Thursday, 1 May 2014

Gulf Stream Interrupted

Gulf Stream Blues is going into retirement, while I concentrate on launching the new EuropeanVoice.com.

Regular readers may have noticed that my blog entries have been few and far between over the past months. Last year I was promoted to being editor of EuropeanVoice.com, the web site of the newspaper of the same name which was launched by The Economist 20 years ago.

It's an intense time, as we work to relaunch the web site and prepare for coverage of the European elections this month. I have to face facts and acknowledge that I just don't have time to write in this blog any more.

I launched this blog in 2006 while living in New York, in preparation as I struggled to find some way to get to Europe. I had been consumed by an interest in the European Union since reading a book called The European Dream by former New York Times reporter Jeremy Rifkin.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A noisier EU Quarter in Brussels

Since 6 February, planes have been rerouted from their route over the leafy suburbs of Flanders east of Brussels to straight over the EU quarter. People in the eurobubble say it's another example of Belgium dumping problems on people who cannot vote in general elections.

Today, members of the European Parliament rejected a European Commission proposal that would have allowed the European Union to overrule local authority decisions on the banning of flights at certain times.

The vote was only a rubber-stamping of a decision taken back in January to reject this part of the airport noise proposal. However, some MEPs saw this week's vote as an opportunity to bring up an airport noise issue closer to their hearts – new flight plans in Belgium that send planes from Zaventem airport straight over Brussels city centre and the EU quarter.

Since 6 February, planes taking off from Zaventem have been using a new route ordered by the Belgian federal government. The ‘Wathelet plan' – named after its designer Melchior Wathelet, Belgium's secretary of state of environment, energy, mobility and institutional reforms – has rerouted 80% of flights that used to fly over sparsely populated areas of Flanders east of Brussels. One hundred flights a day are now flying at low altitude through Brussels city - straight over the EU institutions.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The greenest government ever?

British Conservatives have among the worst voting records in the European Parliament on climate issues, according to a new analysis.

In May 2010, David Cameron, the UK's prime minister, made a bold claim. As he finalised talks on forming a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he told an audience of civil servants that his would be “the greenest government ever”.

It is a claim that Cameron may have come to regret. Over the past four years, the quote has been repeatedly thrown back at him by environmentalists upset over a variety of issues – whether cuts to renewable energy subsidies or fracking for shale gas. Yet Cameron has maintained that his government is doing more to combat climate change than any previous UK government, and that the UK is playing a more constructive role in the climate fight than other European countries.

But green campaigners say this claim is hard to justify when you look at the voting record of Conservative members of the European Parliament. An analysis by campaign group CAN Europe published this week, scoring MEPs based on how they voted on ten key pieces of climate legislation over the 2009-14 term, ranks the British Conservatives among the worst parties in the Parliament for climate action.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Switzerland's misleading model

The EU helps Eurosceptics when it allows Switzerland to be in the single market while pretending to be outside of it.

Last week, when Dutch Eurosceptic politician Geert Wilders unveiled a much-anticipated 'nexit study' (Netherlands exit from the EU), Switzerland featured prominently in the press conference.

The wealthy Alpine nation, about the same size as the Netherlands geographically, was held out as the paradise which would await a country if it leaves the EU.  Mark Pragnel, an analyst at British firm Capital Economics, which conducted the study, said Switzerland’s bilateral system of treaties with the EU is a model that the Dutch should emulate. “We think the Swiss option is viable for the Netherlands,” he said.

The argument is not new. Switzerland often features prominently in British debates about leaving the union. Not being in the EU hasn’t harmed economically thriving Switzerland, so why would it harm the UK? In fact, Switzerland’s success is often held out as being the result of, rather than in spite of, the country not being subject to EU law.

But this narrative is false. Switzerland is in fact part of the EU’s single market and it has to follow most EU law. Like the European Economic Area (EEA) countries Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, Switzerland exists in a ‘fax democracy’. Its ten bilateral treaties with Brussels, which mirror EEA membership in all but name, bind the country to follow EU law in agriculture, transport, trade, public procurement, environment, free movement and border control.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Target fatigue

The EU's attitude toward targets has changed dramatically over the past five years.

Back in the heady days of 2008, before the European Union was plunged into a period of crisis around both its currency and its legitimacy, setting hard targets for solving the climate change problem was all the rage. Flash forward to 2014 and the world is a very different place.

The European Commission is planning to come forward later this month with a proposal to set new climate targets for 2030. These would follow the '20-20-20' package set in 2008: 20% emissions reduction based on 1990 levels, 20% share of renewable energy and 20% increase in energy efficiency. The first two targets were binding, while the third was indicative.

For 2030, the Commission is going to try a different tact. The emissions target strategy will remain roughly the same – a binding target increased to 40% for 2030 (though this is still subject to some internal wrangling in the Commission). But for the renewable energy target, there is likely to be a shift in strategy. The draft proposal being submitted for review within the Commission tomorrow will make the 2030 target non-binding, without individual legally-enforceable targets for member states.