Monday, October 19, 2009

This is called coverage of the EU?

The UK's Daily Telegraph has outdone itself. Here is the latest example of why the "serious" press in the UK can't claim to be giving Brits the coverage of the EU that they deserve.

The article seems not to have been written by a Telegraph correspondent (no author is identified); it may have come from one of the news agencies. But it refers to a "Leonard Orba", who is identified as the man "in charge of the EU Bookshop project".

Of course the man's name is Orban and not Orba, and he isn't just some project manager. He's a European Commissioner. OK, so he's not Commissioner for Agriculture, or Competition, or Environment. He's Commissioner for Multilingualism. Not exactly high profile. But you can't call yourself a serious publication if you allow errors of this type into reports.

Perhaps just as bad as the misreporting of his name and job is the missed opportunity that the report represents. There is a lot to say about the EU Bookshop and the broader Europeana project. For example, some see Europeana as a strategic European counter to the cultural threat represented by Google's efforts to digitise the world's libraries. There are some serious cultural and economic issues at stake.

But all in all, what the Telegraph provides here is pretty much worthless. Shame on them.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Surprise, surprise

So President Klaus has set a condition for his signature of the Lisbon Treaty - he wants to get an opt-out for his country from the Charter of Fundamental Rights. There's no way this concession will be granted. Is this the final curtain for the Treaty?

And am I allowed to say, "I told you so" yet?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Presidential Fantasy

Just a thought - wouldn't it be funny if Václav Klaus were appointed President of the Council?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Don't bet on Klaus caving in

The consensus out there (FT Blog, Daily Telegraph, the very interesting Seifert/Litobarski podcast, Centre for European Reform) seems to be that Czech president Václav Klaus will cave in to pressure from all quarters and complete his country's ratification of the Lisbon Treaty ahead of a general election in the UK. The election is likely to put a Conservative government into office that is deeply hostile to the treaty and has promised to hold a referendum in the UK if it has not been fully ratified.

Klaus is the last hope of the anti-Lisbon community, now that the Irish have voted Yes. But all over Europe, people are interpreting his latest pronouncement on the subject as doom for the No camp. Here it is:
"I am afraid that the British people should have been doing something really much earlier. There will never be another referendum in Europe"

Now in my book, that is pretty Delphic at best. He pointedly did NOT say that he was going to sign off on the treaty. He made a tangental allusion to a possible referendum "in Europe". Quite apart from the fact that many Brits don't consider themselves to be in "Europe" at all, this is not a clear or robust statement by any means. And don't forget that there is a court case ongoing in his country that could potentially put paid to the whole thing without his intervention. My own reading of this oracle is that he'd love to kill the treaty off himself before the UK election, so that there would be no need for a referendum.

I am no great Klaus expert, but everything I have read points to him being both a consummate maverick and a "troublemaker", always keen to be controversial. He loves the limelight.

Take my advice. Don't go out to the betting shop and put any money on Klaus signing before the Conservatives win the UK election next year. At the very least, he'll want to keep us on tenterhooks.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Open Europe is failing

I for one joyfully welcomed the creation of Open Europe, a eurosceptic think tank funded by leading UK business people. "At last", I thought, "a serious think tank, funded by serious people, taking an objective but critical approach to the EU, and challenging the more traditional Brussels think tanks like the European Policy Centre, the Centre for European Policy Studies, and others. Take a look at the vision statement. While I would criticise it in some minor respects on the substance and style, it optimistically (and I mean that positively) describes a realistic and not unattractive version of the Europe of the future.

But I have been very disappointed by Open Europe's anti-Lisbon Treaty campaign. Whereas the bulk of the organisation's research throws some light, albeit with a strong eurosceptic bent, on real issues and proposes real solutions, the pieces on the Lisbon Treaty, as well as the blog, seem to have been written by a political party and not a serious think tank. The most recent piece of research focuses on the amendments that the Irish government sought, but failed, to get included in the Lisbon Treaty. On the surface, it is detailed, well-researched, and powerfully argued. But anyone with the slightest interest in objectivity would immediately ask whether the Irish experience of treaty negotiation was so different from that of other Member States. Open Europe is a British outfit, so you would have thought that at least some UK material wouldn't be too hard to find and use. But this question does not appear anywhere in the paper. It's clearly meant more as a direct appeal to Irish voters in the context of the second Irish referendum than as a piece of research on how (un)satisfactory the process of treaty negotiation was for various countries. In fact, I can't find a single mention of any other Member State in the whole paper. In other words, this paper boldly takes the Irish experience of the negotiations out of all context, with a transparently tactical objective: getting the Irish to vote No. If Open Europe had been true to its ostensible mission, it would have provided such research for more Member States. OK, so you could argue that it was only worth investing the necessary resources in a paper on the Irish case because only Ireland was voting. But then they should at the very least have included some comparisons with other countries' positions.

In the months leading to the second Irish Lisbon referendum, the blog has plumbed the tabloid depths. Apparently the end (getting an Irish No vote) justified the means. Because I don't know how a serious think tank can take an honest look at its blog and not cringe with shame. Take a look at this piece on a Labour candidate's criticism of the UK government for failing to hold a referendum on the lisbon Treaty. It's fairly factual, but it does stray from a discussion on the merits of the Treaty into politics.

Then there's this post on the organisations that campaigned for a Yes vote in Ireland, seeking to discredit them by pointing out that they get funding from the Commission. When I questioned in a comment why funding from a body that has a treaty mandate to promote European integration should be considered improper, the Open Europe blog team was silent. Only an anonymous commenter accused me of being an "apologist". He/she obviously hasn't read this blog or my comments elsewhere.

This piece came back to the theme of the alleged "issues" with the Commission "paying organisations to come up with policy ideas to feed back into the Commission". Hang on a minute. So are they saying they would like the Commission to receive feedback only from business or from privately-funded think tanks like them? And why do they assume that the feedback the Commission is going to get is going to be "pro-EU", as if the pro- or anti-EU debate was really what people in Brussels spent their time worrying about every day? Why ignore the fact that a lot of the Commission's funding goes, for example, to environmental NGOs? The Commission does indeed get policy ideas from such organisations, and they have indeed been used in Commission policy-making. But these NGOs overwhelmingly provide input on policy, and not on an obsessive questioning of the EU's structural problems.

Here, Open Europe accused Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary of double standards for changing his mind on the Lisbon Treaty, conveniently ignoring the fact that its own white knight, Declan Ganley, had sworn he would retire from politics if snubbed at the European elections (which he was), only to return to the fray despite himself. A pretty obvious case of double standards in my book.

A really appalling example of tabloid journalism was the repetition of the claim made by the Irish Times that Commissioner Wallstrom had told Irish voters that the Lisbon Treaty was going to improve childcare. When Wallstrom's spokesman pointed out that the irish Times had got it wrong and that she had been talking about the Lisbon Agenda and not the Lisbon Treaty, did we get a retraction or an apology from Open Europe for the precipitous overreaction? Not a bit of it. We simply got more aggressive questions implying that the Commissioner deliberately sought to confuse Irish voters by making statements about the Lisbon Agenda in Ireland during run-up to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Don't expect people to treat you as a serious partner for discussions if you question their good faith.

There are plenty of good reasons to reject the Lisbon Treaty. In my opinion, the worst thing about it is that it is so unreadable. The significance of the changes it makes are lost in a morass of legalistic text that no voter could ever understand. It also marks a failure by the Member States to grasp the nettle of reform as tightly as they should have. Some of the positive aspects, such as the simplification of the legislative process or greater involvement by national parliaments, seem like cosmetic changes when set in the context of grandiose new positions and the extension of QMV.

But sadly, here, Open Europe cast aside all pretence that it actually believed that the Irish should be persuaded to vote against Lisbon because it is a bad treaty. Instead, it expressed the hope that posters urging the Irish to vote No in protest against the government would be successful. Is this the message of a serious think tank taking a fresh, oprtimistic look at how the EU can be reformed? No. It's the voice of the worst sort of political cynicism. Shame on them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

“It’s anybody’s right and privilege to change their mind”

So does the No camp in the Irish Lisbon referendum debate really believe that No means No? Just weeks after promising the Irish that he'd leave them alone if they didn't support his Libertas party in the European elections, Declan Ganley is singing a different tune. He says that he simply cannot stand the lies being told by the Yes camp. But weren't they largely the same things the Yes camp were saying last time around?

What I'm most curious to see is if he returns to his own old arguments about abortion, neutrality, and tax, or if he changes his tactics.

For the record, I am no great lover of the Lisbon Treaty. I'd just rather the debate be held on the basis of facts (on both sides). And in all objectivity, Ganley's first referendum campaign was the most striking example of a concerted effort at deception of the electorate.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Privacy Wars

Following up on my earlier post on the institutional battles taking place in the area of privacy policy, I have now read in the European Voice that Commission President Barroso has promised the Europan Parliament's centrist Liberal Group to split the portfolio currently held by Commissioner Barrot -i.e. splitting fundamental rights and civil liberties from security and counter-terrorism (this in exchange for the group's support for his re-appointment).
If this happens, and on the assumption that the Data Protection Unit will belong to the fundamental rights and civil liberties Commissioner, the dynamics I described some time ago could change considerably. There would likely be a stronger focus on privacy protection from the Commissioner, who would be likely to clash with the security and anti-terrorism Commissioner from time to time. With the Commissioners for Information Society and Consumer Protection getting involved, it could get messy, with all sorts of coalitions conceivable.
It's early to make predictions, and much will depend on the personalities, but I will hazard a guess that at the very least, we'll be hearing a lot more about privacy in the media, and we may see a reaction against perceptions that the "War on Terror" has cost us too much in terms of our civil liberties. The review of the legislative framework that has just been opened will become a major political battleground.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kuneva's Star Quality

Today the European Commission made the kind of announcement that we should see much more often. Surely this is a perfect illustration of the kind of work that the Commission should be doing - co-ordination of action by national regulators on a single, focused area of concern to consumers in the Single Market. In this case, it was a simultaneous probe by the regulators into the way online sellers of electronic goods do business with consumers.

Here's what I like about it:
1. It's the Commission showing concrete results for consumers
2. It's the Commission paying attention to enforcement, and not just development, of rules and regulations.
3. It's an example of subsidiarity in action: the Member State regulators take care of their own markets, but the Commission plays a necessary role in co-ordinating the timing to add value. Since e-commerce should be as easy across borders as it is within a country, and since national regulators on their own would be unlikely ever to provide pan-European results, the Commission has done something that could only be done at European level, but it has restricted its role to what is necessary.

But I'd be irresponsible not to point out a critical sub-plot here - and hence the title of this post. Commissioner Kuneva is fighting a tough battle to be re-nominated by the Bulgarian government as Commissioner. She has had a much more active summer than many Commissioners, with a high profile visit to Washington under her belt. This press release could not come at a better time; and that can hardly be accidental. It's all part of a big push on the Commissioner's part to convince a reluctant Boyko Borisov that she has the star quality to give Bulgaria the PR boost it needs in Brussels. Come on, Boyko - you know it makes sense.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

France Attacks Barroso

The title of this post ascribes the attack to France, which may or may not be fair, since Francois Fillon and Nicholas Sarkozy are not the same person, and neither is fully analogous with the country they lead. But what has come out of Paris, apparently from government insiders, is undoubtedly an attack.

If the French government really wanted to support Jose Manuel Barroso's re-appointment as President of the European Commission, it could have been lobbying in the European Parliament and national capitals. Or it could have kept quiet and let the likeliest outcome of the debate in the European Parliament just happen. But no. This clever piece of political manoeuvering has suddenly given all those MEPs to the right of centre who were going to vote for Barroso a priceless excuse not to: a potentially better candidate is just waiting for the nod. Even better, it gives those on the left the perfect opportunity to score a political victory against the right by succeeding in rejecting the Member States' centre-right nominee, just weeks after European elections that were such a calamitous blow for the social democratic family across the continent.

Who stands to lose from a rejection of Barroso (apart from Barroso himself)? Only those on the right who really do like Barroso, and an as-yet undefined group across the political spectrum who have existing or potential objections to Fillon. But with Fillon's distinct lack of international profile, it is possible that he will fail to attract much hardened opposition.

There is also good reason to believe (hap-tip to Charlemagne and Jon Worth) that such an outcome would represent a new landmark moment for the European Parliament in its inorexable rise, and a commensurate defeat for the Member State governments who have nominated Fillon. For me, this is the only significant question mark over the cleverness of the French ploy, since a precedent will have been set that will make it easier in the future for the European Parliament to reject France's own nominees to the Commission By implication in the more distant future, it could also jeopardise France's and other Member States' preferences for other key EU positions, institutional arrangements, and other political stakes.

The other question mark for me is not about the cleverness of the ploy, but about the suitablity of the candidate himself. If he has been unable to step out from the shadow of his President as Prime Minister, what are the prospects for his ability to rise above national governments' lobbying as President of the Commission?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Anecdote on Liberation

A short anecdote to complement my last post. My British grandfather was sent from his headquarters in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) by Mountbatten to Normandy for the D-Day landings to observe and take detailed notes that could be used to inform the planning of a large amphibious assault on Burma.

The assault never happened, but my grandfather's notes remain, and I recently had a quick look through. They are filled with technical details about logistics and weapons, but also contain a diary in which he recorded some more personal impressions.

One of my favourite entries recalls a conversation with a Norman farmer, who complained that he had suffered more damage and property loss at the hands of British soldiers in 4 days of liberation than he had suffered in 4 years of German occupation.

A further remark was tha the discipline of American soldiers appeared to be much better than that of the British.

The first entry was interesting to me because it brought home the reality of war for an individual. I suspect the farmer was delighted to be liberated from German occupation. But that would not have lessened his anger at the British looters, and may have coloured his feelings of affection for the brave boys are so lionised in the UK for saving our allies.

And the second tickled me because the Brits love to think that Americans are uncouth and ill-mannered.

The truth is never as simple as it appears.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

WWII and nationalism

The anniversary of the start of the Second World War has been fairly extensively covered in the media and in the Brussels blogosphere. You can see some examples here, here, and here.

As I get older and wiser, I am increasingly struck by the way states use history, and the history of war in particular. To put my remarks into context, I'll start with what seem to me to be factual observations about WWII. Some can be applied to war in general:

1. War was/is declared by governments and not by popular votes.
2. Most countries involved in the Second World War experienced a degree of internal societal division about it, ranging from which side to fight on, to what form of political organisation to create to cope with the new reality.
3. Individual men and women have radically different personal circumstances and make personal choices for accordingly radically different reasons.

In this context, it is striking to see how many nationalists from the victorious countries (UK, Russia, and USA in particular) are seeking to use the anniversary to promote an image of their countries that distorts reality. Equally, commentators from "victim" countries such as Poland or France, seem to be promoting interpretations that emphasise the injustice of what was done to them and the sufferings that their people endured. Commentators from "losing" countries, such as Germany, it seems to me, have a health and objective approach to the role of the state in the war and the sufferings endured by "victim" countries ("we feel bad about it"), but are rarely seen to discuss the sufferings of their own people. While it is good form for a Pole to bemoan the sufferings of his people at the hands of the Nazis, it is not such good form for a German to bemoan the sufferings of his people at the hands of the RAF or the Red Army. Note that I am talikng here about civilian populations.

The result is more than a passing atmosphere of triumphalism in the victor countries every 5 or 10 years, a passing atmosphere of the culture of victimhood among occupied or persecuted populations, and a passing atmosphere of humble introspection among the Germans and Japanese in particular. It is in fact a fundamental divide in how war is viewed in our countries.

In France, they tend to talk about the suffering experienced, but gloss over the political leadership that founded Vichy France and the crimes of the collaborators. In Poland, they talk about the terrible destruction of the country and mind-boggling loss of life, but try not to discuss the fact that millions of Poles fought for the Soviets and for the Germans as well as for the Allies.

As someone with a background primarily rooted in the victor countries, I can remember being taught and believing that "thousands and thousands of our countrymen died so that we could have a free country", or "died for democracy", or "sacrificed their lives for us" or "died on the battlefields in defence of our allies", etc. Every Memorial Day in the U.S. and Day in the UK full of speeches about national heroes. They glorify "our brave soldiers", and by implication, "our great nation". No one asks why individual men actually fought. Many many thousands undoubtedly fought for money. Many fought because they wanted a good fight. Many fought because their mates were fighting. Many fought because they were afraid of the Germans or the Japanese. Many fought for the British Empire. Many fought against their will. Many fought because they had nothing better to do. Most of them probably had some sense that they were fighting for their families and their communities, and in maney cases even some sense that they were fighting "for their country". I'll wager that nothing but a tiny minority consciously fought "for democracy". Indeed, we entered the war because of an existential threat, and not because we already had a blueprint for a democratic post-war Europe. We didn't. And yet here we are, 70 years later, effectively hijacking these peoples' lives for political ends. We are de-humanising war.

Only the Germans publicly take responsibility for the massacre of Europe's Jewry, for the terrible crimes of the SA, SS, Gestapo, the Wehrmacht, and other arms of the state, as well as thousands of individuals. No conquering war heroes in German schoolbooks - only warnings about the horrors of war. There is no introspection in British or American schools to speak of about the crimes committed by "our boys". Crimes? What crimes? They were liberators!

The fact is that WWII, like any war, was a horrible, individual human tragedy on an unimaginable scale. People died, were made homeless, witnessed the stuff of nightmares. And those people had to live or die with their choices. The choices were forced on them by states. And yet in many cases, those same states have the audacity to claim the right to interpret and advertise those individual tragedies as part of a national narrative without the consent of the individuals concerned.

I have lost count of the number of times hat I have heard Brits express suspicions that the EU is really a clever way for the Germans to take over again. The reality is that the threat to peace in Europe comes from those countries who have sold a distorted version of their history to their people for political benfit, but at an enormous social price. It certainly does not come from Germany.

Germany has managed to re-discover a cultural and political identity that does not need the glorification of the state through long-dead war heroes who can't express their views. Germany has grown up in a way that most other European countries (and te USA) have not. And for that, Germany and the Germans deserve our special thanks and respect.

OECD, Iceland the Euro

Here's a question for all you OECD observers out there. I came across this report in the FT today about the OECD urging Iceland to adopt the euro, and it struck me that the OECD might be sticking its head pretty far above the parapet here.

It's one thing for a newspaper to endorse EU membership or Eurozone membership for a country in the editorial pages; quite another for an international organisation to make strong statements that will so obviously have such major political implications in that country.

Is it just me? Is this sort of thing quite common and nothing too remarkable or controversial?

Monday, August 24, 2009

United Breaks Guitars, or How the Internet is Transforming the Economy

Any readers who have not yet seen the United Breaks Guitars (+ associated statement) video and its follow-up on YouTube should do so. The artist, an amiable Canadian singer-songwriter called Dave Carroll, has also made skillful use of Facebook, and, for all I know, other Internet-based social media to attack United Airlines for its poor customer service after baggage handlers broke his guitar at O'Hare.
The episode is fascinating. Carroll's videos have been viewed well over 5 million times and have made it into countless blogs, Internet and TV news channels, and traditional print media. The man has reached a quite staggering number of potential United customers with a deeply embarrassing message, without the backing of large sums of money or a large PR organisation - in short, without any of the tools with which the corporate world is familiar. There is speculation that the recent drop in United's share price could be related to the campaign. although this strikes me at best as unscientific. In any case, United has apparently tasked one of its PR people to follow (and respond to) net chatter about the case, and is bracing itself for the promised 3rd and (they hope) final video in the series.
Carroll isn't your run-of-the-mill passenger, and United may feel unfortunate to have fallen foul of a man who, apart from appearing to be pleasant and reasonable, is clearly a reasonably talented musician. Worse, he just hasn't let go. The statement and Song 2 both express the view that United's efforts to "make this right" so far have been insufficient, thereby increasing the pressure on the company.
I am in no doubt that the PR departments of a great many high profile companies are watching this with intense interest, and preparing strategies for PR wars carried out over the Internet. Perhaps more importantly though, a great many CEOs and senior executives will hopefully be taking customer complaints about service much more seriously.
This may not be a completely unique phenomenon - ratings (of sellers, content, etc) have been around for a while - but it is the latest and most powerful expression of the new reality for businesses: the Internet has created tools for grass-roots-led commercial accountability of unprecedented power.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Private EU Battle

Before you get too excited, this post is not about some highly secret European Commission insider gossip. It's about the EU and privacy policy. More specifically, it takes a look at some of the existing and looming institutional battles in Brussels about who is in charge of privacy policy, or "data protection", as it is known in the Brussels jargon.

The EU already has several pieces of privacy legislation on the books. The ePrivacy Directive bans SPAM, requires an opt-in from consumers for ads over email, and obliges telecoms operators and ISPs to delete subscriber traffic data when it's no longer needed for billing purposes. The Data Retention Directive, with rather painful Brussels irony, requires telecoms operators and ISPs to retain the same traffic data for up to two years to help law enforcement authorities fight crime, depending on national legislation.

But the most important law is the Data Protection Directive of 1995. It sets out the rights of the citizen with regard to personal data, and the obligations of organisations that hold such data. Perhaps most importantly, the Directive sets up some institutions at national and European level that are supposed to help protect our privacy.

Now, almost 15 years later, as those institutions have matured and as privacy/data protection starts to become a hot topic in Europe and around the world, a turf war is brewing within and between the big players on privacy in Europe.

Like most EU policy, privacy is an area where the European Commission has the power of initiative in the "First Pillar" - i.e. the Single Market. The lead department of the Commission is the Directorate-General for Justice, Freedom, and Security ("DG JLS"). However, DG SANCO (which covers consumer protection), DG INFSO (the "information society - i.e. telecoms, Internet, and IT), and possibly some other DGs all have strong claims to at least part of the privacy portfolio.

Then you have the European Parliament, which takes a keen interest in high-profile aspects of privacy policy, like the Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement with the USA. Although it has co-decision powers on Single Market aspects of privacy, the EP does not (yet) have formal powers in Second or Third Pillar areas (foreign and security policy, justice and home affairs).

The relative newcomers to the institutional power game are the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), Peter Hustinx, and the Article 29 Working Party (A29WP). The latter body was set up by Article 29 of the Data Protection Directive, and consists of the independent data protection authorities (DPAs) from all the Member States. Interestingly, although the EDPS, DPAs, and A29WP were set up by the (First Pillar) '95 Directive, their job descriptions are sufficiently vague to have allowed them to be fairly active in justice and home affairs areas, which are "Member State competences" under the EU treaties. The EDPS has an oversight function vis-à-vis the EU institutions' own data protection practices, but the EDPS and the A29WP share an advisory role vis-à-vis the European Commission on privacy policy generally. They regularly issue non-binding, but nevertheless influential, opinions.

So what is happening? It's pretty complicated, which is why I find it so interesting. Not only is there a developing internal turf war over privacy in the European Commission, but there is also a fight (more like a mass brawl) brewing between the Commission, Parliament, Member States, EDPS, and A29WP.

Before 1995, data protection belonged to DG Internal Market, and the EU's policy debate was primarily about the tension between civil liberties (or "fundamental rights") and essentially commercial interests. But after 9/11, as governments raced to ramp up electronic surveillance of terrorist suspects, concerns about abuse of personal data by commercial entities rapidly gave way to concerns about infringement of civil liberties by governments. Data protection was hastily moved to DG JLS. The unit sits responsible for data protection sits in the Directorate for Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. Under recent Commissioners Frattini and Barrot, this part of the DG has very much been dominated by the "sexier" Directorate for Security. The data protection unit has not been able to assert itself internally so far.

But while the internal security vs. privacy battle rages in DG JLS, DG INFSO, with responsibility for the ePrivacy Directive and a range of other ICT-related policies, and under the populist leadership of Luxembourg's Commissioner Viviane Reding, has got in on the act. Reding and her staff have managed a high-profile campaign to reconcile public concerns about the privacy impacts of RFID technology with the huge potential economic and social benefits they can bring. This culminated earlier this year with a formal Recommendation on RFID, proposing that retailers carry out privacy impact assessments (PIAs) on RFID systems, and deactivate tags by default if their systems were found to pose risks to consumers. More recently, Bulgaria's Commissioner Meglena Kuneva has taken an interest in the consumer protection aspects of data protection on the Internet, such as privacy policies, consumer redress, social networking, and child protection.

It seems that the EDPS and A29WP, which work closely together, have been making the most of the absence of clear Commission leadership on data protection to project themselves as the authoritative and expert, EU institutional voice on data protection. The Commission is not helped by the fact that the data protection unit at DG JLS has about one quarter of the staff (and probably also a fraction of the multi-million euro budget) of the EDPS.

With the possibly imminent ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the resultant disappearance of the EU's "Pillar" system, all these institutions will be able to start playing freely in a new and exciting sandbox - law enforcement. In anticipation of the treaty changes and to respond to the need to update the '95 Directive, the Commission has launched a major public consultation on the entire legislative framework for data protection.

I have no idea what will happen (and I'd be interested in any insights that readers might have) - we don't yet know who the relevant Commissioners will be or how they will regard privacy. Nor do we yet have a firm handle on the new European Parliament. Almost the only certainty is that EDPS and A29WP will continue to seek to build their profile and stature, and perhaps even their formal powers.

Watch this space!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The ECR Group

The big news from Strasbourg this week is that a Pole, the respected Jerzy Buzek, has been elected President of the European Parliament. This is supposed to be a watershed moment for the EU, since it's the first time that someone from a "New Member State" (i.e. one of the ex-Communist Member States) has got the top job in a European Union institution.

But this is hardly news - the deal to elect Buzek was made weeks ago, and the result was never in doubt. Much more exciting was the drama of the elections for the EP's 14 Vice-President jobs. As expected, most went to the two bigs groups - 5 for the centre-right EPP, and 5 for the Socialists, 2 for the Liberals, and 1 for the Greens. The UK Conservative Party's new ECR grouping, with the same number of MEPs (55) as the Greens, and at the joint 4th-largest group in the EP, expected to have its own Vice-President, and had put forward Polish MEP Michał Kamiński. The assumption made by observers is that this was the price that the Conservatives paid for the support of the Law and Justice (PiS) Party in creating the new, anti-integrationist group.

But when UK Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott ran against Kamiński and won, his party kicked him out in outrage. McMillan-Scott is one of the Conservative MEPs who was against party leader David Cameron's withdrawal of his party from the EPP-ED group, and this may have been his final act of protest; he is not expected to run for election again in 5 years' time.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is interesting.

1. If McMillan-Scott leaves the ECR group, it will slip to 5th-largest in the EP. This may have an impact on its ability to obtain key positions of power, such as committee chairmanships.

2. It will doubtless damage relations between the Conservatives and PiS. PiS' penchant for grudge politics is well-known in Poland; the Conservatives may find themselves on the sharp end quite soon.

3. Kamiński has been elected leader of the group. It is not clear to me what the timing was here. Normally the largest national delegation in a group gets the leadership of the group, so this job would have fallen to a Brit. But it may be that Kamiński was given the job as a sop by the Conservatives to apologise for the debacle in the Vice-Presidential vote (see Daniel Hannan's blog piece on this).

4. The ECR group is fragile as it is. It needs MEPs from 7 countries, which it has just managed. Only 5 of the MEPs are the only representatives of their countries in the group. That means that any one of them can hold the entire group to ransom. It will be interesting to see whether the Kamiński/McMillan-Scott affair will destabilise the group.

5. It is not clear whether McMillan-Scott will remain in the group or not. But if he doesn't, it would dent the Conservatives' assertion that leaving the EPP-ED will not affect their ability to get top jobs in the EP.

Watch this space.