Monday 9 December 2013
I doubt I'm alone in being irritated by newspapers which claim to have "revealed" material that can easily picked up from the internet. Thus we are distinctly underwhelmed by a "Telegraph investigation" which discloses that the EU is operating 140 overseas delegations at an annual cost of more than £420 million.
Not only that, it would seem that the expenditure figure "revealed" by this stunning investigation is an under-estimate. According to EU documentation, delegations cost €565,388,533.43 – equivalent to £474 million at current rates of exchange, or nearly £55 million more than the Telegraph estimates.
Furthermore, while the "Telegraph analysis" shows 29 EEAS officials "earn a basic salary, excluding benefits, worth £150,000 a year, more than David Cameron as Prime Minister", the EU figures tell a different story.
In fact, there are 35 staff currently listed on pay scales where the minimum is above £150,000 (AD 15-16), but there are also 119 staff on pay scale AD 14, where "step 5" is paid the annual equivalent of £153,047.49 – making potentially 154 officials earning more than the prime minister.
To turn their data into a "news" story, however, reporters Robert Mendick and Edward Malnick employ the jaded trick of having the European External Action Service (EEAS), "accused today of spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a vast empire of overseas offices staffed by highly-paid bureaucrats". Two minor figures are then later shoehorned into the story to give the accusations some sort of substance.
What is then even less than helpful is the description of these delegations as "effectively embassies and consulates", which they are not in any real sense. Their purpose is to "help to oversee billions of pounds spent on EU projects around the globe" and they "can negotiate in trade and political talks".
Those functions effectively allow the delegations to be styled as embassies, and the head of delegations as EU ambassadors, but there are no consular functions carried out. The EU does not (as yet) issue passports or carry out other such duties which go towards such a role.
Were that the case, we would seriously have to argue about costs. Currently, the total budget of the EEAS is €747 million (2012) – including the head office function in Brussels - compared with the cost
of the British FCO at £2.175 billion, taking in administration costs of over £1 billion.
But what is being missed here – amongst other things - is the role of the EEAS in representing the EU (and member states) to the UN and the WTO. To that effect, it maintains a large delegation in Geneva, where it is active across a wide range of issues from Human Rights, Disarmament, Trade and Development to humanitarian assistance, migration and asylum, health and labour issues, intellectual property and the environment.
The point here is that the EU is taking over some functions previously carried out by UK diplomats and officials. They (or their equivalents) presumably now work at EU level. However, since 2006-7 FCO staff levels have dropped from 7,005 to 4,450 currently, and are planned to fall to 4,285 by 2014-15. Administrative costs are projected to fall to £904 million, cutting over £100 million from that budget.
By contrast, according to the Telegraph, the EEAS has 3,417 staff: 1,457 in Brussels and 1,960 in its overseas offices. Not all of these are EU employees though. The EEAS activity report for 2012
(the latest available on the interwebby thingy) gives a total of 3,376 staff, of which 1,509 were EU staff (temporary and permanent).
Fron the outside, there were 356 seconded national experts, 32 "young experts in delegations", 323 contract agents and 1,116 local agents. The split was 1,467 in Brussels and 1,909 based in delegations.
Eventually, we are told
, the EEAS will have a staff of about 5,400 and there seems to be a relationship between the increase in EU functions and the decline in the national staffing levels (at least, as far as the UK goes). As the EU grows, the UK dies.
And there, possibly, lies a further twist. In the event that Britain does leave the EU (when, not if), FCO diplomats will be needed back at the ranch. Instead of working for or with the EU, they are going to have to earn their living with real diplomacy. But all those personnel cuts may have to be reversed, and the money increased.
For the moment though, the real story is that cuts to the FCO budget are being absorbed by the EU, which is taking our money and usurping our diplomatic functions. But then, we can hardly "reveal" this. We knew that already.
Sunday 8 December 2013
As an indication of the hazards facing Britain's alternative party, the Mail on Sunday dedicates its front page today to an exposé of UKIP councillor Victoria Ayling saying of immigrants: "I just want to send the lot back".
The comment comes in an aside between "takes" for a self-promotional film, where she has just said: "We must control immigration. We cannot sustain the numbers coming in; the strains on our infrastructure are enormous. Control should be done fairly and the points system like they have in Australia and all those coming here should be encouraged to speak English so they can integrate".
Only then does she add, in a remark clearly not intended for use: "I just want to send the lot back but I can't say that".
Ironically, Ayling made the video in 2008 – five years ago - to promote her bid to become a Tory MEP. And, according to the Mail, it was provided to them by her then husband – from whom she has since split. It was he who had been operating the camera.
Ayling has declined to apologise for the comment, saying she was only referring to illegal immigrants. And Nigel Farage has taken a fairly laid-back view, saying: "I had no reason to believe she held views that were extreme or inconsistent with ours. While this comment looks odd and unpleasant there may be a context here that is slightly different to the way it appears".
Irrespective of how this episode is finessed, though, Farage's problem is that Ayling's comment is indeed entirely consistent with the general thrust of UKIP's stance on immigration. No one watching UKIP closely can escape the view that that party's mood music is close to the BNP and there are many in the party who would support wholesale repatriation.
In the absence of any coherent policy, or sensible analysis, the party was already vulnerable to the charge of harbouring a racially-driven policy. And, after the overt support of the oaf Bloom from many members, there can be few doubts that the party is pitching to hoover up BNP refugees after the collapse of their party.
Therein, in my view, lies one of UKIP's more serious problems. It is not so much the unguarded comment of a single ex-Tory councillor that is doing such damage as is there to be done, but the indications that she does indeed represent the bulk of the party membership. Only if UKIP had been a serious player, offering sensible and well-founded analysis and policy, would it be harder for the charge to stick.
On the face of it, UKIP should be benefiting hugely from the immigration issue, and recently that appeared to be the case, with an Opinium poll giving the party 19 percent of the vote. But, over the last three days the YouGov tracker poll has given it ten, fourteen and then eleven points. It should be doing better.
But the fact that a five-year-old comment by a former Conservative supporter can be resurrected and used to damage UKIP tells its own story. And, if my analysis is anything like correct, the antidote is well-founded and imaginative policy, sensitively crafted so as to slay the racism dragon.
There, the difficulty is that of all the many issues needing to be addressed, immigration is one of the most complex, involving many different areas of public policy. Nothing we have seen in recent times (or at all) gives any sign that UKIP is capable of producing (much less delivering) worthwhile policy in this or related areas.
Unless UKIP decides to deal with policy at a higher level, my guess is that it will always be prone to attacks such as the Mail has chosen to mount. And, since
this current attack is from a paper that is supposed to be (but isn't) "eurosceptic", the party has a bigger problem than it thinks.
Sunday 8 December 2013
I wouldn't necessarily agree with all of this, and I have little sympathy for the pleas of destitution and poverty, but here Nick Cohen offers a very scathing insight into the complete mismanagement and fraud attached to welfare reform. Nobody has been more vocal on the need for welfare reform than I, and there's a lot that needs to be done, but this is looking like yet another gravy train for corporate parasites who will not be held to account for their failures.
But I think the problem lies in the notion that the top-down system as it stands is reformable at all. It won't matter who is in charge at the DWP, or which company is commissioned to roll out any new system. The fact remains that no system of this scale and complexity is workable in the time frames given. The nature of bureaucracies means that you have different agendas pulling in opposite directions, that can only result in mediocrity and failure. The bigger and more generic a system is, the less relevant it is to its users. The same is absolutely true of all corporate IT.
What the DWP intends to do is to create a system that takes human judgement out of the equation, which will inevitably produce a de-skilled public service whereby a job centre advisor is little more than a clueless call centre operator. Another tier in our "computer says no" society.
I am of the view that only a trained eye can really make the call as to who is worthy of welfare and who is not, and indeed the level of help claimants need. From what I hear, the Job Centre experience is becoming farcical, whereby guilt is assumed and fraud always suspected - by the computer, and the operator lacks both the judgement and autonomy to override it.
The solution is to devolve welfare policy and administration to councils and let them figure it out, and apply their own rates. There is a huge diversity of circumstances around the country and various economic disparities that means what works in one area, does not for another. The so called "bedroom tax" is actually working in terms of challenging the dependency mindset, more than it is relieving pressure on housing stock, but it is still very much a London solution to London problems. Similarly, London rates of welfare applied to the North means that welfare is actually too generous in some areas, and not enough in others. The chief beneficiaries of this are largely "welfare farm" landlords.
The only way we can have proper, democratic, accountable welfare is if it is in the hands of the people who pay for it - designed by local people who know the circumstances of their region. A national, centralised welfare system can only ever be dictatorial, bureaucratic, wasteful and wide open to fraud both by welfare recipients and the corporates who administer it. The reason national government keeps such an iron grip on welfare is because it is a mechanism of electoral manipulation, and more fundamentally, they do not trust us to run our own affairs.
I salute any moves toward dismantling the monster that is our nanny welfare state. Reversing the culture of dependency, largely instilled by New Labour, is something of a national emergency. And that extends to tax credits, housing benefit, child benefit and the myriad of other handouts. But without addressing the obvious structural flaw in central administration of complex systems, it will remain in the hands of the politicians who created this problem in the first place. And we will be back here again and again. This is why we need The Harrogate Agenda.
Sunday 8 December 2013
The newspapers have been trawling over this story all week, commentators on specialist legal blogs have been dissecting it, the Judge concerned has published judgements and transcripts and Essex Social Services have issued a statement. The mother has been interviewed in the Daily Mail and has been named and her photograph published.
Yet, after all that the Sunday Telegraph publishes the Booker column, with him relying on information in the public domain, and still the newspaper does not permit comments on the online version. The other two stories are published on-line here, though, and commenting is allowed. However, all three stories are reproduced above: click the pic to expand to readable size.
Saturday 7 December 2013
If anything ought to be dominating the front pages, displacing the torrent of Mandelitis, perhaps it could be this - if anybody could understand the implications.
We are talking here about "the first global trade deal since the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) nearly two decades ago". But if you are the Guardian, this is baaaad as it "has been condemned by anti-poverty groups as a boost for big business at the expense of developing nations".
On the other hand, if you are the Telegraph then you just focus on the "deal to boost global trade", potentially worth $1 trillion over time. It also keeps alive the WTO's broader Doha Round of trade negotiations, we are told.
After 12 years of talks, WTO director general, Roberto Azevêdo, was certainly a happy man as the agreement was signed in Bali by ministers from the body's 159 member countries on Friday, "after last-minute concessions to India over food subsidies".
Azevêdo shed tears during the summit's closing ceremony on Saturday as he thanked the host nation, Indonesia, and his wife. "For the first time in our history, the WTO has truly delivered" on large-scale negotiations, he said. "This time the entire membership came together. We have put the 'world' back in World Trade Organisation," he said. "We're back in business … Bali is just the beginning".
Just for once, though, reference to the original documentation doesn't help very much as it offers a link to the Draft Bali Ministerial Declaration which in turn offers no less than fifteen draft texts for adoption by ministers, with their relevant links.
Digging deeper into the decision on food security, we find that this refers to an agreement which allows India temporarily to maintain subsidy levels for traditional staple food crops, "in pursuance of public stockholding programmes for food security purposes". This, apparently protects its poorest farmers from US firms dumping surplus agricultural produce.
The talks were also threatened at the 11th hour when Cuba objected to removal of a reference to the decades-long US trade embargo that Cuba wants lifted but way was cleared "to ease barriers to trade by reducing import duties, simplifying customs procedures and making those procedures more transparent to end years of corruption at ports and border controls".
At least one person isn't impressed though. This is Simon Evenett, professor of international trade at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. "Beyond papering over a serious dispute on food security, precious little progress was made at Bali", he says, "Dealing with the fracas on food security sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the talks".
But Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), was even less impressed.
He warns that this is "an agreement for transnational corporations not the world's poor", arguing that, "The aggressive stance of the US and EU means that we have moved only a little, and shows again that the WTO can never be a forum for creating a just and equal global economic system".
Dearden avers that a succession of planned bilateral deals on a range of goods and services threatened the WTO and represented "the biggest shift of power from people to corporations that we have seen in 10 years" and must be "halted in their tracks".
This is a reference to the EU-US trade talks (TTIP), confirming that they are being used to by-pass the stalled Doha round. The apparent success of the Bali talks may therefore be a response to the challenge presented by TTIP. Evenett might have seen through them but the success is being inflated in order to put WTO back on the map.
Front-page headlines, therefore, might be unwarranted, even if the story has just taken an interesting turn. But it is certainly one to watch.
Saturday 7 December 2013
Even if I was so inclined, there is very little I could add to the torrent of coverage on the death of Nelson Mandela. Other than acknowledging his passing, therefore, I do not intend to comment.
For the last week, though, I have in any case been powering ahead with the Brexit submission. As of last night, I had 19,500 words on screen. Much of that will be re-written and I'm still far from happy with the structure of the essay. With still a great deal more work to be done, I will continue to put most of my effort into this project. But at least you are spared an essay from me about Mandela.
Friday 6 December 2013
Viviane Reding, justice commissioner and Commission vice-president, is picking up on the "free movement" issue, telling what some might regard on the Brussels circuit as "home truths".
The essence of what she has to say is that Britain's welfare system is too generous and is to blame for attracting a growing number of migrant workers from poorer EU nations. The way to limit migration, she says, is for the UK to tighten up its own benefits rules, arguing that EU laws grant London ample space to take action to stop welfare fraud being committed by foreign nationals.
Reding was meeting home ministers of the EU member states in Brussels, telling them, "It seems that some national systems are too generous", then declaring: "Don't blame the [European] Commission or EU rules for national choices and national regulatory systems".
"If member states want to restrict the availability of social benefits to EU citizens they can do two things", Reding added: "First, change their national systems to make them less generous. Second, apply the existing EU rules, which provide safeguards to counter abuse".
This is as far as you go with the Financial Times but, fortunately, we don't have to rely on the legacy media for our information. Entirely paywall-free, we have the original comments from Reding, helpfully supplied by the Commission.
The particular point she makes is one about "free movement of EU citizens" and the pressure it can put on their social security systems. She stresses that the directive on free movement permits Member States to refuse social assistance benefits to "EU citizens" before they become habitual resident.
Those safeguards, she says, exist in EU law and they should be used to their full extent. Social security is not harmonised at EU level, so it is up Member States to decide on their own rules. They can also decide under which conditions they grant access to non-nationals.
Reding actually has a point here – national rules could be tightened up, although she neglects to say that they must apply equally to nationals and non-nationals. There can be no discrimination on the grounds of nationality. Thus, if there is a "habitual residence" test adopted, it must be applied to UK citizens as well.
A piece in the Wall Street Journal, takes this further, pointing to recent court rulings in Germany which have come to conflicting conclusions on who is entitled to so-called Hartz IV benefits, monthly payouts for people below a certain income who aren't eligible for regular unemployment insurance. At the moment, Hartz IV pays around €380 a month for a single person and German politicians insist it shouldn't be available for newcomers from other EU states.
In recent weeks, however, German courts handed down conflicting rulings on whether jobless people from EU countries can claim such payouts, sparking claims from politicians and media that a flood of poor Europeans could flock into the country to get benefits.
The social-affairs court for the regions of Lower Saxony and Bremen ruled this week that EU citizens seeking work in Germany don't have a right to Hartz IV. But the social-affairs court for a different region, North Rhine Westphalia, in recent months twice ordered local authorities in the city of Gelsenkirchen to pay Hartz IV benefits to Romanian families, citing EU antidiscrimination law in one of the rulings.
"The legal situation hasn't been made clear, there are conflicting judgments," says Karin Welge, an official in charge of migration for Gelsenkirchen, a German city in a former coal-mining region with more than double the national unemployment rate.
Gelsenkirchen, like many other municipalities, is already in debt and fears that paying welfare to immigrants could strain housing, health care and financial resources. Some neighboring cities, including Dortmund and Duisburg, have called on the government and the EU to address social problems including begging, crime and prostitution caused by Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants.
Reding, in response, has promised Member States that the Commission will provide guidelines on "habitual residence", which she believes will help tackle the problems.
However, all Home Secretary Theresa May could offer was a demand that the rules on free movement should be changed. "First", she says, "for future accession treaties, we must be able to slow full access to each other's labour markets until we can be sure it will not lead to mass migration".
"Second", she then adds, "we must seize the opportunity presented by the prime minister's plan to reform the EU and address the problems caused by free movement. It is right that the national governments of the EU reform the way free movement rules work".
That much, though, will fall on deaf ears. At the moment the British don't have the support of many countries. Just a handful are sympathetic to their position but are not ready to change the right to free movement principle.
Even the Italians – who have had their share of troubles – are less than supportive. An official said Rome was aware of a number of possible abuses of the right to free movement but added that Italy's stance was different to Britain's. "For us it is fundamental to preserve the founding right that guarantees [EU citizens] the absolute freedom of movement across the EU", he said.
May's protestations also come at a bad time, just when an official report from John Vine, the chief inspector of Borders and Immigration, finds that tens of thousands of Ukrainian nationals are having their British visas rubber-stamped in just ten minutes.
Despite the country being rated as "high-risk" from fraudulent applications, visitor visas into the processing centre in Warsaw were being waved through without proper checks, with refusal rates plummeting to just four percent out of 56,000 applications a year, of which more than 36,000 were from the Ukraine.
When the UK cannot even apply its own rules, it is likely to get short shrift from Reding, who has already said that, "Free movement is non-negotiable", adding, "If Britain wants to leave the single market, you should say so. But if Britain wants to stay a part of the single market, free movement applies. You cannot have your cake and eat it Mr Cameron!"
This is the same Mr Cameron that is so keen on the UK retaining its membership of the EU, in which case he is going to have to learn how to work within the system he loves so much, rather than trying to change the unchangeable. When Reding says "non-negotiable", he should get used to the idea that that's exactly what she means.
Thursday 5 December 2013
The latest episode of the stolen baby story is in the Daily Mail, with Sue Reid interviewing the mother. This has now stepped up a notch: the Italian government has instructed solicitors and may want to intervene in the case. Next, a horse's head is found in the bed of the director of Essex social services?
COMMENT: "BOOKER" THREAD
Thursday 5 December 2013
Goldman Sachs has said it would move much of its European business out of London if Britain leaves the European Union.
Frankly, I cannot think of a better reason for leaving the European Union. No great loss
Wednesday 4 December 2013
"Achtung! EU plan to replace British roadsigns with ones that 'talk' in Euro-speak", proclaimed the Mail on Sunday last weekend, in a classic "little Englander" piece that gives so much succour to our enemies.
This, in usual style, was picked up by the Telegraph, which had one of their little girlies tell us that: "Britain's road signs could disappear under EU plans", the sub-heading informing readers that, "Standard road signs could be introduced across the EU to enable a new 'intelligent' form of car to read signs and help cut deaths".
Needless to say, both pieces are extremely short on detail as to what exactly is being proposed. The Mail referrs to a "Euro road group", while the Telegraph talks of changes "proposed to the European Commission" which "could also involve introducing standard road markings".
Thus, all that can be deduced is that we are nowhere near a legislative proposal. Nor does the EU website reveal anything particularly recent that would invite such media fury. If anything, we are spoilt for choice , with any number of research initiatives and projects in place.
This, however, has not stopped UKIP sounding the alarm over "plans to replace some British road signs with standardised European ones. These, says deputy leader Paul Nuttall, are "more sinister, controlling EU moves". "They want to control and nanny our every movement and employ armies of pen pushers – at our expense – to come up with more and more restrictive ideas", he adds.
Characterised by UKIP as "new European Commission plans", clearly there are no such plans formally in place. But even that does not begin to illustrates quite far off the wall Mr Nuttall – and the media coverage – really is.
The best we can find is a paper by the European Road Assessment Programme which suggests that" manufacturers and policy makers should settle on a design goal that, by 2020, vehicles should be able to read the road for a limited network of national and busy main regional roads comprising 10 percent of Europe's roads".
Digging a little deeper, though, we find that the EU is by no means the only player in the field, nor even the main player. Road signing is, in fact subject to a complex network of global treaties and agreements, including the Conventions on Road Traffic, of 19 September 1949 and 8 November 1968 (The Vienna Convention), the Protocol on Road Signs and Signals, of 19 September 1949, the Convention on Road Signs and Signals, of 8 November 1968.
At regional level we have the European Agreement supplementing the 1949 Convention on Road Traffic and the 1949 Protocol on Road Signs and Signals, of 16 September 1950, the European Agreement on Road Markings of 13 December 1957, the European Agreement supplementing the Convention on Road Traffic (1968), of 1 May 1971 and the Protocol and Road Markings, Additional to the European Agreement supplementing the Convention on Road Signs and Signals, of 1 March 1973.
These are all instruments administered at a European level by our old friend UNECE, and only some of the 57 transport agreements and conventions which are negotiated by government representatives and become legally binding for countries which ratify or accede to them.
The UNECE drew up the worldwide Conventions on Road Traffic and on Road Signs and Signals of 1968 and the European Agreements supplementing them, so the role of UNECE is pivotal. In the Directive 2008/96/EC on road infrastructure safety management, therefore, the law specifies that road signs "shall comply with the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals of 1968".
Thus, in the report to the European Commission of the EU-funded IMPROVER unit on the harmonisation of road signs and road markings, it recommended that "UNECE would be suitable to take the lead". In an alternative setup, it said, the Commission could also lead this initiative but, it conceded: "Given the EU subsidiarity principle though, the UNECE is probably better
In this context, it argues that work should commence "under the leadership and initiative of the UNECE" and that new standards should be integrated "with existing conventions on road signing, in order to have a coherent set of instruction regarding road signing specifications".
After the drafting of the document, it is then recommended that it "should be given a specific legal form", with the option of a "multilateral treaty as a protocol or agreement to the Vienna Convention". Only secondarily is the status of a European Directive suggested.
As to the general idea of harmonising road signs across Europe – the whole of the continent and not just the EU – this is certainly to be encouraged, especially on motorways and main routes. Anyone who has tried to navigate the roads of Europe could only agree.
But if it is to be done, then clearly the intergovernmental route is to be preferred, which allows the fullest participation of all the countries of Europe, and the facility for members states to opt-out of provisions which are not to their liking. And it is precisely that which the EU is recommending.
Rather than foaming at the mouth at "more sinister, controlling EU moves", therefore, UKIP's Mr Nuttall perhaps ought to have welcomed the role of UNECE in this programme, and applauded the EU's willingness to work alongside this organisation.
As it stands, though, UKIP ends up sounding and behaving like the pathetic "little Englander" party that it is so often accused of being, necessitating the more rational part of the anti-EU movement to distance itself from an organization which seems only too keen to fall into the trap of parroting media reports, without checking the facts.