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?