Breaking News -- European Union
|All eyes on Scottish independence vote this WEEK
EU Observer - Honor Mahony
BRUSSELS - This week most of the EU's attention will focus on Scottish voters who, on Thursday, will decide whether they want their country to break away from its 300-year union with rest of the UK.
Already a searing political issue in the UK where polls put the yes and no camp neck and neck, it is also of huge interest to the rest of the EU which contains several independence-minded regions.
Topping the list of such regions is Catalonia which wants to have an independence referendum of its own on 9 November.
A Catalan government envoy as well as several lawmakers will be in Scotland in the run-up to the vote.
The interest is so large because a Yes vote would represent the first time an EU member state has broken up and would raise a series of EU questions about the newly independent state - including whether it would become an EU member, what it would pay into the EU budget, how many EP seats it would have, would it have an EU commissioner and what currency it would use.
There has been much debate over the 'automaticity' of membership for a putative independent Scotland, given that it is already part of the EU.
The European Commission, for its part, has gone from saying earlier this year that it would be "difficult, if not impossible" for Scotland to join to maintaining a tightlipped silence on the matter.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has suggested EU membership terms would be negotiated in the 18 months after any Yes vote, with the latest poll putting the No camp slighty ahead (51%) of the Yes camp (49%).
The European Parliament will gather for its first work session after the summer. The new-look parliament, the eighth EU assembly, is again dominated by men (63%) and ranges from a deputy of 26 years (a Dane) to a 91-year old Greek.
Around half (50.6%) of MEPs are unfamiliar with the EP's Strasbourg corridors, including all of Greece's MEPs. Deputies from Germany, on the other hand, largely remain the same (70% are returning MEPs)..
On the EP's agenda is a vote on the EU's trade agreement with Ukraine (Tuesday); a discussion with outgoing EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on conflicts in the Middle East (Wednesday); and a debate on the European Youth Initiative - a €6bn fund launched in January meant to help member states implement a job-finding scheme for young people, but on which progress has been very slow.
Europe changing shape whichever way Scotland goes
by Paul Taylor
(Reuters) - Whatever the outcome of this week's Scottish referendum on independence, the shape of Europe is changing as power ebbs away from old nation states, sparking a backlash in some places.
If Scots vote "Yes" to splitting from England after 307 years of union, it will cause a political earthquake and whet appetites for self-rule from Catalonia to Flanders.
If they vote "No", the British government has promised to decentralize more powers to Edinburgh, with likely knock-on effects in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Either way, the precedent of a plebiscite on self-determination will reverberate around the continent.
The Spanish government may find it hard to withstand public pressure in Catalonia to allow that prosperous northeastern region of 7.4 million people - bigger than a dozen EU states - a vote on sovereignty.
Hundreds of thousands of Catalans packed the streets of Barcelona last week to demand the right to choose. What the Catalans do is bound to influence Spain's Basques, who already have broader autonomy.
The Cold War froze the map of Europe for a generation. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, new states have appeared, old ones have reappeared - bloodily in the Balkans, largely peacefully in the Baltics. In many European countries, regions have gained more power at the expense of central government.
That happened in Spain in the late 1970s after the end of General Francisco Franco's fascist rule.
Globalization and European Union integration are partly responsible for unleashing a struggle between centrifugal and centripetal forces that is far from stabilizing.
States that fought each other for centuries now share a currency, an area of passport-free travel, a single market with free movement of citizens, capital, goods and services, and a raft of jointly adopted norms and standards.
Nationalists find that hard to swallow, as the big vote for anti-EU parties in Britain, France, Austria and the Netherlands in this year's European Parliament elections showed.
A former imperial power like Britain which boasted in patriotic song of ruling the waves now has to negotiate its fishing catch in late-night Brussels haggling.
European countries have become what former British and EU diplomat Robert Cooper calls "post-modern states", freely pooling part of their sovereignty.
"The European Union is a highly developed system for mutual interference in each others' domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages," Cooper wrote in his 2003 book The Breaking of Nations.
That has made national borders less important and raised demands from citizens for more democratic control at a sub-national level.
The EU has been the catalyst for many of these changes but not always the solution.
A European Committee of the Regions created in the 1990s to give local and regional elected officials a say in Brussels merely added another expensive talking-shop to the bloc's institutions, without any real power.
"The Committee of the Regions is a total failure. If you are not a state, you cannot get your issues onto the EU's agenda," said a former representative of one of Europe's most autonomous regions, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The big European regions such as Germany's Laender maintain offices the size of embassies in Brussels to promote their interests, secure EU investment funds and lobby on legislation.
The Scottish and Catalan independence movements see European unity as a way of escaping the yoke of national governments. They want their own seat at the EU table, cutting out the middle-men in London and Madrid.
The economic crisis that began in 2008 has accelerated the twin forces of centralization and regionalism in Europe. It has sharpened resource conflicts between rich and poorer regions such as Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in Belgium, but also in Italy and Germany.
Wealthy Bavaria and Hesse no longer want to subsidize poorer north and east German federal states and have challenged the country's fiscal equalization system in court. Prosperous northern Italy, sick of paying for the southern Mezzogiorno, has imposed a system of fiscal federalism to limit the burden.
Voters in Scotland and Catalonia have turned to separatists in greater numbers partly in protest against austerity policies imposed by national political elites depicted as out of touch with ordinary citizens.
Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond is a master at tapping resentment against the London establishment. He joked last week that if he had known the leaders of all three British political parties were coming to Scotland to campaign for a "No" vote, he would have paid their bus fare.
The crisis has also fueled nationalist forces such as the UK Independence Party, France's National Front and the Austrian and Dutch Freedom parties that want to withdraw from the EU and re-erect national borders against immigrants and imports.
"It is unlikely that the European Union, as it is at the start of the 21st century, has reached its final resting place," Cooper wrote a decade ago. "For the long run the most important question is whether integration can remain a largely apolitical process."
A further fragmentation of nation states would increase the strain on the EU's decision-making system, risking sclerosis.
It is hard enough to get 28 member states to ratify treaties unanimously, some by referendum. With six more states in the Western Balkans seeking to join and the possibility of existing members breaking up, some experts fear the EU could become unmanageable.
Nicolas Levrat, an international law specialist at the Institute of Global Studies at Geneva University, sees a proliferation of micro-states driving the bloc to reform its governance.
"This multiplication of new states will force the EU to change the way states are represented in the EU," he said. "What started for six (countries) and more or less works for 28 will definitely not work for 100."
(This story corrects Catalonia's population in the fifth paragraph)
(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Tom Heneghan)
Ukraine gives rebels 'special status', ratifies EU treaty
EU Observer - Andrew Rettman
BRUSSELS - Ukraine has granted semi-autonomy and amnesty to pro-Russia rebels, the same day as ratifying a strategic EU treaty.
Its parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed the rebel laws in a closed session on Tuesday (16 September) by 277 and 287 votes out of 450, respectively, a pro-Western MP, Andriy Shevchenko, said on Twitter.
They give the rebel strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, east Ukraine, limited self-rule, or “special status”, for the next three years, with local elections in December to cement the new leadership.
They also say rebels who did not commit heinous crimes, such as shooting down MH17, and who give up their arms will not be prosecuted.
The measures are in line with the “Minsk protocol” - a Russia-Ukraine peace deal signed after Russia sent troops into east Ukraine in late August.
The laws were passed with more than 3,000 Russian troops still on Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s defence ministry says.
They got a wary welcome from one rebel leader, Igor Plotnitsky, who told Russian media “we may say that a peaceful solution has received its first chance”.
But critics say they will create a frozen conflict designed to stop Ukraine from joining the EU or Nato.
They also risk harming Ukraine leader Petro Poroshenko’s popularity at a time when he is trying to push through pro-EU reforms.
Poroshenko told MPs on Tuesday the laws are in line with “complete and unconditional observance of the state's sovereignty, territorial integrity”.
But opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose party voted No, said they “legalise terrorism and the occupation of Ukraine”.
Halya Conyash, an analyst at KHPG, an NGO based in Kharkiv in north east Ukraine, accused the EU of railroarding Kiev into the deal so that Russia does not stop EU gas supplies.
The Rada and the European Parliament also on Tuesday ratified the EU association and free trade pacts.
The Rada passed it by 335 votes, with no one, even from the former regime’s Party of Regions, saying No. The EU assembly passed it by 535 out of 751, with 127 against, mostly from far-right and far-left parties.
The two parliaments - which held a joint session by video-link - marked the event with a standing ovation and with a silent tribute to victims of the conflict.
“Today we leave behind the Soviet past and set out on the path of comprehensive reforms”, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said.
Shevchenko noted: “We could only dream of this during the endless three months of Maidan [the pro-EU revolution]. Proud to be Ukrainian”.
Kiev and Brussels were forced to defend a recent decision to suspend implementation of the trade pact until 2016, however.
Poroshenko said he will launch economic reforms “from the first minute” despite the suspension. He added that he did not change “a single paragraph, a single word” of the EU treaty despite Russian pressure.
EU officials said Russia would have crippled Ukraine with trade penalties if the pact entered into force now.
EU trade chief Karel De Gucht, who personally brokered the suspension with Moscow, told MEPs the accord “created the conditions for ratification today”.
“This is not just a political fact, it’s a legal fact, a juridical fact - you have the treaty [now]”, he said.
EU neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele noted that Ukraine asked for the suspension “because, in addition to the military threat and its potential escalation, we were also facing the threat of a full-scale economic and trade war [by Russia]".
He hit out at MEPs on the far right and left, calling their pro-Russia views “populist … nonsense”.
Reeling off a list of international treaties violated by Russia when it invaded Ukraine, he said: “If someone here blames EU policy for the problems, then I don’t know how to follow their logic”.
|(Disclaimer) What to Look For in World Events: Audio & Text Video|