Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Europe faces a political crisis

Why are the "citizens" of Europe so unhappy and what can be done about that? It turns out that the problem is that the politicians do not trust the voters to vote for right-minded people (those same self-serving pols). Now the voters are in turn sick of unrepresentative politics.  

In other words this is a crisis of democracy whereby all political institutions will slowly (but surely) lose their legitimacy. If democracy is no longer seen to be working in prosperous Europe then the only system that will thrive globally is the authoritarian-capitalist one propounded by the Chicoms (and in certain places populated by devout people, the Islamist-Sharia model). That is a truly scary scenario.

We are not sure that the economic crisis has been avoided as is generally the claim, what did happen was  that the Central Bank said that it would go to any length to preserve the Euro (which stopped the speculators from..speculating about the currency), and oh yes, Greece and some other countries must have a perpetual austerity program in place (whereby jobs for young people have essentially vanished).

The political crisis simply is that the elections are attracting voters (and electing parliamentarians) who despise the EUSSR and have the deepest disdain possible for  the denizens of Brussels. Further, as the author (Peter Mair: Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy) argues, Western European politicians are ruling by proxy, and hiding behind the bureaucrats of Brussels

The above system thus represents another version of the Sonia Gandhi - Manmohan Singh combo model that was so revolting to Indian voters - we need to know who makes  the rules and the rulers should be fully accountable to the ruled. This is how democracy must work.

Mair’s conclusion is that the EU is a house that party politicians built which has no room for politics, while national governments are ever more likely to pretend they are merely the branch office of Brussels. (After all, if Brussels has already decided, you don’t take the blame; never mind that you were there at the negotiating table.) In this situation, what Mair calls the Tocqueville syndrome becomes acute: if political elites are either inaccessible or impotent, why put up with them? Tocqueville was writing about the fall of the aristocrats in the Ancien Régime, who could no longer justify their privileges once they had lost power to a centralised monarchy. The worst of the economic crisis might be over, but the political crisis in Europe is only just beginning.

 The polls are saying we would love it for you to keep weight measures in pounds, but poor us, Brussels is demanding that we move to kilograms. And yes, you can extradite Abu Qatada only with the greatest difficulty (10 years and a few million pounds wasted in appeals), even though he came to Britain under false premises, and managed to live off the social state, AND brainwashed loyal citizens of the state who would then suddenly turn up in Afghanistan to fight against British troops. Another profound absurdity is the experience of British citizens with foreign (non-EU) spouses who now effectively live in exile because of tough conditions laid down by the Home Office (to reduce non-EU migrants).

A sample of the complaints:

(1) The government has squeezed non-EU immigration down in a pretty brutal way - you can't, for example, bring a spouse in unless you're earning around £18,000 a year or have something like £64,000 in the bank (in an instant-access account). You need more if you bring children in as well. 

This means that a large number of British people with foreign spouses are now in what amounts to exile abroad, or forcibly separated.

However, an EU citizen from outside the UK can bring a non-EU spouse in freely - you don't need a visa, you don't need savings, you don't need a salary; you don't even need to bring your suitcase.... That's clearly unfair, and, from a legal point of view, utterly illogical.

And yet the government will press on regardless, trying to keep net immigration down, but at the same time abiding by an open borders policy. The government's desperation has actually led to it forcing British people out of the country; they know that if they refuse a visa to the spouse of a British person, the British partner in that marriage and their British children will have to go abroad, which will contribute to lowering net migration figures. This defies all logic.

I have to admit that it annoys me greatly that it is easier for a European Union resident with no ties to Britain to enter the country than it is my Japanese husband, who has a British wife, son and mother-in-law.

It also happens that if a British person marries an Australian or a Canadian whose grandparents were British citizens, they will find it harder to get that spouse into the country than somebody from the EU whose family has never had any links to Britain whatsoever.

(2) I'm in a similar situation - my partner is non-EEA, and as a British citizen, I must earn £18,600 + £3,800 (1st child) + £2,400 (2nd child) per year. As a family, we have zero recourse to public funds - no child allowance, no housing benefits, no free use of NHS, no tax credits etc. 

We pay taxes, NI contributions and council tax. Even worse, we had settlement visa extensions refused earlier this year through a gross error made by the Home Office. We had to appeal the error, which cost us £4000 in legal fees. Result? The Home Office withdrew their erroneous refusal decision the day before the tribunal and now we're back in limbo as the Home Office are still considering their decision on visa extensions. The HO knew a tribunal judge would not only have over-ruled their decision, but they would have been sternly rebuked for creating such a needlessly stressful situation for a law-abiding, tax-paying, contributing-to-the-country family.

Worse still, the Immigration Act of 2014 is removing the right to appeal! So if the Home Office make a mistake (as was the case in our situation), you have no right to appeal. Your family are given 28 days notice to leave the country, and you have to apply again from abroad (applications for settlement visas and Indefinite Leave to Remain can take up to 6 months!). 

The only mitigation here is if your family's life is literally in danger if you move to another country (and that is adjudicated by the Home Office whether that's the case or not), then your human rights are considered and you can appeal incountry. This Act just needs commencement orders and it will be enforced.
On the day the Bastille was stormed in 1789, King Louis XVI wrote in his diary, "rien" (French for nothing, the King was referring to the fact that his hunting trip was not a success). Few European leaders will have typed "nothing" into their iPads today, but there is a real danger that, in response to the revolutionary cry across the continent, they will in effect do nothing. Today's rien has a face and a name. The name's Juncker. Jean-Claude Juncker.

A disastrous "the same only more so" response from Europe's leaders would be signaled by taking Juncker – Spitzenkandidat of the largest party grouping in the new European parliament, the centre-right European People's party – and making him president of the European commission. The canny Luxembourgeois was the longest-serving head of an EU national government, and the chair of the Eurogroup through the worst of the eurozone crisis. Although he has considerable skills as a politician and deal-maker, he personifies everything protest voters from left to right distrust about remote European elites. He is, so to speak, the Louis XVI of the EU.

There is a compelling case for thinking that something has gone badly wrong when we see ourselves as being ruled by unaccountable, supposedly apolitical experts, but the only prospect of rescue is afforded by populists who promise to hand power back to the people. The former give us identical policies everywhere and no politics; the latter, you might say, give us politics and no policies.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the European Union. As Mair makes clear, the purpose of European integration was from the start to create a ‘protected sphere’ – protected, that is, from the vagaries of representative democracy. After the political catastrophes of the mid-20th century, Western European elites (except in Britain) concluded that popular sovereignty should be treated with deep distrust. 

After all, how could one have any faith in the people when the people had brought fascists to power or collaborated with fascist occupiers? There were profound reservations even about the idea of parliamentary sovereignty. Hadn’t legitimate representative assemblies handed power over to Hitler in 1933 and to Marshal Pétain in 1940? As a result, parliaments in postwar Europe were systematically weakened, while non-elected institutions – constitutional courts are the prime example – were given more power.

All this proved acceptable so long as the elites were trusted – and so long as the decisions taken in the ‘protected sphere’ didn’t have dramatic effects on people’s everyday lives. Neither condition holds true any longer. As Mair points out, it isn’t just individual politicians but the political class as a whole that become a matter of contention in many parts of Europe. 

Four years of Eurocrisis have left us with technocracy on the one hand and populism on the other. The two positions seem completely opposed, but in fact they have one attitude in common: the technocrats think there’s only one rational solution to every policy issue, hence there’s no need for debate; the populists believe there is an authentic popular will and that they are the only ones who can discern it, hence there’s no need for debate. Both sides are opposed to the pluralism that comes with party democracy. Occasionally, populism and ‘expertocracy’ unite in a single person: Silvio Berlusconi and Austria’s Jörg Haider promised to run their respective countries like a company.

A peculiar mismatch has come about between the scope of elections and what is really at stake in them. 

There are legitimate disagreements over the architecture of the EU, and over the sorts of policy that should and should not be devised in Brussels, but voters, according to Mair, choose the wrong elections to make themselves heard on these issues. They voice their dissatisfaction with the EU in European elections, although the European Parliament plays no part at all in negotiating EU treaties, which determine the shape of the Union as a whole. 

The 751 MEPs do have a say in particular policies (some believe that the European Parliament, often held up for ridicule, has a much stronger record of amending legislation than national parliaments, which simply rubber-stamp government policy), yet voters express preferences about policy in national elections, even though national governments have steadily been losing power to the EU – according to some estimates, far more than half the legislation in EU member states now comes from Brussels.

Turnout has dropped at each successive European election since the first one in 1979. But there is a feeling that the upcoming election may buck the trend. Few EU citizens would deny, in 2014, that Europe matters. 

And if they are willing to come out of what Mair calls comprehensive withdrawal, politicians seem ready to meet them halfway. The European Parliament has felt it necessary to spend money on a lavish ad campaign with the slogan ‘This time it’s different’ in an attempt to get people to the polling booths. And the supranational ‘party families’ in the Parliament have nominated ‘leading candidates’ for the presidency of the European Commission, promising that the job will go to the person who gathers most votes. 

The hope behind this proposal is that politicisation, even at the cost of polarisation, will prove the royal road to legitimacy. As the Finnish EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, Olli Rehn (not a man known for mixing passions and politics), said recently, European elections should be ‘emotionalised’. Citizens might feel less resentful if they can put a face to Brussels bureaucracy. 

But that isn’t the lesson from recent history in the US, where elite-led polarisation and personalisation are seen to have damaged the legitimacy of the political system as a whole, leaving the impression that politics is about huge egos bickering. And it is far from clear that a choice of personnel really amounts to a choice of policy, when the substance of EU policy is largely determined by treaties which aren’t agreed by the European Commission or the European Parliament, but by member states. 

Even putting aside the question of treaties, the Eurozone is steadily narrowing the scope for autonomous political choice. Take Germany’s insistence that all Euro countries put ‘debt brakes’ into their constitutions, making deficit spending virtually impossible. The European Commission cannot alter any of this; in fact, its task now is essentially to check that the rules are being observed and where necessary to interfere with national budgets. In these circumstances, getting to choose a president of the Commission might seem merely a cosmetic change.




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