Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Re-setting Europe without “bonapartisme”

Published in Hürriyet Daily News, Turkey.
It has to be handed to the Swedish Presidency; it’s putting up a brave fight against France’s pressure to set the law.

EU-Turkey relations are just one of those battlefields of influence. During a recent meeting between the presidents of both countries (July 3rd), President Sarkozy reiterated, presumably in case the Swedes “hadn’t got it”, that the opening of new chapters would be allowed so that “Turkey would become an associate member of Europe and not a fully-fledged one". From his outburst to the legitimate comments made by President Obama in support of Turkish EU membership, to boycotting a meeting in Stockholm with Foreign Minister Carl Bilt, or the barely disguised contempt for the “Turkish Season” now starting in France, there appears to be no let up.

Indeed it is plain for those who want to see that this is no longer about making the French government’s views “known” to other member states but rather about imposing its position on enlargement as the “only” way forward. France’s Right is now “united” by a common culture of “turcophobie” with the all-powerful administration “purged” of any pro-Turkey accession advocates. This “obsession” is now being deliberately exported on the European stage with chairmanships “bullied” into abiding to the limits set by Paris. This trend does not abode well for the future under the Lisbon treaty or barely revisited EU Constitution whose chief architect was former President Giscard d’Estaing, a proponent of the “non à la Turquie”, and guardian of the centralizing and “dirigiste” tradition.

It is worrying that this “bonapartisme” is not solely confined to enlargement. It is much in evidence in economics too. Sweden warns against the “over-zealous” regulation of hedge funds. Yet the French centralizing and regulating tradition appears to be winning this battle too against the weakened Labour government of PM Brown with the City standing to lose the most. French officials with the blessing of the “G8+?” - one loses count - have launched an all-out war on so-called tax heavens and low taxation jurisdictions, essentially seeking to end tax competition on French terms - Read higher taxes (Dan Mitchell on tax competition as a liberalising force in world economy). It’s ironic that it took the intervention of communist China at the London Summit to prevent Hong Kong from being blacklisted (ranking first in the Heritage Foundation economic freedom list, France 64th).

The economist Jacques Garello (Institut de Recherches Economiques et Fiscales) talks about the “fiscal tsunami” triggered by the “green” political wave now sweeping across Europe in the aftermaths of the elections. Europe-Ecologie led by “Danny-le-Rouge” Kohn Bendit came third (16%) just behind the socialists. 400€ billion are needed for the “croissance verte” (green growth or révolution) promised by the political class during the campaign. With public finances in the red, money will have to be found somewhere. That means more borrowing (grand emprunt national), a fossil fuel tax (taxe carbone) to be borne by enterprises, and if “zealots” have their way, a European “cap-and-trade” regulation. In other words, less economic freedom and more protectionism in the guise of “virtuous” green goals. Beware the “bonapartisme écologique”!

Decisions taken on the basis of these kinds of political antics make a mockery of the idea that the EU abides to principles of law, that it stands for universal values as opposed to the rules of a “Christians only” club, and finally that it defends free trade. Reasoned discussions and consensual decision-making on sensitive issues have being replaced by the rule of the “stronger”, more dedicated member state. The “weaker” or less interested ones simply fall in, too busy with their own priorities. Unfortunately, Sweden’s voice has no echo. The silence of other member states is deafening, and perhaps a sign of surrender. It’s high time for dissenting views to be heard, or “bonapartisme” will have its way after all, and in its 21st century political expression, will dominate Europe…

In the offing lies the final battle of the Lisbon treaty ratification (German constitutional debate, second Irish referendum on October 2, pending signature into law by the Czech President). It is widely acknowledged that given a democratic chance, Euro-voters would have rejected the construction of a French-inspired highly centralized super-state. In fact they did with 3 no-votes in referenda in France, Holland and Ireland. In the end, the Irish government has obtained its opt-out “deal” (taxation and neutrality notably) so this time round, the balance may just tilt to a yes-vote. That is not good news because Europe needs resetting. Far from being the “doomsday scenario” voters are led to believe, it is a very necessary and healthy step.

For now, finding solace in history will have to do. In October 1805, Napoleon’s military power-grabbing was ended by a British hero at the Battle of Trafalgar off the Spanish city of Cadiz. Admiral Nelson’s victory thus prevented the planned invasion of the British Isles and French rule over most of Europe. French and Spanish sailors fought valiantly but they were not on the side of freedom. In the current economic storm and battle for influence, the EU leadership under French “command” has the weather gauge (advantage) to impose its vision of Europe. Czech President Klaus may be up against a vastly superior fleet of politicians and bureaucrats but he could well turn the tide. And become the European peoples’gallant hero.

In the olden days, French Embassies used to invite all residing “citoyens” for the traditional celebration of the “fête nationale”. No more. Must be politicians fullfilling their promises to bring public finance under control, or an extraordinary measure in times of deep recession.... Right.

- 2009 budget for the Elysée (présidence de la République): increase of 11.45% from 2008 (more here).
- Cost of the speech in Versailles Palace of the Président before the Parlement (Sénat-Assemblée Nationale) further to the constitutional amendment: 450,000€ (more here)

Last February, Russian President Medvedev announced that in the light of the crisis, state expenditures at all levels should be reviewed, adding that this exercise “should start with oneself ". So if the Kremlin can cut costs, why not the Elysée?


Allez, champagne quand même! A la santé de notre Liberté chérie....

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

EU parliamentary elections: democracy or hypocrisy?

Publié en français sur Un Monde Libre.org

In the wake of Europe-wide parliamentary elections, the Iranian presidential poll with its massive turnout and the eagerness of the voters to cast their ballots was uplifting. Candidates had spoken passionately, and their supporters mobilized in great numbers. The contrast with the lackluster and undisputed elections campaign in the European Union (EU) could not have been more striking. In Iran, the violent post-election crackdown is evidence - if anybody needed reminding - that elections do not necessarily yield more freedom. In Europe, the process was free and fair, peaceful but the question remains if the highly centralized Union is the democratic model it professes to be.

Indeed since the first direct elections (1979), fewer European citizens have bothered to exercise their right to vote. In the 2009, the overall turnout has hit the predicted record-low: 43% in 2009 v 62% in 1979. Slovakia with 19.64% lies at the bottom of the table. In France, one of the founding states, 60% of the electorate abstained. Yet this abyssal result did not damper the festive mood of the political parties that fared better (UMP 27.8%, Europe Ecologie 16.28%). Champagne corks popped with little regard to the fact that the newly elected MEPs (72, total of 736) will represent le peuple with the thinnest of democratic legitimacy. But truth be told, EU institutions and national governments have already moved on with a sigh of relief. It’s back to politics as usual.

By and large politicians have skirted the issue of the ever-deepening democratic deficit. The reason for this is simple. The EU show must go on. Many leaders have regularly and openly stated that “democracy and the complex EU polity are not really compatible”. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has revealed a deep-rooted mindset of mistrust towards voters amongst the élite. Hence a growing sense that democratic consultations are only meant as a “rubberstamping exercise” whilst the “real” EU business carries on in the secretive conclaves of supra-national consensual politics. Disenchanted electorates were left with only two options to express their frustration and disagreement: abstention or a vote for the more extreme parties (right or left). Yet defining this rising tide of negative sentiment as “anti-European” is simplistic, albeit convenient for a political class intent on preserving the status quo. Results can also be interpreted as anti-EU as currently run, and pro-freedom.

EU institutions seized on these elections to promote the notion that the Lisbon Treaty will usher a new dawn: “a more democratic and transparent Europe”. But as Oxford academic Christopher Bickerton points out, attempts to remedy the lack of transparency have been tried before and failed because “the EU is not about transparency. Its function is to provide space for policymaking that substitutes political conflicts of principle for a culture of bureaucratic compromise”. (The Manifesto Club study, “No” to the Politics of fait accompli”). The EU polity has become a “public-free zone”, namely the preserve of unaccountable bureaucrats, politicians and diplomats as Daily Telegraph correspondent Bruno Waterfield puts it. Even with more powers granted to the Parliament, reversing decades of culture of insulated and undemocratic decision and lawmaking could prove mission impossible.

The European project is supposed to enhance our freedom. The essence of liberty is choice. Yet if citizens’ choices – a “no” to the Lisbon Treaty, abstention to express discontent – are dismissed, if the “eur-oligarchy” can think of nothing better to resolve the crisis of legitimacy than to scaremonger voters to push ahead their “enlightened” agenda (“vote Yes or face the consequences of extremism or recession”), then arguably there is little democracy left worth talking about. Rather, what is emerging is a new form of supra-national authoritarianism imposed by a nomemklature who, in ways not dissimilar to the Soviet one, always “knows best”.

The EU is in legitimacy crisis territory. The low participation rate (and no-votes in the referenda) should be interpreted as an electoral equivalent of the 1965 “empty chair crisis” (“Luxembourg compromise”) when French civil servants were withdrawn by Charles de Gaulle due to serious disagreement with the Commission. The responsibility lies squarely on politicians (mainstream or not) who have sadly failed to articulate a vision for the future that a majority of citizens “can believe in” and support.

For results, see here.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

L'Hermione, the Liberty Frigate

In June 2012, a replica of the 1780 French frigate Hermione will anchor off the Statue of Liberty, New York after having crossed the Atlantic Ocean (Rochefort, Boston, New-York). The original frigate had sailed to l'Amérique to support and help the American people in their quest for freedom and independence.
Aboard the Hermione ("Frégate de la Liberté") when she set sails from Rochefort in March 1780, was le Marquis de La Fayette. After a 38 day sail, the 65 metres long man-of-war reached Boston where the French officer landed to re-join George Washington's forces. In 1777, having disobeyed Louis XVI's orders and avoided capture by British spies, young La Fayette had eventually reached American shores to serve in the Continental Army. He had returned to France a hero and played a key role in strengthening the French Monarchy's commitment to the American struggle.

The idea for an absolute king to support another people's struggle for freedom was daring. Of course, the monarch backed the project for the blow it would deal to His Britannic Majesty King GeorgeIII, and not to "defend freedom". For La Fayette the latter was the point for he had been truly inspired by the ideal of individual liberty (right with G. Washington at Mt. Vernon in 1784). During the French Revolution - despite persecution by the Jacobin revolutionaries - and throughout his life, he remained true to this ideal.

Crossing an ocean in the 18th century was adventurous but so is the 20th century project to build a replica and sail her across the Atlantic. If all goes well, the image of the "Frégate de la Liberté" anchored in front of the "Statue de la Liberté" will bear testimony to the will and achievements of a few who inspired so many. It will also honour the spirit of a free man who made a difference, Monsieur de La Fayette.
This project was initiated by a group of citoyens (Association Hermione-La Fayette founded in 1997), and after difficult beginnings (technical and financial), construction is well under way in 2009 (hull completed and caulked, big capstan installed). Of course, the French Republic keenly backs it (with taxpayers' money). The political objective behind may be to commemorate our common history, the friendship between our two nations and the ideal of liberty but one thing is certain, it is not in support of economic freedom! C'est un peu l'histoire qui se répète....

Happy 4th of July. Et vive la liberté!