Tag: EU (page 1 of 10)

How to make the EU more confusing

Here is a quick guide on how to make the EU more confusing:

Step 1:  Name Take two institutions with entirely different roles and give them deceivingly similar names. “Council” sounds vague enough, and who would guess that “European Council” and “Council of the EU”, or simply “Council” (as the Treaties helpfully name it) or “EU Council” (a Twitter compromise) can refer to different institutions? This is a smart move also because the term “Council” is easily linked to other organisations, that have nothing to do with the EU, most significantly the “Council of Europe”. There you go: the perfect premise of confusion.

Step 2: Architecture  In the chaotic architectural landscape of the EU quarter in Brussels, choose to place both institutions in the same building (give them the same General Secretariat and Legal Service, as a bonus). Then build a new one and – surprise, surprise – let both of them use it.

Step 3: Institutional identity. Because the EU is so complex already, aim to reduce this complexity. Explain the roles of each of the two institutions and give them an individual identity? Wrong guess. Design a common logo and build a website that serves both of them: like this, things will look simple. No one really cares that one institution has a crucial legislative role while the other is basically a summit of political leaders that takes place a few times a year. All it matters is that they are now a “family”. A family of 28 governments “making decisions”, to quote their (common) social media outlets. Again, it’s a small detail that some of these decisions are actually EU legislation while others are political statements. Better not to confuse citizens with such minor details.

Step 4: Communication strategy. Now you have a tough choice to make: talk about the busy daily legislative work of one of the Council configurations, that might be boring and definitely not sexy enough to make headlines, but with an important impact on EU citizens’ lives, or be in the spotlight a few times a year while covering the “#euco”. In the end, it does not matter too much, by now you managed to confuse everyone from academics to journalists and lobbyists –  in Brussels and elsewhere. And we are not even talking about “normal citizens” anymore. Well done! (And we have not even mentioned the ‘Eurogroup’ or the ‘Foreign Affairs Council’…)

While it might sound like satire, this is unfortunately a reality that I, as a researcher and lecturer on EU affairs, am finding more and more frustrating. Explaining to students the difference between the European Council and the Council of the EU feels like an academic battle between facts (i.e. the roles of each institution mentioned in the Treaties: art 15 TEU for the European Council and article 16 TEU for the Council of the EU) and a now unified and superficial institutional communication. Trying to correct wrong statements (coming sometimes – too often!- from within the EU bubble) feels like a pedantic exercise, since being rigorous is just perceived as giving too much attention to minor details. But this is also a question of accountability. Who makes decisions? Who is to blame? The ‘family approach’ with a focus on the European Council does not help citizens to understand EU decision making – it only reinforces the perceived distance between leaders coming to Brussels (always in black limousines) and, well, the rest of us. The role of the rotating Presidency and the meetings of the Working Groups or COREPER are easily fading away when placed in the same “bucket” with the shiny Prime Ministers that make an appearance in Brussels every few months for a day or two. It’s not hard to see who is the winner of this communication strategy and the total confusion it generates. The European Council has been gaining both political significance and visibility since the Lisbon Treaty (and the introduction of the permanent President) and the so-called “Euro crisis”. The “family approach” just reinforces the de-facto power grab of the European Council within the EU institutional setup. The aim of this communication approach seems obvious: relagating the Council of the EU to a mere preparatory body of the European Council.

Project idea: Watching Trialogues

Trialogues have become one of the most used decision-making tools in the EU system. On the one hand they create a convenient shortcut for EU institutions to speed up lengthy decision-making procedures – on the other hand they are non-transparent, undemocratic, secret – and  create a system without a sense of accountability. The biggest problem that we – the citizens – have is that we simply don’t  know much about trialogues, as this excellent piece in the EUobserver explains:

Search for any mention of trialogues in the EU treaties and you will draw a blank. This is because despite being an accepted part of the lawmaking landscape, in legal terms trialogues don’t exist. All trialogue meetings are informal and the timing of the meetings are not known to most MEPs, let alone the ordinary public. There are no formal minutes taken. Some are over within a few minutes. Others can go on all day and well into the night.

In the coming years we may see some institutional changes in the system as VP Frans Timmermans has identified the practice of ‘trialogues’ as a problem that should be tackled. (btw:  if David Cameron was *really* interested in genuine ‘EU reform’ this would be an issue to begin with…)

The trialogue issue is about transparency and accountability. As a citizen I simply want to know who is responsible for a deal,  who suggested what compromise text  – and I want to know why certain things disappear from a legislative proposal. Yes, this is something  journalists should do – but it is also an institutional problem as we basically have no public record of trialogues, we don’t know anything about it:  What is on the agenda of those meetings? When do they happen? Where do they happen? Who participates? What was agreed?

So, to put some pressure on EU institutions to change the practice of trialogues, here is a quick project idea – combining journalism, activism as well as the willingness among insiders to share/leak some of the data. What do we need?

We need ‘Trialogue Watch’!

The aim would be to set-up a website/blog that tracks trialogues and which would provide a simple crowdsourced data set about those meetings:  date of the meeting, invited participants, topic / agenda of the meeting…

In a second step this could be linked with the respective legislative proposal and a summary of the outcome of each meeting. This would require a regular stream of leaks – and a number of journalists whose job it would be to chase participants and write up quick blog posts about each meeting. (Well, here is a problem: “on average, around 25 separate trialogue meetings take place each week“)

How to do it:  We would need a website that allows anonymous submissions of basic trialogue data (see above). For the website we would need some coders and someone who would like to host and do some website admin. Then we would need to get the data from somehwere – and this will be the problem. So yes, I am looking at you: MPs and MP assistants who think it should be in the  interest of the EU to publish basic data about trialogues (preferably also minutes of meetings) But I am also thinking of journalists who hear about a trialogue from some contacts within the EU institutions. The aim is to have some sort of calendar which tracks trialogue meetings and gives us names, topics and dates. This would allow the public to get at least a basic idea of what’s going on and who is responsible for the decisions.

The real aim?

The aim behind the project is to show EU institutions how and why they should reform the system. It could be an experiment to put pressure on EU institution with two simple messages: Look at what can  be done without you – and yes, there are people out there who care about it – so do get your act togehter.

There are several options for the EU: trialogues could simply be abolished, the EU could ‘institutionalise’ trialogues as a normal decision-making tool or they could at least  increase transparency.

So if EU institutions copy our little ‘trialogue watch’ and start offering basic data on these meetings our job would be done! (and we could move on to evaluate the content of the deals reached via trialogues!)

So – who’s in?

PS: Feel free and contact me if you are interested in getting involved (or if you know of a similar project elsewhere!) I am not sure I would have time to really work on this project but I am happy to organise a first meeting or facilitate some sort of online exchange.

Overheard in Brussels VI: Putin and the EU

Strength in politics  is measured by your ability to create problems. Unpredictability is Putin’s big strength  – the EU on the other hand is the embodiment of predictability.

Foreign policy analyst (event in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.

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 der Politik geht es immer auch darum, eine Geschichte zu erzählen – und die besten Geschichten kommen offenbar aus dem Umfeld von Merkel. Auch da gibt es ein Muster: Ihre Leute sind sehr gut darin, vor fast jedem EU-Gipfel auf einen vermeintlichen Streitpunkt hinzuweisen: Etwas, wofür die Kanzlerin gerade besonders hart kämpft, oder eine Forderung der anderen Staats- und Regierungschefs, gegen die sich Merkel besonders hart wehrt. Meist ist der Streit aber gar keiner. Oder Merkel hat längst Zugeständnisse gemacht, von denen die Öffentlichkeit aber nichts mitbekommt. In jedem Fall geht Merkel damit auf dem Gipfel selbst als Siegerin vom Feld.

– Marc Brost in einem sehr lesenswerten Kommentar in der Wochenzeitung Die Zeit


Differentiated EU integration

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


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…

Reporting Europe Prize 2014

Reporting Europe Prize!

A promising start for @FactCheckEU

A warm welcome to FactCheckEU – the first crowdsourced fact-checking website for EU topics. It launched a few weeks ago and – so far – it is looking rather promising. It probably has the potential to become one of the most useful EU related websites. Go check it out and – more importantly – help them!

It is crowdsourced so everyone can contribute. And we also should remember that the quality of factchecking websites pretty much depends on the community and its ethics. Obviously both things need time to develop (so critising aspects of the website today would indeed be a bit premature) So, let’s hope FactCheckEU succeed in attracting enough contributors who are also able to do some high quality fact-checking. It is much needed – especially ahead of this year’s European Parliament elections.

The Apathetics

via Amnesty International

The Renegotiation

One of the most puzzling questions in the referendum/re-negotiation debate in the UK is what the British actually want to “re-negotiate” (it’s questionable whether there will be any opportunity to do it – but this is another story).  Anyway, so far we’ve had to do quite a bit of guesswork to answer this question. A couple of weeks ago, openeurope (the think tank/advocacy group that is pretty close to the Conservative EU policy agenda – to say the least) published a survey that  found  that most people support Cameron’s re-negotiation strategy. It also included a very interesting list of re-negotiation priorities.  Or to put it more accurately: 14 policy areas (pre-formulated by openeurope) were ranked by survey respondents.  It would have been interesting to see what an “open question” would have produced in this context. Now I am sure Downing Street does this sort of polling as well  – or, what is more likely, use some of the results of this survey. Anyway it is quite a safe bet that all these issues  are the areas in which the UK will try to do “something” – and William Hague’s “red card” proposal  a few weeks ago was already part of it!

Before I discuss the top 4 priorities (or everything over 30% approval) in more detail it is interesting to note two issues that explain the findings:  First of all the ranking confirms the low level of EU knowledge among  people: policy areas with exclusive EU competence and/or EU policy areas where you could bring back powers (in theory at least) tend to be at the bottom of the list:  regional policy, agriculture, fisheries. And secondly: the top priorities for re- negotiation are exactly the topics that correspond with the eurosceptic agenda and the discourse in the media:  immigration, EU budget and overall costs. (with some outliers)


A methodological note: Formulating statements in surveys is always a bit tricky. However, it seems to me that the  phrase  “allowing the UK to have control/own policy x”  also assumes that the UK has somehow lost control over the particular policy area – and if you look at the table of issues – this is simply not true for policy areas that do  not fall under “exclusive EU competence“. So most of the statements are – at least slightly – misleading. Plus if you have a list like this everyone will tick a couple of boxes which gives you high percentages and long list of “demands” – just imagine an open question in comparison! Of course openeurope chose – and formulated  those 15 policy areas which does explain the framing.  However, let’s look at the four main issues in more detail:

1. Allowing the UK to have its own immigration policy

Immigration is – not surprisingly – the “top priority” with more than 50% approval. Never mind that the numbers have gone down recently – and that generally immigration has brought some economic benefits to the UK. But there is another problem: The EU has hardly any competence in immigration policy. Now I know most people perceive intra-EU migration as part of the problem – but to change this you need to re-negotiate the EU’s four freedoms which is basically a non-starter. Obviously the problem are not the German or French “ex-pats” in the UK (nor the British pensioners buying property in Spain) – the problem are the  Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian “immigrants” and “benefit tourists” (as if the UK had a generous welfare state) And interestingly, EU “immigrants” are  less likely to claim benefit than UK citizens.

But even in the policy area of immigration it was the UK’s decision (after being the champion of EU enlargement!) not to impose transitional measures after the 2004 enlargement (as most other EU countries did!) – so at the end  it was a national decision that led to increased  levels of immigration. So what can the Britain do to “please” the right-wing media/ potential UKIP voters? Introduce some new hurdles for Romanian and Bulgarians to come to the UK next year? Promise automatic transitional measures for all future enlargements? Or make life more burdensome for all EU citizens in the country (and risk a few court cases in Luxembourg – which will conveniently happen after the referendum)? Last year openeurope published a paper on this issue and proposed a reform of the  EU’s Free Movement Directive. It is a rather complicated legal issue  – but the direction is clear: instead of strengthening  EU citizenship the debate will be framed around access to benefits. The recent announcement of the Commission to take the UK to the ECJ  over its  “right to residue test” is part of this “battle”.

2. Giving UK parliament more powers to block unwanted EU laws

This is a very interesting one – and I wonder where it is  coming from (did the government thought of the red card procedure and wanted to have some data to back it up?). But again there are problems:  The proposed  “red card” procedure would be based on the” yellow card” procedure (apparently this procedure – introduced by the Lisbon Treaty – has been  so successful that it was only used once! And the government claims that is because the EP is in charge of it… but again this is another story) – anyway, you need 2/3 of parliaments in Europe to coordinate a joint position, which is a rather difficult exercise – to say the least.

Instead of opening the treaties for a procedure that is complex and not very effective – why not give the parliament the power to hold ministers to account. Maybe the UK government should visit Denmark to see how it can be done, and how the European Scrutiny committee would become the de-facto center of EU policy- making (Maybe David Cameron now regrets the decision to put  Bill Cash in charge … ) In addition the “scrap the European Parliament” idea (not part of the current debate at all – so why is it in there?) has to be seen in this context. The idea of openeurope/UK government is that democracy can only work on the national level – only here you can have increased legitimacy. Theoretically,  this undermines the European Parliament and gives national governments another veto possibility through their parliaments/chief whips.

3. Reducing Britain’s contribution to the EU

The UK  has a  permanent “budget rebate” and pays less in GDP % than some  of the poorer  member states.  The fact that significant part of the population thinks that the EU is expensive and the UK should pay less is clearly a success for UKIP.  But in this year’s budget negotiations David Cameron claimed a “victory” so the government could make the case that its “renegotiation” was successful . However, people tend to believe UKIP and the Daily Mail when it comes to costs – a problem that can probably not be solved.

4. Allowing the UK to have control over police and criminal justice laws.

Again, not an exclusive EU competence – and a reflection of the hysterical media debate. Most people probably put European Court of Human Rights  in Strassbourg into the equation (which is not an EU institution).  At the same time this is something the government can deliver.  David Cameron can use the nuclear JHA opt-out while  hoping to manage some  opt-ins at a later stage. Probably the most likely area where the government can really deliver – the problem here is what to do afterwards as the government is eager to opt-in  some selective JHA measures…

5. The rest

The top four priorities would not suggest that a full blown treaty renegotiation is required  (so do we really need an ICG?): The JHA opt-out will be the most visible action – all other things can be achieved through mixture of some changes in directives and some significant changes in the UK system itself.  The real “problematic” policy areas in terms of renegotiation are buried further down the list:  allowing the UK to negotiate trade deals with third countries (a surprising fifth place though!), regional policy, fisheries, agriculture – even employment legislation (better known as the WTD 😉  are not part of the top priorities.

It is ironic that people apparently want a “significant return of powers” but when given the choice they don’t really choose the options that would also involve a “significant return of power”.

How the EU works

Here is a great infographic of the “Ordinary legislative procedure” (formerly known as “co-decision procedure”) – the basic policy-making mode in the EU.  And another one for the budgetary procedure – only used for the EU budget (and quite different from the OLP).

via European Parliament

Europe according to the British


via @alphadesigner


Ok, I am back. Not sure for how long, let’s see… expect some short stuff – maybe I should get into mobile blogging (to use the daily commute in London a bit more efficiently).

Just to reiterate my general problem with EU blogging this year: I work for a think tank in London on European affairs so I get a fair share of geeky EU stuff on a daily basis. And writing blog posts on EU affairs is somehow not my preferred evening activity. So what has changed? Nothing really. Just thought I should give it another try.

Anyway, I am in Zagreb this week at the EFB community conference – if anyone wants to go for a drink – drop me an email.

Older posts

© 2016 Kosmopolito

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑