Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Haiti elections this Sunday…

Visit to Haiti

The legislative and presidential elections in Haiti will take place on Sunday. MEP Jim Nicholson has been taking a lead on the  issue.

“This coming Sunday voters are due to elect a new president and members of the legislature. There are 19 candidates seeking presidential office and undoubtedly, this is the most important election in decades… Haiti’s recovery will largely be dependent on the speed of the delivery of international aid – this is why a fully functional and active government and President is so desperately needed,” he said.

The Haiti earthquake saw over 220,000 fatalities. Around 1.5 million people were displaced and 2.6 million in need of permanent food aid. The economy has been all but decimated, with overall losses estimated at just over 120% of the country’s GDP in 2009.

Jim led a fact-finding mission to Haiti in September to survey the ongoing reconstruction work. The delegation’s report has been uploaded to our widget.



Filed under: Europe, ,

Jim Nicholson on Haiti fact-finding mission

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Jim Nicholson was appointed as 5th Vice-chair of the ACP-EU Parliamentary Assembly last summer. He led a delegation to observe progress on reconstruction work Haiti last month. Recommendations flowing from that fact-finding mission will be published later this month.

More on the Haiti mission can be found at this blog post; and more on the work of Tearfund Northern Ireland can be found at their facebook page.

Filed under: Europe, international development, UUP,

An insider’s view of Brussels…

Alex Benjamin, former UUP communications director and currently Press Officer for the Conservatives in the European Parliament, writes about his recent return to Brussels, how things have changed (often not for the better), and why we need to return to Schuman’s original vision for Europe…

From its humble beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community comprising  6 nations, the EU has now grown in a veritable behemoth of 27 Member States, a Parliament, the Commission and countless statutory bodies.

From a relatively small office block in Brussels the Institutions have mushroomed to take over a whole area of Brussels known as the Quartier Europeen. It has become, as Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson noted when he visited a few weeks ago to defend hedge funders, a empire of glass palaces.

After 6 years back in Northern Ireland where I was communications director for the UUP and latterly political assistant to Jim Nicholson MEP, I returned to Brussels in August. I used to work here from 2000-2003 for the EPP-ED Group and left just as the former soviet bloc countries became full members of the EU.

In the six years I was away, the Parliament seems to have doubled in size. Office blocks to accommodate the new MEPs and their stuff have been constructed with no expense spared and long pedestrian glass overpasses connect building to building all watched closely by the passing public underneath who point and seem to regard our comings and goings as akin to human hamsters in a luxurious den.

You really have to see this place to believe it. As a sci-fi fan I grew up with fantasies of what it would be like to live in a community on the moon, divorced from the outside world with everything you need at your fingertips. Here in these buildings we have gyms, a supermarket, paper shops, banks, dry cleaners, hairdressers, travel agents, canteens, bars, cafes, dining rooms, libraries, a florist, chocolate shop and sandwich and pizza bar. It is quite possible for an MEP, when they get here on a Monday, not to have to leave the building again until Friday. They have showers and sinks in their offices and the sofas can be transformed into train sleeper style couchettes if they want to have a nap.

I remember arriving in Brussels whistling ‘Ode to Joy’ and full of Garton-Ashesque ideology. Now I am definitely what some would call a Eurosceptic but what I prefer to think of as Euro-realist.

From my perspective the noble intentions and vision of Schuman and others to create a community that traded together and co-operated on matters of mutual interest has morphed into a giant paper-pushing factory that churns out legislation by and large for the sake of churning it out. There is no doubt that the Commission and Parliament does do a lot of good work but on the whole I see the Institutions and its legions of civil servants as believing they are shark-like: if they don’t keep moving and feeding themselves with directives and reports they will die.

All this work, much of it needless and impinging on sovereign government territory, produces vast quantities of man (and woman, oops almost broke a directive there!) hours, forests of paper and largely fuels the parliamentary agenda. This can be irritating but nothing comes close to the irritation of having to travel to Strasbourg once a month for plenary sessions. This rule which came about at the behest of the French, means that the European Parliament has to up sticks, lock stock and barrel and move to Strasbourg. Imagine if you will moving Stormont and the entire Executive once a month from Belfast to Cork for 4 days. The costs that this would entail. Having to build a purpose built building that lies idle for 300 days a year. Hiring a fleet of juggernauts to ferry boxes and files and all the other accoutrements needed for staff to do their job. Putting said staff up in hotel rooms and giving them a daily subsistence allowance. The cost of all this, excluding building management costs is…wait for it….200 Milllion pounds a year.

So far I have painted a pretty black picture but there are so many positive things about the EU. The single market, free movement of people and labour, health, educational, business, human rights and environmental legislation that has made a real and significantly positive change to how we live our lives. Also there is a comfort in the organised nature of European Parliamentary politics even if sometimes I do miss the cut and thrust of Westminster and to a lesser extent Stormont style politics. The Parliament and Commission does, in  spite of its inherent problems, functions like a well-oiled machine. Unfortunately all of these positives are often drowned out by the negatives.

Which brings me on nicely to what I do. My job lies somewhere in the middle, highlighting the positive aspects while trying to sell a reformist agenda on the crap bits. The Conservative Party MEPs (including our home grown Jim Nicholson) have just formed a new Group with the Polish, Czech, Latvian, Dutch Belgian, Hungarian and a Lithuanian MEP in the Parliament. The new group is called the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and has the first Chairman of any political group from a ‘new country’, in this case Poland.

The Group is very much in its infancy and while the larger EPP and Socialist groupings initially wanted to strangle it at birth, then sought to dismiss us as extremist loonies, and lastly the greens, liberals and socialists have stomped and screamed as our votes helped Commission President Barroso get re-elected on a centre-right platform; we are beginning to bed down and I believe will grow into a an even more significant force in the European Parliament as more and more citizens of Europe say whoah! to further unaccountable Commission and Council sovereignty creep.

It is genuinely exciting to be part of a new force in Brussels that seeks a pragmatic and sensible alternative to wholesale withdrawal as UKIP would have it, or deepening Federalism as Labour would wish for. I’m not bullshitting either. The ECR, like the link up between the UUP and Conservatives in NI, offers a new way of looking at European politics. I am proud to be a part of it.

So what’s Brussels really like? To live and work in it is a fantastic place, great quality of life and arguably much cheaper than some other European capitals like London or Rome. It has good food, great beer and a cosmopolitan feel that I have yet to feel in Northern Ireland or for that matter south of the border. It is easy to get home if I want to go, and both Paris and Amsterdam are within two hours by train.

It may sound silly but my favourite bit is walking around the corridors in the Parliament hearing Finnish, French, Latvian, Dutch or Italian being spoken and having friends from all over Europe. This is, in essence, what Europe should be about: talking to each other, working together and sharing experience and experiences together, rather like the Schuman vision all those years ago. This is a great thing and I’m firmly and proudly European in this sense and equally proud to be working to this end on a daily basis.

Filed under: Europe

A ‘Yes’ to Europe, but ‘No’ to Lisbon…

As voters in the Republic are wheeled-out like a stage army to vote in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Irish journalist Jason Walsh writes exclusively for Open Unionism & Scots Subrosa and considers the reasons why pro-European voters should say No to Lisbon…

The European Union is an amazing achievement. From a coal and steel trading organisation founded in 1951, the EU has grown to a supra-national body that has a direct impact on the lives of 500 million people in 27 states lying across a staggering 4.3 million square kilometres.

This sui generis political union is one of the great political achievements of the late twentieth century, advancing co-operation and civility in countries that had spent decades, even centuries, as enemies.

It has benefited business, doing away with trade tariffs, promoted technical standards and bringing a massive pool of potential employees together. It has benefited workers, bringing legislation that guarantees workers’ rights and a maximum working week. In this regard it must be considered a success and a benefit to all of its member states. Freedom of movement alone is worth the price of EU membership – something that would be greatly improved if Britain, or at least Northern Ireland, would join Schengen thus allowing the Republic to do so without creating an actual land border, complete with customs and passport checks, in Ireland.

However, the EU is not without problems, and serious ones at that. While Ireland – and Britain – should remain members of the union and continue to enjoy its benefits and engage in the debates that shape its future, we should also be open about the fact that it is a deeply flawed institution and in desperate need of reform, or perhaps even a complete rethink.

In fact, its problems seem to be a direct result of the obfuscated way in which the EU works. Long term goals are denied or played down and the institution ceaselessly promotes the short term benefits of whatever it is proposing at any given moment.

This is hardly surprising. While the EU did start out life as a coal and steel trading organisation, its real purpose was ensure that there would never be another major war on the continent. This is a noble sentiment and is grounded in the idea that trading partners rarely shoot at one another, preferring instead to do business. This has, however, come at the cost of an almost total absence of what we now call ‘transparency’. The EU is surely one of the most opaque of political institutions, a lawyer’s paradise that dulls its electorate into submission through incomprehensible missives and fails to make the case for itself except in the most patronising and propagandistic manner. After all, when the Paris Treaty was signed in 1951, just six years after the end of the Second World War, few would have thought that the European Coal and Steel Community would, within 50 years, be a gigantic political union that included countries then on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The intentionally unreadable Lisbon Treaty is the culmination of decades of this kind of mission creep: it isn’t necessarily a bad idea in and of itself but it is poorly constructed and its real purpose is being disguised from the people of Europe – it is a constitution being enacted by the back door.

If Europe really needs a constitution it should go back to the drawing board and put together a document that we call all agree on – a minimalist document written in plain language. The US constitution could serve as a model.

What I hate about the EU:

1. It’s boring…

Is there anything more soporific than the European Union? Short of 10mg of diazepam there is hardly a better strategy for insomnia than listening to a report on the latest activities of the EU. The EU’s very nature virtually guarantees that any issue is met with glazed eyes and apathy on the part of the public. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is because…

2. It’s bureaucratic…

Quick: what’s the European Commission? The council of ministers? What’s the difference between the Council of Europe, the Council of the European Union and the European Council? Are they all parts of the EU? What does Eota do? Never mind Colm McCarty getting to work with a pair of scissors on the South’s public service, maybe he can do something about the bloated blancmange that is the EU. No sane person would willingly choose to understand the totality of these bodies and their relationship with one-another – and that’s just the way the EU likes it because…

3. It’s undemocratic…

Why does the EU even have a parliament if it wants real power to lie with the European Commission? The EU is an exercise in cod-democracy that would make proponents of ‘democratic centralism’ smile. Remember, communist parties were in fact internally democratic. It’s just that once a decision had been implemented dissent was forbidden. Similarly, the EU has all of the institutions of democracy but little of the spirit. The very fact that Ireland is being dragooned into a second referendum (just as it was with the Nice Treaty previously) is proof of this. Of course it’s hard to get agreement across  27 sovereign countries – but that’s just tough. Perhaps the EU should not have expanded with such reckless abandon, instead taking a more cautious approach and having prospective members spend a few years in the European Free Trade Area first.

4. The question of the military is a real one…

Horror stories about conscription into EU armies are fairly absurd but that doesn’t mean the EU has no military or geopolitical ambitions. The wars in Yugoslavia were seriously exacerbated by a recently reunified Germany wishing to display its new-found moral authority on the world stage. Ireland’s neutrality is not really a point of principle. It was adopted as a policy because it would have been inevitable that the country would have been drawn into Britain’s wars as a junior partner – and Britain was very much still an imperial power at the time. Coming so soon after independence this would have been a disaster for Ireland. Now that the state has established itself there is a debate to be had about neutrality, but it should be had in public: in the Dáil, in the press, in the pubs, cafés and living rooms across the country – not in the smokeless rooms of Strasbourg. Northern unionists, meanwhile, would do well to consider where they want the British army’s orders coming from.

5. It’s unrepresentative…

Honestly, does anyone really care about European elections? Is the European Parliament anything other than a massive talking shop for worthies? It’s not quite as pointless as the Seanad [the Republic’s upper house] but it’s not far off. Voter turnout in EU elections is notoriously low, worse even than local government elections. Those that do turn up to vote, therefore, get to foist their candidates on everyone else. In one sense this is fair enough: if you don’t vote then you lose the right to a say in who represents you. However, the EU elections are so distant and pointless seeming – most people have no idea what MEPs actually do – that it’s understandable that so few of us get excited about the process. Worse still, the European parliament itself lacks legitimacy in a broader sense: it doesn’t really do much of anything. The real power within the EU as an institution lies elsewhere.

6. It’s impossible to have a serious discussion about it…

Mention Europe in some circles and you’ll be regaled with tales of Brussels sprouts being renamed and the curvature of bananas being measured. Much of the anti-EU argument is clearly baloney – but then, so is a lot of the pro-EU propaganda. How can we have a serious discussion about the make-up of the EU when politicians that support it freely admit to not having read its treaties and its opponents often appear to be a few Brussels sprouts short of a Christmas dinner? The EU has completely failed to get its purpose across to the public – in fact, it seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to disguise its purpose and its real virtues from the public for fear they will be whipped-up into an apoplexy about ‘sinister agendas’ by anti-EU newspapers and pundits.

7. It promotes poor politics…

It is regularly said that Irish politics is inherently corrupt and that only the EU can bring probity to the country’s law-making process. The not so subtle subtext here is that that Irish cannot be trusted to govern themselves, that the electorate are lazy, greedy and stupid and that any technocratic measures which can be introduced in order to get around them are a good thing. Author Colm Tóbín openly made this point writing about the previous Lisbon referendum in The Guardian. Apart from the fact that it is deeply insulting reading of politics it is also ahistorical and untrue. If you want a certain set of policies enacted or repealed then the onus is on you to campaign for it. That’s democracy.

8. It’s not going to solve our other problem…

How many times have you heard that the partition of Ireland will become irrelevant as a result of the EU? Well, it won’t. Certainty, co-operation on an EU level could bring the two states closer together, but the fact is they exist and that has absolutely nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with Ireland and Britain. The majority of Open Unionism’s readers are, of course, unionists while the author of this piece isn’t. Surely, though, we have common cause in that it’s up to us to solve our own problems and create our own space for politics rather than rely on an external force to do it for us?


Jason Walsh ( is a journalist based in Dublin. He has contributed to the Irish Examiner, the Irish Times, Daily Ireland, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Business Post, the Guardian, the Independent, the CS Monitor, Village, Magill, Business and Finance, Spiked and many other publications in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere.

His work in 2009 has included:

Filed under: Europe, lisbon

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