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Systematic and free monitoring of news on UK-EU relations

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 11.22.47My challenge this morning was to build a systematic, and free, way to keep an eye on breaking news about UK-EU relations. Of course I have had ad hoc ways of doing this until now, but for a project I am working on I needed to make it more systematic. The news I need to monitor is “what’s happening” sort of news, not opinion pieces.

So how do you do it?

As ever I started with RSS and Netvibes, my RSS reader. If you doubt the value of RSS, have a read of this (a little old now though).

The first issue: what RSS feeds to include? Some are easy – FT Europe, FT Brussels, FT Brussels Blog, IHT Europe, EUObserver, Euractiv.

But beyond that it gets more complicated. I do not want generic EU news, nor generic UK news. The ideal would be a Google News search for UK EU, but getting Google News searches as RSS has now been disabled… I have instead opted for Talkwalker alerts as RSS feeds, although I will only be able to judge with experience as to whether this is as good as Google News. If it is not then mmmmail’s e-mail to RSS system might instead do the trick to get a RSS feed out of Google News.

I then need EU institutional news, with all except UK stories filtered out. For that I’ve built this Yahoo Pipe, applying text filters to EP newsfeeds one and two, Commission’s press releases, and ECJ news. RSS from the pipe goes into Netvibes.

UK government news should  be simpler – it is possible to filter GOV.uk by keyword, so I’m using this RSS from them.

I have then done the same for news from UK broadsheets – RSS feeds from The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and The Telegraph have been filtered by keyword in this Yahoo Pipe, and the output RSS put into Netvibes.

So then, which of these many tools picked up today’s major UK-EU news? That would be that an announcement is expected this afternoon about the UK’s EU competence review (screenshot above). That came from… the FT. It’s an interesting case, as no mention whatsoever is made of this issue at GOV.uk, nor indeed on the website of the competence review, nor on the day’s House of Lords order of business. To know it will even happen and to report on it needed typical, traditional, journalist networking. So much for online first, and the power of the internet, eh? But at least my monitoring system found it.

The EU and peace

There have been two lines of attack from UK EU-phobes to the news that the EU has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One has been to point to the current economic travails of the EU, and the political strife that has caused, and to criticise the award as a result. For me the award looks slightly odd as a result of this poor timing (10 years ago would have been better), but it does not render the award wrong per se.

Instead we must focus on the second critique: that the European Union has not delivered peace in Europe. There are a number of threads to this one – that it was NATO and the Americans that did it rather than the EU (Redwood – Telegraph), that Germany would not have gone to war again anyway (David Davis, on BBC radio I’m told), that economic interdependence would have meant war was unthinkable anyway, that wars in the Balkans in the EU were not prevented by the EU and hence render the peace argument invalid.

But look at this the other way: is, on balance, the role of the European Union positive or negative in ensuring peace in and among its 27 Member States? Can Redwood or Hannan or others seriously argue that the EU is a force AGAINST peace, and has been a force against it for the last 60 years?

Yes, NATO, economics etc. will also have had some sort of role to prevent further war, but the European Union helped this process too, and that is why the award is justified. 60 years without war in Western Europe is a tremendous achievement. I cannot prove either way whether Europe would have gone to war without the EU, but neither can Redwood or anyone else prove the opposite. We do not have a counterfactual, we do not know for sure. But on the balance of information we have available the EU has contributed to peace in Europe. What’s the problem with that?

(Cartoon: 1992 from Plantu – Source)

Answering how an independent Scotland would work in the EU is much more mundane than anyone seems to want to admit

Whether (and indeed how) Scotland would remain in the EU if it became an independent state has been an issue that has risen up the political agenda over the past few months. Theresa May has weighed into the debate today, stating that border controls would have to be imposed between Scotland and England if the former joined Schengen. Meanwhile Alex Salmond has apparently not asked the European Commission whether Scotland would continue to be in the EU if it became independent (tweet from @fincarson).

The problem with all of this is that the EU-Scotland issue is more complicated and more mundane than anyone would like to admit, and none of the answers to the main questions really suit either the unionists or the separatists.

I’m going to try to take apart all of the aspects of this as clearly as I can. I would say I am mildly unionist – I don’t see the point of Scottish independence, but conversely it does not bother me much if the Scottish people vote in favour of it. Perhaps that’s why I find this whole ‘debate’ so frustrating.

Right, anyway, to the matter in hand – an independent Scotland in the EU (or not).

The first thing to make clear is that a country splitting in two within the European Union has never happened before. It’s unprecedented. So to claim to be able to draw parallels with other enlargements of the EU will only take us so far.

Secondly, if Scotland were ever to vote for independence, the split is not going to take place overnight – it would take many months or even years to sort out the legal issues, and the EU questions could be handled in parallel.

Thirdly, what about the issue with Salmond’s question: would an independent Scotland automatically be in the European Union? Salmond has not asked this question most probably because he knows the answer: formally the answer would be NO. All current Member States of the European Union have to ratify an accession treaty to allow the new state to join – this is the process being conducted for Croatia right now. The EU Treaties are regular treaties under international law, and so the signature of the 27, 28 or however Member States there are in the EU were an independent Scotland to apply would be needed.

Having said that we come to the fourth issue: how hard would it be for Scotland to negotiate accession? From a legal point of view it would be simple, with two exceptions (see below). The acquis communautaire, the amalgam of all the EU law in existence, already applies to Scotland. Scottish farms, fisheries, mineral water bottling plants etc., etc., are all already compliant with EU law. All the complicated negotiations conducted on these points for every previous enlargement would be able to be finalised very swiftly for Scotland. These negotiations could be conducted in parallel with negotiations with Westminster.

The two main complexities concern Schengen and the Euro. For any new country joining the EU is legally obliged to participate in both of these.

Before a country can join the Euro it needs a functioning central bank to be part of the European System of Central Banks. So Scotland would have to establish a Central Bank, but accession of Scotland to the EU would be on the basis of a commitment to eventually joining the Eurozone (although – Sweden style – they could keep themselves out on a technicality if necessary). The SNP would have to be clearer on this issue than Salmond is here.

The Schengen issue is a little more complicated, for on this one even the SNP would favour passport-free travel between England and Scotland than between Scotland and the rest of the EU. For this to be assured Scotland would need a derogation when negotiating its accession – a commitment to not have to prepare to join Schengen. With the prospect of a pro-EU Edinburgh in the EU I cannot see the other 26 Member States kicking up a fuss on this point, while the pressure from English and Scottish businesses to keep the border free of checks would be considerable. So on this issue while there might formally be a legal complication there would, I am sure, be a political compromise that could be struck.

So there you have it. More than 700 words of explanation that can be summarised thus: Scotland joining the EU would neither be the formality that Salmond would want, nor would it be the legal and political torture that defenders of the UK claim.

Danish Marmite ban – not Pia Kjærsgaard’s next populist plan to keep foreigners away

Today’s Guardian has the story that Denmark is to ban Marmite. As the FT’s Stanley Pignal quipped on Twitter, is this the next step (after new customs controls, despite Schengen) from Denmark’s populist Dansk Folkeparti to keep foreigners away by banning their foods?

While the idea of Pia Kjærsgaard lobbing jars of Marmite across the border is an amusing one, the case is an interesting matter of EU versus national law, and that law is not on Copenhagen’s side.

Essentially EU food law is supreme over national food law, and has been for years in the EU’s single market. This means that a product that is safe for sale in one EU Member State is allowed to be sold in other Member States. Continue Reading

Portugal’s emergency loan – why ‘bailout’ is the wrong word

I was on the BBC World Service programme “World Have Your Say” (programme site, blog) earlier to talk about the implications of the election success of Timo Soini’s True Finns party in yesterday’s parliamentary election. The discussion briefly examined the reasons for the support for this populist party, but the main focus was what the consequences will be for Portugal’s ‘bailout’ from the EU, as all 17 Eurozone members have to agree to assistance for Portugal. The BBC has a Q&A about it here, Gavin Hewitt is talking about political earthquakes here, and YLA has a summary of the main parties’ positions here.

But what is this ‘bailout’ actually?

What – importantly – does the image of ‘bailout’ conjure up in your mind? It’s the picture of water being thrown overboard from a leaking ship and – once the water is out – it’s subsumed into the rest of the ocean, lost.

Hence – in political terms – the very image of ‘bailout’ is wrong. It implies that the money (from the Finns in the case of Soini’s argument) will never be returned. But that is not so, as eloquently argued in this blog post by Henning Meyer at Social Europe Journal. Money is being lent, not given, and is being lent at rates at which lending countries will make a profit.

So this is not a bailout for Portugal. It is an emergency loan. That’s an important difference.

Photo: Amir Jina “Bailing
December 22, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

Beyond the slogans Reding’s data protection principles aren’t too bad

EU justice Commissioner (and, very incidentally, Commissioner responsible for communications) Viviane Reding yesterday gave a speech entitled “Your data, your rights: Safeguarding your privacy in a connected world”. You can read the speech here, and there are articles from The Guardian, The Register and The Telegraph.

I’m actually surprised – the way Reding fleshes out the principles for the policy are better than I had hoped.

The speech outlines 4 pillars on which future EU data protection policy relating to social networks is going to be based. These are the “right to be forgotten”, “transparency”, “privacy by default” and “protection regardless of data location”.

Continue Reading

EU Navfor website – tell them what you think of their mission

When EU institutional comms are not up to scratch I say so – see posts about the EEAS, Citzalia and the Citizens’ Initiative for example. So it’s only fair, in return, when I see a good example of what the European Union is doing to give some credit where credit’s due.

I was hence very happy to see how the European Union Naval Force Somalia – Operation ATALANTA is presented on the web. The site has an engaging, news style design, and the homepage makes good use of photos and even some video. There’s a tag cloud, RSS, and the option to share each article on social networks, and it’s possible to comment directly on articles. Plus the whole thing is built on WordPress.

I am in no position to politically judge whether this mission is working well or not (more about it on Wikipedia here), but at least they are managing to cover the basics well and draw together the news of what they are doing in a contemporary and reasonably interesting manner.

I’m sure my critics will say, well, yes, this is just a small mission. Perhaps. But it’s also a sensitive matter, and they are making a good effort in their external communications, an effort the rest of the EU institutions would do well to learn from.