Thursday, 31 October 2013

Toilet humour

British MEPs and their national press were on pun overload this week after they learned that in the coming days the EU is going to set the criteria for which toilets can receive a special ‘ecolabel' based on using less water in a flush.

 The voluntary labels are designed to attract consumers who might want to save money on water or help the environment.

 The European Commission has been issuing these ecolabel criteria for various products such as television sets and textiles since 1992. 17,000 products have been given criteria for the ecolabel so far. But this time, the criteria are for a product that makes people giggle. So as soon as it was picked up as a news story, you could see the reaction coming a mile away.

 Silly topic + EU angle = UK headlines.

 And headlines there were. On Tuesday The Telegraph ran an article saying the EU is planning to “standardise the flush on lavatories”, introducing a “euro-flush” that will be imposed after an exhaustive study of European toilet habits.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Immigrant-on-immigrant xenophobia

Italians were shocked yesterday to learn that a Northern Italian teenager who had recently gone to the UK to study and find work had been beaten to death over the weekend. Joele Leotta, 19, was brutally attacked by a group of young men who accused him of “stealing English jobs”, the Italian papers reported.

The Italian papers were quick to make a connection to increasing anti-European and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Conservative government in the UK. Some intitial reports in Italy mentioned the new campaign by the government to send vans into certain neighbourhoods telling illegal immigrants to “go home” in big letters.

The initial press coverage prompted Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialist (S&D) group in the European Parliament, to issue a press release saying the murder was the result of the xenophobic climate created by the government. "The xenophobic, aggressive climate inflamed by populists such as UKIP and by the rhetoric of the Conservatives in government is now leading to murder in the streets of Britain,” said Swoboda in a statement. “Campaigns such as vans with slogans telling immigrants to 'go home' and continuous negative rhetoric against foreigners – including EU citizens – are creating an ugly mood in Britain, which has long prided itself on being an open-minded and tolerant nation.”

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dutch rally round ‘right to be racist’

It’s that time of year again. The stockings are being hung by the chimney with care, the hot wine stands are setting up shop, and of course, the Dutch have begun putting on their blackface, big red lips and afro wigs. It’s time again for ‘Black Pete’ to pay us a visit.

And right on cue, it’s also time for the perennial hand-wringing about whether or not this minstrel character, who tags along with Saint Nicholas as he hands out presents to Dutch and Flemish children at Christmas, is racist.

But this year, thanks to some comments by a human rights observer, the debate has taken on an almost frenzied dimension that has even seen a prominent Dutch politician call for the Netherlands to pull out of the United Nations.

The Dutch are furious that a member of the UN’s human rights committee is looking into the issue of whether Black Pete is a racist caricature. The head of the committee, who is Jamaican, told a Dutch TV station she found it impossible to understand how Dutch people do not see it as racist. Dutch people have responded with a torrent of outrage, accusing the UN of trampling on something that is an age-old tradition and is culturally important to them. A petition organised to 'save Black Pete' gathered a million endorsements in its first day. News broadcasters are dressing up as Pete in protest, and Dutch people are making YouTube videos dancing around in blackface singing about how not racist they are.

Monday, 21 October 2013

How small is too small?

Yesterday the citizens of San Marino voted on becoming an EU member state. But is that even possible? 

As Brussels braces itself for the inevitable disappointment of a referendum on EU accession in Iceland, when or if that ever takes place, it will come as little comfort that another non-EU European country rejected EU membership yesterday.

The Republic of San Marino, the tiny microstate of 33,000 people situated within Northern Italy, held a referendum yesterday on whether to apply for EU membership. The proposition failed because not enough people turned out to vote. Though a narrow majority of people who voted approved the measure (50.3% versus 49.7%), a referendum needs 32% of eligible voters to vote yes in order for the measure to pass. The 'yes' vote amounted to just 20%.

Unlike an eventual Iceland referendum, the San Marino referendum was not a response any actual offer of EU membership.  The question of whether to start accession negotiations with Brussels was put to voters after a group of citizens collected the required number of signatures. No matter how the referendum turned out it was non-binding. It would be up to the San Marino government whether to actually request accession negotiations, and it would be up to EU member states whether to accept that request.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The car chancellor

Allegations of nefarious influence have abounded this week in Brussels, with German chancellor Angela Merkel accused of controlling the Council of Ministers, and automaker BMW accused of controlling her.

So who's really pulling the strings? And how did we get here?

On Monday, Germany overturned a deal on car emission limits in some very unusual circumstances, somehow convincing several other member states to switch positions on a deal that had already been agreed in June.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party received a donation of €690,000 from the Quandt family, which owns 46.7% of BMW, just days before Monday's fateful meeting. The revelation has prompted German media to dub Merkel "the car chancellor" and question whether hers is a pay-for-play government.

A gift from a partial stakeholder of an automaker might not have raised eyebrows were it not for the very heavy-handed and unusual way Germany has gone about trying to avoid this emissions limit at the last moment - a limit the industry has known was coming since 2008. 

In terms of how Germany has worked to change this EU proposal, the country has technically not violated any rules. But Berlin has become involved in this legislation at two highly inappropriate times that are outside the normal legislative procedure – during the Commission drafting of the proposal and during a vote to rubber-stamp an already-agreed deal.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Vapers win the battle, but not yet the war

Despite the message being sent today by Europe's media, the e-cigarette war is not over. Chalk it up to an oft-repeated confusion about EU policymaking.

Following today's vote on new EU tobacco rules in the European Parliament, a wave of jubilation from the so-called ‘vapers' spread across the Twittersphere.

These enthusiasts of new electronic cigarettes have been working tirelessly to convince MEPs to block a European Commission proposal to regulate the new contraptions as medicines for the purposes of market approval.

Today they got their wish. Members of the European Parliament voted 350-300 to instead classify the cigarettes as tobacco, even though they in fact do not contain any tobacco.

The cigarettes deliver nicotine electronically, without the smoke or tobacco responsible for most adverse health effects from smoking. The vapers had argued that the bureaucracy involved in getting a medicine to market would be too much for the small companies getting started in this sector and kill the industry. Some health advocates agreed with them.