27 December 2007

A year of "achievement"

So far, there seem to be only two media takers for the multimedia yearbook "presenting ten of the European Union’s achievements of 2007". One is Deutsche Welle and the other is the Cyprus Mail, which probably says as much about the media as it does the EU publicity machine.

Introduced by Margot Wallström, Vice-President of the EU Commission, responsible for communication, she tells us that in 2007, its 50th anniversary, "the Union has again taken concrete actions leading to concrete results".

First on its list of these "concrete results" is the "EU reform package" – aka the EU constitution – whence the yearbook parades the claim that EU leaders adopted a "Reform Treaty" in October to make the 27-nation Union "more efficient and more democratic." Efficiency and democracy were never exactly the EU's strong suits so, if that really was the intention, then the treaty has already failed in its purpose. In fact, the only way the European Union could enhance democracy is by abolishing itself, so it really cannot win on this score.

Included in the self-congratulation on this treaty is the fond hope that it will allow "Europe to speak with one voice through a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy."

Constructing our list of alternative achievements, therefore, this is a good place to state, noting the irony that today's EU news is dominated by the expulsion from Afghanistan of the EU’s acting head of mission in the country and a senior United Nations official. Both are accused of holding an illegal meeting with members of the Taliban and also of offering them money, invoking a comment from an Afghan official who said, "It is not clear whether they were supporting the insurgency or not."

Too late for inclusion in this year's official list, one suspects that this incident will not appear in the next edition of the EU's list of top ten achievements either, as indeed the previous EU problems in Afghanistan are absent from this edition. These were back in September when the much-heralded EU police training mission (dubbed EUPOL) was thrown into turmoil when Brigadier General Eichele, the general commanding the mission, resigned suddenly on three months after his appointment.

Commentators at the time said the mission had been underfunded, understaffed and poorly prepared. Ronja Kempin, an Afghan expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, remarked: "It seems that the EU was not really properly prepared for such a complex mission … The EU seemed to have rushed into setting up this mission…." Eichele's staff did not even have enough cars, computers or offices to function.

Another absentee from the current edition is the EU's diplomatic coup in allowing Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe to attend the EU-Africa conference in Lisbon earlier this year, in defiance of its own travel ban, thus forcing – quite rightly – prime minister Gordon Brown to boycott the talks.

Also absent is any mention of the debacle over the EU peacekeeping force to Chad which was originally due to be deployed in October and is now scheduled for January or possibly February – if at all – depending on whether the member states can pull together the pathetically small number of helicopters needed to support the mission.

The last we heard on this was a complaint from Austria that the failure of the EU to deliver was a "sign of incompetence", inviting a comment from us as to the lack of any material support from Austria itself, with 50 helicopters at its disposal.

The reason for this was not long in coming, from the Editor-in-Chief of the Austrian Airpower web magazine, who wrote to one of our readers painting a dismal picture of the parlous state of military aviation in that country.

Not least, the Air Force was disbanded in 2006, the remaining assets being taken over by the Air Support Command. But the real point is that the bulk of the utility helicopter fleet is 28 years old (with other aircraft over 40 years old). None of the aircraft have been upgraded, and few of the systems are fully operational. Those machines which are still flying have difficulty meeting even their low-key routine tasks (like VIP-flying), to the extent that Austria is in no position to meet any new commitments.

We have seen similar tales of woe with Italian forces having to sell off barracks just to meet current spending commitments. More recently, the German business daily Handelsblatt reported that over half of Germany's Transall military transport aircraft were unsuitable for long hauls. The paper quoted aviation industry sources as saying that corrosion and wear and tear have turned over half the aircraft - some of which are more than 40 years old - into "decrepit machinery", with increasing difficulty in locating spare parts.

As our reader put it, the EU (and indeed NATO) has a paper air force with impressive orders of battle but most of its useful utility and transport aircraft are hangar queens and museum pieces whose maintenance only enables them to be warmed up and moved occasionally to prevent tyre damage. The problem is that as aircraft have become more complicated and expensive so they have been made more complicated and expensive to undertake more roles and so fleet sizes shrink.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the only "concrete result" the EU could offer in the foreign affairs field was a "growing demand for election observers", having sent out nine observer missions in 2007 covering national elections in countries from Timor-Leste in Asia to Sierra Leone, Mauritania and Togo in Africa. Tragically, Sierra Leone is at war again.

Using this slender “achievement”, the EU was thus able to crow, "The promotion of democracy is a cornerstone of EU foreign and security policy, and its election observer missions help project the Union's 'soft power' around the globe." But the reality is that the EU is all mouth and no trousers – reliant on "soft power" because, when push comes to shove, the capability to project "hard power" simply does not exist.

No more so was this the case with Iran, where the Council’s bizarre behaviour in ignoring its own supreme court (the ECJ) in continuing to ban the PMOI has been picked up today by MEP Struan Stevenson in The Scotsman, who comments on, "Why UK has been shamed by Iranian fiasco". Once again, one does not see this little episode highlighted in the EU’s list of achievements.

Of course, the main foreign policy area for the European Union is enlargement and here the burning question is Turkey. Predictably enough, this also does not appear in the EU’s list of achievements, not least because Sarkozy is doing his level best to sabotage the deal. And, despite the supposed influence that the EU is able to exert, this has not stopped Turkey carrying out a series of raids into Iraq, to deal with the PPK.

Nor even has the EU been able to prevail on the issue of independence for Kosovo, the Serb parliament currently expected to adopt a resolution rejecting EU membership if Kosovo declares independence. This is very much "work in progress" so, no doubt, we can look forward to an announcement of the "success" in 2008.

Never mind all that, though – and much more. The EU – or so it tells us – is “good for the consumer, having "made good on its 2006 promise to slash the cost of using your mobile phone while on the move in Europe". The fact that this distorts the market and may have the effect of increasing domestic tariffs is neither here nor there – nor indeed should one point out that the major beneficiaries are the tranzie class of the European Union, not least MEPs.

One group of “consumers” that is less than enamoured with the EU comprises the disabled and the elderly who, this month were told that their special electric mobility vehicles had been reclassified by the EU as "leisure vehicles", alongside snowmobiles, jet skis and racing cars, forcing Revenue & to slap on the 10 percent duty, adding as much as £300 to the cost of a vehicle.

But, when it comes to protecting the consumer interest, however, curiously absent is the EU’s brave initiative to introduce heath and safety standards for MRI scans, a plan so mad that it threatened to deprive up to three million patients a year of life-saving scans. Its greatest achievement in this field, therefore, was quietly to abandon the idea in October.

The interesting thing though is how selective the EU actually is when it comes to saving the consumer money. In February last, we wrote about the largest Esso service station in the world, located in one of the smallest countries on earth, in Wasserbillig, Luxembourg - on the motorway to Germany.

A classic example of the advantages of tax competition, the service station thrived because fuel tax was lower in Luxembourg (as was the tobacco tax), so people came flocking in from Germany around to fill up their tanks and stock up on cheap baccy.

And László Kovács, EU tax commissioner, hated it. Starting with the truck drivers and those with diesel cars, he was then seeking to close down this "loophole", by upping the minimum duty, then at €302 per 1,000 litres to €330 in 2010, €359 in 2012 and €380 in 2014, thus reducing the attractions of driving from high-tax Germany to low-tax Luxembourg.

Still, there is always agriculture. Even though the CAP is universally condemned as one of the EU's most egregious failures, this does not stop the propagandists waxing lyrical about the "EU promotes EU reforms for fruit and vegetables" in 2007 which, they say "go beyond mere economics".

Thus, lauded as another of the ten "achievements", the EU is preening itself that it is doing its bit to encourage us to reach the WHO’s targeted daily intake of this produce, in a reform programme to improve the production and marketing of fruit and vegetables adopted in September.

Yet this is all it has to say about the flagship policy which consumes nearly forty percent of the EU budget yet, not only is the policy a failure, the biggest failure is already in the making. As Booker wrote in his piece this month, on the theme of EU failures, "a frequent misconception about the CAP is that it was set up to encourage farmers to grow more food." In fact, its purpose was to manage food surpluses created by the post-war subsidy system – a system which spectacularly failed, leading to huge and expensive food mountains.

But now, with structural shortages in world food production, we are left with a policy instrument – imperfect at best – designed to deal with surpluses, and wholly unable to deal with the consequences of shortage. And instead if dealing with the pressing issue of the near-collapse of the livestock industry, the EU has instead siphoned off surplus money from the CAP to pay for its failed vanity project, the Galileo satellite navigation system – supposed to have been up and running by 2008 and now working to a highly optimistic schedule of 2013.

Another failure Booker highlighted was the Common Fisheries Policy, noting that even the EU's Court of Auditors admits to that failure. Yet, despite even recognising that failure, it has taken the EU well over a decade to give a half-hearted recognition to limited technical measures, such as selective fishing, to conserve stocks.

While the EU conveniently ignores its failures on this front, it rushes to applaud its "achievement" in "leading the fight against climate change". As the scientific evidence of climate change hardened further, it tells us, the EU launched an ambitious strategy that will both sharply reduce its emissions of the "greenhouse" gases warming the planet and increase the security of its energy supplies.

The centrepiece of the “climate and energy strategy” is, of course, a pledge to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases to 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, provided other developed countries do likewise, and has already made a commitment to reduce its emissions by at least 20 percent. It has also committed to tripling the share of energy from renewable sources to 20 percent and increasing the share of biofuels in petrol and diesel to 10 percent.

All this is actually at a time when the science never looked more insecure yet the EU ploughs on regardless, launching its cathedrals of insanity.

And, as a measure of its departure from sanity, the EU’s flagship "emissions trading scheme", has lead to Britain paying out £470 million while Germany made £300 million profit (despite ordering 26 new coal-fired power stations). NHS hospitals had to spend £1.7 million on credits, while BP and Shell made £40 million. The EU's electricity supply industry enjoyed a windfall profit of £13.6 billion, with the biggest losers UK electricity consumers, whose bills rose by as much as 12 percent. The net result was that EU carbon emissions rose by 1.5 percent.

No list of EU “achievements” would be complete, however, without a paean of praise for the single currency and, sure enough, this is included in the EU’s list, masquerading as a job creation exercise. “Unemployment fell across Europe in 2007 thanks to a robust European economy and price stability ensured by a strong euro,” we are told.

Somehow, I doubt whether Ambrose Evans-Pritchard would agree on the utility of the euro while, as we recorded in January, an overwhelming majority of citizens in the big eurozone countries believe the euro has damaged their national economies. Of the French, Italians and Spanish, more than two-thirds believe the single currency had had a "negative impact". More than half of Germans felt likewise and, in France, a mere five percent said the euro has had a positive effect on the French economy.

Nothing however, as you would expect, is said about the EU’s disastrous immigration policy which led Italy's prime minister, Romano Prodi to bemoan that, "Nobody could have expected such an influx," of immigrants, with the accession of the former communist states, having promulgated a directive that made the situation immeasurably worse.

Instead, the EU offers the latest additions to the Schengen area, proclaiming that, "Frontier-free travel for countries which joined the EU in 2004 became a reality in December" – despite police doubts that the new borders are secure. The "concrete result" in this case looks like being a massive increase in illegal immigration.

So far, we have deal with seven of the EU’s claimed achievements for 2007. None of them really stand up and are offset by a far larger number of failures. There are many more, not least the failure of the EU to deliver certified accounts for the 13th consecutive year.

This is another minor detail missing from the EU’s self-congratulatory tract. Instead, it offers three more tendentious claims: that since July, households across the EU have been able to choose their electricity and gas supplier; that EU and US leaders signed an "open skies" agreement at a summit in Washington in April, giving "more choice and cheaper air fares"; and that 2007 was a particularly successful year for the EU's competition policy in safeguarding consumer interests.

It is, of course, to Thatcher that we owe competition in UK utility provision so it is hard to see how the EU can claim this as an achievement, but one needs to be highly suspicious of the EU's "liberalisation" programme, this being motivated by the desire to increase economic integration as a precursor to achieving political integration.

As for air fares, and the EU's "competition policy", we'll have a look at these tomorrow when we complete this piece.


13 December 2007

What are we fighting for?

Continued from Page one.

Called by Owen Paterson, the debate reflected another quaint British tradition. For, although he is shadow Northern Ireland secretary, he is also constituency MP for North Shropshire. He must, therefore, in addition to dealing with high matters of state, keep his feet very firmly on the ground, and stay in touch with local issues. Can you imagine an EU Commissioner being thus concerned? But then, of course, they don't have to put up with irritating little distractions like getting elected.

However, not only this an example of the "high and mighty" descending from on high to deal with the problems of mere mortals, he was joined by his fellow Conservative Shropshire MPs, Daniel Kawczynski, representing Shrewsbury and Atcham, Philip Dunne from Ludlow and Mark Pritchard from The Wrekin.

The problem which Owen flagged up, in a debate which did not start until 10.18 pm, was that Shropshire is one of the largest inland counties, but with 289,000 inhabitants is also one of the least populated in the UK, with long distances between its small towns and villages. This makes the delivery of public services costly and difficult.

In the front line is a network of 141 primary schools, 22 secondary schools and two special schools, collectively performing well ahead of national averages. Yet despite their success, and the approval of children and parents alike, they do this with funding which is considerably less than average. In fact, Shropshire has the second lowest funding of all 34 England upper-tier authorities.

Amazingly, this delivers currently £3,551 per pupil from a grant of £139.3 million, while the all-England average funding is £3,888 per pupil, leaving Shropshire with £337 less per pupil. If Shropshire received the funding of an average local authority, it would be £13.23 million better off. And. bad though the that situation is, in 2010-11 the gap increases to £385, leaving Shropshire's children £15.1 million behind

Taking a broader perspective, the situation looks even more bizarre. The City of London, for instance, receives £7,089 per pupil and the London borough of Tower Hamlets receives £6,028. Another London borough, Ealing, which, has an almost identical number of pupils as Shropshire, in the order of 39,000, receives £4,634 per pupil but in a much less sparse area. If Shropshire had the same funding, it would receive an incredible £42,486,428 extra. However, Owen made the point that he was not after more money. He did not want to see a penny more raised in tax. His complaint was with the distribution system that parcelled out the tax money from Whitehall back to Shropshire.

As to the performance, why Shropshire should be able to deliver such good results is, in itself, a minor miracle. Locally, it is attributed to the very fact that there are a large number of schools on the edge of economic viability, many with overlapping catchment areas where parents need to use cars to deliver their children to the schools. They can just as easily go to one rather than another, so an informal system of competition exists which have schools driving up their standards simply to stay in existence.

While local factors drive up standards, the reason for the disparity in funding is the highly bureaucratic centralised government formula which allocates education funding according to centrally dictated criteria, heavily weighted to favour inner city "deprived" areas – which just happen to be predominately Labour.

To add to Shropshire's woes, however, demand is falling: according to official projections, there will be 3,400 fewer pupils on the roll from 2001 to 2012. There are currently 2,500 unfilled primary school places, which will rise to 5,450 by 2012. And that will lead to a cumulative shortfall of £3.8 million by 2010-11 for which, under the current regime, there is only one remedy: school closures. No less than 20 schools are threatened.

However, "official projections" could well be wrong. As elsewhere, there has been extensive new building in Shropshire recently and dramatic increases planned for future years. Live births in Shropshire bottomed out in 2001, at 2,628, and rise to 2,767 in 2005.

Furthermore, women are choosing to have children later, so nationally, fertility rates for women aged 30 to 34 rose from 78.2 births per 1,000 women in 1986 to 104.6 per 1,000 in 2006. Current research suggests that the trend towards later maternity is strongest among women with better educational qualifications, with some postponing child rearing to pursue their careers. That could well be the case in Shropshire, where there has been an unprecedented increase in mid-range housing with an average age of occupants that conforms more with higher birth trends, which may, therefore, fuel an unexpected surge in the school-age population.

Another factor that is almost impossible for the "official projections" to recognise is the increase in population due to the massive – but recent – influx of immigrants. So flaky are the statistics that, when Poland acceded to the EU, the government predicted that only 13,000 Polish immigrants would come to this country to work. The actual figure was well over 600,000 and, ironically, 13,000 babies have been born to Polish women in this country since EU accession.

Population estimates assume inward migration contributing nearly 6 million to the projected rise of 7.2 million in the UK's population between 2004 and 2031 - equivalent to six cities the size of Birmingham over the 27-year period.

But the crucial point about rural schools is that they do not just provide educational facilities. In one instance, a village of 237 houses has only a village hall, a church, a working men's club and no other public facilities. The school, therefore, is currently used for out-of-hours activities, including a breakfast club, a computer club and other community enterprises.

Promoting this multi-use itself lies at the heart of government policy, with local authorities directed to explore ways in which schools can involve the local community, adults, families and local business partners, yet this particular policy is not due to take effect until 2013.

With the case made, a feature of the adjournment debate is that the minister is obliged to be present and to respond. In this case, it was the Parliamentary under-secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families, a Labour politician by the name of Kevin Brennan.

It would have been unrealistic to expect Brennan – who by that time had been joined by the secretary of state, Ed Balls and his deputy Jim Knight – to have done much more than counter with a litany of achievements of the current government. That is what ministers do. But one substantive point did emerge: that the government would launch in January a major review of the distribution of schools grants, with a full consultation starting in autumn 2009. The funding of schools in rural areas would be one of the issues explored.

In that frame, Owen was able to secure a firm public commitment that the schools minister would meet all the Shropshire MPs to discuss issues arising, together with an affirmation that a higher level of empty places in rural schools should be expected and that "the presumption against closing rural schools continues".

To secure a meeting was a real achievement. The issues had been raised, dialogue had commenced and the way was open for negotiation – MPs from an opposing Party discussing matters of concern to their constituents with senior members of the government.

Of course, the problems would be less acute if the system was not centrally managed, with local communities able to raise their own money rather than relying on government handouts. But the point was that the system, however imperfect – and that it is – allowed direct approach by and negotiation between elected representatives and the key decision-makers in government.

Ignored, unappreciated and barely recognised, this is the nuts and bolts of democracy. It is a system that cannot be replicated on a continental scale. How could any EU commissioner be expected to attend debates with the direct representatives of such a small area as Shropshire and, even if he could, how could he begin to accommodate the specific needs of one tiny corner of England when confronted with the competing needs of 450 million people?

Yet, as the EU extends it tentacles into ever-larger areas of governance, the opportunities for ministers to address specific concerns of elected representatives diminish. In this case – for the time being – the issue was education, over which ministers still retain some power. But in many other areas, it would be pointless having any debate. The ministers could do nothing and promise nothing.

As the scope for dialogue between ministers and elected representatives diminishes, we are all diminished – and democracy with it. This is what we have lost, and this is what we are losing, all in the name of the vainglorious European "project".