And Over to You, Too, Mr Socrates

Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa will need all of his namesake’s wisdom, and none of his taste in last drinks, as he takes over the rotating presidency (careful, the page has an annoying soundtrack) of the European Council this weekend.

Chancellor Merkel’s quiet persuasion has brought the EU much closer to a renovation of its institutions than seemed likely at the beginning of 2007. The governments now have a mandate to negotiate the details and prepare, by the end of the year, a treaty revision that can be ratified in 2008, or at the very latest in early 2009.

This half-year will also be a test of the “trio” approach to the rotating presidency. Starting this year, groups of three presidencies will work together to present a common agenda for the 18 months of their collective tenure. Anything increasing continuity in an office that countries can expect to hold about once every two decades (a far cry from the period when the rotation principle was established) is good news. Germany, Portugal and Slovenia worked together to set things up; now is the first actual transition within a trio.

The Portuguese don’t plan on wasting any time, and the intergovernmental conference will begin in late July. Coming just three weeks after the mandate, this is something like record time for the EU. And the plan is to wind it up by the end of the year. Given that past IGCs have tended to sprawl over about 18 months, this would be quite the accomplishment as well. Coming up with a Treaty text will, of course, be no small task, even with the former constitutional draft to serve as a basis.

On the other hand, there’s this “In addition, other priorities urgently deserve our attention.” That’s the horse’s nose under the tent. There follows a long list of things Portugal wants to do, including summits with Africa and Brazil, to say nothing of following up on the Lisbon Agenda (which to my thinking is what one should say at this point). The country’s leadership has limited personnel and resources. Taking their collective eye off the ball of institutional reform is asking for trouble on the Treaty front. It’s an accident of the calendar that Portugal has ended up with this responsibility for the Union, and that its more self-interested topics ought to take a back seat, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity for a small state to have a historic achievement. Word to the wise, Mr S.

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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Subsidiarity To The Rescue?

The wrangling continues. To the world this must present a pretty unedifying spectacle of day-to-day political life here in the EU.

Italy has now threatened to use the veto, Peter Mandelson (taking time out from advising the US on how to handle China) asks Blair to think again, Blair himself is on a whilstlestop, and the whole question of how to handle Turkey admission is – like the proverbial hot potatoe – rapidly moving from one hand to the next.

Yesterday the euro – reeling from the referendum and the ECB rate crisis, went bobbing up and down like a yo-yo, and all in all we’re having a ‘very happy time of it’.

What the EU needs now is some short term success, some visible signs that things actually work, some ‘baby steps’ even.

Well one possible area where things could advance, and to everyones pleasure, might be related to the so-called ‘early warning system’ contained in the Consitution Treaty. Ian Cooper explains:
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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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Dutch referendum: some background

Having been asked by AFOE to write a couple of posts for them in the coming weeks I am both honoured and horrified and apologize in advance for occasionally butchering the English language. A very short introduction: I am a Dutch translator now living in France after 30 odd years of residence in Belgium. I am totally incapable of producing fine scholarly essays but I can do my part of the vox populi pretty well? I hope.

To warm up I offer you some background relevant to the Dutch referendum before the official results start rolling in. First some figures, taken from a Eurostat news report (pdf) that was released today.

Dutch unemployment, while remaining well below the European average of 8,9%, has risen from 4.6% to 5%. By comparison, Poland has 17% unemployment and Ireland 4.2%. Eurostat also mentions that The Netherlands registered the highest relative increase in unemployment rates among the member states together with Portugal (6.5% to 7.2%) and Luxemburg (4.2% to 4.6%). Unemployment among young people in The Netherlands, while fairly high at 9.2%, is still modest compared to the EU average rate of 19%.
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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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If At First You Don’t Succeed…..

Well people are already busy positioning themselves in the face of what seems like an increasingly possible ‘no’ vote in France on Sunday. Yesterday it was Giscard D’Estaing, today it is the turn of the current EU president Jean-Claude Juncker. His basic point, if French and Dutch voters don’t say ‘yes’ the first time, then don’t give up, try and try and try again.
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Le Petit ‘Non’

Well, if you believe Times (and after last weeks episode with the Independent I believe no-one), le petit ‘non’, like its equivalent le petit mensonge, is not all that serious after all. According to the Times, Britain is working with other European states to draw up plans to keep the European Union constitution alive if there is a narrow ?non? vote in France next week. Just a soupcon of ‘no’ will, in the end ‘help the medicine go down’.

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French Economic Slowdown Puts More Pressure on May 29

French economic growth slowed more than expected in the first quarter and this is bound to have a negative impact on yesterdays ‘big push’ to win support for the ‘yes’ in the European constitution referendum. Gross domestic product in what is Europe’s third-largest economy grew January -March by only 0.2%. This compares with the October-December period, when it expanded by a revised 0.7%.
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Turkish Accession Talks And The French Vote

People in Turkey are getting nervous. If French voters reject the Consitution Treaty later this month, it will be for a whole string of reasons, none of which necessarily are related to any of the others. Some will vote against the treaty because it is perceived as removing sovereignty too much, others because they feel it leaves too much room for national sovereignty (the ‘social dumping’ debate). But possibly ‘no’ voters hold one view in common: they don’t like the idea of Turkey joining the EU.

Now many of the consequences of a ‘no’ vote – if ‘no’ vote there be – are unforseeable. But one distinct possibility would be that among the items contained in the ‘plan B’ rescue package would be a proposal to review the state of play with the Turkey accession process. This possibility is exercising the mind of Morgan Stanley’s Serhan Cevic no end. Mine to. Full declaration: I support Turkey’s *eventual* membership of the EU.
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