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BBC news, UKIP-style

Today, the Migration Advisory Committee published a 358-page report titled: “Migrants in low-skilled work: the growth of EU and non-EU labour in low-skilled jobs and its impact on the UK” Well, it’s a huge report,  difficult to summarise with – potentially – a lot of interesting findings, here is quick summary of what the report covers (p.279):

The first part (Chapters 2 to 4) is a review of the evidence around migrants in low-skilled work and the evolution of the wider labour market for low – skilled employment over the previous 15 years;

The second part (Chapters 5 and 6) looks at how employers recruit migrant workers and whether there are any issues with the compliance and enforcement of relevant rules and regulations;

The third part (Chapters 7 to 9) focuses on, respectively, the impact of migrants in low-skilled work on the labour market, the wider economy and the social environment.

A second quote to clarify the scope of the ‘recommendations’ at the end of the report (p. 279-292):

We do not make specific policy recommendations as the evidence was not sufficiently developed to enable us to do this. Rather, we make suggestions as to where the focus of policy on the area of migrant low – skilled employment should be

I don’t want to look into the content of the report (as I have not finished reading it) but for now let’s remember some simple facts: The report is about the impact of EU and non-EU immigration  on the  lUK abour market – in particular relating to low skilled workers –  over the past 15 years or so. And there are no recommendations as such. And the first part is pretty much a literature review.

Although there are no recommendations as such it is interesting to  skim through the conclusions (Chapter 10, “Areas for policy focus”) to get an idea what sort of issues are part of the ‘conclusions’ of the report:

  • Recruitment, and compliance and enforcement
  • Labour market outcomes for the native population, especially for younger groups
  • Greater recognition of, and support for, the local impacts of migration
  • The role of institutions and other public policies
  • Flows of migrants into low-skilled work in the future
  • The role of evidence in the wider migration debate

So how does the media report such a complex report?  Well, let’s listen to a snippet from the BBC:

 

 

So why did the BBC decide that the main (!) conclusion of the report is  linked to future (!) EU enlargement (it is mentioned in one paragraph)?  Why use the the phrase “combined population of  84 Million”?  The number includes  75 Million Turkish citizens; and we all know that  there are only minimal chances that Turkey will become a EU member state anytime soon. And most importantly, why copy UKIP’s implicit claim that all people who live in those countries would eventually look for jobs in the UK? This is pretty poor journalism for the BBC as it simply does not reflect the depth of the report.

Another problem is the nature of those news items. The recording above is taken from one of those very short (1.30m) news programmes on BBC 6 music that is repeated every hour or so. It is arguably not the most important radio station in the UK but other music channels have exactly the same kind of approach  to news formats. And it is probably  one of the main news sources for many casual listeners. It’s a perfect example how the news can shape the public discourse – and how bad journalism can fuel euroscepticism. People listen to music stations for much longer than they listen to news programmes – and they have to listen to the same 1m 30 news format for a whole afternoon. So not only is this 40 seconds piece above one of the main news items it is also repeated  several times a day – and what do you remember at the end of the day?

Migration = bad, EU enlargement = bad, 84 Million people will come to the UK…

As with many of those complex reports you could also come to the opposite conclusion – and find other interesting angles, here are just a few examples: Migrants had a modest impact impact on the labour market, but there was a positive net contribution of EAA migrants. There is not much evidence to suggest that benefit tourism actually exists.  Most low skilled migrants are not from the EU. It was also noted that different areas in the UK are more affected than others – and that some local councils/government departments were not helpful in preparing the report.  Contrary to some gossip there was also no indication of discrimination against UK workers – but a worrying trend of general non-compliance and non-enforcement of rules in the low-wage labour market in the UK. In fact the lax rules of the UK labour market are mentioned  several times. The report also laments the gap between public perceptions of migration and the reality…

The BBC is one of the few news outlet that explicitly focuses on the future (!) enlargement angle. Not even the Telegraph or the Daily Mail do this as this (rather unrepresentative) overview of UK media coverage shows (also a good illustration of how various papers report migration issues):

Guardian: EU migrants ‘not hitting UK school-leavers’ job prospects’

Telegraph: Britain ‘struggling to cope’ with immigration, says official report

The Independent:  Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons’ employment, say government advisers

Daily Mail: Mass immigration to parts of Britain HAS driven down wages of the poor and put pressure on services, official report finds

Evening Standard:  Schools ‘fuel migration by failing less able children’

Reuters: Parts of Britain struggling with immigration, say government advisers

Bloomberg: U.K. Local Authorities Need More Help With Migrants, Panel Says

A digital EU helpdesk?

Why the EU needs to learn from online customer feedback products – and then mix it with Reddit’s AMA culture.

Here is my (award-winning!)  piece for the #talkdigital blogging competition of the European Commission.

Worried about “ever closer union”?

The argument about “ever closer union” is one of the most irrational ones in the British EU discourse. The phrase conjures up the image that  European integration is unstoppable and it somehow happens without anyone noticing, a creeping development of a European super state. Most commentators blissfully ignore the missing legal foundation of the phrase (or the ratification processes of new treaties that actually change the nature of the EU)  ‘Ever closer union’ doesn’t really matter in every day EU politics. The phrase was first included in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 (well  before the UK joined!) and it reads like this:

Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,…

Yes, it does matter for some member states as a political symbol for European integration, but it is also a lofty political goal, the sort of stuff you would put into a preamble of a boring treaty. One should be relaxed about it,  it is also a phrase of its time. Funnily enough, the phrase has mostly been discussed in the UK where it developed into some sort of rhetorical weapon against the EU. As part of his ‘renegotiation‘ David Cameron is now keen to remove this sentence from the treaties to ‘stop’ the alleged automatic integration of the EU.  It is another fight he will not be able to win. There is absolutely no willingness among the other 27 EU member states to open the treaties to change symbolic language – and, more importantly, the problem has been solved.

During last week’s European Council, David Cameron ‘raised concerns’ and the following sentence was included in the Council conclusions:

The European Council noted that the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.

But this is not a bold move by the British Prime Minister it simply confirms existing EU rules. And any commentator who praises this as a breakthrough or a change in direction is seriously misguided. This has been the de-facto policy of the EU for quite a while, it is included in the Lisbon Treaty, it is called “enhanced cooperation” – and you can read about it here.

From a British perspective, the concept of”enhanced cooperation” is effectively giving the UK a permanent opt-out from  ‘ever closer union’.

Why Cameron’s case for ‘EU reform’ is a PR stunt

Cameron’s “EU reform” is a PR stunt designed to please the media and his backbenchers. He basically follows the advice of his pollsters that told him that he could win an EU referendum if he convincingly  changes the “UK’s terms of membership”. But it follows a simplistic idea: The man on the street does not know the current membership terms (thanks to a media that is not always helpful in reporting the facts…)  so using this general ignorance Cameron’s pollsters are convinced  that the Prime Minister can deliver “a more favourable deal” simply by getting a few concessions and by constantly emphasising how favourable these new terms would be…

There are several  problems with this approach – not least  the smugness of taking the electorate as fools:

First of all this “renegotiation” of membership terms has already happened. The UK is not part of the eurozone, it did not sign the fiscal compact, it is not part of the Schengen area. Over the years British politicians have negotiated a series of policy opt-outs (the latest being the JHA opt-out). And last but not least the UK still enjoys a “budget rebate”. The UK is effectively a semi-detached EU member state. So the question is: What else can you realistically “renegotiate”? There is also little political will elsewhere in the EU to grant yet another opt-out to the UK.

The second problem is a misunderstanding of what is an institutional – and what is a policy change.  Most things that Cameron usually labels as ‘reform’ are policies which can be implemented without banging on about how this would constitute a ‘new EU deal’ (especially when you think about ‘completing the single market’, trade agreements such as TTIP or establishing a ‘digital single market’)

The third problem is the general lack of ideas. The only evidence so far is an article by David Cameron in the Sunday Times  – not quite the  detailed policy agenda one expects from a new “EU deal”. The government also set up a process, the so-called  Review of the Balance of competences , “an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK”. The idea behind it was that it would generate enough ideas for this ambitious ‘new deal with the EU’. Unfortunately (for Cameron) this audit (so far) has found not much that needs to be renegotiated – the balance is broadly acceptable.

It seems to me that it would have been better to wait for the results of this review before announcing the referendum/renegotiation package. The latest idea to remove a largely symbolic (and not legally binding!) reference to  “ever closer union” in a  EU treaty looks like a desperate attempt to appease – once again – the eurosceptic backbenchers. Suffice to say the treaty will not be changed – any political declaration that Cameron could get out of the European Council will just be a piece of paper.

So basically “EU reform” is an empty shell. Cameron uses it all the time without being specific about it with the aim of giving the impression that all is going according to plan. But unfortunately (for him) nothing goes according to plan. There will be no new treaty  (another miscalculation by Cameron’s advisers) and by not framing the issue in a broader context he is set to lose all remaining allies.

Any proper EU reform is usually negotiated by all EU member states – not by one member states making demands and threatening to leave. It is about compromise – but for Cameron everything is a “battle” and it is unlikely that he will change his negotiation tactics in the coming months… If you want treaty change (and this is the only thing Cameron should fight for – forget about Juncker) you basically have to convince all other member states that it is in their interest to change the treaty – and once they want a new treaty you reluctantly also agree to call for an IGC. But this more diplomatic approach is not David Cameron’s cup of tea…

In hindsight, Cameron’s referendum pledge was a mistake

Cameron’s initial strategic mistake was the referendum pledge. It did not appease the Tory right (as originally envisaged). The rise of UKIP did not stop –  on the contrary UKIP  is alive and kicking (the plan of Cameron was to develop a credible response that attacks the raison d’être of UKIP) The rest of the EU increasingly perceives Cameron’s actions as a simple act of blackmailing. And if Cameron continues to negotiate like he did during the Spitzenkandidaten row –  I am afraid that he will not get any concession in the coming months.  And  anyway Cameron’s idea of EU reform is simply non-existent (and only because one prominent UK based think tank writes about it doesn’t make it true)

And now another scenario appears increasingly likely: The in-out EU referendum may become a referendum on immigration. It must be Cameron’s nightmare scenario. There will be no new treaty, renegotiation will be a PR exercise and the issue of immigration could dominate the referendum campaign:

If there were to be a renegotiation, the two things they most want are “control of immigration” and “send less money”. If the EU remains in control of immigration, renegotiation would be seen as a failure and, having raised false hopes, would make people more likely to vote “out”. While the status quo in a referendum usually has a structural advantage, in an EU referendum this advantage could be lost as the “out” campaign could say “this is your chance to change immigration policy”.

After the Conservatives attacked UKIP by promising an EU referendum UKIP simply changed tactics and  discovered the topic of “immigration”.  It worked well over the past couple of months, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that issue would also be used in a referendum campaign.

And if that happens, all bets are off – and the UK could indeed sleepwalk out of the EU.

Still no pan-European media. Are we nuts?

Interesting talk by Wolfgang Blau.

#ep2014 journalism: How to report the European Parliament elections

First things first: The European Parliament elections are not – and I repeat – NOT like national elections. So what does that mean for journalists? Well, first of all familiarise yourself with the EU decision making process – no, really I mean it, just click here for the infographic! Too superficial? This report abut the European Parliament’s procedures may also be helpful.

In a nutshell:  The EP  is not like a national parliament, it is not about clear majorities and there will be no new government. The EP always works with the aim of  finding a cross party consensus – so the most interesting work is done in committees. Yes, there are a couple of “Spitzenkandidaten” who hope to become EC President later this year. The problem is that we don’t yet know how this will play out. It is pretty much an experiment. But you should use this process as a journalistic opportunity – these candidates are supposed to present ideas for the next Commission and it would not be a surprise if some of them were to end up in one of the top jobs after the election. As a journalist you can use this process to find out what will be on the agenda in the coming years. You see, the role of journalists is to dig deeper. Don’t just criticise the (admittedly flawed) selection process – also give them a hard time defending their policy ideas (if they have any!)

Anyway, here are a few tips how to report issues in the run-up to the European Parliament elections 2014 (this could also be useful for local/regional journalists):

  • A new kind of “policy journalism”. Ask EC candidates (“Spitzenkandidaten”) for concrete policy ideas, then check with parties and (prospective) MEPs what they think about it. This would actually reflect the EU policy making process. (I am sure your readers will appreciate this new format as it shows that your outlet knows what you are talking about!)
  • Impact? The question about “impact on country X” should be treated carefully. It is not a national election (I might have mentioned it before…) so we actually talk about impact across Europe. But again, it is all about individual policies – so if you really need to write a piece about “your country” think about a concrete directive or EU policy – and do some proper policy journalism. Please note that neither the Parliament or the Commission can change the treaties – focus on concrete ideas and check whether the EU has the competence to actually do something about your issue.
  • Change of existing EU law? Look for controversial directives and ask whether EC candidates or prospective MEPs would like to change them in the next term. [yes it is possible for the EP to propose things along those lines: 2010 framework agreement & a Commission that is open to the idea]
  • Read the party manifestos. Yes, good old party manifestos or campaign posters/leaflets/slogans are a great source of stories. Especially the question whether policy proposals are a matter for the European Parliament. Sometimes manifestos don’t seem to be fact-checked by a lawyer and contain ideas that can only be implemented with a new EU treaty. Another easy mistake are proposals that can only be implemented on the national level – without any EU involvement.
  • What to ask prospective MEPs. Ask them which committee they want to sit in, whether they see themselves as a rapporteur for certain issues etc. Try and find out what they want to achieve in the European Parliament. It is about issues: environment, digital rights, transport, agriculture, fisheries – you might want to read about the role of the EU in those policy fields. Another idea: check their personal links to companies and how they dealt with lobbyists (industry and NGOs)  in previous jobs. Ask them what sort of directives they would welcome and what issues they want to see on the agenda.
  • The most important question. Does this issue fall under EU competence? What would be the role of the European Parliament in the process?
  • No EU jargon. Don’t be satisfied with phrases such as ‘completing the single market’, ‘a more competitive Europe’, ‘jobs are important’,  ‘a stable Euro’ or ‘completing the digital single market’, ask what it means in concrete policy terms. Does the EU really have instruments to address unemployment (or is it a national competence?) What sort of directives would boost competitiveness? Name one concrete regulation that is considered “red tape”. What is the role of the EP in the governance of the euro (or is this a matter for other institutions)?
  • How the European Parliament really works. The EP is different from national parliaments. There are usually big majorities at the end but the process is the interesting bit. So as a journalist you should familiarise yourself with the nature of political groups in the Parliament and how a committee works. This will help you to understand how the job of an MEP looks like – and what questions you should ask them in the run-up to the election.
  • Scrutinizing MEPs  Votewatch is one of those great resources every journalist should worship. Here you can find amazing data about the voting behaviour of certain MEPs. So before you arrange an interview with an MEP have a look at the individual voting records.
  • Lobbyists. The European Parliament is the target of quite a few lobbyists. Dig a bit deeper and you will find great stories about the influence of big business or NGOs. Also keep an eye on the “revolving door” and what sort of part-time jobs MEPs pursue!
  • What to ask the Eurosceptics. Try and find out what they want to achieve –  focus on the policy level and avoid cliches about ‘red tape’ and the Brussels ‘superstate” Another question could be: why do you want to be an MEP? Since you want to leave the EU wouldn’t it make more sense to run for your national parliament? Confront them with their manifesto and ask whether they can really achieve it by being in the EP. Are they interested in policy work – or in youtube hits or TV appearances?
  • Issues. Issues. Issues. Talk about issues –  really this is what EU politics is all about. The European Parliament could kill TTIP – did you know this? In fact it can kill any trade agreement if there is political will. (Remember ACTA?) Or think of REACH or the service directive? In both cases the EP hugely changed the original proposal.
  • Agenda Setting. Since the adoption of the 2010 inter institutional framework agreement the EP can submit legislative proposals to the Commission – if the Commission does not want to take it up it needs to explain in great length the reasons for its decision. Did you know this? Why have I never read anything in the press about the success rate or the problems connected to it?
  • Questions for all Spitzenkandidaten. Tell me three concrete legislative proposals your Commission would propose in the next term? (don’t be satisfied with speech bubbles such as ‘competitiveness’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘stable euro’) Why do we talk about the future of the EU in such vague terms anyway? Voters have a right to know what exactly is in the pipeline…

The inconvenient truth about social media and #ep2014

The inconvenient truth is simple: Social media will have zero impact on the outcome of the European Parliament elections 2014. Here are 10 simple truths about social media and the #ep2014*:

1. Social media will only help a few MEPs that have already invested heavily  in their individual social media presences. Using social media  during campaigns may look good – but only a long term commitment can deliver sustainable results. It’s simple:  be authentic, build relationships and engage your audience. But: Using social media in a bad way is worse than not using it at all. Think about it!

2.  We live in an echo chamber – the bubble is talking to itself. Nobody listens to voices with a different opinion. You only follow stuff you already like. Result: Social media is not a helpful tool for complex political debates. Welcome to the filter bubble!

3. 75 % of Europeans still get their political information on Europe from TV. “The Internet” is  only the 4th most important resource for political information – and the preferred information sources on the internet are “information websites” – not social media.

4. Social media does not reach people who are already disengaged from politics. And even if there is more engagement it does not translate into a higher voter turnout. Statistically, young people are more engaged on social media but their interest / engagement in the political process is  falling – both  at the national and European level. Suggesting that social media will boost the turnout of young voters may be a false correlation.

5. The social media/digital divide: 41 % of Europeans have never used social media.

6. Twitter can reach journalists and opinion-makers. If used properly one  can use it for multiplier effects. To use Facebook effectively you will  need a proper budget to game their algorithm.

7. Data mining may not be working in Europe: Europeans have a different conception of privacy – and  there is no fundraising angle (unlike in the US). Just ask yourself one simple question: Would you send a (party) political messages to a friend on Facebook?

8.  Social media tends to punish moderate voices and makes it hard to structure political debates.  European politics is all about finding a compromise – not a strength of social media debates. But this is  also the reason why radical voices and populists embraced social media and are generally more successful using it – compared to traditional parties.

9. Is social media a tool to bypass traditional media channels? No! Early adopters and new media organizations will be the new gatekeepers.

10. #ep2014 campaigns will have a strong national angle.  The use of social media is very different across Europe so we will not see a clear picture of its impact.

* Those were my talking points for a TV talk show a few days ago. This also explains the  lack of context / nuances in the blog post – and is the reason why it is written like a tabloid story.

Campaigns on EU issues? Focus on Spitzenkandidaten? The reality about #ep2014 campaigns in one picture

merkelEP2014

This is an official #ep2014 campaign poster.

If you think #ep2014  campaigns should focus on EU issues and not advertise national politicians you may want to sign Kosmopolito’s #ep2014 pledge.

The #ep2014 pledge

Here is a simple pledge for everyone who is running for the European Parliament in 2014.

I hereby pledge that…

1. I will only campaign on  EU issues.

2. I will always explain why a problem needs to be solved at EU level and how it can be done.

3. I will explain the role of the European Parliament in the  institutional context of the EU.

4. I will reply honestly to citizens about the possibilities and limitations of being an MEP.

Debating EU politics beyond the ‘Eurosceptic’ – ‘Europhile’ divide

I know it’s an old debate – but since I have returned to Brussels I keep stumbling into conversations that end up in arguing about what it means to be “pro EU”. Well,  I happen to think that being labelled “pro-EU”, “europhile” or “eurosceptic” is rather silly. Here is why:

  • I think  MEPs did a good job amending the #connectedcontinent directive last week by specifying the questionable “specialized services” – but I am not sure I can support the ITRE Committee and the Commission in this process. So just because I think the policy outcome is positive I am considered a “europhile”?
  • I don’t think Angela Merkel’s policy on ‘saving the euro’ has been very clever but I also realise the treaty limitations in these areas and the difficult political environment she had to operate in.  I can distinguish between the “troika” mechanism, the role of the European Commission and German and Greek politics.  So I may oppose the troika, understand the risks of eurobonds but think the fiscal compact could be counterproductive,  at the same time I may think it is a good idea to impose stricter financial regulations on banks.   Does that make me automatically a “anti-EU” for being anti-austerity or a “europhile” for supporting more regulation in a certain policy areas?
  • I think the German car industry had an unhealthy influence on the German position in the Council when it decided on CO2 emissions. So would that make me “anti-German”?  Or “anti-EU” because I think the EU’s climate policy is a failure?
  • I believe the EU – and especially Catherine Ashton – did a good job during the Iran negotiations. But I know that member states still rule in foreign policy and that it is a policy field that often relies on external factors beyond our control. So yes, EU foreign policy can be effective over time but it lacks instruments to deliver short terms success stories. Does that make me a “europhile” for believing that member states  can punch above their weight by using the EU?
  • I  don’t know what to think about TTIP. It sounds like a good idea but I also think people are overselling it and there is a real danger that consumer standards are being watered down. The process is not transparent so I criticize it – does it make me a “eurosceptic” or “anti- American”?
  • Some EU projects are useful but some projects are clearly not thought through. At the same time  EU institutions often lack the appropriate control mechanisms – and member states don’t want to invest in additional personnel. Am I now a “eurosceptic” for suggesting that the EU is not working because of the failure of a certain project?
  • The Dublin 2 regulation is not working and is creating a “Fortress Europe”,  tragedies happening in the Mediterranean on a daily basis. Of course we should change it – but member states are happy the way it is.  Nobody wants poor refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa or Syria and nobody wants to spend more money on issues like that. Plus, the immigration “debate” in most member states ruined the possibility of a policy discourse. So, is critizising the Dublin 2 regulation “eurosceptic” for suggesting that “Europe” is partly responsible for the tragedies in the Mediterranean?
  • Generally I think that a lot lot of  problems are transnational and can only be dealt with by working on the EU level – from climate change to tax evasion and  a range of cross border linkages. I think it should be easier (and cheaper) to travel by train trough Europe or vote in national elections where I pay my taxes. I think it should be easier to access health care and pension systems in countries I live in. I like to defend fundamental rights across Europe – of course  I realise that we lack instruments to ‘punish’  Hungary or Italy.  I naively believe that countries should not violate the fundamental rights of citizens it other EU countries (Hello GCHQ!). This sounds like common sense but it also  make me a “europhile” for suggesting that the EU should play a greater role in these sort of issues.
  • Many EU institutions are relatively transparent and easy to approach – except the Council. This is a problem – but it cannot be changed without the consent of the member states that don’t have an interest in changing it. Am I now a “eurosceptic” because I criticise a EU institution?

This list could go on. The question remains the same:  What am I? A europhile or a europsceptic? Well, I think it is too easy to focus on these two labels – the reality is more complex. In fact we should stop using both labels! The problem is that we perceive the EU as some sort of non-political entity unable to change. But the opposite is true. As any national political system there are different political forces at play. On the EU level we are simply bad in identifying the actor that can be made responsible for a certain policy choice. (the  irony here is that Brussels based lobbyists have a much better grasp of what is going on – so is it really that complex to find out? Questions about the quality of EU journalism spring to mind… )

Another problem is linked to competences – do we really know what EU competences are  – or do we just believe what we hear from journalists or local politicians?  We seem to mix up national and EU competences – as well the difference between a decision on the EU level, the involvement of national actors and the implementation on the national or regional level. It is Brussels, it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Just compare it with talking about national politics – criticising your government does not mean you want to overthrow the government. You simply want another government. In a federal state it is pretty normal to argue about the mechanisms how to distribute money between entities  – but again, that doesn’t mean you want to abolish the system. If you  don’t like a law you can protest against it and vote a different party next time  – it doesn’t mean you want to get rid of the political system.

The same should happen on the EU level – citizens should be able to evaluate EU policy outcomes and vote in national and European elections accordingly. (I  know this is a bit more complex – but in principle this is how it *should* be ) – and this is also how EU reform should look like. (link slightly unrelated)

The EU needs debates about different policy options. Basically the EU is here to stay – so if we want good policy outcomes we should argue about issues, proposals and counter-proposals.

PS: Yes,  I know, the line on ” the EU is here to stay” will put me firmly in the “europhile” camp…

Differentiated EU integration

Good overview of the state of EU integration – from a new CEPS report on EU reform. (click here for additional complexity

CEPSdifferentiated

David Cameron’s “EU reform” explained in 4 tweets

After blogging about David Cameron’s “EU reform ideas”  (and some ideas that would *really* make a difference) I am getting annoyed by this renegotiation debate:  Every Sunday the British elite presents another “EU reform” idea but they don’t seem to notice that a) it is not a priority for the British citizens b) it is not a priority for the rest of the EU c) most of it is impossible or to vague to achieve d) most of it shows a profound lack of understanding how the EU works and d) the government  fails to see that some things could be achieved by changing procedures how the UK government/parliament works. Anyway, this whole story provided me with the opportunity to develop a series of ‘political analysis in 140 characters’ tweets:

Why does Cameron want EU reform?

So, what is the problem?


But what does Cameron really want?

So, his ideas are vague and resemble a Daily Mail story about the EU, I’d rather keep the status quo:

Why Miliband’s ‘EU referendum policy’ is dangerous for Britain and the EU

Well, it finally happened: Today, Brexit has become a real possibility – maybe not in the next couple of years but possibly in the long term. Under a Labour government and in the unlikely event of a new EU treaty Ed Miliband promised an in/out referendum in the UK – if “new powers are transferred to the EU”. There are few problems with this:

1) I don’t think any Labour government can ever win an in/out referendum in the UK. It will be impossible for Labour to win against the Tories in opposition and the anti-EU media in the UK.

2) One can only hope that Miliband will never have to implement his “in/out referendum policy”. It’s a recipe for disaster. What does it mean to ‘transfer new powers to the EU’? Even if it’s a treaty for the eurozone only, public opinion in the UK will perceive it as another “broken promise” if he decides not to go for the referendum.

3) Ed Miliband’s referendum lock is a new level of how to blackmail the rest of the EU. Under a Labour government any new EU treaty negotiation will always be linked to “Brexit” – not the best starting point for any negotiation over a new EU treaty.

4) It is one thing to promise a referendum over a new EU treaty. Indeed, this can be perceived as a good thing (although I disagree with the idea of having referendums on these things) but linking an in/out referendum to a new treaty that transfers ‘new powers’ is utter bollocks. There are bad treaties but the in/out question will always overshadow specific treaty issues. This is neither democratic nor strategically clever. Basically you blackmail your own population: “Accept this treaty or we leave the EU” – hardly a democratic approach! (or are we talking about 2 referendums in the case of a new treaty?)

Of course this policy can pay off in the short term (= until the next general election that is) but is it a viable strategy? Yes, it keeps Britain in the EU as long as there is no new EU treaty (and chances of it happening are minimal, except for a eurozone treaty). Miliband may manage to keep the ‘Europe question’ off the agenda in the years ahead (which is a good thing!) The “EU question” is also not one of the main concerns of the British public so everything that makes Europe a boring topic is a positive development. Plus the British and international media seem to buy the line that “Miliband rejects EU referendum in 2017″. Fair enough, but what will happen in the unlikely event of a new treaty? If this becomes part of the British approach to the EU it is likely that we will never see another EU-wide treaty again. Expect more agreements that legally resemble Schengen, the Euro and the Fiscal compact. It is clear that Miliband does not want to have a in/out referendum – but why did he not say it like this? Opposing an in/out referendum and defending EU membership – this would have been a clear policy. (And, remember: there is still the ‘normal’ referendum lock on power transfers/new treaties that has been passed by the present government a few years ago)

So, what is the lesson here? Politicians always think they can ‘match’ a policy with something that sounds similar to the policy of their main rival . But this race to the bottom never works. You can’t beat the original. On the EU, the Conservatives can’t beat UKIP and Labour can’t beat the Conservatives.

[PS: I thought I’d never say this but I think I prefer the ‘in/out referendum policy’ of the Tories. Hmm…]

Some ideas for EU reform that would *really* make a difference

In the UK there is too much talk about ill-defined “EU reform” that will not make any difference. Who needs a complex new “red card” procedure when you  a) never exhausted the existing “yellow card procedure” and b) could just copy the Danish approach to control your ministers in the Council? Why do we need to talk about “benefit tourism” if it does not even exist?  How can we cut down all this red tape without knowing what laws  you are actually talking about? Do we really need treaty change just because you want your doctors and nurses to have less rights? Here are a few ideas that would *really* make a difference in how we talk about the EU:

  • EU member states: Stop blaming the EU for your own ideas. Ministers in the Council often suggest stuff but once they are back in their countries they seem surprised that anyone took them seriously. And one more thing:  if it is an idea that was previously rejected in your country – well, you know, maybe it is a bad idea?
  • European Commission: Start blaming others by putting colourful banners on the front page of all Commission proposals that reveal the origin of the proposal: “This regulation was requested by a joint initiative of the British and German governments” / “This is follow-up from the Environment Council” / “This Commission directive is the result of an intense lobbying campaign by French energy companies” / “This Commission directive was inspired by the Tobacco industry”. Call it a new “transparency initiative” – trust me, it would fundamentally transform the EU discourse.
  • European Commission: Hire a couple of journalists and create a “Bullshit Detection Unit (BTU)”: Each Commission proposal needs to pass the BTU test. This will reduce the amount of formulations that could be misinterpreted by other journalists.
  • European Parliament: Stop talking about things you can’t change.  Nobody needs your own initiative reports. They only get picked up by the tabloids as proof for some new “EU law”. Similar point about the upcoming European Parliament elections – focus on policies that you can actually influence and be frank about things you will not be able to change under the current treaties.
  • Journalists: Just stop following this guide. It was not supposed to be a manual.
  • Everybody: Every time you criticise the EU for being not bold enough/ too soft/not speaking with one voice/ too business friendly / not business friendly enough  – try and suggest an actual policy. But first try and think for one moment whether it is an EU competence and if you could get all 28 countries to agree on it.

…to be continued…

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