Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I vote for Nick Clegg

Not long ago, Chris Huhne spoke to our local South Somerset Climate Action Group as well as Yeovil Liberal Democrats and I told him that I regretted not voting for him in the last leadership election. However, this is a new contest with a new candidate. Seeking selection as a Euro-candidate I attended two regional conferences addressed by both candidates. I have to disagree with Jonathan Calder. It was clear to me that Nick Clegg was by far the better communicator. No-one should underestimate the importance of this talent when the two candidates are so close in policy terms.

I disagree with Nick about Trident of course, but I am not very impressed by Chris' position. We debated the issue at our Spring Conference in March in Harrogate and I invited Chris then to support my amendment to get rid of Trident . We only lost that amendment by 40 votes. If he had supported us, we could have won. Also, he actually proposes replacing Trident by a minimum nuclear deterrent. This does not answer many of the objections to Trident, would still be very costly and probably against the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

I have also been unhappy about Chris' attacks on Nick. He has repeatedly suggested that Nick supports education vouchers knowing full well that he doesn't.

The crux of my judgement to vote for Nick is based on instinct, not mine but the candidates' instincts. In choosing a leader, I don't just look at policy differences, since as members of a democratic party we all get a say in policy. I ask myself, how will this person react to an unforeseen crisis ? Which way will he jump ? Chris usually arrives at the right conclusion by a careful rational analysis but I think he lacks that great eighteenth century quality - bottom. Nick seems to me to be Liberal by instinct, from top to bottom.

Freedom of speech

Once again the world reels as the Oxford Union debates ! None of the reports tells us what the motion was nor the result of the vote upon it. There is so much confusion here. Of course Griffin and Irving have the same right to speak as anyone else, but that does not oblige the Oxford Union, a private members' debating society to provide them with a platform. As President of the older society, the Cambridge Union, I once invited a team from Cape Town University to debate, having first established that they were not touring to promote apartheid. I did this because whilst respecting the right of people to speak in support of apartheid, it was not our role as a private club to provide a platform for it. This is very different from the "no platform" policies of some students unions, publicly funded bodies which seek to deny the use of all academic facilities to people they disagree with.

Moreover, once the Oxford Union had decided to invite the racists, the students who rightly despise their views had every right to assemble and protest but NOT to stop them speaking. Why could the protestors not understand this ? Liberalism requires us all to resist our own illiberal tendencies as well as other people's.

I think we should be told

Has anyone noticed the amazing resemblance between Jeremy Hargreaves and Quentin Letts ?
Who is really running the Liberal Democrat FPC ?

Annapolis - the long view

Bush's Middle East conference is starting in Annapolis. So far Dubya has shown no inclination to learn from history but I suppose he has heard of the Annapolis Convention of September 1786, when 12 delegates from 5 states met "to remedy defects of the federal government" . Those delegates met for four days and decided that they could not achieve anything because four states had failed to send delegates and four more had failed to get there on time and because they had insufficient power to negotiate. They called for a wider conference in Philadelphia the following May, which drafted the US Constitution which endures to the present day.

I cannot help wondering if the present conference in Annapolis will be similarly hampered by the absence of parties, in particular Hamas, and a lack of powers to negotiate. Let us hope that the conference continues for more than four days and, like the ultimate success in Philadelphia, leads to the foundation of a new state, the state of Palestine.

Blog lag

Apologies to Tristan, who posted a comment which I did not moderate and was therefore not published. My ISP failed to send me an e-mail notifying me of the comment, but I should have checked the blog anyway. I have been told many times that a serious blogger should blog regularly, even every day. Well, I make no claim to be a serious blogger. Some days I am not even disgruntled and some days I just have other things to do.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Limiting EU competences - not a “superstate”

Constitutional Treaty in blue
Reform Treaty in red

15. It would guarantee that the Union will never be a centralised all-powerful ‘superstate’ by laying down:
(a) the obligation to “respect the national identities of member states, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional”;
(b) the principle of conferred powers (whereby the Union has only those competencies bestowed on it by the member states);
(c) the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, limiting EU action to the minimum necessary to achieve the objectives agreed by member states;
(d) the participation of member states themselves in the decision taking system of the Union;
(e) the principle of “unity with diversity”.


16. It would merge the confusingly overlapping “European Community” and “European Union” into a single legal entity and structure.


17. It would provide a clear definition of the field of competence of the EU, without conferring any new fields of responsibility upon it.

REINFORCED. In fact, an additional declaration has been added to emphasise the limitations on the EU’s competences.

18. It would replace the complex and overlapping set of EU treaties with a single document spelling out clearly the powers of the EU and their limits.

CHANGED. Scrapped in favour of an “amending treaty”, in the same format and style as previous treaties such as Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice.

19. It would simplify EU instruments and their terminology, replacing jargon with more easily understandable terms (EU regulations become “EU laws”, EU directives become “EU framework laws”, and so on).

CHANGED. The old terminology is retained.

20. It would maintain the EU’s tough and effective powers over competition policy.

UNCHANGED. A new protocol to the treaty makes clear that the change in the wording of the preamble does not affect the existing policies, case law nor operational methods of EU competition policy.

Increasing accountability and parliamentary scrutiny

Constitutional Treaty in blue

Reform Treaty in red

8. The adoption of all EU legislation would be subject to the prior scrutiny of national Parliaments and the double approval of both national governments (in the Council of Ministers) and directly elected MEPs – a level of scrutiny that exists in no other international structure.


9. National parliaments would receive all EU proposals in good time to mandate their ministers before Council meetings and would also gain the right to object directly to draft legislation if they feel it goes beyond the EU’s remit.

CHANGED National parliaments will be given more time to review legislative proposals – 8 weeks rather than 6.

10. The European Parliament would elect the President of the Commission, on the basis of a proposal from the European Council.


11. A new budget procedure would require the approval of all EU expenditure by both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.


12. Any EU law or any action taken by EU institutions could be struck down by the courts if it fails to comply with the Charter of Fundamental Rights that was approved by all Member States in 2000.

CLARIFIED. The Charter of Fundamental Rights has been given legal force but will apply only to laws or actions by the EU institutions within the EU treaties. There is a specific exemption to say that it does not apply to the domestic law of the United Kingdom

13. The exercise of delegated powers by the Commission would be brought under a new system of joint supervision by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, enabling either of them to overturn Commission measures to which they object.


14. When acting on legislation, the Council of Ministers would meet in public.


Making the EU more efficient

Constitutional Treaty in blue
Reform Treaty in red
1. The EU’s foreign policy High Representative and the Commissioner for External Relations—two posts causing duplication and confusion—would be merged into a single EU ‘Foreign Minister’, able to speak for the Union on those subjects where EU countries agree a common line.

CHANGED. The merger of the two posts is retained, but the job title “Foreign Minister” is changed to “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” to make clearer what is actually involved in the post.

2. There would be a new voting system in the Council of Ministers, with a qualified majority requiring the support of a “double majority” of at least 55 per cent of countries who must also represent at least 65 per cent of the EU’s population.

CHANGED. The double majority voting system has been retained, but will be phased in from 2014 to meet Polish objections.

3. More decisions in the Council of Ministers would be by Qualified Majority Voting. Exceptions include subjects that are sensitive for national sovereignty, such as tax, social security, foreign policy and defence. These will continue to require unanimity.


4. More flexibility: where not all countries want to join in a new policy, arrangements can be made to allow groups of countries to do so and others not. Britain can opt-in or out of policies concerning frontiers, asylum and police and judicial cooperation.

REINFORCED. In fact, more flexibility/opt-out arrangements have now been introduced.

5. The European Commission will be reduced in size: fewer Commissioners, with member states taking it in turn to nominate Commissioners two times out of three.


6. The European Council (the three-monthly meetings of prime ministers) would choose a president to chair their meetings for 2½ years, replacing the current 6-monthly rotation


7. The size of the European Parliament would be capped.


The truth about those treaties

I fear that nobody is being very clear about the Constitutional Treaty and its replacement the Reform Treaty. Perhaps some of those who fear these treaties would like to know what they actually say. Perhaps they wouldn't and would prefer to rely upon the scare tactics of The Sun and it's American proprietor.

Firstly, the EU like the UK (and unlike the USA) does not have one document which can be called its constitution. Like the UK, the EU's constitution consists of several documents and conventions about working methods. In the case of the UK, the documents are individual Acts of Parliament. In the case of the EU, they are treaties. Whilst the new Reform Treaty is not a constitution in itself, it is one of the many documents which would make up the constitution of the EU. It would of course have been clearer to have the constitution embodied in just one treaty, but people were frightened of the word "constitution".

Secondly, the two treaties are very similar but neither of them do what their critics say they do. They pose no threat to the UK's supposed independence (unlike, I would suggest, our relationship with the USA). In fact, either treaty would make the EU more democratic and its institutions more accountable

The next three posts set out the effects of the two treaties and how the Reform Treaty varies from the Constitutional Treaty.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Chad Varah has died

Chad Varah, founder of the Samaritans has died at the age of 95 - see BBC report. I never met him and he never met me but he once described me as "The happiest man in the diocese of Ely". My first wife had made a famous televised speech on feminism in a Cambridge Union debate and he wrote a fan letter saying that her speech should be next to every man's shaving mirror and, of course, her husband must be "the happiest man in the diocese of Ely".


On Monday night I attended Liberty's comedy show at the wonderful Hackney Empire, "Bonfire of the Liberties". Bremner - brilliant as always. An excellent Iranian comedienne, a female ventriloquist with a monkey - an act full of Brechtian alienation - and, of course, Marcus Brigstocke as compere. It was Brigstocke who sent up the idea of a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty. See Jeremy Hargreaves blog and Jonathan Calder's reaction.

Referendums are poor instruments for deciding anything but are absurd for treaty ratification, which requires line-by-line scrutiny, which only parliament can give. Neither the North Atlantic Treaty nor any other treaty I can think of has been ratified by referendum in the UK. Liberal Democrats were wrong to give credence to the idea that a referendum was appropriate. Eurosceptics want a referendum precisely because they fear the decision of people who will actually have examined the treaty.