A European Affair

Of Whales and Budgets

“Very like a whale” – Hamlet (Shakespeare)

The whale species and the European Union’s budget have quite a lot in common. No really, they do.

First, the survival and existence of both whales and the budget are dependent upon a complex arrangement of international treaties. Let’s begin with the whales. Each year around 3,000 whales are caught, a significant reduction from a peak of 40,000 per annum in the 1930s. The rules of modern whaling are defined according to an intersection of two treaties. The IWC (International Whale Commission) was formed as part of the ICRW agreement (International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, 1946). This body allows a limited amount of whaling for traditional, cultural and scientific purposes. The CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, 1975) prohibits the international trade (imports and exports) of animals considered endangered. Certain whales, such as fin whales, fall into this category (Appendix I).

There are four main whale-hunting nations in Europe: Iceland, Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Each nation has a distinctive whaling industry based on local traditions, which have prompted tailored legal arrangements. For example, in 2010 Iceland was recorded to have hunted around 148 fin whales. This flexibility is largely due to two big caveats in the IWC quota system. Firstly, national member governments regulate their own whale hunting quotas. Secondly, Article V(3) provides an opt-out clause for any new amendments. As IWC decisions are taken by a two-thirds majority vote, this article was designed to protect specific local interests from being overridden. In the mid-1980s, the IWC reduced is annual quota for commercial whaling to zero, an effective commercial moratorium. Pro-whaling members, including Norway and Iceland promptly invoked Article V(3), which leaves them in the unusual position of being IWC members but not obligated by its central rule.

The European Union is also currently dependent upon two treaties, the TEU (Treaty on the European Union) and the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union). The EU’s budget gains its principles from these treaties, as well as from further legislative acts known as the Financial Regulation, which govern the budget’s implementation. Article 312 of the TFEU states that the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) should be decided for a minimum period of five years. The recent agreement by the European Council actually mandated a budget for seven years (2014-20), to the tune of just under €1 trillion (around 95,998,800,000,000 cents). When negotiating this budget, member countries also look for a degree of flexibility in contribution and protection of local interest. In the latest round, the UK will keep its rebate (around €3.65 billion), along with the Netherlands (€650 million), Sweden (€160 million). A new rebate is awarded to Denmark (€130 million). Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden benefit from caps to their VAT-based contributions. Austria originally had its rebate removed completely, in the end it managed to secure a cap of its share of the UK rebate at €95 million.

So, we have established that whales and the European budget are similar for the following three reasons:
• Their continued existence depends on the intersection of two international treaties
• These treaties attempt to leave room for flexibility and local interest
• All the treaties use a lot of (unnecessary) acronyms

In fact, if you are confused by the acronyms, or the treaty caveats, if you are outraged that endangered fin whales continue to be hunted, or that the UK or the Netherlands continue to receive a rebate, you are not alone. In fact, you are probably quite normal. But what might be the alternative? No treaties? No co-operation?

Another similarity between whales and the EU’s budget is that they are both, in their own way, enormous. The blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth; they are up to 30 meters long and their tongues alone weigh about as much as an elephant. The EU’s seven-year budget is in gross terms at the rather larger end of regular international budget agreements and carries significant political weight. Acronyms, flexibility and complexity might therefore be the only viable way forward in such large international negotiations. This philosophy will be put to the test later this week (3-10th March); CITES will convene its 16th Conference of the Parties, discussing amongst other things which animals should be upgraded to Appendix I status. The European Parliament will have a plenary voting session on whether to approve the 2014-20 budget agreed upon by heads of state, (and they will probably not approve).

Either way, it will be an interesting week for the large species discussed here today. As a final caveat, the European Parliament itself is an interesting outlier in the field of international cooperation; a Parliament to a public space that does not yet concretely exist. We will see this week how it will affect the methodology of international cooperation through acronyms, flexibility and complex treaties.

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