The EU is undemocratic

The EU is undemocratic, I hear people say.

No, it isn’t, I reply. No more than the UK, anyway.

Let me explain why I believe this.

There are elections for the European Parliament every five years. Just like the UK parliament. You get to vote for the MEP of your choice. It’s a proportional representation vote, not first past the post.

It’s actually a more democratic process than the elections we have for the UK parliament.

What about those faceless bureaucrats and unelected commissioners though, eh..?

We’re really just talking about civil servants. You do know that, don’t you. And you don’t get to vote for the civil servants in Whitehall, do you? You probably don’t complain too much about that either.

Did you know there are about 33,000 civil servants working for the EU (population 500 million), while there are about 400,000 civil servants in the UK (population 65 million).

That doesn’t sound like a top-heavy bureaucracy to me.

© European Union (2015)
© European Union (2015)

As for the EU Commissioners (who are often cited as the unelected mandarins of Brussels), there are 28 of them — one for each member state. They’re appointed by the elected government of the country they come from.

That’s the way democracy works — you vote, you get a government, they make decisions about how things are run. Some you like, some you don’t. Nothing’s perfect. No one’s perfect. Not you, not me. Nothing. No one.

Everything the EU Commission puts forward (policies, proposals, decisions etc) has to be sanctioned by the EU Parliament, which is made up of the MEPs that everyone gets to vote for every five years.

That’s democracy.

The UK is also a member of the UN, which is not an elected body but which makes decisions about invading countries, going to war, ignoring genocide, you name it. See also NATO, which the UK is a member of. We’re also in the Commonwealth — not an elected body. Part of the World Trade Organisation — not an elected body. You can add the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe to the list too.

If you are adamant that the EU is a bad thing because it is undemocratic I hope you are as vocal about the House of Lords, the Royal Family, and the raft of government-appointed so-called Tsars and special advisers.

I would like to see reform of the House of Lords. I’m not anti-royal, but beyond the head of state I would like to see the rest of the royal family – the extended bit full of dukes and whatnot – disbanded. I’d like to see elements of the EU (parliament and commission) reformed, or at least investigated with a view to making changes.

But I’m not convinced things are so bad that we have to take our ball and go home.



An idiots guide to dinner and the euro

Picture the scene, if you will.
You and a group of friends agree you will go out to dinner somewhere nice – let’s assume it’s to celebrate something. There are 27 of you in total.
In advance, you agree that because the bill will fairly hefty you’ll split it equally between all 27.
The big night arrives and you all meet at the restaurant, where everyone has an aperitif of the same value. Everyone has a starter course and a main course and all are roughly equal in value.
So far so good.
But then some of your group decide they want dessert and coffee, possibly dessert wine or a liqueur too. This causes concern and the group begins to fragment. There are 17 people who want the extra food and drink, 10 who don’t.
Of the 10 who don’t, some are now saying they are concerned that if the dinner doesn’t end soon they’ll miss the last train home. Others are refusing to put in an equal share of the bill – as previously agreed – because they haven’t had the extra food and drink.
So, what to do…?
Those who want to catch the last train home have two basic choices – leave now while some of their friends are finishing their dessert course and catch the train, or stay and find an alternative method of transport. They probably can’t impose their will on the others and deny them their crème brulee though. But nor should they stay and feel resentful.
The division of the bill is a tricky one too. You may well feel that by being asked to pay an equal sum but having consumed less, you are subsidising those of your friends who ate and drank more. But by reneging on the prior arrangement you risk being seen as mean. You may not get invited out again.
In the end one person refuses to pay an equal amount and leaves early in order to get the train, while everyone else stays behind.
Next time the group plans to go out together it is decided that despite the previous spat there’s no reason to exclude the grumpy and impatient friend. But no one is going to feel well disposed if that person starts out saying they won’t put in an equal amount this time, yet still wants to have an equal say in where to go and what to eat.
I think we all know how we’d feel about that one person.
And I don’t think we’d call it bulldog spirit.

The countdown to a federal Europe has begun

The European single market has been a good thing. It has enabled the free flow of labour across the continent (well, most of it), which has brought about innumerable economic and social benefits.

The European single currency, aka the Euro, has of late revealed itself as a flawed project.

A great deal of attention has been focussed on some of its more obvious problems:

  • the collapse of the Greek economy
  • the size of the bailouts required by Athens
  • the threat of economic contagion (hello Italy, sorry… maybe I mean goodbye Italy)
  • the growing influence of Germany, blah, blah, blah…..

But there is one thing that has been happening behind the scenes which I cannot help but feel is being allowed to go unnoticed.

By most measures, the Euro is in a mess.

Yet one of the long-lasting consequences of this will be the increasing influence of the European Central Bank.  In effect, a completely undemocratic institution will soon be making decisions that will impact very directly on the everyday lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in Europe.

How has this come about? Chiefly because of a collective failure on the part of the major European leaders. A failure to get to the heart of the Euro crisis, to take difficult/unpopular decisions and see them through to the end. Instead they have fallen into one of the old and familiar habits of the bureaucratic mind – allowing institutional influence a freer hand to deal with problems which existing instituions have already failed to deal with effectively.

I can’t think of many other walks of life when failure to deliver X means you have carte blanche to press on with X + 1.

Only in high finance.

Only in European politics.

Well, I’m only a simple soul, clearly. I’m sure there are very good reasons for this.

But as someone who has always been a supporter of the European project (although not of political and fiscal union) to see the gradual shift of democratically-elected powers from Europe’s capitals to the institution of Europe itself does little to bolster my sense of bon homie.

I’m not sure it’s for me to say whether there ought to be a federal Europe or not. I am sure there are excellent arguments both for and against. But should that day come, I would hope that it is something that the citizens of Europe’s many and varied nations get the chance to have their say on and not something that slips in unannounced while we are all distracted.

Europe is dead

Europe is dead.

Or at any rate, the notion of a unified Europe is now in serious decline politically and economically.

Sovereign debt, bail-outs, and austerity measures have featured in the news for many months now but it is only very recently that some of the less obvious implications of these events have been discussed.

Let’s take the example of Portugal, the most recent European economy to come unstuck.

Like most countries, Portugal relies on borrowing and issuing bonds to keep the wheels of its domestic economy turning.

In April, Portugal has €5 billion of repayments to honour.  There’s a similar amount due to be repaid in a few months’ time.

To meet those commitments, particularly the second tranche, Portugal will – in all likelihood – need to borrow.  But as an economy in trouble, it is penalised by having higher rates of interest applied to its bonds.  IE: the markets want a higher rate of return in exchange for what is considered a higher risk loan.

That rate of interest is in the region of 8% over a period of 10 or so years.

The Portuguese economy will not grow at anything like that rate. Meaning that meeting its repayment responsibilities in the future will become increasingly harder.  Which in turn has to increase the likelihood of Portugal defaulting on its debts.

No problem, some will say… there are bail-out options.

Yes, there are. And they are mostly funded by Germany, the Netherlands and to a lesser extent France and Finland.

There is a growing sense of dissatisfaction within these countries, especially Germany, that the domestic tax-payer is bailing out their lazy southern European neighbours. Politically-speaking, this is an unsustainable situation and unless it has been dealt with before then, it will become a major issue at the next German general election.

There is a sense among some economists that as long as this situation is confined to Ireland, Greece and Portugal (smaller nations) the rest of Europe needn’t worry.

But should Spain or Italy, for example, succumb to the financial fallout the consequences would be harder to live with for Europe as a whole and could herald the end of the Euro.

No one seems to have any answers as to how any of this could be avoided or how Europe gets out of this situation. Ignoring it, however, won’t make it go away.


Signs of the times

Nothing new here. Feel free to move along.

I got to thinking recently (and not for the first time) about the smoking ban in the UK.

This was prompted by something I’d heard on that curate’s egg of a radio station, BBC Radio 4.

The programme in question reported that in spite of what is often thought of as a European-wide, EU-derived ban on smoking in public places, it is still OK to smoke in public in Belgium. Oh the irony of being able to spark up in a bar just around the corner from the EU parliament.

The same item went on to describe how the owners of two bars in Berlin had gone to court to attempt to over-turn the smoking ban on the grounds it had damaged their business.

They won!

They now have the legal right to have a separate smoking room in their bars – with the proviso that no food may be served there.

This seems like a welcome outbreak of common sense to me. I wonder if we’ll see the same thing in the UK. Somehow I doubt it.

At various times in my life I have been a smoker and a non-smoker. I’ve never felt that I needed government intervention where that choice was concerned. Like the overwhelming majority of people who have smoked in this country, I knew the ins and outs of the health implications before I chose to start.

I think it’s a very good idea for separate spaces in pubs and bars for those who wish to smoke and those who do not. Then people can make choices. By and large, most people are capable of making choices.

But where the UK smoking ban and I really fall out was the requirement for all buildings members of the public may occasionally enter to display the same no smoking sign. Just to remind us that the law that had banned smoking in public buildings in the UK applied to public buildings in the UK.

Never before had I wished I owned a business that printed signs, but the government spent millions of taxpayers’ money printing these ridiculous signs and one can only assume that someone somewhere with a sign making business did very well out of it.

What next though? If we need a sign on every public building to say smoking is against the law, how about one that says breaking & entering is against the law? You know, for the avoidance of any doubt – just in case potential burglars might need reminding.

Then we could all get a t-shirt printed that has something written on it like “NO MURDERING – killing people, such as the wearer of this garment, is against the law.”

Sound absurd? No more so though, surely, than the epidemic of no smoking signs.