The Blair of reform

27 June 2005

It is possible that I have been wrong about Tony Blair. On a previous occasion, I listed him as one of those European leaders who are past their expiry date. But if the speech he gave in the European Parliament last Thursday – and the reception it got – is anything to go by, he may just have reinvented himself as the reformist leader Europe now needs.

That is a big if and I know it. Especially with Prime Minister Blair, who often is more successful at talking the talk than at walking the walk – most of all in recent years. But instead of trying to predict the results of his presidency on the basis of recent performance at the head of a government whose main goal seems to be staying in power, perhaps we should look at the early years of his government in the late nineteen nineties. Then, like now, he had just taken over from a sclerotic ancien régime that had lost public confidence. Then, like now, he surprised and inspired with an ambitious agenda for genuine reform. Then, like now, the chances for failure were substantial. Then, many reforms were never carried out. Now, we must try to avoid that. (more…)

Idea crisis or leadership crisis?

21 June 2005

Commenting on the French referendum results, I wrote:

As motivating ideas behind European integration, “uniting again what had been separated” and “all men will be brothers” should be equally appealing in 2005 as they were in 1945 and in 1989. What the EU does seem to lack these days, as opposed to its early years, is leaders whose “magic” is able to unite the masses behind those ideas.

After the resounding Dutch ‘no’ to the EU Constitution and last weekend’s EU summit, I still believe this is the case. Here is why:

Polls conducted shortly after the referendum reveal that both French and Dutch voters support the general idea of EU integration. Whatever the right-wing (nation-state oriented) EU-sceptics say, no less than 72% of French voters are in favour of continued integration. Similarly, 84% of Dutch voters support the EU in some form or another, whereas only 16% could be considered EU-sceptics. Other, more extensive polls published only recently (France, Netherlands) confirm these figures. In short, the French and Dutch votes were directed against this EU, not against the EU. This is an important conclusion to begin with. (more…)

Finances in perspective

13 June 2005

As some of you may be aware, national governments, the European Commission and the European Parliament are currently negotiating the EU’s new multiannual “framework budget” (Financial Perspectives) for the years 2007-2013. This agreement between the EU’s main players outlines its strategic policy choices for seven years to come, and probably more. Its precise contents are therefore incredibly important for the EU’s future.

Pressure on the negotiating parties has increased considerably after the double ‘no’ in France and the Netherlands, but in two opposing directions: Firstly, to come up with some good news to keep the EU going, which means being flexible and reach an agreement. Secondly, to take voters’ concerns into account, which means standing firm for “the national interest” and use the veto when necessary. So although the Luxembourg Presidency intends to finish the negotiations this month, during the European Council meeting of 16-17 June, it is by no means clear that it will succeed.

Reading the British press and weblogs from the anglosphere, one could easily get the impression that abolishing the British rebate, which limits the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget, is the main issue on the negotiating agenda and that it was put there by a French government in trouble blaming it on the Brits. If only it were that simple, and the UK that important.

The current “negotiating box”, a document published 6 June on the Presidency’s website, outlines the Perspectives’ main budget lines and unresolved dilemmas. Net contributions per country are only one of them, but the most striking thing here is not that Britain is paying more than France, but that both the UK and France pay considerably less than other net contributors. (more…)

Why EU-sceptics should NOT want a short Constitution

11 June 2005

In the “why” and “where to now” discussions that started after the double ‘no’ in the French and Dutch referendums, an often heard opinion is that the EU Constitution is too long, and that a shorter text outlining only fundamental rights and decision-making procedures would have stood a better chance of being adopted. That may be so, but if it does it would be proof that what voters actually want is a more integrated Europe. (more…)

European voices

7 June 2005

Just a few remarkable or interesting snippets picked from the European press. (more…)

Live-blogging the referendum in the Netherlands

1 June 2005

23:20– Should add (and that really is the last thing I write before going to bed) that EU leaders have confirmed they want the ratification process to continue. Juncker said so again, as did Schröder. Seems the only exception is Blair – well, and of course the Czech president Klaus, but he is not in charge of the executive so that does not count. I am ambivalent about this. Yes, of course the votes in favour by 49% of the EU population (whether or not directly in a referendum) should count, as do those of the people who have not even had the opportunity yet to vote. My democratic instincts urge me to agree with the government leaders. But my Constitution instincts (or would that be the pragmatic civil servant within me?) say: ‘Don’t! It’s a lot of hassle, and it is only going to harm the Constitution (whatever form it will take in future agreements) even further.’ So perhaps not then. (more…)

O Freunde, nicht dieser Töne!

29 May 2005

Sondern lasst uns angenehmere
anstimmen, und freudenvollere!

France votes no to the EU Constitution: 55% no – 45% yes. Turnout is high.

So, back to the drawing board? Not sure here… Naturally, if you value the democratic principle that everyone must have the opportunity to pronounce himself on the issue, and if you want to know if France (and perhaps the Netherlands and the UK) are alone in Europe in their rejection of the Constitution, the ratification process should continue. That is also what, in the run-up to the referendum, Jean-Claude Juncker said he thought should happen. Several European politicians have repeated that tonight.

On the other hand, the French result may influence the votes in other countries so much that the outcomes might not be too indicative of people’s opinions anyway. And a, no doubt, symbolic rearrangement of the Constitution’s contents would of course offer the opportunity to relaunch the ratification process and get it right this time (i.e. voting on the same day or at least in the same week, or even better: an EU-wide referendum after parliamentary ratification in those countries where a national referendum can be avoided). (more…)