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Editorial View

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 15:26

By Sir Graham Watson MEP, Editor, Government Gazette

MEPs returned from their summer holidays at the end of August fresh and full of enthusiasm for the final year of this parliamentary mandate. Whether retiring or seeking re-election (to a Parliament whose composition changes every five years more than most), their minds will be concentrating on the demands of electoral politics at home. And the prime weakness of democracy in the European Union, the staging of 28 simultaneous national electoral contests for election to the EP rather than one genuinely pan-European contest, will again be exposed.

Lobbying on two controversial draft Directives due for decision this autumn – the tobacco products directive and the anti-money laundering directive – has become intense. The former has been in the policy-making sausage machine for over five years now and the tobacco industry has thus far managed to keep delaying a decision. The latter is much more recent and is seen by some as an attempt by Commissioner Barnier to crack down on online gaming which, he claims, deprives national governments of the ability to levy tax revenue on gambling transactions.

The Vilnius summit, touted as the highlight of the current Lithuanian EU Presidency and designed to crown a closer and more structured relationship between the EU and its eastern neighbours, looks more and more like a damp squib as the neigbhbours remain prey to Russian influence and fail to consolidate democracy, the rule of law and free market economies. Even the one clear success story, Georgia, finds itself hampered by the unwillingness of Europe’s largest political party, the European Peoples Party, to accept the democratic outcome of last year’s election in which the party of President Saakashvili was ousted by the country’s voters.

The conflicts in Egypt, Syria and other southern mediterranean countries can be expected to contine to command attention from policy makers, even if the EU’s influence over them remains extremely limited. Whether Israel’s use of white phosphorus in its attack on Gaza some years ago or Syria’s use of chemical weapons this year, atrocities continue to blight the lives of innocent civilians and refugees continue to pour across borders in search of salvation. With the danger of a wider regional conflagration increasing, we can expect Parliament and Council to keep this near the top of their agendas.

Parliament’s committee of inquiry into alleged spying by the US and other EU countries, established before the summer break in reaction to the revelations by Russia-sheltered whistleblower Edward Snowden, will get into full swing this autumn.The issue of data privacy in a rapidly digitalising world will thus continue to be a focus of attention. Citizens’ rights in other areas too have been heightened by developments over the summer, notably the rights to freedom of movement of the 30,000 citizens of Gibraltar, the 7,000 or more people from across the border who work there and the many thousands more visitors who have been harrassed by the actions of the government of Spain. Most worrying perhaps is the demonisation and vilification of the Gibraltarians by Spain’s right wing government and its franquista followers.

In this edition of The Government Gazette we look at the EU’s regional funds. With a deal on the 2014-2019 budgetary framework due to be signed in September between Council and Parliament and programmes for the new seven year financial planning period due to commence in the New Year, much work remains to be done in approving member states’ spending plans. Moreover, since nobody can seriously contend (after the unseemly haggling earlier this year on the EU’s spending needs) that the limits to intergovernmentalism have not been reached, the debate about the future financing of the EU looks likely to play a prominent role in forthcoming European elections.

The passing of a national election in the EU’s economically strongest and most populous member state, Germany, has cleared the way for further discussion of how to keep heavily indebted countries with weak balances of income and expenditure within the eurozone. Mark Twain’s famous quip ‘Rumours of my death have been much exaggerated’ continues to apply to the single currency which, despite almost daily prognoses of its imminent demise, has now facilitated travel and trade considerably for over a decade.

Renewal of the United Nations’ framework convention on climate change remains a matter of controversy. The European Union continues to take the lead in trying to secure global agreement, as it has done since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This year’s meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention will take place in November in Warsaw, where the ubiquitous Commissioner Hedegaard and the MEPs who follow these issues will be on prominent display.

All the above, and the contents of this edition, document a Union which continues to grow in importance and impact. It is therefore puzzling – and, to many, troubling – that voter participation in European Parliament elections has continued to fall since the first elections in 1979. Moreover, while economic recesssion has highlighted the interdependence of Europe’s member states, public support for EU integration has plummeted (according to a recent report from the Pew Institute) by 25% in the last year. Will the mainstream political parties, each due to adopt its electoral manifesto this autumn and to prepare for the selection in the New Year of its candiate for the Presidency of the European Commission, be able to withstand the forces of nationalism and extremist populism to which democracies are so easily prey in difficult times? President Barroso’s summoning of a select group of MEPs early in September to discuss ‘the future of Europe’ suggests hat such worries are held in fhe highest echelons of our Union’s institutions.