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Two very special #EUtweetup dates – 23rd April, Brussels and 29th April, Berlin


I am very happy to announce two further dates in the #EUTweetup series. For the next two tweetups we have some special guests!

On Thursday 23rd April, from 1830, in Brussels (EU Quarter) we will be joined by Jason L Knoll – follow him on Twitter @JasonLKnoll and his blog can be found here. My connection with Jason is one of those extraordinary things that can only happen on Twitter – he is a high school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, with a fascination for European politics, and I have even done a Skype call to his class to explain the European Parliament to them. Yet I have never met him in person – to be put right on 23rd April!

On Wednesday 29th April, from 1830, in Berlin (Mitte) we welcome László Andor, former Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion in the Barroso II Commission. You can follow him on Twitter @LaszloAndorEU and his Wikipedia page is here. Andor was one of the most interesting Commissioners to follow on Twitter, known for his forthright comments to journalists, and his views about his country of origin. He is now a Fellow at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

Please note that the precise location of these Tweetups has not yet been confirmed, but put the dates in your diaries folks! I’ll add the venues here as soon as they are confirmed. For these tweetups the format is as it ever is – anyone is welcome, come along for a short while or stay the whole evening, and meet in real life the folks you argue with on Twitter. No need to register, and follow #EUtweetup for the latest information, or tweet that tag if you have questions or can’t find us on the night!

Polish MEPs and their personal job creation schemes – updated for 2015 and the new EP term

In January 2013 I stumbled upon Polish MEPs employing a lot of assistants. One employed 19 people, and two employed 17 each back then. The blog entry about that is here, and it was even covered by Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Today the issue has been raised once more, as MEPs’ assistants have once more been a hot topic, and I have once more been quoted by Gazeta Wyborcza for the work 2 years ago. The new article even alleges that Kaczynski‘s hairdresser is being employed on the EP payroll.

Anyway, I decided to re-run my experiment from then for the new EP term. The results are actually worse:

  • Total numbers of assistants employed has risen by 60 from 461 to 521
  • Total numbers of local assistants (i.e. in Poland) has risen by 68 from 362 to 430
  • Once more 1 MEP employs 19 assistants (Czesław Adam SIEKIERSKI – EPP) and this time two employ 18 each (Ryszard CZARNECKI – ECR (up from 17 in 2013!) and Kosma ZŁOTOWSKI – ECR)

This is the summary of the results:

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 17.34.54

Numbers of assistants employed in Brussels / Strasbourg has decreased slightly, and the MEPs listed top in 2013 – Ryszard Legutko – has reduced his assistants to just 14 (from 19). The European Conservatives & Reformists Group (containing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS)) has the highest number of assistants per MEP.

The statistics have been compiled simply by going to the biography of each MEP on the European Parliament website, and totalling up the number of assistants listed. All data correct as of 17th March 2015, and entire Excel table, including the names of all the assistants employed, can be found here.

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: you are welcome to quote this piece, but if anything is unclear all you need to do is contact me or tweet me. Better that than assuming things!

Ubuntu and Linux Mint – first steps on an iMac

logosGetting Linux to run on a Mac is notoriously tricky, but I was willing to experiment and work out how tricky it all is. This blog entry sums up my first efforts, and will be updated in the future when I have learnt more.

Mac hardware
I was using a 2008 iMac 24″ (specs) with 6Gb of RAM, and 2 internal hard disks for these tests – an internal 120Gb SSD, and an internal 500Gb hard disk. This Mac has a NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GS (more about that later). If in doubt check the specs on EveryMac before you start. All data was backed up from the machine, and hence I could reformat disks as much as I wished. I used my second Mac (a MacBook Pro) to create the bootable USB keys I needed for the process. Continue Reading

The term “economic Schengen” needs to be banished before it gains any traction

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 15.09.29

Henrik Enderlein and Jean Pisani-Ferry started to talk of an “economic Schengen” in the autumn of 2014, and Enderlein and Germany’s economy minister Gabriel were at it again today at a conference in the BMWi in Berlin. This is a really bad idea for four reasons, each of which I will explain.

Schengen is actually a village in Luxembourg. It happens to be the place where an agreement on abolishment of border controls was signed in 1985. The name stuck. It is part of a trend where towns give their names to things the EU does, because the agreements were struck there (Treaty of Lisbon, Ioannina Compromise etc.) The thing is that the name bears no relationship to what the agreement actually is. So to then apply the term Schengen to something other that a borders issue doubles the absurdity.

Second, when you say Schengen, that either means an area that is damned hard to get into (if you are coming from outside the EU), or a borderless EU system that keeps on being challenged by its own politicians, and even if you believe in it, it does not work properly as I have documented many times on this blog. In short, if you even know what Schengen is, you are rather unlikely to have a positive view of it. A Schengen for the economy hence sounds like a pretty disastrous idea, even before you get to the detail.

This is how Enderlein explains the idea on Twitter:

If you have any idea what that means then you’re brighter than I am. Or you’re the sort of person that likes abstract concepts more than practical policy recommendations.

The Schengen Agreement was needed outside the EU Treaties in 1985 precisely because there was no way to do what the signatories wanted to do inside the EU Treaties. No legal basis existed. So the signatories started with a separate Treaty that was then eventually integrated within the European Union. This is not the case when it comes to economic policy – as Enderlein and Pisani-Ferry put it, their proposals are to boost economic growth, and to focus on energy and the digital Single Market. Competence to cope with both of these can already be found very easily within the Treaty of Lisbon.

Anything concluded outside the EU Treaties will not make use of the EU’s institutions that, despite their many flaws, at least have some sort of functioning representative democracy through the presence of the European Parliament. There is also the Enhanced cooperation procedure in the Treaty of Lisbon that allows initatives among smaller groups of Member States, staying within the EU institutional framework. So anything agreed, Schengen-like, outside the EU Treaties is going to be intergovernmental and hence less accountable.

Policy outcomes
Enderlein and Pisani-Ferry point out that more action is needed on energy and the digital Single Market. Yet there is plenty of work already being done in these two areas – all of Cañete’s work on the EU Energy Union, and all of the work started by Kroes and continued by Ansip and Oettinger on changes to the digital Single Market, to foster cross border digital services, reform copyright and end roaming. Also in both areas the very countries that are supposed to be the motors of the economic Schengen, France and Germany, are actually brakes to progress rather than the courntries pushing for more speedy action. France worries about copyright reform, while Germany is more worried about how much money the state can rake in from Deutsche Telekom than it is about dealing with roaming or net neutrality. Differing views between France and Germany on renewables and nuclear are a further stumbling block. Further, when it comes to wider issues of economic growth, there is a broad consensus at EU level about what changes are needed to labour market law across the EU – that is what the European Semester reports are supposed to examine.

So, to conclude, an “economic Schengen” is a nightmare of communication, it is questionable as to whether it is legally necessary, it is unlikely to be democratic, and the countries that are supposed to back the core policies within it are the ones stalling the progress in the policy areas just now.

Bin this term!

Jack Straw and Brussels lobbying – what he changed, and how, and who he met

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 11.27.46Relating to the Jack Straw lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian sugar firms (background here), a few quick remarks.

First, we know from this, that:

I got into see the relevant director general and his officials in Brussels … and we got the sugar regulations changed

We also know the meeting took place on June 4th 2013. It is impossible to get a list of the meetings for a given week between registered lobbyists and Commission officials. But the company that Straw was working for – ED&F Man – to this day does not appear in the Transparency Register. Today a Director General would not be allowed to meet a lobbyist from a company not on the register, but as far as I know that was not the case back in the summer of 2013.

The question then comes: what did his lobbying change, exactly, and through which legal process at EU level?

We know from the undercover reports that his lobbying relates to the equivalence system for sugar. Dated 30 October 2013 there is a Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1063/2013 of 30 October 2013 amending Regulation (EEC) No 2454/93 laying down provisions for the implementation of Council Regulation (EEC) No 2913/92 establishing the Community Customs Code as regards the use of the equivalence system in the sugar sector. The date matches, and I can find nothing else relevant in 2013 or later in a EUR-Lex search.

So how does Commission Implementing Regulation No 1063/2013 work? As the line above states, it relates to Regulation 2454/93 (PDF here). The title of that Regulation is important: COMMISSION REGULATION (EEC) No 2454/93 of 2 July 1993 laying down provisions for the implementation of Council Regulation (EEC) No 2913/92 establishing the Community Customs Code. Firstly, this means we are clearly in the area of Customs law, not anything related to trade or agriculture. Secondly, this Commission Regulation relates to a further Council Regulation 2454/93 (text here) that sets up the whole system. Also recall that all of this was agreed in a pre-codecision era, hence the older titles of the legislation.

The relevant line of the Commission Implementing Regulation 1063/2013 (i.e. the one Straw pushed for) is this:

Having regard to Council Regulation (EEC) No 2913/92 of 12 October 1992 establishing the Community Customs Code, and in particular Article 247 thereof

And Article 247 of Council Regulation 2913/92 reads thus:

1. A Customs Code committee, hereinafter called ‘the committee’, composed of representatives of the Member States with a representative of the Commission as chairman, is hereby established.

2. The committee shall adopt its rules of procedure.

So what are the powers of this Committee? These are explained on the Commission’s website here, and in Article 249 of Council Regulation 2913/92. This then leads me to this record in the Comitology Register, where is states that the Commission Implementing Regulation 1063/2013 was agreed with the Examination Procedure. This procedure is explained in this PDF. The preamble to 1063/2013 states “The measures provided for in this Regulation are in accordance with the opinion of the Customs Code Committee”, meaning either the Committee gave no opinion or gave a positive opinion.

So, in short, as far as I can tell: the European Commission DG Taxation and Customs Union proposed a Commission Implementing Regulation after meeting with Jack Straw. This was submitted to the Customs Code Committee (that comprises representatives of Member States) and that Committee did not have a problem with the draft that was subsequently adopted.

Which then leads us to the final piece of the puzzle – who exactly did Straw meet? The Director General of the DG Taxation and Customs Union has been Heinz Zourek since 2012. So if Straw did meet the Director General, as he said, then Mr Zourek has a few questions to answer. The organogram of the DG is here (PDF) – Philip Kermode is the Director for Customs (Directorate A), and has held this position since at least 2011, but the exact positions of the officials that Straw met are not known.

[UPDATE 23.2.2015, 1415] Text above re. the transparency register amended. I had misunderstood the low amount of data available in the Transparency Register in 2013!

[UPDATE 24.2.2015, 1300] According to Bruno Waterfield on Twitter, Straw never met a DG and was boasting. That the Regulation was changed by Committee I’d worked out already yesterday (see above in this blog entry), but that it was agreed there does not necessarily exclude that Straw lobbied.

[UPDATE 24.2.2015, 1520] Although we now know some meetings, at a lower level, did take place:

Never buy anything from Compuland – they sent me an empty box

I wanted to buy a computer monitor, and rather than ordering from Amazon, I chose a smaller firm instead – Compuland, based in Wilhelmshaven. The order was a story of woe, and awful and ridiculous service – and they sent me an empty box. There is no way I will ever order from this firm again. Here I will explain what happened. If this story makes you change your mind about Compuland, then do please leave a comment below. Continue Reading

Now Dresden-Wrocław trains are cancelled for good – third piece of bad news for PL-DE rail this winter alone

Following the end of the Berlin – Wrocław EC Wawel (early December 2014), Frankfurt(Oder) – Poznań RegionalExpress trains (end December 2014), we now have the news that Dresden – Wrocław RegionalExpress trains will cease at the end of February 2015. News of this cancellation can be found here in Polish (Google translated), and from the rail company here (Google translated). Currently it seems there are no plans to make things connect at Görlitz to allow passengers to change trains there – the Polish news story makes reference to passengers needing to take a bus instead. The reason given for the cancellation is inadequate funding on the Polish side.

This leaves Poland – Germany rail connections in a very sorry state indeed, and Wrocław now has no rail connection at all with Germany. The southern part of the Poland – Germany border is especially badly served.

Here is the map of rail connections between the two countries from the end of February 2015 (click to enlarge):

Continue Reading

Brits going to Spain at May bank holiday: you’re probably paying too much for car hire

As regular readers of this blog are surely now aware, I have become quite fascinated by the tricks used by car hire companies to wring more money out of their customers. I first reported on this in summer 2014, and revisited the example in early February 2015. I have since looked into the term known as “Source Market Pricing” – i.e. determing the price of car hire based on where the car is booked, not on the basis of demand where it is actually hired.

To test this Source Market Pricing, I looked at car hire prices on UK May Bank Holiday weekend – in 2015 that is Monday 25th May. I hence searched for a Class B car (VW Polo, Opel Corsa or equivalent) for 4 days at Malaga Costa Del Sol Airport in Spain, collecting the car at 0800 on Saturday 23rd May, and dropping it off on Tuesday 26th May at 1800. No extras were added.

Prices were compared from Spanish, German, British and Swedish websites of Hertz, Avis and Europcar. In the case of Hertz and Avis this meant the .es, .de, .co.uk and .se homepages. In the case of Europcar is additionally involved setting country of residence in the search form. All prices were checked on 17.2.2015, and exchange rates are the Interbank rates. Sweden is an important test case – to show the results are not just as a result of exchange rate variations. Continue Reading