A disturbing pattern

I’ve been surprised at the lack of uproar over the discovery that the CIA has been data mining SWIFT transfer archives. I suppose it’s because this is far from the first troubling secret breech of the right to privacy by the Bush administration, and most people – the ones that don’t have large sums of money – generally don’t have any banking privacy anyway. But this new secret program touches a core Bush constituency: white-collar criminals. If Bush is able to secretly monitor transactions in the name of anti-terrorism, a future Democratic government might be able to use it against money laundering and accounting fraud. That’s surely something the Republican Party could never stand for.

SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, but operates computer centres both in the US and the EU, so the company probably was not in a position to refuse the government’s request. According to page 4 of the original NY Times article: “Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said.” If they were prepared to break in to get the data, there was little to be gained by the firm taking a stand.

But I note in today’s Le Monde something about this affair that I find troubling.
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Ooh harsh, Cristina

Two Serbia-related stories come together this week.

One, you may recall that I speculated about the Serbian team’s chances in the World Cup. I didn’t rate them very high. But I’ll admit I didn’t expect the famous defense to simply disintegrate. Plavi will limp away from the Cup with the worst record of any team: 0-3, with a shocking ten goals allowed versus only two scored.

Two, Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica recently complained about the EU’s action in freezing talks on Serbia’s candidacy. Brussels did this because the Serbs have been consistently unwilling or unable to produce wanted war criminal Gen. Ratko Mladic. This, said Kostunica, was unfair; the EU was punishing Serbia, and holding it to too high a standard. He blamed the EU for not understanding Serbia’s situation or appreciating its very real efforts at cooperation.
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Not as exciting as the World Cup

If anyone has the energy to think about the European Constitution at the moment, I’m afraid this entry will not encourage you to keep up the effort.

Last week, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) put on a show for those of us in Brussels who are interested: a lunchtime meeting, discussing the way forward after the “period of reflection” on the fate of the Constitutional Treaty. The speakers were the leaders of the three main pan-European political parties – for the European People’s Party, former Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens; for the Party of European Socialists, former Danish prime minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen; and for the Liberals, Belgian politician Annemie Neyts.

I found it a depressing meeting, depressing because of the complicit complacency of the three.
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A pyrrhic victory for privacy?

Today, when annulling the Council decision about the transger of European airline passenger name records (PNR) to the US, the European Court of Justice made an important decision, highlighting both the weakness of current privacy protection schemes and essential problems in the European institutional set up. While it is not unlikely that privacy concerns, particularly the increasingly problematic lack of state enforced privacy regulation in the US, have guided the Court’s decision, its legal argument is not based on privacy infringement, but on fact that the EU-US agreement fell outside the scope of the European data protection directive. In fact as statewatch.org explains, the privacy plea by the EP has therefore not been considered at all. Statewatch therefore considers the judgment as a phyrric victory for the EP,

“as the agreement will now be replaced either by national agreements, or by a third pillar agreement with the US. Either way the EP has no power over approval of the treaty/treaties or even the power to bring legal proceedings against them. The press may describe this as a victory for the EP or for privacy but they will be mistaken. Moreover, there is a risk that if an EU treaty or purely national treaties are signed with the US that the standard of privacy protection could actually be worse than in the original PNR deal.”

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Meeting Up Again in Europe

Europe’s newest state, Montenegro, has just been given the go-ahead for the first step towards EU membership, as Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn agrees with the Montenegrins that a Stabilisation & Accession Agreement could be signed by the end of the year. Rehn is due in Belgrade next, although you’d have to be very optimistic to expect anything concrete.

It certainly looks like a certain theory of post-cold war Europe is being born out. As early as 1996, Tim Garton-Ash was arguing that perhaps the international community’s failure in Bosnia was down to trying too long to keep a unitary state in being, or in slightly different terms, that diplomats tended to assume any move from bigger to smaller units decreased stability. Perhaps it would be better to accept that the genie was out of the bottle and instead seek peaceful separation, with an eventual view to reintegrating all the units into the European Union.

Well, here we are. The last domino has clattered to the ground, and we’re already talking about agreements with the EU. It’s just a pity about the blood and treasure lost before then. Realistically, there’s probably a preliminary, “little EU” stage of regional integration to go through – getting the quango count down somewhat by sharing some of the new “entities” and states’ responsibilities, whilst also starting the process of making the borders less relevant – before looking at EU membership for the lot. Fine. If France and Germany could be in the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation and the European Payments Union by 1948, the ECSC by 1950, NATO by ’55 and the EEC by 1958, thirteen years from the end of the war, surely intermediate integration is possible before 2009 – ten years from war’s end.

The Edwyn Collins option – rip it up and start again – does pose some serious questions. If anything, if peaceful separation was a good idea in 1995-6, it would have been even better in 1992. But equally, if the eventual solution is to get back together and melt the borders in the EU, couldn’t we have skipped the whole horror show? Doug Muir’s last Montenegrin post caused a thread that with luck should yet reach the half century. In that thread, the point was raised that during the 1980s, Yugoslavia – the old full-cream version – actually made noises about joining the EC (as was) before being dissuaded.

A fine counterfactual question, no? What would have happened had Yugoslavia joined the EC?

Qualified yes to Romania and Bulgaria

As expected

Not that “qualified” I don’t think. Once you’ve gone this far, turning them down isn’t politically viable. They might get a bunch of embarassing transitional arrangements instead.

My semi-informed uniformed view is that waiting until 2008 would have ultimately been better for them, though a longer wait would have been counterproductive.

The European Commission gave a qualified yes Tuesday to Romania and Bulgaria joining the European Union on Jan. 1, but it delayed a final decision until October to try to pressure the Balkan countries to make greater inroads in fighting corruption and in judicial reforms.

The EU’s executive body said it did not want to dissuade reform-minded governments in both countries by delaying an entry date. But Olli Rehn, the EU expansion commissioner, warned that the two nations still needed to address shortcomings in their judicial systems and that their entry into the world’s largest trading bloc was not yet assured.

“Unless the countries take immediate corrective action, they will not be ready” in January, Rehn told a packed chamber of European deputies in Strasbourg. “If serious concerns remain, we will not hesitate to use the safeguards we have at our disposal,” he added, alluding to the EU’s power to delay the countries’ entry until 2008 or to withhold EU aid, even after they join.

The Czech Car Growth-Engine?

News today which is of more than passing interest from the Czech Republic. The South Korean industrial group Hyundai has announced that it is going to build its first European car plant at Nosovice. The factory – which is scheduled to cost around one billion euros – should begin production in October 2008 with full capacity of 300,000 vehicles a year being reached in 2009. This new output, when added to added to the 600,000 cars or so produced annually by Volkswagen’s Skoda Auto and the Franco-Japanese joint venture, TPCA, will bring the Czech Republic into the front line – along with Germany, France and Italy – of the European automotive industry.

As elsewhere this will have its good and its bad side.
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French protests : it’s the politics, stupid!

There are some offers you can’t refuse. An invitation to join the permanent roster of Afoe is one of them. Let me first say, then, that I was initially happy and thrilled and grateful to be part of this wonderful blog. All the more so since it means that I’ll be ineligible for the Afoe Awards next year, and thus spared the humiliation of a third crushing defeat in a row. (For those of you who are scratching their head and wondering “who the hell is this guy?”, check this post)

If is say “initially”, it’s because, as the French guy of the team, I now have the daunting task of trying to explain clearly our current social row over the Contrat première embauche (First job contract) to a mainly non-native readership. As it happens, the BBC has already done a quite decent Q&A on the topic. So go read it to get the basics. And then come back here if you want my long and -I hope- not too muddled thoughts on what it all means.
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Italian Elections 2006 Part II

Well the election campaign in Italy trundles on, and issues are starting to emerge. One of the more curious details to have come out in recent days refers to the size and shape of the voting card. It is to be some 65 centimetres long with canditates arranged horizontally rather than vertically across the strip (if this seems like a long ticket, some US cards are up to a metre long apparently, although just why AGI online choses the US for its comparison is beyond me).

Beyond the ticket itself, Italy’s leading independent newspaper Corriere della Sera has just published an editorial coming down (for the first time I think) on the side of the centre left coalition lead by Romano Prodi (declaration of interest: CdS is my preferred reading among Italian newspapers). The reasoning for this decision seems to run something along the lines that the Berlusconi government has taken policy decisions more in the light of the need to resolve internal coalition differences than in the light of the real needs and interests of the country: to which ‘amen’.
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EU Energy Policy II

Well the new EU energy plan has been released (and here, and you can also find the actual Commission statement here). The final product is pretty much as the leaks suggested.

As was indicated yesterday, Russia related concerns are central. The FT comments:

Russia supplies a quarter of Europe’s gas needs and the Union’s dependence on the country for energy was illustrated in January when a dispute between Moscow and Kiev disrupted gas deliveries to the EU.

All of this was I think anticipated on this blog back in January when the Gazprom/Ukraine dispute first really broke into the public arena. What wasn’t anticipated was this, and especially the gas related dimension of the Suez/Gaz de France merger.

The major changes taking shape in Europe’s energy sector at present undercut the arguments of those who have long been predicting a gradual break-up of monopolies and the disappearance of the industry’s biggest players. The planned merger of Suez and Gaz de France to counter an offensive by Enel and Veolia and the fight between Gas Natural and E.On for the hand of Endesa make it abundantly clear that concentration remains very much a watchword in the branch and that even powerful old public monopolies like Electricite de France could be forced into marriages with others in future.

None of the reasons trotted out to justify the merger between Suez and Gaz de France, to cite but that operation, dwelled on the future role of Russia in Europe’s energy landscape. True, the Russians aren’t directly involved in any of the operations underway in Western Europe. On further examination, however, Gazprom’s moves in recent months could be seen as justification for the consolidation.

The future Suez/Gaz de France grouping will become the leading buyer and the top supplier of gas in Europe. As such, it will rank as one of Gazprom’s prime customers in the world. That, however, isn’t necessarily good news for Gazprom. In its dealings with such a powerful client the Russian monopoly won’t be able to exert as much pressure upon it as upon a smaller entity, let alone bully it.

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