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The State of the Citizen's European Union

Nanne Zwagerman of the European Tribune criticizes the European Commission's list of 2007 achievements.  Being relatively low on the radar the EC does need to advertise itself, but hopefully they will have a little more to boast about next year, says Atlantic Review's guest columnist:

A few weeks from now George W. Bush will give his yearly State of the Union speech to Congress. With a bit less ceremony, the European Union's executive has already released a review of its own.

Following its efforts to shore up relations with the public, the European Commission has launched a slick website boasting 10 achievements the European Union has made for you in 2007. The Commissioner for Communication, Margot Wallström, writes:


The EU is there for the citizens and its aim is to respond to their needs and concerns. In 2007, its 50th anniversary, the Union has again taken concrete actions leading to concrete results. These range from measures to combat climate change to providing the European consumer with a wider choice of goods and services at lower prices.

Europe and You in 2007:

EU reform package agreed
Europe creates new jobs
EU leads fight against climate change
Passport-free travel extended
Eurotariff brings down mobile phone bills
Growing demand for EU election monitors
Energy suppliers compete on service and price
More choice and cheaper fares on flights to USA
The EU promotes healthier eating
Dominant companies cannot limit consumer choice


In 2006, when the Commission was still at a loss at what to do about the stranded constitution, it launched a "citizen's agenda," which focused on "delivering results for Europe" through concrete policy drives. The focus on implementing policies that will benefit citizens in order to increase the popularity of the EU was deliberate, as the
Communication testifies. The promotional website and folder on "Europe and you in 2007" have to be seen through this lens.

Reading eurosceptic blogger Richard North on "this naked propaganda," one wonders if the EU is even allowed to make policies that are designed to make it more popular. It seems logical that an institution that makes policies would try to make popular ones, if it seeks greater legitimacy. It also seems logical that it would have to communicate its achievements if it is relatively low on the radar.

That does not mean that we should be uncritical about the list.

1. The new Reform Treaty is the first achievement claimed. However, this is largely a gift the EU has given itself. It does provide some improvements for citizens, most notably, a citizen's initiative. The EU will get a clearer structure, which should make it easier for citizens to understand the EU. However, that improvement has been undercut by the secretive procedure for drafting the treaty, which is still being continued. Public debate of the treaty presents an excellent opportunity for learning, but that opportunity is being foregone.
The EU has led the way on climate change, but it still has to put real achievements behind its promises. So far only a few member states have made headway to meet their targets for reducing climate pollution. However, over the course of 2007, the European Commission has been strict in setting limits for the next phase of emissions trading and has gotten all large member states to play along. The outlook for 2008 is positive.

2. When the EU talks about 'you,' you are mostly being thought of as a consumer. In most areas, the EU is working to protect you, which is good. Contrary to what Richard North thinks, the free market does not always bring you, the consumer, the best outcome. Rather, information asymmetries and limited choice lead to you getting creamed a lot. The EU's competition policy and its decision to limit roaming charges for mobile phone calls abroad help you out.
 

3. But it's not all positive on the consumer front. The 'open skies' agreement with the US is rather funny at a time when the EU is proposing to unilaterally apply emissions trading to international flights. The EU also is all too happy to give your passenger data to the US. Liberalization of the electricity market will indeed increase consumer choice, but it will also lead to higher prices than nationalized electricity generation, in a market with high fossil fuel prices. Oil just hit $100. Do you want to pay more so that you can have a choice?

That's a narrow perspective, granted. But aside of caring about your vitamin intake, the Commission does not go beyond it. There are no social achievements on its list and the social, personal and even intercultural side of an improvement like limits on roaming fees is not explained. And that's rather simple to do: it's just easier to contact people.

Here's to a better list next December.

Nanne Zwagerman is a graduate student at the Free University in Berlin. He blogs irregularly on DJ Nozem and is a member of the European Tribune. This op-ed was first published on Atlantic Community.

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Zyme on :

Although the EU in my humble opinion is a great thing, I have begun reading british newspapers online whenever something important happens regarding the Union. Sure those Brits are very critical in this regard - but honestly, where else can you read anything but the usual "hip hip hurray propaganda", as one article called it. Our (german) press is totally aligned towards this propaganda - which is not a bad thing, as this sure helps at gaining support among the people. But if I want to be informed about any details or opposition to current projects, I have to read british press. The Reform Treaty (or Treaty of Lisbon) is a perfect example of european (by this term, I mean EU-like) proceeding: Tell the people it is to increase their influence long enough and they will believe it. "It does provide some improvements for citizens, most notably, a citizen's initiative." Sounds great, doesn´t it? Ok you will need exactly 1.000.000 citizens signing such an initiative to make the Commission think about it, but hey, it sounded good. And let´s not forget how the treaty was brought to life. When the peoples of two member states vote against a european constitution, what the hell can be done then? Right, let´s do it without their approval! It is such a farce, but sadly such a farce seems to be necessary to deceive the European peoples for the better.

Don S on :

"Sure those Brits are very critical in this regard - but honestly, where else can you read anything but the usual "hip hip hurray propaganda", as one article called it." So the German press reserves the full force of it's negativity for the US, Zyme? ;)

Nanne on :

One million citizens is actually not that much when you compare it to the total number of people living in the EU. A few campaigns already have gotten that amount of signatures; see [url=http://pagoesdigital.wordpress.com/2007/11/22/eu-receives-petition-of-1294997-signatures-on-disablity-rights]this post on Public Affairs 2.0[/url] As for the English vs. the German press, I'd say you have to approach both with a healthy degree of scepticism. The English press is all too quick to spreak horror stories about the EU, whereas much of the German press is too quick to cover things up when it considers them to be in the interest of Germany.

Zyme on :

One million citizens is too much for a real people´s initiative. It is as simple as that. It can only be done with the support of major political parties or lobbies, and when you have the support of those, you can try the inofficial channels with the EU a lot more quickly. Oh yeah except maybe for the kind of disability legislation, fight for climate change, struggle for the sun to always shine and so forth. But really, where is this leading to other than another few hundred pages of dead files in a storehouse around Brussels? I know I am getting cynical here. But who wouldn´t? It is the best way one can digest this deception. The concept often seems to be to take away several liberties and then provide one new one. Now guess what you will be hearing about in the news. Ok a new fundament for the Union, the Treaty of Lisbon effectively disrespects the will of several member state´s peoples, BUT in exchange you will be able to initiate a people´s initiative - just find 999.999 buddies and make the Commission busy at tea time - Congratulations! Again I think all this is for a good cause (at least from a french/german perspective), but it is simply too much seeing this propaganda and then realizing how many people actually fall for it. Good night everyone.

Don S on :

"you will be able to initiate a people´s initiative - just find 999.999 buddies and make the Commission busy at tea time - Congratulations!" You laugh, Zyme - but I suggest you have a look at how the California propositions mechanism works - or doesn't work. A few rich people get a bee in their bonnet and start an organisation - voila!

Pat patterson on :

And we end up with another 17,000 slot machines! Accipe hoc!

Zyme on :

Do you have a link describing the system in detail?

Don S on :

It's harder to find than one might think; perhaps Pat will help here? I found the latter, but it's a pro-initiative puff piece from the Hoover Institution. Wikipedia has a page listing http://www.hoover.org/publications/digest/3491516.html Here is the overall wiki page for California Propositions; you may wish to have a specific look at three of them, linked below: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_California_ballot_propositions http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_13_%281978%29 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_187_%281994%29 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_209_%281996%29

Zyme on :

Thank you - I will read them when I have the time. Good Night!

Pat Patterson on :

Zyme-Below please find the link to the California State Constitution which lays out the differences between initiative and referendum. Anybody can hire a petition company but they will need 5% to 8% of the last state vote numbers to place an initiative or referendum on the ballot affecting statute or amendment. The link is not working but simply look for the California State Constitution, Article II, Sections 8 and 9. The initiative is usually at the behest of the citizens to either create new law, a new amendment or repeal a law. A referendum at least in California, is generally mandated by the constition to approve or disprove some law or tax measure passed by the legislature. In California the legislature generally hates initiatives as they mandate courses of action sometimes unpopular with the politicians and they may not repeal those initiatives unless by referendum. Easiest way to distinguish the two is to remember that the citizens use the initiative to create or disprove statutes and amendments while the referendum can only approve or disapprove statute. I couldn't disagree more on the participation of the citizens considering that the average legislator in California is not the genius that they might hope to be. Referring back to the recall of Gov. Davis would reveal that even though that act scared most politicians to death we still never got a balanced budget and spending has increased by 50% from $99 billion to $141 billion in five years yet the population has actually decreased by roughly 4 million since 2000. The citizens act when the politicians won't.

Pat Patterson on :

Uh, that should have read that the population of California has decreased from 400,000 to 1,000,000 over the same five year period. Preview is my friend and I should use him more often.

Zyme on :

Thank you a lot. By explaining how seldomly such an initiative is successful, didn´t it come to you that the californian legal system has a european touch? ;) Here in Bavaria it actually works. Introduced in the 1990s as a measure of goodwill, the governing conservatives probably never expected "their" citizens to use it so frequently. But as we don´t have a real opposition here, this is the only instrument of changing things in a way the administration does not consider. So it became quite popular here.

Pat Patterson on :

Zyme-Exactly, easy to propose and yet difficult to accomplish. Some US historians have argued that the practice of initiative and referendum came from Switizerland but the bulk of the early laws were from the late 18th century in Massachusetts and the middle 19th century in Texas. Thanks for the tip on Bavaria because I will look it up.

Zyme on :

In case you speak german, I could easily provide you with links on this subject. Do you?

Pat Patterson on :

Enough to get the general idea if not then I pray to the God of Babelfish.

Zyme on :

There is an image displaying the system here: http://www.stmi.bayern.de/buerger/wahlen/volksbegehren/ And at the bottom of the page you can find links to each measurement and information on successful Volksentscheide since the 1940s. For example in the mid 1990s, via this channel the people have successfully created the legal fundament for people´s initiative on a communal level. The communal ones are called Bürgerentscheide.

Kyle - Atlantic Review on :

The CA Secretary of State has written a ballot initiative handbook, found here: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_h.htm ... knowing little things like this is one of the perks of working for the CA State Assembly ;)

Kyle - Atlantic Review on :

My feeling is that there are very few situations where a ballot initiative or referendum is appropriate, and so higher signature requirements are good. These include situations where a proposed policy change directly threatens incumbent politicians' tenure (such as defining districts or term limits) and cases where an initiative calls for the repeal of an elected politician (such as the case of Governor Gray Davis in CA a couple years back). For most issues decisions on policy should be left to elected officials, because the general electorate does not have the knowledge (or time to get the knowledge) to make informed decisions on complex issues – they elected representatives to do this for them. Elected officials have staff experts and spend the time to understand multiple angles on any given issue so to make INFORMED DECISIONS, while the general public does not… I suspect the average person votes on a referendum based on sound-bites they lazily pick up on a commercial or through drunken banter at a party, rather than based on thorough analysis of the issues at hand -- and my feeling is that incredibly complex decisions should not be based on sound-bites. Also, I disagree initiatives will gain sufficient votes just because some rich lout gets it in his head to change something… the process is designed so that a successful initiative will require support across the social spectrum. While at the University of California I was often asked to sign petitions for things like lowering the prices of junior colleges, which I doubt is traditionally a “rich-person” issue.

Kyle - Atlantic Review on :

Here is some more "naked propoganda" from the EU, talking about how great the EU-US relationship is, including the following quote: "I think there's going to have to be European-American political cooperation on a number of issues that are looming, and Europe exercises influence where the United States does not, quite clearly" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8k7Obmsa8_E Also, the EU is not the only interstate organization trying to convince the world it is useful... NATO recently put out a video-newsletter: http://www.nato.int/multi/video/scope/0712scope/index.html Even if you are critical of such propoganda, you have to admit that NATO's "video-newsletter" is pretty cool :)

Nanne on :

This raises an interesting question when something is propaganda and when it's not. From the viewpoint of the organisation making a case for itself, providing such a case is of course always justifiable, so where do you draw the line? For my part, I don't see the NATO or EU vids as propaganda. The main point is that they are transparently by NATO and the EU, respectively. I think most of us have enough critical facilities to deal with that. I did see Donald Rumsfeld's information warfare in Iraq as propaganda, and was highly worried about how much of that propaganda (directed primarily at the media environment in Iraq) found its way back into the European and American mainstream media.

Pat Patterson on :

And unfortunately any kid in the US would look at the poster and wonder why the EU is advertising itself as a double loser.

Kevin Sampson on :

"Contrary to what Richard North thinks, the free market does not always bring you, the consumer, the best outcome. Rather, information asymmetries and *limited choice* lead to you getting creamed a lot." "Oil just hit $100. Do you want to pay more so that you can have a choice?" LOL. Get your story straight.

Nanne on :

The apparent contradiction dissolves when you consider that the first situation describes a market with limited competition and the second a move from a public service to a private market. The government does not have a profit-maximising motive, thereby its control of a factual monopoly has different effects. And, ah, read the links :-)

Nanne on :

LOL. I didn't see that. For the [url=http://images.google.com/images?q=loser]not-clued-in[/url].

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