National politicians and national media still have a major communication problem concerning the EU. European politicians too, of course, but they cannot solve the problem. Only those who already have the voters’ ear can do that.
The irony of constitutional safeguards: Current legal constraints on the powers of governments prohibit the creation of legal structures that would offer better legal constraints on the informal powers that governments already have created for themselves.
The democratic paradox: The smallest of Member States can veto a Treaty change supported by all other Member States. Isn’t this the dictatorship of the minority?
If the issue was costs to tax payers or delivering concrete results, Irish voters would have voted ‘Yes’, massively.
Nor can it be that the EU undermines symbols of national identity, like (in Ireland’s case) non-alignment, prohibited abortion, and low corporate taxes, as Ireland has opt-outs on the first two and tax decisions require unanimity in the Council.
When the Danish cartoon row began around the end of 2005, it took several months before the Danish government embarked on a counter propaganda offensive. It was not until February 2006 that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared on Al Arabiya in order to explain the position of his government to a worldwide Arab-speaking audience.
Although it was a good thing that he did this in the end (and initially no one, except for the Arab regimes that instigated the rows, could have foreseen that it would become such a big thing), I was rather critical at the time because Fogh Rasmussen did not take the opportunity to explain what free speech was really about:
What Fogh should have done instead of saying that free speech is important, was explain why it is important. Instead of appearing as a weak leader not worthy of much respect, by saying that as a Danish PM he is used to being criticised and that he accepts that, he would have come across as a good leader by explaining that the constant criticism actually helps him to do a better job. He could have said that because people in Denmark have been allowed to say what they think about their leaders for a long time, and can even get rid of them if the leaders don’t listen, Denmark is such a wealthy country with so little inequality and suffering. The hint would not have been missed on a region still predominantly ruled by dictators.
Today, the Netherlands is holding its breath for a similar row to erupt, this time about a Quran-critical film that has been made by a Dutch MP and which should come out before the end of this month. Over at A Fistful of Euros, Guy described how the issue is being hyped in Dutch media before the film is even published. Hype or not however, the Danish case shows how easy it is to turn the positive reputation of a country into one of evil anti-muslim crusaders (that is, if you are an Arab regime with a motive and complete control over what appears in your own media). So it is only right that, in an attempt to avoid the Danish mistakes, the Dutch government has been working for months through its embassies in the muslim world to at least try to get its own message across to government and media in the predominant muslim parts of the world.
As part of the pre-emptive strike, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the world service of the Dutch public radio, has now produced its own documentary (and a website ‘about Fitna, the movie’) in which it tries to explain the Dutch position on the MP’s film and its relation to free speech:
Has it succeeded better than Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the Al Arabiya interview? Well, yes, a little. What is good in the RNW film, is that it underlines that even the Dutch government is bound to obey the law, just like any ordinary citizen. It is not government, but the majority of the population through its representatives which makes the law. This is an important point to make. What the film also seems to be doing better than the Danish PM, is to make clear the importance of free speech for an open public debate. Even though a large majority of the population does not agree with the MP’s film, they still accept it is published because they realise that if they would ban opinions like these, next time it is one of their own opinions that is banned from being published. The giving and taking of free speech becomes a little clearer, and even more so because of most of the people explaining this in the documentary are Dutch muslims.
If the RNW film turns out to be convincing enough for a critical audience remains to be seen. What I am still missing, for instance, is a clear(-er) explanation of the connection between free speech, the state of law and democracy on the one hand, and having a government that is not corrupt, does not torture its citizens and governs effectively on the other. But it is an attempt, and anyway, if people turn to the streets over this film in Saudi Arabia, Syria or Egypt, we know that this is because their governments wanted them to, not because they have watched some film on the internet.
** update 27 March 2008: ** The film was published today. What an anticlimax! I mean, it is still the modern equivalent of Der ewige Jude, but not a lot of Dutch flags are going to be burnt over this. And it is badly made at that…
Interesting developments in the wider Europeosphere: News just came in that the members of the Parti Québécois yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of dropping the obligation to hold a referendum on Québec independence from the party manifesto.
The PQ had a majority of the seats in the Québec parliament a number of times in the 80s and 90s of last century. Referendums on independence have been organised in 1980 and 1995 but failed to get majorities in favour (60% and 51% voted non, respectively). The vote is a victory for new party leader Pauline Marois who favours a more centrist course.
Great news from Norway that seems to have escaped the major news media, including those fromNorway itself: yesterday its government introduced a proposal to abolish discrimination against gays in the country’s marriage law. According to the press release, the new paragraph 1 of the law would read: “Two people of the same or opposite sex can get married”. After the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, and South-Africa, this will take the number of countries in the world that allow homosexuals to get married to six.
People who want to get married in Norway will not be required to live in Norway or to have Norwegian citizenship. Such a requirement does not exist in the current law either.
The church law (Norway has a state church) is changed as well so the Norwegian Church gets the right to perform gay marriages without being obliged to do so.
The existing partnership law for gay couples is withdrawn, although existing partnerships will remain valid for those who want to.
Gay couples will also get the right to adoption under the same conditions as straight couples. Lesbian couples will get parenthood automatically over children born from one of them through IVF from a donor, just like this is the case for straight couples. The non-biological mother will then be called “medmor” (co-mother) under the law. If the father is not a donor, the other partner cannot become medmor but only adopt the child as a stepparent. The law does not foresee in parenthood for male couples.
**update** The family and culture committee of Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, organises a hearing about the new proposal on 21 April 2008. See here for more information on the state of play in Stortinget. The text of the proposal itself can be found here (all in Norwegian).
Most Western European news reports on the outcome of the Polish elections qualified president-elect Lech Kaczy?ski as a “conservative”, and the new prime minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz of the same Law and Justice party (PiS) as a “technocrat”. My impression is that they are worse, and that the new leadership of Poland – which has equally many votes in the Council of Ministers as Spain and almost as many as France, Germany, the UK and Italy – is at worst a bunch of conspiring bigots, and at best another provincialist pain in the European ass. This is not a good thing – be it for Poland or for Europe (at least if you consider modernisation of Europe’s economy along Blairite lines as an improvement compared to the current situation). It is not a good thing either for those who would like to see Eastern Europe shed the remnants of its totalitarian past today rather than tomorrow: The PiS election victory sets a bad example in a region where bigotry and blame tactics often serve as red herrings allowing societies to avoid confronting itself with some painful truths and memories.
The only positive note directly after the elections was that defeated candidate Tusk’s party Civic Platform (PO) would become the voice of relative reason in the government coalition. By now we know that PO has dropped out of the talks, as a result of which the new government will depend on several smaller even-further-right parties for its support. Among these maverick AndrzejLepper, who has become deputy Speaker of the Sejm. This is not going well… (more…)
The Baltic republics Lithuania, Latvia, and Lithuania, where I spent my summer holiday this year, have much to enjoy for visiting tourists: historic cities with well-preserved mediaeval or Art Nouveau centres, a beautiful countryside with unspoiled forests, bogs and lakes, a friendly coast with sand beaches, dunes and islands. The occasional Molvanian experience notwithstanding, the general level of what is on offer is such that it is often almost impossible to believe that, unlike the former Warsaw Pact countries in Central Europe, this was part of the Soviet Union only fourteen years ago. (more…)
Not immediately a European issue, but still: Canada has (once again) joined the ranks of civilisedcountriestoday, by removing a law clause that reserved marriage exclusively to heterosexuals. So far, only the Netherlands and Belgium have preceded Canada, while the Spanish government is preparing a similar change to its marriage law. The vast majority of EU and western countries does have laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but somehow exempt their marriage laws. (more…)