Author Archives: Clive Sneddon

What Needs Reforming in the EU? Part 1.

The answer to this question depends on the person who asks it. A resident of Scotland or the UK is likely to see things differently from a resident of Germany or France. This is also true of those who live in Hungary, Latvia or Greece. Each country has different neighbours, and attitudes differ on the need to work with neighbours.

In the UK, being on an island allows us to see ourselves as separate from the mainland, but linked to the whole world by the sea. Yet it cannot be true that the sea both separates and joins. In terms of trade, it joins far more than it separates. And where trade goes, fighters can go too. It has always been in our interest to dissuade the fighters from coming. The EU was founded in order to ensure that the nations of Europe had no reason to fight each other. By close economic integration, individual nations would lose the motive and the capacity to fight. However, if the peoples of Europe feel that cooperation has not addressed their problems, they will try to find their own separate solutions.

The big difference in perspective between continental Europe and the UK lies in the experience of warfare. The first half of the 20th century saw Europe twice devastated by war, whereas no battle has been fought in Britain since the 18th century. The two world wars came about because major powers over-reached and miscalculated, but also because national feelings were inflamed by the threat from other nations. Forgetting the past risks repeating it. It is the main reason voters on the continent wish to stay together.

The live issues in the UK revolve around immigration, jobs, and red tape. Some talk in surprisingly abstract terms about the ‘membership fee’ paid to the EU and the sovereignty of Parliament. What bothers me most about the debate is that the UK government has the power to deal with many of the issues raised. As I said in my previous blog, only those powers agreed by the UK government have been given to the EU.

Many other EU countries have issues concerning immigration and jobs. The fact that fewer have problems with red tape will be down to British gold-plating of EU laws. Jobs have been increased by EU action to enforce competition laws against powerful multi-national companies. The aim of international trade deals is to secure more free trade, which supports competition. National governments have their part to play in this. They should be providing infrastructure in education, affordable housing, transport and company supply chains. The best outcomes are likely when national governments and EU work together to generate more jobs for everyone. In working together, they need to become more effective than they currently are. That is what the aim of EU reform should be.

The EU Dictates Nothing

I said in my last blog that the EU dictates nothing, but that this point needed explaining. The EU exists only because its member states have agreed to create it. So far since 1951 there have been 26 treaties and protocols. Each required to be agreed, signed and ratified by the member states. Nothing happens without the consent of the member states.

This is why a country can refuse to sign up to a change that a majority wants. When the EU agreed in Schengen its open internal borders, Ireland and the UK did not sign that Agreement. When the Maastricht Treaty provided for a common currency, it included an opt out for the UK and Denmark. When Ireland secured opt outs from the Lisbon Treaty, a special protocol was agreed.

The EU can only act under the powers set out in the treaties, so it cannot apply to all what is not agreed by all. Its most powerful body is the Council of Ministers, who are the heads of government of every member state elected by that state’s voters. This is the nearest the EU comes to having a Government of its own. Its civil service is the Commission, whose head must be the candidate of the largest party in the European Parliament. Its laws are made by the directly elected European Parliament and the Council of Ministers working together.

This complex structure can only function by finding as much consensus as possible. Politicians in the rest of Europe are more used to this than UK politicians, who are used to the elective dictatorship made possible by the UK voting system. What is important in the political culture in Brussels is that once something is agreed, it is not then reneged on. This is what caused the Greeks so much difficulty in the Eurozone. What one government had agreed, another was not allowed to change.

This feature of the EU is a weakness when what was agreed proves to be a mistake. Why did David Cameron not seek to negotiate a more flexible and pragmatic EU? He would have had a lot of support from other member states if he had. I will write about what needs reforming in the EU in my next blog.

The Referendum

After the Holyrood elections, we can now decide on 23rd June 2016 whether to leave the European Union or stay in it. Whichever way the referendum goes, it will affect all the nations of the United Kingdom, and also the peoples of the EU.

Everywhere in Europe people are becoming increasingly conscious of their national heritage. This can be inspiring if seen as what makes us unique and what we contribute to others. It is off-putting if it leads us to pull up the drawbridge against our friends and neighbours.

Most people in Europe want us to stay, and have said so. This is for positive reasons, that they value our practicality and openness. One example is our experience of Free Trade in an open economy, much needed to complete the Single Market. Another is our sense of fair play, treating others as we would wish to be treated.

Europe is in many ways more democratic than the UK. This can be seen in the EU’s long-winded decision-making processes which aim at consensus in everything. They accept that we will not be part of any United States of Europe, if such a thing ever happens. They have agreed opt outs for all sorts of things, including now for the Euro. They are dictating nothing, contrary to tabloid myth. This point needs explaining, which I will do in my next blog.EU-referendum-ballot-paper-638210

Is the debt crisis Greek or European? A personal view, by Clive Sneddon

I am writing this on the morning of the Greek referendum result, which the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras won by nearly two to one. Although it is not necessarily obvious here in Angus & Mearns, the on-going Greek crisis has the potential to damage us all through a further banking and perhaps financial collapse if it is not addressed and resolved.

 

I remember the Greek debt crisis starting with the brave admission by the then PASOK Prime Minister George Papandreou, also a ‘left wing’ leader if that label means anything, that he had inherited years of lying about Greek state finances, and going to his colleagues in the Eurozone for help. What he got was the first bailout in 2010, with a loan to save Greece from default on condition of an internal devaluation through harsh public spending cutbacks. What he did not get was a referendum, which he wanted, but which Eurozone politicians particularly in Germany refused to countenance, and which at that stage he could probably have won for the bailout terms; as austerity bit, Papandreou resigned a year later.

 

I was in Crete in 2011, and found people saying that yes, there were problems of a state based on patronage and clientelism, in which too many people did not pay their taxes and corruption was rife; both the major parties, PASOK and the conservative New Democracy, were guilty of ruling through their patronage networks, which was why many people did not want to pay their taxes. Also, the state did too much. The hotel we were staying in was owned by the state, and the manager was a civil servant. As a result decisions were taken which were not business-like, such as cutting the hours of staff working at the ancient Cretan sites and turning away tourists. Meantime, wages had been cut by a third, and with fewer tourists everyone was struggling. So at that stage I thought that the internal devaluation had been ineffective in making Greece competitive, at least in part because none of the problems of the Greek state had been tackled.

 

Countries with their own currency can devalue if they become uncompetitive, but it is not automatically successful in the long run and means their exports earn less anyway. A common currency means no devaluation by an individual member state, so that the only way to make good any lost ability to compete is by savage cost cutting, the so-called internal devaluation, which has been successfully applied since the 2008 banking crisis to some actual or intending Eurozone countries, Ireland, Estonia and Latvia in particular, but less successfully in Lithuania, Portugal and Greece. By 2012, PASOK was replaced by a technocratic Government, ushering in a second bailout with losses to Greek creditors in the private sector only and a New Democracy Government after two general elections (the first of which Tsipras nearly won), which met some of the financial targets but not the privatisations which were part of the 2012 conditions. Still no reforms to the Greek State.

 

In 2014, Alexis Tsipras was the unsuccessful candidate for President of the European Commission of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left, and made a speech in Berlin setting out why he disagreed with the economic policy espoused among others by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Having led the largest party in Greece in the European elections, and having won just two seats short of an outright majority in the Greek Parliament in January 2015, he is unlikely to change his course now. An agreed way forward would allow him to tackle the reform of the Greek state as well as promote social justice and grow the economy.

 

Is there a Liberal way forward? I think there is if the Eurozone leaders are wise. Firstly, they must stop talking of a Greek exit from the Eurozone or even the European Union, because it is seen as bullying and unacceptable interference in Greek democracy designed to bring about a government of the right; in any case, ‘Grexit’ will harm Europe as well as Greece. Secondly, they must accept that Tsipras means what he says, which is relief from part but not all of the debt to make it sustainable, and an end to the failed internal devaluation to find another route to growth (and the International Monetary Fund has recently agreed with him on both these points, not least because growth is a good way to debt reduction, though they still think the Greek state has to reduce its spending within the Greek economy as a whole). Thirdly, the Eurozone must reform itself, which will mean treaty change of some sort. It cannot make the common currency work without at least a banking union and shared responsibility for debt, and probably not without a fiscal union. Doing this would mean the United States of Europe is almost upon us, which should not happen without the express democratic consent in a referendum of each country wishing to join such a new state. If the Eurozone decides it does not want to be a pathway to a United States of Europe, it must remove the ‘ever closer union’ phrase from the treaties, implement the existing mechanisms for shared responsibility which may yet need changes to the German constitution, and apply the criteria of the Maastricht Treaty to the letter, because they were designed with British help to avoid insolvency and have been breached by virtually all the Eurozone members, starting with Germany and France.

 

Given the 2005 referenda in France and the Netherlands which rejected the 2004 proposed Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, it seems to me unlikely that a United States of Europe will happen any time soon and quite possibly never, in which case it is time for the European Union to face up to that reality and write a new treaty to ensure that the EU exists solely for its agreed purposes, such as the Single Market, and collaboration on agreed matters such as tackling climate change or working against international crime. If the phrase ‘ever closer union’ were to go as too vague, it could be replaced by a mechanism for the creation of a United States of Europe by those individual countries, if any, that wished to create one, but it would be defined as just one of the member states of the EU, with no right to impede the agreed work of the EU, no right to recruit outside the EU, and no expectation that any other EU state would join it. If such a revised treaty were to result from the Greek crisis, Alexis Tsipras and the Greek people would have done us all a favour. And Mr Cameron’s forthcoming negotiations would just have become a whole lot easier!

MCINNES BLASTS SNP MSP FOR DISMISSING SUPER ID CONCERNS AS “PARANOID”

Scottish Liberal Democrat North East MSP and justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes has blasted a senior SNP MSPs staggering complacency over the Scottish Government’s controversial proposals to create a super ID database.

In a response to a constituent’s concerns, SNP MSP for Angus South, Graeme Dey, accused critics of the government’s scheme of being “paranoid.” (Note 1)

The SNP Government’s proposals would assign each individual in Scotland with a unique reference code and expand access to the NHS Central Register to 120 public bodies including Scottish Canals and Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens.

The UK Information Commissioner has already issued a series of damning criticisms on the proposals, warning that the unique reference number should be “the subject of proper debate” and “should not just happen by default.” (Note 2)

In published responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, NSPCC Scotland, civil liberties campaigners and members of the public set out a wide range of concerns over the impact the proposals could have on the protection of data. (Note 3)

Commenting, Ms McInnes said:

“It is extraordinary for such a senior MSP from the SNP to accuse those who have concerns, who include the Information Commissioner, of being paranoid.

“In dismissing out of hand concerns about the SNP’s super ID database, Graeme Dey is displaying staggering complacency.

“The Royal College of Psychiatrists, NSPCC Scotland, civil liberties campaigners and members of the public have set out detailed and wide-ranging concerns against the SNP’s plans to expand access to the NHS Central Register to 120 public bodies.

“Any claim that these voices of civic Scotland are “paranoid” is simply offensive. He should apologise, listen to these concerns and speak with his own mind to these worrying proposals. People in Angus need an MSP who will stand up for their civil liberties- not one who surrenders them without question. ”

 

1. In a response to a constituent seen by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, SNP MSP Graeme Dey said:
(Constituent name)

There are no plans to establish any new national database.

The only thing planned is to upgrade the software of an existing database which has been in use for many years.

The claims by the right wing press, the Lib-Dems and paranoid websites are simply wrong in this regard.

Regards

Graeme Dey MSP

2. The UK Information Commissioner response can be found at  http://amberhawk.typepad.com/files/nhs-central-register—ico-response-feb-2015.pdf

3. The consultation responses from a number of lobbying organisations can be found at:

http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2014/12/5990/downloads

Tayside GP crisis, by Clive Sneddon

I think we all knew that the NHS was finding it ever harder to meet people’s needs for healthcare. This is more about excessively bureaucratic organisation and not enough staff than it is about money, the cash increases delivered to the NHS in England continuing to come to Scotland through the Barnett formula.

 

So far the main sign of difficulty was the on-going failure in many parts of Scotland to meet the Scottish Government’s targets for waiting and treatment times. Now in a startling escalation of the problems, NHS Tayside has announced it is to operate all its out of hours care from a single base in Dundee because of a shortage of doctors. They say this is temporary, but how do they know when and how a shortage of doctors to deliver out of hours care will be resolved? The French have a saying to the effect that it is only the temporary which lasts, and this could well be the case here.

 

It is for the Scottish Government to take action now, with all the Scottish Health Boards, to ensure that this crisis is resolved now in the summer, before pressure increases this autumn. They should be consulting with the GPs and their representatives to find an agreed way forward, using no doubt their £40 million primary care development fund which they have yet to allocate. Having centralised so much in Scotland, the Scottish Government has to demonstrate that centralisation works. Otherwise the price of their failure will be paid in rural Tayside, both Perthshire and Angus, for the foreseeable future.

On helping refugees help themselves – a personal view by Clive Sneddon

I have just taken part in an online campaign to help those who are so desperate that they risk death to reach us. I have done so because helping others to help themselves is part of my Liberalism, and because I see working with others, especially our friends and neighbours in Europe, as the best way to achieve this.

I also think the same approach of helping others to help themselves applies within Britain, and that those who are concerned about immigration are right to say that we lack the infrastructure we need here. But the Liberal answer to this is in my eyes to focus relentlessly on providing that infrastructure, in housing, education and health as well as in growing the economy by green growth, about which I will write another time. Meantime, those who are desperate cannot wait because successive governments in Britain have over the last five decades or more not invested enough in infrastructure.

I give below the text of the letter I have just sent to the Prime Minister under the supplied subject line ‘Britain: Let’s Save Europe’s Humanitarian Plan’. If any of you reading this agree with me and would like to help, please click on this link:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/stop_the_tide_of_death_loc_uk/?bSGofbb&v=60606

Dear Mr Cameron,

From time to time I hear people praise your emotional intelligence, your understanding of how others are feeling and how to respond to them. Your treatment of the on-going waves of migration across the Mediterranean shows no such understanding.

You have in the past said to people who knowingly risk death to reach Europe that rescuing them from the sea is an incentive to them to come so you will stop rescue missions, which you have now finally reinstated.

You also refuse to engage with those who positively want to come to Britain, usually because their country has historic ties with ours, sheltering behind the current EU rules which dump the problem on countries of first landfall, putting a totally disproportionate burden on, among others, Malta, Italy and Greece.

Having reversed your position on rescue missions, I am now writing to ask you to reverse your position on those whose countries have links to Britain. Please say at the forthcoming EU summit that you will have regard to (1) historic links between Britain and the country of origin of migrants; (2) whether or not the place of origin is a war zone; (3) whether or not the place of origin offers any hope of avoiding death from hunger or thirst.

Please show your emotional intelligence by showing that you are willing to help those who risk their lives to reach Britain, by giving them the possibility of living to return home at a later date if they can safely do so, or of settling permanently in Britain if they have made a positive contribution while here.

By working with our partners in Europe to reduce the burden on the countries of first landing and on any through which migrants then travel, you will create goodwill which can only be positive in your forthcoming membership negotiations. The response of the British public, willing as always to help those in need, should be mirrored by its government. People living in war zones should be granted asylum in Britain if they want to come here, and all applicants for asylum should be allowed to work to reduce the burden on the taxpayer. Those willing to work but unable to support themselves at home to the point of death from starvation or thirst should have a special need category which allows them to be admitted within the total cap on economic migrants coming to this country.

You may be aware that more than 1000 Avaaz members in the UK have offered to help resettle refugees. Please show your emotional intelligence by responding humanely to the needs of foreigners. Those fleeing the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and now Afghanistan, are an obvious group who should be allowed in to Britain, and may provide real intelligence about Muslim attitudes which will help us all to combat pernicious extremism.

I look forward to a positive response.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Clive R Sneddon

The power of petitions, by Clive Sneddon

The European Parliament is used to receiving petitions, but not to one supported by millions. Yet this is what has happened for two sets of initials, TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement). The European citizens’ initiative against TTIP at https://stop-ttip.org/ is still live, and has so far been signed by more than two million EU citizens. The level of disquiet is reflected in the Parliament by the tabling of more than 200 amendments, leading to a vote on its own view of the TTIP being deferred until the autumn.

 

Many people including the Liberal Democrats accept that increased prosperity flows from increased trade, and that, to the extent to which TTIP secures this, its results will be good for everyone. The problems come from the habit of conducting negotiations in private, so that those with concerns fear they are being excluded. Full publication of all negotiating documents in advance of meetings would help, though the EU already publishes a lot at http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/in-focus/ttip/documents-and-events/index_en.htm#eu-position.

 

The concerns come from the differences between US and EU attitudes to regulation, and fears that big business would use ISDS to force EU states to bring its standards into line with those of the US, in particular for banking, food, data protection and health, and to pay the businesses large sums in ‘compensation’. Even worse, ISDS might be used to inhibit the willingness of EU states to legislate to protect their own citizens.

 

Clive Sneddon would prefer to see the EU invite big business to use the existing courts and laws available to them, especially as it is already possible for commercial contracts to include a statement of which law the contract is signed under and in which courts it shall be enforced. Were TTIP to permit any EU country’s laws to be chosen but not the USA’s, the public concerns would be met, and the benefits of increased free trade be available to everyone. If such a compromise is not acceptable, the whole treaty may well fall.