EU countries and expat voting: united in diversity?

In a year of significant elections, this week has been particularly eventful in electoral terms, with the Turkish referendum, the surprise announcement of a UK general election, and the first round of voting for the next French president. In each country, overseas voting has made headlines, whether because of the contribution made by Turkish expats to the referendum result, the fact that the controversial 15-year limit on British non-residents’ right to vote will not be lifted in time for June 8, or the fear of cyber-attacks which means that French citizens overseas will not be able to vote online in legislative elections scheduled for mid-June.

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For people who live in democracies where they hold citizenship, voting is generally a fairly straightforward process (although there are exceptions). For long-term residents abroad (generally excluding those posted as diplomats or similar), it can be much more complicated. The UK is not the only country to limit the franchise for expatriates, although amongst current EU member states it is in a minority of five. Moreover, each country has its own ways of enabling expats to cast their ballots: the sheer diversity of this is impressive. I decided to look further into the different arrangements for overseas EU voters.

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Gesture politics: Beata Szydlo and Bibulus

This week the European Council met in Brussels. At the beginning of the summit, the reappointment as President of Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland, was blocked by Beata Szydlo, the current Polish Prime Minister, for domestic political reasons. Nevertheless, Tusk’s re-election was carried by 27 votes to one. In response, Szydlo refused to endorse the summit’s conclusions, which meant that for the first time ever the document summarising them was ‘supported by 27 Members of the European Council, but it did not gather consensus, for reasons unrelated to its substance’ (credit to whoever drafted that nicely understated turn of phrase). Cue strong words on the Polish side, more measured ones from Brussels, and headlines about ‘EU unity in ruins’.

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‘They believed that worse was still to come’: 2016 in Roman historiography

I’ve had a lot of new experiences since I left academic life a couple of years ago. One has been the realisation that the ancient historians I used to research and their presentation of politics and politicians are not as far removed from the contemporary world as they sometimes used to seem. One question I kept asking myself in 2016 was ‘how would Tacitus [the subject of my thesis] and his peers have described the year’s events?’ Over Christmas, I decided to ‘reconstruct’ one possible answer – in English and Latin.

(For anyone whose Latin is a bit rusty: plays on words in the Latin version are highlighted – unfortunately it’s all but impossible to translate these exactly, but I’ve marked what they literally mean in English.)

natio Belgarum divisa est in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Flandrici, aliam Wallones, tertiam Bruxellani. urbem eorum, sicut ego accepi, condidere atque habuere initio pauci Germanorum Gallorumque quod, compluribus bellis gestis, quandam concordiam in varietate petebant. hi postquam in una moenia convenere, dispari genere, dissimili lingua, alii alio more viventes, incredibile memoratu est quam facile coaluerint. sed ubi labore atque iustitia res publica crevit, nationes magnae sine bello consociatae, aemula pactio Varsoviae ab stirpe interiit, decretum denique omnes eodem auro uti, saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit.

The country of the Belgians is divided into three parts, one inhabited by the Flemish, one by the Walloons, and the third by the people of Brussels. Their city, I hear, was initially founded and occupied by a few Germans and Gauls, since after several wars they were seeking a kind of unity in diversity. After they had come together in one place, with their divergent origins, different languages and individual ways of life, the story of how easily they became unified is incredible. But when their state had grown through hard work and fair dealing, great nations had joined them without any fighting, their rival the Warsaw Pact had been completely obliterated, and finally it had been decided that everyone should use the same currency, fortune began to rage and to throw everything into confusion.

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MMD Shipping: state aid investigation as a Brexit battleground?

It is not often that Portsmouth, a former home town of mine, is mentioned in the Brussels bubble, but recently it was reported that MMD Shipping, a cargo handling company owned since 2008 by Portsmouth City Council, is being investigated by the Commission for alleged breaches of EU state aid rules. The company – which handles, amongst other things, vast quantities of bananas – was taken over by the council when it was on the verge of failing and is said to have subsequently received financial assistance that could have given it an unfair advantage over competitors. Unsurprisingly, reporting has focused on the fact that this is the first competition investigation launched by the Commission since the UK referendum in June and may not be concluded before the UK exits the EU.

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How has MMD Shipping fared in the eight years since it came into the ownership of the council? Not especially well, it appears. Portsmouth’s local newspaper reported in 2009 that the company was continuing to make losses. Although it seems to have broken even in 2010, employees were the subject of two major criminal investigations in subsequent years and in 2016 it has been dogged by industrial disputes. A local blogger has been highlighting a perceived lack of transparency in the council’s ownership of the company and asking some difficult questions. Portsmouth City Council’s stated intention when it bought MMD, to secure local jobs and infrastructure, was worthy, but it doesn’t seem to have made a great success of this unusual move.

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Book review: Europe, Anyone? The ‘Communication Deficit’ of the European Union Revisited

[this review has also been published on the blog of the Library of the Council of the EU]

What is the best way to share information about the European Union’s institutions and activities with a diverse, diffuse and often uninterested public? This question, regularly posed over the past few decades, has in recent years come to be asked with ever increasing desperation. Bernd Spanier’s study, Europe, Anyone? The ‘Communication Deficit’ of the European Union Revisited, was published in 2012 and is based on a dissertation submitted in 2010, but many of the observations it makes are still highly relevant, perhaps even more so, in 2016.

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(image from amazon.com)

Not that the EU’s problems began this year, of course. The wide-ranging chapter that follows the introduction to this work is a excellent summary of the major setbacks that beset the Union between the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the global financial problems of the late 2000s. The account of the Greek debt crisis can follow events only as far as 2011, but Spanier’s description of how referenda in the Netherlands and France stood in the way of the European Constitution’s ratification in 2005 is very instructive. This section includes some trenchant remarks on the unsuitability of popular votes in individual countries for deciding wider European issues, and his conclusion in passing that such votes ‘can be problematic when member states which usually adhere to a representative model of democracy suddenly resort to direct, plebiscitary models whenever fundamental decisions about Europe are to be taken’ (p. 31) looks all too appropriate today.

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