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January 23, 2014

Reform is not just a Tory issue

by Laura Greenhalgh

Reluctance to engage with the British conservatives in a debate over EU reform could represent a missed opportunity, for Europe and for science.

Last week, I attended a conference in London hosted by the think tank Open Europe. Billed as a Pan-European conference for EU reform, the event was dominated by conservative ministers from the UK and a handful from other EU member states.

The event began with a speech from UK chancellor George Osborne that epitomised the black and white nature under which the discussion on reform was initiated last January: “Reform, or we’re out,” he implied. But beyond this, I observed a nuanced debate between pro-reformers about the benefits and constraints of the EU and how it might do things better, with the majority supporting the UK staying in the EU.

To set things straight: I am not a conservative, I support the fundamental premise of the EU as an instrument of peace, economic progress and political reform, and I do not want the UK to leave the Union.

But I also see nothing wrong with a widely engaging debate on the changes—big or small—that could make the EU better, involving all political parties, even if the premise on which the debate was initiated might have ruffled some feathers. 

Europe is not struggling because it is anti-competitive and anti-science, as George Osborne claimed, but because of the banking crisis. And whilst European research is not to blame, it has certainly felt the effects: as many as 11 member states have seen a decrease in their higher education funding of more than 5 per cent since 2008, according to the European University Association.

Some of the changes being proposed by the reform campaign could benefit researchers significantly. At the London conference, participants played a game to reform the EU budget, suggesting how the allocations under the €1 trillion seven-year spending plan might be improved. The breakdown that won the prize of ‘best budget’ allocated nearly all of the money to cross-border R&D spending, with the remainder for cohesion in the poorest regions.

Such a swinging shift is unrealistic. But the underlying message is clear: many reformers want more spending on R&D.

Another major facet of the conservative’s agenda is “more power to member states”: allowing member states to make their own decisions on issues they are best placed to rule on. At present, MEPs and Brussels officials spend months ruling on directives that are then torn apart by opt-outs and alterations at the national level. So why not decide which issues should be European, and which should be national, without this messy in-between?

A debate about what constitutes a national issue and what constitutes an EU one could bring some much-needed clarity to Europe’s policymaking. What’s more, by leaving national issues at the national level, it would allow the Brussels institutions more time to focus on real Pan-European agendas—including the European Research Area.

Furthermore, engaging the conservatives in debate would allow their opponents to address a fundamental error in the right-wing argument: that is, trying to evaluate the EU against a perfect model of democracy, which national governments are even further from achieving. Idealism, rather than realism, has proved to be a highly effective weapon in the rhetoric heralding the failings of the EU, and it must be countered.

Some industries have grasped the opportunity to engage, with the British Bankers’ Association calling for closer ties with Brussels, and the UK car industry voicing concern about an EU exit. And there have been murmurings amongst scientists and research organisations about the potential damage to Britain if it leaves the EU, given that the UK is one of the most successful recipients of European research funding.

But some politicians from outside the conservatives seem scared to join in the debate, for fear of being branded a Eurosceptic. Others are worried about agreeing to alterations to the EU treaties, in case they are opening the door to the abyss. And the remainder seem to be treating the conservative’s campaign as they would a naughty child: ignore them, and they might shut up.

But let’s have some faith in the strengths of the European project, and the widespread support on its fundamental reason for existing. Let’s start a positive and forward-looking discussion on the Europe that we want to see in 20 years time. The EU is going to change regardless—so let’s not leave it only to the conservatives to determine how. 

October 29, 2012

"Dalligate" and Horizon 2020: the EU could lose more than a commissioner

by Laura Greenhalgh

Amid allegations of bribery and threats of legal action against the European Commission, the controversy surrounding the former EU health commissioner from Malta, John Dalli, has become an unwelcome distraction for budget discussions in Brussels.

“Dalligate” began last week when, on Tuesday (16 October), the European Commission released an unexpected statement that: “Commissioner John Dalli has today announced his resignation as a member of the Commission, with immediate effect.”

According to the statement, Dalli “decided to resign in order to be able to defend his reputation and that of the Commission”, following an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF. The Commission said the investigation found that a Maltese entrepreneur had approached a tobacco company, Swedish Match, to request payment in exchange for influence on tobacco legislation being prepared by Dalli. “The OLAF report did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation of Mr Dalli but did consider that he was aware of these events,” said the Commission.

The following morning, Dalli contradicted the Commission’s version of events in a recorded interview. Dalli said the Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, had asked for his resignation in a face-to-face meeting on Tuesday evening. However, Dalli “refuted categorically” the allegation that he was aware of the activities between his associate and the tobacco industry. He later wrote to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to say he had been deprived of his right to defend himself, as he was only given 30 minutes to resign and had not been permitted to read the OLAF report.

According to Dalli, his departure may halt progress on the Tobacco Products Directive to introduce stricter requirements on cigarette packaging and flavouring, which was approaching its final stages but may now have to begin again in 2015. The mystery surrounding these events has been further fuelled by the fact that OLAF’s report has not been made public, and also by a report from three anti-tobacco lobbying agencies of targeted break-ins at their offices in Brussels within 48 hours of the resignation.

But perhaps most concerning for those in the EU capital is the announcement by Dalli at a press conference on 24 October that he may pursue legal action. “From Mr Barroso, I want vindication of my name,” said Dalli, who said he will be forming a plan of action including legal recourse.

So what is “Dalligate” likely to mean for policymakers approaching the final stages of crucial budget negotiations in Brussels?

The last time Brussels was embroiled in a scandal of this scale was over a decade ago when, in 1999, allegations of corruption against the Commission were launched by a whistle-blower’s report. The claims focused particularly on former French prime minister, Edith Cresson, who had been in office as the EU research commissioner since 1995.

Following a report by a Committee of Independent Experts, the entire Commission resigned en masse. Cresson was later charged with fraud, forgery and abuse of confidence by Belgian authorities, and in 2006, the European Court of Justice declared that Cresson acted in breach of her obligations as a European commissioner by employing a friend on the Commission’s payroll.

The Cresson affair indicates policymakers are unlikely to emerge unscathed from this latest episode. Although the Commission has confirmed that there is no evidence that Dalli acted illegally, it is well known that the tenure of staff is largely determined by political trust and respect. Barroso’s rapid eviction of Dalli may have been an attempt to avoid a repeat of mass resignation. But Dalli’s unwillingness to go quietly means this plan may backfire, and allegations of misconduct within the Commission could have disastrous consequences.

The scandal could not have come at a worse time for the Commission, as it attempts to defend its proposals for spending from 2014 to 2020 against cuts being suggested by member states. The Horizon 2020 research budget, which the Commission has set at €80 billion, is under threat from countries arguing it needs to be reduced to €60bn in line with austerity.

The outcome of this debate is largely in the hands of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, but the Commission must be on hand to support its proposal and advocate spending for research. It must also be seen as a trusted partner by ministers, to warrant an increase in spending as national budgets are being cut across the board.

The events of “Dalligate” mean the Commission could now be defending itself and its budget against the Council and Parliament on two fronts—a political and a moral one. This could prove costly, both for the future of the Commission and for the future of research in Europe.

Laura Greenhalgh

Laura Greenhalgh

Laura Greenhalgh is a reporter for Research Fortnight and Research Europe.