04 July 2019
Protests in Parliament.
Hong Kong and Strasbourg.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Two parliament buildings, two protests – protests which must have made even the protesters’ supporters feel rather uneasy and perhaps even shocked.
It’s easy to understand and sympathise with the anger and frustration of the demonstrators in Hong Kong. In recent years, the territory’s freedom of speech has been threatened by the disappearance of publishers, the closure of bookshops, the purchase of media companies by Beijing loyalists and the attempt to introduce patriotic education into its schools; its freedom of assembly and its judicial independence have been threatened by the arrest of activists; and its democracy has been threatened by Beijing’s manipulation of election processes.
Nevertheless, the sight of violence and destruction is always shocking (though the demonstrators did, as it happens, show some restraint; they left cash behind to pay for the drinks they took from the parliament’s cafe and they sealed off the parliament’s library to prevent damage to its archives). More to the point, however, they may have shot themselves in the foot by giving the authorities the opportunity to portray them as violent criminals and the excuse to deal with them as such. Chinese state media have never before broadcast images of the Hong Kong demonstrations (nor even mentioned them), but this week they didn’t hesitate to broadcast footage of protesters breaking, entering and defacing; a sinister development which was accompanied by the paradoxical suggestion that such violence was an attack on Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ agreement and by the implication that Beijing is now the agreement’s protector against the forces of chaos and disorder.
The demonstration by Brexit Party MEPs in Strasbourg – turning their backs during the playing of the European parliament’s anthem – must have struck even many Brexiteers as petty, ridiculous and offensive. Culturally, the UK is and always has been a European country and it always will be, even if it separates itself from the political edifice which is the EU. So why pick a fight with Beethoven? Why show such disrespect to the musicians who were playing the Ode To Joy from his ninth symphony? Britons were listening to Beethoven before the existence of the EU and will continue to listen to him after the EU, just as Shakespeare will continue to be performed in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, etc. Indeed, why gratuitously insult what to most of Europe is a legitimate political body, anyway, even if you don’t approve of it?
The Hong Kong demonstrations have precipitated a leadership crisis in Hong Kong; coincidentally, the Brexit Party demonstration in Strasbourg occurred alongside a leadership crisis in the EU. The two crises present interesting and perhaps surprising parallels and contrasts about the nature of democracy.
The protests in Hong Kong have moved beyond their initial cause (the proposed but now suspended extradition agreement with Beijing) to broader issues of justice and democracy. They’re now calling for the removal of Carrie Lam as Chief Executive; this wouldn’t be unprecedented – most of her predecessors failed to complete a second term (but the inevitable hardening of Beijing’s attitude following the violence in the Legislative Council building makes this outcome less likely). But they’re also calling for universal suffrage in the selection and election of the Chief Executive. At the moment, candidates are selected by Beijing and elected in Hong Kong by a restricted college of relatively few individuals and a large number of mostly pro-Beijing bodies.
In Strasbourg, moves are afoot to appoint a new president of the European Commission to replace Jean-Claude Juncker this autumn, and a new head of the European Council to replace Donald Tusk. The procedure for appointing the president of the European Commission is particularly confusing, puzzling, vague and opaque, as this column has pointed out before.
The EU treaties simply state that the EU leaders choose the European Commission’s president “taking into account the elections to the European parliament” but the parliament must give its consent. This vagueness means that the whole business is usually a bit of a tussle between the EU parliament and the EU Council of Leaders; a tussle which the parliament won last time with its “spitzenkandidat” system, whereby the biggest pan-European political group in the parliament nominates its candidate who is then confirmed by the Council of Leaders (and finally voted into place by the parliament). Hence the appointment of Mr Juncker; once nominated by the parliament, his appointment was rubber-stamped by the Council of Leaders.
Last year, however, the EU Leaders met in Brussels to try to put together an alternative to the “spitzenkandidat” system. They wanted to take the initiative away from the parliament for a number of reasons: there was a fear that this year’s parliamentary elections might make the far-right the biggest parliamentary group; and perhaps they didn’t want another president like Mr Juncker foisted on them.
No one knows what was agreed at that meeting, but this week it looks as if the leaders have indeed managed to side-step the “spitzenkandidat” system this time. Yesterday it was announced in the media that they had chosen a new president of the commission; Ursula von der Leyen, the German defence minister. Puzzlingly, the media (at least here in the UK) made no reference to a vote in parliament but seemed to assume that the appointment is a done deal, that Ms von der Leyen is now set to replace Mr Juncker when he steps down this autumn. Perhaps it is, and perhaps she is; perhaps it’s assumed that the parliament will rubber-stamp the Leaders’ choice, just as the Leaders rubber-stamped the parliament’s choice the last time. It all seems a bit confused and opaque. We’re told that the leaders reached a consensus only after “four ill-tempered summits, including a tortuous all night session last Sunday” (The Times), and that Mrs Merkel abstained, and that she and Mr Macron failed to push their preferred candidate through. But apart from that, we’re more or less in the dark. Surely there should be some opportunity for the EU’s citizens to at least scrutinise the candidates? The parlous state of Germany’s armed forces certainly begs a few questions about Germany’s defence minister.
Seen from the point of view of Hong Kong or Strasbourg, the tedious wall-to-wall, 24 hour a day circus of debates, hustings, polls, votes, scrutiny and gossip surrounding the Tory leadership fight doesn’t perhaps seem so tedious. A short-list whittled down to two by MPs… a winner chosen by the party membership… an inevitable general election to follow sooner or later… Perhaps the whole thing’s a blessing rather than a curse after all.