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Cameron’s “proper choice” in the EU referendum ought to mean there’s a third option on the ballot paper

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 10.40.04So Cameron is in Riga, trying to charm fellow EU leaders that British exceptionalism a reformed EU is possible. News about it here. But one phrase particularly struck me from Cameron’s words – we’re going to give the people a “proper choice” he says.

The choice Cameron proposes is his negotiated, amended, weakened relationship between the UK and the EU, or Britain should leave altogether. This is no “proper choice” for people like me who, at the very least, would prefer no watering down of the UK’s relationship with the European Union, let alone no option for those who would actually advocate further integration between the UK and the EU (a point made by PolitiCrumb and Ralf Grahn on Twitter). There are rumblings from some on the left – the GMB Trade Union for example – that may switch to advocate a No vote if Cameron’s renegotiations are too harsh on workers’ rights (see this in the Indy about the different pro and anti camps).

So then, here is an idea for a “proper choice” in the referendum. Put two questions on the ballot paper – same style as was used in 1997 to establish the Scottish Parliament. Here’s some suggested wording:

Q1: Do you want the United Kingdom to remain a Member State of the European Union?
[ ] YES     [ ] NO

Q2: Do you support the renegotiated settlement proposed by HM Government?
[ ] YES     [ ] NO

A No to Q2 would simply leave Britain’s relationship with the EU as it is. Now I am aware that a renegotiated settlement is probably likely to be more popular (the “in but grumpy” option as Edmund Edgar rightly calls it), but at least a two-question referendum would allow a voter to separate EU membership (or not) from the way that Cameron plans to taint things with his assault on freedom of movement.


What precisely is this EU “red tape” that JCB speaks of?

jcb-volvoThe construction vehicles pictured above are a JCB 3CX (on the left), manufactured in Rocester, UK, and  two Volvo Construction Equipment machines (on the right), a L120F and L120E, both manufactured in Arvika, Sweden.

My point of course – in light of comments yesterday by Chief Executive of JCB, Graeme MacDonald – is that in the future the Arvika Volvo plant might be still in the European Union, and JCB’s Rocester plant would not.

MacDonald confirmed that EU countries are an important export market for JCB, but said this:

What is needed is a lot less red tape and bureaucracy. Some of it is costly for us and quite frankly ridiculous. Whether that means renegotiating or exiting, I don’t think it can carry on as it is. It’s a burden on our business and it’s easier selling to North America than to Europe sometimes.

Now let’s think of the machines pictured above. Everything from the emissions standards from the engines, to the chemicals that are (or are not) allowed in the paint on the machines, through to the coolants permitted in the machines’ radiators is determined by EU law within the EU. If the UK were to leave the European Union that would make no difference whatsoever to any of these standards, and JCB – if it wanted to export to the European Union – would have to respect every single one of those standards anyway.

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What happens if David Cameron switches to the No side in the EU referendum?

(note: this is a counterfactual – just in case you’re reading it after October 2015!)

cameron-redIt is Wednesday 21st November 2015, and David Cameron has called a press conference at Downing Street. With his face going rather puce, the anger showing in the edge to his voice, he delivers the news that pro-EU campaigners in the UK had feared: that he has changed his mind and switched to the NO side in Britain’s in-or-out of the EU referendum.

The final straw had been the European Council of 15th/16th October 2015 in Brussels. Cameron had announced the referendum would take place in September 2016 just a few weeks after his May 7th election victory, yet he had then prevaricated when it came to making concrete demands about the UK’s renegotiation of its EU membership since the 25th/26th June 2015 European Council, and at the October summit overplayed his hand. A demand for fundamental changes to EU freedom of movement had been rejected by the other 27 Heads of State and Government, and Cameron stormed out of negotiations at 1am and had refused to speak to the press. Sources close to the UK Permanent Representation (UKRep) had told the Financial Times that Cameron had been briefed on what the other Member States would accept, but had persevered regardless.

European Council President Donald Tusk, looking tetchy and strained, had told the cameras lined up in Brussels that negotiations had been “difficult” but had refused to be drawn on what should happen. Merkel, Hollande and Renzi in their separate press conferences gave very similar messages. No country should be allowed to blackmail the rest of the EU they said.

The FTSE opened 200 points lower on Monday 19th October, and in the hours before Cameron’s announcement hit its lowest point in five years.

(end of counterfactual)

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Parameters for the UK’s in-or-out EU referendum

uk-eu-flagsThe prospect of the UK holding an in-or-out of the EU referendum fills me with dread, but debate of the merits of holding this vote, and how each side might frame its messages are topics for blog entries in future. What voting no would mean is outlined in this blog entry; the comments there are also worth a look.

The point of this blog entry is to look at what the parameters for the referendum are, and what decisions about these might mean for the UK and the rest of the EU.

David Cameron re-iterated his determination to hold the referendum in his victory speech, and Cameron has repeatedly stated he wishes to “re-negotiate” Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Continue Reading


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:


When you look inside political parties you discover they are pretty empty

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 10.23.22“Party strategists must be scratching their heads […] after the latest debacle” writes David Shariatmadari in The Guardian, examining the story of the British Conservative Party using a Photoshopped picture of a road near Weimar, Thüringen, Germany to illustrate their latest election poster. Shariatmadari’s piece goes on to list the long line of campaign poster mishaps, from actors employed to play the unemployed, to the MyDavidCameron series of parodies. Cameron even decided to not put his own picture on the posters as a result of the 2010 MyDavidCameron experience, says The Daily Mail. Steve Bell’s cartoon about the debacle is here.

While The Guardian piece correctly explains the problem – that getting election posters right is a hard task – the reason for the problem is, I think, a different one, namely that these mythical ‘strategists’ are actually not very good, and that they are living in a bygone era, and the way the press reports all of this contributes to this false impression.

First, the internet has changed the defaults. A political party cannot assume it can get away with anything any more – any image will be analysed, the origin of the people in a photo established. The solution here would be to be transparent from the start, producing a small dossier of information about every poster, explaining where and when the photos were taken. And if there is no suitable road for your image, then get out a camera and go and take a picture of one.

Putting this another way, using a picture of a road near Weimar is foolish, but assuming that no-one would find out about it is ever more stupid.

The second, and more profound, problem is that the way that political parties work, and the way that the newspapers report on them remains largely unchanged – these ‘strategists’ cook up programmes and slogans and campaigns, largely in secret, and then set out to deliver them. Yet if the campaign is cooked up in secret, and has no real connection to either the grassroots of the party, or voters’ actual needs, the danger of making a mis-step is high. Parties can try to mobilise their own people on social media (a “digital firepower onslaught” as the FT calls it) but this leaves the campaigns in general rather flat and bland, and the online activity akin to backing a football team rather than participating in a political process. I, like Charlie Beckett, am dreading the next 5 months. Geoff Mulgan thinks 2015 will be the year online politics will make a breakthrough in British political parties, but I remain to be convinced.

The third factor is the backdrop of British politics at the moment. Both Labour and The Conservatives are stuck with the mindset that with one further push they will, once more, be able to command majorities in the House of Commons (underlined by this on Twitter from Puffles). This is of course thanks to the First Past the Post (FPTP) election system for Westminster, because at every other level British politics is already a classical European multi-party system. The problem however for the two large parties is that FPTP forces those parties to be as broad as possible in their appeal, but this comes with the price of the disconnection between party leadership (and its ‘strategists’) and the grassroots of the party, and those grassroots then become restless and many of them leave – remember that the UK has the third lowest party membership in the EU. This evisceration of the parties – both Labour and the Tories have just 10% of the membership today that they did at their peaks in the 1960s – means parties are administratively weak, contributing further to the first and second points above – even finding good strategists is hard.

For the eighteen years I’ve been deeply involved with party politics I’ve been wondering when I will be wowed by the genius of someone’s political strategy, but it has not happened yet. When you look deeply into political parties – at least in the UK – you realise they are pretty empty. We are going to see plenty more evidence of it between now and the May general election.


Scotland: Why independence after 300 years?

NOTE: this is a piece commissioned by the Norwegian online magazine Vox Publica, and was translated into Norwegian for that purpose. The Norwegian version can be found here: Skottland: Hvorfor uavhengighet etter 300 år? The English original is here with permission from Vox Pubica, but – unlike other posts on this blog – is not Creative Commons Licensed, and hence my not be syndicated or re-used. The piece gives an overview of the Scottish Independence debate and how Scotland arrived where it is today.

dewar A statue of the first First Minister of Scotland in modern times, Donald Dewar, stands in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street. The stern and bespectacled Dewar cast in bronze gazes down at a political scenario on the streets below that bears little resemblance to the Scotland that gained political powers devolved from Westminster in 1999, following the 1997 referendum to establish the Scottish Parliament in the early years of Blair’s government.

The idea of the Labour Party throughout the 1990s, most strongly promoted by Dewar and former Foreign Minister Robin Cook, was that granting political power to Edinburgh would stop the demands for an independent Scotland that had been steadily growing since an unsuccessful referendum on devolving powers held in 1979. George Robertson even stated that “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead”; how wrong he has shown to be.

That the referendum on independence is even happening on 18th September, and that Yes to independence is in with a chance of winning, has depended upon a unique combination of circumstances.

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Why I’m in favour of an independent Scotland

At the end of the televised Salmond-Darling debate I tweeted the following:

With 77 retweets so far, it seems to have struck a chord with some people. It also is an aspect of the independence debate that was only mentioned in passing in the televised clash, but for me it is absolutely central. How is Scotland going to be best governed? is the vital question in the referendum as I see it, and my answer would be it would be better governed from Edinburgh than from London, and hence – if I had a vote – I’d vote YES.

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