Internal politics are consuming as much time as European politics at the European parliament in Strasbourg. Amid signs Hans-Gert Pöttering, the veteran German centre-right leader, will have a free ride to the speaker’s chair, a grassroots revolt is growing.
On Tuesday MEPs from fringe parties launched a reform plan with such radical aims as having one location instead of two, having an open race for speaker and giving MEPs enough time to decide which way to vote.
The Fair Chair campaign claims to have the silent support of backbench MEPs who are cannon fodder for the whips. Votes are rattled through by a show of hands so fast that people lose track of what they are voting on.
“The system is deliberately designed to give the whips of the big parties control,” said Dan Hannan, a UK Conservative. Kathy Sinnott, an Independent from Ireland, says reform is vital if parliament is to be taken seriously.
Other MEPs say delay in translation leaves some MEPs voting yes while the vote has already gone on to no, causing chaos. Led by Jens-Peter Bonde, the group said it would put up its own candidate if Pöttering refused to back the campaign. “It’s a secret ballot so there could be a shock,” he said.
Tough week for Bush
President Bush is having a tough week. His trip to Southeast Asia this week for an Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum got off to a rocky start even before his plane left the tarmac.
Not only did Congress fail to approve a trade deal with Vietnam, but the White House staff also inadvertently embarrassed their boss on the internet.
On Tuesday night, the White House website displayed the flags of the three countries Bush will visit - Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia – on his weeklong trip.
But there was a minor problem. Instead of the actual Vietnamese flag, the White House chose to use the old flag for the Republic of Vietnam, i.e. South Vietnam. The White House said it would change the flag after Observer pointed out the gaffe.
While Hanoi may not be happy, Beijing will be delighted to learn that they were not the only Asian country to suffer protocol mistakes this year. When Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Washington, the White House introduced the Chinese national anthem as the national anthem of the Republic of China, which is otherwise known as Taiwan. Needless to say the Chinese were not happy.
Maybe the idea was to make the US Congress sweeter towards the unloved World Trade Organisation, especially with a crucial vote on trade with Vietnam, about to become the WTO’s 150th member, in the offing. But Observer is reeling from the spin on a press release from the office of the US trade representative claiming victory in a WTO dispute that Washington lost hands down.
Admittedly, it was a pretty arcane dispute, concerning US claims that the European Union’s 25 member states were making life difficult for US exporters by not applying customs rules in the same way. However, this year a WTO panel threw out all but three of the 20-odd US charges and on Monday the appellate body rejected two of the three the US thought it had won.
Notwithstanding, USTR has claimed the dispute as a US triumph, citing its one and only success (the tariff classification of LCD computer monitors). This may make US lawmakers feel better, but it hardly improves USTR’s credibility with the rest of the world.
An ear for an ear
Observer has become used to the sight of MEPs, as human as the rest of us, facing calls for their immunity from prosecution to be lifted to face criminal charges. Only last month a Polish member was stripped of his privileges so he could be tried for rape. But the latest case yesterday was a real shock: Gérard Onesta, a mild-mannered Green.
Onesta has already been sentenced in his native France to a three-month suspended sentence for criminal damage. His crime? He cut a head of genetically modified corn during a protest against Paris’s refusal to apply GM rules.
The judge said he was making an example of Onesta because as an MEP he could make his protest known through words rather than deeds.
Parliament yesterday decided it could not legally justify keeping his immunity but it would support an appeal to the European court of human rights based on political persecution. José Bové, the celebrity anti-globalisation campaigner who was arrested last week for a similar offence, might want to join in.
Financial action hero
British film-makers have tried many different ways to talk tax breaks out of Gordon Brown, but none has gone quite as far as the producers of Casino Royale, who made a Treasury official a central character.
Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, the French actress, is a glamorous civil servant sent along to bank-roll Bond in a high-stakes poker game against a terrorist financier. Lynd is attached to the real-life group for combating terrorist financing, the Financial Action Task Force.
The thought that the new Bond girl is one of their staff causes some amusement at the FATF’s Paris HQ. It meets under the auspices of the unglamorous Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and its officials are more likely to be found in plenary sessions in Vancouver than high-rollers’ casinos in Montenegro.
The FATF also tends to favour thoughtful papers on new payment systems and the misuse of corporate vehicles over gunfire and explosions. Never mind: the idea that the Treasury is leading the fight against terrorism is exactly what Brown wants to hear.
Not that the flattery has done the film-makers much good. Casino Royale is benefiting from tax breaks thanks to some smart financial engineering, but the producers suggested yesterday that future films might have to be made outside the UK.
Turkey in limbo
As if Turkey’s accession to the European Union didn’t have enough obstacles in its path already, a petition is circulating online attaching yet another condition.
The petition demands that the Hagia Sophia be restored as a Christian church. The splendid, 1,500-year-old building began life as a church, became a mosque in 1453 and has been a museum since 1935.
The cause’s supporters include the historian Mark Berry, a fellow of Peterhouse, a famously eccentric and reactionary college of Cambridge University. “It seems a wonderfully mad if hopeless cause,” he says.
The historian’s other causes include his Campaign for the Preservation of Limbo, which has amassed 158 members and aims to dissuade the Vatican from changing its doctrine on the fate of unbaptised babies. The Hagia Sophia petition is aiming higher. It claims it will take at least 1m signatures for the EU to take it seriously.
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