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The parties have their Commission President candidates. TV channels, it’s over to you: 15th May debate on prime time TV please.

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 21.01.34I write this blog entry as a convinced EU democrat. By that I mean that, faced with the options about how to solve the many problems the EU currently faces, actually trying to make democracy work at EU level is the least worst of the available options. Yes it is going to be hard, yes it is going to be imperfect, yes I wonder whether it will ever work. Yet all the alternatives are worse. The EU already does so much that a return to limited, functionalist technocracy is no solution. An intergovernmental union of 28 would be stuck making decisions at the lowest common denominator. The notion of just a free market is a misnomer, for the rules of any market are essentially political. The EU has achieved some sort of notion of transnational democracy – no other international organisation has anything elected as the European Parliament is.

Within this arduous process to democratise the European Union it is foolish to pretend that things are perfect, to imply there is harmony when there is not, and to try to shield a population from the perceived worst of Brussels.

This then leads me, once more to the issue of the European political parties candidates for President of the European Commission, known in the Brussels jargon as the Spitzenkandidat process, and specifically in this blog entry the debate (or lack of it) around this process.

Yes, the process is imperfect. The parties chose their candidates (Schulz for the PES, Juncker for the EPP, Verhofstadt for the Liberals, Keller and Bové for the Greens, Tsipras for the far left) via a variety of different routes and, apart from the Greens’ open primary, none of the processes were particularly open or transparent. Yet, for the first time ever, all the major political groups have put forward candidates. End up with a centre left majority and get Schulz in the Commission, end up with the centre right and get Juncker. The parties have, more or less, delivered.

Now then it is the turn of the media. If there are candidates for top positions, then the people that are actually going to vote in the European Parliament elections actually need to know what is going on. In most EU countries there is the tradition in national elections of hosting TV debates with the leading candidates for the parties, and the same will happen in the Spitzenkandidat process – I currently know of 7 debates between candidates, of which 2 have already happened. The biggest debate of all is scheduled for 15th May, hosted by the European Broadcasting Union.

While I am of course a strong advocate of online media, and the Europeanisation of debates that can promote, nothing yet has the reach that the major national TV channels in Europe still do. That is the reason why televised debates are important in this process.

ARD and ZDF in Germany, and ORF in Austria are already invested in the process and even are hosting their own debates. RAI is involved in the 9th May debate in Florence.

However in France, France 2 and France 3 are refusing to show the 15th May debate, as Fabien Cazenave outlines. Philip Cordery of the PS has written to France Télévisions about this omission, and if you care about it in France there’s a petition at Change FR about it too.

In the UK the situation appears to be little better. BBC schedules for 15th May are not yet available for BBC1 or BBC2 (nothing beyond 3rd May is currently available). The BBC is listed as a participant in the debate, but it so far remains unknown which BBC channel, if any, will show it. There’s a Change UK petition to demand the BBC shows the debate too. I have also tweeted Gavin Hewitt and Laurence Peter of the BBC’s Brussels team to ask what is happening:

Laurence Peter was also happy to pen a blog entry today quoting Herman Van Rompuy’s criticisms of the Spitzenkandidat process, and that citizens think they know who really takes the decisions. Did Mr Peter perhaps stop to reflect that if the BBC decides to not screen the 15th May debate on one of its mainstream channels that his broadcaster might actually be playing a role in improving citizens’ knowledge of the process?

Yes, the UK might be partially absent from the Spitzenkandidat process, but the outcome is nevertheless going to be important for the EU and the UK, and is almost sure to give Cameron a headache. I also do not subscribe to the David Rennie view that it would be better for the pro-EU side in the UK for debates to not be screened, as to do so would hasten the UK’s exit. Shielding the UK from the realities of how the EU works, how it is developing is no good – it’s dishonest and disingenuous. If watching two middle aged men debate hastens the UK’s exit, so be it, because it might be a decision taken on the basis of a slightly better grasp of the issues.

In summary then, the issue here is clear: the parties have delivered on their side of the bargain to put forward candidates. It’s now the turn of the media to deliver on its side. The demand is simple: the 15th May debate must be shown on prime time television in all of the EU. If it is not then the criticism that the candidates themselves are at fault for being unknown rings hollow.

Politics for people, or let’s bash the bankers?

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With the European elections now just over a month away, every campaign organisation in Brussels is coming up with its demands for wannabe MEPs before the election. ALTER-EU, the campaign for lobby transparency, has released its campaign site entitled “Politics for People“, with the subtitle “Stop banks and big business taking over our democracy”.

For me the subtitle muddles the issue spectacularly. Perhaps, like the Right 2 Water petition, the emotive language draws people in. But for me it is overdoing it.

If you click though on the website to the actual demand from a citizen to a wannabe MEP the text reads as follows:

Please pledge that, if you are elected as an MEP, you will stand-up for citizens and democracy against the excessive lobbying influence of banks and big business.

Sorry, but this makes little sense. What is “excessive lobbying”? And surely no-one could be against excessive lobbying by just one group. It would be impossible to measure whether a MEP had indeed complied with this after 5 years in the European Parliament.

For me there are two issues at stake here.

The first is: do we know who is lobbying whom, and who is meeting whom? That is the basis of lobby transparency. Citizens can then judge whether the behaviour of MEPs was ethical or not. To achieve this the lobby register should be made compulsory (current, weaker, rules are here), and every meeting between a MEP or Commissioner and a lobbyist be documented, and records of all meetings made available in an open data format.

The second issue is whether money buys undue influence in EU policymaking, and what to do about this. The situation is not as grave in EU politics as it is in the USA (more on that here), and successful citizen engagement like Right 2 Water, Hugh’s Fish Fight and the Neonicotinoid pesticide ban show what can be done when citizens are organised. Further, I do fear that the EU institutions are too administratively weak to answer many of the questions the institutions themselves pose, and a revolving door between institutions and the private sector is too pervasive. But dealing with these issues is not the same as bemoaning the amount of money poured into lobbying by banks – if they feel they have an interest to defend they cannot easily be stopped. It is the institutions, MEPs, and indeed then by definition, the electorate, that needs workable and implementable solutions, and the Politics for People pledge does not concretely propose any.

(Note: I know a number of the people who work for the ALTER-EU coalition)

The empty slogans of the ‘Volksparteien’ in the European Parliament election campaign in Germany

From its headquarters at the southern end of Stresemanstrasse as far as Potsdamer Platz, the SPD has filled the street with huge election posters for the European Parliament election campaign… and they are awful. The five main posters are shown below.

For me the main test for an election slogan is to ask myself: would anyone actually want to run with the opposite slogan? If they would, then there is some political conflict or statement of ethics there that means something. If no-one would use the opposite the slogan is probably not worth writing. The pictures used by the SPD are also pretty awful – they look like people posing for a H&M or Uniqlo advert, rather than something to do with an election.

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At least 4 televised debates between Schulz and Juncker, more to come? (update: now 7!)

topcandidates-partycoloursOne of the supposed advantages of the European Commission top candidate / Spitzenkandidat process is that it gives some personality to the European Parliament election campaigns for the first time. I am hence very happy to see that televised debates between the main candidates are now also starting to take shape.

At the time of writing 4 7 such debates are currently known about:

  1. 9th April at 1710 CET on France24 TV, and 1910 CET on RFI radio (France), a debate between Schulz and Juncker, presumably in French (details here)
  2. 12th April at 1100 CET on TV5 Monde (global, in French), and repeated evening of 13th at ?? CET on RTBF, in French, and pre-recorded and edited (only details in this tweet)
  3. 28th April at 1900 CET on Euronews, with Juncker, Schulz, Verhofstadt and Keller, details and a live stream here, and the Twitter tag is
  4. 8th May, 2015 CET on ORF (Austria) and ZDF (Germany), a debate between Juncker and Schulz on the “Duell” programme, presumably in German (details here)
  5. 9th May at 1830 CET on RAI (Italy), a debate between Schulz, Juncker, Bové and Verhofstadt at EUI Florence, I presume in English, interpreted? (details here (scroll down to the bottom)), follow on Twitter #SoU2014
  6. 15th May at 2100 CET from Eurovision and EBS, and made available to national broadcasters (inc. BBC!), predominantly in English but also with interpretation (details here), and to be debated on Twitter using the tag #TellEurope, with 5 candidates – Schulz, Juncker, Verhofstadt, Keller and Tsipras
  7. 20th May, 2100 CET on ARD (Germany), a debate between Juncker and Schulz and the leading candidates of German political parties for the election on the “Die Wahlarena” programme, in German (details here)

I’ll add others here (and please leave a comment if you know of more) if and when I hear of them, but this is starting to look good!

9 April, 1447 – I’d missed the Euronews debate. Now added above! Thanks @kosmopolit on Twitter.
9 April, 1519 – I’d missed the EUI debate, now added. Thanks @DijkstraHylke.
10 April, 2311 – Now added the pre-recorded TV5/RTBF debate. Thanks @NatashaBertaud and Dana in the comments below.

How is David Cameron not going to be marginalised this summer in the EU’s political games?

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 12.05.18I’ve previously written about how the UK is absent from the EU’s Presidential Election (otherwise known as the top candidate, or Spitzenkandidat process), and while the essential content of that earlier post remains valid, I have reflected further about the implications for UK-EU relations from this process, and cannot see how the whole game this summer can play out in David Cameron’s favour and, if played badly, could result in a major UK-EU spat.

The starting point is the process (summarised here) – the Commission President needs a Qualified Majority Vote in favour of his/her nomination in the European Council. This means that no country has a veto over who the Commission President should be. This seems to have been (wilfully?) ignored by people like Daniel Hamilton from the Tories – this debate on Twitter is illustrative. Hence as I see it the UK has to make a positive case for the candidate it wants, rather than try to throw around its weight to stop a candidate it does not like.

Tie this to the Spitzenkandidat process and Cameron has a problem on his hands.

This problem is most acute if the S&D group emerges as the largest after the EP elections and tries to force through Martin Schulz as Commission President. Countries like France and Germany, already invested in the process to a certain extent, could live with this (even Merkel I think, who apparently gets on quite well with Schulz). Yet even the Labour Party in the UK has problems with Schulz and refused to back him – I hence cannot see how Cameron could be anything other than against his nomination as Commission President. “We will have to work with him” is going to be about the best Cameron would be able to muster in such a situation, and the words his backbenchers will use will be more fragrant than that I think.

The situation if the centre right wins the EP elections would be only slightly easier. As the Conservatives have left the European People’s Party they have very little leverage there, and the EPP’s candidate – old style, quasi-federalist, Euro-integrationalist Jean Claude Juncker is not the sort of Lagarde or Katainen style candidate that Cameron would more easily be able to live with. Indeed EUObserver reports that Juncker is a no-go for Cameron. Here too Merkel’s position could be at odds with the UK’s position – her CDU were Juncker’s most prominent backers.

Now I personally have my doubts about the extent to which the EPP will back Juncker when push comes to shove, and indeed on the left rumours that Schulz could be replaced by Helle Thorning-Schmidt continue to abound. But having said that the two most likely candidates for Commission President – Schulz and Juncker – remain unpalatable to the UK, yet the process grants Cameron very little power to do anything.

Could this be the next UK-EU crisis to happen?

Non-legislative barriers to the EU Single Market in the UK


I was back in the UK for the first time in ages last week and was frustrated as a result of not being able to use two services I had grown to rely on – my Three Pay-as-you-go Data SIMcard, and Auto-TopUp for my Oyster Card.

What’s the problem? A postcode.

Yes, well, it’s a little more complicated that that, but that’s the essential issue. Both My3 and TfL’s Oyster online system oblige you, logically enough, to add an address to your profile. When you make a top-up this address is checked with the address listed for your card with the bank, and if that lookup fails, the payment fails. The problem is that while I still have a UK bank account, and hence an associated debit card and a credit card, the address associated with that account is in Germany*, and that address has a 5-figure ZIP code associated with it, rather than the UK’s 7 or 8 character postcode. Trying to enter a German address in either My3 or Oyster online fails, and if I leave my old UK address there then the payment fails instead.

Neither of the services above are contracts – if I were to disappear then the companies can just close the cards in question. Were it to be a contract for a phone then it would be different.

So the next time you hear some UK politician complaining that the European Commission is not doing enough to complete the Single Market, perhaps you can point them to this blog entry instead, and remind them that some UK services are not too hot at dealing with the EU Single Market as it is today.

* – note that some people have told me I should have kept an address in the UK precisely for this purpose, but that is actually fraudulent – I do not live in the UK any more, and I should not need to maintain a UK address to use a public transport electronic ticket or a Pay-as-you-go Data SIMcard.

How Neelie Kroes’s rant about Düsseldorf Airport wifi shows she really understands political social media

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 13.39.09I can just imagine the scene. Neelie Kroes is sat at Düsseldorf Airport waiting for her flight, tries to get online, and turns to Ryan Heath or Jack Schickler or some other member of staff travelling with her, and with that mix of steel and mischievousness in her eye she says something along the lines of “How dare they charge €6 for an hour of wifi? I’m not having that!”

Her experience is the sort of thing regular travellers encounter all the time. It’s surely also something that the other Commissioners capable of using a smart phone also have encountered. But unlike the rest of them, Kroes connects her everyday experience with the politics of the matter and actually seeks to do something. It’s the same sort of motivation that has driven dozens of blog entries and tweets of mine over the years.

She first tweeted this:

This has been retweeted 834 times at the time of writing, and covered by The Local and Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

She then follows it up with an effort to crowdsource good and bad experience:

No doubt the next step will be to write a blog entry with a kind of league table of the best and the worst. Of course this is non-legislative, but it is a political issue, and Kroes’s understanding of political social media connects all of the pieces together effectively. More Commissioners should follow her example.

[UPDATE 1820]
I’ve been pointed towards a WSJ Germany blog about the same subject, and there is also now a blog entry on Neelie’s blog that summarises the responses, very kindly also linking to this blog entry of mine.

From a quick post on “More Europe” to more formed ideas about EU framing

Anyone who knows me well knows I am fascinated by the use of words about the EU. Since @europasionaria first got me to read Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, I’ve been wondering how to apply his ideas to the debate about the European Union. I’ve even run a couple of workshops about it in the UK as well.

Where Lakoff tries to arm progressives with the right words to make their case, I want to try to arm supporters of the European Union to better be able to make their case.

My quick post – railing against “More Europe” earlier today (and, as pointed out by @karmel80 on Twitter, “less Europe” should also be avoided) – has prompted some debate and discussion about what to do. @runekier and @ktowens have proposed some kind of wiki solution, to try to crowd source some sort of guide to what words to use, and to not use, but a response from @serge_arno demonstrates the complexity of the issue – where I see a problem in the vagueness and potential downsides of the term “More Europe”.

On this blog in the past I’ve had a go at “Bringing Europe closer to its citizens“, “pro-European“, “national interest“, and “hard-headed [about the EU]“, and all of those posts have drawn a variety of reactions.

So what should be done?

If it is to be some sort of crowd-sourced, wiki based solution, how do we build it to reflect this combination of views? To incorporate the positive and the negative aspects of a phrase like “More Europe”? Conversely, I would love to have a go at writing a book about all of this – a kind of EU Don’t Think of an Elephant, something that tries to make the case for how I see these sorts of issues with more coherence than a series of blog entries ever can. But am I capable of writing a book? Would anyone read it? And, crucially, how the hell would I fund it? And is there some way to combine these two approaches?

Anyway, do comment below, or tweet me or e-mail me, and I will do my best to make something out of all of this!