Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cold shower times for French taxpayers.

The latest cold shower for French taxpayers: 245,722€. That's the cost for the installation in the Grand Palais on the occasion of the July 2008 Mediterranean Summit of a temporary presidential space (8 offices) with "douche attenante" (a shower equipped with radio, a seat and various "fonctions jet" for the exclusive use of the president). These revelations have made headlines across Europe (see for e.g. article in regional newspaper Le Telegramme and the Guardian).
In France the controversy of "la douche" - the "shower-gate"- came shortly after the "Défense-gate", namely the candidacy - and very near election - of the president's 23-year-old son to the directorhip of the body responsible for managing the Paris business district. The blatant act of cronyism was prevented at the last hour by a massive public outcry leading the young man to withdraw his candidacy (the famous Arche, right). A photo of the now equally fameuse douche here.

C'est la crise but nothing can possibly get in the way of the grandeur de la France and its rayonnement in its own backyard, the Mediterranean basin. The real scandal of course is not the shower itself but the extravagant cost (€16 million) of a summit which yielded little result. According to the Cour des Comptes report, the dinner held for heads of states had a price tag of €5,000 per person. A hearty menu in times of crisis.... And the kind of state cuisine many families who struggle every day to put food sur la table will find very hard to stomach.

Our nomemklature is unrepentent and trumpets that the French EU presidency was a resounding success. History will be the judge but what's very real for now is that it was the most expensive on record (€171 million). Perhaps we should rejoice about this gold medal in state budget management. The new one-man EU European Council presidency , argued a député, would cost less. Some comfort to the citoyens who were not even given a chance to vote on the Lisbon Treaty! (Someone else here believes that its implementation could rein in EU spending, a federalist...).

In the meantime, the sécurité sociale is in the red - €23 billion - and the deficit de l'Etat has hit the €1500 billion mark. French agriculture is en crise (again). A few days after the Commission allocates an emergency aid package to European milk producers (€280 million), President Sarkozy goes on a populist shopping spree promising more central planning, more regulation and of course more "support" - state aid is naturally forbidden - (€1 billion in low-interests loans and €650 million in direct aid). "Not enough" says the largest syndicate, what's needed is the state regulation of retail prices. Since French agriculture is being "sovietised", closing down the Commissariat général du Plan in 2006 was clearly a mistake. Just like in Soviet times' l'Etat and l'élite continue to over-spend in order to sustain a system "that will be for ever", le modèle français....

La petite histoire will remember that the shower was in fact never used. The mot de la fin must go to Hugo Chavez , a grand admirateur no doubt of France's leadership to make the world a greener place - or was it redder? "We are not in times of Jacuzzi" said he, urging his compatriots to save water (Newsweek, 2 Nov. 2009). Somebody in the Palais de l'Elysée must have heard the call. In France we are in shower times. Mostly cold ones....

Monday, October 12, 2009

Euroscepticism and liberty

Published in French in Un Monde Libre on October 19th.

.The EU leadership is not amused and is showing signs of impatience. Czech President Vaclav Klaus is not toeing the yes-line and announced that he wanted an opt-out on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a move which in turn could unravel re-negotiation requests from other member states. What is wrong with this? The problem is that the EU leadership demands an unconditional ratification even though by granting "guarantees" (July 2009 European Council conclusions) to Ireland, it opened the pandora box of a ratification a "geometrie variable". The problem is that the Union is neither comfortable with democracy nor with dissent.

Citizens are expected to fall in. In France, our political class chose to “consult itself” so to speak (ratification through parliament) rather than risk a public consultation and another rebuke (2005 no-vote on EU Constitution). With the financial crisis and economic downturn of the past year, EU leaders and eurocrats were anxious for good news. After the Irish yes-vote, nothing appears to be dampering their eagerness to have the treaty in force by the end of the year.

“There is no pressure as such” said the president of the EU Parliament Jerky Buzek “all discussions are taking place in a democratic context”. So the yes-camp makes it known that delay from the Czech Republic is not acceptable, diplomatically lambasting its president for pulling an “unfair” rabbit. Apparently the “Lisbon-ned” Union urgently needs to anoint a guide (President) to lead its blighted citizens. If you don’t understand what’s democratic and transparent about that, please try again. The correct answer is “yes” naturally this new phase of supranational governance requires a supreme leader but also new diplomatic staff, more bureaucrats, more budget for more common policies.... When member states are urged to reduce expenditures and downsize their administrations, the EU is preparing to inflate its own.

What kind of a democracy is yes-democracy? A growing number of citizens are no longer amused. Could Lisbon be a “treaty too far” as British academic William Horsley argues? He warns that its implementation will come as a shock to British people. After Westminster's expenses scandal, coping with a new rabbit from the EU hat will prove difficult. Across Europe, disillusionment with EU politics runs high. Politicians - not surprisingly - have failed to prepare electorates for what’s afoot, namely a system of collective decision-making with extensive new powers, and not as they claimed a “mere amendment" to the Nice Treaty currently in force. "Stream-lining" is the buzz word. But what we are talking about is the creation of a Europe-wide government and that means a superstate complete with legal personality.

Yes to British euroscepticism!
President Klaus’ stance for freedom is a beacon of hope, and so is the prospect of the return to power of the Conservative Party in the UK on the other side of the Channel. A healthy dose of British euroscepticism could be the light at the end of this illiberal tunnel... David Cameron’s speech at the party conference last week has hit the nail though his message of “taking on big government and the culture of irresponsibility” has probably not gone down well in the corridors of power in Brussels. Should he stand firm on his principled platform (and the referendum), a Conservative-led UK could act as a counterbalance to a more centralised and powerful EU. Let us see if outbursts of “consequences” by outspoken European leaders will impress or scare the British electorate. In the chess game of Euro-politics, the Lisbon camp is planning its next move, probably the offering of a sweetener. To neuter the rebellious islanders, “Let them have Blair!". Call it a socialist icing on the EU supercake, eurocitizens will need to digest. Citizens are mobilising against him ("Stop Blair" petition campaign) but he has already the support of powerful states.

The wind of liberty coming from Prague.
The fact is that the European project has always been an elite-driven ideal for which democratic legitimacy (direct elections) was never a priority. From its onset, it was influenced by inter alia federalist intellectuals like Jean Monnet - a statist - and Altiero Spinelli - a communist - who believed that peace in Europe would be achieved with the establishment of a superstate. That this ideal would in 2009 turn into reality without public support and legitimacy is fitting. It is no longer possible to question the integration model which in effect has become a dogma.

The plot is thickening but for us the French, the "ever-closer union" dies are cast. As Europe pompously celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is both ironic and fascinating that, in the immediate future, hope for a freer EU should come from the East. Whatever the outcome, President Klaus dares say "no" and in our brave new world of EU political correctness, it takes courage.

Green movement or green ideology?

Letter to the editor of the University of Porstmouth fortnighly newspaper - Pugwash News - in reply to an opinion by environmental officer Chris Spackman. Published on 05 November 2009.