Saturday, October 7

Tintin goes to the polls

This Sunday, 8 October, Belgium goes to the polls for its local elections. I will be voting to. Non-Belgian EU citizens have enjoyed this right for quite a while now. Those from outside the EU are eligible to vote for the first time in local elections, however.

The official figures show that 20.05% of the non-Belgians eligible to vote have actually enrolled to do so. Of the 529.878 EU citizens here, the figure is 20.94%. For the 108.617 officially known non-EU citizens, the figure is 15.71%.

So are you going to vote? And if not why not? There is no excuse for failing to exercise your democratic right. Or is there? A quick review of some of the options available for organising elections and ensuring turnout, suggests that yet again the Belgians have not made it simple.

Scenario 1 - no enrol + obligation to vote - is being obliged to vote, what is called stemplicht in Belgium. Without having to enrol in the register beforehand, citizens have the right but also the obligation to vote. This is what applies for all Belgian citizens in all elections. It is the system that leads to the highest participation (over 90%).

A second scenario - no enrol + no obligation - is that without having to enrol in the register beforehand, citizens have the right to vote but no obligation to do so. In the Netherlands this is the system in operation for both Dutch and foreign citizens (for local elections). It led to a participation rate of 58% of Dutch citizens and 41% of foreigners in the Netherlands at the local elections in March 2006.

A third scenario - enrol + no obligation - is one in which you specifically have to enrol in the electoral register in advance but this does not oblige you to turn up on the day to cast your vote. This is the way it works in the US, where participation stretches from 5% to 30% depending on the state. In very few districts are non US citizens allowed to vote. Where they are – for example in the district of New York – enrolment rates barely reach 3%.

The fourth and final scenario - enrol + obligation - is that of having to enrol in the electoral register in advance and then once you do being obliged to turn up on the day to vote. This is the system which is least likely to tempt non-nationals to vote. Obviously it is the system that the Belgians have opted for.

Why did I bother?

Friday, October 6

and another thing

If anybody doubts the veracity of my claims that the Eurovision song contest is fatally flawed, I point you in the direction of the recent academic study conducted by two academics from the financial engineering laboratory and the department of applied mathematics of the University of Twente, the Netherlands. While it makes a somewhat confusing distinction between geographically and politically inspired voting, it provides comprehensive evidence that the Nordic and Baltic states are stitching us up on an annual basis.

If it wasn’t such an important issue, cough, it might make you wonder about the types of things that universities appear to permit their academics to spend their time on….

Wednesday, October 4

The Perils of enlargement

The Witloof takes a look at the enlargement process and makes some ridiculous comparisons to a football tournament and a music competition.

And so in the most easily predictable result since Don Quixote did more damage to himself than to the windmill, the European Commission has recommended that Bulgaria and Romania should be allowed to enter the European Union on 1 January 2007. You can read the entire (52) page turning report here.

With Bucharest and Sofia (in EU speak most countries seem to be referred to as their capital cities – ‘Warsaw today said that it was aware of the obligations of membership of the European Union but that it couldn’t give a fiddler’s toss about the free movement of goods or capital’.) now safely ensconced at Europe’s top table, the whole show now moves on to Croatia and Turkey. And then to Macedonia. Then to Serbia and Montenegro, possibly followed by Albania and Kosovo and why not Moldova? Ukraine? Where does the whole process end? Does it end? Does the visit of the Mongol hordes to Hungary in the thirteenth century bestow on them sufficient link to Europe to perhaps think of filling out the application forms?

Quite possibly if we take a look at what has been going on with the membership of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). For some years now it has included in its ranks countries such as Israel, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Ok, so I can see that charity was probably necessary in the case of Israel. Can you imagine the reception the travelling fans would receive on an away trip to Tehran for a crucial qualifier in the Asian zone? But what the hell have Kazachstan got to fear? And more to the point what do they have to do with Europe? As a Danish pal ranted at me shortly after Denmark’s hopes of reaching the 2006 world cup had been fatally damaged during a visit to Astana: “Kazachstan?! That’s not Europe. That’s eight flipping (I’m sure it was flipping he said) time zones away!”

This time it is poor Belgium that has to make its way out central Asia to visit the Kazakhs. They’ve also managed to land themselves in a group with Azerbaijan and Armenia. Which makes me wonder what happens if the Nagorno Karabakh suddenly manages to free itself from the Azeri yolk? Would the Belgians have to play them too? Or what if Vlad Putin decided that the Chechens were getting just too Bolshy for even the Kremlin to maintain an interest? Might UEFA just think ‘Ah feck it, just throw them in with the Belgians, they’ll probably be somewhere out there now anyway’?

There are signs that the EU may not be about to expand at quite such a UEFA like pace. The European Commission, in ‘welcoming’ Bucharest and Sofia on board, has announced that further widening of the union is on hold until vital institutional reforms can be agreed. Now you look at this statement and conclude that given the fate of the EU Constitution that the reforms will never be agreed and therefore the enlargement process is complete. Indeed in the short term this is may well be exactly what happens; nothing. Eventually, however, the political will will undoubtedly be scraped together to ensure that things can still get done while the membership of the club continues to widen and possibly even embrace Turkmenistan. The different methods of doing this will be debated and will undoubtedly fail to stir the interest of the voters who will prefer to make jokes about Regulation X concerning the curvature of proper bananas. However, if it all sounds unimportant or dull, just consider the frankly shocking example of what has happened to the Eurovision song contest in recent years.

Much like UEFA, the organisers of the Eurovision song contest appear to regard geographical distance from Europe as a distinct advantage in gaining entry. This has led to familiar faces such as Israel, Morocco, Ukraine and Armenia popping up with regular abandon in Europe’s annual search for its ‘best’ song and it can only be a matter of time before Kazachstan knocks on the door.

Unlike UEFA, however, the Eurovision apparatchniks realised that the influx of new ‘talent’ could not be accommodated within the existing framework. Listening to the ‘musical’ offerings of 45 entrants would test the patience of even the most diehard eurovisionfreak. In response to this threat, they opted for a two tier system in which those with the worst record in recent events would have to qualify for the final. While this has had the desired effect of ensuring that not all 120 million viewers are asleep by the time the winner is crowned, it has had the (presumably) undesired consequence of making it more than likely that the victor will hail from one of the Nordic or Baltic states.

A quick look at the winners podium over the last decade should prove any doubters wrong. In the ten years between 1997 and 2006, they accounted for 5 of the 10 victories including a seismic 4 in a row between 1999 and 2002. Even in Abba’s heyday this was unprecedented. Waterloo was the only victory in the entirety of the 70’s. In the 80’s things brightened a little with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley from Sweden’s The Herreys and La det Swinge from the Norwegian Bobbysocks. But 5 from 10, it’s simply not fair. Something has got to be done.

The other major innovation of the previous few years, phone voting by the public, has failed to eliminate the political bias of the voting patterns. It has probably increased it. As Terry Wogan so eruditely put it when Denmark was awarding Sweden its annual ‘douze points’: “hands across the Skaggerak”. What is needed is to completely democratise the system. One vote should be worth exactly that, one vote. So if 36 million Germans vote while only 1 million Romanians do, the Germans have 36 times the impact on the final result. And because nobody is allowed to vote for their own entry, the result cannot be abused.

This is what is really up for grabs in the ‘vital institutional reforms’ that the Commission is referring to. Artificial voting schemes favour those tightly nit snow laden communities. Democracy must out. The one Commissioner, one vote rule needs abolishing. Qualified majority voting should be extended to everything. And if this sounds like anathema to many of the (smaller) member states they should consider the alternative: Nordica Baltica über alles.