Monday, 10 February 2014

Switzerland's misleading model

The EU helps Eurosceptics when it allows Switzerland to be in the EU 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.
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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?
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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”.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Immigrant-on-immigrant xenophobia

Italians were shocked yesterday to learn that a Northern Italian teenager who had recently gone to the UK to study and find work had been beaten to death over the weekend. Joele Leotta, 19, was brutally attacked by a group of young men who accused him of “stealing English jobs”, the Italian papers reported.

The Italian papers were quick to make a connection to increasing anti-European and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Conservative government in the UK. Some intitial reports in Italy mentioned the new campaign by the government to send vans into certain neighbourhoods telling illegal immigrants to “go home” in big letters.

The initial press coverage prompted Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialist (S&D) group in the European Parliament, to issue a press release saying the murder was the result of the xenophobic climate created by the government. "The xenophobic, aggressive climate inflamed by populists such as UKIP and by the rhetoric of the Conservatives in government is now leading to murder in the streets of Britain,” said Swoboda in a statement. “Campaigns such as vans with slogans telling immigrants to 'go home' and continuous negative rhetoric against foreigners – including EU citizens – are creating an ugly mood in Britain, which has long prided itself on being an open-minded and tolerant nation.”
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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dutch rally round ‘right to be racist’

It’s that time of year again. The stockings are being hung by the chimney with care, the hot wine stands are setting up shop, and of course, the Dutch have begun putting on their blackface, big red lips and afro wigs. It’s time again for ‘Black Pete’ to pay us a visit.

And right on cue, it’s also time for the perennial hand-wringing about whether or not this minstrel character, who tags along with Saint Nicholas as he hands out presents to Dutch and Flemish children at Christmas, is racist.

But this year, thanks to some comments by a human rights observer, the debate has taken on an almost frenzied dimension that has even seen a prominent Dutch politician call for the Netherlands to pull out of the United Nations.

The Dutch are furious that a member of the UN’s human rights committee is looking into the issue of whether Black Pete is a racist caricature. The head of the committee, who is Jamaican, told a Dutch TV station she found it impossible to understand how Dutch people do not see it as racist. Dutch people have responded with a torrent of outrage, accusing the UN of trampling on something that is an age-old tradition and is culturally important to them. A petition organised to 'save Black Pete' gathered a million endorsements in its first day. News broadcasters are dressing up as Pete in protest, and Dutch people are making YouTube videos dancing around in blackface singing about how not racist they are.
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Monday, 21 October 2013

How small is too small?

Yesterday the citizens of San Marino voted on becoming an EU member state. But is that even possible? 

As Brussels braces itself for the inevitable disappointment of a referendum on EU accession in Iceland, when or if that ever takes place, it will come as little comfort that another non-EU European country rejected EU membership yesterday.

The Republic of San Marino, the tiny microstate of 33,000 people situated within Northern Italy, held a referendum yesterday on whether to apply for EU membership. The proposition failed because not enough people turned out to vote. Though a narrow majority of people who voted approved the measure (50.3% versus 49.7%), a referendum needs 32% of eligible voters to vote yes in order for the measure to pass. The 'yes' vote amounted to just 20%.

Unlike an eventual Iceland referendum, the San Marino referendum was not a response any actual offer of EU membership.  The question of whether to start accession negotiations with Brussels was put to voters after a group of citizens collected the required number of signatures. No matter how the referendum turned out it was non-binding. It would be up to the San Marino government whether to actually request accession negotiations, and it would be up to EU member states whether to accept that request.
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Thursday, 17 October 2013

The car chancellor

Allegations of nefarious influence have abounded this week in Brussels, with German chancellor Angela Merkel accused of controlling the Council of Ministers, and automaker BMW accused of controlling her.

So who's really pulling the strings? And how did we get here?

On Monday, Germany overturned a deal on car emission limits in some very unusual circumstances, somehow convincing several other member states to switch positions on a deal that had already been agreed in June.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party received a donation of €690,000 from the Quandt family, which owns 46.7% of BMW, just days before Monday's fateful meeting. The revelation has prompted German media to dub Merkel "the car chancellor" and question whether hers is a pay-for-play government.

A gift from a partial stakeholder of an automaker might not have raised eyebrows were it not for the very heavy-handed and unusual way Germany has gone about trying to avoid this emissions limit at the last moment - a limit the industry has known was coming since 2008. 

In terms of how Germany has worked to change this EU proposal, the country has technically not violated any rules. But Berlin has become involved in this legislation at two highly inappropriate times that are outside the normal legislative procedure – during the Commission drafting of the proposal and during a vote to rubber-stamp an already-agreed deal.
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Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Vapers win the battle, but not yet the war

Despite the message being sent today by Europe's media, the e-cigarette war is not over. Chalk it up to an oft-repeated confusion about EU policymaking.

Following today's vote on new EU tobacco rules in the European Parliament, a wave of jubilation from the so-called ‘vapers' spread across the Twittersphere.

These enthusiasts of new electronic cigarettes have been working tirelessly to convince MEPs to block a European Commission proposal to regulate the new contraptions as medicines for the purposes of market approval.

Today they got their wish. Members of the European Parliament voted 350-300 to instead classify the cigarettes as tobacco, even though they in fact do not contain any tobacco.

The cigarettes deliver nicotine electronically, without the smoke or tobacco responsible for most adverse health effects from smoking. The vapers had argued that the bureaucracy involved in getting a medicine to market would be too much for the small companies getting started in this sector and kill the industry. Some health advocates agreed with them.
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