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About J Clive Matthews

A freelance writer and editor based in London, J Clive Matthews is Managing Editor of openDemocracy's EU and deliberative democracy blog, dLiberation.

In the real world he has co-authored two books and edited numerous others (ranging in subject-matter from movies to modern Russian politics), been acting editor on a glossy history and travel magazine, editorial consultant for a big name women's magazine, a freelance news editor for AOL UK, worked in both the House of Commons and the European Commission, and contributed to publications as diverse as Starburst and the Times Literary Supplement.

Best known as Nosemonkey online, he has been blogging about British and European politics daily for several years both at his own blog and sites like The Sharpener, General Election 2005 (now defunct), AgoraVox, France 24 and the Washington Post / Newsweek's Postglobal, as well as about movies for the BBC, and has been shortlisted for blog awards by the likes of the Guardian, Deutsche Welle International and the Weblog Awards, amongst others.

Articles by J Clive Matthews

This week’s front page editor

“Francesc”

Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Editor and Director of democraciaAbierta.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

The EU in microcosm?

Power to the people?

Creating the EU in microcosm is one of the claims for the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll - bringing people from all over the EU together to deliberate amongst themselves. It sounds ades moderately fair description of the process - one of the straplines is even "all Europe in one room".

However, today comes the preliminary results to the stakeholder consultation on the European Research Area Green Paper. It's hard not to see some of these - responding to just one small area where the EU thinks it can help make things more efficient - as representing the attitudes of many towards the European Union as a whole.

"Substantially different" vs. "substantially equivalent"

Parliament

The former is the British government's line on the new Reform Treaty, the latter the view of the Commons' European scrutiny committee (see BBC). This is a committee very rarely heard from, and that rarely lives up to its name, despite being the only body in the Commons officially tasked with keeping an eye on EU legislation - legislation that can, in some cases, override that passed by parliament. (It's normally the far more efficient committee in the House of Lords that does the real work.)

"Decisions must be taken as closely as possible to the citizen"

A local EU for local people?

For the last three decades, the issue of subsidiarity has been at the heart of debates over the future of the EU. Following the revisions forced by the initial Danish "no" in the June 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, the concept has been entrenched - and remains a part of the proposed text of the new Reform Treaty. Maastricht eventually phrased the concept as follows, following the October 1992 meeting of the European Council:

"Decisions must be taken as closely as possible to the citizen. Greater unity can be achieved without excessive centralization. It is for each Member State to decide how its powers should be exercised domestically... Action at the Community level should only happen when proper and necessary."

This, one might assume, is more than explicit enough to assuage fears of the bureaucratic superstate. But no - as that article in the FT Weekend amply demonstrates, the EU machine still seems to have a tendency to try and legislate on all kinds of areas where one might assume that pan-European regulations are entirely unneccessary.

The subsidiarity problem, part 1

Volvo - emblematic of the EU's problem?

The Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll aims to find out what the people of the EU as a whole would think were they sufficiently informed and able to discuss issues freely amongst themselves. Yet one of the biggest ongoing criticisms of the EU is that what the people of Europe as a whole may think is hardly an appropriate constituency on which to base decisions.

An article by Matthew Engel in this week's Financial Times FT Magazine (entitled "Brussels' glaring stupidity") provides an ideal illustration. For the last few years, Engels reveals, there has been a move in Brussels to create EU-wide legislation on the use of car headlights, with a drive to make all car manufacturers follow Volvo's example and have headlamps on all day round, to increase visibility. Moderately sensible for northern countries, from which Volvos hail, due to the shorter days, but far less sensible in the brighter parts of southern Europe.

One week to go: a discovery about the European public sphere

The European public sphere?

In a week's time I'll be boarding a Eurostar to Brussels to observe the proceedings at the Tomorrow's Europe poll. At the moment, however, I still know very little about what to expect.

The initial opinion poll - the random sample of 3,500, from which the 400 people selected for the main event are chosen - has already been conducted and the results are in. Yet the only result of this poll so far trumpeted is the decidedly unsurprising statistic that "87.9% of Europeans have either 'never' or only 'just a few times' discussed EU matters with citizens of other EU countries". Most people, even if they are relatively unusual in having friends from other EU countries, generally have more interesting things to talk about.

The European Commission's communications headache

Brain... hurts...

Yesterday afternoon, Commissioner Wallstrom announced the next stage of her drive to engage the European public with the EU.

EU-watchers will no doubt note with interest the proposed extention of "Plan D", as well as the acknowledgement of the herculean task of getting the public interested in an organisation that's so often simply incredibly dull. How do you engage the public with something as vast and complex as the European Union without giving everyone involved a splitting headache? The short version of the new strategy follows:

The EU and national identity, part 1

Shifting states of Europe

Going through the full text of shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague's speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, it's hard not to be struck by the ostensibly sensible nature of the Tories' desire for EU reform:

"Our commitment to the EU lies in our friendship with our neighbours, our belief in an open, common market, and our determination to make it a force for good in facing up to global poverty, global warming and global competition - the issues of a new world. Our hostility to more power for its commissioners and courts lies in our belief that it already has too much centralised power, and that the passing of power to ever more distant institutions feeds the disenchantment with politics which may cost our democracy dear... We will be fighting for a European Union known less for its intrusive directives, activist judges and unwillingness to face its own people, and more for its openness to the world, its flexibility and fairness"

"The linchpin of democratic consent"

William Hague

So the Tories have decided to play to the anti-EU gallery once again, with former leader William "seven days to save the pound" Hague, in his capacity as shadow Foreign Secretary, promising the Conservative Party Conference that the Tories would bring in legislation not just for a referendum on the EU reform treaty, but also that "the next Conservative Government will amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that if any future government agrees any treaty that transfers further competences from Britain to the EU, a national referendum before it could be ratified would be required by law."

The problem of public ignorance, continued

Are we too ignorant to understand the EU?

Following part 1 of my look at the lack of knowledge of the EU among the public at large, part 2 became a look at the likelihood of Commissioner Wallstrom's calls for a proper, informed public debate over the EU's future - a problem that lies at the heart of the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll, and on which Friends of Europe's Giles Merritt touches in his intriguing look at the need for euroscepticism, published earlier today. Now comes part three...

Any long-term EU watchers will doubtless be aware that the European Union is usually both incredibly dull and insanely complex. I don't pretend to understand half of the bloody thing, despite being fairly intelligent, well-educated, and having worked in politics in both Brussels and Westminster in my time. Having read the old constitution text all the way through, though I think I understood most of it the damned thing was so long I really couldn't be certain - and the new Reform Treaty merely exacerbates the problem.

But while supporters of the referendum idea always shout this down with accusations that even bringing it up shows a patronising, paternalistic, anti-democratic contempt for the public's intelligence, it's simply true: the European public as a whole do not and probably can not understand enough about the complexities of EU reform to make an adequate judgement in a referendum.

"No preconditions, no taboos"

Vice-President of the European Commission Margot Wallström, Commissioner in charge of communications and mastermind of the "Plan D" initiative, of which the Tomorrow's Europe poll plays a part, made an intriguing speech in Brussels yesterday, addressing the European Economic and Social Committee Conference.

The Committee's president, Dimitris Dimitriadis, has described its aims as to "build a Europe with a human face" and "A Europe made up by our citizens, fostering... participative democracy", much the same aims that Wallström has professed, notably in her speech at the launch of Tomorrow's Europe:

The problem of public ignorance, part 1

I've already mentioned the Financial Times poll on whether the UK should hold a referendum on the EU reform treaty, conducted back in June, and noted that a decent majority of Europeans want the chance to vote on whatever treaty / constitution eventually emerges for the future of Europe. But that's not all it revealed.

In the UK, we've now got everyone from the full-on eurosceptic UKIP and the loosely eurosceptic Tories through to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats and europhile Young European Federalists, not to mention various Labour politicians from Keith Vaz to Tony Benn, all calling for a referendum. All are, most likely, hoping that the European public will back their own stance and therefore give them legitimacy. (Well, except the Tories, who are probably hoping that a British "no" vote under a Labour government would let them nicely off the hook, and avoid yet more splits like those seen during the 1990s...)

The EU: more democratic than the US?

US vs EU

With all the complaints about the lack of democracy within the EU, it's easy to forget how little there is in other supposedly democratic organisations. Yes, the European Commission - one of the most powerful bodies in the EU - is unelected. But is that so unusual?

The democratic risk

According to the Sun's poll the other day, 81% of the UK population wants a referendum on the EU reform treaty - but what about in other EU countries? Well, back in June the Financial Times ran a poll to find out just that.

The result? It's not just Brits who want a say on whether one of the most complex and convoluted international treaties ever drafted should be adopted.

According to the FT poll, 68% in Italy, 64% in France, 71% in Germany and 75% in Spain want a referendum. Yet at the moment, it looks like it will only be Ireland that will hold a referendum on the new treaty, and only because it is constitutionally obliged to do so. Most EU member states - despite the apparent desire of the people to have a say - are not interested in having a vote.

The EU's democracy problem

Vote for Nobody

From the comments to Professor Fishkin's introduction to the concept of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, reader mcconeb gets to the heart of the matter: the EU's little problem with democracy. Have something to add? Leave a comment, or email it in to james.clivematthews [at] opendemocracy.net

James Fishkin's exercises are interesting. They would make excellent school projects or could be adopted on a wide scale for a more interesting form of opinion polling. However, before we talk about hypothetical ways of forming opinions and weeding out special interests, let us look at a more tried and tested one: the democratic system currently used in all European member states.

Turkey and democratic majorities

Turkey

In his speech to the Labour party conference this afternoon, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband again confirmed Britain's commitment to seeing Turkey join the EU. It's not, however, a very popular opinion in the continent as a whole. France and Germany, in particular, are deeply against the idea - and if France and Germany team up, there's not normally much chance of the other EU member states getting their way.

The potential for Turkish entry allows lazy leader writers yet more excuses to trot out the same old editorials about the potential problems/benefits/dangers of an islamic country joining the EU (hoards of dusky-skinned Mohammedans and the collapse of western European society vs. a long-overdue acknowledgement of the importance of Ottoman, Arabic and wider Islamic cultures on the development of the European identity, take your pick),so I'll try and avoid that.

"The greatest threat since WW2" - the EU and the UK media

The Sun Says

Britain's best-selling daily paper has, unsurprisingly considering its Australian-American owner's vehement euroscepticism, come out with all guns blazing today, ahead of Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour party conference. In a classic piece of Sun hyperbole, and with graphics reminiscent of the opening credits of Dad's Army, the paper's leader is laying out just what our new Prime Minister has to do to maintain the support of its billionaire Australian-born American tax exile owner in any forthcoming general election.

Democrats and the EU

The caricature of anti-EU types in the UK has, for the last thirty years or so at least, been of xenophobic, flag-waving middle class little Englanders who love the monarchy and aristocracy - relics of a bygone age. In the same period, pro-EU types have come to be stereotyped as wishy-washy liberals, looking at the utopian EU ideal while ignoring the grotty reality. Both are, naturally, massive oversimplifications.

But how, considering the fundamental lack of democracy within the EU, can any democratic-minded person possibly support the European Union? I count myself in that group, and am not sure if I have any rational answer.

Is EU democracy possible?

Jose Manuel Barroso

At last week's Lib Dem conference, European Commission president Jose Mauel Barroso again made noises that have now become familiar to all EU-watchers - he talked about the desperate need for reform of the EU.

"Europe," says the unelected head of the unelected Commission, the vast, unaccountable, bureaucracy with offices in 27 countries and sole power to initiate EU legislation, "is still seen as remote, bureaucratic and undemocratic."

Labour, Britain and the EU

An interesting report on OurKingdom from the Labour conference fringe on a meeting discussing Britain's relationship with Europe. Yes - a major British political party actually discussing, rather than ducking the issue that all have been trying to avoid now for years - albeit only on the conference fringe, and albeit not really tackling the big questions, but focussing once again on the referendum issue. (A bit like sitting in a plane that's rapidly hurtling towards the ground with its engines aflame while arguing about whether trying to unblock the loo might clear the air a bit, but still...) The Foreign Secretary was in attendance, so who knows - maybe they've finally realised that the EU is a significant factor in British politics and worthy of debate?

Mill and EU democracy

John Stuart Mill

"Political machinery does not act of itself. As it is first made, so it has to be worked, by men, and even by ordinary men. It needs, not their simple acquiescence, but their active participation" - John Stuart Mill, Considerations On Representative Government (1861)

One of the prime aims of deliberative polling is to get around the problem of rational ignorance, the tendency of voters in a democracy to ignore issues that affect them due to the perception that their vote, just one in millions, can have little impact. Without an informed public that feels that its opinion counts, the accountability of any government - or in the case of the EU, proto-government - is greatly diminished. When the electorate in question is nearly half a billion strong, and when the issues on which they are voting are as complex as those involved with the EU, rational ignorance becomes an even greater problem.

On referendums*

With calls for a UK referendum on the new EU reform treaty continuing to grow, the objections to such plebiscites raised by Amato and Giscard d'Estaing at the Tomorrow's Europe launch bear considering.

Amato argued that the referendum calls are designed purely to embarrass Gordon Brown, Giscard that for one EU member state to hold back all the rest would be just as undemocratic as not holding a vote at all, as the will of the European majority would be subverted.

No one seriously believes that a UK referendum on the reform treaty is winnable. If a vote is held, Britain will be forced to veto, and the EU will have to try yet again.

The Launch: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and the EU elite

Valery Giscard d'Estaing

At the top end of national political power for four decades, President of France 1974-1981, the husband of the daughter of a Count and (supposedly) a descendant of the kings of France with a family tree that can be traced back to Charlemagne - you don't get many more perfect examples of the political elite than Giscard d'Estaing.

When he was put in charge of the Convention on the Future of Europe, the body that eventually drafted the aborted EU constitution, it was one of the most idiotic PR moves in the EU's history - not only was there no way that a politician so senior could possibly understand the needs of the ordinary citizen, but Giscard is also a proponent of that dangerous beast a "United States of Europe", an extreme form of the ideal which all but the most fervent EU-enthusiasts have long since abandoned as unrealistic.

The launch: Giuliano Amato and democratic EU reform

Giuliano Amato

Two-time Prime Minister of Italy Giuliano Amato should, on paper, be a classic pro-EU figure. Currently serving as Interior Minister in the government of former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, he was also Vice-President of the Convention on the Future of Europe, which from 2001-2003 drafted the text of the now semi-abandoned EU Constitution.

With the new Reform Treaty still containing the vast majority of the contents of the constitution that Amato helped to draft, you'd think he'd still be all for it - and the assumption would be that, after the shock of the French and Dutch referendums, he'd be opposed to any further referenda on the new treaty. But as it turns out, it's not quite as simple as that.

The Launch: Jens-Peter Bonde and EU referenda

Amato, Bonde and Giscard d'Estaing

Even the most fervently pro-EU person on the continent would not try to argue that the European Union is fine as it is. Hence the failed Constitution, hence the new (or perhaps not so new) Reform Treaty. The arguments over Europe's future have instead come because no one seems to be able to agree what kind of reform should take place, with all member states wanting something different.

A member of the European Parliament since 1979, Danish politician Jens-Peter Bonde is certainly an EU-sceptic - but not quite in the classically British sense of seemingly instinctive flag-waving patriotism. He may well co-chair the European Parliament's Independence and Democracy Group with UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, yet his centre-left EU-scepticism is based on decades of in-depth analysis - and rather than a desire to pull out of the union, a genuine hope for radical reform backed up by a democratic mandate.

The Launch: Margot Wallström and citizen engagement

Wallstrom and Giscard d'Estaing

As first Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, Margot Wallström is one of the highest-profile members of that group of 27 appointed politicians that make up the EU institution most often attacked as undemocratic and unaccountable.

As the initial source of almost all EU legislation, it is also the European Commission which is usually the first target of the many criticisms leveled at the workings of the European Union, and the EU institution that most agree is the most in need of serious reform. It's a problem of which Wallström seems fully aware - not least because she has come in for more than her fair share of criticism thanks to her high public profile.

Tomorrow's Europe: The launch debate panel

Tomorrow's Europe launch

Seated amidst the grandeur of the Bibliotheque Solvay in Brussels, the Tomorrow's Europe event launched with a debate over such small and easily-answered topics as the nature of democracy and the future of the European Union. The very topics, in fact, that this blog hopes to discuss over the coming weeks.

With a panel featuring everyone from world statesmen to distinguished academics, it's easy to get overwhelmed, so who are they all? Well, from left to right in the above photo:

Tomorrow's Europe: A handy overview

Courtesy of EUXTV, a neat YouTube-powered report on the Tomorrow's Europe project.

More from me about Monday night's launch event to follow shortly...

Cloudy skies over tomorrow's Europe

EU flags

A gray sky hung over Brussels yesterday evening as we all piled in to the century-old Bibliotheque Solvay in the heart of Parc Leopold, the hilly oasis of green tucked alongside the European Parliament in Brussels, for the official launch of the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll. Whether the clouds would part or the rain begin to fall it was impossible to say.

Much the same could be said for the current state of the EU. In the last two years, since the rejection of the European Constitution by French and Dutch voters, the European Union has likewise been decidedly overcast, its future unclear.

Introduction to dLiberation

Welcome to dLiberation, the new openDemocracy blog on deliberation which opens with coverage of Tomorrow’s Europe.

The European Union is the most complex political system in the history of the world. A body made of various parts of varying degrees of unity, it has the power to affect the lives of 492 million people.

These EU citizens are represented in a parliament of 785 MEPs, representing hundreds of political parties from 27 member states, speaking 23 official languages. The MEPs are elected not as individuals, as in the Westminster model of first past the post voting, but on a range of proportional representation systems that vary from country to country.
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