Friday, May 27, 2005

"A no vote would only be a screw up for your own personal objectives for Europe, which are totally confused and not shared by most sensible people"

The above quote from a friend of mine comes from a discussion on the European Union in the run-up to the French referendum on the proposed EU Constitution that will take place on Sunday. It is in my opinion a harsh accusation, but also an opportunity to explore what I believe that the point of the European Union is, or at least should be, and why it is that the French should vote yes on Sunday, or at least why they shouldn't vote no.

The main problem with voting no in my view is the following: this is currently the only deal on the table. Now in itself, this is not a good enough reason to adopt a constitution. This is the way in which Napoleon came to power after all: he turned up in 1799 with the only working draft constitution for France available, threatened people a bit and won. However the EU faces a problem: institutions designed for 15 member states are not going to work with twenty-five, and probably about thirty within a decade. The whole machine is just too much of a disparate morass to avoid grinding to a virtual halt under the sheer mass of tasks that it's trying to manage. So from a purely practical point of view, the EU needs to be reformed in order to keep going. Admittedly, it would have been a good idea to deal with this problem before the accession of ten new member states, but they didn't, so there we are.

Of course, a simple bureaucratic reform, a streamlining of the EU civil service and processes, wouldn't require a constitutional treaty, however the problem is not simply bureaucratic, it's political, and it's the politics that are the real issue here.

Many opponents of the EU rightly complain about the organisations democratic deficit and lack of accountability. An important aspect of the constitution is that it does away with a lot of the "behind closed doors" stuff. It gives the European Parliament a whole lot more power, and the European Parliament is elected directly by the citizens of the EU, theoretically not along national party lines. This will remove much of the influence of the Commission, though not of the Council of Ministers, so it's returning power to national governments too. In other words, it makes the EU institutions more answerable to the electorate, more democratic.

Finally, here's the big question: what do those who oppose this constitution want to do instead? It can't continue as it is, and admittedly there are those who would be glad to see the whole thing break down. Fair enough. But I don't think that most Europeans hate the EU that much, it's an extreme point of view, especially given that the EU has brought so many tangible benefits to so many people. It's by no means certain that if this constitution is binned, there will be an opportunity to renegotiate. Even of there is, it will take something like a decade, and faced with the growing institutional paralysis of the EU, member states will have had to work ways around it. Again, some favour a looser, more flexible system in which like-minded member states create networks of alliances, treaties and agreements between them. But you don't need a European Union to do that. That's just run-of-the-mill politicking.

It is not an outcome that does justice to what is in effect the boldest, most successful and groundbreaking political experiment ever carried out. The EU, for its myriad faults, is a Commonwealth of states and people who have all chosen to be a part of it. This has never been done before. Just by its very existence, the EU exerts a good influence on the world. Look at what has happened in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia. These are all countries that are striving to become more democratic, more humanitarian, more prosperous, and all because of the goal of becoming a part of the EU. Think of the formerly totalitarian regimes that the EU has been able to absorb such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, and all the former Soviet Block nations. Surely the continuation of this process is reason enough to make sure that the EU doesn't just stagnate?

And this brings me to why the French should vote yes tomorrow: if they don't, they're breaking a promise to almost half a billion people, but especially to the people of the new member states and those of aspiring members. After all that they've been through, after being excluded from Europe for sixty years and finally clawing their way back, are the French really going to let them down by voting no? Are they going to deny everyone else a chance to make the EU work after driving the process for over fifty years? Do they want to be the dog in the manger?

I don't think so. I think that they will vote yes, and let the European fledgling leave the nest and spread its wings on its own.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Queen's Speech: Darth Blunkett's back and so is the notion of sedition

In the aftermath of the latest election, I had hoped that with his greatly reduced - though still healthy - majority and newfound need to actually consult with other people such as MPs, Tony Blair might tone down his messianic zeal and unshakeable belief that whatever he thinks is right, and that this alone justifies any decision that he may care to take. No such luck. Just to make that point clear to anyone who may have any doubt, he immediately brought David 'Darth' Blunkett out of his retreat to act as the Cabinet Enforcer. Then yesterday, Her Majesty Mrs Windsor came to tell us what the deal is going to be.
I'm not going to go through the entire contents of the Queen's Speech, I'm just going to concentrate on one particular bill in it that gives me the mustelid willies. I refer to the Counter Terrorism Bill (draft) , the latest complement to the Terrorism Act 2000, a pretty Draconian piece of legislation that was subsequently superdraconised by the Prevention of Terrorism Act at the end of the last Parliament.

The Counter Terrorism Bill (draft) is thought to introduce the twin criminal offences of "acts preparatory to terrorism" and of "glorifying or condoning" acts of terrorism. Now I don't want anyone to start thinking that pine martens are particularly in favour of blowing up innocent people as a means to bring about an ideological end, however these notions are vague enough to be causes for high levels of concern. But I am worried that these offences, and particularly the latter, could be an open door to reintroducing the notion of sedition into English Law.

An often heard quote from an anonymous source is that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" (just think of everything that's been said about Nelson Mandela over the years), so presumably, in Law, there is a clear definition of what is meant by the word "terrorism". A good place to start you'd assume, given the international scale of the problem, is the UN. So what does the UN, which is after all the main source and guarantor of international law, have to say on the matter?

From the UN Office on Drugs and Crime website (

"The question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades. A first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The UN Member
States still have no agreed-upon definition. Terminology consensus would, however, be necessary for a single comprehensive convention on terrorism, which some countries favour in place of the present 12 piecemeal conventions and protocols."

Or in other words, there's still a fair amount of poetic licence allowed in individual states' legal definition of who is or isn't a terrorist. Never mind, I'm sure that good old English Law can help us for domestic purposes. Let's see what the Terrorism Act has to say (

"1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,

(b) involves serious damage to property,

(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,

(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or

(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

(4) In this section-

(a) "action" includes action outside the United Kingdom,

(b) a reference to any person or to property is a reference to any person, or to property, wherever situated,

(c) a reference to the public includes a reference to the public of a country other than the United Kingdom, and

(d) "the government" means the government of the United Kingdom, of a Part of the United Kingdom or of a country other than the United Kingdom.

(5) In this Act a reference to action taken for the purposes of terrorism includes a reference to action taken for the benefit of a proscribed organisation."

Now I realise that this is a load of Legalese, however what it boils down to, in conjunction with the proposed Draft Bill, is that the UK Government can prosecute anyone in the UK for acts against any organisation that it likes anywhere in the world. Saying that when all's said and done, Palestinian suicide bombers may have a point worth listening to for instance would probably qualify as "condoning terrorism", and therefore be a criminal offence.

To summarise, this reintroduces the legal notion of a crime of opinion. It opens the door to reintroducing sedition, a Common Law offence that was declared obsolescent by Lord Denning on the grounds that it was too broadly defined and inhibited too much the free and full discussion of public affairs, as a criminal offence. It makes openly holding certain opinions illegal. This is a stunningly illiberal legislative proposal.

Maybe I'm wrong. After all, I'm not a lawyer, I'm a pine marten, albeit possibly a seditious one. But just because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean that I'm wrong.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The election's over: it's time to get political

"Would you like to know the results?" asked my girlfriend as I awoke to another five years of New Labour government. "Yes please" I blearily replied, having given up watching the results come in at about 3am to catch four meagre hours of agitated sleep. "Labour have won again but with a smaller majority, with the Conservatives gaining most of the seats that they lost. The Lib Dems have lost ten seats". "WHAT? How can they lost ten seats? Every bloody result had a swing to the Lib Dems! Oh sh*t." And with that, I decided that I couldn't face getting up. I stared out of the window, turning over miserable thoughts in my mind about once again supporting the losing side. It's not that I'm not used to that by now, but you know, I'd allowed myself to believe for a few weeks that this time around, Blair and his gang would take a severe pasting to the benefit of the Lib Dems. I was also rather keen on the idea of Robert Kilroy-Silk having to sit next to George Galloway for the next five years. Anyway, the Lady bought me a cup of coffee to ease the pain, and I decided to face the world and have a detailed look at the election's results.

At which point it turned out that She had completely misunderstood the result summary dispensed by the half-asleep political junkies who were passed out in the living room and that the Lib Dems had in fact gained some seats, that Tony had indeed taken a serious kicking, that half of my little daydream about Kilroy and Galloway had come true and that all in all, it wasn't too shoddy a result. At least there'll be no more of Tony steamrolling stuff like the Flat Earth and Terracentric Cosmology Act through the Commons, which is a pretty good start. He may even have to consult with other people every so often.

However, this does not detract from the fact that it is perfectly feasible that the Lib Dems could have lost a load of seats despite gaining a load of votes because the UK's electoral system is almost as unfair as the US' one. Here's what I mean.

Currently, 619 seats from a total of 646 have been declared, or 95.8% of them so I consider that the following statistics are significant enough for our purposes. Of those, Labour have 57.0%, the Tories 31.5% and the Liberal Democrats 9.5%. But their shares of the vote are respectively 36.3%, 33.2% and 22.6%. The Tories and Labour should be neck-and-neck as regards the number of seats in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats should really have more than twice the number of seats that they have. Regardless of the actual political parties, this means that over half the people who support the Lib Dems aren't represented in Parliament, and conversely, Labour supporters have ridiculously more clout than their share of the vote entitles them to.

I'm pretty damned unhappy about this, and you should be too. In fact, I'm so unhappy that I never want to see this sort of travesty of democracy again. We theoretically have a representative form of government, and this pine marten thinks that we should be represented properly. In other words, now that everyone's in the swing of political things, instead of forgetting about politics for the next five years as usual, I propose that we should all start badgering our political masters about electoral reform until their ears bleed. I want to see people out on the streets and newspaper editors drowning in a deluge of angry letters. I reckon that a really good way to combat political apathy would be to have an electoral system in which everyone's vote counts, not just those of floating voters in marginal constituences. Essentially, what I'm driving at here is that we need proportional representation.

So what can you personally do? Well you can start by clicking here and signing up. Then you can get yourself properly involved and stuck in to some political militancy. Introducing proportional representation is the necessary condition to ensuring that your voice is heard, that any change can happen, that you decide how the country is governed. Whether you care mostly about Iraq, the environment, third world debt, transport, the EU, you should support proportional representation because that's how you can guarantee that the political class will listen to you.

Admittedly many in the political class have a vested interest in avoiding electoral reform like the plague so it's not likely to be an easy change to bring about, but with enough popular support (and remember that your MP depends on that for his job) it can happen.

And particularly for those of you whose immediate reaction is to dismiss the idea as a no-hoper, I leave you with a quote by from Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand:

Que dites-vous ?... C'est inutile ?... Je le sais !
Mais on ne se bat pas dans l'espoir du succès !
Non ! non, c'est bien plus beau lorsque c'est inutile !

(What say you? It is useless? I know!
But one doesn't fight in the hope of success!
No! No, it is far more beautiful when it's hopeless!)