is being come to terms with is that this was not just two occupations of Hungary, but occupations with which many ordinary Hungarians were complicit.  Confronting the past in this way is part of the healing process.

By way of celebrating capitalist freedom, we walked down Andrássy út which is lined with designer names.  We popped into Alexandre, the big bookshop, and admired its cafe’s ornate ceiling, but headed on down to the square by the National Bank of Hungary so that toddler could play on the play park and run through the dancing fountains there in his pants.  This is one of the top things for children to do in Budapest!  There was also a free music festival going on all over Budapest, and every new area we visited seemed to have something different going on.
We ate at TG Italiano – really lovely oregano bread, very good pizzas and wild boar pasta – but I’d steer clear of the lethal cocktails there if its a baking hot lunchtime…  We also visited the St Stephen’s Basilica, carrying the pushchair up the steps but while we were lucky to see a wedding taking place there, it limited our viewing of the inside of the basilica.  Heading down to Fashion Street we bought ice cream and then braved taking the pushchair on the metro system.  Wow – that was definitely a blast from the past.

On day 3, we pottered a little more – ice cream sundaes and Sajtos Pogácsa (cheese scones) at a local cafe, then a trip on the world famous children’s railway.  Another relic of the Communist era, this is a real railway service operated by 10-14 year old children (under adult supervision!) – we caught a heritage service with a little blue and white engine.
We had to prise toddler out or the driver’s cab once he realised you were allowed to go and see the train being driven!
At the end of the line, we caught a tram back down to a rather lovely little cocktail bar called Majorka – a nice way to round off the day (and just remember that just because the cocktails are a quarter of the price of those in London, you can’t drink four times as many!)

I was fascinated by the Angol shops – shops selling second hand clothes from English high street stores.  The story is that they came about in the immediate aftermath of the soviet era, when British charities sent clothes to Hungary and these became so popular that a secondary clothing market grew up around the surplus.
I also found the language almost impenetrable - not completely true, as a linguist I could pick out how sentencess were constructed and (almost) ordered my peach flavour ice cream correctly… apparently there can be at least eight different pronunciations of each vowel! I picked up “Jó napot” for hello and “Szia” (pronounced see ya and used like ciao) easily, but “Köszönöm” for thank you was hard and I would have been completely stumped by menus – I liked “Uditorial” as the word for soft drinks and guessed that “Naranča” was (like naranja in Spanish) oranges but “gombas” turns out to be mushrooms not prawns! – so we were lucky to be staying with friends and instead negotiating supermarkets and shops where a minimal amount of mime was necessary.

But visiting Budapest again reminded me why the European Union is important, not as a force of tyranny as it is presented in the UK, but as a protector of freedom, liberty and a way of ensuring that we never again see discrimination and oppression as a political force and neighbour turning against neighbour.
Visiting Prague, Riga, Bratislava and now Budapest shows me that when these things happen, its not that the people it happens to are somehow different to us, they are us.  It could have been us.  It’s why we should welcome Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and others that want to join and share our values.

And while we didn’t see everything we’d want to, we did a lot of exploring. I’d definitely go back to Budapest.

Banking on a better system?

As DG Markt Director General Jonathan Faull writes to the FT about the lobbying of Basel III and European Commission, and politicians and protesters with their “Banker Wanker” posters (and worse) blame the banks alone for the recent crisis and current financial climate…
the more windows get smashed or buildings occupied… I just wonder whether any of us really know what banks are for?

Put in really basic terms, banks basically do two things: they take in short term deposits and give out long term loans.  This is known as a “maturity transformation”.
But it seems that the major issues that caused banks to collapse were inability to properly manage this basic maturity transformation:

1)  running out of funding (like Northern Rock)
2) running out of cash (like Lehman Brothers)
3) inadequate risk management regarding quality of loans (primarily a problem in the USA).

We’ve heard a lot about the last bit, complex packages of bad debt and whatever.  Gordon Brown as PM blamed this third issue for the whole of the banking crisis.  But it is really quite simple: loans are things like mortgages, car loans, student loans, the sorts of everyday loan we can get our heads around.
Everything else is just a different way of packaging these up – e.g. as bonds to flog on the market.  That gives a different product which attracts a different sort of investor and therefore more money to be paid as interest, borrowed by those needing it etc.  Is this an inherently risky business?  Or is it the lack of transparency and understanding about what’s in the packages that’s risky?
I can’t help thinking it’s both the quality of the original loan and also management of the maturity transformation that are crucial here.

So banks borrow short and lend long.
Northern Rock basically seems to have run out of funding for its 25-year mortgages – for which it was borrowing a month at a time.  D’oh.
Lehmans, meanwhile, ran out of cash – a liquidity problem. As a sw you need to be able to pay up at all times.  Many deposits are repayable on demand, and banks have to assume they will be asked to do and if they can’t, the bank goes bust.
You can imagine Lord Sugar on The Apprentice shaking his head in disbelief that these simple concepts cannot be grasped by the self-proclaimed business experts standing before him.

While in the EU we were affected by the US sub-prime loans, unlike the US where these things were not really regulated, in the EU it was.  It’s not that banks don’t have capital standards – the existing Basel standards have been around for about 20 years.
So the Basel Convention and the European Commission are trying to design two metrics for the other two crisis causes to stop all this happening again.
There’s going to be a Lehmans Ratio – so that payments out can always be made for a month – and a Northern Rock Ratio (known as a Net Stable Funding Ratio) for a year’s funding.  And these new standards are being drawn up in just a couple of years.

Real care needs to be taken that the standards set are not so demanding that they will have a negative effect on the economy.
For example, one impact of the Northern Rock Ratio is that it reduces the amount of maturity transformation i.e. there’s more matching of assets against liabilities.  That means it is more difficult to fund long term.
Good, we might think – that means the wrong people won’t get loans.
But what about large scale infrastructure projects?  If we can’t fund them through banks, other sources of funding will need to be sought, such as the market.  And that brings a whole load of other insecurity…

While banker bashing is fun, it is not going to fix the system.  Nor will just breaking up the banks on its own fundamentally tackle this, as it risks making banking more expensive for consumers.  All these things really do is make it look as though the failure is distanced from the political decision making process – which of course it never can be.  Choosing not to act, failure to regulate or supervise effectively is a political decision just as much as choosing to do so.

The key question at the moment is whether our primary aim is to have processes for handling banks when they fail, or whether we should be focusing on building an economic system that doesn’t presuppose this.
As for the idea that if taxpayers don’t have to bail out the banks, we don’t have to pay, that’s to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our economy.  

If a bank fails and we pay for nationalising it through our taxes, it’s a visible cost.
But the overall increase in costs from what may be politically attractive but economically risky metrics also affect us all – as shareholders, as mortgage borrowers facing increased interest rates or higher entry hurdles, as entrepreneurs with start-up needs or business owners looking to expand through loans, and crucially through our pensions.  Yes, you did read that right, reduced bank profits means reduced dividends which directly affect our pensions pots.
Ah, but not every one is affected, right? Mortgages, shares, workplace pensions… not everyone has them and this way the poorest don’t have to pay for the greedy bankers?  But given the lowest paid have been lifted out of tax, they wouldn’t have been hit that way anyway, so that’s just disingenuous.   We all pay.

And we shouldn’t, you may say.  Let the bankers pay!
Bankers get million pound bonuses!  Yep, some do.  In the UK, according to former City minister Paul Myners,  last year it was 5000 bankers out of a million people working in financial services.  Well, if we want to debate the inherent unfairness in pay and reward structures in our capitalist economist, and the value to the economy of farmers,  call centre workers, teachers -v- say, premiership footballers who merely kick a ball around a field for 90 minutes, that’s a whole other blog post. However distasteful the enormous pay packets seem to us, and the differential between the highest and lowest pay, I think we need to differentiate between our sense of social injustice and convenient scapegoating of the bankers.

If we are to think about an economy that is about economic growth and not on bank failure,  then we need to move away from the assumption that nothing can be done and these things just happen – somehow bubbles that burst bringing down the economy are an inevitability.
Alan Greenspan had a mantra that it is cheaper and easier to mop up after an economic bubble bursts.   He’s been proved wrong.
What we really need is a more mature way of thinking about bubbles.
Bubbles are very rarely economy-wide.  So if it’s a property bubble, we need to have targeted measures aimed at deflating that sector.  How do we tell if there’s a bubble?  Loads of economic analysts argue over this, but essentially it’s a bit like pornography – almost impossible to pin down but you know it when you see it…

Is there a bubble at the moment?  Well, not easily seen.
But some food for thought – LinkedIn was recently valued at what equates to $100 a user.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve not put $100 into my LinkedIn use and would withdraw my details before seeing them sold – so unless some people are putting in thousands of dollars, I can’t see how that worth is derived.  Is this a new 1990s style internet bubble?   Who knows?

But will all this activity make the banking system less likely to fail in future? Don’t bank on it.

Edit: 2014, and things have moved on a bit politically, including party politically, on which I of course have no intention of commenting further. This set of thoughts gives a snapshot of the situation in 2011, the basic functioning of banking and good governance.

Europe Day: really a referendum?

Or how I  stopped worrying and learned to love representative democracy…

Thumb up with EU flag
Thumb up with EU flag Photo: Swissmacky/Shutterstock Images

Today is Europe Day.  While as a good EU citizen the date is of course inscribed on my heart, the other reason for knowing is the press coverage because apparently the European flag will not be flying outside 10 Downing Street today.
But never mind that.  Symbolism matters less than reality.
Otherwise this photo and that oblique Mary Tudor/ Calais reference in the sentence just above are problematic…

A coordinated campaign called #No2EU is trending on Twitter.  The premise is “we defeated the progressives on voting reform, the referendum people didn’t want. We need a referendum to get us out of the EU NOW”.  This is nothing new.  UK anti-EU people at many points on the political spectrum have pushed the idea of a referendum on UK membership of the EU basically since 1973. When the antis lost the last one.  However, there has been a bit of a trend recently amongst pro-EU groups to say that no one should be worried about an in-or-out referendum, and that actually pro-EU people should call for one to get all the nonsenses and half truths out in the open and be able to sweep them away.  The Fabians had a conference on it, the Liberal Democrats championed it at the last general election, Fellow Euroblogger Joe Litobarski even argued the case in the Comment is Free section on the Guardian website.  I think there’s a long way to go between being EU positive now and being ready for a referendum.

Given we’ve just had a resounding “NO” vote in the voting reform referendum – the first full UK referendum in my life time – there are a few ideas that flow from this which it seems to me are worth thinking about in the EU context.  In the meantime, if you want a decent, short analysis of the AV referendum itself, check out this one:

1) Simple questions do not mean simple situation:
While AV is not that complicated, the vote was by:
i) being held on the same day as local elections which – no matter how important the local issues needing to be decided – are nevertheless used as an opportunity for voters bash political parties on national level issues;
ii) being “the wrong question” – while the best question that could be secured in the coalition deal (“a miserable little” compromise), the Jenkins Report (the last Royal Commission on the voting system) suggested AV Plus as AV itself was insufficiently proportional.  Supporters of proportional representation thus found themselves having to support AV on the grounds that it was a step towards what they actually wanted, a position which the NO campaign was able to present both as a reason to vote no to AV itself and as duplicitous;
iii) packaging – any change being linked to boundary changes to constituencies that put off people who might otherwise have vote for change;
iv) being run on the basis of celebrity and with a centre-left focus instead of seeking widespread support. Jon Worth critiqued the arguments as far back as December, and the incoherency of the YES campaign here.

Any or all of these things could happen to an in-or-out EU referendum: tie-up with non-referendum issues or policies deliberately by politicians or more generally by the electorate, a screw-up by one side of the wording of the actual question.
In particular, the personality politics was nightmarish – this vote should never have been portrayed as a choice between prime minister and deputy prime minister.
But the refusal of the YES campaign to stand united was ridiculous.  Where were the pro-AV Conservatives? Nigel Farage of UKIP was a strong advocate – couldn’t he and Miliband and Clegg have stood together to say this is not a left/ right thing but a fairness thing, enabling you to say what you think, but then to get someone you don’t mind rather than someone you really oppose?  We could only hope that the mainstream of politics would be able to get its act together for a pro-EU membership campaign, and that south east MPs in particular whose constituencies need the EU would champion the cause.
Consider this – no one really wanted AV: some were dead against, others lukewarm on that point but keen on a slightly different voting reform. Similarly, no one would really argue that the EU is perfect now, surely, but many would say that it could be really good with some changes.  The similarity is just too much in terms of how arguments would need to be presented.
No one in favour of EU membership should be encouraging a referendum without learning the lessons of why the AV Yes campaign failed.

2) Simplicity and the status quo:
This seems the simplest idea – that people voted to keep what is there already as they saw no good reason to change it.  Aha!  This would surely result in a NO to leaving the EU, after all being in is the status quo, right?  I’m unconvinced.
There’s a significant number of people who believe everything negative and nothing of the positive about the EU and who have seen their view reinforced by governments  of all complexions winning-in-the-EU-against-the-odds, and right across the press, for decades.  The only positive messages that seem to have caught the public imagination in recent times have been cheaper calls from mobiles abroad, pet passports and blue flags for clean beaches, but even then the negative aspects (e.g. possibly higher call costs overall, more British beaches failing tougher new standards) are also reported as if the EU has directly caused them.
And if you are looking to April Fool co-workers, the EU is a fertile area as so many people will believe just about anything :)
Being negative about Europe is second nature and lists like this are rare…  So I suspect that the status quo is actually this negativity and not a full understanding of the constitutional arrangements under which the UK is part of the EU.

Plus the EU is complicated.  Complexity is not appealing, and doesn’t fit  the news agenda easily.  There is some evidence that stressing the apparent complexity of AV (which could be summed up as number any candidates you don’t mind representing you, and ) and the comparisons with sports to stress simplicity for FPTP struck a cord.  People are busy, they don’t have time to worry about things of limited interest to them – and we know the EU is simply not of much interest.
So while Jo Swanson’s explanation that AV was like saying “if you’re going to the shop can you get me a Mars bar but if you can’t get that, I’ll have a Twix” was straight forward and clear, much of the other publicity wasn’t.  Of course, the best YES to AV poster I’ve seen online didn’t seem to be official…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3) The role of the media:
I know, I know, the media’s not to blame, if people don’t want to read something then they won’t buy those papers or will just turn to the sports section.
But it is amazing that, election after election, that the party that wins is the one that gets the majority press support and the most positive coverage.  In part this might be because media moguls do not want to be associated with losers, but the coverage over the periods between elections is also a crucial indicator of likely success.  It was hard to find any sustained positive messaging in the press on AV – while the Guardian, Independent and Mirror (all left-leaning) supported a YES as the least worse alternative, most of the rest of the press pushed hard for a NO.  I argued before that this might be because AV makes it hard to call elections in advance and that – as can be seen from the coverage of the current government – coalition politics is subtle, complex, indirectly adversarial and therefore impossible to report with anything close to the reality of how it works…
Now think about UK EU coverage.  If there’s no requirement on the media beyond the BBC to be impartial, and most of the press already takes this tone (e.g. every Treaty creates a superstate and treating campaign group press releases as if they are fact!), just imagine how much worse this would be during an in-or-out referendum. How on earth would the pro-EU membership side get its message any coverage at all?

4) Money, money, money:
One of the earliest posts I read from defeated YES campaigners on Left Foot Forward was that if only every registered political party member in favour of AV had given a tenner, the YES campaign could’ve outspent the NO, even given the massive donations from the Conservative Party’s large donors, use of staff and phone banks etc.
Does money make a difference?
It certainly is thought to in general elections, that’s why there are limits imposed by the Electoral Commission.  Officially, candidates in rural areas can spend up to £7,150 plus 7p per elector. Those standing in urban areas can spend £7,150 plus 5p per voter. Registered parties are restricted in their spending for the 365 days before the election. Parties can spend up to £30,000 for each seat they contest – which adds up to £19.5m if they fight every constituency.  But that’s only during the election period – it’s widely thought that the Ashcroft money that was spent for some time ahead of this made a large difference (although the fact that we have a coalition government shows it was not of itself enough to determine the outcome – Gordon Brown being unpopular and Nick Clegg being telegenic might also have played a part…).
Now bear in mind the sensitivity of an in-or-out EU referendum, the backers, the availability or otherwise of EU money, the fact that anything put out as information by the EU is regularly dismissed as propaganda and you can see that any pro-EU referendum campaign would have a bit of research and serious fundraising to do before launching.

5)  Getting down and dirty:
or, the importance of the message.  Don’t for any moment think that either side in a referendum campaign will feel the need to stay within realms of truth or reasonableness.
In the UK AV referendum campaign we were told by the official YES camp that MPs would work harder.  But they mainly work hard already, child-friendly hours apparently a thing of the past in parliament.  That should have been “harder to secure the support of a wider range of people in their constituency at election time and to keep that support for next time”.
We were told it would help stop corruption and greed, again something that would require a zealous anti-corruption campaign now rather than a change in the voting system.
Neither of these were the best reasons for voting YES to AV.  I set out 10 reasons why on this blog, and none of them came from the campaign literature.
On the NO side, we were told that the cost would be £250m (a number David Blunkett later admitted was plucked out the air) and on that basis, babies wouldn’t get maternity units, soldiers wouldn’t get bullet-proof vests (in which case a YES vote would’ve ensured that the £90m spent was not wasted), that the BNP would triumph (in reality they would’ve found it tougher under AV and opposed it), votes and voters would no longer be equal with extremists getting more say, that Nick Clegg would be a kingmaker forever, that kind of thing.
Coalition government itself requires a certain amount of political maturity to understand – the Lib Dems argued over and over that with under a fifth of the vote they could only really expect to enact a fifth of their own programme as part of an agreed government package.  That makes you look like a 4/5 sellout by the rules of the UK press, particularly if the fifth you get to pursue does not include some of your most popular pledges in the campaign…
And yet in other European countries it is possible for voters to distinguish between coalition partners and not just bash one side.  Are we – perhaps- just not European enough to cope with anything more than Punch and Judy two swords lengths apart?

6) So…
It’s hard to argue that FPTP can’t deliver what the public wants when there is currently a coalition – the public did not want to give any one party an overall majority and that’s exactly what the voting system we have delivered.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve never been in favour of referendums, for pretty much all of the reasons listed above, but hope to be proved wrong by one on voting reform.
But it looks like all of the fears I had have come to pass.
Looking at what happened during the campaign, you had an issue that was not the main priority of the YES campaign, less money available, voter disinterest, a complex argument versus what appeared to be a simple one, and distortion of the issue via personality politics, over-exaggeration and lying. And now that the referendum is lost, discussion of PR is off the agenda for the foreseeable.

If representative democracy, albeit via a non-proportional voting system, provides a better, depersonalised politics than the nastiness and misleading rubbish that failed to actually present the case for or against we witness in these past few weeks, them I’m quite happy to stay away from referendums for now, thanks.
#No2EU want to really shake things up with an in-or-out referendum but present it as the path of least difficulty.
But the YES side?  Too wobbly in terms of leadership and messaging at the moment.  Frankly I don’t think it’s ready for that jelly.

So Happy Europe Day.  May there be many more of them to celebrate in the UK.

True Finns- what just happened?


Finnish tshirt from www.zazzle.com – election of the true Finns risks a changed position for women in Finnish society

Eek.  Just listened to the BBC world service programme “World Have Your Say” on which friend and fellow Euroblogger Jon Worth just appeared.

The immediate EU concern is that – given the Finnish parliament has to vote on any agreed bailouts (or as Jon rightly points out, long term loans to stricken countries underwhich the lenders actually make a profit on monies loaned) – the Portuguese bailout may be delayed, or need to be changed.
The learning point from this – and the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere where the populist right is on the rise – must surely be that it is no longer acceptable to regard the EU as an inevitable grand projet, pushed forward by an elite with a common mindset, which the public will unquestioningly accept.  There needs to be more open and honest explanation of what is going on, what the proposed solutions are an the consequences of doing them and not doing them.  And while this is no doubt the economic big picture, it goes for wider policy making too.

However, there ought to be concern too because this party that just got 20% of the vote and may end up forming part of the next Finnish government apparently said that Finnish women should study less and stay at home producing more True Finnish children.
I’m appalled on so many levels at that statement.
This can’t be real, can it?  A progressive, Nordic country really just had an election in which True Finns was the only party to increase its share of the vote?
If you want to read a female Finnish bloggers perspective, I’ve just found this one.

In the meantime, welcome to the twenty first century.
We may be seeing democracy as a rallying point outside Europe, but we need to take greater care to remember that being elected is about representation, not just leadership.
And we also need to think about who is being represented.
If ever we needed proof that women’s rights have been hard won and are not inviolable, this is a wake up call.

So where are all the EU women?

Five inter-related thoughts on the theme of where are all the women:

1) I’ve been following an interesting debate over on Twitter.  Life’s a bit complicated technologically at the moment so my joining in Tweets haven’t all got there, but the gist of the discussion is this: why, when there is an EU-related panel discussion, is it so hard to find a panel with gender balance?  Or more than just one woman?  Where are all the women? (@europasionaria, @EuropeanAgenda @maitea6 @euonymblog)

2) Meanwhile, the European Women’s Lobby has drawn attention to the issue of where all the women are in the European External Action Service (just 36% at present – the petition calling for more can be found here)?  Just over one third?  Seriously, where are all the women?

3) At the same time (and there is a link here too, I promise), my care arrangements have suddenly got more complicated: it now offers half an hour less time in the evenings with no good reason offered for the change, meaning a much bigger risk of being late…
Then, for reasons best known to themselves, the public transport system in London has decided that I should have to have a minimum extra half hour journey a day…
And Eurostar has changed the timing of the Brussels train meaning it is now impossible to catch our care at the end of a day at meetings in Belgium…
Argh!  Logistics nightmare!  But I know I’m not alone in this.
Thousands of families have complications. Many sort it out quietly, anecdotally often by having another baby or someone downgrading or giving up work.  Does it have to be like this?

4) Are the EU women working part-time and thus unavailable, or not highly enough ranked to take part in the more public roles?
Short answer is no – not all women are mothers, not all women work part-time. But a big group do.
A quick look at the UK: is it possible to be both successful in your career and work part-time? In the UK public sector, broadly yes.
What about the private and voluntary sectors? Well, the right to request flexible working is out there, for parents and carers at present and with a good take up rate.  It’s less clear how many do not request for fear of career implications or pessimism about being turned down.
Also there is a prevailing view that somehow part-time and full-time labour markets are and should be separate.  Well, this makes no sense given the quality of individuals looking to work part-time whose skills and experience should not be confined to lower level roles (particularly now that the retirement age is gone and older workers might want to reduce their hours without actually leaving work altogether). It also makes no sense given the news that the huge majority of jobs created recently have been part-time (let’s just hope it doesn’t also mean that they’ve been low-paid ones).
Recently there’s been quite a lot of resentment in newspaper letters pages towards demanding parents who have made a “lifestyle choice” to have kids and should not expect any special treatment as a result.
Let’s leave aside for now the “who pays your pension” argument, though it should be made.
More immediately, is there actually anything wrong with parents wanting both to play a major role in bringing up their own children and also using the skills and talents that they’ve spent their lives building up for the profit of all?
And there also seems to be fear about employing women as it is just “more difficult” than employing men (a view openly expressed by working mother Katy Hopkins on BBC Question Time).
So can it be done?  Well obviously yes.
Are there any non-superwoman role models?
The Evening Standard ran a brilliant piece (not available online) on a London mother working a very senior design job at a well-known designer store part-time three days a week – but noted that her father had given her the role with some resistance from other decision-takers. Dammit, why does it take a father to demonstrate that it can work?

What about the EU institutions and related organisations?  Given that the institutions staff are not covered directly by EU legislation on part-time working etc., how exemplary are the institutions as flexible employers?
And what about the lobbying industry?
Or the voluntary sector in Brussels?
Do they expect the Belgian childcare system to step in so parents can work full-time? Is there any scope to work part-time?
And, given the likelihood that family are not close by, what happens when meetings run on past the 6pm childcare cut-off point? Or the essential networking sessions are all held in the evenings?

5)  Final thought: the gender pay gap (notional average wage difference figure) and indeed everything affecting where the women are job-wise, are complex and interconnected.
Not least because it all matters for men too.
Measures taken now might not have immediate effect, but it does not mean no action is necessary.  Governments across the EU, and the institutions themselves, are realising this and trying to do something about it.
Gender balanced panels would be one small step, but a visible one.