Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Evolving European Union (2)

European Legislation

Laws, remember, are made in the European Union jointly by the European Parliament and Council (concilium  or Council of Ministers), on both of which Britain is represented in an appropriate manner.

Someone has said that 60% of laws that apply to us in Britain were made in the European Union; are in effect European Laws. Well, the number might be 58% according to FullFact.org; but never mind the exact proportion, it still makes my friend Peter feel bossed around by strangers, deprived of his sovereignty.

However, it does not have that effect on me. I surf my way to eur-lex.europa.eu and in less than a minute I find I have access to the entire legislative process of the EU cataloged by year back to the beginning; brilliantly transparent, brilliantly lucid. I find that the products of the EU legislature are of 3 types:
[1]   Regulations; which apply in a binding way across all members states of the Union.
[2]   Directives; which only become binding in any particular country if that country adopts and enacts their own law to that effect.
[3]   Decisions; which relate to individual cases, as between two competing slaughterhouses in Cyprus.

My friend Peter is therefore concerned only about the Regulations, of which some 1500 were passed by the EU in 2014 and again in 2015. Let us take at random Regulation (EU) 2015/2284 of the ‘European Parliament and Council’ of 25 Nov 2015 repealing Council Directive 76/621/EEC relating to the fixing of the maximum level of erucic acid in oils and fats. Does Peter object to that being repealed, purely (we are told) for tidiness and clarity?  I think not. Or Regulation (EU) 2015/2421 amending Regulation 861/2007 establishing a European Small Claims Procedure. No problem, surely? The Laws passed by Europe seem timely, well drafted, fair; in short competently done. If they were not passed in Brussels they would have to be passed anyway in London.

What might make anyone a trifle uneasy is the thought of that team of 23,000 civil servants beavering away in their clever, methodical, way. Why not 25,000? Or 30,000? Parkinson’s Law applies in Britain; so I suppose it might apply also in Europe. We should look next at the Court of Auditors, to see if they are doing their job.


If there is any serious criticism of the European Union --  we should fix it.

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Evolving European Union (1)

The Evolving European Union

The European Union (EU) has evolved greatly since its inception (in 1951) as the European Coal and Steel Community, an inspiration of French foreign minister Robert Schumann with the explicit aim of using economic self-interest to drive the political union of war-ravaged France and Germany. Five countries immediately expressed interest in joining France: Germany, Italy and the 3 Benelux countries. The founding treaty of Paris created a supra-national ‘High Authority’ which eventually became the Commission, but almost immediately tension began to develop, as the component national governments (particularly France) resented their loss of sovereignty, and used the inter-national ‘Council of Ministers’ to control the power of the supra-national ‘Commission’. The present-day (2016) European Union is defined in the 2007 Treaty on European Union. But the institution continues to develop informally under the stresses of the times, such as the lingering debt crisis that has followed the collapse of numerous banks in 2008, and the immigration that has resulted from instability in the middle-east.

The Treaty on European Union (2007) establishes and names the 7 institutions in the following order.

[1]  The European Parliament (EP) is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union (EU). Together with the Council of the European Union (the Council) and the European Commission, it exercises the legislative function of the EU. The Parliament is composed of 751 members, who represent the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world (375 million eligible voters in 2009). It has been directly elected every five years by universal suffrage since 1979.

The European Parliament is the supreme institution in the EU; it therefore supervises the executive body of the EU (the European Commission) which is thus accountable to Parliament. In particular, Parliament (since 2014) elects the President of the Commission, and approves (or rejects) the appointment of the Commission as a whole. It can force the Commission to resign as a body by adopting a motion of censure.

[2]  The European Council is the institution of the European Union (EU) that comprises the heads of state or government of the member states, along with President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part in its meetings. Established as an informal summit in 1975, the European Council was formalised as an institution in 2007 by the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in 2009.

[3]  The Council of the European Union (often still called the 'Council of Ministers' as contrasted with 'Council of Heads', or sometimes just called the Council).  It is part of the essentially bicameral EU legislature (the other legislative body being the European Parliament), but resembles more the USA Senate than the British House of Lords. It represents the executive governments of the EU's member states. It is based in Brussels. Its origen dates from the early fifties, when its role was to curb the Commission (inter-national curbing Supra-national).

[4]   The European Commission (EC) is the oldest of the institutions, founded in 1951 as the supra-national authority of the Coal and Steel Community. The Commission is the executive body of the EU responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. Commissioners swear an oath at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, pledging to respect the treaties and to be completely independent in carrying out their duties during their mandate.

The Commission operates as a 'cabinet government', with 28 members of the Commission (informally known as "commissioners"). There is one member per member state, though commissioners are bound by oath to represent the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their home state. One of the 28 is the Commission President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker) proposed by the European Council but elected by the European Parliament. The Council then appoints the other 27 members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President, and the 28 members as a single body are then subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The current Commission (the 'Juncker Commission') took office in late 2014 and will run till 2019 (unless censured). The President of the Commission together with the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, represents the EU abroad.

The term ‘Commission’ is used either in the narrow sense of the 28-member College of Commissioners (or College) but also to include the administrative body of about 23,000 European civil servants who are split into departments called directorates-general and services. The procedural languages of the Commission are English, French and German. The Members of the Commission (and their immediate secretariats) are based in Brussels.

[5]  The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the institution of the European Union that encompasses the whole judiciary. Sited in Luxembourg, it now consists of three separate courts: the ‘Court of Justice’ (see below), the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal. It originated in 1952 to clarify the law of the new institutions. It is not to be confused with the ‘European Court of Human Rights’ (the supranational court based in Strasbourg); nor with the 'European Court of Justice' (the CJEU's Court of Justice), the highest court of the CJEU.)

[6]   The European Central Bank (ECB) is the central bank for the euro and administers monetary policy of the Eurozone, which consists of 19 EU member states and is one of the largest currency areas in the world. It is one of the world's most important central banks, and is mandated to maintain price stability (and to define and implement the monetary policy for the Eurozone, and to conduct foreign exchange operations). The capital stock of the bank is owned by the central banks of all 28 EU member states. The Treaty of Amsterdam established the bank in 1998, and it is based in Frankfurt.

[7]  The Court of Auditors was established in 1975 in Luxembourg to audit the accounts of EU institutions. The Court is composed of one member from each EU member state, one of whom is chosen to be its president.


(The above is deeply indebted to Wikipedia. I propose to continue in a separate post to discuss the tensions, and weaknesses, in the current institutions.)

Monday, 11 April 2016

Cameron’s Pamphlet

Cameron’s Pamphlet
Never mind offshore accounts; publishing tax returns seems a good solution to that. But what about this ‘Pro-Europe’ pamphlet’? Could it be that the limping Cameron has just shot himself in the other foot? I can understand some cries of “foul”.

However, we could hardly object if the Cameron Pamphlet turned out to contain only useful, and factually correct, statements. It would have been so much more effective if both sides had AGREED a joint pamphlet. And this is my point.

“We need information, not leadership, or rhetoric.”

I am in favour of the European Project, but I am desperately ignorant, and find my neighbours scarcely better informed. I want to rebut the criticisms I hear in the pub, and which instinct tells are manufactured by a venal press for a ‘blimpish’, ‘Little England’ readership. There may still be time to print another pamphlet. So, tell us:

● There are 7 entities that comprise the European Union Project, namely Council of Ministers, Commission, Parliament, Consilium, Court of Auditors, Court of Justice and Central Bank. But what is our representation, and our voting rights on each? Are there any vetos? (The EU’s own website points out that the Council of the European Union (which we call the Council of Ministers, and which meets virtually all the time), should not be confused with the European Council (or ‘Consilium Europa’, which meets only 4 times a year), or  the Council of Europe (which is not an EU body at all). Their interrelationships are well shown in a diagram by Wikipedia.
● There are 5 Presidents, (not counting the Chair of the Council of Ministers which rotates between member countries so fast as to make learning his name pointless).
  All 28 countries are represented (nearly) equally on the Commission, but are they 'answerable' to their parliaments, and is the Commission sufficiently under 'democratic' control? 
  Are all debates in public, and are minutes published? (According to Yanis Varoufakis this may not be the case.)
  Are there any stories of daft directives (like bent bananas) that have a grain of truth in them or are they all concoctions? Who makes the ‘daft’ directives? How binding are they?  What happens to a member state that declines to enforce a daft directive.
  Is the bureaucracy more or less wasteful than the British Civil Service, on a per caput basis? No silly numbers, please. We could do with maximum and minimum numbers, and numbers that both the IN-CAMPAIGN and the OUT-CAMPAIGN can agree on.

Use and abuse of Statistics

     It is not just numbers that can be used to mislead; half truths can do it too. But we are more inclined to believe that numbers are ‘true’, and convey ‘truth’. My brainwave was to suggest (11th April) that propaganda pamphlets would gain enormously in credibility and usefulness if the text were agreed by both sides of the argument.
     Then on the BBC’s Today programme this morning (13th April, 08.10 hrs) I find Nick Robinson trying to separate facts from interpretations, and forcing his opposed speakers to agree on ‘facts’.  
     Bravo; though I doubt Nick Robinson had read my posting of Monday 11th.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Per DiEM (2)

Dear Yanis Varoufakis,
To rescue the European Union from falling apart you offer ‘democracy’, and ‘transparency’. I think the case for transparency is better than the case for democracy. The Commission and Council of Ministers are ultimately answerable to national governments of democratic countries, and we cannot ask for much more than that (see my Per DiEM (1)). We cannot open their every decision to a plebiscite.  But Council minutes could be made available, as you have most effectively pointed out.  Democracy is more the problem than the cure, for weak governments spend to win votes.
The main target of your venom is what you call the ‘Troika’; the 3 committees that control the terms of financial loans to Greece; [1] The European Commission, [2] the International Monetary Fund, and [3] the European Central Bank. Yet your grumble seems to concern the power of the banks (the European Central Bank but also the individual banks that extended loans to Greek citizens). Unfortunately, democracy seems powerless protect us from the banks. We already have democracy, in a fashion. (After 5 years of absolute rule by one party we have the chance to choose another, but  none of the parties will offer to challenge the financial markets. Such is democratic capitalism.)
The inexorable grip of the money market is in part mathematical, and in part legal. I mean, 2 + 2 = 4; there is no wriggle-room. And if you enter a legal contract to borrow money on the condition of paying interest annually at 5% (a condition which you find subsequently that you cannot meet), you will find that neither democracy nor transparency can save you. You need Robin Hood, or anti-usury laws. Or an imaginative negotiator.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Yanis Varoufakis

Yanis Varoufakis, a new and welcome voice in the European debate, irritates as much as he delights. He is given to catch-phrases and assumptions. Doubtless because he has been asked so often to repeat his analysis of the economic and political problems facing Europe, he has come to assume that his metaphors are widely understood; and his analysis correct.

The ‘Troika’ (to him) means the three economic power centres affecting Greek debt: [1] The European Commission, [2] the International Monetary Fund, and [3] the European Central Bank. The ‘Minotaur’ is the devouring ‘black hole’ in the north of Europe that feeds on tribute from the poor countries of the south; a chimera with the rigorous body of a German but the unforgiving head of a Frenchman.   ‘Recycling’ means something like achieving a balance of payments; you borrow our money so you can buy our goods. 

Among his assumptions is that Germany caused Greek debt by forcing its expensive goods on the defenceless Greek people, failing (presumably) to buy sufficient olives in exchange, so letting in the beastly bankers with their insidious loans. 

It is clear that, by the time Yanis Varoufakis became Minister of Finance, Greece was in a hole from which there was no easy way out. The lenders were not willing to forgive debt. Cutting state spending predictably caused recession and unemployment which reached 26% (higher among young people). There seemed a real danger of fascist extremism taking root. It must have been very galling to find oneself in a negotiation against opponents who held all the trumps. Yanis Varoufakis resigned as Minister of Finance on 6th July 2015.

We wait, in a state of tense expectancy, as negotiations continue.

Cawstein, 
Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire,  OX17 2NB

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The European Union – In or Out?

The European Union – In or Out?
     There seem to be three issues: gut feeling, distrust, and economics. The out-campaign emphasises gut feeling and distrust, the in-campaign emphasises economics. 
     I think we all start with a gut feeling. Are you European or British? Some in Britain feel European, thrilled to belong to the culture of Grieg, Rembrandt, Bach, Montaigne, Dante, Cervantes, Socrates. Others have more local loyalties; e.g. England, London, Chelsea.
     Perhaps the next strongest decider is distrust of strangers.  Do we trust the civil servants, politicians, and judges of other member countries to make sensible, humane, and fair judgements? Or is common sense a British monopoly?  Looking at labour relations, education, transport, etc. it is clear that we should trust the 6 founder western European democracies, and in fact we have much to learn. They (with Britain) account for 60% of the people of the EU (and 72% of the GDP). We still do not know much about the poorer countries on the eastern and southern fringes of Europe, and some degree of caution is perfectly rational.  (Incidentally, though we are the 2nd largest economy in the EU, we are only the 11th wealthiest nation per caput. We have plenty to be humble about.)
     However, most of the discussion is about the financial benefits of membership. Here, I would like to make one point that I have not yet seen advanced by other commentators. I think a nation even of our size is still too small to stand up to large commercial and financial concerns. Our annual gross domestic product is around 2.9 trillion £; the annual cost of the entire NHS is 0.096T£. But the total assets of Barclays Bank are 1.36 trillion £ (T£), that of HSBC 1.84. How can we ‘control’ these banks when they have a common interest and ‘gang up’?  Is this not why all the capitalist economies are getting ever deeper into debt? For debt is the income stream of the money lender.  Nor is it just the banks. Royal Dutch Shell has total assets of 0.35 T£.  Walmart has a net annual income of 0.33 T£.  I think there is a great danger when a country can be held to ransom by powerful independent interests with objectives that differ from the National Interest. 
     It is clear that welding a united Europe is difficult, and may take time. But some level of unity must be achieved. We just have to try harder, with more skill and flexibility. The European Union has required gigantic effort to get even this far. I am for going forward, rather than going back. 

Cawstein,
Middleton Cheney, 
Northamptonshire,  OX17 2NB