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A problem at the heart of US democracy

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Almost 150 million people voted in last week’s US elections - a remarkable and historic turnout.  The people elected Senators, Members of Congress, members of state legislatures and a variety of other office holders. They did not elect the next US president or vice president. Both will be elected on 14 December when 538 largely unknown individuals meet in the US Electoral College, an arrangement dreamed up by the US Constitutional Convention in 1787, writes Dick Roche.

The legitimacy of the Electoral College has been questioned for decades. There have been numerous to reform it. Currently fifteen US states are campaigning its abolition.

When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 it had no template as to how the leadership of the new republic should be decided.

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The Convention members were a patrician group with mixed feelings about democracy.  The  Father of Constitution” James Madison referred to “the inconvenience of democracy”. Edmund Randolph from Virginia spoke of the need for “sufficient checks against democracy”. Another representative spoke of “the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy”.

Convention members were concerned that citizens had no knowledge of national figures and that left to their own devices the people could elect a demagog. They did not want Congress electing the President and worried about the balance between the big and small states. To resolve the conundrum a committee was appointed. It produced the idea of an Electoral College, an elite body that would decide who would be the most suitable leader. Other than setting the number of electors to be appointed by each state and details as to when and where the college should meet the US Constitution is silent on how the electors should be chosen or conduct their deliberations.

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Today’s Electoral College consists of 538 Electors.  States are allocated college votes on the basis of their representation in Congress. When the election results are certified the states, with two exceptions,  allocate their votes in the College to the political parties on a winner-take-all basis. Following Joe Biden’s victory in California, the state’s  55 Electoral College votes will go to the Democrats.  Florida’s 29 votes will go to the Republicans on foot of Trump’s win there. Two states, Maine and Nebraska,  allocate two votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state and one to the winner of each electoral district.

The political parties decide on who goes to the College. Electors pledge to vote for their party’s candidates. However Electors can become “faithless electors” and cast a ‘deviant’ vote for any person they wish. Bizarrely, there are no Constitutional or federal provisions dealing with faithless electors. Five states impose a penalty on faithless electors. Fourteen states have legal provisions that allow for the cancellation of a deviant vote and replacement of a faithless elector. Oddly the legislation in nineteen states and Washington DC allows the deviant votes to be counted as cast.  The remaining states have no legislation to deal with faithless voters.

As the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was casting light on America’s flawed political structures Senator Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, launched a campaign to abolish the College.  He argued that Americans could not “proudly beat our chest and proclaim ourselves to be the world’s greatest democracy and yet to tolerate a presidential electoral system in which the people of the country do not vote for the President”.

Bayh’s proposal received overwhelming support in the US House of Representatives was endorsed by President Nixon and had the support of many states but like all earlier reform attempts it failed. The proposals were killed off by a segregationist filibuster in the US Senate.

The 2000 and 2016 US presidential elections pulled the spotlight back on the Electoral College.

In 2000 a controversial recount of votes in Florida went to the US Supreme Court. The recount, which risked delaying certification of the election, was halted by the Court. George W Bush was deemed to have beaten Al Gore. Bush won Florida by 537 votes out of almost 6 million votes cast. As a result he received Florida's 25 Electoral College votes: Gore’s 2.9 million votes counted for nil. When the Electoral College met on 18 December 2000 George W Bush won the US presidency by 5 votes. In the popular vote Gore received half a million votes more than Bushfive

In 2016,  the Electoral College was very much back in focus.  When the College convened on 19 December 2016 Donald Trump received 304 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227, the fifth time in US history that a presidential candidate won the White House while losing the popular vote.  Winning Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania three battleground states by the paper-thin margins gave Trump his Electoral College win.

The College made the news for other reasons. In the run up to its meeting a major campaign was launched to persuade Republican electors to break their pledges and vote against Trump. A petition was launched requesting the College to elect Clinton. Republican electors were offered support to break their pledges. Advertisements were run in newspapers. Hollywood personalities made a video calling on Republican electors to vote against Trump. Anti Trump rallies were mounted. Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, a Democrat elector from California demanded that a briefing on Russian interference be given before the College voted. Time Magazine argued that the Electoral College was created to stop 'Demagogues Like Trump'.

Voting in the College further demonstrated the system's flaws. Four Democrat electors from Washington State, where Hillary Clinton had 52.5% voter support ‘went rogue’. Three voted for Colin Powell and the fourth voted for Faith Spotted Eagle, a Sioux elder and environmental campaigner. The four were subsequently fined $1,000 each. Mrs Clinton also lost an elector from Hawaii who voted for Bernie Sanders. Over 62% of Hawaii’s voters supported Clinton.

Two Republican electors from Texas, where Trump won over 52% of the vote, broke ranks. One of these, Christopher Suprun, explained in the New York Times that he would not vote as pledged because he felt that Donald Trump was “not qualified for the office”.

The US Constitution requires that the Electoral College convene to vote for the President and Vice President on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December” – 14 December this year. All vote counting, recounts and court disputes must be completed by 8 December.

The rapid rush to roll out vote-by-mail which played a very significant role in getting the Democrat vote out has produced a series of court actions. Where they will lead remains to be seen.  Given the sheer scale of the Biden majority it is very hard to see any case playing as central a role as in 2000, only time will tell.

One thing that is likely to happen is that Republicans and Democrats will continue to battle over a fundamentally undemocratic electoral system dreamed up between May and September 1787 and US electoral reform will continue to “play second fiddle” to partisan political advantage.

Dick Roche is a former Irish minister for environment, heritage and local government and former minister for European affairs.

Belgium

Commission approves €45 million Belgian scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €45 million Belgian scheme to support companies active in the Brussels-Capital region affected by the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictive measures that the Belgian government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus. The public support was approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework. Under the scheme, which goes under the name 'la prime Relance', the aid will take the form of direct grants. Eligible beneficiaries are companies of all sizes active in the following sectors: nightclubs, restaurants and cafés (‘ReCa') and some of their suppliers, events, culture, tourism, sport and passenger transport. In order to be eligible, companies must have been registered in the Central Bank for Enterprises (‘la Banque-Carrefour des Enterprises' ) by 31 December 2020. The Commission found that the Belgian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the support (i) will not exceed €1.8 million per company; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021.

The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64775 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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European Commission

Macro-financial assistance: EU disburses €125 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina and €50 million to the Republic of Moldova

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The European Commission, on behalf of the EU, has carried out another round of disbursements under the €3 billion macro-financial assistance package for ten enlargement and neighbourhood partners. The programme is a concrete demonstration of the EU's solidarity with its partners to help respond to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission has disbursed €125 million to Bosnia and Herzegovina and €50 million to the Republic of Moldova. This support is provided through loans at very favourable rates. With these disbursements, the EU has successfully completed five out of the 10 MFA programmes in the €3 billion COVID-19 MFA package, and disbursed the first tranches to all partners. The Commission continues to work closely with the rest of its MFA partners on the timely implementation of the agreed policy programmes. 

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NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Finland's €2.1 billion recovery and resilience plan

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The European Commission has adopted a positive assessment of Finland's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €2.1 billion in grants to Finland under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). The financing provided by the RRF will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Finland's recovery and resilience plan. It will play a significant role in enabling Finland to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF is the key instrument at the heart of NextGenerationEU which will provide up to €800bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Finnish plan forms part of an unprecedented coordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

The Commission assessed Finland's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms contained in Finland's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

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Securing Finland's green and digital transitions  

The Commission's assessment finds that Finland's plan devotes 50% of the plan's total allocation on measures that support climate objectives. Finland has announced an ambitious target for achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. The reforms and investments included in the plan will make an important contribution to Finland achieving this objective. The plan addresses each of the highest emitting sectors in turn, namely energy, housing, industry and transport. It includes reforms to phase out the use of coal in energy production, changes to taxation to favour cleaner technologies, and a reform of the Waste Act with increased targets for recycling and reuse. On the investment side, the plan will finance clean energy technologies and related infrastructure, industry decarbonisation, the replacement of oil boilers with low- or zero-carbon heating systems and private and public charging points for electric cars.

The Commission's assessment finds that Finland's plan devotes 27% of its total allocation on measures that support the digital transition. The plan includes measures to improve high-speed internet connectivity, particularly in rural areas, support the digitalisation of businesses and the public sector, enhance digital skills of the workforce and support the development of key technologies such as artificial intelligence, 6G and microelectronics.

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Reinforcing Finland's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Finland's plan includes an extensive set of mutually reinforcing reforms and investments that contribute to effectively addressing the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Finland in recent years.

It contains a broad set of reform measures to raise the employment rate and strengthen the functioning of the labour market, ranging from the transformation of Public Employment Services to improving and facilitating access to social and healthcare services. The plan includes specific measures to provide integration support for young people and people with partial work-capacity. The plan also includes measures to strengthen the effective supervision and enforcement of Finland's anti-money laundering framework.

The plan represents a comprehensive and balanced response to the economic and social situation of Finland, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars referred to in the RRF Regulation.

Supporting flagship investment and reform projects

Finland's plan proposes projects in all seven European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects, which address issues that are common to all Member States in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the green and digital transition. For instance, Finland has proposed to provide €161 million to investments in new energy technologies and €60m toward the decarbonisation of industrial processes to support the green transition. To support the digital transition, the plan will invest €50m in the rollout of rapid broadband services and €93m to support the development of digital skills as part of continuous learning and labour market reforms.

The Commission's assessment finds that none of the measures included in the plan significantly harms the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The Commission considers that the controls systems put in place by Finland are adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “I am delighted to present the European Commission's endorsement of Finland's €2.1bn recovery and resilience plan. I am proud that NextGenerationEU will make a significant contribution to support Finland's goal to become carbon neutral by 2035. The plan will also help bolster Finland's reputation for excellence in innovation with support for the development of new technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence, 6G and microelectronics. We will stand with Finland throughout the plan's implementation to ensure that the reforms and investments it contains are fully delivered.”

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “The Commission has today given its green light for Finland's recovery and resilience plan, which will set the country on a greener and more digital path as it recovers from the crisis. This plan will help Finland to meet its ambitious carbon-neutrality target by 2035, with reforms and investments that will reduce carbon emissions from energy production, housing, industry and transport. We welcome its focus on high-speed connectivity, particularly for sparsely populated areas to help maintain their economic activity, and on digitalising smaller businesses and the public sector. With reforms to boost employment and strengthen the labour market, Finland's plan will promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth once it is put into effect.”

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Finland's €2.1bn recovery and resilience plan is strongly focused on the green transition. No less than 50% of its total allocation is set to support climate objectives, helping to speed the country towards its ambitious target of carbon neutrality by 2035. The plan also contains an array of measures to boost Finland's already strong digital competitiveness. I particularly welcome the Finnish plan's strong social elements, with measures to raise the employment rate, tackle youth unemployment and facilitate access to social and healthcare services.”

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a decision to provide €2.1bn in grants to Finland under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal.

The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €271m to Finland in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total allocated amount for Finland.

The Commission will authorise further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the recovery and resilience plan, reflecting progress on the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

More information

Questions and Answers: European Commission endorses Finland's €2.1bn recovery and resilience plan

Factsheet on Finland's recovery and resilience plan

Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Finland

Annex to the Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Finland

Staff-working document accompanying the proposal for a Council Implementing Decision

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and Answers

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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