Category: Europe

The Polish Constitution may not protect the universities

My work in Poland is coming to an end.  As I write, the University where I’ve been is engaged in a dispute with the Polish government about new legislation which will change the way that universities are organised.  The constitution guarantees the autonomy of universities, and so does the disputed bill; but the three references to autonomy in principle are somewhat outweighed by more than 200 substantive references powers being given to the Minister.  They range from relatively minor powers (for example, that the Minister can direct a university to appoint someone to teach sports) to rather more important ones.  “Law 2.0” is framed in the belief that it is up to government and the parliament to determine how universities are run.   The constitution and operation of universities is subject to the government, including how the university should be organised and run, whether the university can undertake research (the classification of universities as vocational is explicitly subject to the administrative power of the minister in article 15) and who they can appoint to be their professors.  As I read it – I have to rely on my computer for detailed  translations – the Minister determines what is a university and what is not (art 35), and art 40 suggests he can refuse if a university is ‘grossly in violation of the law’. The Minister apparently has the power to order a university to close (art 36), as well as the power to dispose of any remaining assets (art 37).  There are clauses governing what subjects can be taught and even what the curriculum should be.

The context in which this is taking place is one where the government has been determinedly taking power to itself.  The European Commission has expressed concern in strong terms:

the  constitutionality  of  Polish  laws  can  no  longer  be effectively guaranteed. This situation is particularly worrying for the respect of the rule of law since, as explained in the Commission’s Recommendations, a number of particularly sensitive new legislative acts have been adopted by the Polish Parliament, such as a new Civil Service Act, a law amending the law on  the Police  and  certain  other  laws, laws on the  Public Prosecution Office, a law on the Ombudsman and amending certain other laws, a law on the National Council of Media and an anti-terrorism law.

The central problem, as far as I can make it out, is not that the government is determined to undermine the rule of law; it’s that they don’t believe the Constitution really matters that much, that all it offers is a series of principles, that it’s open to the Sejm (parliament) to pass whatever laws they think fit, and that as a government they’re the people in charge.  In the case of the universities, they think that universities are public institutions and that public institutions have to be kept under public control.  There’s a very fundamental misunderstanding there.  A constitution is a ‘basic’ law, not a set of guidelines, and it underpins everything that follows.

The House of Commons has agreed that European Citizenship should be maintained

Something remarkable happened yesterday.  The House of Commons passed this motion:

this House supports the maintenance of European Union citizenship rights for Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English citizens, notes that the range of rights and protections afforded to individuals as European Union citizens are integral to a person’s European identity; further notes that many of those rights are closely linked to the UK’s membership of the Single Market; and calls on the UK Government to ensure that the UK’s membership of the Single Market and UK citizens’ right to European Union citizenship are retained in the event that the UK leaves the EU.

That argument (and indeed many of the arguments made in Parliament) has been the subject of several entries on this blog, the petition I have raised to the European Parliament (0922/2016, here), and a legal case currently being considered by the Dutch courts.   The position to date has been that the British Government has signally failed to protect the rights of British citizens, probably because they fear that if they make the attempt, they will have to make reciprocal concessions to the EU.  That would be worth doing, but the central argument is not one about protecting the interests of the UK; it is to require the EU to live up to the commitments that it has made to its citizens.

Unemployment benefits are being reformed in France

The government of President Macron has proposed a series of changes to unemployment benefits.  The context is very different to the UK.   Unemployment benefits are not run by the government, but by Unédic, a formal consortium of employers and trades unions.  The benefits are contributory and related to previous income (which makes them generous by comparison with UK benefits); they get reduced for longer periods of unemployment.

The proposed reform makes three substantial changes.  First, it will extend unemployment benefits for the first time to the self-employed.  Second, employees will not longer be excluded from  claiming if they have given up their previous work voluntarily.  The government is justifying this by suggesting that it offers people the opportunity to start a business.  At this stage, it’s not clear whether that will be a formal condition; if it’s not, there are others who may find different uses for it.   (The Thatcher government in the UK used to have a separate system of support for small business start ups, and one person I knew at the time was funded to become a successful writer of comedy.)

Third, there will be new sanctions; a person who refuses two reasonable offers of employment will have benefits halved.  That’s a little more leeway than claimants in the UK get, where claimants are driven to destitution for missing an appointment.    A report yesterday gives two examples of people having benefits stopped for the serious offence of being in hospital at the wrong time.

A few things I may not be able to do again

I’ve done a few things this week that I probably won’t be able to do in the same way in a little more than a year from now.  They include:

  • driving through three European countries without an international driving licence or extra  insurance
  • taking up employment without a work permit
  • using my mobile phone on UK rates (if you imagine that UK phone companies will stick to European rules when they don’t have to, think again; there are still penal rates applying to phones used on the sea crossing).

Theresa May has called for the UK to ‘come back together’ and promises to take account of “the views of everyone who cares about this issue”.  All the government’s attention has been focused on trade and migration.  Those of us who care about having existing rights taken away have been offered no thought or consideration at all.

Protecting the fundamental right of EU citizenship

I’m supporting the attempt to mount a legal case in the Dutch courts to protect the fundamental status of EU citizens who happen to be British.  The detailed legal argument is given in this article, which cites the ECJ’s view that “citizenship of the Union is intended to be the fundamental status of nationals of the Member States. ”

The substance of the crowdfunded case is based on a similar argument to the one I’ve made in my petition to the EU Parliament, which is still active. If EU citizenship is a fundamental right, it can’t be taken away.  Do please support the petition, even if you can’t pledge to support the legal case.

The joint agreement of the UK and the EU

The text of the agreement between the  European Union and the UK is now online.  There are sixteen pages, contaning a considerable amount of detail in some respects (particularly citizens’ rights). The press has caught up with its existence but the details have not been published more widely yet.

Pages 1-6 are taken up with citizens’ rights.  The rights are centred on a “specified” date, which is the date of the UK withdrawal.  It allows for family reunion and marriage for those who are resident on the specified date. There is no other protection for the EU citizenship of UK citizens who are in the UK on the specified date. People  who move between EU countries while retaining UK residence are not protected.

On Northern Ireland (pages 7-9), there will be no hard border but there will be “mechanisms” to protect the integrity of the Customs Union and the single market.  The Common Travel Area can continue, by neogitation between the UK and Ireland.

On financial arrangements, the UK will continue to contribute to the EU as if it was a member until 31st December 2020.    In other words, the UK government chose the wrong date for its notice.

Police and judicial cooperation will continue under EU law.   Other continuing arrangements will “closely mirror” EU arrangements.

 

The negotiations about Brexit aren’t addressing key issues

Although the EU has been behaving badly about the Brexit negotiations, they have reason to complain about Britain, too.   They’re right, first, to say that Britain’s position papers are too vague to be any use.  Britain offered 16 pages on trade, for example, recently supplemented by another 11 pages on continuity.  It’s not difficult to know what a successful trade agreement looks like.  The agreement with Canada, CETA, runs to nearly 1600 pages.  What  the UK had to do – and it’s had 15 months to do it in – was to begin with those 1600 pages, identify which terms are acceptable to Britain (they are all, after all, already acceptable to the EU), and then work on the differences.  That would still be a lot of work, but at least there’d be a meal on the table rather than a bowl of twiglets.  Britain can hardly complain that trade is  not being discussed if they’ve not offered any points for discussion.

The EU negotiators are right, too, to identify key issues besides trade: citizens’ rights, Ireland and treaty obligations.  The UK’s concerns are difficult to decipher; the latest position paper relates to the confidentiality of official documents, which suggests that government ministers are more concerned with covering their backs than they are with getting on with the business. Where the Commission is behaving badly is to say that nothing else gets discussed.  The EU also has treaty obligations.  Article 50(2) states that

the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.

Whatever happens about the bill, the EU has no right to refuse to discuss the future relationship.

Two of the three items the EU is starting with are, in fact, about that relationship: Ireland, and citizens’ rights.  The Irish border is difficult, but not intractable, because different elements can be separated out and dealt with differently:  for example, Switzerland is not part of the customs union or the EU but is part of Schengen.  Citizens’ rights is much the more complex problem, and neither of the parties has shown any inclination to acknowledge that UK citizens resident in the UK are also currently citizens of the EU, and many will face the same sort of problems with split families, cross-border care, pension rights or interrupted periods of residence that people now in Europe or other nationals now in the UK will face.

Why France is going to reform its housing benefit system

The French government has announced that their system of housing benefit will be reformed this autumn.  The minister, Jacques Mézard, is reported in Le Monde as saying:

We have a budget for APL (Aides personnalisées au logement) of 19 billion euros, a budget for all housing benefits of 30 billion euros, the highest in Europe, with a corollary: not enough housing and rents that are too high.  … For one euro more spent on APL, 78 centimes goes on higher rents.  We have to get out of this perverse system.

When housing benefits were first introduced in the UK, in the form of “Rent Allowance” and “Rent Rebate”, policy makers had been impressed by the French argument for subsidising low incomes rather than bricks and mortar – “aide à la personne” instead of “aide à la pierre“.  As in France, it’s led to higher costs, more complex administration, higher rents and often the exclusion of low income families from decent housing. It was a mistake then, and it’s still a mistake now.

Brexit: The opposition still hasn’t got it. Trade is not the main issue. Our social rights are.

According to the Guardian, Labour will tomorrow announce a ‘tough’ new position on Brexit, insisting on the “exact same benefits” for trade and commerce.  They won’t get that, because EU negotiators have already made it clear that we can’t have membership of the single market without respecting the four freedoms.   Leaving that aside, however, the usual shopping list – trade, security, the economy – misses the point.

There have been demonstrations over the weekend.  They’re not about tariffs. They’re about movement, contact, travel, education, work and family life.  The loss of European citizenship means that you won’t have the right to live or work across Europe without a permit, to study where you will, or to marry a European with the assurance that you’ll be able to live together.  And that directly and immediately affects the lives of millions of people – not just the 4 million already identified by Michel Barnier (that is, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU), but anyone in a mixed family, and anyone who might be. People like me; quite possibly, people like you.

Before the referendum, I tried to flag the issue when it wasn’t on the agenda; since the referendum, I’ve raised petitions on Change.org and in the European Parliament.  This is about the right to live in Europe.  We were told that right was fundamental, not just to what the European Union was all about, but to us; and for many of us, it is.

Deciding the date for the referendum is not just a ‘game’

Theresa May has described the request for a referendum on Scotland before a final decision about Brexit as a ‘game’.  There’s rather more to it than that.  If Scotland votes for independence before the exit agreement is concluded it will materially affect the terms on which Scotland could become a member of the European Union.  It would make it possible for Scotland’s status to be negotiated as part of the exit agreement; the precedent is the division of Denmark from Greenland, where part of a country left and part continued within the EU.  That would also mean, under the terms of Article 50, that Scotland’s status was subject to majority voting rather than unanimous agreement within the Council.  (We’ve been hearing a lot about the need for the EU to get the consent of all member states to agreement on the UK’s departure; that’s not actually required by the Article 50 process.)  Delaying the timing of the referendum would have the effect of closing down both of those options, and while the situation could be resolved in other ways, a delay now could obstruct Scotland’s consideration for membership for several years.

The date is however a matter of politics, and if May wanted to scuttle Scottish independence, she has another option: which is, to offer an immediate referendum within the next two months, rather than one in 18 months to two years.  The precedent is the short period permitted for the Brexit referendum; the Government’s rationale would be that this would clear the ground before the exit negotiations, Brexit in 2019 and the 2020 General Election; but the political calculation would be that a short time span would make it very difficult for the Nationalists to build enough support to win.  The longer the delay, the more likely it becomes that the vote will be for independence.