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Posts tagged with: Referendums

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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Volksentscheid Tempelhofer Feld – what’s happening?

A concise summary of what is happening with the Volksentscheid Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field Referendum) was hard to find in English. So this is my effort to write one, to help explain this rather complicated issue. At the end I’ll give my personal view.

What’s happening?
On 25th May 2014 a Volksentscheid will decide the future of Berlin’s now closed airport, Tempelhof, and its field – Tempelhofer Feld. Two questions are on the ballot paper.

Who has the right to vote?
Anyone with the right to vote in the Land of Berlin, i.e. same as for the Berliner Abgeordnetenhaus. EU citizens do not have the right to vote on Land level in Germany and so cannot vote on the Volksentscheid.

Why is there a Volksentscheid about this?
The initiative 100% Tempelhofer Feld gathered signatures to stop the plans of the Berlin Senate to build on parts of the edge of the field. 174000 citizen signatures (I think 10% of the eligible voters in Berlin?) were required to force the issue to a referendum – the campaign succeeded in gathering 223000 signatures by 13 January 2014, and hence the referendum had to happen. The Senate opted for 25th May, the same day as the European Election, for the vote. This initiative aims to keep Tempelhofer Feld 100% as it is – i.e. no building at all – and this is the first question on the referendum – Yes means keeping Tempelhof as it is. No means you are open to some building plans.

What else is on the ballot?
There is a second question on the ballot, and this one is rather confusingly known as 100% Berlin. This question is whether to approve the exact building plans put forward by the Senate or not.

What about turnout?
A referendum in Berlin is approved if 25% of eligible voters approve it – so, for example, 50.1% in favour, on the basis of a 50% turnout, would be enough for an approval. If this amount is not reached, even if the result is a Yes, means the issue can be decided by the Senate.

What happens with each combination of results?
YES to Q1, and over the 25% hurdle, and either YES or NO to Q2 – means nothing will be built on Tempelhofer Feld.
YES to Q1, but not over the 25% hurdle, and either YES or NO to Q2 – means the decision is back in the hands of the Senate.
NO to Q1, and YES to Q2, and over the 25% hurdle – Senate proceeds with its building plans.
NO to Q1, and YES to Q2, but not over the 25% hurdle – Senate can legally proceed with its plans, but may be less determined having not achieved decisive public backing.
NO to Q1, and NO to Q2 – Senate can legally proceed with its plans, but has little public support. Argument about the plans would continue, not least about the form of the building plans.

Further reading
Summary from Berliner Zeitung, January 2014, in German.
100% Tempelhofer Feld campaign, in German.
Wikipedia on the Volksentscheid, in German.
RBB on the process to collect the signatures, in German.
Press release from the Senate explaining their quest for Yes on Q2, in German.

My own view
If I had a vote (I hold a UK passport, so do not have the right to vote – annoying as I live less than 1km from the airport), I would personally vote NO and NO, even though my party – the Grüne – are arguing for YES and NO. The idea to preserve the field exactly as it is currently is wrong in my view – there is no proper way to maintain it, and I do not want it to just degrade. I’ve made the case for this here – Berlin has too much poorly maintained green space. But I am also not in favour of the Senate’s plans – an even more complete focus on low cost housing would be welcome, and I am not convinced of the need for a major library. As someone OK with some building in principle, but not in favour of the Senate’s plans, a NO and NO would be the only option.

Pro-EU organisation building in the UK

Screen Shot 2013-07-13 at 15.15.52“I don’t want anything to do with the European Movement. They are federalists!” Those were the words a British friend of a friend in Brussels said to me this week as we were discussing what sort of organisations would be needed in the UK to make sure any eventual in-out of the EU referendum could be won by the pro-EU side.

At one level I quibbled that the European Movement is even in favour of federalism – the f-word is not even mentioned in its Constitution, nor in its Aims & Activities, and as a former President of JEF-Europe, I know what federalism is.

But whether the European Movement is federalist or not is not actually the main issue. The essential point is that any pro-EU campaign in the UK needs to find a place for the European Movement. And a place for Federal Union, for British Influence, for the Labour Movement for Europe, for the Liberal Democrat Europe Group, and a place for whatever other other pro-EU causes of whatever colour might be created. And a place for the CBI, the TUC, the Royal College of Nursing, and the likes of the British Potato Trade Association (I don’t know whether the latter two are pro-EU, but you get the idea). There cannot, and nor should there be, one single pro-EU campaign in the UK. If there were to be just one campaign then the danger is that campaign becomes something akin to Yes to AV – i.e. a stodgy disaster.

But what if anti-EU people raise a problem that the pro-EU campaign is hence inconsistent, or that it contains unlikely bed-fellows? Well, hit back with the counter case. You think Bob Crow and Nigel Farage are anti-EU for the same reasons? Or the people that support the Bruges Group and the RMT Union oppose the EU for the same reasons? That is just as preposterous a suggestion as to assume that all pro-EU people are pro-EU for the same reasons. Look too at the 2008 Irish No to Lisbon – the No side was totally incoherent, but each of its component organisations found resonance with a part of Irish society, and No emerged victorious. The pro-EU side in the UK needs to learn from that.

So why then does the gentleman I was talking to in Brussels feel so damned defensive? It’s time to abandon that defensiveness, and be ready to live with a diverse pro-EU cause.

Denmark’s possible EU Patent Court referendum – an opportunity?

[Please note: this is not a piece about referendums in general, and nor does it call into question my overall position as a referendum-sceptic. It relates to a very specific Danish case.]

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 13.58.06The Danish Ministry of Justice, in the final page of this note (in Danish, PDF), has once more thrust the issue of referendums in Danish-EU relations back onto the political agenda. The judgment of the Ministry is that ratification of the Agreement on a Unified Patent Court [PDF] would be a transfer of sovereignty from Denmark to the European Union, meaning Article 20 of the Danish Constitution applies. This stipulates that any such transfer of sovereignty must be approved either by a super majority of 5/6 of the Danish parliament, the Folketing, or a referendum must be held. A summary of the constitutional implications can be found in Politiken in English here, and more about the whole issue of the Court and EU patents from Wikipedia here.

Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt’s reaction to the Ministry’s opinion was rather predictable – that the Patent Court issue is so technical that a referendum should not be held, and parliament should ratify the agreement. Quotes from her, in Danish, from DR can be found here.

Thorning’s problem is that there are three parties in the Folketing that would oppose the ratification – the Danish People’s Party (22 seats), Liberal Alliance (9 seats) and the Red-Green Alliance (12 seats). Opposition from the People’s Party, and one of the other two, would be enough to prevent the 5/6 majority. So – surprise, surprise – it is the People’s Party who have been strongest demanding a referendum (here, in Danish), and the Liberal Alliance has made the same demand according to BT (here, in Danish).

So what should Thorning do?

She could, like Lars Løkke Rasmussen before her, try to deal with the People’s Party, giving them something in return for their support of the Patent Court. The problem is that her government was elected in large part to break the reliance that Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s previous government had on the People’s Party – dealing with them would look like a betrayal. Denmark could theoretically not ratify, and put itself in the same position as Italy and Spain and not be part of the Court, but as Thorning has rightly said, for an open, small economy with intellectually intensive industries like Denmark this latter option makes no sense.

So – like it or not – Thorning is likely to have to go down the route of holding a referendum about the Patent Court. This, if played right, could actually be an opportunity. This is because the Patent Court referendum could be bundled together with votes on two of Denmark’s three EU opt-outs – on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, and Police and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters. Thorning’s government said it would hold a referendum on these opt outs anyway, but in 2012 postponed a decision to do so until turbulence in the Eurozone decreased. The need to hold a vote on the Patent Court could therefore present the opportunity to vote on all three matters at the same time, in three separate questions on the ballot paper.

While I am no fan of referendums, surely going for a three-question referendum on the two opt outs and the Patent Court would be a better bet than having to deal with the Danish People’s Party?

[Note: other EU countries face similar issues with the Patent Court. Ireland will hold a referendum on the issue, as confirmed on 1st May, and could this issue even trigger the UK’s referendum lock?]

Enlightenment pro-EU, versus values based pro-EU – some thoughts about Garton Ash and an in-out referendum

So Timothy Garton Ash has nailed his colours to the mast in The Guardian, and stated the case for an in-or-out of the EU referendum in the UK to be held sometime between 2015 and 2020. Loads of people are jumping up and down about TGA’s piece – everyone from Bruno Waterfield and Patrick O’Flynn to the ‘oooh it’s Garton Ash’ sycophant pro-EU friends of mine are positive about it.

I’m not positive about it. Here’s why.

My reservations about referendums are well known – I do not know if a ‘fair’ referendum with a balanced debate is even possible, regardless of the subject. I am also not as throwaway as Garton Ash with the assertion that referendums are important to the British constitution, because for me such a shift to direct democracy is worthy of a debate in itself, something that has not happened since referendums started happening so often since 1997. But hell, like Garton Ash, I think this in-out referendum is going to happen anyway, so my critique of his piece is not about the need (or not) for a referendum.

Instead my critique is of the poor and old fashioned way he builds his argument. In this TGA seems to not have moved on beyond what I will call being enlightenment pro-EU*. This is the way that the European Union has been debated in the UK for the last couple of decades, dating back at least as far as the Britain in Europe campaign, but also probably before. The essential approach here is that the elites of business, politics and academia (think Garton Ash himself, and grandees like Mandelson and Heseltine) think that Britain’s membership of the EU is a good thing, and that if enough facts are presented then the population will come to the same view. To be pro-EU is a massive bean counting exercise – weigh up all the pros and cons, and of course the rational person will come down on the pro-EU side. Garton Ash talks of when the people are “confronted with the facts” they will keep Britain in.

The problem with all of this is two-fold. Firstly, the Britain in Europe campaign, enlightenment pro-EU, was top down and centralised. It relied on the people to trust their leaders, yet the experience in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005 shows they do not when it comes to the EU. Further, if we are to learn anything from the Irish referendum debacles over the Treaty of Lisbon it is that civil society based campaigns make more sense – any campaign must be participative, not top down.

Secondly, political communications has moved on – look at the work of Lakoff and others. The problem is that – contrary to the way Garton Ash frames it – there is no one definition of the facts when it comes to the European Union. How can a number of jobs or a GDP gain (promised by the pro-EU side) be balanced by a return of national sovereignty or no more contributions to the EU budget (promised by the anti-EU side)? The answer of course is this is a matter of personal values, not bean counting. To put it another way, even if I could prove to someone like Gawain Towler or Harry Aldridge (UKIPpers I’ve debated in the past) that leaving the EU would be detrimental to the UK’s economy, for them the reassertion of sovereignty would win. I think they are wrong, but it boils down to our respective values and not the facts as such.

All of this takes us to a very different place if, as Garton Ash wishes, we want the result of a referendum to be for the UK to stay in the EU. It means that how we talk about the European Union has to be brought into line with people’s values. It is about how we see relations between people in a globalised world. Do we believe the EU is just about a market, with the need for trade rules and little more? Is it that employee and environmental protection are equally important for all? Is the only way to stay relevant in the world to collaborate with other countries in the EU?

This is what I mean by values based pro-EU – it is because I am a social democrat that I am pro-EU. We need ways for it to be consistent to be a conservative and be pro-EU, to be a liberal and be pro-EU, and I do not mean that narrowly in terms of party political definitions of conservative, liberal etc. The ways to communicate this to different groups will vary. Different messages and interlocutors will be needed. What we most definitely do not need is an enlightenment pro-EU approach, making the same case to everyone, and assuming the facts will speak for themselves. And remember we tried that with Yes to AV, and look what happened to that. It’s high time the pro-EU people woke up – otherwise they are heading for defeat if this referendum ever happens.

* – I am aware this sounds rather cumbersome, but the term pro-European has become so complicated to define that I am loathe to use that term. Pro-EU is more accurate, if less elegant.

Simon Usherwood at the University of Surrey makes very similar points to this post, citing Daniel Kahneman. It’s worth a read too!

Time, and Scotland and the EU

Screen Shot 2012-12-25 at 18.19.03Oh here we go again. It seems the question of how an independent Scotland could work in the EU will never go away. Rather than focusing on the EU’s Nobel Prize, BBC’s Hard Talk asked Barroso about Scotland and the EU in an interview today and, as before, Barroso reiterated the line that a new state – Scotland – would have to apply to join the EU. Cue unionists jumping up and down with glee (again), and being wrong (again).

The blog entry I wrote about this in March is as true as ever – the process to get Scotland into the EU is going to be a mundane and tedious one. It will be neither as simple as Salmond would like, nor impossible as unionists might argue.

Further, in this context, the question posed to Barroso – if Scotland would have to apply – does not actually matter anyway, because of time.

Look at it this way. Scotland is not going to vote to leave the UK, and then become independent the next day. Disentangling everything from energy networks to transport systems, financing to contributions to the BBC is going to take a long period of time – at least 12 months. It is going to be a matter of enormous policymaking complexity. Now I know everyone in British politics assumes negotiations can conclude instantly* Currently there is no discussion about the time aspect of the referendum, and UK politics tends to underestimate time politics can take (Nick Robinson’s 5 days that changed Britain, about 2010, is testimony to that), but I cannot see how separation of Scotland from the UK could possibly be concluded swiftly.

In comparison to that, Scotland applying to join the EU is actually going to be comparatively easy, and most definitely much easier and faster than any previous enlargement of the EU because Scotland is fully compliant with the acquis communautaire anyway. Hence how Scotland can work within the EU can be negotiated in parallel to negotiations with London to leave the UK.

Now there is the small chance that something could go wrong – some country or other could veto Scotland’s entry. But doing so, for a comparatively rich new country that had been part of the EU anyway, is just going to look like sour grapes and anyway some major EU countries, notably France, will be content to see a weakened London anyway, and hence would be on the side of letting Scotland into the EU. Yes, Scotland might have to commit to join the Euro, but Sweden still has that commitment as well, and is it making it happen?

Also look at the UK-Scotland side – what happens if these negotiations were to fail? That a financial arrangement, or a division of military or natural resources cannot be hammered out? Again, this looks to me much more of a headache than an EU accession.

So, whatever side of the independence argument you are on, the EU question is NOT going to be make or break.

* NOTE: This line has been changed because I was accused on Twitter of “straw man tactics” for having used it. Part of the idea of this blog entry is to try to have a sensible discussion about the Scotland-EU question, and I don’t want people picking holes in individual sentences. The overall issue is too important for that. Hence the change.

If you’re British and care about UK-EU relations, then you’re either in a state of permanent delusion or permanent depression

Two grandees of UK politics were at it again today. Peter Mandelson, while at least acknowledging an in-out referendum for the UK, was nevertheless pompous and deluded in the FT: “pro-Europeans […] should acknowledge that their case has largely been won by default and that it needs to be re-articulated with fresh vigour”. Vince Cable, speaking at Chatham House, was even worse, quoted in Chatham House’s newsletter thus: “The debate about the Single Market, like the wider debate about the EU, must be based on thorough analysis not emotion” (there’s more about the event he spoke at here, and the edition of International Affairs is here).

Sorry Vince and Peter, but what planet are you living on? You’re both deluded.

Thorough analysis might be important for good policy making, but that is not going to be what will influence a debate about EU matters in the UK. Indeed I do not think you really appeal to anyone in UK politics that way. You appeal to people on the basis of the values that you hold, and how you express them. You need to apply the lessons of George Lakoff.

Putting it another way: making the case for Britain remaining in the EU is not a glorified bean counting exercise – we gain X% of GDP, while your isolationism will lose you Y% of GDP. Neither side can ‘win’ this debate – we do not have a counterfactual, something that can mysteriously help us work out what the UK being outside the EU these last 40 years would look like. While I admire the persistence of people like Nucleus and Brian Duggan, I cannot see how their approach can possibly work.

The ‘debate’ about the EU in the UK is gone. It’s lost. It’s broken. To think there is a way back, just with the old measures, just with the same old, stale ‘pro-European’ appeals from Jackie Ashley or Polly Toynbee in The Guardian is the height of delusion. This is the country where populist journalists based in Westminster think it’s OK to tell Members of the European Parliament that they know more about the European Parliament than the MEP does. Where newspapers feel it’s fine to publish stuff about the EU, while either already knowing it’s not true, or not doing basic research (case here, rebuttal here). This is the country where – fuelled by the expenses scandal in Westminster and the enduring whiff of corruption in the Brussels corridors too – it is assumed that you must be corrupt just to want to be a Member of the European Parliament. It’s guilty until for sure shown to be guilty, not innocent until proven guilty as it should be. Take the temperature of the comments below this story I wrote about a sensible MEP, Sharon Bowles, on The Guardian’s website, and try and counter that stuff. Yes, that’s The Guardian.

So what to do?

Personally I have just crossed the threshold from deluded to depressed. I really do not have answers, ideas of how to move forward, at least not in the short term. I do not see any realistic way forward without an in-out referendum, but the prospect that such a vote actually really solves things is not likely either. Further, if the In side were to be run as Yes was run in the AV referendum then Out would have a good chance to win. In would need to learn the lessons of the Irish No to Lisbon campaign – letting a thousand flowers bloom, and within the panoply of views everyone could find their cause. The danger would be with people like Mandy or Cable at the helm that the In campaign would end up being the very same stodgy pro-Europeanism that has served us so badly for so long – bean counting style, poorly framed, institutional, and bland. Of course the popular but not realistically achievable ‘renegotiate’ option on the ballot would negate the danger of an Out victory, but would just prolong the agony of UK-EU wrangles.

The bare bones of some sort of rebound for keeping the UK inside the EU, and indeed some sort of effort to restore some trust in mainstream party politics, will need deep and profound changes at all levels. A measly 11% of the British trust political parties – among large EU Member States only Italy is lower (more here). The academics behind the UK’s Democratic Audit use the words that UK democracy is in ‘terminal decline‘. Meanwhile replacing politicians with business people on platforms, Britain in Europe early-2000s-style, is no good either – with enough large corporates being hauled over the coals since the 2008 financial crisis business people are not trustworthy surrogates for politicians.

It as if we have switched to a new default – no trust of the political establishment – and we need new ways to come to terms with this. Complete transparency of the conduct of our politicians, and net-connected participatory decision making, have to be part of the answer (issues that I referred to in my counterfactual). What is called “prefigurative action” – the attempt to practice the kind of democracy that we as citizens imagine, the way Occupy movements work – needs to be part of it too. You should not need to be a sycophantic devotee to a party line and banner to feel you can play some role within politics. But even then I don’t know where all of that will lead us.

At national, just as at EU level, we do not really know how to properly do representative democracy in the post deference, always connected age. Until we work it out I fear I’m going to stay stuck in my depression.

Britain, perhaps it’s time to hold a referendum and to leave the EU

I’m going to start this blog entry with the assertion of my basic views, for these remain unchanged. For it is the circumstances that have altered, as I will explain.

Now, as before, I am strongly of the view that the UK should remain a Member State of the European Union, and that the European Union is stronger with Britain in it if Britain contributes sensibly. I also still have a deep scepticism of referendums – for I do not think fair and balanced debate in referendums is ever possible.

Yet today, for the first time, I have started to come to the conclusion that holding an in-out EU referendum in the UK is now a good idea – as a way to get the UK out of the EU. My only caveat is a personal one – I will need to find EU citizenship elsewhere, but that can be solved somewhere I hope.

The reason of course is today’s news that the EU has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The reaction in the UK has been almost entirely negative – how could they possibly make such an award? Farage and Hannan have been having a field day with their critique, and Farage has been getting lots of air time. The FCO and Labour could only manage the tersest of terse statements, and William Hague remained resolutely silent on the issue. The only MPs who can bring themselves to be positive are Denis MacShane, Chris Bryant and Angus MacNeil of the SNP. Not even David Miliband could muster up anything positive to say.

It has even become fair game to question the EU’s role in contributing to peace in Europe – yes, OK, the EU could have done more. The EU should have stepped in earlier in the Balkans. But the last 60 years have been the longest period of uninterrupted peace in more than 600 years of European history (@eurodale’s graphic sums it up).

I can’t be certain the EU guaranteed peace, and correlation does not equal causation, but in a historical comparison we’ve done damned well these last 60 years. The UK, as a Member State for almost 40 of those years, has done its bit too – helping post conflict reconstruction, playing its part in ensuring the reunification of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Is there no-one in the UK that can see this any more?

If there were to be another possible war in the Balkans tomorrow it would most likely be the UK cautioning against any action being taken, with the UK nominee to the Commission (Ashton) keeping the EU’s foreign policy weak. When the EU makes moves to find its way out of the financial crisis and stabilise the Eurozone it’s the UK Prime Minister who storms out in a huff. Whatever reforms of the EU institutions are going to be proposed in the next couple of years, the UK is going to oppose them. And on the day we should be able to take some distance and reflect on what we have achieved in sixty years no mainstream politician in the UK can find anything positive to say.

So, UK, hold your referendum, and opt for not so splendid isolation. It would be the wrong call for the UK, but the political future of the EU is more important than one reticent Member State. If constructive engagement is out of the question then have the vote and leave, and today seems to demonstrate that.