Freedom of Association, in Practice

2005-10-03

Here is a formulation of what I consider matters, in practice, for freedom of association.

Without having to notify or register with anyone else, a group of people ought to be able to:

  • hold property collectively
  • open a bank account
  • have the rules of their group enforced by the courts

The EU proposal seems to risk these things, by requiring non-profit organisations to register with some public authority.

My attempts to find out what the EU is actually doing in this area continue; I have not heard back from the Commission about my request for information, and the relevant government and civil society people in the UK all seem to be away from work this week.

Registering unincorporated associations

2005-10-05

I have spoken with the relevant official in the European Commission about the Non-Profit Organisation regulation proposal. He seems to think that organisations shouldn't be allowed to collect money from the public unless they're "registered", that such a right is not or ought not to be "automatic", and that registration should be some sort of quid pro quo, though quid the quo is, I don't know.

In practice, this would mean that you couldn't set up a website for your organisation's single-issue political campaign, and give out an address for people to send cheques to. Collecting money on the street already requires a permit, but this hardly constitutes "registration". He didn't give any justification for this proposed change.

As a member of a law-abiding non-profit organisation which isn't registered with anyone other than its bankers, I'd like a reason for being asked to change my ways.

As with many of these EU recommendations, it's impossible to determine with sufficient confidence just how mandatory its provisions are going to be, though I accept the Commission's statements that most of the measures are going to be pretty voluntary.

Specific problems with the EU (a draft)

2005-10-07

This is an attempt to list ten or fifteen problems with the EU, particularly its democracy and accountability. They are not in any order. This is the roughest of rough drafts.

1) No demos

There does not exist a single group of people in respect of whom the EU could be a democracy.

2) No mandate

Even if there were or is a European demos, what is done by the Commission is not in response to any expressed or felt need of the citizens. In normal democratic politics you have occasional elections, during which time certain issues are publicly discussed. Whoever wins power has some justification for carrying out whatever programme they were proposing while trying to get elected.

This just doesn't happen in the EU. The Commission isn't elected, and the elected European Parliament does not have a mandate to do any particular course of action. Unelected bodies should not have the right to initiate legislation. So either the Commission should be elected, or it should be deprived of any right to initiate legislation.

3) Separation of powers

The Council of Ministers must assent to legislation, like the second chamber of many legislatures. It comprises representatives of the executive branch of each member state government. This provides those governments with a means of bypassing their respective parliaments, which often constitute the primary day-to-day democratic check on their activities.

Over time, it motivates governments to hand more powers from national parliaments to the EU, and suborns national political parties into supporting the EU if they have a reasonable chance to form the executive.

4) Contemporaneity

EC legislation is not sufficiently contemporaneous in its passage. It is simply bad governance to allow a legislative process to span long periods of time, and the UK Parliament at least limits the amount of time which may elapse between the initiation of a legislative measure and its conclusion.

In the EU, the Commission may wait years for an opportunity to put some pet project through the legislative machine; it's not possible for citizens opposing the legislation ever to be sure they've won.

5) Accounts

The EU's accounts notoriously never get signed off. Member States ought simply to block the provision of new money until this happens. This is basic good governance. Because the system forces taxpayers to hand over cash even when there's no guarantee it's being spent properly, there's no discipline: money will and does get misspent. If misspending money had negative consequences, it would stop.

6) Transparency

Whereas many people accused of error will retaliate illegally and immorally at their accusers, the EU has the exacerbating factor of paranoia about Euroscepticism. I don't have good evidence on this point yet, but my impression is that fears of exposure of one scandal or another motivate even more secrecy and vituperation from the EU's bureaucracy than would happen otherwise.

I can't find out what happened in the Hans-Martin Tillack case, but it seems the EU Commission got the Belgian police to arrest him and hand over his notes, revealing who the whistleblowers were, and that Belgian law differs from that of other EU countries in allowing the "authorities" (and it should be noted that the EU Commission is not part of the Belgian state) to get away with this, calling into serious question the appropriateness of locating so many EU institutions in that country.

7) Money

If a government needs tax money to survive (and in the present day, this is effectively true around the world), and cannot on its own authority raise this tax, then it will become beholden to whoever or whatever does possess this authority (Parliament, in the case of Westminster-style polities). Parliament has the power it does because it can bankrupt the UK government if it doesn't get its way: a majority in the House of Commons which disagrees with this policy, that appointment or yonder exercise of ministerial authority can simply threaten not to pass the next Budget. The need for periodic tax-raising and the requirement for renewed elections keeps the system accountable to the public. Effectively, the tax-raising is on an annual basis, so on average the Government ought to be able to survive six months. (In practice I'm not sure what would happen if the Government lost its majority with many months to go before the next Budget vote.)

I don't understand the precise way the EU's budget works as a matter of law, but it seems that Member States are obligated to hand over money on a septennial basis; this strikes me as far too long-term a grant of legal tax-raising authority. There's much less pressure to do what citizens want if you can legally tax them for the next seven years.

8) Platinum Plating

Gold-plating is the embellishment of EC legislation by national bureaucracies. Sometimes this is necessary on account of the poor quality of the original legislation. In other cases, measures implementing EC legislation are not scrutinised as heavily as normal legislation and may contain unjustified extensions; these extensions are invalidly waved through under the fast-track procedures, and then defended as though they were part of the EC measure as a whole.

Platinum plating is when gold-plating happens twice: unnecessary additions have to be implemented in national law because they've been added by EU legislators purportedly implementing some international obligation.

As a general rule, national legislation should be used to implement international rules, rather than having a three-stage process with the EU in between. This insulates the public against an additional opportunity for politicians and civil servants to pass off their pet projects as legal obligations.

9) ECJ partiality

The Court of Justice of the European Communities (ECJ) has held itself to be responsible for adjudicating disputes about the meaning of the treaties. The treaties empower the Community (or, later, the Union) to legislate in certain areas. The ECJ claims to have the final say on whether a measure goes beyond what is allowed in the treaties, but time after time after time, with a monotonity and regularity acquiring an almost mathematical and aesthetic purity and wholeness, this Court has decided in favour of the EU/EC/EEC against the Member State. In the fifty-year history of the EU and its predecessors, there appears to have been only one finding that a measure was ultra vires the treaties (a directive about tobacco advertising opposed by Germany).

10) Non-existent civil society

Civil society barely exists at the European level. By civil society I mean non-governmental, non-profit organisations (charities, political groups, many sports clubs, churches, universities, trades unions, business associations, foundations, institutes and so on), and mean to exclude for-profit organisations such as for-profit companies, cooperatives, and mutual societies, and all governmental institutions.

At the European level, most institutions corresponding to these sorts of things are either state-funded, or don't exist. The best you can get tends to be a Europe-wide confederation of national civil society institutions. There are vanishingly few Europe-wide membership organisations comprising individuals, and it is hard to set them up.

This is both a problem and a symptom.

11) There is no pan-European media

This is possibly the gravest of the problems, and one which is difficult to remedy by state or private action.

Anyway, I shall edit these up and turn them into a webpage, but if I hadn't posted them I'd never even have got started.

New Labour's ID Cards and Racism

2005-10-13

Today is the tenth anniversary of Michael Howard's speech to the Tory Party Conference of 1995, where he spoke on what he saw as the connection between race relations and immigration policy. This was satirised by Johns Bird and Fortune as "the Prime Minister believes that there are enough racist bigots in the country to swing the next general election"; I remember the line from when the sketch was broadcast, and it has always stuck in my mind.

New Labour is now pursuing a scheme to establish a national identity register linked to a biometric ID card. A surprising amount of the support for this idea comes from out and out racists. I know this because they tell me as much. Here are some of the things supporters of ID cards say:

``Well, I am a bit racist, but I just think that when the police stop a bunch of Asian youths who've been causing trouble, they'd be able to do a bit more than ask them to attend the station some time in the next seven days!''

and: ``It's too late! They're already here!''

And here is what was said by an opponent of the scheme, as she signed our petition:

``And we wouldn't even need them if they hadn't let all these immigrants in!''

These people believe ID cards will be used for expelling non-White people from the country. That's not what the Government is proposing, but the Government is proposing to include these people when it speaks of public support for the scheme, and a moment's reflection would reveal that these are just about the only people who do indeed support it.

At some point, policies intentionally designed to pander to racists, and policies maintained despite the absence of significant non-racist support, ought to attract something like the moral obloquy we heap upon racism itself.

Freedom of Association, further developments

2005-10-13

I have now spoken with someone at the NCVO, as well as with some of the relevant public bodies (the Charities Commission, the European Commission the Foreign Office and the Home Office) about the EU proposal for a Code of Conduct for the Non-Profit Sector. The plot has thickened somewhat, as it now appears that some of the provisions may actually be the agenda of the UK Treasury, attempting to do via the EU processes what it cannot do via the UK Parliament. That is to say, policy laundering.

One of my MEPs has agreed to submit a written question about the democratic mandate behind the measure, which should be interesting.