28 August 2008 Edition
This news feature is funded by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL)
Denmark cancels referendum
THE ripples of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in the 26 Counties continue to be felt across Europe. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has announced the cancellation of a referendum due in autumn on ending Denmark’s opt-outs.
The plan was to ask the Danes to end their non-participation in the euro, judicial co-operation and the European Defence Agency. The defence opt-out was secured after Denmark rejected, in a referendum, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.
The dropping of the planned referendum marks a disappointment for Prime Minister Rasmussen, who was one of the favourites for the new role of President of the European Council envisaged under Lisbon. A successful referendum would have boosted his euro credentials of the prime minister of one of the least enthusiastic of EU member states.
European Parliament joins stampede away from democracy
BY STEVE McGIFFEN
Editor of Spectrezine
THE European Parliament changed its rules this month. Anyone still reading?
Surely the European Parliament doesn’t have any real power anyway? Surely it’s just a talking shop where pompous windbags repeatedly stand up to demonstrate their ‘European’ credentials while the rest of us get on with our lives? Well, not quite.
Certainly the pompous windbags part is true, though it’s hardly fair to the minority of Euro MPs who have tried to stand in the way as the European Union has trampled over our rights as citizens, as workers, as consumers, as human beings.
The part about it not having any real power is nonsense, however. Increasingly, the European Parliament has what is known in EU circles as “co-decision power”, which means just what the phrase says. In a growing number of legislative areas, including virtually all environmental issues and most social and labour matters, the assembly is an equal partner with the Council of Ministers, the body which directly represents the 27 member states. Its powers have grown with each successive treaty since Maastricht, in 1992.
The ‘europhiles’ would have us believe that this means that the EU’s famous ‘democratic deficit’ is being closed but this simply isn’t the case. The new powers granted to the European Parliament have not been at the expense of unelected, centralised institutions. On the contrary, they have been transferred from elected national parliaments and elected national governments.
When I first worked as an assistant to a British Labour Euro MP 23 years ago, corporate lobbyists were thin on the ground. Now you can’t move for the representatives of major corporations who use (sometimes quite literally) foot-in-the-door techniques to get the attention of MEPs whose votes now exercise a huge influence on Europe-wide legislation.
So the fact that the European Parliament has just voted to do away with its own democratic procedures should concern us.
This is especially the case when you consider the response to the Irish people’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. Just a few days later, the leaders of the 27 held a meeting on the implementation of this same treaty. Their response to the Irish vote? It didn’t even appear on the agenda!
The European Parliament’s rule change means that the two big political groups, the Tweedledum of the centre-right European People’s Party and the Tweedledee of Labour’s so-called Party of European Socialists, will now exercise complete control over business conducted in the assembly.
Firstly, 25 members from seven countries instead of 20 from six will be required to form a political group. Two existing groups, the euro-sceptic Independence/Democracy Group (ID) and the right-wing Union for a Europe of the Nations (UEN), would fail one or the other test.
The argument that the new rules will make it harder for fascists to form a group is a disgrace to anyone on the Left that uses it. Fascists must be confronted politically in elected assemblies as well as out on the streets, not by procedural trickery.
A further rule will exclude MEPs from forming groups unless they hold similar political opinions. The ID group would also fall foul of this, containing as it does MEPs from the right as well as some who hold quite progressive opinions. They are bound together by a belief in the primacy of national sovereignty but it is unclear under the new rules whether this will be enough.
Even the United Left Group could have problems with this rule. The full name of the group, which contains all MEPs to the left of social democratic and labour parties, is the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL).
Its long-winded title reflects genuine tensions within the group to do with historic splits which go back to the range of attitudes to the Soviet Union found on the European anti-capitalist Left. But it isn’t all history, and quite serious differences remain.
The group is held together, however, by its commitment to burying those differences in order to combat neo-liberalism but when it comes, for example, to reform of the EU’s agricultural policies, parties from north and south will often vote different ways.
Hence the “confederal”. The individual national parties retain their autonomy.
The Greens form a group with progressive regionalists, the Greens/EFA. The latter element, which includes Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, organises as a group-within-a-group, as does the Nordic Green Left within the GUE/NGL. Once again, it is unclear whether this will continue to be acceptable.
This aspect of the new rules will also make life harder for MEPs who are expelled from their groups for not toeing the line. As things stand, other groups will often invite them to join. Admittedly, this is largely out of self-interest. In the European Parliament, bigger means better: more money, more speaking time, more kudos.
Yet there is another motive, which is a desire to see men and women who were, after all, elected by the people of their countries, allowed to continue to do their jobs. This is apparently of no concern to the two big groups.
In another change, a totally undemocratic “filter system”, purportedly designed to eliminate “silly, irrelevant or offensive questions” was also installed. Who will decide which questions fall into these categories? The holder of the European Parliament presidency, a job carved out between the two big groups, of course.
As the European Parliament acquires more and more power, it becomes ever more important to the anti-democratic forces now ruling Europe to keep it under control. The rule changes may not seem to be of that much importance when set against the blatant contempt for democracy shown in the EU establishment’s reaction to successive referendum defeats but they are another small yet significant indication that, unless we wake up to what is going on, democracy may turn out to have been a whim of the 20th century.
• Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine, a radical online journal of the European Left. From 1986 to 1999 he worked as an assistant to a Member of the European Parliament and then spent five years as a member of the secretariat of GUE/NGL.
The Åland Islands pose more problems for Lisbon
FINLAND’S tiny Swedish-speaking Åland Islands are causing more headaches for those in Europe keen to push ahead with the ratification of the rejected Lisbon Treaty.
The islands constitute an autonomous province of Finland, accounting for about half of one per cent of the whole state’s population. They were given to Finland in 1921 by the League of Nations following a dispute with Sweden. The decision also rendered the islands demilitarised and neutral in any conflict.
Now the islands’ own parliament (Ålands Lagtings) is considering its position on the Lisbon Treaty. The Finnish parliament in Helsinki has already ratified the treaty on 11 June last but if the Åland Islands does not do likewise then, legally, Finland has no power to impose the treaty upon the autonomous islands.
There is a precedent as the Ålands previously rejected the failed Constitutional Treaty, pronouncing it politically dead. After Ireland’s clear ‘No’, some island solidarity might be forthcoming from our distant island cousins but the islanders have some concerns from closer at home to consider as well.
Chief among local concerns is the European Commission’s determination to fine the Finns for the island authorities’ refusal to ban “snuss”, a popular type of tobacco product taken in through the gums. Some in the islands’ parliament are seeking a guaranteed MEP seat for the islands as well as greater influence over the position taken by Finland at Council meetings.
Legally, it is unclear how the Ålands’ rejection would affect the implementation of Lisbon in Finland but it would bring another island-sized headache to the EU’s die-hard ‘Yes men’.
IN THESE times when EU energy policy is a big political issue, it is surprising what a bit of historical research turns up.
In 1991/1992, Virginio Bettini, MEP for the Italian party Democrazia Proletaria, travelled across the EU examining energy projects in order to prepare a report on energy policy in the EU.
One of the projects he visited was officially recorded as “in Belfast, Northern Ireland”.
However, the original report was drafted in Italian, which clearly states “a Belfast, nelle sei contee dell’Ulster occupato dai britannici” (rough translation: “in Belfast, in the six counties of Ulster which are occupied by the British”).
A quick check by the MEP of the different language versions revealed that not only had the English-language translator edited the translation to suit his own political opinions, he had also persuaded French, German and Danish colleagues to do likewise, with varying formulations: “Belfast (Ulster)”; “Belfast which is in the six counties of British Ulster”; “Belfast, in the six counties of Northern Ireland which are part of the UK”.
Bettini got in touch with the President of the European Parliament to complain about the “incredible and intolerable” situation, complaining of censorship, “political verficiation” of texts and “dictatorial espionage”, as well as demanding freedom of expression for MEPs.
The General Secretary of the Parliament met the translators in question. Most agreed (somewhat reluctantly) that they were obliged to translate faithfully the texts they are presented with, and they corrected the texts accordingly.
However, the English-language translator refused. Details are a bit unclear but it seems the English-language translator was removed.
A small victory for freedom of speech.
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