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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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The best bank for a small business in the UK – with emphasis on the Eurozone

bank-logosI’ve been partner in a small Limited Liability Partnership in the UK since 2009, and since the start getting our banking right has been a bit of a headache. We have a low turnover, but issue between 50 and 70 invoices a year, and many of those are paid from Eurozone countries. Both Jan and I, the partners in the company, travel a lot and are hence heavily reliant on distance banking – we cannot get to branches. Continue Reading

Sorry British Bankers’ Association – British influence in the EU has already fallen off a cliff, and it’s not to do with staff


Gergely Polner (@eurocrat on Twitter) normally knows his stuff about the EU. Sometime spokesperson for the Hungarian Presidency of the EU (still the best social media outreach by Presidency), then head of public affairs for the European Parliament in the UK, and now head of EU affairs for the British Bankers’ Association, he has written a piece entitled “Is British influence in Brussels about to fall off a cliff?” for Euractiv.

Sorry Gergely, but British influence in Brussels has already fallen off a cliff. And it has nothing to do with staffing. It is all to do with the political context of Britain’s EU relationship, and how that has soured since 2010, and especially since David Cameron promised an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership in January 2013, with the referendum to take place by 2017. Further cases, like the 2011 veto that stopped nothing, and threatening that the appointment of Juncker would hasten British exit, have not helped either.

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Non-legislative barriers to the EU Single Market in the UK


I was back in the UK for the first time in ages last week and was frustrated as a result of not being able to use two services I had grown to rely on – my Three Pay-as-you-go Data SIMcard, and Auto-TopUp for my Oyster Card.

What’s the problem? A postcode.

Yes, well, it’s a little more complicated that that, but that’s the essential issue. Both My3 and TfL’s Oyster online system oblige you, logically enough, to add an address to your profile. When you make a top-up this address is checked with the address listed for your card with the bank, and if that lookup fails, the payment fails. The problem is that while I still have a UK bank account, and hence an associated debit card and a credit card, the address associated with that account is in Germany*, and that address has a 5-figure ZIP code associated with it, rather than the UK’s 7 or 8 character postcode. Trying to enter a German address in either My3 or Oyster online fails, and if I leave my old UK address there then the payment fails instead.

Neither of the services above are contracts – if I were to disappear then the companies can just close the cards in question. Were it to be a contract for a phone then it would be different.

So the next time you hear some UK politician complaining that the European Commission is not doing enough to complete the Single Market, perhaps you can point them to this blog entry instead, and remind them that some UK services are not too hot at dealing with the EU Single Market as it is today.

* – note that some people have told me I should have kept an address in the UK precisely for this purpose, but that is actually fraudulent – I do not live in the UK any more, and I should not need to maintain a UK address to use a public transport electronic ticket or a Pay-as-you-go Data SIMcard.

What shock will finally break the cosy Westminster consensus?

ukipA friend on Facebook pointed me towards an article in GQ about the Wythenshawe & Sale East byelection. I’m not a regular GQ reader, but the headline – Running On Anger: on the campaign trail with UKIP – and the content of the piece are worth reading.

The tactics employed by UKIP are their normal ones at a byelection – work out where the discontent is to be found (in this case, with Labour), and then explain why their populist solutions are worth voting for, and if fear and bending of the facts help, then why not do that too? In essence in Wythenshawe and Sale East they hoover up the anti-politics vote, and they are effective at it.

The problem as I see it is that the British political system is uniquely badly placed to deal with a movement like UKIP. The party could get 15% or more at the 2015 General Election and still fail to gain any parliamentary representation, and 2nd-place finishes in byelections in Eastleigh, South Shields and Middlesbrough contribute to that impression – that the system is keeping UKIP out.

Now while I loathe more or less everything UKIP stands for, I am nevertheless, above all, a democrat – a party with that sort of base deserves parliamentary representation.

The reactions to UKIP’s rise are generally inadequate. Some complain that Farage in particular gains disproportionate media coverage for a party with no MPs, but for me this holds little weight as it’s the electoral system, rather than a lack of support, that keeps UKIP out. Other complain that UKIP has no answers to the political problems that the UK faces, and while I agree that this is the case, it is not as if the three main parties of the political mainstream in the UK have many ideas either.

It is this last part that merits further debate and analysis in the UK, and the analysis needs to go beyond the “they all look the same” or “none of them have experience outside the politics”.

Take, for example, Ed Miliband’s party conference announcement to cap energy prices. This was described as a “game changer” if you were on his side, or “the return of Red Ed” if you were not. Both responses are wrong. The policy would make a small change within the well established confines of the UK’s dysfunctional energy market, and that’s it. Putting it another way, Miliband was playing to the narrow audience composed of the Westminster political class – and that includes the vast majority of the journalists of the broadsheet press – but that class, and indeed the people that report on it, are increasingly missing the connection to the grassroots. This is the post-democracy that Colin Crouch has so compellingly and depressingly described. Representative democracy in the UK is becoming more and more hollowed out, a shell, but the system still protects the mainstream parties, for the moment at least.

So back then to UKIP, and Wythenshawe and Sale East. Part of me wonders what would happen if UKIP were to actually win there? How would the UK’s three main parties react? I fear the reaction would be turn up the critique of UKIP still further, rather than actually take a step back and better develop their own visions for the future of the UK.

Yet the Wythenshawe and Sale East case, this problem of pent-up anger in British politics, is not about to go away. Would a UKIP byelection victory be a big enough shock to the cosy Westminster consensus? Or would something larger – like Scottish independence, or leaving the EU – be needed to make a lasting change? Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I fear something is going to have to break in UK politics before things start to get better.