Tag Archives: international

Nine wishes for 2009 #6: the EU to get real

You never know, it’s just possible this might happen.

2008 presented a real quandary for me: on the one hand, I was (not uncritically) supportive of the European Constitutional Treaty. Its mutation into the Lisbon Treaty made it weaker still, removing one of the main advantages of the Constitutional Treaty in the first place (specifically, that it was a clean slate and relatively easy to read compared to trying to follow a succession of amending treaties), but on balance it contained just enough good things in it for me to have voted “yes” in any referendum.

On the other hand, such a referendum was not forthcoming. I may be pro-European, but I’m also a democrat. I don’t believe the only way of ratifying a treaty like Lisbon is to hold a referendum, but we needed some kind of procedure to ratify it which recognised it was more than just another act of Parliament. There are many ways this could have been done – a super majority in both House of Parliament or two votes on either side of a general election – but fundamentally, the vote would have been lost whichever way you did it. And just to add an extra layer of cynicism, the Lib Dems came up with this idea of having a referendum on membership as a whole, knowing that neither of the other parties would back it, just so they could have a figleaf to put on their Focus leaflets.

And all that I could live with if the pro-European parties were prepared to stick their necks out and actually argue the case for European Union. Except they don’t, fearing it will make them unpopular.

Either way, by June it looked like this whole sorry exercise was over. Then, Ireland threw a spanner in the works by – uncharacteristically – voting “no” in their own referendum. Since then we have been in limbo, with no-one seeming to have a clue what to do next.

Unlike some, I don’t think Ireland’s decision to now have a second referendum is undemocratic. If the political class in Ireland feel confident that the public will change their mind and vote accordingly second time around, that is fine with me. I’m amazed they’re doing it though; if I were Irish I’d be very tempted to vote “no” just to spite them. The money is on a second “no” vote surely; isn’t it just delaying the inevitable.

The whole debacle is part of a wider failure of the EU’s political class to provide leadership on, well, pretty much anything over the past decade (Timothy Garton Ash showed the extent of the EU’s failure in his Guardian column last week). Enlargement and the Euro have been successes but all the heavy lifting for both of those we done in the nineties. All we’ve had since then is a lot of petty squabbling and a tunnel vision obsession about fiddling with the institutions.

This needs to change, finally, in 2009. Following the second Irish referendum the Lisbon Treaty will be either alive or as dead as dead can be; the zombie-shuffle of the past six months will finally be at an end. The first thing we have to take steps to ensure is that some of the more dim EU leaders don’t start drawing up plans for a Son-of-Lisbon Treaty. Instead, we have got to make do with what we have.

Secondly, we have major challenges to tackle. Immediately, there is the Middle East Crisis of course. By the end of 2009 we have the replacement of the Kyoto Protocol to worry about. And then of course there is how we deal with Russia, Turkey, the Balkans, the global economic downturn… all of these amount to a clear need for the EU to get serious and stop dicking around.

The Lib Dems can do their bit by campaigning in the European Parliamentary elections as an actual pro-European party rather than trying to dazzle people with irrelevancies. The decision to run the elections at the same time as the County Council elections won’t make this easy, and if we have a general election as well, debate about Europe will more or less dry up completely. But after spending 2008 in such a mess, it would be good to see us finally articulating an unambiguously positive vision for Europe. No-one else is going to.

Why Ed Davey is wrong about the Lisbon Treaty

Once again, I am indebted to Millennium Dome for organising another bloggers’ interview with a senior Lib Dem politician. This time we got to interview Ed Davey, at quite a topical time as it turns out.

Ed arrived about 40 minutes late, unavoidably so because Parliament had over-run due to a series of divisions as part of the Lisbon ratification debate. But he gave us a full hour; it has to be said that in some of the recent interviews we’ve done the interviewees have barely managed 30-40 mins. Given that Ed had promised his wife to get home early was greatly appreciated.

Foreign affairs is not something that Ed Davey has been particularly well known for since entering Parliament in 1997, the Bisher Al-Rawi case notwithstanding. What he is rather better known as is an able populist who has managed to marry an economist background with campaign priorities. Before becoming an MP, as the party’s senior economics adviser he was a key architect behind the party’s penny on income tax policy. More recently he was behind moves within the party to up the ante regarding our longstanding policy on local income tax. Say what you like about either policy, there is no question that both rapidly became core defining issues for the party.

So it is no surprise to find that on foreign affairs he is a) still learning on the job – he’s only been in the job for two months and states that his priorities have been the Lisbon treaty and his 13 week old son – and b) an arch-pragmatist. He had a tendency to talk in generalities rather than specifics. The two exceptions on this were the ongoing situation in Sri Lanka which he has taken an interest on behalf of his Tamil constituents and on international trade, unsurprisingly for an economist.

But on guiding principles he was much clearer. Challenged by Gavin Whenman to choose between justice and peace, he argued that there was always ultimately more justice in peace. He cited the example whereby MPs were asked to vote for amnesty for IRA “murderers” in the late 90s, something he did with a heavy heart.

Asked by Millennium about the implications a new US President will have on foreign policy, he was optimistic and urged people to be open-minded about the US. He cited how all the main presidential candidates had adopted a more multilateral stance compared with the incumbent and welcomed the fact that George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn – no doves they – had written a joint article last year calling for nuclear disarmament (pdf).

In response to a question by Linda Jack, he reserved the right to be cautious in his criticism of Israel. He suggested that we should be careful of being too overtly critical for fear of indirectly helping to make the situation worse. He urged a focus on human rights, although Linda was right to suggest that on that basis there was much to criticise Israel on. On a related note, he was critical of Stephen Spielberg’s decision to pull out and boycott the Bejing Olympics over China’s policy on Darfur, citing the position of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International that it is better to take part and raise such issues once the regime is in the full glare of the cameras during the games themselves. I agree and look forward to seeing the party produce a campaign pack on the issue for the summer.

So far so good; I was broadly happy with the answers he gave to the questions by the other bloggers. I wish I could say the same about the answers he gave to mine, but I can’t.

Outlining the strategy I spelled out yesterday on this blog, Ed’s response was to dismiss out of hand suggestions that Labour are in a vulnerable position and would therefore listen if we threatened to support the Tory amendment for a referendum on Lisbon. I defer to his better judgment. My response was that we therefore risk nothing by backing their amendment on the grounds that it would protest against their refusal to allow our own amendment to be debated. This was rejected as being too “opportunistic” and he cited the Lib Dems’ refusal to back the Labour and Bill Cash-led attempts to reject Maastricht in 1993.

I don’t see how this example is relevant given that we were very much in favour of Maastricht. Maastricht set a precedent in other ways too though in that we supported a referendum for it (one which we perhaps could have negotiated if we had threatened to back Labour). Davey’s response to that was that the Lisbon Treaty does not have a “constitutional nature” while Maastricht did and represented more significant changes. While I can agree that Maastricht was much more significant, this canard that Lisbon does not have a constitutional nature must be exposed. It directly affects the governance of the EU and thus the UK’s own autonomy; how can it not be constitutional in nature? For that matter both Amsterdam and Nice were constitutional – what were all those rows about voting weights about if they weren’t? If this is the justification, then we should have backed referendums for them too. The other line which Ed repeated was that this is a “minor” treaty alongside Nice and Amsterdam while Maastricht was “major”. I can’t see what criteria you can use to make that distinction objectively.

Most other EU member states of course have a simple way of dealing with this: either they hold referendums automatically as in the case of the Republic of Ireland, or they require super-majorities in their respective parliaments to ratify such treaties. Super-majorities generally require cross-party consensus to get through. France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Finland and Sweden all require this; why not us? The fact that the Lib Dems in Parliament don’t argue for this either exposes them to the accusation that their position is down entirely to whether they think the treaty could survive such a process. Of course we could argue for the Swedish line that if a super-majority is not achieved the treaty must be passed on two separate occasions with a general election in between. Yet I’m not aware of us even arguing for that. If not these mechanisms, hard to introduce in lieu of a written constitution (although New Zealand has managed), then a referendum is surely the only tool at our disposal.

With all that in mind, and given the party’s reticence to push the issue, it is hard to dismiss the idea that the Lib Dem position is about anything other than expediency. Davey’s alternative to my plan is to push out clear messages on our position on Europe. Sadly though, whatever its intellectual merits (and I genuinely do agree that it has many), I don’t see any evidence that we are managing to get that point across. The bottom line is that we have opposed the best chance we have of holding a referendum on this issue; the argument over which referendum is best is a nuance that few people will care about on the doorstep. This will be used as a brickbat to beat us over the head with in Lib-Con marginal seats. It is ironic, as someone who has opposed Ed’s plans for local income tax in the past for being too populist and lacking in intellectual rigour to be in the reverse position here – begging for a clearer position that leaves us less exposed.

So much for ratification. My second question was on the contents of the Treaty itself. Lisbon grants the European Parliament extra powers, including a more definitive role in appointing the President of the Commission. I asked whether he thought this might in the long term lead to elections for the European Parliament centering on individuals that the various party groups might seek to introduce.

I’m afraid I found Ed’s response to this question extraordinary. He dismissed the suggestion out of hand, arguing that to say that giving the Parliament such powers is a “bizarre interpretation.” More than that, he suggested that if it did say that he would be opposed to it on the basis that it would play into the Euro-sceptics’ hands. And finally he argued that the President of the Commission is not like a “President” in the head of state sense and is merely one of three European Presidents which merely chair meetings.

On the first point, I can only refer him to the actual text of the treaty:

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after appropriate consultations, the European Council, deciding by qualified majority, shall put to the European Parliament its proposed candidate for the Presidency of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its members. If this candidate does not receive the required majority support, the European Council shall within one month put forward a new candidate, following the same procedure as before.

How is this open to interpretation? To be clear: the appointment of the President remains one of co-decision between the Council and Parliament, but if the elections to the Parliament are to be taken into account surely it is unarguable that this is intended to be an issue on which parties will be expected to have a public position on? The more votes a party gets in the election, the stronger its chances of getting its preferred candidate elected. Fundamentally, given that the Parliament will be making this decision in our name, what is so fundamentally wrong with MEPs actually telling us how they intend to vote? Longer term, what is so fundamentally wrong with making the process of choosing more open?

(I hasten to add that I happily accept that there are many practical problems with this, at least in the short term. It is hard to see how a candidate could enjoy pan-continental support given the cultural and linguistic challenges. But that’s not the same thing as saying that provision is not made for it in the Treaty and that it is wrong in principle.)

In terms of the President of the Commission being just another glorified chair, why is it that this is possibly the only European office that the general public has any awareness. Remember “up yours, Delors?” Power-wise, the President of the Commission has wide-ranging powers of appointment and sets the whole personality of the Commission:

2. Each Member State determined by the system of rotation shall establish a list of three persons, in which both genders shall be represented, whom it considers qualified to be a European Commissioner. By choosing one person from each of the proposed lists, the President elect shall select the thirteen European Commissioners for their competence, European commitment, and guaranteed independence. The President and the persons so nominated for membership of the College, including the future Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as the persons nominated as non-voting Commissioners, shall be submitted collectively to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The Commission’s term of office shall be five years.

3. The President of the Commission shall:

– lay down guidelines within which the Commission is to work;

– decide its internal organisation, ensuring that it acts consistently, efficiently and on a collegiate basis;

– appoint Vice-Presidents from among the members of the College.

A European Commissioner or Commissioner shall resign if the President so requests.

Formally, I would agree: compared to a Presidential head of state, the President of the Commission has very little hard power. But his or her soft power is immense and this is broadly recognised. Also unlike the Presidents of the Parliament and Council, the term of office for it lasts 5 years, not 2.5. The idea that Barroso is little more than an anonymous chairman is absurd. Frankly, there are plenty of examples of heads of state with less power and influence.

Why does all this matter? Because on the basis of his answers I’m not convinced that Ed Davey has read up on the Lisbon Treaty in the depth that I would expect a Shadow Foreign Secretary to. If he doesn’t accept that clauses exist in it that patently do, and furthermore claims that if they did they would be grounds for rejecting the thing, I would suggest that the rest of his argument begins to sound distinctly shaky.

The biggest problem with the Lib Dems’ current position on Lisbon is that it evades making the case for this treaty. Rather than attempting to do that, we insist that the only argument we can make is for EU membership as a whole, arguing for an in/out referendum in the clear expectation that our bluff will never be called. Ed is less aware of the contents of Lisbon than he should be because the official party line is to broadly side-step the whole debate over what it contains.

I’m genuinely torn. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have no love for the Euro-sceptics arguing for a referendum. Iwantareferendum.com is a dead duck; a dismal failure upon which millions of pounds of eccentrics’ money has been lavished. Yesterday they were out in force to lobby Parliament. They claim to have had 2-3 thousand protesters; the eye witness reports I had said it was closer to one thousand. Judge for yourself by looking at their own official photos (it looks like significantly less than a thousand to me). Either way, it was a damp squib.

So I think we will get away with this confused position as far as the general public are concerned, and the opinion polls at the moment back this up. But it is a position that seems singularly lacking in strategy, fails to understand that we get our message across through actions not words (something which Davey himself demonstrated on Tuesday) and most importantly treats the public with disdain. As a party with very few “safe” seats, we should be wary of how much trouble our opponents will make for us amongst swing voters.

Ultimately, we can’t keep dodging the European democratic deficit if we are serious about the UK’s continued membership of the EU. We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere, and be seen to be doing so. As a pragmatist and a populist I think that in his heart Davey understands this and would not have adopted our current position if he had not inherited it. I’m just disappointed he has not steered us towards a position that has greater resonance.

Being clear about the SWP

What is Alex Harrowell on? He has taken it upon himself to take me to task for calling Respect-cum-Conservative defector Ahmed Hussain a “socialist jihadist“, describing me as “offensive, stupid, illiberal and anti-democratic, not to mention libellous.” Well, I’ve been called worse.

If I had been shooting a little less from the lip, I would have been more precise in my language and described Hussain as a socialist and an apologist for jihadism, but if this disagreement boiled down to pure semantics, it probably wouldn’t have got this far: the essential difference between a jihadist and one who makes excuses for them is a fine one indeed. Harrowell demands I show my evidence. It isn’t difficult:

So the war in Iraq will continue. But what attitude should the global anti-war movement take towards the fighting? Many activists are wary of backing the insurgents, both because figures such as al-Sadr are Islamists and because of the tactics—suicide bombings and hostage takings—that some groups have used.

But as Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South points out, “There has never been any pretty movement for national liberation or independence.”

During the great Algerian war of independence of 1954-62, liberation fighters waged an urban guerrilla war that frequently targeted civilians.

“What Western progressives forget is that national liberation movements are not asking them mainly for ideological or political support,” says Bello. “What they really want from the outside is international pressure for the withdrawal of an illegitimate occupying power, so that internal forces can have the space to forge a truly national government.”

Let’s be clear here: whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraqi invasion – and I am certainly of the opinion that we should not have gone in, the effect was to remove a dictator. It quickly became clear that jihadists were seeking to exploit the situation and impose their own bloody version of government on the Iraqis, a system not supported by the vast majority. They aren’t revolutionaries, they aren’t freedom fighters – they are totalitarians. The SWP are also strong supporters of Hizbollah.

As for providing proof that the SWP advocate violent revolutionary struggle, do I really have to spell it out? Apart from both the links supplied above, there is the simple fact that the SWP is a Trotskyist organisation. Trotsky was a believer in revolution. There ain’t no such thing as an unviolent revolution. Is that really such a contestable fact? If the SWP don’t contest it, then why does Harrowell?

And then of course there is the brute fact (pun intended) of the bruises inflicted on my friends by SWPers for wicked crimes such as beating them in a student union election. For too many SWP members and other Trots, the revolution part is distinctly subordinate to the violent part.

Harrowell then outdoes himself:

But it’s worse than that; the very notion that, as Graham says, there is a “difference between the Lib Dem opposition to the war and the Respect opposition” is repellent. We both opposed it because it was wrong and it was stupid. It has however been a consistent tactic of the Right, and of the Government’s pet columnists, to accuse opponents of the war of being pro-terrorist. It’s always been easier to push this at RESPECT because its membership includes the far Left, who are not respectable, and brown people. But push it they would at the Liberals if there were only more of us.

Wow – I’m part of some grand rightwing conspiracy? News to me. I’m sorry, but there was a difference between the Lib Dem position and Respect/Socialist Alliance/SWP’s. They wanted British troops marched up to the Hague for war crimes; we wanted them home and safe. They sidled up in solidarity with Saddam Hussain; we didn’t. Once the war ended and the insurgency began, we lined ourselves up in solidarity with the democratically elected government; they sided with the insurgents. We are under no compulsion to join hands with the SWP in opposition to the “right” – in the vast majority of cases, we are on the opposite side. To accuse me of racism (that’s the clear implication of the “brown people” reference) is deeply offensive and a slur I would ask him to retract.

Not content with hurling every other name under the sun at me, he also has taken to accusing me of McCarthyism. How he is wrong is quite instructive: Joe McCarthy went around accusing everyone he didn’t like of having secret links with communism and plotting against America. The SWP are communists and are actively plotting against the British state – they don’t exactly make a secret of it. It is awfully inconvenient to Harrowell’s thesis then that I am not calling for them to be locked up or otherwise restricted, merely pointing out that which is blindingly obvious.

Valentine’s Day, a business trip on Friday and other stuff today have conspired to prevent me from writing the “15/2/03 – five years on” article I intended to. It is sad that this is the closest I’ve come to commemorating what was a very special day for me. The Liberal Democrats were absolutely right to go on that march. But do we owe the SWP a thing? Not a bit of it.

Africa, America and the UK Constitution

Simon Jenkins infuriates and delights in equal measure, but today’s article in the Guardian fell in the latter category.

The Church of England is simply absurd.  I was unaware of how the number of Bishops has sky-rocketed over the past 100 years, but I was aware of how the jealously guarded seats the Church has in the House of Lords are, by and large, left vacant.

According to Public Whip, the Bishop with the best attendence record is the Bishop of Chester, on 11.8%.  The average Bishop turns up to vote 2.76% of the time.  What is the point of them?  You don’t need a Bishop to read out a few prayers; if Simon Hughes and John Battle can cope, surely anyone can do it?

If the Anglican Church does split, where will that leave Establishment?  It is very curious to have a part of our constitution determined by a spat between a bunch of Americans and Africans, yet that is what we are left with.  Which Church should then sit in the House of Lords?  Almost certainly the socially conservative wing which has simply nothing to say about 21st century Britain.  Worse, because this side is more politically active, it means that at the same point that the church becomes less representative of the country, it is likely to start using its constitutional position more.

This is a recipe for disaster.  Now is the time to start seriously calling for disestablishment.

Chris Davies: a Letter to Lib Dem News

LDN didn’t print my letter last week, but the letters they did publish went some way to redress the “Davies love fest” of the week before.

For the record though, I thought I’d publish what I wrote here:

Since you published Chris Davies’ self-righteous non-apology last week and apparently received many other letters supporting him, allow me to add a note of dissent.

In the article that got Davies in such hot water, he states: “I visited Auschwitz last year, and it is very difficult to understand why those whose history is one of such terrible oppression appear not to care that they have themselves become oppressors.” To draw parallels between the extermination of 5 million Jews and the Palestinian situation, let alone to imply that the Holocaust contains a moral instruction that Jews should heed, Israeli or not, is grotesquely offensive. Would you hector a rape victim about the need for them to learn their lesson?

Referring to the situation in Palestine as “apartheid” is fatuous in the extreme. Anyone who advocates a two-state solution – including Israel, Palestine and the Quartet – is advocating what could be simplistically described as an “apartheid” solution, partition wall or not. And let’s not forget that 19% of Israelis are Arabs who have citizenship and voting rights.

The use of such inflammatory language on such a complex issue always causes more heat than light. It means that an opportunity to highlight the very real plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government is lost.

Initially, I assumed that Chris Davies was simply being uncharacteristically naive. I’m no longer so sure. Is it really too much to expect our politicians to use responsible language?

Should we be panicking about Russian spunk?

Madeleine Bunting is very worried. Gallons of semen from Eastern Europe could be heading this way. And yes, she does employ the image of the HFEA playing the role of King Canute, attempting to turn back the waves. Thanks for that mental picture Maddy.

I do apologise for not taking this all that seriously, but is this really something that should be concerning us? More precisely, can this really be described as “genetic imperialism”? In which case, who is the empire?

There is a genuine issue here, which is that it is that poor people undergoing invasive medical operations in order to feed and clothe their families is obviously a moral problem. I’m a little more worried about people getting paid for their kidneys than their eggs though, and getting a peasant to bash one out in a paper cup worries me substantially less than the centuries old practice of poor people selling their hair. In short, the knives are the problem, not the DNA.

Far from being guilty of wicked imperialism, genetics here is actually quite benevolent. The demand for spare parts from the developing world will always be limited by genetic compatibility. Demand for sperm and ovum will be limited by parental preference. People are likely to want genetic material coming from people with the same race. They’re likely to want sperm from intelligent and attractive people and there aren’t that many concert pianists and underwear models in the barrio.

In evolutionary terms, who exactly is exploiting who? The scenario that Bunting describes as nightmarish is a delightful inversion of social Darwinism: the genetic code of poor people being spread far and wide around the globe. Herbert Spencer must be rolling in his grave. In terms of sexual selection, the implications are intriguing, but hardly worrying: filling the genepool with attractive, intelligent attributes is unlikely to do anyone very much harm, although I’m sure the BNP are unlikely to see it that way.

If anyone here is a “victim”, it is the kids growing up with absolutely no idea of who their genetic parents are and little prospect of finding out. Again however, there isn’t anything particularly new in this.

Poverty is a problem and we should do something about it. Coming up with new moral panics however is to badly miss the point.