A one-way ticket, not a return: David Cameron takes a huge gamble on EU referendum

David Cameron received a hero’s welcome as he arrived at the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. Just hours after delivering one of the most important speeches of his premiership, Mr Cameron was cheered and applauded by Conservative MPs in appreciation of his tough new stance on the European Union.

Earlier that morning, the British Prime Minister warned that a new global race of nations was underway and he wanted to speak “with urgency and frankness” about how he believed the EU must change to deliver prosperity.

During the forty minute speech, he argued that problems in the eurozone were driving “fundamental change” in Europe and the gap between the EU and its citizens had grown, representing a lack of accountability and consent.

He added that there was “a crisis of European competitiveness,” as other nations soared ahead and warned that the biggest danger to the EU came from those who denounced new thinking as “heresy.”

Outlining his vision for the EU in the 21st century, Mr Cameron called for a flexible Union that could “act with the speed and flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc,” where power could flow back to Member States, not just away from them. He also called for a bigger role for national parliaments and provisions to ensure that whatever new arrangements were enacted for the eurozone worked fairly for those inside it and out.

He pledged that the next Conservative manifesto would ask for a mandate for “a fresh settlement” in the next Parliament, and once that was negotiated the British people would be given a referendum with a simple in/out choice.

The Prime Minister said he was in favour of Britain remaining inside the EU, and he wanted the EU to be a success but warned, “If we left the European Union, it would be a one-way ticket, not a return.”

His speech was met with much derision by both the leader of the Opposition and his European counterparts. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said he was against an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg described Mr Cameron’s EU goal as “wholly implausible.”

Indeed, the Prime Minister may have appeased his Conservative backbenchers for now but in reality the referendum Mr Cameron wants is very unlikely to happen. First, the Conservative Party would need to win an outright majority at the 2015 general election. They failed to do that at the last general election, despite 13 years of Labour rule. The latest monthly ICM/Guardian poll places Labour five points ahead of the Tories when respondents were asked how they would vote in a general election tomorrow.

Second, if Mr Cameron were re-elected with a majority and approached the EU to seek “a fresh settlement,” why should the institutions and his European counterparts agree to negotiate? Britain is an important and influential member of the club, but so are several other Member States. If the EU agrees to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership, what’s to stop other members seeking their own “fresh settlements.” How would the EU treat those nations if that situation arose? As German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said this week, “cherry picking is not an option.”

A poll by YouGov yesterday revealed that for the first time in the current Parliament, more people would vote for Britain to stay in the EU than to leave it, with 40 per cent saying they would vote to stay in and 34 per cent stating they would vote to leave. Even if the long-promised referendum did finally come, Britain’s exit from the Union is far from certain despite the rhetoric from eurosceptic MPs and UKIP.

For now, Mr Cameron’s speech has given enormous media coverage to a subject that many Britons find too boring, too dry and too complicated but with pledges like those made yesterday and an election looming in 2015, it is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

As the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, put it, “If Britain wants to leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet for you.”

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Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

Would Brits say “oui” to staying in the EU?

The UK is “fading into the European background”, warned former European Trade Commissioner and Labour peer Lord Mandelson in July. In an interview with Euractiv, he argued that the UK government was trapped between eurosceptics and anti-Europeans and was in danger of being forgotten by other EU member states.

It’s not just Lord Mandelson that’s worried – former Prime Minister Tony Blair has also voiced concern that Britain could leave the EU. In an interview with Germany’s Die Ziet newspaper, Mr Blair said the UK’s exit from the Union could be sparked by too much power being transferred to Brussels.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that Britain now exports more goods to countries outside the EU than to the countries inside it, as businesses increasingly look to the rapidly-growing economies of Asia and Latin America. The news is likely to bolster British eurosceptics who argue that leaving the EU won’t damage international trade.

So as Europe’s economic woes rumble on, is a referendum on Britain’s EU membership becoming a reality?

Despite the frequent media hysteria about a possible referendum, the Coalition Agreement makes no reference or commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

What the Agreement does say is that the government supports further EU enlargement and “is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners.” Which of course, all sounds very…positive.

Continuing, the Agreement affirms that “no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum…this approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty.” A firmer tone perhaps, but still no references to a referendum on membership.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph in July, Prime Minister David Cameron said he was prepared to consider a referendum on the UK’s EU relationship, but only when “the time is right.”

Mr Cameron, who told the newspaper that leaving the EU is not in Britain’s best interests, has the rather challenging task of pleasing hardliners on the Conservative Right who want to leave the Union whilst simultaneously appeasing the party’s Coalition partners, the pro-European Liberal Democrats.

MPs will return to Westminster tomorrow after the long summer recess, and the Prime Minister is likely to hit the ground running by announcing his autumn reshuffle, perhaps as early as next week. Speculation over the reshuffle has swirled around for months, but Conservative Europe Minister David Lidington has been rumoured to lose his job.

Sources have claimed that David Cameron has come under pressure from Right-wingers in the party who want to see the Minister replaced with an MP who would take a harder line on Europe. Mr Lidington recently told France’s Le Monde that the UK was a “convinced European”, whose best interests were to stay inside the EU and there was “no question” of an exit any time soon.

For now, it remains unlikely that there will be a referendum, especially while the Conservatives govern in coalition with the Lib Dems. It’s possible that the tone of Britain’s relationship with the EU could change, for example if the “referendum lock” does have to be used then this could trigger a crisis if and when a new treaty is needed. Mr Cameron already prompted a frosty response from his European counterparts when he vetoed the new fiscal treaty last December.

However, in some ways nothing will change and the same old familiar story will continue to play out, with eurosceptic MPs calling for withdrawal from the EU or a “repatriation of powers”. But the reality remains that it really is in the UK’s best interests to stay inside the Union, and for that reason holding a referendum on EU membership is too riskier a gamble for the government to take.

Referendums are expensive and time-consuming – under George Osborne’s Chancellorship the UK economy continues to struggle and GDP shrank 0.5 per cent between April and June this year. If the government decided to spend millions of pounds on what is arguably a vanity project, the decision could spectacularly backfire on an already unpopular administration.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 2 September 2012. 

Young, gifted and unemployed in 2012

Liam Morriss is Jogging4Jobs

Young Europeans could be forgiven for feeling like they are part of a lost generation. Despite growing up on a continent where access to education is available like never before, an increasing number of young people are finding themselves unemployed.

The latest figures released by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, reveal that the unemployment rate in the EU rose again in January 2012 to 10.1%, up 0.6% from the previous January. Eurostat estimates that there are approximately 24.3 million unemployed men and women in the EU today.

The highest levels of unemployment were recorded in Spain (23.3%) and Greece (19.9%), where the lack of jobs has led to social unrest and emigration. The lowest unemployment figures were recorded in Austria (4.0%) and the Netherlands (5.0%).

Amongst these figures are an estimated 5.5 million people under age 25. That’s 22.4% of the youth workforce, an extra 269,000 unemployed young people compared to figures from January 2011. Figures for youth unemployment were highest in Spain (49.9%), Greece (48.1%) and Slovakia (36.0%).

Unemployment in Europe has increased at an alarming rate since 2008, when the youth unemployment still remained high at just over 15%.

Charles Simmonds, 24, from West Sussex, UK, has a degree in Business Management and some professional work experience. He lost his temporary job in the financial services sector last summer, and despite sending many different applications he has had just two interviews and remains unemployed.

Charles said: “I apply for at least four jobs each week and the response rate is slow. Less than 10 per cent of companies reply to tell me yes or no. Signing on is the most depressing 20 minutes each fortnight. At uni they said your degree is your passport to your future, the key to open doors.”

Other jobseekers have resorted to more innovative means to promote themselves and their skills. Liam Morriss, 24, from Kent, UK, has been unemployed for the last six weeks after his temporary contract in retail ended. A keen runner, Liam decided to promote his skills and job hunt by jogging 10 kilometres per day from his home in Dartford into London. He wears a t-shirt that tells passersby “I’m unemployed, I’m a graduate and I’m jogging for jobs.”

Liam said: “I was so tired of being sat in front of my computer screen every day, trawling the same jobsites and having no success. It was getting me really down. This is the first period in my life I have been unemployed and I really felt like I’d lost a sense of purpose. Now I’m doing this, although it’s not a job, it gives me an aim every day.”

Liam has a degree in Music Industry Management and has applied for over 30 jobs in the last month. He has had one interview, but was told he wasn’t experienced enough for the role.

He said: “I think it’s mad how I’ve graduated yet I’m considering starting an apprenticeship. One apprenticeship is as a trackman working for network rail. I’ve applied for a few secretarial and admin type roles, but everywhere seems to require previous experience.”

So just why are young people disproportionately affected by joblessness?

James Higgins, Employment and Social Affairs Policy Officer at the European Youth Forum explained that the reasons are complex.

He said: “The majority of young people who are unemployed find themselves in this position due to difficulties in making the transition from education to employment. Some do not have sufficient skills, some employment sectors are oversubscribed, and in general young people tend to fall victim to an increasingly volatile labour market.”

Additionally, because young people are frequently over-represented in temporary and unstable jobs, this also contributes to the rising rate of youth unemployment.

A 2011 study by EUROFOUND, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, found that young people are particularly vulnerable because they are often the first and last to enter the labour market, as they have to compete with more experienced job-seekers in a market with fewer jobs on offer.

Against this backdrop of disastrous statistics, what is the EU doing to tackle the soaring rate of youth unemployment?

Essentially, the EU has a number of different schemes which sit in the framework of its Europe 2020 strategy, a ten year plan to improve Europe’s economy. An Agenda for New Skills and Jobs is a European Commission policy initiative that aims to help the EU reach its employment target for 2020: 75% of 20-64 year olds in work. There’s also Youth on the Move, which aims to tackle youth unemployment by promoting opportunities for students and young professionals to live, study and work around the EU.

However well intended, there’s no disputing that two years into Europe 2020, youth unemployment is higher than ever and the future looks uncertain for many young jobseekers.

It is not surprising that the European Commission promotes mobility for young professionals as one way to help resolve the crisis, but if there are no jobs at home and no jobs abroad, what use is it moving? Young jobseekers need to work, or to be offered the opportunity to train or re-train, and sooner, rather than later.

This feature was published by The New Federalist on 19 March 2012.

Viviane Reding: EU’s boardrooms need more women

English: European Commissioner Viviane Reding

Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship

European Commissioner Viviane Reding has launched a public consultation on how to redress the gender balance in the EU’s boardrooms. The consultation comes on the back of new figures published today which demonstrate that just one in seven board members in the EU’s publicly listed companies is female (13.7%). Although this is a slight improvement on 2010 figures (11.8%), if growth were to continue at this rate then the Commission asserts that gender equality would take another forty years.

There is speculation that the Commission will adopt legislative measure to close the gender gap, such as minimum quotas for the number of women in boardroom positions, particularly after just 24 companies signed up to Reding’s Women on the Board Pledge for Europe, a voluntary initiative proposed last year.

Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain have all introduced laws that require gender quotas for company boards, but France alone accounts for around half the increase over the past twelve months.

There’s no doubting that the lack of women working in Europe’s boardrooms in this day and age is disappointing. Companies know that they should be recruiting more women to the top roles, but have chosen not to. There is no quick fix for this situation, and legally enforceable quotas may or may not be the answer, but with companies unwilling to support voluntary initiatives it’s difficult for the Commission to know which way to turn.

Eurobarometer has also surveyed citizens’ views on women in decision-making positions, and found that the majority of Europeans agree that the business community is dominated by men who do not have sufficient confidence in women (76%). They also found that most Europeans believe that women have less freedom because of their family responsibilities (68%).

Critics of quota methods of recruitment argue that this could result in boardrooms with ‘trophy directors’, but the Commission says that ultimately, gender balance in boardroom roles will lead to better business performance and improved competitiveness. A study by McKinsey backs these claims, and found that gender-balanced companies have a 56% higher operating profit compared to male-only companies.

European women have campaigned hard for equal rights and have achieved so much in the past one hundred years, but challenges remain and there’s still further to go.

ACTA ratification suspended as EU refers treaty to the ECJ

European flag outside the Commission

European Commission, Brussels

The EU has suspended ratification of ACTA and referred the treaty to the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The European Commission is to ask the ECJ if the treaty is compatible with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms – something that protesters and politicians have voiced concerns and misgivings over for months. It is hoped that an ECJ ruling will clear any fog or misinterpretation in the wording of the treaty.

In a press release on Tuesday, Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said that he shared people’s concerns over freedom of the internet and that he understood the present uncertainty on what ACTA will ultimately mean for the key issues (including internet freedom and the protection of Europe’s Intellectual Property).

The Commissioner also stressed that ACTA will not “change anything in the European Union, but will matter for the European Union.”

Whether or not that is true is now up to the ECJ to decide, but this latest development has certainly awarded a point to the anti-ACTA campaign.

ACTA and the EU: Dangerous bedfellows?

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Europe and beyond last weekend to protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).  Citizens in several cities including Vilnius, London, Sofia, Valetta and Tallinn rallied together and participated in an international day of action against the treaty.

Just a fortnight earlier, French MEP Kader Arif resigned his post as European Parliament rapporteur for ACTA, claiming that the treaty “goes too far” by restricting internet freedom and is a “masquerade.” M. Arif added that he believes that in its current form the treaty is ineffective and dangerous for civil liberties. So what is ACTA all about and should we be concerned?

ACTA is an international treaty designed to protect intellectual property rights (IPR) by standardising copyright protection measures. It was signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States in October 2011 and then by the EU in January 2012. The treaty won’t come into effect in the EU before it is ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament. So far, 22 member states are signatories.

ACTA’s chief aim is to curb the trade of counterfeited goods, including copyrighted material online. The penalty for individuals found guilty of breaching the terms of the agreement could be either a prison sentence or a fine. The maximum penalty isn’t specified in the treaty but will be “sufficiently high to provide a deterrent to future acts of infringement, consistently with the level of penalties applied for crimes of a corresponding gravity.”

The European Commission claims that ACTA will not target individuals and is necessary in order to effectively tackle large-scale IPR violations. It also claims that the treaty will not change EU law or restrict the use of the internet.

However, the treaty’s strongest critics argue that the ACTA’s wording is deliberately ambiguous, can be widely interpreted and will ultimately change the role of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who will effectively be responsible if their customers are pirating data. There are also fears that the treaty could result in a policed, censored internet where freedom of expression is restricted.

The European Parliament won’t debate ACTA until June, but the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Czech Republic have already announced they won’t ratify the treaty just yet. European Parliament President Martin Schulz also lent his voice to the anti-ACTA campaign this week when he stated on German TV that the balance between copyright protection and the rights of individual internet users “is only very inadequately anchored in this agreement.”

With an increasing number of angry street protests, strikes and now politicians wading in to the anti-ACTA row, the treaty tentatively appears to be unravelling in Europe. The June debate remains a few months away, but there is still plenty of time for civil society to continue to mobilise, lobby and campaign against what appears to be a potentially draconian piece of legislation which in its worst form could undermine the very principles of free speech and privacy that are so inherent to European culture.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 18 February 2012.

High hopes for the first European Citizens’ Initiative

Less than ten weeks remain before EU citizens will be able to register the very first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). From 1 April, citizens will be able to call on the European Commission  to propose legislation on any issue where it has the competence to legislate. That could be virtually anything from culture, education and the environment to consumer protection, equality or transport. Great! Fantastic! At last, an opportunity for ordinary people to gain access to the College of Commissioners and truly influence policy making and the legislative process in Europe. Well it is, but the procedures for proposing an initiative are neither quick, nor simple.

The ECI was born out the Lisbon Treaty and is part of a drive by the EU to improve transparency and democracy. Essentially, if an initiative receives one million signatures from citizens who come from at least seven of the EU’s member states then the European Commission will consider the proposal.

So how does it work? Well, before an ECI can be launched at least seven citizens from seven EU member states must form a “citizens’ committee” and officially register the ECI online. Then the committee can begin to collect signatures, and organisers have a year to do so. Any EU citizen can sign an initiative (so long as they are old enough to vote in European Parliament elections) and must complete a specific statement of support, either online or on paper. Once one million signatures have been collected, representatives from the Commission will meet with organisers and discuss the initiative in detail. There is also an opportunity for a public hearing at the European Parliament. The Commission will then adopt a formal response to the ECI’s proposals and set out its next course of action, if any.

This is a long process. Initially, the Commission has two months to register the proposed initiative. If you want to be able to collect electronic signatures for your ECI (and who wouldn’t in this digital age), then it takes a further month to build an online collection system that can handle the appropriate technical and security demands. This also has to be certified by a national authority in the member state where the data is going to be stored, before any signatures can be collected. Organisers have a year to collect signatures, and then a further three months are allowed for national authorities to verify the statements of support.Once organisers have received certificates verifying the signatures they submit these to the European Commission, who have a further three months to examine the initiative and prepare a response. Potentially, that’s 21 months of work from start to end, not to mention the work that goes in before an initiative is first launched.

Critics argue that the process is too complex, too long-winded and that ultimately, the European Commission is not legally bound to propose legislation as a result of an initiative. There are also fears that the ECI could be hijacked by civil society organisations pushing their own agendas. The Commission has tried to prepare for this by announcing that initiatives can’t be run by organisations. However, organisations are allowed to promote or support an ECI provided that they do so “with full transparency.”

On the plus side, this really is a rather revolutionary step for the EU and it has never consulted its citizens like this before. Last year the UK government introduced e-petitions, a similar measure for citizens to influence policy by way of a petition (only 100,000 signatures are needed for a subject to be raised in the House of Commons) and the website has been hugely popular. If the ECI receives the publicity it deserves on 1 April, it should get people talking and, hopefully, mobilised. One million signatures is a huge number to collect but in the digital age this might not be quite such a mammoth task. Time will tell and the first ECI is just around the corner.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 8 February 2012.