Friday 23 November 2012

EU Budget - Round 1

The latest stushie over the budget for the EU is about par for the course.  Remember this is the EU, all 27 member states trying to agree on a budget for the next seven years.  Last time around it took three European Council meetings to reach agreement.  So, failing to reach a consensus at the first attempt is no big deal.  The process of agreeing a budget though does tell us a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the EU as currently constituted.

Some background first, which may clear some things up a bit.  This is not really a dispute about the budget, which is usually a one year plan.  Rather this debate is about the MFF or the Multiannual Financial Framework.  The Danish government usefully explained what this is, earlier in the year, when Denmark held the rotating Presidency of the Council.  "Since the end of the 1980’s the EU’s annual budgets have been laid down within the framework of multiannual budget agreements – the so-called multiannual financial frames, also abbreviated to MFF (Multiannual Financial Framework).  
The frames constitute the expenditure ceilings for the main areas of expenditure determined by the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission for a number of years. The current budget ceilings have been settled for the period 2007-2013, and as the next multiannual financial frames are to be negotiated for 2014-2020, talks are already under way.

The financial framework requires unanimity in the Council of Ministers when it has been approved by a majority in the Parliament."

If you are really keen or sad, and would like to know even more about the MFF you can consult this helpful document provided by the Council.  As can be seen from the Danish outline, the MFF negotiatons involve a lot of institutions and the Danish paper omits one of them, perhaps the most important one of all.  For in addition to the Council; the European Parliament and the Commission, the MFF proposals have first of all to be agreed unanimously by the European Council.  Confused?  Welcome to the byzantine world of the EU.

The two Councils referred to above both represent the governments of the member states in the EU decision making process.  The fact that governments have two bites at the cherry, as it were, says a lot about where the real power lies within the EU.  The Council (full name, the Council of the European Union) is where the day to day decisions about EU policies are taken.  If the issue is to do with finance, then the Finance Ministers of each member state come along and decide what to do, usually by qualified majority voting.  If the issue is agriculture for example, then the Agriculture Ministers would make up the Council.  The Council has a rotating Presidency, lasting six months and the current Presidency is Cyprus.  The website for the Cyprus Presidency is here.  However for the really big issues, such as the overall budget ceiling or the MFF, it is the heads of state or government who meet and decide.  When these august people meet they call themselves the European Council.  You can get their website here.  And it was a meeting of this Council which failed to reach agreement earlier today.  

The two other European institutions, the European Parliament and the Commission are supposed to represent the common interest of all Europeans and not the interests of the member states.  However as can be seen from the media coverage of the budget, all the power lies with the governments of the member states.

This imbalance of power within the EU can be seen as either a strength or weakness.  As a strength it ensures that the EU in its collective actions and policies is subject to the member states.  There are three weakness with this imbalance though.  Firstly the need for unanimity or even a qualified majority means that decision making can be a very slow and laborious process.  Often so slow that action when it comes can be too little and/or too late to make much real difference.  The power given to the governments of the  member states allows national politicians to indulge in lots of excessive posturing.  The final weakness is that by giving the decisive powers to the governments of the member states there has been no development of a popular EU wide politics.  Everything is approached and seen and reported in the media through a national lens.

This is unlikely to change any time soon.  It is hard to see member states giving up any of the powers they currently have.  So we can expect a lot more posturing and horse trading, all in the name of the well being of the EU as a whole.

Friday 16 November 2012

Killing 11 Month Old Babies is not Self Defence!

There is an inevitable sense of déja vu with the latest Israeli murderous assaults on Gaza.  The media here in the UK and the USA parrots without any checking the Israeli version of events.  Which is always the same - Israel is only responding to rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.  Often this is qualified as Hamas rocket fire, just to make sure we all know who is to blame.  And of course, right on cue, our hapless Foreign Secretary, William Hague, duly appears on the wavelengths to blame Hamas for starting this round of violence.  President Obama spreads the same message in the USA. 

Yet even a cursory look at the evidence shows that no Israeli had been killed due to rocket fire from Gaza, before the start of the latest escalation of Israeli assaults on Saturday 10th November. Yet prior to then, at least two Palestinians had been killed by Israeli soldiers.  On Monday November 5th Israeli forces shot and killed 23 year old Ahmad Nabhani.  Then on Thursday November 8th another Israeli force invaded southern Gaza, in the course of which they killed a 13 year old boy, Ahmed Younis Khader who was playing football in front of his house.  So much for targeted killing!  How much coverage did these unjustified killings of innocent Palestinian civilians get in the western media?  Where was William Hague and President Obama?  No word of blame was uttered against Israel for these two murders.  Yet when Palestinians in response to these killings do attack Israeli forces, Israel then unleashes hell on the whole of Gaza in a supposed right of self-defence.  And our brave western media just laps it all up.  The initial killings of a child and a young man by the Israelis cast aside in the rush to blame Hamas.  For more information on the timeline for the recent Israelis attacks see these two articles, here and here.  For an analysis of the biased coverage provided by our own BBC see here.

It is a rather strange kind of self-defence that causes the deaths of children including Omar Masharawi, the 11 month old baby referred to in the title of this post.  Yet another triumph for the much vaunted precision bombing of the Israeli airforce!  For of course this latest attack on Gaza has nothing to do with self defence.  It was, as is the case with all Israeli wars, a war of choice.  The nearness of the elections in Israel may have been a factor in the timing of the Israeli attacks.  Perhaps though, it was the prospect of a long term truce agreement with Hamas that prompted Israel to attack.  Many observers are of the view that Israel does not want peace.  A long term truce agreement would weaken the power of the military in Israel and more importantly put greater pressure on Israel to enter into serious negotiations with all Palestinians, including Hamas.  Not what most Israelis really want.  Much better to keep up the pretence of an existential threat to Israel in order to justify their unwillingness to enter into negotiations to bring about a two state solution.  Israel is doing everything possible, with its relentless expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to make a two state solution impossible.  So Israel has every reason to avoid negotiations.  And what better excuse than a little war of aggression against Hamas.  So a few innocent civilians, including children, get killed.  So what, in the greater scheme of things - securing a greater Israel, preferably free of all Palestinians.  This is alas, what out leaders in the UK are supporting by offering diplomatic cover to Israel.  Things do not look good.  For a more detailed analysis of why Israel chose to attack now, see these two articles by Jerry Haber and American Jewish writer, here and here.  Finally for an Israeli perspective on the deaths of the three Israelis in Kiryat Malachi, see this article by Larry Derfner from +972 magazine.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Was Hitler a Charismatic Leader?

This question arises in response to the programme on BBC TV last night, titled the Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.  The tv series, three episodes in all, is based on the book of the same name by Laurence Rees.  Judging by the first episode, I am far from convinced that Hitler possessed much in the way of charisma, even of the dark kind.

The programme did not offer anything in the way of what might constitue charisma in a political leader, but simply focussed on Hitler himself.  We were shown lots of footage of the great man in flowing oratory, usually accompanied by flashing lights as a way of alerting us - here comes a bit of charisma - you dumb viewers.  Apart from the staring eyes and a penchant for long tubo-charged speeches, it is not clear just how Hitler was that different from other would be leaders.

For the central point to bear in mind is that for most of his career, Hitler was a spectacular failure.  He was a brave soldier in the First World War, but a complete failure as an artist, as a revolutionary leader - the botched attempt at a putsch in Munich - and a failure to win over many voters in elections.  What changed things for Hitler was the Great Crash and the Great Depression.  Now it seems to stretch things a bit to claim that Hitler's charisma caused the Great Depression.  For no mistake without this depression Hitler was going nowhere.  The response of the German elites - political, financial and business - to this catastrophe was to use mass unemployment as a policy tool.  No wonder extremists began to flourish.

It is also worth remembering that Hitler and his Nazi party never won more than 37% of the popular vote.  That was in the July election in 1932.  By the time of the November election in the same year his share of the vote had dropped to 33%, while the vote for the communists increased.  Not a lot of evidence of charisma here.  It was after the November elections that Hitler was appointed Chancellor, thus giving him the levers to shortly thereafter assume dictatorial powers.  It quite beggars belief that Hitler should have won the Chancellorship after losing votes!  Yet this is what the leaders of the Centre Party did.  In a vain effort to protect their own interests and out of their greater hatred of the communists.  A good lesson to remember when people today extoll the virtues of moderates.  

The programme itself was OK as a basic account of Hitler's rise, though it did flit around too much from  the 1920s to the 1930s.  This lack of a clear narrative framework lessens the value of the programme.  Less about Hitler's charisma and more about the social and economic realities of German would have been welcome.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Obama - What Next?

Congratulations to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party for their victories last Tuesday.  Obama retained the Presidency by a substantial margin in the electoral college, while the Democrats increased their lead in the Senate.  The Republicans retained control of the House, but two wins against one is a very good result.  But what might it mean for the next four years?  

As a non American, I have not followed the internal political battles in the USA.  My interest in American politics is primarily in its foreign and economic policies.  While the USA is no longer the greatest economy in the world, it is still by far the most important and as the dollar remains the world's reserve currency, changes in US economic and financial policy have enormous repercussions for the rest of us.  However my main concern here is with US foreign policy, as this is the area where the USA remains supreme in the world, in large part because it is the sole remaining military superpower.  So can we expect any changes in US foreign policy now that Obama has been re-elected and no longer has to worry about a third term?  Foreign policy is one area where there has been little change since Obama first won the Presidency.  Particularly in the Middle East US policy under Obama has remained much as it was under Bush.  In that part of the world the US seems to be stuck in a sinking mire.  The first rule of politics when in a hole is to stop digging.  Alas, under Obama the US seems intent on sinking even further into the mire.  The three most important hot spots in the region are Afghanistan, Iran and Israel/Palestine.

While the US has begun to get out of Iraq, in Afghanistan, Obama has increased the American military presence.  To what end?  Little of positive benefit seems to have come from this continuing military presence.  Hundreds of US and allied troops have been killed or maimed, while thousands of innocent Pakistanis and Afghanis have been killed or maimed.  Afghanistan is no more secure than under Bush, while Pakistan has become even more unstable, with a noticeable rise in extremism.  Just what is the end game for the USA in Afghanistan?  There seems to be no clear strategy beyond the current situation, which effectively amounts to Afghanistan remaining a bloody semi protectorate of the USA.

Iran is another country where Obama has simply pursued the existing policy and indeed with the imposition of punitive sanctions has been even more hardline than Bush.  The US has never really accepted the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has opposed it since its inceptions in 1979.  The current punitive sanctions are supposedly in response to the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme.  Now even if the Iranian regime was planning to develop nuclear weapons the simple response would be - so what!  After all our close ally in the region, Israel, does have nuclear weapons and moreover has still not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (which Iran has).  And of course Israel has never suffered any sanctions.  So why Iran?  The various international inspectors have never found any definitive evidence that Iran is planning to build nuclear weapons, never mind an actual programme to build weapons.  Every Supreme leader of the Islamic Republic has pronounced on several occasions that it is against the tenets of Islam to possess nuclear weapons.  Once again, what is the end game for the US in Iran.  It seems that the US is simply determined to bring down the Islamic Republic in its entirety.  Again to what purpose?  It cannot be democracy as the US supports non democratic regimes in the area such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan etc.  The imposition of these punitive sanctions does nothing to help the internal opposition to the current Iranian regime.  US policy here seems to serve no purpose other than simply to punish Iran.

Israel/Palestine is another area where Obama has made no difference to previous US policy.  The USA still offers unconditional financial, military and diplomatic support to Israel.  Again there seems to be no purpose to this policy.  The US is ostensibly and in public still in favour of the so-called two state solution for Israel and Palestine.  Yet almost every day Israel destroys the whole basis for this two state option.  If anything, the pace of illegal Israeli land grabs in the occupied West Bank and in occupied East Jerusalem has increased while Obama has been in office.  And the USA has done absolutely nothing to hold Israel to account.  Once more we wonder just what the US envisages as the end game in Israel/Palestine?  The US does nothing to advance the two state option, quite the reverse.  So what is going on here?

These are for me three of the most crucial foreign policy areas where Obama could make a difference.  It is not clear that Obama really supports the current US policy in these three areas.  Now that he no longer has to worry about future re-election, will the real Obama stand up?  Or is he too just as mired in the failed policies of the Bush era?

Sunday 4 November 2012

Scotland and the EU

There has recently been yet another flurry of media comment about whether an independent Scotland would or would not be an automatic member of the EU.  Leading to headlines along the lines of Further Blow for Salmond over Europe.  The sole source for all this shindig seems to be a letter from Viviane Reding from the European Commission.  This letter was in response to a question from Iñigo Mendez de Vigo, the European Affairs Minister in the Spanish government about independence for Catalunya.   Reding's letter is very brief and merely states that she agrees with de Vigo's interpretation of what the current EU treaties mean in the case of a unilateral declaration of independence.  De Vigo claims that in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, Catalunya's independence would not be recognised by the EU.  You can read her letter and the original request from De Vigo, here, in Spanish.  It is also worth pointing out that the European Commission has since the publication of Reding's letter officially stated that the Commission has not issued any formal statement about the independence of a part of a member state.  Furthermore the Commission would only do this in response to a formal request from a member state in which the precise constitutional framework for such independence was clearly laid.  Also worth noting that the Spanish government has confirmed that it will not be requesting such a ruling.  Now as observant readers will have noticed De Vigo's claim, even if true, has nothing whatsoever to do with Scottish independence.  This eventuality will come about as the result of an agreed, legal process as established in the recent Edinburgh Agreement.  The UK government has stated that it will respect the result of the independence referendum in 2014.  All of which rather begs the question of why our media were so keen to misrepresent the context of Reding's letter.   Can the Unionists be so desperate that they need to resort to this blatant lying?

As regards Scotland, the process and legal framework for independence is quite clear.  First,  there will be the referendum, in 2014.  Now despite the impression that some commentators want to make, even if we vote Yes in 2014, Scotland will not become an independent state the following day.  A Yes vote merely signals the beginning of the serious, detailed negotiations that will lead to full independence.  These negotiations are likely to take between one to two years to complete.  The negotiations will cover everything that needs to be in place on the exact moment when Scotland does become independent.  These negotiations will be primarily between the Scottish and UK governments, but some third parties will be involved, the UN, WHO and of course most important of all, the EU.  As part of the independence negotiations, Scotland, the UK and the EU will have to work out the details of Scotland's representation within the EU.  These negotiations will also at the same time have to work out the details of the representation of the rest of the UK within the EU.  So the Westminster government will have every incentive to ensure that these particular negotiations reach a successful conclusion.  While the details of Scotland's membership of the EU will therefore have to be negotiated, at no stage in this process will Scotland have ceased to be a member of the EU.  For the simple reason that during this period Scotland will still be part of the UK.  It is only if no agreement with the EU was reached would we face the prospect of Scotland being denied membership of the EU.  In which case somebody should be asked to produce valid legal opinion on exactly how the EU could legally deny Scotland membership.  For a fuller and more detailed analysis of the procedure for an independent Scotland to become a member of the EU, Graham Avery has provided us with a succinct and learned outline of the key issues, which you can read here.  This is his submission to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee's hearings on The foreign policy implications of and for a separate Scotland.