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.