State of the Union »

  • Are Biffo and Brown trying to spin a yes?

    June 20, 2009 @ 11:34 am | by Jamie Smyth


    It’s a rare sight indeed: Brian Cowen offering a smile at an EU summit.

    Biffo has had an annus horribilis since becoming taoiseach. At his first EU summit last June he had to explain to his angry EU counterparts why the Irish public had rejected Lisbon. He has been in the bad boys corner ever since.

     What a contrast then to see him emerge victorious from last week’s summit after doing battle with Gordon Brown clutching seven pages of legal guarantees and that all important protocol.

    Britain a few other EU states were concerned that offering Ireland the ability to write its guarantees into the text of the EU treaties at the time of the next EU accession treaty could reopen the whole Lisbon debate in their home countries.

     The spectre of Vaclav Klaus also hung over the summit. The eurosceptic Czech president says Ireland’s legal guarantees- even without a protcol- needed to be reratified by the Czech parliament. The Czech prime minister rejects this.

     But at the summit EU leaders were desperate not to hand Klaus a new pretext to further delay the ratification of Lisbon. They all know that if Lisbon isn’t ratified when David Cameron’s Conservatives sweep to power, the treaty is dead. And they need Klaus to sign the treaty before then.

     There is also a fear among diplomats that when Ireland asks other states to ratify its protcol through their parliaments in 2 or 3 years time a host of other states will put forward requests of their own. A pandora’s box of requests could leave the EU engaged in a new bout of insitutional navel gazing.

    But back to the summit and that splenidid Cowen victory. I can’t think of any better way to start a second referendum campaign than Biffo getting one over the old enemy in a high stakes game of summit diplomacy.

     As a cynical journalist that makes me rather suspcious. Did the Irish and British deliberately engage in grandstanding to spin the media and smoothe the path towards a second yes?  

    The leak of a confidential pre-summit letter from Cowen to all 27 heads of state, which warned he couldn’t win a referneudm without a protocol, certainly helped to raise the tension and attract front page headlines in Ireland. But surely the Irish had already been promised a protocol by French president Nicolas Sarkozy last December when he said it could be granted when Croatia eventually joined the Union? And couldn’t the intensive three weeks of shuttle diplomacy between London, Dublin and Brussels by Irish diplomats prior to the summit have sorted out any problems?  

     Most diplomats I’ve asked about this say it would be too dangerous to try and spin a major row at a summit in case other member states got involved. They suggest that the real answer lies in the busy schedules of prime ministers.

     Brown probably wasn’t briefed about the Irish request until a day before the summit because he has so many other things on his plate. Diplomats also be their very nature are cautious and can’t decide on the big issues before their boss has attended to them them.

    Thankfully that leaves just a little bit drama for us journalists at summits.             

  • In Ireland a woman’s place is in the home

    June 16, 2009 @ 1:46 pm | by Jamie Smyth


    I’ve had my first look at the guarantees that are intended to meet the concerns of the Irish electorate and persuade them to back the Lisbon treaty this autumn.

     My first thought as I pore over the texts is that I’ve read them somewhere before. All that stuff about not prejudicing a member states’ neutrality or attaching high importance to workers rights and social progress is already in the
    Lisbon treaty

     I remember the phrases well because I was commissioned by my paper to write a 10 part series on the treaty running to an excruciating 10,000 words.

    Granted, the guarantees drawn up by Irish and EU diplomats do add a little bit of colour when compared to the
    Lisbon text. I particularly like the sentence that Lisbon doesn’t create a European army or introduce conscription and that it is up to Ireland to decide whether to help an EU state attacked by terrorists.

     So for those citizens who don’t have time to flick through the Lisbon treaty the Irish guarantee text, which runs to seven pages, may help to soothe their concerns that the EU is about to force their sons to go to war or enslave workers. As one colleague mentioned over breakfast earlier today, it’s Lisbon for slow learners. 

    But I admit I was a little flummoxed by our ethical guarantee, which says nothing in Lisbon or the charter of fundamental rights affects the “right to life, family and education” as laid down in the Irish constitution in articles 40.3.1/40.3.2/ 40.3.3/ 41/42/ 44.2.4/44.2.5. I haven’t read those articles for a while and I imagine that many of our EU partners aren’t versed in the text of Bunreacht na hEireann. 

      A quick Google search and I’m trawling through our constitution, which doesn’t make pretty reading for atheists. The preamble makes it clear who is in charge in Ireland.

     “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial…”

     Article 40.3 deals with abortion, which is illegal in Ireland except in exceptional circumstances.The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right,”

     Article 41 provides some good lines on the “inalienable and imprescriptable” rights of the family as the “natural primary and fundamental group of society”.

      But the best bit is undoubtedly the bit about women’s role in society.  “In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home,” says Article 41.2. 

    Reading this stuff suddenly makes Lisbon and the charter of fundamental rights sound pretty attractive. Maybe we should be voting in the autumn to try to ensure that Lisbon does introduce wholesale changes to our constitution.

  • Should Barroso get the nod this week?

    June 14, 2009 @ 7:53 pm | by Jamie Smyth


    It’s going to be a long week for the EU legal eagles and a horrible one for journalists. The agenda of the European Council is stuffed full of so many complex legal issues that by Friday afternoon my head will be spinning trying to decipher the formal summit conclusions. 

     First up is what to do about Mr Barroso: to nominate or to intend to nominate? That is the mindbogglingly nerdy question exercising some of the finest legal brains in Brussels right now.

     The French, who aren’t always noted for their strict adherence to community law (remember that ugly spat with the Czech’s over outsourcing car production), want a political rather than a legal decision to be taken on Barroso’s nomination. A legal decision should wait until the Irish vote and Lisbon can enter into force.

     The French argue that formally appointing Barroso under the terms of the Nice treaty but then waiting until the Lisbon treaty enters into force before appointing the rest of the commission is “legally dubious”.

    A formal nomination could also pose problems if the Irish reject the Lisbon treaty a second time. If Barroso already has his job it means Portugal already has a commissioner yet under the Nice treaty the size of the commission will have to be reduced by at least one member- so why should Portugal be the only state assured of not losing their commissioner between 2010-2014?

     Of course, French objections aren’t entirely based on legal concerns. They want to keep the pressure on Barroso for as long as possible to help them land a plum economic portfolio in the commission. The Germans, who have a general election in September, also fancy a delay as they don’t know who they will send to the commission and therefore aren’t in a position to lobby for commission portfolios. The fear is that by then all the good jobs in the commission will have been snapped up as member states engage in the inevitable rush to nominate commissioners as soon as Barroso is reappointed.

     I’m all for good legal arguments but the logic of the Franco-German wears a little thin given that if the EU followed the strict letter of the treaties a new commission president should be appointed under Nice along with the rest of his commission team- albeit with one less commissioner. After all, who knows if the Irish will vote yes and the Czech and Polish presidents are going to sign the treaty allowing it to enter into force in 2010?

     Whatever Barroso’s faults, and he has a few, it makes no sense to destabilise the commission at such a sensitive time with a global economic crisis still raging and a crucial climate change deal still to be agreed this year. In this I agree with the Swedes, who are anxious there is a strong president to help them during their EU presidency beginning in July.  

     Of course, the real shame about the current debate about  nominating Barroso is that there aren’t any other serious contenders for the job. The Socialists are completely split on the issue (former Danish PM Poul Nyrup Rasmussen couldn’t get British, Spanish or Portuguese backing) while the Liberals simply don’t have the weight to get behind former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt. This unfortunately leaves EU journalists writing lengthy blogs about complex legal processes rather than personalites- sorry! 


  • EU elites delight at Libertas defeat

    June 11, 2009 @ 11:09 am | by Jamie Smyth

    Here is a short video clip I’ve been sent from election night at the European parliament. The man doing the talking is Wilfred Martens, president of the European People’s Party (EPP)- basically a big cheese in the biggest European party.

     The EPP are staunch supporters of the Lisbon treaty and therefore bitter enemies of Declan Ganley’s Libertas. I think you’ll get the point from his reaction on live TV to being told that Libertas had not won any seats in the elections.

     There is quite a lot of funny Libertas stuff knocking around on Youtube (but I won’t attach it to this blog for reasons for decency)- got to protect the Irish Time brand.

    But remember Brian Cowen’s famous “Downfall” take off on YouTube- well there is a similar one featuring Ganley, Jens Peter Bonde and a few other Libertas cast members. Do a search and you’ll find it.

     More seriously though the Libertas melt down in the elections probably spells the end for the organisation across
    Europe. I’ve already been tipped off about huge debts being wracked up in member states, which I’m investigating today and may be able to report on later this week in the The Irish Times.        

     I walked past their huge building in Brussels this morning and couldn’t help looking for a “to let” sign. I could be wrong but to I predict a rather bitter unravelling of the whole organisation. Let’s see what happens next….

  • How can we persuade people to vote?

    June 9, 2009 @ 6:22 pm | by Jamie Smyth

     I’ve just attended a post-election analysis in Brussels hosted by the European Policy Centre think tank where the big issue was the low turnout.  

     Just 43 per cent of Europeans bothered to cast a vote with
    Slovakia again ranked bottom of the league in terms of turnout at just 19.6 per cent. 

     Privately, many EU officials are heaving huge sighs of relief because at one point they thought turnout could slump to 33 per cent. This would have raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the whole EU project and handed eurosceptics a powerful tool to use in their attacks on the Union. 

     So what’s the problem with European elections- why don’t people vote?

     Certainly, the EU is more distant than national parliaments for voters and it doesn’t legislate on the big issues of taxation, health and social security, which tend to prompt vigorous debate.   Also, as someone pointed out today 43 per cent turnout isn’t bad considering many people struggle to name even one MEP- and personalities matter in politics. But they tend to be strangely absent from the debate in the European elections in many countries.

     However, in France Danny ‘the Red’ Cohn Bendit showed what a recognised face can do. (The French Greens more than doubled their vote to 15 per cent and now rival the French Socialists). And in Ireland the Declan Ganley factor added extra spice to the elections at home.  

     But some of the blame must also rest with the voting systems in many EU states, which do not favour making personalities an issue. The infamous “list system” used in Britain and many continental EU states means MEPs from the same party aren’t competing against one another. It also hands party bosses the power to select who will get a seat and who doesn’t rather than the public.  

     In contrast, the Irish system gives voters the chance to choose their individual candidates, which may have helped turnout reach 57 per cent at home.  Of course, it can have a downside by accentuating parish pump politics forcing MEPs to fix pot holes and speed ramps but on the whole its probably good for democracy.    

     Another healthy sign in the Irish election was the focus on existing MEP’s record. For example Mary Lou McDonald, who lost her seat, had the worst attendance record of all 13 MEPs. This was highlighted in the campaign and may have been a factor in her unsuccessful campaign.

      The victorious 12 MEPs, who head off to Strasbourg next month for their first plenary session, should take note.  

     Some other ideas that could spark more interest in the elections are: making all political groups select a candidate for European Commission president prior to the election to give voters a choice of candidate (The Socialists failure to do this prior to the elections was a big mistake); each country should elect their commissioner in the elections rather than allow governments to chose them; create a European public services broadcaster to carry news of the election and campaign in every state. Has anyone got any other bright ideas?  

  • Fringe parties may win but Libertas to lose big?

    June 7, 2009 @ 12:24 pm | by Jamie Smyth


    In Ireland, Britain, the Netherlands and Latvia the governing parties have taken a hammering in the face of the economic crisis, according to early exit polls.

      Fianna Fail in Ireland and the Labour party in Britain have received their worst ever share of the national vote in local elections. These results will be replicated in the European elections as voters punish the governing parties for their economic mistakes.  

     In Latvia and the Netherlands fringe parties are the big winners. The Dutch far right have triumphed with Geert Widlers taking four seats while in Latvia the far left Harmony Centre party- led by former Latvian communist leader Alfred Rubiks  is set for a big win. Rubiks, who was convicted of treason for attempting a coup against the democratic government in the early 1990s, is on course to claim 20 per cent of the vote. 

    Clearly the economic crisis is the key issue that voters are reacting to in these elections and fringe parties look set to make gains at the expense of the political establishment.  

     These should be perfect conditions for Libertas to make a breakthrough. It is running some 531 candidates in 14 EU countries on an anti-establishment platform and has been claiming that it could scoop up to 100 seats in the 736 seat European parliament.  

     Dream on Declan. I predict the party, which has probably spent euro 30 million on the campaign, could be set for a humiliating defeat in almost every EU state it runs in. In the Netherlands and Latvia its candidates didn’t even show up in the exit polls and instead were lumped into the “other parties” category. In Britain it will struggle against a host of anti-EU parties such as UKIP and NotoEU and polls conducted prior to today’s voting suggested Libertas may claim just a single seat in
    France. But even that result in France would be a major disappointment given that Libertas has teamed up with the
    Movement for France party, which currently has three sitting MEPs in parliament. Libertas’ failure rests on several factors.

     The whole premise of the party- its opposition to the Lisbon treaty- simply doesn’t turn on European voters, who care more about saving their jobs right now. Ganley also faced a huge challenge in building a political movement from scratch in a myriad of countries where he simply didn’t know the political landscape. Libertas also struggled to present any coherent ideology, for example by advocating a clamp down on immigration in Ireland while supporting open borders in Poland.

     For these reasons I think no matter what happens in the north west constituency today I’d be surprised if Libertas’ pan-European ambition survives this election.

  • June 2009: Is fascism on the rise?

    June 5, 2009 @ 8:35 am | by Jamie Smyth


    Geert Wilders, a platinum blonde Dutch politician who wants to ban the Koran and the building of Mosques, has emerged as the first big winner in the elections.

    Exit polls show his Party for Freedom (PVV) has attracted between 15-17 per cent of the vote, which should be enough to scoop four of the 25 seats on offer in the Netherlands. The polls rank it second to the ruling Christian Democrats, who should pick up five seats- a drop of two on the seven seats they won in 2004. 

    Wilders, who was recently denied entry into Britain and faces a hate crime trial at home, has ridden a tide of anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic feeling in the Netherlands that has gathered pace since the murders of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo van Gogh in 2004 – also both outspoken critics of the Islamic faith. 

    He set up the PVV in 2005 and campaigned on a platform of tough curbs on immigration, law and order and banning the building of new mosques. Last year he broadcast a short film called Fitna over the internet, which carried the message that the Islamic faith promoted terrorism and violence against women. 

    Wilders will not take a seat in the European parliament himself but four of his party will now travel to Brussels and Strasbourg advocating the closure of Europe’s borders to immigrants and the end of enlargement talks with Turkey. But does his victory suggest the far right are on course for a major breakthrough in these European elections?

    Against a backdrop of rising unemployment and public anger at politicians, who have bailed out the banks but have balked at taking radical action to stem the tide of job losses, is fascism on the march?

    Opinion polls published prior to the election suggest not. The British National Party was in the hunt to win several seats in
    Britain but most commentators say it may struggle to claim a single seat now. In France the National Front led by Jean Le Pen is one course to lose three or four of its seven MEPs. After all, Nicolas Sarkozy has stolen his clothes by mounting a a major crack down on immigration.

    In Poland the Polish League of Families, which has been subsumed into Libertas Poland, may not win a single seat, according to the latest analysis by the polling website Predict 09. In 2004 the League won a massive ten seats in the parliament.  

    But in countries suffering most from the economic crisis such as Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania fringe far right parties could make a breakthrough. Perhaps, the far right party with the biggest chance of claiming seats is the Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary) party, which stands accused of whipping up populist sentiment against gypsies. A Jobbik delegation recently met the leader of the British National Party to discuss possible cooperation in the European Parliament.  

    By early Monday morning we will know whether Wilders’ success has been replicated in other EU states. But my suspicion is that his spectacular success says more about the state of politics in the Netherlands than across Europe.

  • How Europe conquered the final frontier

    June 3, 2009 @ 6:35 pm | by Jamie Smyth

    YouTube Preview Image 

    You have to hand it to the Belgians: they really do love Europe.  

    With mounting fears that the elections will be marked by poor turnout and a resurgence of euroscepticism they are pulling out all the stops to try to get the European electorate to cast a vote. Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne today beamed a message to earth from outer space urging people to go the polls!  

    “I have arranged to vote by proxy, so I won’t miss out on the next European elections while I’m up here. I hope you will also vote, wherever you are and whatever political views you have” said De Winne, who was launched last week from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on a mission to the International Space Station.

    De Winne, who will be the first European to command the space station, said the elections matter because: “Europe improves so many parts of our daily lives from environmental protection to consumer rights, from transport safety to the free movement of people, Europe is about the well-being of its citizens”.

    In Belgium voting is compulsory so his message was clearly designed to appeal to other electorates. Slovakia claimed the crown for the lowest turnout in the last European elections with just 17 per cent of people registering a vote. But turnout has slipped in every single European elections since the parliament became directly elected in 1979.

    A Polish diplomat I spoke to this week said he feared less than 20 per cent of people would show up at the polls while turnout in the crisis-torn Baltic Republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could also be low.  

    In Ireland turnout is expected to be relatively high with voters motivated by a desire to give the Government a bloody nose. A recent poll commissioned by the European parliament predicted a 66 per cent turnout in the Republic, which compares to an European average of 43 per cent.  

    Given that the parliament has increased its powers considerably since 1979 when 63 per cent of Europeans voted, a failure to beat the 45.5 per cent turnout recorded in 2004 will be a big disappointment for the EU.

    MEPs are the only directly elected politicians sent to Brussels to work on EU affairs and therefore provide an important democratic legitimacy to the whole European project.

  • The nazi hunters pursuit of Libertas

    June 2, 2009 @ 9:11 pm | by Jamie Smyth


    As if poor poll results are not enough bad news for Libertas now they have the Simon Wiesenthal Centre on their backs.

    The Jewish human rights group, which is famous for hunting down Nazi war criminals, has written to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency asking for it to undertake an investigation on its links with several members of the Polish League of Familes.  

    “Libertas is running some 600 candidates in over 20 of the elections in the 27 member-states. Some of those standing are known antisemites, homophobes and anti-migrant racists,” says the centre in press release today.  

    “These include: Ryszard Bender and Anna Sobecka of the Polish League of Families. Both are supporters of the widely criticized antisemitic Radio Maryja, where Bender was recorded as stating that Auschwitz was “not a death camp but a labour camp where Jews and Gypsies were killed by hard labour – not so hard, not always killed.”

    The centre’s director for international relations Dr Shimon Samuels goes on to name several other Libertas candidates, which it accuses of holding extreme views. He also asks the electorate to use their vote wisely in this week’s election recalling that “in 1933, a potent mix of economic crisis, racism and a leadership vacuum brought Europe – and subsequently the world – to the abyss.”

    The centre addressed its strongly worded letter calling for an EU inquiry to Anastasia Crickley, the chairwoman of the Vienna-based Fundamental Rights Agency.

    I spoke to Crickley – who happens to be Irish – who told me she hadn’t received the letter yet but had been informed that something was on the way.  “This is not the type of investigation that the FRA has the remit to undertake,” she added.   

    The centre’s letter bears all the hallmarks of a public relations coup by Dr Samuels, who is already well known in
    Ireland. Remember the Hunt museum affair? Dr Samuels said the late John and Gertrude Hunt had done business with “notorious dealers in art looted by the Nazis” to stock the Limerick museum. No hard evidence was produced prompting President Mary McAleese to label the allegations as “baseless… unfounded… a tissue of lies”, which had hurt many people.

    The centre may be right that Libertas have teamed up with some unsavoury candidates in Poland but it should also be remembered that not all the claims of Dr Samuels should be accepted at face value. 

  • What the elections mean for Lisbon

    May 29, 2009 @ 4:16 pm | by Jamie Smyth

    Protests mark the end of the Celtic Tiger 

    I’m back in Ireland for a few days to get a view of how the European election campaign is going at home. An opinion poll commissioned by the European parliament this week forecast that turnout here at about 66 per cent would be higher than in any other EU state.

     This is hardly surprising given the country is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy due to the bursting of the property bubble (I note the Government is now asking the EU if it can pump a further 4 billion euro of taxpayers money into Anglo Irish bank) and jobs are being lost hand over fist in all sectors of the economy.

     Judging by our latest opinion poll today the public are angry and the Government is likely to be crushed in the local elections. Fianna Fail could potentially lose a seat in the European elections in Dublin where Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald is pushing Eoin Ryan hard for the third seat. Libertas’ Declan Ganley faces a tougher challenge in the
    North West constituency where Fianna Fail’s Pat the Cope Gallagher has a name and a strong local organisation. (see tomorrow’s Irish Times poll) 

     The fate of McDonald and Ganley in this election will be crucial in the upcoming referendum on the Lisbon treaty in the autumn. Ganley has already said if he is not elected he won’t lead a campaign against the treaty while Mary Lou’s impact in the no campaign would be seriously diminished if she can’t hold onto her seat. Several of my European colleagues (the correspondents from Le Figaro and the Economist) are currently in Ireland judging the mood of the public ahead of the elections for this exact reason. For their readership the European elections in Ireland are all about what the results say about the upcoming Lisbon referendum.

     Ironically, over here the public couldn’t care less about the fate of the Lisbon treaty during these elections- a point acknowledged at a press conference with Mary Lou McDonald, Joe Higgins and Patricia McKenna this morning.   

     Speaking to friends, colleagues and family at home it is clear that sentiment towards Lisbon has changed over the past few months because of the perilous state of the economy. But I think it is too early for yes campaigners to start counting their chickens ahead of the October vote. For one thing the economy is in such a bad state and sentiment towards the government is so poor that a Lisbon II referendum could become a referendum on the government. In other words, people may vote no to Lisbon simply to force Brian Cowen to stand down and prompt an election and a change of government.  

     Success for Mary Lou McDonald and Declan Ganley next week would bring this unlikely- but still possible- scenario a step closer.  

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