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To blink or not to blinkRaquel JimenezRaquel Jimenez


Setting the Greek cat among the euro pigeons

Posted 31/01/2015

By Raquel Jimenez

 

Alexis Tsipras, Greece's new Prime Minister, does not seem to me like the kind of man to posture, he doesn't seem to be frightened of anything, nor does he come across as a person who will back down easily. I have no idea if he has a particular talent at playing poker or even chess, but after just one week in power, all eyes remain on the new Greek government, and the proverbial cat has certainly been set among the pigeons! 

With perhaps her first shot across the Greek bow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there should be no debt relief for Greece, adding to tensions between the new anti-austerity government and its international creditors.

 

No doubt she has also been sizing up the calibre of the new shrewd and intelligent Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who by his language thus far, will bring an academic rather than political bluntness to the table.

"There has already been voluntary debt forgiveness by private creditors, banks have already slashed billions from Greece's debt," Ms Merkel told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.

"I do not envisage fresh debt cancellation."

"Europe will continue to show its solidarity with Greece, as with other countries hard hit by the crisis if these countries carry out reforms and cost-saving measures," Ms Merkel said.

Greece opened talks on its bailout with European partners yesterday by refusing to extend the programme or to cooperate with the international inspectors overseeing it.

 

 

                        Illustration by Chris Malapitan for EU Spectator

 

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' government also sacked the heads of the state privatisation agency after halting a series of state asset sales.

 

Yanis Varoufakis, Greek Finance MinisterYanis Varoufakis, Greek Finance Minister

The politically unpopular policy of privatisation to help cut debt is one of the conditions of Greece's € 240 billion bailout that has imposed years of harsh austerity on Greece.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis met Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of the eurozone finance ministers' group, for what both men described as "constructive" talks.

But Greek media seized on signs of frosty body language between them and the hour-long meeting appeared to do nothing to bridge the gap between them. The meeting marks the start of Athens' drive to persuade its creditors to ease the strict terms of the bailout.

It precedes planned visits by Mr Tsipras and Mr Varoufakis to London, Paris and Rome in the coming days.

Merkel vs Tsipras with the ECB refereeing in the middle, seems like an impossible tangle. Looking at this scenario - one asks without fear or favour - how can Merkel and the ECB possibly allow Greece an enormous level of debt relief, without the same conditions being extended to Spain, Portugal, Italy, and perhaps Ireland. The latter being the first Member State to bear the initial brunt of the euro zone woes on behalf of all others.

On the other hand how can the German Chancellor ignore the massive democratic mandate of the new Tsipras-led government, with its debt to GDP ratio now at an impossible 175%. 

 

The graph is a little out of date - but I include it to put that figure in perspective compared to other euro zone countries, and also to illustrate how the economic situation is Greece is getting progressively worse, not better; thus Syriza & co.

I am not a politician or an economist, but being a spectator on the Greek situation almost daily since 2008; one thing is certain – the good Greek people simply must give up the euro as their currency – regardless of how they protest that they want to retain it. Devalue the currency, or devalue the country, that is the reality. As a frequent visitor to Athens and the Greek island archipelago over the years, it is quite shocking to see the reality of five years of severe austerity, it is a socio-economic disaster.

 

I know the arguments; the Greeks did not manage their economy over decades, didn't pay their taxes, turned a blind eye to corruption; and gave false figures to the European Commission on economic entry criteria to join the euro zone. That they have already had billions of euro debts written off, and now expect other European taxpayers to pay.

However we are where we are. I dislike emotive language, but as the ancient Greek gods have long since fallen silent, the cradle of European democracy is bordering on a potential humanitarian crisis. It is beyond a blame game.

Finally we have to reflect on the wider European context of this.

The shock waves of the Greek election have found a strong resonance right across the continent, from millions of voters, not least in Spain and the rise of Podemos.

Politically, if the far-left are willing to get into bed with so-called far-right parties in Greece, and this trend is reflected in other EU Member States, then all bets are off, and hopefully the end of outdated and redundant political labelling, unhelpful pigeonholing for political and media convenience. 

So what was that about pigeons?

 

By Raquel Jimenez for EU Spectator

 

 


 

Somaliland Recognition Conference BrusselsRandall CalvinRandall Calvin


 

Posted 25/01/2015

By Randall Calvin

Under a banner which read; Somaliland is here to stay – recognition of Somaliland is long overdue;       a delegation from that ‘country’ arrived in Brussels to press their case. Hosted by MEPs from the EFFD group at the European Parliament, the delegation consisted of: Hon Mohamed B Yonis, Foreign Minister, Hon Sa’ad A Shire, Minister of Planning,   Mrs Enda Adan Ismail, former Foreign Minister and chair of Enda Hospital, and last but not least, Ms Nima Elmi; Advisor to the Foreign Minister.

The programme at the EP was introduced by EFFD Group Leader MEP Nigel Farage, with submissions by barrister Mr Michael Greaves, and MEP Mr Jim Carver. The comprehensive event included a DVD presentation covering Somaliland in the post 1991 civil war period. The agenda also covered areas of interest from the legal case, to obstacles to a successful economy in the former British protectorate; 1887-1960.

The visiting delegation had a broad but straightforward message, which I must say was very positive, if not persuasive. The thrust of the message was that this region, with a population of 3.5 million, covering a geographic area roughly the size of England and Wales, has been very busy building their country post 1991. 

They champion the ideals of peace and democracy; they stand in opposition to terrorism and piracy, a significant scourge in the costal seas off the Horn of Africa. They are committed to sustainable development and prosperity for their citizens. The Foreign Minister assured me that the aim of their campaign was not to ask the international community to take a chance on what Somaliland might become, or build, but rather to legally recognise the reality of that which has now existed for over twenty-three years.

 

The Somaliland delegationThe Somaliland delegation

The Minister told me the ‘marriage’ or union with Somalia between 1960 and 1991 was, in his words, disastrous. However as a good diplomat, he assured me that he wishes Somalia well, and hopes the neighbouring countries share a positive relationship, while presently the Republic of Somaliland hopes to be acknowledged as a proud independent entity, committed to human rights, freedom of expression, and maintaining peaceful relations with other nations.

They have held open democratic elections, monitored by international observers; and have seen the peaceful transfer of power, even when in 2003, the Presidential election was won by a margin of only 81 votes.

Somaliland boasts an independent judiciary to apply national laws, has its own currency, passport, defence force, security and police force.

Added to that, they tell me that they provide free primary schooling to both boys and girls and they have seven public universities.

 

In conclusion, for myself, I would say that regardless of whether Somaliland achieves the recognition that it seeks - and I rather hope they do,      I found it very refreshing to speak with such moderate and progressive representatives from a Sunni Islamic country.

 

By Randall Calvin

 

 


 

 

Greek OdysseyMartin BanksMartin Banks


 

Posted 24/01/2015

By Martin Banks

Greece sparked the original euro crisis, now the question is are they about to play a dangerous game of “chicken” with Europe, perhaps igniting another economic eruption across the euro zone – or the beginning of the end of their national humiliation?

On Sunday the Greek people will vote for a new Government, and rarely has a regional European general election been watched so closely or nervously by an international audience.

 

Greek poll on the eve of general electionGreek poll on the eve of general election

The leader of Greek left-wing party Syriza says an end to "national humiliation" is near, as opinion polls put the party ahead on the eve of the election.

Alexis Tsipras has asked supporters for a clear mandate to enable him to end the country's austerity policies.

He has pledged to his voters that he will push for an easing of the terms under which Greece has to pay back its debts should he lead the new Government.

This, however, is unsettling for Greece’s lenders, EU stakeholders and the investment community who fear it could lead to Greece existing the Eurozone.

So what are the scenarios if Tsipras wins on Sunday?

Anger appears to be one of the factors that could lead Syriza to claiming victory. By accusing Brussels and Berlin of imposing tough austerity measures on Greeks and causing unemployment and poverty rates to break all-time records, the party's performance has rocketed from a   4.6% in the 2009 general elections to around 34-35% in polls today.

Despite this staggering surge in popularity, and let's remember Syriza only became an official political party in 2012, Tsipras is still to attract the critical mass of centrist voters who would secure him a comfortable win and enable him to form a government without seeking for coalition partners.

Despite its transformation from a marginal coalition of the radical left to a political force to be reckoned with, one of its main downfalls is the party’s inability to formulate consistent and reliable positions.

Tsipras has understood that failing to attract and convince centrist and undecided voters - about 10% of those asked in polls - might cost him the opportunity of a lifetime: to form the first Greek government of the left.

 

Greece’s complex electoral law holds the key for a new government, which will need at least 151 seats in the 300- seat Parliament.

Two elements are crucial - the party which comes first and the score of parties which will fail to enter the Parliament (the threshold for entry is 3% of popular vote).

According to Greek law, the winning party gains an electoral bonus of 50 seats making it almost certainly part of the government formation.

Syriza will gain 80-100 seats according to polls and the electoral bonus would land them 130-150 seats.

However, according to Brussels-based FTI Consulting, the ‘parties failing’ to enter the new Parliament might accidentally help Tsipras.

A source said, "If they represent more than 10% of voter choice, the threshold necessary for a parliamentary majority will decrease. There are currently two sizeable parties struggling to enter the Parliament, totalling just over 5% in polls: the far right Independent Greeks and the Movement of Socialist Democrats, a new party."

So, it is most likely that Syriza will need at least one partner to form a coalition government. It all begs one obvious question: is a “Grexit” possible with a Syriza-led government?

Tsipras dismisses this as pure speculation, Greece’s future is firmly fixed in the euro area but staying within the Eurozone is only possible if EU governments realize that its debt is no longer viable and that prolonged austerity through the reform programme is not sustainable.

If Syriza does win the election this weekend and forms a government, some firm measures can be expected from Tsipras after an initial six month transition period.

FTI Consulting predicts that his first focus will be on the economy and, of course, to renegotiate the conditions for Greece’s bailout programme with its lenders. This is followed by a reform of the tax system to achieve a more equal share of wealth.

The clock is ticking for Tsipras but, with Greece having gone through a deep recession and still with a quarter of its workforce unemployed, it appears that Greeks are prepared to give the youngest political leader in Greece's history a chance, believing life cannot get any worse.

Tspiras is known for his rhetorical skills, his dislike of neckties and his good looks but critics brand him as arrogant, inexperienced and power hungry.

Tsipras believes that his election can trigger a wave of change in Europe, including a conference on European debt, in which the issue of the sustainability of the debt of EU member states in austerity programmes would be discussed. Irish and Italian authorities have not excluded their support to such an option.

It all makes for a fascinating election.

By Martin Banks for EU Spectator

 


 

Strasbourg: From the Diary of a British MEP - Jan 12th/15thMartin BanksMartin Banks


Posted 22/01/2015

By Martin Banks

 

Introduction


 

I recently had a coffee with a French chap from a political group at the European Parliament in Brussels. Our short conversation; a true story, provoked me to relate this tale to you through the eyes of a British MEP, Roger Helmer but I should say that it will resonate with many Members, and many, but not all of their staff.  EU Spectator does not compromise individuals’ names so I will refer to him as “Jean”. It goes like this. Jean lives in the north of France, married with a daughter; aged eleven. He has worked at the EP for some years, but he doesn't seem to mind the forty-minute journey from France to Brussels every morning on the TGV, before connecting on the metro to get to work. However it was not the rigours of his daily journey that surprised me, it was the following. Jean told me that one evening his young daughter came home from school (in France) to relate to her parents that she had had a little moment of friction with her teacher! During her civics class the teacher had said that the European Parliament was in Strasbourg in France. The child protested, “no, the EP is in Brussels”!

 

 

The female teacher was not impressed and scolded her young pupil, again demanding that the European Parliament is and always was on French soil; in Strasbourg!

I’m sure it would have sounded more dramatic in French, but this is an English-Language magazine.

At this point, the confused kid said, “sorry teacher, it’s just that my papa has worked for the Parliament for twelve years, he goes to Brussels every morning on the train.”

Jean assured me that he did try to explain the Brussels-Strasbourg enigma to his daughter, but it wasn't easy he said.

As we finished our coffee, and parted company, I said I’m not surprised a school girl doesn't understand, or her teacher for that matter, most current MEPs don’t understand this EU confusion classic either!

 

So to the diary of MEP Roger Helmer.                                             Roger Helmer Committee on Industry, Research and EnergyRoger Helmer Committee on Industry, Research and Energy

 

Monday.  Getting there!


 

I leave the house around 11:30 am to catch the 13:40 flight from Birmingham to Frankfurt, it’s delayed. 

I’ve tried changing planes at Paris or Brussels or Amsterdam, but they tend to lose your luggage.  So now it’s an hour and a half to Frankfurt, then two- and- a- half hours on the bus to Strasbourg.  It must be Europe’s least accessible parliament.

We have a very light programme this Strasbourg week.  By the time I arrive in the parliament around 8:00 p.m., the formal business in the Hemicycle is over.  And there’s to be no voting at all on Wednesday.  So why are we here?  751 MEPs and assorted staff going to Strasbourg twelve times a year, costing around €200 million, at the taxpayers’ expense.

It’s a metaphor for the whole European project.  Activity and conspicuous waste that nobody can explain, nobody can justify, and yet no one can change.  It’s in the Treaties.  Treaty change requires unanimity, and the French won’t agree.  But all that money and effort does serve one useful purpose: it keeps our Gallic colleagues happy.

I’m greeted on the bus with a glossy leaflet declaring that Strasbourg is “The Seat.  L’Eurométropole, “The Spirit of Europe” (no less!). 

The City Fathers are desperate to keep the parliament coming, to keep the “ Travelling Circus Travelling”. To keep the money flowing into their hotels and restaurants.

 

Tuesday. Voting?


 

At my desk at 07:30 hrs after a bracing forty-minute walk from the hotel.  The route ran through the old city, past the floodlit Cathedral. 09:00 in the Hemicycle: a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.  11:00 hrs. Voting  meeting: how should we vote on the GM proposals?  Not obvious.  This was a second reading, so we could only vote on amendments, not on the whole package. 

And the amendments were en bloc.  One appeared to return decisions to Member States, but several others confirmed increased powers for Brussels.  With regret, we had to abstain.

 

12:30 hrs votes. 14:00 hrs, Delegation Meeting (UKIP MEPs). 15:00 hrs, meeting with the European aluminium industry on the ETS Market Stability Reserve (don’t ask!).  At 17:30 hrs I chair the Group “Bureau” (Steering Committee).  At six the full group meeting, addressed by the Five Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo.  At 19:30 hrs, a European Energy Forum dinner-debate on the MSR.  Leave the building around 22:30 hrs.

 

Wednesday.  Rain!


 

Taxi to the office.  This is the first time in fifteen years (so far as I remember) that there’s been no voting on the Wednesday of a Strasbourg  – the programme is so light.  After coffee and a croissant, I meet a representative of the UK steel industry, who shares much the same concerns as the aluminium industry about ETS & MSR.  Much of the morning spent on finalising my monthly newsletter. And working on my speech for our Spring Conference in February.

I then attend a lunch debate in the Member’s Salons, accompanied by my staffer Rachael, who’s down this week.  The event is organised by the Kangaroo Group.  I have a rare opportunity to raise a local constituents’ issue.  Out speaker is Mr. Tor Eigel Hodne, CEO of the Norwegian electricity supply company Stattnett, which is involved in the Viking UK/Norway North Sea Interconnector.

I've worked with a residents’ group at Bicker Fen in Lincolnshire, who've suffered years of upheaval from a large wind-farm and sub-station, and are now threatened with the UK end of the interconnector, to add to the industrial character of once-pristine Lincolnshire fen.

But the good news (at least the way Mr. Hodne tells it) is that the landfall has been moved north to Blyth in Northumberland.  Let’s hope that’s so.

An afternoon spent on correspondence, phone calls and more polishing of the Conference speech before a reception for the opening of a Latvian architecture exhibition (I’ve been to Riga a number of times, and visited the Art Deco quarter).  Then;  an evening off.

 

Thursday. Sandwiches & legislation.


 

I attend a meeting of the Animal Welfare Intergroup, dealing with “Alternatives to the surgical castration of piglets”.  I am ashamed to admit that I found something rather comical about the title.  But having seen a short video of the procedure involved, I can affirm that there’s nothing funny about it at all.

Then collect a sandwich from the Members’ Bar for lunch on the bus. Voting meeting at 11:30hrs; votes at noon. A couple of well-meaning resolutions on international affairs: no substantive legislation.

Chamber in Strasbourg & Brussels - what can be done in Strasbourg, can easily be accommodated in BrusselsChamber in Strasbourg & Brussels - what can be done in Strasbourg, can easily be accommodated in Brussels

Bus to Frankfurt at 12:30 hrs. 

“That was the week that was”. Close diary.

 

Coda.


 

There exists a mechanism to change this situation of the monthly pilgrimage to Strasbourg and logically have just one single seat for the EP.

An MEP has to gather 1.5 million signatures, and when vetted and presented, the petition can compel the European Parliament to debate the plenary sitting in Strasbourg.  This mammoth task has been attempted before, most recently by a female Swedish MEP some years ago, to stop this ridiculous waste of time and money, especially at a time of severe austerity across the EU.

However although the motion received great support in the EP, it was (as usual) rejected by the French at the European Council – the Barons of the EU. The European Parliament being a very expensive side show, democratically elected yes, but very little power; and even less public interest.

The monthly move of thousands of tons of materials from Brussels to Strasbourg for three days' workThe monthly move of thousands of tons of materials from Brussels to Strasbourg for three days' work

The original motivation for this bizarre arrangement goes back to the early days of the EEC, when there were only six countries.

Geographically and politically it made some sense back then.

Today with twenty-eight Member States from Ireland in the west , all the way to Cyprus in the east, with the cost, and carbon footprint, the original argument has absolutely no currency or justification anymore, other than French selfish interests, and the greed of most EP secretariat staff & Members to top-up their monthly salary by a small percentage with travel and accommodation allowances.

But hey, it’s only taxpayers’ money, and times are good -so who cares!

 

P.S. What does “austerity” mean?

 

By Martin Banks for EU Spectator

 

 


 

 

European Parliament accepts possibility of “opt-out” on GMO cultivation


Guadalupe del OlmoGuadalupe del Olmo

Posted on 18/01/2015

By Guadalupe del Olmo

On 13 January MEPs approved new rules enabling Member States to restrict or ban the cultivation of GMOs, even if approved by the EU. Frédérique Ries, a Belgian MEP from the ALDE group who steered the proposal through the EP, said the changes were needed as countries kept being taken to court to justify why they had banned a certain GMO crop: "I don't think it's a good idea that legislation is being created by courts."

The Europan Parliament (EP) decided this week to enable European Member States to restrict or ban the cultivation of crops containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on their own territory, even if it has received the green light by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The EP decision was largely supported in the voting thanks to the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats backing. Commissioner for Health & Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis welcomed the outcome, stressing that the agreement responds to the continuing calls of Member States, asking to have the final word on the cultivation of genetically modified products in their territory.

The new legislation responds to Europeans’ growing concerns about GMOs, as shown by Eurobarometer surveys. Already EC’s 2010 polling showed that 61% of European citizens were against developing GM food while 59% disagreed that GM food is safe for their health.

The directive is mostly directed at Member States, as it gives them more options to ban or restrict the cultivation of GMOs on their territory, with this decision, lawmakers will be responsible for creating legislation, instead of referring Member States to courts when legal arguments were insufficient  for supporting their plans to ban GMOs. Even the European Commission was taken to court over the time it took to approve the new legislation.

However, some campaigners say the move is a disaster for wild life and organic farming. Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director Marco Contiero said: “This new law is supposed to give countries some legal muscle to prevent GM crops from being grown on their territory. But it has some major flaws: it grants biotech companies the power to negotiate with elected governments and excludes the strongest legal argument to ban GM crops – evidence of environmental harm." Additionally, he argued that this approach risks that the trans-related organisms spread unintentionally.

The truth is that this legislation will allow European Member States to start authorizing GM crops more quickly, which will benefit European biotech companies.

Some European countries already cultivate GM products, Spain, the main GM maize producer in the EU, clearly supports speeding up authorisation of harvesting these products. However, for Montsanto, the only company that operates with GM maize in Europe, potential Member States ban may deteriorate the common market and may also set a dangerous precedent.

Besides Spain, Monsanto’s GM maize is also cultivated in a smaller portion in Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia.

After years of debate, there is still no clear statement on whether GM crops are harmful, and the EP decision’s this week only passed the ball to Member States to make their own ruling on this controversial matter. The proposal will still need to be approved by the Council as well, thus the GMO’s debate is far from concluded.

 

By Guadalupe del Olmo for EU Spectator 

 

 


 

European Ombudsman: transparency a key concern for citizens in 2013


Posted on 18/01/2015

MEPs stress the citizen’s right to good administration, and endorse the European Ombudsman’s calls for more transparent policy making and an information campaign on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, in a resolution voted, on Thursday. They also reiterate that the Ombudsman has a crucial role in addressing citizens’ concerns and helping the EU institutions become more open, effective and citizen friendly. 

Taking over from a long-standing and well-respected Mr Nikiforos Diamandouros was definitely a great challenge for Ms Emily O'Reilly, but thanks to her experience as an Irish Ombudsman, she started her work very efficiently. Within just a few months, she was able to turn this institution into a more accessible and user friendly one, said rapporteur Jarosław Wałęsa .

Parliament's resolution on the Ombudsman’s annual report for 2013, submitted to Parliament on 15 September 2014, was passed by 572 votes to 21, with 82 abstentions.

 

The number of complaints and subsequent inquiries by EU country. This graphic has been produced by the office of the European OmbudsmanThe number of complaints and subsequent inquiries by EU country. This graphic has been produced by the office of the European OmbudsmanGuardian of transparency

The resolution notes that transparency-related issues once again topped the Ombudsman’s list of 461 inquiries closed in 2013 (64.3 %), up from 52.7% in 2012.

MEPs welcome the Ombudsman’s investigations, e.g. into the lack of transparency in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, whistle blowing in the EU institutions and “revolving door”’ cases, which raise concerns about senior EU officials taking private sector jobs in their fields of expertise may be subject to conflicts of interest.

 

Citizen’s right to good administration

In 2013, 23,245 citizens approached the Ombudsman’s services for help. Most found the interactive guide on the Ombudsman's website useful (19,418). Of these approaches, 1,407 were requests for information and 2,420 were registered as complaints (compared to 2,442 in 2012).

MEPs point out that the share of complaints concerning the European Commission has grown and call on it to take rapid action to improve its performance. They stress that all EU institutions and bodies should act promptly on the Ombudsman’s critical remarks and recommendations and call on the Commission to adopt binding rules and table a legislative proposal on administrative procedure in the EU institutions.

 

Raising public awareness

MEPs encourage the Ombudsman to make greater use of social media to raise public awareness of her activities and to promote the rights of EU citizens. To ensure equal access, the Ombudsman should pay attention to the needs of those without access to internet, MEPs add.

 

 

 

 

EU institutions refusing to give access to documents is the most common complaint received by European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, as revealed by her annual report for 2013. MEPs discussed the report on Thursday and voted on a resolution later that day.

Most inquiries within this time frame were about the European Commission (64.3%), followed by EU agencies (24%) and only 15 inquiries (4.3%) involved the European Parliament.

 


 

European Interior Ministers call for tighter security measures


Difficult balancing act in war on terror

Posted on 13/01/2015

Last Sunday, eleven EU Interior Ministers as well as US Attorney General Eric Holder met in a display of solidarity and determination to better combat terrorism after last week's killings in France.

The officials focused on the surveillance of international travellers and the fight against terrorists. The assembly, under pressure from France and Spain, called for stricter EU external border controls as well as a revision of the Schengen agreement on freedom-of-movement rules.

 

Dimitris Avramopoulos
Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and CitizenshipDimitris Avramopoulos Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship

At the meeting, Commissioner Avramopoulos said: "We are gathered here today in order to express our solidarity to France, to the French people and to the families of the victims. We are here to declare our determination to move ahead in the spirit of solidarity in order to combat terrorism. We are united and determined." Concluding the meeting, the Ministers adopted a joint declaration on the Fight against Terrorism.

All the officials reunited in Paris agreed on the need for a Passenger Name Record (PNR) system, a tool of "unreplaceable usefulness," which has faced opposition from the European Parliament (EP) thus far. The European Council President, Donald Tusk, announced that he will call on the EP to speed up work on legislation concerning air passengers.

 

The European Commission, EC Spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said in response to a question about reintroducing ID checks within the Schengen area, is open to revising Schengen rules. She stated, that there would be stricter control on external Schengen borders. When asked how last week’s tragic events will affect plans for Schengen enlargement, she said that the Council of the EU is the institution taking decisions about Schengen enlargement, while the EC only monitors the implementation of Schengen rules.

EP President Martin Schulz, a well-known advocate of individual liberties, said in an interview on French television that curtailing them would allow intolerance in all its forms to thrive, which is what terrorists want. The storage of air passengers’ personal data, which has created considerable controversy in Strasbourg, can be beneficial “depending on the storage conditions” of the data.

Sophie in't Veld
ALDE group MEPSophie in't Veld ALDE group MEP

Despite of the pressure of European Prime Ministers, some members of the EP oppose to the announced version. ALDE group MEP Sophie in't Veld finds it "distasteful" that the EU heads of state want to use the terror attack in Paris to push for the register to be introduced.

For now, British PM David Cameron has already announced that he is set to review security protocols to step up surveillance on internet communications to help prevent Paris-style attacks, while the German cabinet is set to pass new laws on Wednesday allowing to seize the personal identity cards of would-be jihadists for up to three years, in order to prevent them from travelling to the Middle East.

However, German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, stated in the German media that the balance between freedom and security should be respected, while giving his support to closer cooperation of security authorities.

Other topics were discussed during the meeting by Interior Ministers, such as the need for improved collaboration with internet companies and the necessity to control the illegal arms trade. All these issues will be further studied this Friday at the special meeting of European Interior and Justice Ministers in Brussels, and the next European Council Meeting on February 12th, which will be dedicated to the fight against terror. Additionally, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the US will host a summit on combating "violent extremism around the world" in Washington on February 18th to pool resources.

It remains to be seen if all these projects and statements of good intend will stand the test of time.

 


 

No Surprises Please – EU 2015Randall CalvinRandall Calvin


By Randall Calvin

Posted on 08/01/2014

The EU has gotten off to a rocky start for 2015. From “Grexit” to the poor performance across the eurozone and Iceland threatening application withdrawal from the club, one wonders what next?

Iceland’s Prime Minister announced this week on a national radio station his intention to formally withdraw the country’s EU application. To top off this hammer blow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel added fuel to the Greek election fire by suggesting that the possibility of Greece exiting the euro would be a manageable risk that poses no existential crisis for the common currency.

Under these circumstances, the euro fell by 1.2% against the US dollar to $ 1.1864, hitting a nine-year low.

Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Davio GunnlaugssonIceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Davio GunnlaugssonMr Gunnlaugsson, the Icelandic Prime Minister, revealed this week his Government’s plan to withdraw Iceland’s application to join the EU. During his radio interview he said that participating in EU talks was no longer a valid reality. He added: “Both due to changes in the EU and because it’s not in line with the policies of the ruling government to accept everything that the last government was willing to accept”. He suggested that the work carried out before was obsolete and that both negotiation parties are currently at square one.

Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) supported the Icelandic Prime Minister’s declarations, by saying: “This move by Icelandic authorities and the increasing Mediterranean opposition to the EU shows that the idea of the inevitability of EU integration has been smashed. More and more people throughout Europe either no longer wish to join the EU or, as in Greece, to leave the euro currency all together”. 

This is Iceland’s second attempt to disengage from Brussels, after the announced withdrawal in 2014, which ended in public protests and the request for a plebiscite on the topic. Thus, this time, public reaction to the anti-EU membership resolution is yet to be seen, once the proposal is formally presented to Iceland’s Parliament.

At a time when neither the EU nor the euro is having its finest hour, Mr Gunnlaugsson’s approach might be regarded as opportunistic. However, the Prime Minister’s plan might yet face public concerns as two-thirds of Iceland’s trade is connected to the EU, notwithstanding it’s membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), the Schengen area and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), while not having a real voice in EU decisions.

Iceland’s move might be also a reaction to the euro falling to its nine-year low, as being a member of the euro, is an irrevocable condition to EU membership for any future applicant country - as laid down in article 140 paragraph 3 of the EU Lisbon Treaty. However the European Commission has not yet commented on the Icelandic Government’s decision.

Indeed, the situation of the euro is fragile, struck by nervousness over Greek politics and steadily building expectations that the ECB will soon beef up its economic stimulus programme. The news that Germany is ready to allow Greece to exit (the so-called Grexit) from the eurozone, has not helped to resolve the situation.

The truth is that Greece leaving the Eurozone is not a new debate, since the euro crisis erupted in late 2008 and after Greece received its first bail-out in mid-2010, the possible departure from the single currency has been on the discussion table in 2011 and again in 2012.

The failure of the Greek Parliament to elect a president on the 29th December and the consequent call for a snap election for January 25th has re-opened again this can of worms. This time, however, is rather different, the Greeks no longer have the stomach for further austerity measures and reforms attached to unbearable bail-out conditions, especially after some of Mrs Merkel’s prescriptions did patently more harm than good to an already failed economy whose GDP shrunk by nearly 20% since 2010 and more than quarter of its population is unemployed.

Thus nobody should be surprised if some of the proposals of the left-wing party Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, are a breath of fresh air for most Greeks. Mr Tsipras is proposing an end to austerity. Amongst his policies are reversing cuts in the minimum wage and public spending; scraping asset sales and the repudiation or default of some of the country’s debt. The Hellenic Republic welcomes Syriza’s scheme to the point that polls indicate that the party is a strong candidate to win the elections at the end of January. 

While Mr Tsipras says he wants to keep Greece in the euro and most EU countries are leaving Athens to sort out its own democratic process and future, Germany is threatening to expel Greece from the monetary union, a message that had the opposite desired effect for the Chancellor and provided more space for Greek left parties to manouver. Mrs Merkel’s message, however, might not accurately reflect German opinion on the ground, whose ultimate desire is that most of all the public lending under the bail-out is repaid.

Members of the European Parliament have already strongly criticised this German ‘interference’ in the Greek elections. Giani Pitella, president of the S&D group condemned Merkel’s remarks: He said “German right-wing forces trying to act like a sheriff in Greece or any other member states is not only unacceptable but above all wrong”, he warned that they would fuel “anger and repulsion towards the European Union among European citizens” and said Greece’s membership of the euro as irreversible.

ALDE Leader Guy Verhofstadt described any potential Greek exit from the eurozone as “nonsense” and may serve only to create “a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Meanwhile, the EC has taken no position in the electoral debate in Greece, however, Vice President Jyrki Katainen stated that the speculation about a possible exit was a waste of time.

Regardless of the EU institution’s silence on the matter, the outcome of Greek elections will have a significant effect on this year’s elections in Spain and Portugal, potentially leading to the reshuffling of political decks in Italy, France and Germany.

Despite the EU Treaty’s insistence that membership to the eurozone is “irrevocable”, a potential Grexit will have an inevitable domino effect, leaving other weaker members vulnerable to speculation about their staying power.

No wonder the eurocrats are more nervous and irresolute than ever. It is clear that Iceland’s potential withdrawal application to the EU, the continuing dismal economic performance of the eurozone, and most of all the possibility of Greece exiting the eurozone, the May general election in the UK, with UKIP on the rise, these are just a few choice samples shaking the pillars of the EU and its foreseeable future, quoting Albert Einstein “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change,” and that might well be what is failing in the EU equation, or less profoundly as a senior EC official nervously whispered to me recently; “no more surprises - please!

 

By Randall Calvin