Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A noisier EU Quarter in Brussels

Since 6 February, planes have been rerouted from their route over the leafy suburbs of Flanders east of Brussels to straight over the EU quarter. People in the eurobubble say it's another example of Belgium dumping problems on people who cannot vote in general elections.

Today, members of the European Parliament rejected a European Commission proposal that would have allowed the European Union to overrule local authority decisions on the banning of flights at certain times.

The vote was only a rubber-stamping of a decision taken back in January to reject this part of the airport noise proposal. However, some MEPs saw this week's vote as an opportunity to bring up an airport noise issue closer to their hearts – new flight plans in Belgium that send planes from Zaventem airport straight over Brussels city centre and the EU quarter.

Since 6 February, planes taking off from Zaventem have been using a new route ordered by the Belgian federal government. The ‘Wathelet plan' – named after its designer Melchior Wathelet, Belgium's secretary of state of environment, energy, mobility and institutional reforms – has rerouted 80% of flights that used to fly over sparsely populated areas of Flanders east of Brussels. One hundred flights a day are now flying at low altitude through Brussels city - straight over the EU institutions.
Continue reading

Friday, 11 April 2014

The greenest government ever?

British Conservatives have among the worst voting records in the European Parliament on climate issues, according to a new analysis.

In May 2010, David Cameron, the UK's prime minister, made a bold claim. As he finalised talks on forming a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he told an audience of civil servants that his would be “the greenest government ever”.

It is a claim that Cameron may have come to regret. Over the past four years, the quote has been repeatedly thrown back at him by environmentalists upset over a variety of issues – whether cuts to renewable energy subsidies or fracking for shale gas. Yet Cameron has maintained that his government is doing more to combat climate change than any previous UK government, and that the UK is playing a more constructive role in the climate fight than other European countries.

But green campaigners say this claim is hard to justify when you look at the voting record of Conservative members of the European Parliament. An analysis by campaign group CAN Europe published this week, scoring MEPs based on how they voted on ten key pieces of climate legislation over the 2009-14 term, ranks the British Conservatives among the worst parties in the Parliament for climate action.
Continue reading

Monday, 10 February 2014

Switzerland's misleading model

The EU helps Eurosceptics when it allows Switzerland to be in the single market while pretending to be outside of it.

Last week, when Dutch Eurosceptic politician Geert Wilders unveiled a much-anticipated 'nexit study' (Netherlands exit from the EU), Switzerland featured prominently in the press conference.

The wealthy Alpine nation, about the same size as the Netherlands geographically, was held out as the paradise which would await a country if it leaves the EU.  Mark Pragnel, an analyst at British firm Capital Economics, which conducted the study, said Switzerland’s bilateral system of treaties with the EU is a model that the Dutch should emulate. “We think the Swiss option is viable for the Netherlands,” he said.

The argument is not new. Switzerland often features prominently in British debates about leaving the union. Not being in the EU hasn’t harmed economically thriving Switzerland, so why would it harm the UK? In fact, Switzerland’s success is often held out as being the result of, rather than in spite of, the country not being subject to EU law.

But this narrative is false. Switzerland is in fact part of the EU’s single market and it has to follow most EU law. Like the European Economic Area (EEA) countries Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, Switzerland exists in a ‘fax democracy’. Its ten bilateral treaties with Brussels, which mirror EEA membership in all but name, bind the country to follow EU law in agriculture, transport, trade, public procurement, environment, free movement and border control.
Continue reading

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Target fatigue

The EU's attitude toward targets has changed dramatically over the past five years.

Back in the heady days of 2008, before the European Union was plunged into a period of crisis around both its currency and its legitimacy, setting hard targets for solving the climate change problem was all the rage. Flash forward to 2014 and the world is a very different place.

The European Commission is planning to come forward later this month with a proposal to set new climate targets for 2030. These would follow the '20-20-20' package set in 2008: 20% emissions reduction based on 1990 levels, 20% share of renewable energy and 20% increase in energy efficiency. The first two targets were binding, while the third was indicative.

For 2030, the Commission is going to try a different tact. The emissions target strategy will remain roughly the same – a binding target increased to 40% for 2030 (though this is still subject to some internal wrangling in the Commission). But for the renewable energy target, there is likely to be a shift in strategy. The draft proposal being submitted for review within the Commission tomorrow will make the 2030 target non-binding, without individual legally-enforceable targets for member states.
Continue reading

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Caving in on the cave-in

The humiliating saga of the ETS aviation dispute has exposed the limits of respect for EU law, both outside and inside Europe.

It's not looking good for the European Commission's proposal to undo an EU law that would have charged all airlines for the emissions of flights taking off or landing in Europe. An increasing number of member states and MEPs are coming out in opposition. But they don't have a problem with the retreat. They say the Commission isn't retreating far enough.

Last week Germany, France and the UK told a meeting of member states that they want to change the proposal to a more complete surrender.

In October, in response to intense international pressure, the Commission proposed to change the law so that emissions that take place outside EU air space are exempt. But Germany, France and the UK want to exempt foreign airlines from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) entirely - even for the portions of flights that take place within EU airspace - because anything less would not be politically acceptable to China, India, Russia and the United States.
Continue reading

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Climate nationalism

Many having given up on the international process delivering solutions to climate change, and eyes are turning to national solutions to fill the void.

While covering last week's UN climate summit in Warsaw, I found myself encountering very different moods depending on which section of the venue I was in. While I was in the rooms surrounding the main plenary chamber, constructed on the field of the city's mammoth National Stadium, I could feel an overwhelming aura of pessimism. Exhausted-looking delegates on the sidelines spoke of demoralising gridlock and a negotiating process on a knife's edge.

But travel upstairs to the ‘national pavilions' located at the top of the stadium, where individual countries hosted events and showcased their climate actions, and the mood couldn't be more different. The Chinese pavilion was exuberantly showcasing their regional emissions trading schemes. The Americans were trumpeting the new emissions standards for power plants. In the EU pavilion, individual member states were announcing new financial contributions to fighting climate change and deforestation left and right.
Continue reading

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Quebec: no need for readmission

Given that it is the only significant independence movement in the developed world outside Europe, the cause of Quebec secession is often used as an example in discussions of separatism in the European context. And so it was perhaps not surprising that at an event at the European Parliament last week about independence movements within the EU, a Quebecer was on hand to share his experiences.

The European Free Alliance (EFA), a collection of seven separatist members of the European Parliament from Scotland, Wales, Corsica, Flanders, the Russian community in Latvia and the Basque Country, hosted the event on “the right to decide” last Wednesday (13 November). The group sits in a sometimes uncomfortable common group with the Greens, who notably had little by way of promotion of the event on the group’s website.

In addition to Quebec, the event looked at the independence referendum situations in Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Wales and Galicia.

Europe has long had a strange relationship with Quebecois separatism. The situation in Belgium is often compared to that of Canada. France has been a strong supporter of Quebecois separatism, while simultaneously suppressing separatist movement sin Corsica, Brittany and Savoy. But are there really lessons for Europe from Quebec’s experience?
Continue reading

Friday, 15 November 2013

International nationalists

The far right has a poor history of working together in international forums. An alliance brokered by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen is seeking to reverse that trend.

"There is nothing harder to set up than a nationalists' international," wrote political scientists Michael Minkenberg and Pascal Perrineau when they analysed the performance of the radical right in the 2004 European Parliament elections. The latest attempt to disprove that truism was launched last week by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National (FN), and Geert Wilders, the Dutch maverick anti-Islam campaigner.

At a press conference held at the Dutch parliament in The Hague this week, Le Pen and Wilders announced a pact to work together to build an alliance in the next European Parliament to slay “the monster in Brussels” and wreck the Parliament from within. Given the patchy – to say the least – record of populist and nationalist groups’ attempts to join forces at European level, it was hardly surprising that scepticism dominated the initial reaction.

In the last Parliament, far-right groups briefly forged an alliance under the “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” group banner. But that pact fell apart after Romanian and Italian nationalists rowed over Alessandra Mussolini calling Romanians “habitual lawbreakers”. Perhaps it is not surprising that nationalists whose principal policy platform is being anti-foreigner have trouble co-operating with “foreigners”.
Continue reading

Thursday, 14 November 2013

EU citizenship for sale

As the holder of an EU passport through some arcane and perhaps undeserved reasons (ancestry), I’m often asked by my fellow Americans how they too can get in on this European action. For me it’s been an incredible asset, to hold both EU and American citizenship, and I know many people in America who would cut off their right arm to have the right to come and work in Europe for awhile.

Well Americans, today’s your lucky day. This week the Maltese Parliament approved a measure that would allow anyone to purchase Maltese citizenship for the low low price of €650,000 ($875,000). What a bargain!

When Europe’s media got wind of this news yesterday, people were scandalized. This tiny island nation of 450,000 people is part of the EU and therefore a holder of a Maltese passport would have the right to live and work anywhere in the union. They would have the right to free healthcare throughout Europe and free/reduced tuition at any of Europe’s universities. And they would benefit from visa-free travel arrangements between the EU and the United States.
Continue reading

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Torch the rainbow

A monument to peace displayed by Poland outside the European Parliament during that country's presidency of the EU was burnt to the ground last night in Warsaw.

Chalk it up to some very unfortunate timing. Yesterday, as delegates arrived for this year's UN climate summit in Warsaw, they were warned to exercise caution and to stay out of the city centre. Violent demonstrations had broken out throughout the city.

The demonstrations actually had nothing to do with the climate summit. The meeting just happened to be opening on the same day as Polish national day, when far right and far left Polish groups have traditionally clashed in street brawls during demonstrations.

The violence isn't ordinarily noticed by the world's media. But given that international journalists have converged on the city this week for the climate summit, it was embarrassing timing for the Polish government.

It didn't help that the most iconic image from the violence was the sight of a giant rainbow in central Warsaw burnt to the ground last night. Those in Brussels might recognize the rainbow shown burning in this photo. It was displayed in front of the European Parliament by the Polish government during their EU presidency in 2011.
Continue reading

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Eastern enthusiasm

A visit to Lithuania this week showed me how history and geography make such a difference to attitudes toward the EU.

Lithuania is a land in between. Part of the Soviet Union until just two decades ago, it today finds itself sandwiched between two dangerous and unpredictable neighbours. It’s not a very comfortable geography, to say the least.

To its East lies the pariah state of Belarus - Europe’s last dictatorship and, one might also say, Europe’s last Russian satellite state. To its West lies the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad - a barren, unforgiving place that few dare enter, repopulated by Russians in 1949 after its German inhabitants were killed or expelled.

But to its North and South lie fellow countries of the European Union – Latvia and Poland. The 103km border between Poland and Lithuania therefore forms a perilous land bridge between unfriendly Russian talons. Since2009 the two countries have been part of the EU’s passport-free Schengen area, giving the border additional importance as the only way to get to the Baltic and Finnic countries to the North without a visa.

But despite this pivotal importance, this narrow passageway faces a dearth of infrastructure connections. As I write this I am on a plane flying back from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, where I spent the last two days at a conference devoted to this lack of connection.
Continue reading

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Toilet humour

British MEPs and their national press were on pun overload this week after they learned that in the coming days the EU is going to set the criteria for which toilets can receive a special ‘ecolabel' based on using less water in a flush.

 The voluntary labels are designed to attract consumers who might want to save money on water or help the environment.

 The European Commission has been issuing these ecolabel criteria for various products such as television sets and textiles since 1992. 17,000 products have been given criteria for the ecolabel so far. But this time, the criteria are for a product that makes people giggle. So as soon as it was picked up as a news story, you could see the reaction coming a mile away.

 Silly topic + EU angle = UK headlines.

 And headlines there were. On Tuesday The Telegraph ran an article saying the EU is planning to “standardise the flush on lavatories”, introducing a “euro-flush” that will be imposed after an exhaustive study of European toilet habits.
Continue reading