Views on the EU

This blog reflects on attendance at a recent event organised by ESRC, Cardiff University and the EU Hub to provided informed answers to questions about the upcoming EU Referendum. The speakers included economists, lawyers, and political scientists, including the head of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative Professor Anand Menon, economist Professor Angus Armstrong, regional policy expert Professor Fiona Wishlade and commercial law specialist Emyr Lewis and Cardiff School of Law and Politics’ Dr Jo Hunt.

By Philip Kitchen who attended the event

I have been disappointed in the so-called debate about the EU referendum so far. What I have seen amounts to little more than glorified name-calling and fear-mongering. Is it possible to hear something of substance about the choice we are being asked to make? This event set out to provide ‘informed’ answers to questions that the audience posed. The panel of invited experts were largely academics with specialist interest in areas relevant to the upcoming referendum. The driving force behind the session was UK in a Changing Europe who with Full Fact produce an informative booklet Leave/Remain: the facts behind the claims.

Chaired by Owain Phillips, a political reporter from ITV Cymru Wales, the questions covered different aspects of the EU. Particular things that struck me from the discussion included the way in which the principle behind the ‘single market’ is not something we currently have access to – it is something we participate in. There is a distinction which is important.

When it comes to legislation, the approach taken by the EU is to ensure that we treat members of the EC no differently to the way we treat our own nationals when they are in the UK. On this point the question of benefits that immigrants claim is seen to be a product of our non-contributory system. We treat visitors the way in which we treat ourselves by sharing the non-contributory system. It is in essence a result of the UK legislation more than EU legislation. This aspect is clearly now coming under review by all EU governments as benefit systems are subject to stresses that were never anticipated when first set up. It was pointed out to that there are different ways such support is termed and used within EU member countries which does not help the comparisons that are made.

Wales we learnt is a net beneficiary from EU finance. Questions surrounding devolution have not been well considered and present significant issues should we elect to leave the EU. What border controls will be put in place in Ireland between the north and south? If Scotland goes for independence would we see border controls put in place on the UK mainland? What happens to devolved powers if we leave and EU inspired legislation is revisited and Wales takes a different view to the UK government. Remember devolution happened after we joined the EU. Much UK legislation is mixed in terms of EU inspiration and UK sourced and will present much room for debate and discussion in the future should we leave the EU.

Sovereignty was described as a rather ‘plastic’ issue by one speaker. Another suggested that we might reasonably focus on issues of power and influence. Especially whether we are best served in that regard from being in or out of the EU.

In all it seemed clear that the ‘experts’ usual answer to ‘what happens if we come out of the EU to ….?’ was ‘We do not really know’. It certainly seemed clear that the people who will benefit most from leaving the EU will be lawyers of various types.

I went in to the meeting believing that we should remain in the EU. I heard no compelling argument to change that viewpoint. I did hear a number of questions asked that suggested if we stay in there are many reasons to keep questioning and challenging the ideas that politicians keep throwing around. One panellist said that in his experience students in the UK had a very low level of knowledge about the EU and how it worked – I would have to put myself in that same camp. The nature of the ‘arguments’ in the public sphere that I have heard from politicians from all camps suggest that many of them should attend question and answer sessions like this one.

Reference was made to Norway who have to endure the ‘EU regulation’ and its costs but with no influence within the the EU. Yet apparently some 75% or so vote not to join the EU. Maybe we should all ignore the facts and go with a gut feeling!

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the WCIA. 

What kind of Europe do we want?

By Stephen Thomas

As the intensity of the European Union ‘in/out’ referendum debate increases across the UK, I had the opportunity to visit the European Parliament in Brussels this month for the first time.

MEPs make decisions that impact upon the lives of 500 million citizens in this very room

MEPs make decisions that impact upon the lives of 500 million citizens in this very room

I was invited with a group to visit and explore the institution by the European Free Alliance (EFA), a grouping of elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from stateless nations, regions and minorities. In the 2014-2019 parliamentary term EFA MEPs have been elected from Catalonia, Galicia, Latvia, Scotland, Valencia, Wales and the Basque Country. Within the Parliament, MEPs work in political groups. EFA members have formed a common alliance in the European Parliament with the Green Parties since 1999.

The European Parliament

The largest of the several political groupings within the Parliament are the European People’s Party [Christian Democrats] (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).  With a total Parliament of 751 seats the EPP currently hold 219 and the S&D 191. EFA have 50.

Each MEP is chosen by an electorate from each of the 28 member countries of the European Union, representing a constituency of over 500 million people. Seats are also distributed, by and large, according to a Member State’s population. Germany, the largest country in population terms, has 96 MEPs whilst the smallest states of Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta have 6 MEPs each. Of the larger Member States after Germany, France has 74 MEPs and the UK and Italy 73 MEPs each.

As such the European Parliament is the only directly elected body in the EU and plays a key role in electing the President of the European Commission. It shares power over the EU budget and legislation with the Council of the European Union.

Council of the European Union

The Council represents the governments of the individual Member States. The Presidency of the Council is shared by the Member States on a six-month rotating basis. For the six months to December 2015 the Presidency is held by Luxembourg. The Presidency is responsible for driving forward the Council’s work on EU legislation, ensuring the continuity of the EU agenda, orderly legislative processes and cooperation among member states. To do this, the Presidency has to act as an honest and neutral broker.

The European Commission

Another major EU institution is the European Commission, the executive body. The Commission is responsible for proposing and implementing EU laws, monitoring the treaties and the day-to-day running of the EU. It represents the interests of the EU as a whole (not the interests of individual countries).

A new team of 28 Commissioners (one from each EU Member State) is appointed every five years. The politically important post is that of President of the Commission.

The candidate for President is proposed to the European Parliament by the European Council who decide on candidates by qualified majority, taking into account the elections to the European Parliament. The Commission President is then elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members (which corresponds to at least 376 out of 751 votes).

Following this election, the President-elect selects the 27 other members of the Commission, on the basis of the suggestions made by Member States. The final list of Commissioners-designate has then to be agreed between the President-elect and the Council. The Commission as a whole needs the Parliament’s consent. Prior to this, Commissioners-designate are assessed by the European Parliament committees.

The current Commission’s term of office runs until 31 October 2019. Its President is Jean-Claude Juncker.

Justice, Financial Management & Banking

The Court of Justice; The Court of Auditors and The European Central Bank are the other influential institutions that make up the European Union.

In defence of Liberty and Democracy?

The European Parliament is a unique example of multinational and multilingual democracy at work. The elected members (MEPs) engage in public debates and play a crucial role in shaping the policy of the EU. The principal areas of their work include the following:

Laws

The Parliament decides jointly with the Council of the European Union on laws that affect the daily lives of all EU’s citizens. These include topics such as freedom of travel, food safety and consumer protection, the environment and most sectors of the economy. Member States still have a veto right in areas such as taxation and foreign affairs/defence. Some areas require the Council to obtain the European Parliament’s assent before making a decision.

Budgets

Budgetary powers are the key prerogative of every Parliament — whoever allocates the funds has the power to set political priorities. At EU level, this power is shared between the Parliament and the Council. Together they adopt a multi-annual financial framework every 7 years, and scrutinise and approve the annual budget for the next year, as well as the spending from the previous year. The EU’s multi-annual budget 2014-2020 is €960 billion (yes, billion!).

Control

The European Parliament monitors the correct use of EU funds. The results of parliamentary elections are taken into account in the nomination of the President of the European Commission, but Parliament also has to elect the President and approve the appointment of the Commission and can force it to resign. Commissioners are often asked to defend their policies before the Parliament, and the president of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy regularly appear in Parliament to brief the MEPs and answer their questions.

Over the last couple of years, Parliament has considerably increased the discussions it holds with all leading decision-makers involved with the euro in a bid to shed more light on the way monetary decisions are being taken. In this sense, the Parliament has become one of the only forums acting to improve the transparency of the governance of the euro area.

European Union – why?

Out of the ruins of 1945, there grew an idea amongst Statesmen that, in fostering economic cooperation between countries rather than pursuing imperial and nationalistic rivalries, the risk of another appalling conflict between major sovereign states in Europe would be reduced.  Cooperation based on free trade in several key resource areas (coal, steel and iron ore) was its starting point in a hope that it would build a peaceful and prosperous future for all the peoples of Europe. To a large extent this idea has worked and Europe, indeed the world, has avoided horrors on the scale of the 20th Century’s two world wars.

Few believe however that nirvana has been created with the growth and development of European integration, far from it. The last 70 years since 1945 has continued to witness global tragedies, wars, famine, death and destruction on an appalling human scale. Walking around the European Parliament’s Visitors’ Centre brings these events very much to the mind in a poignant, interactive virtual trip through Europe, its history and its impact on the peoples of the world.

Meeting some MEPs and hearing their ‘stories’ left me feeling that the Parliament does contain elected representatives with strong ideals and a real belief in the concepts of fairness, justice and effective democratic government. They didn’t believe the current European institutions were by any means perfect but were seen rather as a continuing ‘work in progress’ that had evolved far beyond their origins as the European Coal & Steel Community of 1952.  Institutions that continue to engage people and politicians of many persuasions, nationalities and languages in debate, for a peaceful common cause. Controversial topics such as TTIP (the transatlantic trade and investment partnership with the United States); the impact of austerity policies resulting from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the democratic predicament raised by the events in Greece pose real challenges for the European Union and its future.

Achieving fairness and justice while maintaining our liberty and freedom is never easy, particularly in our 21st Century multi-layered system of government. It can appear confusing, difficult to understand and sometimes repellent. Yet, as individuals we each carry a responsibility to defend our hard-earned democratic rights and take every opportunity to stand peaceably against the forces of regression who will work to undermine them. An essential first step, surely, is to find out more about how our democracy really works and how we can support it. This has, perhaps, never been more important than right here, and right now.

Learn more about the European Parliament, and the EU in general, here: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/visiting/en/parlamentarium

Lower the voting age in the EU referendum to 16

In 2016/17 the UK will come to the polls to make one of the biggest decisions of the past 50 years – should the UK stay in EU? But one group will be left out of this all-important vote, the group who will be most affected by this change, 16 and 17-year-olds. Having just turned 17 there is a high possibility that I will not be able to cast a vote in a 2016 election, denying my right to be heard.  And to paraphrase a young William Hague “Half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time”, but others will have to live with consequences”.  As someone who would have to live with the consequences of a vote I only see it as fair that I should be able to have a say in the matter.

The main argument against giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote is that 16 or 17 year olds are too immature to make such important decisions. But where’s the evidence? Without resorting to clichés, we can leave school, start a job, or an apprenticeship and chose school subjects that will affect the rest of their lives. In the modern world we are given a lot of responsibilities so voting in elections isn’t too daunting.  In school as part of the Welsh Bac we are given lessons on politics and citizenship, giving all 16/17 year olds an understanding of the political system. And the internet allows young people a wide base of knowledge about international affairs. So it cannot be argued that maturity is a reason to stop us voting.

The work that many 16 and 17 year olds do is effected by the EU, and because of this we should be able to have a vote on matters that will regard our current or future careers. For example, Airbus employs over 100,000 people in the UK  including a large number of apprentices and young skilled workers. These jobs rely on the EU links between Britain and France, and leaving the EU could put the jobs at risk. The 12% of jobs linked with EU exports include a large percentage of under 18s who work in manufacturing and the construction industry. The voices of people whose jobs depend on this link will not be heard.

youngvotes

Giving votes to us for single elections isn’t a completely new idea. In the Scottish Referendum 16 and 17 year olds were given the right to vote.  I believe this was fair, as people who would be most affected by leaving the union got the right to vote. This gave young people a voice for their future for the first time in British history and has been seen as a resounding success by the majority of people. With a high turnout young people in Scotland showed that they were engaged in what was going on and then has allowed people to vote locally and at Holyrood. The Scottish example shows that we as young people are deserving of a vote in all UK elections – we are engaged and politically active. There is support from the SNP and Labour to allow 16/17 year olds to vote because they have a “tremendous vested interest in whether or not we stay in the EU or leave”.

In Austria the vote was given to 16 and 17 year olds to counter the effect of an aging population. The effect of an older population who often vote is that politicians tend to veer towards the “grey vote” aiming more polices towards older people. Young people’s votes could lead to more polices beneficial towards young people, for example, pressure to keep EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance).

All 16/17 year olds should be able to vote in the European election. These votes will have an effect on the rest of our lives. Without the vote, our opinions will not be heard by society and we will not be able to make a difference, even though we have an opinion. As Robert Frost said Thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing. That’s voting.
 

Housing First? Approaches in Wales and Europe

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The Welsh Government has recently passed its first ever housing bill. The Housing (Wales) Bill outlines a number of measures put in place to strengthen the rights of vulnerable groups in society in terms of housing, and to improve the provision of services for those experiencing homelessness.

The Bill, however, is a shadow of the radical changes outlined in the preceding white paper Homes for Wales. Amongst other reasons, this has been attributed to the influence of local government who would have to deliver these services, and the increasing scarcity of resources has played a part in diminishing the white paper proposals into more realistic reform. In this article, I will give a brief overview of the Bill within the context of the Housing First approach to homelessness which is gathering momentum across Europe.

The Housing First, or Pathways Approach to homelessness, was first developed in the USA by Dr Sam Tsemberis in the late 1980s. Unlike the typical ‘staircase approach’ to housing for those who are experiencing homelessness, the Housing First approach is not based on housing readiness but the idea that housing is a basic human right.

The fundamental concept is that once housing has been provided, support for other issues can follow, with the result being that solutions are more sustainable. Wide-spread across the United States, this approach is now being adopted or trialled across Europe, most notably in Finland. Although constructed differently in different areas, the approach has four main features as described by a report into the scheme by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2007:

  1. Direct or nearly direct placement of targeted homeless people into permanent housing
  2. Participation in support services by the individual to remain in housing is not required
  3. Assertive outreach is used, with a low demand approach taken to individuals within the programme
  4. Continued effort to provide case management and hold housing if an individual is away for the programme for a short period

This aims of this approach are based on the belief that once housing has been put in place, individuals are much more able to address other issues in their lives in a more sustainable way. The outcomes therefore are better both for those who are experiencing support, and those funding this support. Central to this programme is the need for housing to be established in order to enable individuals to take control of other aspects of their lives.

I suggest that the white paper Homes for Wales also supports these aims through its two stage ‘Housing Solutions Approach’ to reforming homelessness legislation. The white paper promised an agenda which is “distinctively Welsh, based on our long-term commitments to social justice, tackling poverty and sustainable development” (Homes for Wales, p.2). The proposed homelessness approach allowed individuals who had nowhere safe to stay to have access to immediate temporary accommodation.

Unlike the tests on vulnerability which are currently in legislation across England and Wales, the criteria for help and support at this stage was a lack of safe accommodation. This proposal was to be supported through an increased emphasis on prevention of homelessness within both third sector and statutory services. The individual in this circumstance would be supported for 6 months while a solution to their housing need was resolved, and if a solution had not been found by the end of 6 months the Local Authority would carry out tests on vulnerability, intentionality, and local connection. Although this proposal was resource heavy, it did provide a fair and equal approach – something clearly emphasised by the Welsh Government in both the white paper and more general rhetoric.

Although this is clearly different from the Housing First Approach due to its emphasis on temporary accommodation, the incentive for change was similar – people need to be in housing before a sustainable solution to their housing, and broader needs, can be found.

The Housing (Wales) Bill introduces a holistic set of measures aimed at improving the housing sector in Wales, and the ability of the sector to meet the increasing needs of individuals. Included in this reform is the introduction of the regulation of landlords and letting agents, an increase in council tax on empty homes, and the duty for Local Authorities to undertake, and deliver on, needs assessments for their Gypsy and Traveller communities. As previously mentioned, there is a marked difference between the duties outlined in the white paper prior to the Bill, and the Bill itself which is most obvious in terms of the Bill’s commitment to reforming the approach to homelessness in Wales.

Instead of the ‘Housing Solutions Approach’, the Bill retains the tests of vulnerability, intentionality, and local connection at the first interaction of individual with Local Authority – or first presentation as homeless. Individuals are therefore assessed as to whether they are ‘vulnerable enough’ for the Local Authority to have a duty to house them. This consists of a test as to whether an individual is ‘more vulnerable that the average homeless person’, a bar that seems very low. Individuals with severe depression, or substance misuse problems, have been found not ‘vulnerable enough’ as these conditions are those that ‘the average homelessness person’ could expect to experience.

The approach taken in the Bill, then, does not immediately recognise the need for individuals to have housing as a basic human right. Nor does it support the Housing First approach by which sustainable solutions are found fundamentally by providing accommodation.  I argue that this change from a Housing First influenced approach in the white paper, to one still based on priority need, undermines the Welsh Government’s claim to an approach based on social justice as they promote in the white paper. Across both the US and Finland the Housing First Approach is seen to have positive results in providing more sustainable, and more cost effective, solutions to chronic homelessness. More importantly however, as shown so clearly in this @home video, it allows people to feel “human again”.


Helen Taylor is a PhD candidate at the Wales Governance Centre, and Department of Politics and International Relations, at Cardiff University. Her thesis looks at developing a test for social justice in contemporary social policy, using the Housing (Wales) Bill as a case study. She can be contacted @practademia or at taylorh16@cf.ac.uk.


Refugees deserve our compassion and help, whether at home or abroad.

The recent tragedy of the Lampedusa refugee shipwreck has brought home to Europe the terrible risks that the refugees of the world are willing to take to escape their plight. More than 300 vulnerable individuals including many women and children died on this tragic day, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Jose Manuel Barroso said he was “profoundly shocked” by the sight of so many coffins and has pledged £25m of EU funds to help refugees in Italy. Barroso also called for the EU parliament to vote on a plan to launch Mediterranean-wide search and rescue patrols to intercept migrant boats. However, this must not become a pretext for increased border security to deny the legitimate entry into Europe of desperate refugees.

There has been a call from the UN for a more joined up approach by the European Union towards the issues of refugees. There was praise for Barroso’s call for increased focus on the search and rescue of migrant boats in the Mediterranean. It should not be surprising to those in Europe that refugees will risk everything to reach our shores when we look at the situation in some other refugee camps. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continue to support some 420,000 Palestine refugees in Syria which is vital work. However, when refugees are killed within these camps due to the continuing armed conflict it is clear why many would rather take the challenging journey to Europe.

Another reason why many refugees would take these risks to get to Europe is the disproportionate impact on women and children. As Refugee International asserts “The stresses of displacement tend to lead to an increase in sexual and gender-based violence”. Women are at “greater risk, compounding existing discrimination”. As women are often the heads of households and the careers of children, children too suffer from the knock on effects as well as the direct effects of such discrimination. In Europe we have taken great strides (if not yet complete) to gender equality and the protection of children. It should be a cause of pride that so many are making their way to our shores. We must also be diligent not to forget internally displaced refugees especially those women and children and encourage the engagement by the refugee agencies and the international community in these troubled areas. Indeed the UNHCR works and supports the internally displaced individuals all over the world in dealing with their terrible situation.

The real issue is, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Adrian Edwards has stated “that all available means [are] used to mitigate the root causes of flight in refugee producing countries”.  This is of course an incredibly complex and long term goal but one that must be tackled. There are a number of reasons that people are displaced, becoming refugees against their will. War is a major factor; poverty too is a key issue. The lack of basic human rights is also a reason many see Europe as a beacon of light worth almost any risk to get to. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said “It is critical that the international community engages further in improving the human rights situation on the ground, to address the root causes so that there is sufficient improvement that people will not feel the need to put their lives at risk by undertaking such dangerous journeys”.

Another, and increasing cause, is climate change and environment degradation and catastrophes. These include floods, droughts, rising seas, mud slides, water shortages, and many more. The climate change issue is perhaps the most difficult cause in the creation of refugees that the international community needs to resolve. However there are also events that we will never be able to control; earthquakes, storms and volcanic eruptions will always be with us. As such, this should inspire us to act against those causes we can control. We must do all we can to prevent war, poverty, human rights abuses and climate change and reduce the dire consequences for those caught up in their wake. Until then we have a moral responsibility and indeed a legal obligation to give aid to the world refugees, both those that make it to Europe and those that do not.

Michael Stagg

Sources

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24456058

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46261&Cr=Palestin&Cr1=#.UlwqkBAgp0U

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46249&Cr=migrants&Cr1=#.UlwsKBAgp0U

http://www.refintl.org/what-we-do/women-and-children

http://www.unhcr.org/521c85ea9.html

http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c1d9.html

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46186&Cr=Italy&Cr1=#.Ul0pChAgp0U