18 May, 2009

This is the dawning of the age of Bavaria...

The Bilderberg Group met last weekend. This lot take their name after the hotel where they first met. As anyone who has read books like Jon Ronson's Them will know, the Bilderbergers are seen by some as the secret rulers of the world. Certainly they seem to include some very influential world figures, and they seem also to be surprisingly secretive. There was no live blogging or Twitter feed coming from Bilderberg attendees. The likelihood is that no public figure will admit to having attended the Bilderberg meeting.

Charlie Skelton has been writing about trying to cover Bilderberg for the Guardian. Getting wind that the event was taking place in Greece, near Athens, he flew out to check it out. He then spent the next few days being followed by undercover policemen (pictured) and having his hotel room repeatedly broken into. Skelton comes across as primarily a humour writer, and his unsuccessful attempts to take photographs of Bilderberg attendees and to shake off his obvious tails are pretty funny, as is his increasingly frazzled mental state. But his writing begs some obvious questions. Like, why are Bilderberg meetings so secret? I know that these days it is impossible for two important people to meet for a cup of coffee without a load of crusties showing up to protest against them, but, even so, the veil of total secrecy that surrounds Bilderberg seems a bit obsessive. The fear of protesters is all very well, but it does not even explain the retrospective secrecy about Bilderberg meetings – the non-disclosure by attendees that they were even at this obviously important gathering. This goes a bit further – if Skelton could find out about this event then so could the media generally, so why were there not loads of proper journalists in Greece to cover this meeting of the great and the good?

One thing you hear about Bilderberg meetings is that they only take place in hotels with golf courses. I wonder if any have ever been held in Ireland?

16 May, 2009

More European Parliament election action

Libertas is an organisation headed by Irish businessman Declan Ganley. They were heavily involved in last year's campaign against the Lisbon Treaty here. Libertas has now been transformed into a political party contesting the European Parliament elections across the EU. Mr Ganley hopes to transform the election into a European referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the direction being taken by the EU. There is, of course, a certain irony about a euro-sceptic party contesting elections in every member state of the EU. However, Mr Ganley himself decries the euro-sceptic label, asserting that he is actually just trying to reform the way the European Union operates.

This week two of Libertas' Irish candidates declared their opposition to further immigration to Ireland from other EU states. This is a particularly odd position for a pan-European party to adopt, as they seem to be saying that the free internal movement of people – a core value of the European Union – should be rescinded. At this stage I do not know if these utterances by the Irish Libertas candidates have been reported in those EU states that have sent people to Ireland. I am also unaware of their reception among nationals of other EU states living in Ireland; such people are entitled to vote in European Parliament elections here.

Links (both Irish Times):

Libertas accused of being 'fascist' over migrant plan

East candidate seeks block on immigrants

Why should anyone vote in the European Parliament elections?

In national elections, various arguments can be made for why voting is a good idea. If people like you vote then it is more likely that the kind of things you want will be implemented by government. Also, the mere fact that politicians have to face the electorate makes them less likely to corruptly line their pockets or behave in a lazily incompetent manner. So goes the theory, anyway.

With European Parliament elections, it is a bit less obvious what you are voting for. For most people, the European institutions are a bit vague, and it is not entirely clear where the European Parliament fits into it all. The really big European decisions are made by those big summits where Europe's leaders get together to talk about important things. The more day-to-day big decisions are made by the Council of Ministers (the ministers of member states with responsibility for the policy area) and the Commission (the body that heads the EU's permanent secretariat). As a permanent body, the Commission has more influence than its strict constitutional status would suggest, and it functions almost as the EU's government.

In national politics, elections decide who constitutes the government, but this is only kind of true in the EU (at least with regards to the European Parliament elections). The EU is not a parliamentary democracy, and the Commission is only semi-responsible to the European Parliament. It is the member states' governments who nominate the commissioners, though the European Parliament has to approve the incoming Commission and may thereafter remove it. The European Parliament has flexed its muscles in this area over the last number of years, forcing the resignation of one Commission over a corruption scandal and threatening to block the accession of another unless Italy withdrew the candidacy of an ultra-conservative right-winger.

The European Parliament does have a certain role in making EU policy. To be honest, I am a bit vague on the details, but my impression is that very much it rubber stamps the decisions taken elsewhere, only occasionally making real changes to them. Jamie Smyth in The Irish Times mentions one such case, where the EU Parliament forced through a change in a Commission proposal so that people could not be employed under one country's terms and conditions while working in another*.

Even so, given that it actually does stuff, the European Parliament faces a fundamental problem that seriously undermines its credibility as a democratic institution – namely, that no one votes for it. And when people do vote for it, they typically vote as a way of signaling their support or opposition to domestic governments, not because they reckon the people they are voting for will keep an eye on the Commission or block repugnant EU policies. |n Ireland, there is the added element of European Parliament elections becoming personality driven games, kind of like a celebrity TV version of politics. Low turn-outs make it harder for the European Parliament to challenge decisions by the Council of Ministers or the intergovernmental summits. The latter groups have come to office thanks to national elections with generally higher turnout, giving them more legitimacy than the European Parliament.

I am not sure what the way round this is. European Parliament election turn-outs have been in permanent decline, something unaffected by any flexing of muscles by European parliamentarians. At the same time, one of the things people who like moaning about the EU say is that it is undemocratic. Maybe these people vote disproportionately in the elections for the one directly elected part of the EU decision-making apparatus, but I kind of doubt it.


Viewpoint: A truly European vote? (Simon Hix of the LSE gamely claims that the EU is an important body and suggests that STV or open list PR system would make people more engaged with the European Parliament; he then rather fancifully claims that Irish voters are very engaged with European issues and the workings of the European Parliament)

Parliament can no longer be seen as MEP 'Eurodisney' (Jamie Smyth in The Irish Times talks about what the European Parliament does and advances several instances where it made a difference to the EU's direction and/or policies)

*Charlie McCreevy, Ireland's commissioner, who proposed this rule. One of the arguments advanced by Irish euro-sceptics during the Lisbon referendum campaign was that Ireland needed to have a commissioner. Left euro-sceptics also complained about the neo-liberal direction of some EU policies. I have never really understood why they felt it was so important to have McCreevy in the Commission, unless it was a way of keeping him out of domestic politics.

12 May, 2009

The Council of Europe

Here is an article about The Council of Europe: Council to battle Russia on Protocol 14. This organisation, not to be confused with the Council of Ministers or the European Council is in the odd position of being far less well-known that one of its subsidiary parts. The Council was formed after the Second World War, and was basically an excuse for people from European parliaments to get together and talk about stuff (as opposed to fight wars against each other). The more famous subsidiary of the Council of Europe is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Member countries of the Council of Europe have to agree to abide by the European Convention of Human Rights, a set of legal principles enacted as a reaction to the gross violation of human rights that marked the Third Reich period and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the period of Commmunist rule in Eastern Europe. Citizens of member countries can appeal directly to the European Court of Human Rights. Ireland's legalisation of male homosexual acts was triggered by a decision of the ECHR. As with so much of international law, Council of Europe member states could decide to leave the organisation if faced with an ECHR decision they do not like, but no one has ever done that because it would make you look like the kind of country that hates freedom.

Currently the Council of Europe is proposing to change its rules for processing ECHR cases, to eliminate legal backlogs. Unfortunately, one member country is adamantly opposed to these rule changes. Curiously, this country (Russia) is one with a very large number of cases pending where its citizens are accusing its government of trampling on their rights. It appears that the streamlined rules will be adopted by the other Council of Europe members, while Russian citizens will continue to wait for their cases to be heard.

10 May, 2009

Armageddon Sri Lanka

I feel like I should follow events in Sri Lanka more closely, and would like to have a less superficial understanding of the conflict there. The island has had this big civil war for the last number of decades, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (better known as the Tamil Tigers) seeking to separate a Tamil independent state from the rest of the island. I think there is a religious-ethnic aspect to the conflict, with the mainly Hindu Tamils having a certain sense of distinctness from the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese (the majority Sri Lankan community).

After decades of laying into each other (with loads of civilians getting hammered in the process), some kind of peace process emerged in the 1990s, the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers entering into negotiations and stuff. This process eventually stalled, and the war started again. The Sri Lankan army recently launched an all-out offensive on the Tigers, apparently intending to bring the conflict to a final conclusion by military means. The impression I am picking up is that, like the Tigers, the Sri Lankan army is not really that bothered about incidental civilian casualties, but unlike the Tigers they have heavy artillery. The BBC reports today on claims that 257 people were killed by Sri Lankan army shelling last night (claims denied by the Sri Lankan army).

One thing I do not really understand is how the Sri Lankan army now seems to have the capability to wipe out the Tamil Tigers. They were never able to do this before - indeed, to a casual observer the ability of the Tigers to dish out serious pain to the Sri Lankan army was always rather striking. I am curious as to whether the apparently approaching end of the Tigers is a result of some kind of collapse on their part or a significant increase of capabilities by the Sri Lankan army. Can anyone advise?