Portfolio blogger

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Although Sunday evening isn't the best time to blog, the last weeks were so full that it is worth reviewing some of the events.
As I write this, the first exit polls are out on the Greek referendum: they predict a narrow win for the "No" while the official data an overwhelming "No". No is no, so what is the difference? Well, an overwhelming "No" would give a much stronger mandate for the government (as counts progress, it seems "No" is over 60% - oh wait, what for?
No one knows (pun not intended). We will see, what the Greek government does - they also had several proposals on the table, the last two or three maybe not so far from the proposal of the Troika - which is off the table but probably would be acceptable for them again.
While we wait to see, let's talk about Hungary (and also about the U.S. Supreme Court). It's Pride weekend, and just before it, the SCOTUS (official abbreviation of the Court) ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marriage. And this stirs waves in Hungary. OK, the decision to save Obamacare by correcting the badly written law is not so relevant, but that Hungarian facebookers totally ignored the other decision (from early June) about a threat on Facebook, is somewhat surprising. A man was writing on Facebook (apparently in a rap poem - according to experts it was disastrously bad) about wanting to see his ex-wife killed. He was condemned by a court, and actually isn't off the hook due to the Supreme Court's verdict. But the verdict reinforced the "clear and present danger" principle. If the husband really wanted to have her wife killed and called others who could do it to do it, he is guilty (my simplistic interpretation). But if he did not really want it (here the "literary" expression comes into play), or it was unrealistic that anybody do it, he is protected by the freedom of speech.
Meanwhile Hungary is receiving almost as many refugees (asylum seekers) as Italy. And the government wants to seal off the Serbian boarder by a big and strong fence, costing 22 bn forints (itself sufficient to feed 14 thousand refugees for a year - although the decision to accept or reject their demand for asylum should be decided within months and a lot of them go further to the west). Let's forget about the money for the fake "National consultation" and the outraging publicity campaign.
What is more important that first a collection was started to counter the government giant poster campaign. The estimated cost was 3 million forints (as compared to a hundred times as much for the government giant posters), but within a week or so, ten times as much was donated by private individuals.
Then real actions started to emerge: groups of volunteers sacrificed their free time to help them, information leaflets were translated and printed (why only by volunteers? - the link is there, you can see what vital information it contains), food, drink (there is a heat wave also in Hungary) clothes, toys for children, medicines, blankets etc. etc. collected. The coordination runs of Facebook, even between groups in different locations to try to warn when a bigger group is due to arrive (they have to travel usually changing at least once but sometimes more - see also the leaflet). But the group is kept closed to exclude those who would only post rude comments (I see them on posts on articles dealing with the problem).
I should close now on an optimistic note - it is heartwarming what these, mostly young people do and tell about the solidarity they encounter - people bringing donations, coming to help, travelling dozens of kilometres to go to help.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Luxembourg voted...

Luxembourg missed a big chance. Not the Luxembourgers, but their government, parties and NGOs (the least these latter, but still).
The referendum held Sunday (7th June) contained three questions:
The decrease of the voting age to 16 years
The right of foreign citizens who have been living ten years in Luxembourg and had voted already once on a local or European election (which is a right of every European citizen who lives in another EU country than of which he/she is citizen) to vote also in the Luxembourg national elections.
The limitation of the mandate of members of government to two cycles (ten years).
The result was a triple "no".
After the vote, commentators emphasised that the surveys before the vote already predicted the result but not such an overwhelming majority of negative votes. It took a day for the comments by those to appear, who regretted the result.
Before, apart from some newspaper articles and very few posters (mainly from the liberal Democratic Party), the campaign was just simmering on low heat.
Of course the first and the third questions were less important, but not totally unimportant.
Some background: Luxembourg has been governed for some twenty years, till the snap elections in autumn 2013 by a government presided by Jean-Claude Juncker. The economic success, quality of life and European prestige of the country show that not without results. However, the Juncker-government showed signs of fatigue in the last period and more than 50% of the citizens surveyed before the elections wanted change (and still most voters voted for Juncker's Christian Socialist Party, but not enough to give it a majority and so a three-party coalition took over the wheel). So limiting the mandate of ministers clearly had no real supporting experience.
I had an interesting discussion with a Luxembourger (affiliated to one of the opposition parties at that time) who regretted that in spite of the support of the government, only a little above 60% of Luxembourgers voted in favour of the European Constitution (which then lost out in France and the Netherlands). When I tried to joke with my eastern European mind that the government support was probably counter-productive, she vehemently denied that possibility. Some commentators actually also ascribed the failure to the late start of the government's campaign.
The "no" to decreasing the voting age will certainly be a negative message to youngsters interested in the public affairs (or politics) of their country. The society being maybe even more aged than elsewhere in Europe (a bigger part of the younger working population not being a citizen), this can also be explained-
The real failure, however, was on the question of the voting right for "foreigners".
Almost half of the people living in Luxembourg are "foreigners", i.e. living in Luxembourg but not Luxembourgish citizens. Add to this (although they were not affected by the referendum question) about 150 thousand (more than 40% of the workforce) people coming over across the boarder every day to work in the country. This gave the main argument of the partisans of the "yes": almost half of the inhabitants affected by Luxembourg politics have no right to influence it.
Luxembourg society is actually not xenophobe (therefore the surprise and disappointment of many about the result). I have to tell also that friendliness towards foreigners stops at a certain level – to me this is a natural compensation for good relationship on the surface but I have no proof for it. And the language question taints the picture. This is maybe the first factor in explaining the result: to become a citizen is not very difficult – residence of 7 years which is less than the 10 in the proposal for voting rights, participation in three courses (no exam, just participation) and a not too high level of knowledge of the local language, a franco-german dialect. So the real difference in conditions is the knowledge of the language. The official languages in the country, however, are three, they include German and French, and still most of the official correspondence is in French.
But in my opinion, the one of the real problems was that until recently, the direction favoured by the political actors to integrate foreigners was to ease the acquisition of citizenship (decreasing required time of residence to 5 years, there were even voices that a lower level of language exam could be accepted, maybe under additional conditions) and a proposal for a law was also submitted to the parliament (the Chamber of deputies, as it is called). So the change in direction left probably many wondering why to give vote to those who are not eligible or do not want to acquire citizenship. My two-element sample (which is not much, I know), two people from totally distinct backgrounds) says, though that they would be interested to influence Luxembourg politics but not take up citizenship and they have valid reasons for that.
The other problem is that it is never easy to move people – in particular conservatively minded people; and the Luxembourgers are conservative – to accept radical changes. And that’s what I missed most, was the explanation of the basics. "Democratic deficit" was the slogan. But apparently people who are "inside the fence" will not let others in just because they are told they should. And no one explained why the voting right could benefit them, and in particular not what is at stake concerning the relationship between Luxembourgers (again: a lot of retired people; and a lot of them working for the administration) and the "foreigners" who actually produce a big chunk of their pension and the resources for government expenditures, including a well-developed social system and the salaries of administration staff. There is a "country branding" campaign going on – no one thought about the impact on the country brand of the result? But this can be considered as blackmail: no other country ever asked this question and these are not considered not foreigner-friendly just because they didn’t ask, while Luxembourg created itself a problem by asking, as the “no” answer can be interpreted in a way that they do not want to give this right to foreigners who live and produce in – and for - their country.
The dominant opposition party, the Christian Socialists were campaigning in favour of a "no". No arguments were heard, my suspicion is that they simply wanted to hit the government – as revenge that after the last elections they were left out of government in spite that they sent the most deputies to the Chamber and in the hope that this speeds up their return to power as the popularity of the government is fading. What is interesting is that practically the biggest group of people who would gain voting rights are the Portuguese workers, most of whom, coming from a rural area, would vote Christian.
The Christian Socialists exploited their "victory" at least in a positive way: they submitted a proposal for a law easing the conditions to gain citizenship. So far, so good, let's see what follows. But a lot of soul-searching and discussion cannot be saved – as the Association for Migration and Integration put it: the discussion is not finished, it is just launched by the result.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What will happen to extremist parties?

The Hungarian extreme right won its first individual constituency in the Hungarian by-election. The latest times they tried to pull more to the center, their president recognised the Holocaust and paid tribute to the mourning of the Jews and said that imminent exit from the EU is not a possibility. Where do extreme right parties go? This is also the question in France. The Figaro, considering the future of the extreme right Front National, discusses whether the fate of extreme parties in Italy can be considered an example. Unfortunately, the free part of the article only deals with the communist party, which normalised itself "by banalisation"
What happened to the extreme right party in Italy?
The Italian Social Movement (MSI), a minor neofascist party, was formed in Italy in 1946. In 1995, however, the MSI dissolved itself as it was transformed into a new party (National Alliance) headed by former MSI leader Gianfranco Fini and including the majority of former MSI members. Fini's right-wing National Alliance rejected fascist ideology, including anti-Semitism, and embraced democracy as one of its principles and has participated in center-right governing coalitions.
In 1988, at the party's congress, Gianfranco Fini defeated the right wing of the party and was elected party secretary. After a short stint at the helm by the more right-wing Pino Rauti, Fini returned to his role as party secretary in July 1. During the 1990s Fini gradually began to move the MSI away from its neo-fascist ideology to a more traditionally conservative political agenda. The party won wider support when the pervasive corruption of the governing parties was exposed in the early 1990s. The project to form a new party, called National Aliiance was launched in 1993.
The party became a partner in the conservative government formed after the 1994 elections. In January 1995, the Party's congress in Fiuggi marked a radical change, afterwards referred to as la svolta di Fiuggi (the turning point at Fiuggi) and merged the MSI-DN with conservative elements of the disbanded Christian Democrats to form the National Alliance (AN), of which Fini assumed the presidency.
Fini began a personal evolution towards more socially liberal positions in the 2000s, notwithstanding the opposition of the rest of his party.
At the end of January 2007, Berlusconi declared that Fini would be his only successor in case of unification of centre-right parties, provoking dissent from theNorthern League and the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats (UDC).
In 2007 Berlusconi proclaimed the dissolution of his Forza Italia party and the birth of a new unitary party of the centre-right, the People of Freedom. At first, Fini reacted coldly, affirming that AN would not participate, judging the way the new party was born confused and superficial, and expressing open dissent against his ally of the "former coalition".
However, two months later, he moved closer to Berlusconi again, soon after the fall of the Prodi II Cabinet. They agreed to present the two parties under the same symbol of the People of Freedom in the April 2008 parliamentary election, and then to proceed towards a unitary centre-right party. Here is an interesting description .
Between 2009 and 2010 Gianfranco Fini became a vocal critic of the leadership of Berlusconi. He departed from party's majority line on stem cell research, end of life issues, advance health care directive and immigration, but, most of all, he was a proponent of a more structured party organisation. His criticism was aimed at the leadership style of Berlusconi, who tended to rely on his personal charisma to lead the party from the centre and supported a lighter form of party, which in his mind was to be a movement-party active only at election times.
2010 there was a split from the party by Gianfranco Fini. It was soon clear that FLI would leave the PdL and become an independent party. On 7 November, during a convention in Bastia Umbra, Fini asked Berlusconi to step down as Prime Minister and proposed a new government including the Union of the Centre (UdC). A few days later, the four FLI members in the government resigned. On 14 December FLI voted against Berlusconi in a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, a vote won by Berlusconi by 314 to 311 On 30 July 2010, Fini held a press conference during which he announced the formation of separate groups from the PdL both in the Chamber and the Senate under the name Future and Freedom (FLI). On 11–13 February 2011 FLI was officially established as a party during a congress in Milan and Gianfranco Fini was elected president of it.
In the 2013 general election, held in February 2013, the party ran as part of the With Monti for Italy alliance with the UdC and Civic Choice and obtained a mere 0.4% of the vote, returning no seats in the Chamber and one in the Senate, plus two elects by Italians abroad.
What remained of the party started to cooperate with The Right, Tricolour Flame, I South and other right-wing parties and people to form a "new National Alliance"
On 15 November 2013, the day before the PdL's dissolution in the new FI, the "doves" left the party to form the New Centre-Right party.
The MSI/AN/FLI is not the only extreme right party in the West which faces tough choices and ideological turmoil. The Dutch extreme right – and a series of other alternative right-wing and Eurosceptic movements – are also trespassing hence unsurmountable barriers: The homosexuality of Pim Fortuyn is just a marginal issue, but some of these parties also embrace economic liberalism – if only to have a basis to deny redistribution to the favour of the poorer classes, who are more and more consisting of immigrants.
Can this be an example for the Hungarian Jobbik party, too? At the moment the Hungarian “right” is nationalising, but also stigmatising the poor and making their life even more difficult. But they also detest the “plutocracy”, the financial elite and want to develop a “national” bourgeoisie by giving them state money, mainly in the form of state contracts instead of enabling them to pursue freely their business. But Jobbik tries to show a more “human”, civilised face, to abandon the call for immediate exit from the EU. This will anger the “hardliners” so they may face already opposition from them – and this may start a fermentation. On the other hand, I hear more syrene sounds from the moderate right, which did not yet organise itself, towards left-leaning voters. While the left disintegrates further, there is no real conservative or liberal force. So there are more questions than answers. Source: mainly Wikipedia

Sunday, April 5, 2015

3 years of the European Citizens' Initiative

Article 11(4) of the Lisbon Treaty created the European Citizens’ Initiative, as a new tool for citizens to influence the politics of the European Union. A Regulation was adopted by the European Parliament and the Council on 16 February 2011 which defined the detailed rules. National authorities were designated to certifying the online support collection system and to verify the statements of support and delivering the relevant certificate as for an initiative to be successful, it has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states. The proposal must be in an area where the Commission has the power to propose legislation, for example environment, agriculture, transport or public health. If an initiative receives the necessary number of signatures, the Commission has to take action within 3 months after receiving the initiative.
The organisers get the opportunity to explain in detail the issues raised in their initiative to the Commission and at a public hearing in the European Parliament
The Commission is not obliged to propose legislation as a result of an initiative but has to publish a formal response – published in all 24 EU official languages - spelling out what action it will propose in response to the citizens' initiative, if any, and the reasons for doing or not doing so.. If the Commission decides to put forward a legislative proposal, the normal legislative procedure kicks off: the Commission proposal is submitted to the legislator and, if adopted, it becomes law.
The process can be found here in detail , so I will not talk about it more.

The Commission recently summarised the experience with the initiatives and published a report about it.
Since April 2012 till the date of the report, end March 2015, the Commission has received 51 requests for registration of proposed citizens’ initiatives. 31 of them were registered (16 registrations in 2012, nine in 2013, five in 2014 and one in 2015). 20 proposed initiatives did not fulfil the registration criteria and therefore could not be registered. The most frequently cited reason for refusal was that the subject of the initiative was outside the legislative powers of the EU and thus did not qualify for being a European Citizens’ Initiative.
18 initiatives have reached the end of their collection period (10 others were withdrawn before the end of their collection period). Among those 18, three initiatives have reached the required number of statements of support and were submitted to the Commission. Two of them have already received a formal response from the Commission: 'Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!' ('Right2Water') and 'One of us'.
The first one calls for: 1. The EU institutions and Member States be obliged to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation. 2. Water supply and management of water resources not be subject to ‘internal market rules’ and that water services are excluded from liberalisation. 3. The EU increases its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation.
After the organisers met the Commission and a public hearing took place in the European Parliament, the topic was taken up in the course of actions concerning the Drinking Water Directive. The evaluation of the directive is ongoing. The roadmap will be published shortly The EP Rapporteur presented the first draft of the Environment Committee Report on the Right2Water initiative. The vote in the Committee is provisionally scheduled for 26/05/2015 and the vote in the EP Plenary is provisionally foreseen for 08/06/2015
. The second one calls for a ban and end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health.
There was a meeting with the organisers and a public hearing in the European Parliament. As a result, the Commission has decided not to submit a legislative proposal as the policy of the EU is clear and rigorous rules are in place. 156.7 million euros were spent on stem cell research out of a total of 6 billion between 2007 and 2013 and Embryonic stem cells are unique and offer the potential for life-saving treatments, with clinical trials already underway. The Commission will continue to apply the strict ethical rules and restrictions in place for EU-funded research, including not funding the destruction of embryos.
The third one ('Stop vivisection') is under examination by the Commission and will receive an answer by 3 June 2015.
Looking at the aborted and refused initiatives, there are three main areas where most of the initiatives fall into: Social questions (of course the proposal for an unconditional basic income is one of them) like protection of minorities, cohesion policy for the equality of the regions and sustainability of the regional cultures and a new European poverty criterion or the one to stop legal prositution, animal welfare, like “Dairy Cow Welfare” “Ethics for Animals (and Kids)” and political – some of them outrightly provocative like “Stop TTIP”, the one calling for a self-abolition of the European Parliament and its structures or the one entitled: “Should the current failing form of EG be replaced by one without democratic deficit?”.
A handful of initiatives dealt with environmental questions, among them the one of the three hitherto successful ones.
Still are open , one of them calling for an online collection plpatform for support of citizens’ initiatives, one to stop the climate initiatives except energy efficiency unless other big emitters also agree. A software tool for online data collection enables citizens to support a given initiative and organizers to manage its operations.
Further information can be found here.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Donald Tusk declared victory after the first day of tbe European council, and not without reason. The perspective of agreeing to start creating an energy union was not rosy , several member states were weary to give up their independence, among them the Hungarian prime minister, who made several shady energy deals with Russia, including an obscure offshore company skimming the difference between the cost an sales price of gas supplies and a nuclear power plant (some ten years in advance of the real need of starting it, if energy needs i. 2035, the expected expiry of life of the present plant, is at all foreseeable) to be constructed exclusively by the Russians and also financed by a loan from them), but other countries were also not enthusiastic. So what about the result? Euobserver analysis is cautiously optimistic. The conclusions paint a more sober picture than the triumphantdeclarations: they reflect the limitations imposed by the self-interest of the member states jealous to save their separate ways: ..".the European Council focused on some of the aspects", "ensuring full compliance with EU law of all agreements for buying gas from external suppliers" - isn't this so without emphasising it? "confidentiality of commercially sensitive information just be guaranteed" -as if Orbán had it dictated... And finally: "assessing options for voluntary demand aggregation mechanisms" - no common buying arrangements, just assessing options; emphasising sovereignty and right of the member states twice. Some positive e!ements are no doubt a!so present: cooperation,reinforcing the legislative framework for secure supply of electricity and gas. So, the first small steps were taken. But the plans earned already criticism: this article reveals why the development of domestic energy resources and the freedom of member states to decide on their energy resources features prominently in the text: Poland is strongly dependent on coal and wants to develop shale gas. See also here So it was not just the reluctant followers who got their special deal, but also the leader.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What does the portfolio allocated to the Hungarian commissioner mean for the EU and Hungary?

The strained relationship of the Hungarian government with the EU makes this question very interesting. Are turf wars being fought? How will the new Hungarian commissioner fit into the team? How will he perform? Will this mean something to Hungary? The topic is also good to give rise to some remarks on the sidelines about the structure of the new commission and about other portfolio assignments.
1., Contrary to his demands Mr Navracsics did not receive the enlargement or neighbourhood portfolio. This went to Johannes Hahn from Austria, previously commissioner for regional policy. Given the Hungarian government's nationalist rhetoric and recent tentatives to appease with Russia and to slip out of sanctions, this is no surprise.
2., Thus, the message of the president, that it is not countries but people to whom the portfolios are allocated (in plain English, that the experience and assumed capabilities of people defined the allocation, not the performance of their country – even, as the example of Mr Moskovici shows, their performance in their country), may not quite be true for the Hungarian commissioner. I will go into more detail below, it is just to mention that the performance and lines taken by a politician in his/her own country cannot be entirely separated from his/her capabilities and expected performance. The "persons, not countries" approach is rather true for the French and the British Commissioners. Although Mr Moskovici is under the coordination of Mr Katainen, he got a weighty portfolio (see below). By the nomination of Mr Katainen, however, according to Open Europe, a British think-tank close to the Conservative Party (and thus not really an euro-enthusiast) " Germany has ensured that there is a voice in favour of austerity and structural reform to balance out the French preference for fiscal expansion." See: http://www.euractiv.com/sections/eu-priorities-2020/dutch-eu-nominee-wield-veto-right-over-excessive-bureaucracy-308344. Mr Hill of Britain got the financial services (but not the internal market) portfolio and a dedicated new directorate general will be set up. To draw conclusions from the reorganisation (i.e. which parts of the organisation move to this new DG), requires a separate analysis.
2., Previous gossip that he may get the trade portfolio (although this version was quickly questioned: http://blogs.ft.com/brusselsblog/2014/09/03/the-mysterious-new-commission-organigram/) or development (somewhat akin to the enlargement or neighbourhood portfolio he was eyeing) did quickly subside (International Cooperation & Development was allocated to Neven Mimica, delegated by Croatia and commissioner since Croatia's accession, dealing with consumer protection,-separated from the health and consumer protection portfolio for him), but the latest guess that he may get customs also has proven wrong (customs was not, as it would have been in this scenario, separated from taxation and both were assigned to Mr Moskovici, to create sort of a super-portfolio of economics). Finally, he received the "Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship" portfolio.
3., The EU does not have too many rights in education and culture (in federal Germany, education is not even federal, but "Länder" competence). Mr Navracsics has no great credentials in this area, either. The areas related to the labour market, skills, continuing and professional education etc., have been taken over to the Belgian Commissioner, Marianne Thyssen, to be responsible for employment, social affairs, skills and labour mobility Some bits and pieces were added to Navracsics's portfolio: the EIT, situated in Hungary and led by a strongly reform-minded ex education minister of Hungary (oh, another potential controversy), who is liberal by the way while Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister declared that he wants to build an "illiberal" state (whatever this means), the Joint Research Centre (with the message that the JRC has to support his activity by scientific analysis) – but research and innovation is the portfolio of the Portuguese Carlos Moedas - and the Publications Office (with a Director General, who is a Luxembourger and is at the moment assigned the portfolio of Ms Reding – both Luxembourg and the former Fundamental Rights commissioner and vice president Reding had a controversial relationship to Hungary and vice versa). As a small irony, he will take over part of that portfolio (although small): to manage the communication of the Europe for Citizens Programme, and the responsibility for the Preparatory Action “New Narrative on Europe” 2015.
4., He is mentioned in the press release as a strong point in the Commission as an ex deputy prime minister and ex minister (which is true) and as having extensive foreign relations experience as an ex minister of foreign affairs – a post he occupied for some five months and this only as a preparation for his post as commissioner. His real area as minister was law and administration where his track record has not been dismal in technical terms but he was part of some very controversial actions of the government (forced retirement of judges, cutting the rights of the Constitutional Court, creation of a mameluks' university "called Public Service University) and he was also part of the effort to curb media freedom. Besides his personal track record, he is a fathful member of FIDESZ, whose leader, the Hungarian prime minister was the only besides Cameron who voted against the nomination of Juncker as Commission president in the decisive Council meeting. If Navracsics and Juncker want to demonstrate that in spite of all these controversies, they can work well together, and thus avoid future controversies, may be helping the spirit but lead to conflict-avoidance even in questions where conflict could be productive. But having actions guided by past offences is not productive either. There is a declared will to co-operate, at least.
5., Five years are a long time. Mr Navracsics may plan to return to domestic politics thereafter (or try to spend another cycle as there is a probability that his party, FIDESZ will win the 2018 elections) but to do any of these, he has to perform in his role. To return to domestic politics, however, he also has to be in line of the government's lukewarm attitude to the EU. This is a contradiction in itself. He faces and even more difficult choice, on the other hand, if we assume that the elections in 2018 bring a new government in Hungary. The EU has not too many prerogatives in education but reading the mission letter http://ec.europa.eu/about/juncker-commission/docs/navracsics_en.pdf we can see that there are tasks. But these are not the ones in which the Hungarian government excelled – although independently of the influence of the new commissioner.
He is to take part in several priority projects of president Juncker where he will have to work under the co-ordination of several vice presidents, among others with Andrus Ansip from Estonia (a selection where the country is also right: Estonia is spearheading e-administration), where Hungary just recently closed its representation. There are interesting times ahead.
Further details: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-523_en.htm