Pass the parcel

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband provided indication today of the emerging EU strategy for dealing with the Irish No to Lisbon: it’s being left up to the Irish government to sort it out, but with a reminder of the high stakes should they choose to accept the referendum result.  Or, as Miliband colourfully put it

If you like he’s [Irish PM Brian Cowen] got to decide whether or not to apply the last rites. We’ve got to listen to his analysis of what went wrong

Yet Miliband also insisted that UK parliamentary ratification would go ahead next week, which will be hard to defend from Tory attacks that it reflects a presumption that the Irish will be talked out of their rejection, since otherwise ratification is pointless.   One wheeze floated in yesterday’s Telegraph (see also) is that Ireland would be left on the sidelines as the other 26 agreed to implement Lisbon on their own, with the Irish catch-up taking place by attaching the Lisbon provisions to an Irish parliamentary ratification of Croatia’s EU accession, whenever that happens.   But the fact that such schemes are out there is just one indication that the ministers don’t yet really have a well-laid out plan for how to proceed.

Sunday’s Referendum in Hungary

As I have just indicated in my last post Hungarians went to the polls yesterday in a vote over whether or not to scrap government-imposed fees on visits to doctors and hospitals introduced as part of a belt-tightening adjustment programme, designed to bring what was at the time of its introduction the EU’s largest fiscal deficit back into line with Commission criteria. The referendum, as was well to be expected, resulted in a resounding defeat for the government, and with 94 percent of the votes counted, each of the three questions placed on the ballot received 82-84 percent support, according to data from the national election office OVB. As I say, to the intelligent observer this result should not have been entirely unexpected – the reason being, as I suggest in my previous post, that Hungary’s citizens may well now be suffering from what could best be described as a severe bout of “belt tightening fatigue” – and the outcome may may well initiate a period of political instability in Hungary (signs of a rift between the ruling Socialist – MSZP – Party and junior coalition Free Democrats – SZDSZ – partners were only too evident in an inadvertent moment yesterday, captured live for all the world to see by HirTV) and Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s administration will need to struggle hard to maintain the credibility and integrity of its economic adjustment programme in the referendum aftermath, while “punters” in London meticulously dedicate themselves to trying to short HUF denominated assets to the best of their ability (that is when they are not otherwise entertained trying to short the Spanish Banks or Italian government debt). Continue reading

The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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Montenegro – the other side

Well, we are united in our diversity here at Fistful. I have to say I disagree with almost every point Doug made about Montenegro in his last post, and will respectfully dissect his arguments below. But first off, a plea for some sanity here. Too many people seem to think that the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1990-93 was in some way the EU’s “fault”; that it failed to act quickly enough, to apply diplomatic pressure, or even (in contradiction to the evidence) that the EU’s recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in December 1991 somehow caused the wars. Nonsense. The fact is that Yugoslavia was broken up by the policies of the Serbian leadership. Outsiders tried to ameliorate or decelerate the process and the consequences; they largely failed. The international community does bear some responsibility for its inaction in the face of evil. But the larger share of the responsibility belongs to the local actors – especially, though not only, the Serbian political leaders. The fact is that we can plan all we like for international do-gooding, but the forces in action on the ground will always be the crucial factor. And so it is in Montenegro.

I’m sure Doug agrees with me on most of that. Now let’s get to the points of our disagreement. It’s important to realise that Montenegro has been effectively independent since 1997, when Djukanovic, then Prime Minister, threw the pro-Milosevic elements out of the ruling party and won the Presidential election against his former patron. Montenegro has had a separate customs area since roughly then. It adopted the Deutsch Mark (now the Euro) as currency in 1999, while Serbia retains the dinar to this day. The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, established in 2003, remains largely fictional apart from the foreign ministry. Montenegro’s referendum, if successful, will merely formalise the reality of its independence. In fairness, Doug states most of this as well. Yet he seems to think that rolling history back is both possible and desirable.
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Montenegro: Jump higher

So, Montenegro.

Little mountainous state on the Adriatic. Six hundred thousand people, mostly Montenegrins, a few Albanians and whatnot. Was an independent country until 1919, when it got swept up into Yugoslavia. Now it’s part of the “Federal Union of Serbia and Montenegro”, which consists of (1) Serbia, and (2) Montenegro.

And they’re arguing about whether they should leave. After all, the Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, and Macedonians all left, right? And the Kosovars are about to, any day now. Why should Montenegro be left behind? They had their own country for centuries; why not once again?

Why not indeed:
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‘Those Politicians’

Last Monday I had some ironing to do. Then I remembered that television still has one advantage over surfer-blogging: you can do the ironing at the same time. Of course the upcoming referendum was on several channels. I could not stand more than 20 minutes of it though (neither the ironing nor the tv). The various program presenters seemed to want to make it look like this was a political *debate as usual*, or so it seemed. National politicians dominated the guest lists. And most of them did what we expect from them nowadays: instead of seriously and conscientiously considering arguments, the majority of them seemed more intent on achieving a high score in something resembling a high-school debating-contest. Television comes in handy here.

In fact one of these *debates* was actually organized like a contest. Six politicians were invited. On every issue two of them went into a direct confrontation and the 6-minute sessions were immediately followed by a ‘flash vote’. And the winner is…
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Twenty Twenty Vision

The press this morning are busily assimilating the result of yesterday’s Netherlands referendum. The FT reports on a survey by Dutch polling organisation Interview-NSS, which identified up to twenty different issues which influenced the no vote.

Top of the list the list was a fear that the Netherlands would lose influence in a Europe that would favour large countries.
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If they say no

People will vote no for many different reasons, some for opposite reasons. But it seems clear to me some complaints will be shared by nearly all no voters, as well as many yes voters. Namely, that the EU is undemocratic, that the elites don?t care what the people say, that integration has been pursued without any input from them. Furthermore, I think an appropriate reaction to defeat would be humility. Therefore I think the proper way to rewrite the constitution would be to discard with most of the expansions of the EU’s powers, and as a side dish to introduce more robust measures to make the EU more democratic and accountable. This seems like the right thing to do, and also like a politically wise thing to do. It would make it likelier that people would vote for it, wouldn’t be that vulnerable to criticism that you rerun the vote and ensuing bitterness and still get the important things from this constitutions passed

If they’d scrap language that would invite judicial activism too, I myself could vote for it with enthusiasm.

While it’s not unthinkable that they’d actually do what I’ve suggested, I wouldn’t bet on it. More likely, they’ll either have a new IGC and make some less substantial changes to the constitution, or they will just give up for a few years. Neither scenario strikes me as worse than a yes vote.

What would be worse is if they give up and then go back to IGCs without any referendums or conventions, but I don’t think they could get away with it. In a sufficiently long run I’m sure they won’t, but heightened contradictions will be a mixed blessing. One dismal scenario would be for the French government to promise never to let Turkey in, and then rerun the referendum without changes, which would also be worse, at least if it succeeded, but again I don’t see it as likely.

The thing about referendums

I’m quite fond of representative democracy, and don’t think replicating the Swiss or Californian system would be a particularly good idea. I do however think that referendums are an occasionally vital and necessary part of democracy, and to do away with them, like the German constitution does, would be a great mistake.

There are situations where referendums are the only acceptable alternative. As a supporter of representative democracy I disagree with people who say that this or that issue is too important to be dealt with by the normal electoral process. But I do think I think referendums are necessary when an issue is 1) divisive 2) vitally important and 3) the normal partisan system cannot properly deal with, because the fault lines are different. As a corollary, anytime sovereignty is involved, I think an issue has to be pretty minor for you not to hold a referendum.

Most of the referendums on EU memberships are textbook cases of this situation. In the case of Sweden, nearly half of voters opposed Swedish entry and for most of the campaign the no side led. Without a referendum they would have had to vote for the Green or Left parties if they wanted to stop our entry. Both quite radical non-mainstream parties who together held less than 10% of the vote. In some countries all parties were for membership. In these instances I feel not holding a referendum would be undemocratic, and would to some degree disenfranchise (to use an American term) the whole electorate.
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The Euro-vision and the Vote

The referendum battle continues its course. Le Monde notes the importance of the fact that whilst the ‘no’ vote seems to be consolidating its lead in France (see this FT graph), with only one week to go one fifth of the votes still declare themselves to be ‘undecided’.

Meantime the normally sobre EU Observer, lets it hair down for once to suggest that the Dutch No Looks Irrerversible, especially after a row surrounding the Eurovision song contest.
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