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Two polls on the EU constitution present different pictures of the state of the French electorate. The first, carried out by TNS-Sofres-Unilog for the RTL radio station indicates that 52 percent of decided voters would vote "oui", although nearly a quarter of the 1,000 people questioned said they had still not made up their minds.

The significant aspect of this poll is that is shows Socialist Party voters coming back into the fold. With the official party supporting the constitution, now only 51 percent of socialists are against the constitution compared with 63 percent in a survey by the same organisation published on 20 April.

On the other hand, according to a survey of voters by Ifop for Le Journal du Dimanche, French opposition is holding steady at 52 percent. This one, which questioned 795 voters on 28 April, showed the same reading as a poll 22-23 April for Le Figaro. In this current poll, though, thirty percent of people polled said they could still change their mind.

Both polls, however, were taken after an unsuccessful television appearance by L'escroc Chirac but before the interventions of Jacques Delors and Jospin, old socialists both, and it remains to be seen how they might have influenced sentiment.

According to The Independent though, the Blogs are winning the battle for the "no" campaign. Europe's political elite, the paper says, are coming to terms with a new fact: the battle may yet be won and lost in cyberspace and it is the "no" campaign that seems to have sparked the imagination of French bloggers.

So concerned is the EU commission about the increasing influence of les Bloggeurs that the Fragrant Margot has been driven to producing a French version of her occasional Blog. "It was a gesture towards the French", said her spokesman Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, "since all eyes are on the French referendum".

Dowgielewicz argues that the Blogging phenomenon will be increasingly relevant to politics in the EU. "You could see in the American presidential elections that bloggers were able to set the agenda," he says. "This is a very attractive way to communicate a message that could not be heard otherwise. Serious newspapers would not publish something in that form but you can put a string of comments on a blog.”

The Fragrant Margot is said to be "extremely satisfied" with her blog which, her office says, has had more than 60,000 hits. However, despite the new French version, its impact on the referendum may not be massive: yesterday only two of the comments by bloggers were in French. It might, of course, help if Margot descended off her plinth and actually got stuck in, answering some of the comments.

This notwithstanding, the Frogs seems to be all at sea with their referendum which given the record of French naval victories (not), is not a happy position for these amphibians. Looks like Trafalgar Day might be a little early this year which, given that it is 200 years since Nelson dished the French fleet, could be rather appropriate.

The Times today has a story about the scourge of the fishing industry, "black" fish.

It retails how details emerging from the trial in Glasgow of fisherman John Duncan suggests that the extent of the "black" fish trade in the Shetlands means that there is a 50 percent of fish are illegally caught.

Duncan, described as "a burly millionaire fisherman with a passion for collecting vintage motorbikes", and his neighbour Jerry Ramsay have admitted a £3.4 million scam in which they illegally landed more than 7,600 tons of mackerel and herring over a two-year period.

The case, says The Times, has exposed Britain's black fish trade, where fishermen land more fish than allowed under EU quota restrictions, and threatens to make a mockery of the fishing industry’s claims of hardship.

The paper then goes on to quote "industry sources", saying that the black fish trade is worth up to £100 million a year in Britain, with up to £80 million of this in Scotland, home to two thirds of the fleet. Up to 50 percent of fish caught in Britain are landed illegally, according to those same industry sources.

However, it seems the "industry sources" are in fact one fisherman, saying that that up to 50 percent of all pelagic fish - mainly mackerel and herring - was landed illegally in Shetland and up to 70 per cent elsewhere in Britain.

Therein give the clue to the illiteracy of the piece as Duncan and his colleague are pelagic fishermen – the "princes" of the industry who number no more than a dozen or so wealthy men who own a handful of multi-million pound boats

Duncan himself owns the Altaire, built in Turkey and fitted out by the Norwegian Solstrand shipyard in Tomrefjord (Norway) at a cost of £14 million in October 2004. At 249ft (76 metres) long, it is the largest and fastest of its kind in Britain. The pelagic fleet is in no way representative of the larger – and relatively impoverished – demersal fleet (which has much less opportunity for landing "black" fish).

Fishing in mid- to distant-waters, pelagic boats are very hard to monitor, especially as they travel long distances in search of herring and mackerel shoals, with catches often landed in Norway, Iceland or the Faeroes where there are few controls in the import of foreign-caught fish.

The fact that Duncan and his like have got away with it for so long represents a singular failure of the enforcement effort, where the sea area of England, Wales and Northern Ireland are patrolled by just three fisheries vessels, with two more allocated to the Scottish fisheries agency.

Furthermore, many studies have demonstrated that the quota system is an extremely inadequate way of managing fisheries, not least because quota are so hard to police, with more successful systems being based on "days at sea" allocations, which are much easier to enforce.

This was the basis of the Conservative fishing policy launched last January, based on successful systems observed elsewhere in the world, where "black" fish landings are considerably less of a problem.

Furthermore, all the Atlantic fishery countries have expressed a preference to work more closely with Britain, which would allow for better co-ordination of data and monitoring of fish landings. But, as long as Britain links in with the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, this is not possible – again a point made in the Conservative fishing policy.

The Times story, therefore – which seems so gleefully to focus on errant fishermen – has missed the point. The issue is as much a failure of the fishing policy and its enforcement as it one of criminal enterprise. Had a more effective system, been in place, the likes of Duncan would never have been able to get away with what they did.

Well, well, just look at that. Mr Blair actually referred to a European issue during the election campaign. Alas, it was so uninteresting, that nobody noticed.

Asked by Sky News, Mr Blair suggested in a slightly languid fashion that most probably there would be no referendum on the euro and, therefore, Britain would not go into economic and monetary union, should he be returned to Number 10.

He could not, it seems, recommend a yes vote because
“If the economics aren’t right, if it won’t help your country economically, you don’t do it.”
Furthermore, he did not expect any changes on that front in the foreseeable future (just reading this stuff makes one write in cliches).
“Now, at the moment there is no part of business and industry clamouring to say we need this for our economy, so it doesn’t look very likely. On the other hand,things can always change and the sensible thing to do is keep your options open.”
The following morning he tried to “clarify” his positiong during the daily press conference, explaining that
“Politically the case for going in is strong – economically we have to meet the tests.”
The Tories jumped on it, sort of. Oliver Letwin did say that there would be no joining the euro under the Conservatives because it would be bad for the economy. The Liberal Democrats announced that the Prime Minister should not prejudge the issue – there would have to be careful reports back to Parliament on the five tests and and a referendum.

Oh dear, one can’t help yawning. In the first place, the euro is not the issue at the moment. There are many other European problems, not least the Constitution.

In the second place, what is that strong political case for going in? Blair did not explain but, disgracefully, the Conservatives did not ask.

In the third place, why oh why are the main parties still pretending that the project is one of economics and the decisions are taken for economic reasons? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some grown-up politicians who treated the electorate as if they, too, were grown-up? Dream on.

Rather touchingly in Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Jacques Delors recalled how hurt he was by the famous Sun 1994 headline, "Up yours Delors".

He was speaking to Sarah Montague about the French EU referendum campaign, whence he told her that a French rejection would not derail the treaty. "If France is the only exception," he said, "the other countries will decide to go on". They would then "study the situation" and "at the end of the process", there could be second French referendum.

Dismissing the poll findings which have put the "no" campaign in the lead, he told Montague: "It's not the first time in European countries that the polls don't reflect the exact feeling of the citizens." He remained optimistic as the "yes" camp still had four weeks to explain the constitution.

Apparently contradicting Juncker, though, he denied there was a "Plan B", saying that it was not possible to renegotiate and a "core Europe" was "an idea which has no real support".

Delors's comments were seized on by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who followed him on the programme. He claimed that they disproved the claims of the supporters of the constitution that the UK would be ejected from the Union if it produced a "no" vote. If France won't be ejected, neither will we, he said.

Nevertheless, the French élites are really getting worked up if they are dragging in Delors to make their case, his intervention following another "voice from the past", that of former prime minister and failed presidency candidate Lionel Jospin. He is warning that a "no" vote "would punish France, punish Europe, but not punish the government in office."

Speaking on state-owned France 2 television, he added, "If we have a political problem in France, let's solve it in France and not hold Europe as a witness or hostage to the debate" on how our country is governed.

Meanwhile, the lower house of the Spanish parliament has ratified the constitution, with a vote of 311 in favour and 19 against, with no abstentions. A crowing prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, told parliamentarians before the vote that their actions would set an example for countries where the charter is experiencing "moments of uncertainty."

He would have found ready support from the three political representatives on the BBC Radio 4 "Any Questions" panel this evening, none other that David Steel, Chris Patten and Neil Kinnock, a totally impartial trio which were ideally qualified to give an opinion on what would happen if the French voted "no" to the constitution.

Obviously not listening to his own words, Patten launched into a tirade against referendums in general, declaring that they "undermined parliamentary democracy". That from a man who, through his support for the EU, has done his level best to support institutions which undermine parliamentary democracy.

He was joined by Kinnock, that other great democrat, who at least confirmed the Delors thesis that a rejection would do no lasting harm, saying that it "would not lead to a plague of locusts". His view was that, sooner or later, we'll have to come back and produce a better version [of the treaty]".

But, for sheer nerve, you cannot best his closing comment when the former commission declared, in ringing tones, that the constitution "changes not at all the way we are governed".

What all this confirms is that, in their own way, each the players is occupying a fantasy world. Interestingly though, it seems that they are not sharing the same fantasy.

You have to hand it to the United Nations – it is consistent. There is now official confirmation that one of the 15 countries chosen by the UN’s Economic and Social Council to serve on the UN Commission on Human Rights is Zimbabwe.

That’s Zimbabwe, led by President Mugabe (whose ban on entering the EU was waived again for Pope John Paul II’s funeral). As Roger Bate points out on the American Enterprise Institute website:

“For the UN to have voted Zimbabwe onto the UN Commission for Human Rights it had to ignore the following:

the 20,000 members of the opposition that Mugabe ordered killed in the 1980s

the destruction of half of the economy in the past five years to maintain power; the regular physical abuse encountered by any opposition to his regime (and that includes just saying nasty things about the leader)

the lack of free media

food allocation used as a political weapon

helping wage a war in the Congo so that Mugabe and his cronies make millions from conflict diamonds

the neglect of the entire health system so that life expectancy has dropped from 55 to 33 years in the past decade.

I could go on, but you get the point.”

We do, indeed, get his point and would like to add further a couple of details. One is the existence of one Henry Dowa, one of the worst torturers in Zimbabwe, who was seconded to the UN police force in Kosovo in 2001.

When his behaviour there became particularly bad, he was sent back, to continue his grisly work in Harare. The UN acknowledged the truth of all the allegations about his behaviour in Kosovo but, alas, it, apparently, has no resources to pursue criminal cases against torturers that carry on their trade wearing its blue berets.

(What happened to all those international lawyers who are always jumping up and down, demanding that Bush or Blair or whoever should be indicted?)

Then there is the interesting position of SecGen Kofi Annan and his son Kojo, of oil-for-food fame. According to Roger Bate’s account, Kojo was a contractor for the construction of Harare’s bright new International Airport. Rumour has it, he made a mint. Rumour, further cannot help speculating what other links there are between the Annan and the Mugabe families.

To think that there are people around who solemnly tell us that we should look up to the UN as the fountain of international law and morality.

From being in the thick of it, canvassing at the front-line of election politics, borrowing someone else's computer to snatch a quick posting, before dashing out again, to return home to the comfort of the familiar office and computer for a day or two is actually quite hard to take.

Driven by adrenaline all week, the rush has subsided and all that is left is an overwhelming fatigue. The words on the web, crying for conversion into the golden words of another EU Referendum post, seems to merge into a shapeless mass as the eyes glaze over and the brain rebels.

Actually, yesterday was quite fun. I was at the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery and we were hitting the outlying farms and settlements in the deepest, rural parts of the constituency, where I dropped off leafleters and canvassers at farms and little hamlets, bouncing up rough tracks and into farm yards, ending up with a car that looked as if we'd being doing some hard rallying.

In between, I indulged in a spot of flyposting and must congratulate the authorities – whoever they are – for these marvellous new footpath signposts. A deft few strokes of a hammer and a handful of galvanised nails and they are quickly converted into adverts for our candidates.

Back to reality – if you can call it that – still the vital issue of Chines textile imports and the protectionist attitude of the EU looks somewhat remote and I groan inwardly at having to tackle the issue, having cravenly avoided it all week.

Fortunately, Tim Worstall has done a piece on it so if you are throbbing with anticipation for this Blog's "take" on the issue, we can simply refer you to him and say "nous aussi".

Equally, in less pressured days, we would have done a posting about the resolution of the WTO sugar dispute, where the scandal of EU dumping of subsidised sugar has run its course, and the EU has finally been brought to book.

We had a lot to say about this last August, when the interim judgement was published and, since then the EU has been stalling, trying to avoid confronting the urgent need to "reform" the sugar regime. Now, Mandelson and his "colleagues" will have to bite the bullet.

Anyhow, despite the focus on the general election (or not – if you relied on the Sun or the Mirror front pages, you would not even realise there was an election going on), this weary Blogger is undergoing a quick reorientation.

We will resume posting on matters EU shortly, before returning to the fray next week the final push on the campaign trail, and the long, tedious wait at the count to hear the results of all our hard work.

The extraordinary events of yesterday, arising from the publication of the legal advice on the Iraq war, culminating in the performances of the three party leaders on BBC Question Time have brought to a head a strange dynamic in this election.

Not only do the committed supporters of each of the two main parties detest the leaders of the rival parties but, increasingly, party activists are declaring considerable antipathy towards their own leaders.

At the coal face, therefore, activists are increasingly turning inwards, supporting their own candidates and working for them, and for the "party" in very general terms but not for the leaders who are regarded variously as embarrassments or handicaps.

On the doorsteps, we are also seeing another phenomenon. Armed with records of previous voting declarations, we are able to identify many former Labour voters and a large number of those we have questioned are showing a strange reluctance to declare their allegiances this time round. On balance, the Conservative "core" vote is holding up, but Labour supporters are wavering.

The feeling is that the next few days will be critical, when the waverers will make up their minds. But, as we see it, the decisions will focused not on who to vote for, but whether to vote at all. As never before, this election will be decided by turnout and, in that respect, the experts have got it right – and the polls are of little value in pointing to the result.

However, with Iraq and its related events now dominating the national political agenda – and set to do so for the next few days – and local campaigns increasingly being fought on local issues, this means that any chance of "Europe" taking its turn as a mainstream issue, even for a day or so, is receding rapidly.

Thus, on one of the most important political issues for decade – the European Union – this is going to be the election that never was. The battle here will not start until the voting is over.

Our readers will, no doubt, remember the saga of the Conservative peers, who called publicly, together with some of their cross-bench colleagues, for a UKIP vote in the European elections last June.

At the time, we found ourselves wondering why the Conservative Party should be so stupid as to lose stalwart members like Lord Pearson of Rannoch or, especially, Lord Willoughby de Broke. We are still wondering about that. In fact, we are wondering about the Conservative Party’s attitude to and understanding of the House of Lords and its significance.

The peers themselves have remained logical, as a letter from two of them in today’s Daily Telegraph shows. We are reprinting the letter in full.

“Sir - We write as peers who lost the Conservative whip for suggesting that those who valued our sovereignty should have lent their vote to UKIP in the European elections last June.We find it surreal, when the House of Commons has become largely redundant because most new laws are made in Brussels, that "Europe" features so little in the election campaign. UKIP is the only party that is telling the British people the truth about this great matter; withdrawal from the EU is vital to our national survival.

Yet eventual withdrawal can happen only if it is sanctioned by a vote in the Commons, and that vote will be delivered only by a refreshed Conservative Party. There are therefore a number of marginal constituencies where those who wish to withdraw from the EU should not allow themselves the luxury of voting for UKIP if by doing so they deny a seat to a Conservative who will help to form a realistic policy of disengagement from Brussels.

It would be folly indeed if, in pursuit of withdrawal, such candidates were prevented from sitting in Parliament.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch, Lord Willoughby de Broke, London SW1”

The logic is unassailable, even if one cannot help wondering which particular potential ex-MP called for the peers' help.

Unfortunately, the practical aspect – a changed Conservative Party, as far as “Europe” is concerned – remains a very distant prospect.

So, the flying black hole, aka Airbus A380, has actually flown. The Daily Telegraph, amongst others, tells the story, describing how the "'Magnificent' superjumbo takes to the sky without a hitch".

The Leader is straight out of “Boys own” magazine, applauding the maiden flight, but many other reports raise doubts as to the financial viability of the project. They are right to do so. Scoring great feats of engineering with other peoples' money is not a particularly brilliant achievement.

A large, detached, modern house in a delightful rural area, with stunning views, the whole area oozing money - and what did the householder consider the major issue of the election, the one thing that would decide his vote? "Europe", he said, "who is going to get us out of Europe?"

He was by no means the only one, and their reasons were often different. My man in the posh house was incensed by the corruption and the lack of democracy, but another man told me – quite unsolicited – how his son and his friends has been stopped from trail-bike riding on the land of a friendly farmer as the new CAP regulations prohibited farmers from allowing their land to be used for such purposes if they were to qualify for the single farm payment.

Yet, as always, the only references to the EU in the media still seem to be the occasional commentator bemoaning the fact that "Europe" is not featuring as an issue in the general election, while the politicos continue with their own agendas.

And, of course, so does the EU. The commission yesterday, perhaps conscious of the fact that it would attract very little publicity in the UK, set out its proposals for next year's budget, suggesting that €112.6 billion would do nicely – an increase of six percent on last year, all in the interests of promoting "economic growth and job creation."

If approved, Britain will find itself paying over €15 billion, something better than £10 billion. In an election where the Conservatives are making a big deal over £4 billion in various tax cuts, it does seem surreal that the EU can put in its bill and the issue will not even rate a mention in the UK mainstream media.

And this is the last EU budget under current rules. The battle is on for the approval of the 2007-2013 budgets, where the EU will have its hand out for even more – yet still this does not feature in the general election campaign.

However, according to The Times today, it is certainly featuring in the referendum campaign in The Netherlands. There, the increasing resentment at having to pay a disproportionately high share of the EU’s rising costs, combined with the bureaucracy and fears of losing their national identity, are all driving the Dutch into the "nee" camp.

Above all, says The Times, the country is reacting to years of stifling liberal consensus. There is a backlash against the assumptions that The Hague should pay generously for other Europeans, take a lead in development aid or make concessions to a club dominated by larger members determined to have their own way. The Dutch want to concentrate on priorities at home. What they dislike is not the idea of a constitution, but the accretion of more power to an unaccountable Brussels.

This could so easily be the UK but, for the moment, the "liberal consensus" is holding. But, if the voices on the doorstep are any guide, it will not do so for much longer. Slowly, the people of Britain are stirring.

One of the best known novels that came out of the German depression of the early thirties was Hans Fallada’s Kleiner mann – was nun?. It is deeply depressing in a very lyrical Germanic way and it is not exactly surprising that Fallada’s own life had many problems, personal and political. He survived being blacklisted by the Nazis, incarceration in an asylum, drink and drug problems but, being taken up by the new Communist literary establishment in East Germany after the war, finished him off. He died of a morphine overdose in 1948.

It is really the title of his novel that has survived in so many people’s memory and, almost inevitably, it returns as one surveys the gloomy economic prospect of Germany of today.

An article in the Economist, entitled “If not now, when?”, points out that all the indicators are in Germany’s favour:
“IN THEORY, Germany should be booming by now. Sizzling global economic growth in 2004, and more of the same expected for 2005, has raised demand for its exports, a boon to its large manufacturing sector. The European Central Bank (ECB) has kept interest rates in the euro area at an easy 2% for 22 months, and looks set to keep doing so well into 2005. Fiscal policy is also expansionary: the government’s budget deficit has breached the Maastricht treaty’s 3%-of-GDP limit for three years running, and by all accounts will do so again this year. Yet for all this, for the past four years Germany has struggled to produce GDP growth of even 1% a year.”
Not only that, but the future looks bleak as a semi-annual report by a consortium of six think-tanks (and if that is not Germanic, I don’t know what is) says. The prediction for growth this year is slashed from 1.5 per cent to 0.7 per cent, that is almost non-existent.
“More worryingly, the report argues that the German economy is not stuck in a particularly vicious cyclical slowdown. Rather, its structural problems, particularly the highly regulated labour market, have reduced trend growth (the average growth rate of the economy) to a meagre 1.1%, in contrast to roughly 2% for the rest of the euro area, and about 3% for the United States. Unless these trends reverse, Europe’s largest economy could eventually wind up as its economic backwater.”
The most stagnant area is unemployment, which is now running at 12 per cent. This leaves the economy depressed and more reliant on export than it ought to be.

The German government has acknowledged that the problems are structural and has tried to introduce reforms as well as lower corporation tax. Critic say that the reforms do not go far enough and the cut in corporation tax will not affect many companies.

Meanwhile the “hungry” East Europeans are threatening the German worker inside the country and the whole economy from outside. Investment is moving inexorably east. If the EU regulatory regime looks like slowing down the new members, then money will move further east still.

The impending election means that politicians are juggling for advantageous position, many of them moving further left, to get the support of the unions, though that position is disastrous from an economic point of view. And the EU does not help.
From the point of view of a German politician, alas, all policy choices must look bad. Membership in the euro area leaves the country monetarily at the mercy of the ECB, which seems determined to maintain a hard line on inflation, and thus to resist calls for an interest-rate cut. Germany’s already-large budget deficits cannot be sustained indefinitely at such low rates of economic growth, much less increased. And deeper structural reforms will not be popular with the voters who lose benefits or job protection—particularly since such reforms may well make unemployment worse in the short term, as firms shed the workers they previously found it difficult to fire.”
As Hans Fallada said in 1934: Little man – what now?

Oh dear, oh dear. Whenever they run into trouble over ratification, what do they do? They trot out an East European, telling us all emotionally that whichever treaty is under discussion is … sob … absolutely vital for real integration, for enlargement, for the future of the post-Communist countries.

This happened with Amsterdam, which was absolutely vital for enlargement. Then came Nice and the debâcle in Ireland. What happened? Assorted dignitaries from Eastern Europe, led by the ubiquitous Vaclav Havel, turned up in Dublin to tell the Irish that enlargement could not possibly go forward without the Treaty of Nice being ratified, though none of the important issues, such as CAP reform was even mentioned in that document.

Now we are running into difficulties over the Constitution, which is, once again, absolutely vital for enlargement (which has already happened to a great extent, give or take Romania and Bulgaria) and for the future of Europe as perceived by the highly emotional East European nomenclatura.

Tomorrow the Latvian President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, will follow Chancellor Schröder and speak in Lille, calling on the people of France to vote for the constitution.

The President’s spokeswoman, Aiva Rozenberga told AFP:
“The Latvian president will address French society and the media in an emotional manner. She will use her splendid mastery of the French language to give an insight into the new EU member states' concerns about the future of the EU.”
Whether the President of Latvia can really give an insight, splendid mastery of French or not, into other and bigger states’ concerns about the future of the EU seems a little doubtful. Especially, as she appears not to understand that many of those concerns are precisely with the Constitution and the direction the EU is moving in, quite inexorably, it seems.

Will they trot out the East Europeans for the next treaty as well?

A Mori poll carried out between 21 and 25 April for The Financial Times suggests that once intention actually to vote is factored in, a ten point lead shrinks to a mere two points, with Labour getting 36 percent of the vote and the Conservatives 34 percent.

Then, The Guardian today reports that the two parties are "neck and neck in key marginals", facing strong voter scepticism and a "disciplined Conservative attack”. This has reduced Labour's lead to two percent or less in key constituencies.

It seems here that the polls are beginning to reflect the reality on the streets. This is certainly what we are finding. During our canvassing in some areas where historical data have shown mixed responses, it has been difficult to find anyone to admit an intention to vote Labour.

Other constituencies with which we have conferred are reporting the same experience and, all together, our impression is that this contest is much closer than it appears to the pollsters.

Another of our findings is that "Europe" is raised spontaneously "on the doorstep" far more often than the poll ratings would indicate, although in a complex manner. People will talk about the "headline" issues but then bring up the effect of EU policies in a variety of ways.

Talking to some truckers yesterday, there is holy war about the Working Time Directive, with some drivers losing hundreds of pounds in wages. They are not at all happy and there are well over half a million of them, all thinking hard about their vote.

The indications are, therefore, that the polls are no better in identifying voters’ concerns than they are in predicting them more straightforward question of which party is in the lead. The politicos would do well to be cautious about poll predctions.

EU Observer records the latest attempts (not) to bring commission president Barroso to book over his failure to disclose his week-long freebie for himself and his wife on board the luxury yacht owned by Greek billionaire Spiros Latsis.

In true gutless style, none of the leaders of the EU parliament political groups are prepared to support a UKIP call to bring Barroso before the parliament to explain his actions – or lack of them. Particularly, they are not anxious to concede that Nigel Farage, leader of the UKIP group in the EP, might have a point, and would prefer Barroso to go uncensured before they would let Farage gain any Brownie points.

Meanwhile, Spriros Latsis has mounted his own counter-offensive on behalf of his friend Barroso, commissioning leading libel lawyers Charles Russell to demand a retraction of the "serious and damaging allegations" in The Sunday Telegraph this week.

Why publication of details of the activities of the Latsis Group and its associated companies, which are already in the public domain on the web, should be "serious and damaging" and why the article has "the potential to cause very serious loss and damage" to Latsis interests – as the lawyers claim - remains a mystery.

However, the full weight of the law has been invoked, with veiled threats of claims for substantial damages. How lucky Barroso is to have such rich and powerful friends.

All you have to do is watch and listen and, eventually, the truth will out.

According to that bastion of transparency, the Chinese on-line press agency Xinhuanet, Chirac and Schröder met yesterday for the 5th Franco-German cabinet meeting devoted to the EU constitution and bilateral industrial cooperation. And what they had to say was very interesting indeed.

In their joint statement, they reaffirmed "their belief that when the constitutional treaty comes into effect, it will be an important step in terms of asserting Europe's weight in the international arena and reinforcing its ability to act for peace and security in the world."

Their statement added: "Our two countries are pleased that, for the first time in the history of the European Union, the community of fate between the member states will be embodied in a constitution," and then offered the "killer" point: The constitution will help reinforce "the sphere of activity of European defence through the expansion of the scope of the Union's missions."

You could not get any clearer than that – the EU constitution is intended (and does) to strengthen an independent EU military capability. Blair, when he talks about this issue, is always careful to make some reference to Nato, but nothing of this from the Franco-German duo.

For those who had any doubts, le chat is definitely out of le sac.

Some stories just go on and on without getting any better. We have reported on the Tillack case from the earliest days of this blog.

We wrote of the fact that his office was raided twice, his computer confiscated, his boxes broken into. We mentioned the fact that although the raid was carried out by the Belgian police, it had been clearly initiated by OLAF, the Commission’s own anti-fraud investigative body, because Hans-Martin Tillack of Stern magazine had written some hard-hitting exposés about them.

We have also mentioned that, for some reason, the British government continued to view this matter as an internal Belgian one, until the former head of OLAF explained what happened to the House of Lords Sub-Committee.

Mr Tillack, as we reported, has received the Leipzig Prize for the Freedom and the Future of the Media, though one rather wonders whether there is much future for the freedom of the media in the EU.

At the same time the highest court in Hamburg, the Oberlandesgericht, ruled that it could not prevent present and former members of OLAF from sppreading unsubstantiated slanderous stories about the journalist, as a protocol of April 8 1965 grants EU civil servants a life-long immunity from legal proceedings “in respect of acts performed by them in their official capacity, including their words spoken or written”. And that includes setting the Belgian police at an investigative journalist.

Now, to take up the story. If national courts have no jurisdiction, reasoned Tillack and Stern, then they must go to the European Court of Justice, to ensure that the Commission will not be able to see the notes and documents the Belgian police had confiscated from the journalist. These have not been returned although he has not been charged with anything.

Last October the Court of First Instance absolved OLAF from inciting the Belgian police to arrest Mr Tillack and refused his plea that OLAF and the Commission be prevented from seeing the documents.

Now the European Court of Justice quashed Tillack’s appeal against the ruling of the Court of First Instance, in effect allowing the Commission and OLAF access to the documents and, potentially, to the names of the journalist’s sources.

So far the Commission has not asked to see anything and, in fact, the spokeswoman for the Administrative Affairs Commissar, Siim Kallas (himself in the past under investigation for improper political financial affairs in his home country) seemed to be giving muddled statements:
“For the moment the question does not arise, as the matter is still under investigation.

Press freedom and the right of journalist to protect their sources are enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights.But press freedom is not granted without limitation. [Or, in other words, press freedom stops when EU officials are investigated.]

If a journalist himself becomes a suspect or is linked to an investigation, it is for the individual national authorities to decide which measures can be justified and whether they can be justified.”
Since the individual national authorities had been incited by OLAF; since no charges have been preferred; and since OLAF officials have been slandering Mr Tillack with no national authority having the right to stop them, that last statement can best be described as disingenuous.

But then, according to the same spokeswoman, “under EU staff regulations, officials are obliged to blow the whistle if they see evidence of wrongdoing”. And then they have every right to be bullied, threatened and persecuted.

Mr Tillack and his employers, backed by the European Federation of Journalist, who have been wringing their hands somewhat impotently on the sidelines, plan to go to the European Court of Human Rights, to retrieve those documents.

To be continued.

Andrew Duff, Lib-dim MEP and Europhile extraordinaire, is getting seriously rattled about the fate of the EU constitution, so seriously that he has penned a piece for the Financial Times imploring Tony Blair to step in and save the "project".

To do this, writes Duff, he will have to be a more convincing and a more convinced - European than Jacques Chirac. His "re-elected Labour government" (bloody cheek) should drop its hitherto, mealy-mouthed and defensive approach to the constitution and Blair should welcome the prospect of a European Union with an enhanced capacity to act effectively at home and abroad.

Blair should then declare support for the binding charter of fundamental rights. He should welcome the expansion of the budgetary and legislative powers of the European parliament, as well as the extension of democratic voting in the council.

He should then promise not to obstruct stronger integration among the eurozone members in social or fiscal policies. He should welcome the prospect of more harmonisation in key elements of justice policy. He should declare his support for an EU that stands on its own feet in world affairs, and commit the UK to building a common security and defence policy autonomously from Nato.

The constitution, he should say, raises the threshold of EU membership, making the conditions for Turkey's accession more stringent. And the UK should become a leader with France in boosting the common EU effort in overseas development.

Above all, implores Duff, Blair must pledge himself to continuing with the British referendum regardless of what France decides. He and his colleagues in the European Council have both a legal and political commitment to try to bring the constitution into force.

By the time the French vote at the end of May, eight other countries, including Germany, Italy and Spain, will already have ratified the constitution. The Dutch, Duff beleives, will probably say "yes" on 1 June. Others will proceed. A contingency plan already exists if only four-fifths of member states have completed ratification by 31 October next year.

Thus Duff continues, Blair must affirm in public what he privately knows perfectly well: that there is no possibility whatsoever of renegotiating the constitution. No coherent policy on renegotiation will emerge from France if the referendum is defeated. France will not suddenly become more important than it is today if it rejects Europe and shatters its partnership with Germany.

The only people who are certain to delight in a French no are British Europhobes and American neo-cons. The European Union is unthinkable without France. There is no plausible scenario in which France becomes a second class member of the union. Nor will a French "no" permit the emergence of a core group of integrationist member states, led by France and Germany. The likelihood is that if France rejects the constitution now it will have to accept it later under Mr Chirac's successor, after a lot of fuss and delay.

And so the great Europhile drones on: Britain is not so indispensable. A British "no" could well set Britain on the exit path. A French "no vote now makes a British "no" next year far more likely. Mr Blair's chances of getting the British to say "yes" will be much enhanced if he has transformed his European reputation by contributing to positive decisions and an optimistic mood elsewhere. He must start with France.

And that is the genuine Europhile speaking, a man so imbued with the project that he cannot even begin to look at the political realities. And one of those realities is that, whatever else you might think of Blair, he is not into political suicide.

If it wasn't for who he is, one would almost feel sorry for Duff. As it is, looking at his discomfiture, it is very hard to stop giggling.

There are lies, dam’ lies, statistics and poll results. This seems to be the lesson we are all learning both in the British election and the various referendum campaigns. We all know that much depends on what the question is, how it is asked, where it is asked and in what circumstances.

The days when people were so overwhelmed by opinion polls that they answered everything openly and honestly are gone, even if they ever existed. Still, that does not explain the extreme discrepancy between two polls published in the Netherlands last week.

These were a poll conducted by the government (really?) and Maurice de Hond, a well-regarded polling company.

According to the government, 75 per cent of the population has said that they will definitely vote or are reasonably certain that they will vote. Of these, 50 per cent say they will vote yes and 30 per cent against. Given the usually high percentage of don’t knows, it seems that the government poll simply lumped them in with the yes group.

The Maurice de Hond poll is so different that one wonders whether they are talking about the same country. According to this, only 32 per cent have said that they will vote. Of these 37 per cent are inclined to yes and 41 per cent are inclined to no. The rest, presumably, have not made up their minds.

Previous polls indicated that the yes and no sides were neck and neck with the don’t knows easily leading the way.

Nothing much is clear, except that the government has a much harder job than it had imagined. Luckily for it, there is a “war budget” for “emergencies” of €1.5 million. Just in case the people will not do as they are told.

Back on the stump this week, once again it is the voters and not the policians who are rasing the issue of the European Union.

It thus takes Mark Steyn to make sense of this phenomenon, which he does in The Telegraph today with a piece headed "Big ideas? This feels like a local election".

His theme will be very familiar to readers of this Blog as he bemoans the claustrophobic narrowness of the election, and he focuses on the immigration issue which he analyses as a tactic used by the Right to "shore up the Tory base, boost turnout, and prevent further haemorrhaging to UKIP and worse."

But, he writes, UKIP arose from the Conservatives' Europhobia-phobia - the party's wariness about becoming too explicitly anti-EU, and he doubts you can woo the lost lambs back to the fold by using a lot of anonymous Balkan deadbeats as a proxy for the A-list foreigners you're not quite confident enough to have a go at.

Putting his finger on the curious gap in the campaign, Steyn observes that Mr Howard "would rather risk being portrayed as xenophobic than as anti-European."

That calculation is very telling, he adds: "I'm one of those who think France's Euro-referendum will be much more decisive than the UK's general election when it comes to determining how Britain is governed. If the French reject the European Constitution, they'll have rejected it for these islands as well. If they sign up for it, it will probably be a fait accompli for the British, too."

His conclusion is brutal: "For that reason," the Steyn complains, "the Tories at the very least owed us a campaign fought on big grand Thatcher-sized themes. This one just feels like a shrivelled local election - which tells you as much as anything about where British politics is really heading."

The word that grabs is "shrivelled" – sums it all up really. There is no breadth, no vision and there are walls around this campaign, keeping the candidates in check, excluding whole area of public policy from the discourse. No wonder the voters are tunring off.

Stung by the accusations that he exposed himself to a situation where a conflict of interest arose, as a result of he and his wife spending a week on the luxury yacht of Greek billionaire Spiros Latsis, commission president José Manuel Barroso has written to the president of the EU parliament, Josep Borrell, in an attempt to explain why he should not have disclosed the free hospitality he received.

In his letter, dated 22 April (Friday), he tells Borrell that his relations with Dr Latsis and his family date back twenty years, to when he was at the University of Geneva, first as a student and then as an assistant to Prof. Sidjanki. In other words, Barroso claims, "this is an old personal and academic relation". Furthermore, he was "not aware of any dealing of Mr (sic) Latsis or his family with the Commission susceptible of suggesting a suspicion of conflict of interest".

Given the details we revealed in our posting yesterday, there is plenty of good evidence that the potential for "conflict of interest" existed, whether Barroso knew it or not. Furthermore, given the nature of Mr Barrosso’s appointment – and the resources available to him – ignorance is hardly a defence. He could have – and therefore should have – found out.

However, Barroso is adamant that he did no wrong. "There is a clear difference," he writes, "between the situation of a commissioner who was previously active in a given sector, in a commissioner who in private life knows someone active in that sector. The fact that a commissioners' (sic) friends and acquaintances may be affected by commission policy does not in itself represent a conflict of interest".

Er.. yes Mr Borroso, you are right. But that is not what you are charged with. There is a fundamental difference between having "friends and acquaintances" who are active in sectors covered by commission policy, and spending a week with your wife as guests on a luxury yacht of such a friend. Having friends is one thing – accepting lavish hospitality from them is quite another.

I cannot work out whether Barroso is stupid or simply being disingenuous but, either way, it is clear that he simply doesn’t get the point.

The EU is in danger of breaking its own environmental rules. It is about to have another bonfire, though not of vanities but of regulations. I do hope that this bonfire will be done in environmentally friendly, fully EU-guaranteed incinerator. Otherwise Herr Günter Verheugen, for he it is responsible for the projected bonfire, will get his knuckles rapped by the fragrant Margot’s successor as Environment Commissar.

According to the Financial Times, always ready to see the best of every Commission proposal:

“Mr Verheugen has ordered a bonfire of legislation that was proposed under the former administration of Romano Prodi, in one of the most thorough clean-outs of red tape ever conducted by the European Commission.”

And what is that going to consist of?

“His team is screening more than 300 laws in the legislative pipeline, and expects a battle with other departments as it seeks to withdraw proposals, many in the environmental or consumer field. “It could get messy,” said one official.“But we want to make a real impact; we are hoping to identify at least 50 pieces of legislation to be scrapped.””

How exciting. Of course, one must recall that when the Commission and its minions say that they will scrap legislation, they mean no such thing. What they do mean is that they will consolidate.

Thus, instead of one directive and 12 regulations we shall have two directives and 3 regulations. That sounds like we have less legislation. In fact, there will probably be more of it, as with each consolidation extra articles will be added. But there will be fewer items and the bonfire will be deemed to have been successful.

Calculating EU legislation is extremely difficult, as there are no separate laws. The framework directives breed other directives and regulations, which multiply without ever becoming new legislation. That is why the most accurate calculation is based on the number of pages.

If British (and American or Australian) legislation can be said to start with the particular, Continental legislation moves in the opposite direction. It starts with the general – in the case of the EU, with agreements in treaties – and moves further and further towards the particular, at which, very late point, British MPs usually realize there is a problem.

The problem, however, is at an earlier stage, routinely and repeatedly ignored by our so-called legislators, despite having been caught out on many occasions over the years.

But suppose, some of that bonfire does actually achieve something. Do we know which particular regulations will be scrapped, changed or consolidated? Are these decisions taken by Verheugen and his minions, and, possibly disputed by the egregious Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a substitute for open, democratic, accountable legislation?

Meanwhile, news comes from France that former Arcelor steel boss and French finance minister, Francis Mer wants to team up with textile maker and brother of president-in-waiting, Guillaume Sarkozy, to stand for election at the head of the Mouvement des Enterprises de France (Medef).

The idea is that two forceful and shrewd operators will finally be able to get the attractiveness of entrepreneurial culture across to French politicians and the French public.

They are being challenged by other industrial leaders for the position, but all have the same aim.
But as yesterday’s Business newspaper pointed out:

“… Medef is preoccupied with national insurance and labour issues, when it should be lobbying for growth.

It's not a bad assessment of the symptoms, but his rivals appear to understand Medef's problem better. Until it can convince voters that creating wealth is the job of entrepreneurs rather than government or unions, Medef will remain a voice in the wilderness.”

The notion that creating wealth is the job of entrepreneurs is, let’s face it, an alien concept in the whole of the European Union, whether we talk of the Lisbon Agenda or Verheugen’s bonfire.

Another Czech Prime Minister bites the dust. Stanislav Gross, at 35 the youngest former European Prime Minister as of today, has resigned because of an ongoing financial scandal. It seems he has found it difficult to explain how he managed to buy and furnish a luxury apartment.

His successor Jiri Paroubek will head another coalition of the same parties and another government of the same ministers. In fact, this particular flap is not all that different from the Italian one, though at least the Czechs have acquired a new prime minister. Clearly, they have some way to go before they are fully integrated into European politics.

The “new” government remains pro-EU as the BBC puts it but what the Beeb’s journalists do not seem to realize is that the issue is the constitution and its ratification.

Notoriously, the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, opposes the constitution and his former party, the ODS, has put forward a bill that calls for a referendum on the document this year.

The Social-Democrats, on the other hand, want to put into place a system of plebiscite being the new form of direct voting, though it is not clear how that would work in practice. Their idea is to have a referendum on the European constitution in tandem with the parliamentary elections of 2006.

Some Czech political analysts have been muttering cynically that the Czech Republic will want to be the last to vote, in order to see how the land lies first.

Yes, indeed, after a ten-day gap, the fragrant Commissar has put up another posting. I am delighted to say that there are some comments on it already, one or two referring to this blog.

Margot starts in a fluffy bunny mode with her eldest son, who is, mark you, a student of political science, wanting to know almost tearfully why the Swedish papers are assuming that his mother is aiming at the leadership of the Social-Democratic party, when she stated in “black and white” that she did not want to be considered for the position.

Does the lad not know that whatever politicians deny categorically must be true, particularly if it is something underhand? Of course, he cannot help having the mother he has, but if he wants to survive in the big bad world, let alone in political science, he had better learn this very easy lesson.

There is a great deal more about her commitment to her job and the many tasks she has in trying to sell the whole project to the people of Europe. As the opinion polls in one country after another move in the “no” direction, the fragrant Commissar, we assume, must be feeling quite pleased with herself. After all, her staff seem to remain loyal. One of them has even put a comment up, urging us to read Margot’s own explanation of the Social-Democrat Party’s little trouble with inflated declarations.

But hey, she has finally responded to a comment:

“I warmly welcome a debate on the horrendous slave trade with women and children for sexual purposes that goes in Europe and the world every day. I completely agree with you, Ms Gisela Strauss, that it is not only a responsibility for non-governmental organisations to tackle the problem of trafficking in human beings — even if the NGO‘s make an important difference for many of the people that are used as sex slaves.

Trafficking is part of cross-border crime and should be dealt with through improved cooperation between the police as well as the judicial systems in Europe. It is important when trying to prevent these terrible crimes that we also look at the demand side of the “trade”. Communication is also a crucial key to this problem so that we reach the young girls and children that risk becoming new victims.”

And we are all against sin. Nobody could possibly suggest that the particular comment could have been a put-up job, to give the fragrant Commissioner a chance to reply to something that is not too close to the bone and is not critical of her or of the project.

Most comments are about the European Union, its many regulations, its destruction of the European economy and social structure, its corruption and suchlike matters. It is Margot’s job to sell the Constitution. That is what she gets an inflated salary for, as well as many expenses, perks and staff. But she chooses to publish a bromide about sex slavery.

Is she ever going to engage in that dialogue she keeps promising?

A number of our readers have asked me to provide some detailed information about the particular event I described in the tribute to Lord Bruce of Donington. Understandably, many people wanted to know about the unfortunate former Commissioner who angered Lord Bruce to the point of a volcanic outburst.

After a certain amount of research, I can reveal that the former Commissioner was Lord Clinton-Davis and the event was the Committee stage of Lord Pearson’s European Union (Implications of Withdrawal) Bill on May 12, 2000.

Let me quote the particular comment Lord Bruce made before moving his amendment:

“The amendment seeks only to institute, if possible, a cost-benefit analysis of our membership of the European Union. What objection can there possibly be to that? It may well be, I readily concede, that a cost-benefit analysis will show that, on balance, membership did not favour the United Kingdom.

But the circumstances obtaining when the report came out and showed that result might not be all that inimical to the further development of the European Union. It would depend on how one regarded the future in the light of the implications that had been determined in relation to the past. All we want to do is to put ourselves in a position where we can make a definitive judgment in which we can believe.

I repeat: successive governments have been very coy about this. When I last sat on the Opposition Benches in another capacity I remember asking the noble Lord, Lord Henley, whether he could give us some indication. His reply was laconic and short. He said that the benefits were so self-evident that it was not worth while going into them.

That, in essence, has been the attitude of successive governments. They will not discuss progress. They will not discuss cost-benefits so that one can get an idea. All we are trying to do as I see it--all the promoter of the Bill is trying to do--is to establish the facts as distinct from vapourings--they are little more than that--based upon nostalgia about past events that only partially happened. There surely can be no objection to that. As I say, those who resist it and oppose the results of the facts immediately imply that they are not confident in their own beliefs.

I am sorry about the attitude of my noble friend on the Front Bench [Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale]. She knows--and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, ought to know--that not only have I been interested in these affairs since 1963 but I have played some, if only minor, part in the unearthing of fraud on massive scale not only in the European Union as a whole but in the Commission as well, of which he possibly ought to have been aware when he was there.

In order to cut short the discussion, perhaps I may say formally, taking due account of the excellent contributions, particularly from my noble friend--I still call her my noble friend--Lady Park of Monmouth, I beg to move …”

Here is the rest of the debate. I hope all our readers will enjoy it and mourn the passing of a great parliamentarian.

To add to the woes of already stressed-out politicians, foreign ministers of the EU member states are meeting today in Luxembourg with the vexed subject of the EU budget firmly on the agenda.

Still on the table is the commission proposal that spending for 2007-2013 should be increased to 1.14 percent of Gross National Income, rising from the current £77 billion to £89 billion in 2007 and thence to over £100 billion by the end of the period.

Ministers are also having to deal with a fractious Poland which has already rejected the commission’s proposals, objecting to the ceiling on structural funds which would be set at 3.8 percent of a member state's gross domestic product (GDP).

This is instead of the four percent currently allowed, meaning EU aid to Poland would decrease.

Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn has said that a budget compromise would be reached "inevitably by reductions in each spending category compared to the commission's proposal".

Overshadowed by uncertainties on the constitution ratification, ministers are unlikely to make any decision today, and will leave the hard issues until after the Dutch referendum. This means that there will be only two weeks for talks ahead of the European Council on 16-17 June, by which time a deal is supposed to be reached.

However, if the heads of state and government are confronting one or more "no" votes, talks then are likely to be dominated by plans to deal with this situation, creating an atmosphere which is not conducive to an agreement on a matter so contentious as the budget.

The chances are, therefore, that the new British prime minister will inherit the poisoned chalice, most likely Tony Blair, who will have the added task of defending the rebate negotiated by Thatcher in 1984.

From a few weeks ago, when the political élites of the EU had no idea what to do if the French rejected the constitution, other than carry on as if nothing had happened, the air is now buzzing with alternative ideas, with at least two possible "Plan Bs" in vogue.

Author of one alternative is Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg and temporary EU president, who seems to have developed his earlier "do nothing" plan to take account of the possibility that all other countries, barring Britain, actually ratify the treaty.

The assumption is that, following the French, the Dutch will vote "yes", as will all of the others, leaving only the UK and the Czech Republic outstanding by the autumn of 2006.

Given the preponderance of countries supporting the constitution, Juncker theorises that France might be prevailed upon to hold a second poll, which linked the constitution with continued EU membership. Under these circumstances, France would vote "yes", leaving the UK exposed and under pressure to come into line.

There are, however, a number of slight flaws in this scenario, not least the latest poll in Holland, which suggests that the Dutch might reject the constitution.

In a survey commissioned by Dutch NOS public television and published on Saturday, 52 percent of those planning to vote expressed an intention of voting "no", against 48 percent who supported the constitution. Furthermore, of those planning to reject the text, 61 percent said the European Union had more drawbacks than benefits.

That leaves Plan Blb, which is the much rehearsed "core-Europe" where some member states, centred round France and Germany, would go for multi-lateral integration, focused on co-operation in economic and fiscal policy. This could include the imposition of minimum tax rates or tax bands for some categories of taxation, and perhaps an attempt to preserve or strengthen their social model.

The dream scenario is that this "core" would include all the 12 eurozone countries, with the hope that a change in Italian leadership to Romano Prodi would bring Italy on board.

Prodi himself does not seem entirely on-side with this scenario as he is uttering the starkest of warnings of the consequences for a French "non". "We will pass through a long period of crisis," he says. "The problem will not only be a catastrophe for France, but the fall of Europe."

Wolfgang Munchau of The Financial Times also sees problems with this scenario, arguing that the political leadership in Europe is so weak that such a bold plan is extremely unlikely to move beyond the drafting stage. Chirac will be a lame duck and Schröder risks losing next month's state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populous state. The two key players, therefore, are more likely to be preoccupied with their own political survival.

That, says Munchau, leaves Juncker's first plan. This, he believes, "is the only strategy that would keep a lid on an increasingly fractious EU." However, if to the French rejection, we add the Dutch, possibly the Danes, perhaps the Latvians, even the Poles and then the British and the Czechs – and maybe even the Irish – the "project" will truly be holed below the waterline.

In another of those delicious ironies, though, when it comes to dealing with the mess, Juncker will not be in the hot seat for long. On 1 July, he will be forced to hand over the baton to the new EU president, presumably Tony Blair Esq, who will be charged with brokering a solution. God does have a sense of humour after all.

Now you see him, now you don’t, now you see him again. Silvio Berlusconi resigned last week as Prime Minister after two members of his uneasy coalition, the National Alliance (AN) and the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), had pulled out of the government, demanding that after the serious losses in regional elections of Apri 3 and 4 a more radical strategy (by which they mean some more hand-outs to the southern parts of the country) be put into place.

But fear not, they are all back. Berlusconi and the other members of the coalition know that if they have a snap election now they will lose. (Actually, they will probably lose next year as well.) So, Our Silvio got his mates together again.

Most of the old gang is back, including Berlusconi’s special chum, Giulio Tremonti as Deputy Prime Minister. He was ousted in a routine coalition feud 10 months ago. His return seems to have annoyed the left-wing opposition.

The AN and UDC have been promised radical reforms and Mario Landolfi of the AN has a new job as communications minister. His first communication was to inform the media that the crisis had been necessary and the coalition was now in good shape to fight the forthcoming election.

Others seem less sanguine. According to Reuter’s

“"We continue to think this was a useless crisis that only ended up wasting a load of time," the Northern League's Roberto Calderoli, who kept his seat as Reforms Minister, said in an interview with newspaper Libero.”

Giuliano Urbani of Forza Italia, who is out, told to the Corriere della Sera:

“I'd had enough of this politicking, the wretched divisions, the cannibalism and foolishness. How could they have opened a crisis, just a few months before the elections and after having governed for four years together? ... What an own goal!”

By all accounts Berlusconi is furious because the engineered crisis that had forced him to resign slightly spoiled his record as the longest serving post-war Italian Prime Minister. His government did not last the full five years. He is, of course, back with the same government more or less but that, apparently does not count for whatever the Italian equivalent of the Guinness Book of Records is.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the leader in The Sunday Telegraph today, rejoicing in the title "Europe is missing", is that it was published at all.

In common with the political parties, the media itself has been at pains to avoid bringing the European Union into the cockpit of general election politics, yet it is precisely that phenomenon which the is remarked upon by the Telegraph.

The paper notes that, four years ago, William Hague put the slogan "Keep the Pound" at the very heart of the Conservative election campaign - and was (rightly) pilloried after his defeat for taking that strategic decision. We recall that it was during that self-same campaign that the Conservatives ran with the fatuous slogan "In Europe but not ruled by Europe".

Now, however, it is one of the ironies of this election that Michael Howard's policies on Britain's membership of the EU are considerably more radical than Mr Hague's, but have attracted negligible interest.

As we have pointed out on this Blog, the 2005 Conservative manifesto promises not only that Britain would stay out of the euro under a Tory Government, but that Prime Minister Howard would negotiate "the restoration of our opt-out from the Social Chapter" of the Maastricht Treaty. Most ambitiously, the party pledges to repatriate control of the nation's fisheries - an entirely desirable step that would certainly involve a dramatic redefinition of Britain's membership of the EU.

Yet, in this general election campaign, the paper notes, neither Blair nor Howard have said much about the issue of Europe. For Howard, this is partly because of the divisive nature of the issue in the party while Blair has no desire so close to polling day to draw attention to his enthusiasm for EU integration - a deeply felt passion that sets him sharply at odds with mainstream public opinion.

Noting how low "Europe" features in voters' concerns (the paper's ICM poll today showing that only four percent of voters regard Europe as the most important issue in the election - only to be expected, given its marginal presence in the campaign) the Telegraph believes it would be a shame if European policy did not play a significant part in voters' deliberations, as it is one of the areas where there is a pronounced difference between the two main parties.

This is especially the case with the EU constitution where it appears that only a Conservative government is prepared to guarantee a referendum. But there is another reason why it should be an issue, to which the Telegraph does not allude. General elections are about choosing governments yet, in many respects our government is not (and will not be) in Westminster, but Brussels.

For this government we will not be allowed to vote, but the Telegraph elsewhere in its own pages gives us ample evidence of why we should have nothing to do with it.

Thus, if we are to chose a government – a British government – we must first dispense with the usurper over the water, which makes the logical choice the Party which is most likely to put distance between it and us. In the fullness of time, we hope that such a choice may provoke the same leader headline – "Europe is missing" – but in the context of it missing not from a general election campaign, but from our lives.

When it emerged last week that two EU commissioners, Peter Mandelson and José Manuel Barroso, the commission's Portuguese president, had failed to declare hospitality they had received on the yachts of two billionaires, it was not then known that this information had come to light thanks initially to a tip-off from a senior commission official and then to leaks from officials very close to the commissioners. Mr Barroso's commission is leaking like a sieve.

It was, however, inevitable that British media attention would centre on Mr Mandelson, even though the Barroso story raised far more serious implications - an obsession that has continued into today's press with "Mandy" articles in both The Sunday Times and The Scotsman.

Despite the continued parochialism of the British media, however, it still remains beyond comprehension that, just before he took office, Barroso should spend six days on the luxury yacht of Spiros Latsis, one of the richest and most powerful businessman in Greece, and that this could be just an innocent meeting between old friends, as the commission tried to maintain.

In order to bring more facts to light, therefore, Booker and this Blog have been working together, unearthing the details that the rest of the media have chosen to ignore, the results of which are published today in The Sunday Telegraph Booker column, with an unedited, more detailed version in this posting.

Our starting point was the week before the details of Barroso's holiday leaked out. Then – by all accounts – there was a tense meeting of all 25 EU commissioners, under the chairmanship of Barroso, to discuss a "collegiate" response to a series of questions put to the commissioners in the name of Nigel Farage MEP, asking whether they had received any free hospitality.

Under unprecedented security, with all officials excluded, first Barroso and then Mandelson revealed to their colleagues that they had indeed benefited from free hospitality but, at the insistence of the president, all the commissioners agreed that Barroso's holiday and Mandelson's sojourn posed "no conflict of interest". They did not, therefore, have to be declared.

In agreeing that the details could be kept secret, it is possible that all the commissioners did not know the full details of the nature of the Latsis group of companies, comprising shipping, banking, petroleum, engineering and construction interests, and the fact that the group had considerable involvement in EU-funded schemes.

But what excited our interest most was the controversial project involving the design, construction and operation of Athens International Airport, at £1.6 billion the most expensive airport project in Europe. This was constructed by a German company Hochtief, with the aid of nearly £900 million-worth of funding from EU taxpayers and the EU's European Investment Bank (EIB).

It would only have taken a few hours on the internet, though, to have established that Hochtief and the Latsis group are partners in this enterprise and in a series of vast, part-EU funded construction projects in Greece. Yet, at the time the story broke, Françoise le Bail, the commission senior spokesman stated that she was "not aware that the group had benefited from EU funding".

Le Bail may have been speaking the truth, but the fact remains that she could have found out very easily that the Latsis group did (and continues) to benefit from EU funding, and none can be more controversial that the EU funding of the airport at Spata, near Athens, on which Booker reported as long ago as March 2004.

What makes the scheme especially controversial – and a potential minefield for Barroso – is that, for three years, up to the highest level, the EU commission has been refusing to answer a stream of questions from MEPs and journalists on how the contract to build and run the Spata airport was given to Hochtief.

From the start, there were suspicions about how the contract was awarded for, although the German company contributed only €133 million to the €2.28 billion project, it now has the right to manage the airport for 30 years, through a company of which, although it holds only a 45 percent stake (the remaining 55 percent held by the Greek government), Hochtief can nominate a majority of board members and appoint the chief executive.

Exhaustive investigation by Basil Coronakis, editor and owner of the Athens and Brussels-based journal New Europe, showed that the sub-contractors who carried out the actual construction work on the airport did not receive more than €320 million. This is way below the €2.28 billion (£1.6 billion) stated by Hochtief in April 2003 to be its total cost.

Among the questions raised by Coronakis since 2003, and which the commission has persistently failed to answer, are:
1. how, to qualify to administer a contract including over €2 billion of public money, did a private, profit-making company set up by Hochtief come to be designated by the Commission as an "authority" in 1996, apparently at the stroke of a pen, when EU rules make clear that an "authority", responsible for monitoring that the money has been spent correctly, must be state-owned or at least non-profit making? How could a recipient private company itself be that "authority"?

2. how did the EIB come to lend €997 million (£700 million) to the project, at a time when its total cost was still being shown as only €950 million, and when EIB rules allow loans of only 50 percent of a project's infrastructure cost?

3. why in costings accepted by the commission was a sum of €416 million (£290 million), shown as interest, added into the total twice?

4. what happened to the nearly €2 billion discrepancy between the estimated actual construction cost and the final costs claimed?
In March 2003 three MEPs, a German, a Dane and a British Conservative Bashir Kanbhai, asked the commission president Romano Prodi for an itemised cost analysis and sight of the invoices. In April Prodi replied that the European Court of Auditors was investigating the project.

Then, in July 2003 a senior commission official of the directorate-general in charge of the Cohesion Fund (DG-Regio) assured the MEPs that the project was now under investigation by three directorates, the commission's secretary-general and its legal services department. Nothing has subsequently been heard of any outcome to these investigations.

At the end of July 2004, according to a Greek version of the airport authority’s annual report, Prodi attempted to close the "Spata dossier", before handing over to the new commission under Barroso, by calling a top-level meeting of three directors-general. They proposed that the Greek government should pay a penalty of €12.7 million, under two technical headings, although Cohesion Fund rules say that such a penalty must be paid by the "authority", not by a government.

No more has been heard of this proposal. But when, last autumn, a new Greek government was set to investigate the Spata contract, the commission sent a list of every EU-funded Greek project other than Spata, with a hint that, if all these were investigated, the government might have to return to Brussels billions of euros. Nevertheless the contract is now under investigation by Greece's public prosecutor.

A further twist to the tale has been provided by Yannis Terezakis, a commission official working in DG-Tren, the directorate-general dealing with energy and transport. As someone who must travel between Athens and Brussels up to 45 times a year, often with his family, Mr Terezakis became angered by Spata's exorbitant airport charges, which cost him nearly £7000 a year.

In November 2003, writing from home and emphasising that he was doing so as a private citizen, not as an official, Mr Terezakis lodged a dossier on the airport saga with Olaf, the commission's anti-fraud unit. In particular he asked why there was no record of any VAT payments being made on the construction cost, which should have amounted to €270 million.

In April 2004 Mr Terezakis was summoned to Olaf's offices in his official capacity to answer questions. He refused, on the grounds that his was a private complaint and that, as an official, Olaf could order him to keep quiet.

After further exchanges with Dr Bruener, the head of Olaf, who accused him of being a "whistleblower", in September 2004 Mr Terezakis applied to the European Court of Justice for his right under EU law to see key documents on the airport project which the Commission was withholding. This month he was summoned by the commission's administration (DG-Admin) to attend a disciplinary tribunal. Again he has refused to attend, on the grounds that he is not conducting his case as a commission employee who can be silenced for breach of disciplinary rules.

All this shows how, under the Barroso commission, Spata is still a highly sensitive issue – which makes it relevant to question the wisdom or otherwise of Barroso's original refusal to declare as an interest his holiday last August with Spiros Latsis, whom Barroso explains is an old friend. They met 30 years ago as students in Geneva, when they imbibed the virtues of "European Federalism" from that revered guru of federalism, Denis de Rougemont (Latsis is a trustee of Friends of Europe, an EU-wide lobbying organisation for greater political integration).

The Latsis commercial empire has been closely involved with Hochtief in both constructing and managing Spata airport. Through Hellenic Petroleum, one of Greece's largest oil companies – in which another partner is the Russian oil giant LUKoil – it holds the contract for all fuel supplies to the airport, through an EU-funded pipeline built by a Latsis engineering company. Hellenic Petroleum, according to its own accounts, in 2000, paid $612 million to acquire a 34 percent interest in the Athens Airport Fuel Pipeline Company.

A Latsis company also has a 50 percent stake in the huge contract for running most of the airport's "ground-handling" services – almost everything except control of the aircraft themselves.

Latsis's development arm, Lamda, is a partner with Hochtief in a series of vast, part-EU funded motorway projects across Greece, as part of the "Trans European Network". And between 1999 and 2004, during the time when Spata airport was completed, the commission last week revealed that the giant EFG Eurobank Ergasias banking group, controlled by Latsis family interests, held an exclusive contract to handle all EU structural funds coming to Greece, totalling €28 billion.

All this evidence might have given Barroso pause to reflect when he was first asked last February in the name of Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party MEPs in Brussels, whether he had taken any holidays which might raise a possible conflict of interest. We may also question whether his fellow commissioners were fully briefed when this month they endorsed his decision that he had nothing to declare, on the grounds, as Françoise le Bail put it, that, as far as she knew, his host had no "business ties with the EU".

Clearly, there is much more to this whole affair than has yet been revealed by the commission and, on the basis of what we know and have published here, there are no grounds whatsoever by which Barroso could claim that his accepting lavish hospitality from Dr Latsis could not be construed as representing a "conflict of interest".

Yet, the ultimate irony is that, last Wednesday, just after the story broke, in a speech in Geneva, Barroso was reaffirming his belief that the EU should be more "transparent" in its dealings with the public. He was giving the speech as a guest of the Latsis Foundation.

On 20 April last year, the prime minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons that he would "let the people have the final say" on the EU constitution, thereby announcing that he would hold a referendum – without actually using the word "referendum" in his speech.

Nevertheless, he closed with a stirring peroration:

Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case. Let those of us who believe in Britain in Europe - not because of Europe alone, but because we believe in Britain and our national interest lying in Europe - make our case, too. Let the issue be put and let the battle be joined.
We decided to take up Mr Blair’s challenge – to make our case – and two days later we started our Blog with our first post, declaring that:

In this new Blog, we hope to rehearse and discuss the issues relating to one of the most important political issues of the day - the UK referendum on the EU's constitutional treaty. Enjoy.
That made yesterday our first birthday and, over 200,000 hits later, we believe we have established a firm niche in the Eurosceptic movement, providing our own brand of news, comment and analysis.

However, with our "hits" standing at over 200,000, battle has still not been joined by the Blairites and now, in the midst of a general election, "Europe" is still firmly off the agenda and there are indications that we might not even have the referendum that the prime minister promised.

Despite that, with our first year behind us, we feel that the need for our site remains and we will therefore continue our work, not least in the hope that we succeed in better informing and occasionally entertaining our readers.

Should the day come when we are allowed to make a decision on our relationship with the European Union, we thus hope we will still be there. At the moment, though, it looks like we are in for the long haul and our yearling child may be of quite an advanced age before we get that chance.

On that basis, we wish ourselves a belated "happy birthday" and, not with a little trepidation, wish ourselves many more to come.

You don’t ask you don’t get. That seems to be the motto of that great and good (you mean completely unknown) London MEP, Nirj Deva. Of course, if you ask you may not get either, but that does not seem to bother him.

Mr Deva, a former MP until the electors of Hounslow got bored with him, a present member of the European Parliament, and self-styled Ambassador-at-Large for Sri Lanka, has thrown his hat into the ring for the next Secretary General of the United Nations.

Fresh from the great success of failing to reform the European Parliament’s freebies (woops, sorry, expenses) system, Mr Deva, who is leading the European Parliament delegation to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (nice one Nirj!), has announced to the United States Council on Foreign Relations and, later, to St John’s University (no, I don’t know what it is either) that
“…as it is Asia’s turn to provide the Secretary-General of the United Nations he had been asked by numerous organisations to be a candidate to succeed Kofi Annan when the time comes.”
Before we go any further, one or two things need to be made clear. Nirj Deva may have been born in Sri Lanka but he is a British citizen (and, as he no doubt, likes telling people) an EU citizen as its consequence. Otherwise he would not be in the European Parliament and would not have been in the House of Commons.

Britain is a permanent member of Security Council. No Secretary General can be from a major country, let alone from one that is a permanent member of the Security Council. Ergo Nirj Deva cannot be SecGen. Q, as they used to say, ED.

Of course, he can suddenly discard his British and EU citizenship but that would mean relinquishing his place in the euro-trough. Somehow I cannot see the estimable Mr Deva doing that.

Getting away from that conundrum, what are Mr Deva’s qualifications for this post?
“They see me as a bridge; being personally and politically rooted in Asia and Europe on the one hand; and my with long standing commitment [sic] to the development of Africa Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) on the other.”
His basic understanding of civil engineering does not seem to be that hot either, but he is not applying for a job that has any useful aspect to it.

So, um, how will he deal with the variour problems that the UN has faced recently? According to his press release
“He called for a closer involvement by citizens to create a new driving force for the effective delivery of aid, and for holding governments and NGOs accountable and transparent through the use of interactive real time internet technology. Being committed to the Millennium Development Goals, he has included the "Quick Wins" solutions on eradicating poverty, in the European Parliament Development Budget of which he is draftsman and called for a New Partnership with developing countries to strengthen, align and build capacities in partner countries receiving European aid.”
I wonder if any of our readers will be able to explain what “interactive real time internet technology” is and how it will suddenly make the UN and NGOs accountable to anyone at all. It is of particular interest, as my spies tell me that Mr Deva does not quite know the best way of switching on a computer.

Further on, he gets into an even bigger muddle. On the one hand, he sees it as the UN’s job to eradicate child labour, as well as child trafficking and child soldiers. On the other hand,
“Another way of promoting sustainable development is through Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SME’s) which in developing countries are often family businesses. He called for a greater role for the European Investment Bank, which has a lending base three times the size of the World Bank, to play a major role in assisting the private sector in developing countries and demanded cuts in bureaucracy which increased poverty, stifled growth and encouraged corruption in developing countries.”
But not family enterprises that employ their children, one assumes. When do children stop being children? Are we going to impose the oh-so-successful British system of reluctant fifteen-year-olds in classrooms learning nothing?

Rising to a crescendo of lunacy Mr Deva’s press release and preliminary election manifesto ends with the following stirring words.
“The Secretary-General is more than an Administrator – he is the public face of the United Nations, and it is to him that the people of the world will rightly look when problems need to be solved. He is not a dictator, he is not a line manager - he has limited powers so he must above all be a consensus-builder. This is not a job for a bureaucrat – it is a job for a politician, and perhaps it is time for an outsider who is not steeped in the culture of foreign relations, and especially not in the culture of the UN.
Above all he needs to remember that his job is not about institutions - it is about people. He is the servant of the people of the world whether they be rich or poor and whether they be weak or powerful. He must work with their governments and the international institutions which they have ordained, but he must never forget that his overriding purpose is to achieve so far as he can conditions in which individual men and women can live in peace, and develop and enjoy their human potential to the full.”
Mr Deva was last seen wandering round the endless corridors of the European Parliament in a tricorne with a cockarde pinned to it, one hand tucked into an immaculate white waistcoat and the other one pointing onwards and upwards.