EU must hold itself to higher standards on democratic rights

It is extraordinary to have to write, in 2013, that the European Union could be said to contain a non-democratic State as one of its members. That Member State, following the adoption of its new constitution in 2011-2012, is Hungary. That Constitution expunges the name ‘Hungarian Republic’, it bans gay marriage and attributes the wrongdoings of 40 years of dictatorship to the current Hungarian Socialist Party and all its members.

Since then, Viktor Orbán has applied his supermajority to pursue his agenda and make it exceptionally problematic for any future Government to repeal or even erode his political legacy.

While Hungary is certainly the most extreme example of democratic, civil and human rights abuses in Europe, it is not alone. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights, still classifies Hungary as a ‘Consolidated Democracy’. Three other EU members, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, are still ‘Semi-Consolidated Democracies’.

Similarly, when the centre-left Prime Minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, took power in 2012, the Government spared no time in tightening its grip over the machinery of the State and the media. As a result of the political crisis that broke out when he tried to impeach the President, Ponta wrote to the European Socialist Party to ‘politely request’ that it hold its Activists Forum elsewhere (after I had bought my non-refundable plane tickets).

There is also no escaping the fact that there was widespread corruption and fraud in the Bulgarian parliamentary elections in 2013, which a delegation of European Socialists, including myself, witnessed. The day before our arrival, 350,000 ballots were found, pre-marked in favour of the ruling conservative GERB party, in a printing warehouse. The owner of the press, who in a delightful coincidence was a GERB councillor, claimed that they had been printed accidentally. Those 350,000 were only fake ballots that were found. Who knows how many, suspected up to 700,000, had already been sent out? Enough to shift the nationwide vote by nearly 10%.

Other countries featured in FH’s 2013 Nations in Transit report provide mixed data. Estonia sees a decline in its corruption rating, while Latvia improves. The Czech Republic’s judicial framework and independence has improved, but Slovakia’s has declined.

This makes for unpleasant reading, and combined with the pressure of austerity measures it may not be surprising, but the fact that we are so shocked by the deficiency of such freedoms means that we forget that most of these democracies are less than 25 years old. The UK began developing its democracy with the Bill of Rights in 1688 (some would even point to the Magna Carta in 1215). Spain, a very young democracy, is 40 years old, emerging from dictatorship in 1975. Neither would consider themselves perfect democracies.

We may be asking for too much too soon from these central European States, but the EU accession process, particularly the protracted one for Croatia, has encouraged fundamental changes in the country over the last 10 years. The thought that ‘Europe is watching’ has proven to be a force for good when it comes to the respect for democracy in post-Soviet countries which do not revere these ideas in the way that some in Western States do. As a Latvian woman put it to me, ‘You can’t just do what you want. What use is democracy if you can’t eat?’

The European Commission plays the role of Guardian of the Treaties and monitors whether Member States are implementing their Directives effectively. The European Parliament must develop a similar role when it comes to safeguarding human, civil and democratic rights in central Europe. There are already committees and instruments for doing this being used, but they must be strengthened and more widespread. The Commission tried to discipline Orbán by ‘raising serious concerns’ over his agenda, but in the end it was Barroso who blinked because Hungary’s membership was put on the table.

More broadly, though efforts must be concentrated where they are needed most in the hybrid-regimes Balkans, the EU most hold its own members to account even more so. That goes for Italy and Germany as much as it does for Bulgaria and Romania.

This piece was commissioned and published as a guest article for the EU Progressive Forum. See here.

Britain in the driving seat

The EU as we know it began with the aim to bind France and Germany together and that Franco-German motor has driven European integration through to the present day. That relationship has gone from strength to strength; it has been the one constant theme in European politics at a time of drastic and unpredictable change.

This is particularly true of France. Her first two decades were characterised by a troubled and short-lived Fourth Republic that was divided and then collapsed under the pressure of Algerian War. Yet no matter who occupied the Elysée, the special relationship remained. Konrad Adenauer was the only politician ever to be invited to (that grand old nationalist) Charles de Gaulle’s private home in Colombey-les-deux-églises. Similarly, the sight of the first Socialist president, François Mitterrand, holding hands with Helmut Kohl as they visited a war memorial remains an important memory for reconciliation. Even today, despite the relationship becoming less equal as the French economy looks weaker and weaker while the German economy powers ahead, we observed a relationship so close we started to call the two leaders Merkozy.

I say ‘we observed’ because that has been the closest we have come to a coherent position. Britain’s attitude to Europe, in contrast to the French and Germans, has waxed and waned vivaciously. The coming and going of British governments chopped and changed between taking little interest in the continent, half-hearted attempts to join, half-hearted attempts to leave, trying to dismantle the whole project and then trying to lead the way. The Conservatives wanted in, Labour wanted out; the Conservatives wanted out, then Labour wanted in. Margaret Thatcher took a great step towards the EU by signing the Single European Act, then recoiled in horror at the ‘Socialist monster’ she had helped to create. Tony Blair began his time in office building bridges with other Europeans, but he ended it as pro-American in the Bush years as Thatcher was in the Reagan years.

I do not easily recall any ‘friendship moments’ between Britain and France, nor Britain and Germany. Blair and Schroeder got on well as they launched the Third Way, but the moments of animosity (Macmillan vs de Gaulle, Thatcher vs Mitterrand) far more memorable.

This is why it is so difficult for us to credibly claim a leadership role in Europe. There is a sense of entitlement without having put in the work. Our off-moments have meant that the EU as it is, with its roots in the Treaty of Rome, is far more ‘continental’ than it would have been had we engaged at the beginning and remained committed ever since.

However, Britain’s role is a pivotal one, not a leadership one, for we cannot lead from the fringes. The Benelux countries argued as strongly for our membership of the Common Market as we did because they were frightened of being steamrolled by France.

Putting the odd diplomatic tiff aside, Britain has worked remarkably well with France over the last few years. An adventurous France has become bored with stay-at-home Germany and now chooses to cooperate with us. We launched a joint operation in Libya, together; we now share an aircraft carrier between us, and cooperate specially in almost every sphere.

Meanwhile, Britain and German businesses work well together through a shared though varied country. I am currently unable to source this due to no internet access, but I believe British Influence or the European Movement states that the UK does more business with the northern Lander (region) of Germany than it does with the BRICs combined. Working in the translation industry, I can testify there is so much work between the two languages as German businesses try to break through to international markets. Yet, Germany is growing impatient at having to lead the crisis and would be grateful of an ally from the ‘productive north’.

Ultimately, Britain cannot expect to play a leadership role in the EU from its peripheral position. There could be a new Anglo-French axis or an Anglo-German one in Brussels, but not until we have shown that we reserve it. Britain does have like-minded allies who are keen to drive through reform in the EU. It does enjoy good relations in Paris and Berlin. It is not alone in its desire to build a more efficient and effective EU. But our friends cannot help Britain solves its own existential problems.

This piece was written for British Influence.

Let’s talk about EU policy, not a pointless neverendum

Those in Labour arguing for a referendum on EU membership risk undermining us when we need to answer tough questions, and are damaging our reputation abroad by calling our commitment to Europe into question.

European Commission President Barroso recently gave his annual State of the European Union address. He called on MEPs to make the case for a stronger Europe, encouraged the eurozone to press on towards a banking union, railed against unemployment, and urged the EU to fight for growth.

But instead of championing (or even criticising) these ideas, the only EU-related article in the Labour blogosphere came from Labour for a Referendum: ‘Labour needs a referendum on Europe, now more than ever’. Its arguments put polling over principle and short-term politics over serious policy.

The LFR article argued that an in-out referendum would help us win the 2015 general election (forgetting the European parliamentary elections in 2014, which will make the difference between a headstart and falling at the first hurdle), reconnect with our traditional working-class support, and, somehow, prevent leftwing Eurosceptics from forming their own UKIP while simultaneously securing Britain’s future in the EU.

In contrast, Progress, and British Influence, have led the way in the real discussions the we should be having in Europe. Are we ready for a banking union? Do we support deeper integration? How best to deliver the financial transaction tax?

The greatest criticism I hear of our party is that we ‘don’t have any policies’ and that people ‘don’t know what we stand for’. If we are to regain and strengthen our traditional working-class support, we have to show that we are we are ready and willing to fight for them on an EU level. An in-out EU referendum will take us, at best, back to square one, and we will be all the poorer in time and energy.

Over the last few years, I have campaigned with our European friends in elections in France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia and, this week, in Germany. In all of these countries I have discussed and debated European policy. We never felt the need to discuss whether or not we should begin to discuss something.

That is the problem with our party, and more broadly our country, when it comes to Europe. Ever since 1945, we have ducked and dived and dithered over the big important questions in favour of tearing ourselves apart over the unimportant ones. Then, when others have made their decisions, we find ourselves scrambling to catch up and unhappy with the results. The Anglo-Saxon hare sleeps while the continental tortoise plods on.

I want people ‘to have a say’ on Europe – a real say. The choice I want to give voters in 2014 is not ‘in’ versus ‘out’; it will be a choice between measures that promote jobs and growth versus ones that promote austerity.

So here is the question we have to answer ourselves before we go to the country: is Labour ready to make the monumental European policy choices ahead, or will we shy away and let ourselves get bogged down a pointless internal debate about the neverendum?

This piece was written for and originally published by Progress. See here.

The Observer Effect- Europe is watching

My experience in Bulgaria monitoring the parliamentary elections on 12 May served as a powerful reminder of what it is to be a Social Democrat and a European.

There is no escaping the fact that there was widespread corruption and fraud. It is astonishing that such practices still take place in 2013 in a European country (and an EU member).

A hundred of us from the Party of European Socialists, with countless other delegations from organisations like Transparency International, were sent to observe the elections. In the tradition of the Soviet style ‘Papers, please’ we were given a certificate by the Bulgarian foreign ministry explaining the situation. This was helpful given that the extent of my Bulgarian is now to be able to say ‘European Socialists’.

The main tool to fight against corruption in this case is bureaucracy, and the Bulgarians have developed a rigorous procedure to try and combat illegal and unfair practices. Despite the robust system there was still widespread abuse.

With my Bulgarian Socialist Party guide, Blago, a candidate, at the local BSP HQ in Sofia.
With my Bulgarian Socialist Party guide, Blago, a candidate, at the local BSP HQ in Sofia.

What I saw

I led a team in Sofia, tending up to 24 polling stations in 2 different schools. It would be tempting to say that my subjects for observation were well behaved, and indeed they were welcoming once I had shown my papers (in most cases they had never seen anything like it before), but most of the shady business happens before and after the voting.

The day before our arrival, 350,000 ballots were found, pre-marked in favour of the ruling conservative GERB party, in a printing warehouse. The owner of the press, who in a delightful coincidence was a GERB councillor, claimed that they had been printed accidentally. Those 350,000 were only fake ballots that were found. Who knows how many, suspected up to 700,000, had already been sent out? Enough to shift the nationwide vote by nearly 10%.

I may appear critical, but it must be stressed that while our PES mission, as well as the mission of all other international organisations, had a limited effect on the outcome, it had an effect. These elections were more free and more fair because we were there.

There are two key moments that I shall not forget from my experience. The first was inside a polling station. I was having a chat with a fellow observer from a minority party and had to leave to move on to the next station. As we parted, he shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for your presence here today. It is important to us.’ That sentiment touched me deeply because it stoked a genuine feeling of solidarity between Europeans. That idea is often articulated blandly, but what I felt at that moment is a feeling that only those who are politically active, or who have fought for democracy, can really empathise with.

The second was following the ‘Mobile Ballot Box’. Proxy and postal voting are banned, given the risks involved. Instead, a team literally carries around a ballot box making house calls to those that were granted permission. I have to admit a rush of excitement as my car followed a police car which was in turn followed by the election team, finding myself at the back of a three-car motorcade, but the serious part came as I watched a nurse prop up a bed-bound old man who could not sit up by himself. As we waited outside the room for a moment while the man made his decision I remarked at what a good idea the house calls were. The head of the committee replied, ‘Yes. Our people have a right to vote.’

It may seem like a statement of the obvious reading the words by themselves, but witnessing and thinking about it all, I was very nearly moved to tears. It was an immeasurably profound sentence. I was helping people, even if only in the slightest possible way, to exercise their human rights. I thought about this time and time again, as I watched others put their ballot through. Our people have a right to vote. It is a cliché to say ‘people fought and died for it’ but how many really appreciate the right? I certainly do, particularly now.

At the count, I made the polling station committee noticeably nervous (one person whispered as such to me). I did not help put anyone at ease by my entirely unpredictable checks and questions, the purpose of which was purely to show that Europe is watching. The air was tense when the amount of votes found did not match the amount of names on the register. The dozen observers watched in stony silence as they were counted again twice, until an explanation could be found. A blank ballot (no stamps, no votes) had mysteriously found its way into the box.

The committee were peculiarly self-conscious as the votes were organised into categories. Special effort was made to show me every single ballot that they intended to declare as invalid, or about which there was a dispute. I did not get involved, being a mere observer, but I did conclude that in many cases they simply lack technical expertise, looking as they so often were to me for guidance.

In my particular polling station, the BSP won by one vote in an area traditionally strong for the Socialists. It would be, I think, lazy to note that down under a simple change in the political wind.

As the night drew on and the results trickled in, GERB were nowhere to be seen. As the party with the (supposedly) most votes, they should have been the first to come out and declare victory. Instead, Sergei Stanishev the leader of the BSP and the PES was the first to address the nation, accompanied by his #1 candidates from each of the 31 constituencies, to decry the state of affairs.

At the end of it all, the BSP still managed to come a close second, with only four parties (of nearly 50) meeting the 4% required to enter Parliament. Although I learned some important lessons about democracy  given the widespread abuse, the best we can say is that ‘it could have been worse.’

Appendix:

The Voting Process

A voter enters the polling booth, he gives his ID card to the staff member (so already it is a more robust process than in the UK) who checks it against the register. Another staff member stamps the ballot paper with a stamp that has been intentionally damaged so that it can be considered unique to that polling station. the voter is shown the ballot paper (about a metre long with nearly 50 possible options), and the voter enters the booth.

In the booth, they must place a perfect X in the correct place. It has to be an X, not any other kind of mark (even a + sign) or else it might be identifiable. It also has to be in blue pen.

The voter then has his ballot stamped a second time before placing it in the ballot box, which is transparent plastic (to deter ballot-stuffing) and covered in paper seals.

He is required to sign his name against the register (to prevent multiple voting and ghost voting) before being returned his ID card and leaving.

The Counting Process

Voting ends at precisely 20h00 and the doors are locked. The windows are locked. The whole room is sealed. Nobody gets in or out until the process ends (several hours later).

The ballot box is opened and sorted, then at the end of the count the committee members sign an official protocol which is photocopied, each photocopy is signed and stamped, and given to party observers. This part of the process was excruciatingly long and tedious, made more so in many polling stations because scanner/printers ran out of ink! 

Further Reading

The PES has an article here describing how the fraud takes place. Read here.

The PES also has a brief statement on the results. Read here.

Relaunching Europe

At the end of January I was invited to speak on the panel for the latest Relaunching Europe event, organised by the Socialist & Democrat group in the European Parliament, just before the Italian elections.

The event was titled, ‘Liberty and Democracy in Europe’ but given that the session was only an hour long, I can’t provide any concrete points.

There is a video however, out of which, for some reason, I have been expertly cropped: