Category Archives: EU/Europe

Eppur si muove…

It's alive!!!!!!

Timothy Garton Ash reassures us from the pages of The Guardian about the new-born EU Constitution – sorry, er… Lisbon Reform Treaty:

Now this amending treaty of Lisbon, modest and hedged about with qualifications though it is, should enable the union to work just a little bit better when – assuming all 27 member states ratify it – it comes into force in January 2009. But a noble constitutional document, comparable to that of the United States, it is not. It more nearly resembles the instruction manual for a forklift truck. In itself, it will do nothing to convince Europe’s citizens, or the rest of the world, of what the European Union is good for. But it will help the EU to do things that may convince them. Now that the end of this long, disappointing constitutional debate is at last in sight, it should free us to concentrate on what this union does, rather than what it is, or says it is. In fact, the EU will define what it is by what it does. 

Wonderful. While the US mantra on Iraq appears to be “Don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, just to what we’re saying“, TGA is telling us: “Don’t listen to what the EU is saying, just look at what it’s doing!

Strange world we live in. Call me unsophisticated, but whatever happened to “Turning words into deeds?

Advertisements

ECFR: a tale of premature senescence?

Looking on... Courtesy: bigeyedeer.files.wordpress.com/

The European Council on Foreign Relations organised today its first briefing, presenting the results of a world-wide survey (PDF) conducted by Gallup International on the balance between hard and soft power. The survey covered a range of questions on the global influence of several international actors, including the EU, the US, China and India. Mark Leonard, Executive Director of the ECFR, chaired a somewhat drowsy panel that included Lord Desai, Robert Kagan and Ivan Krastev. The conclusions? Since the EU is the least hated of all the major powers, this should be interpreted as a sign that it should be given greater clout internationally. Alas, the newly-born think-tank gave away a strangely familiar smell of old habits.

A proper debate with the audience, packed with policy wonks and senior civil servants, never really kicked off. The elephants in the corner were carefully left dormant. If the EU has more power, what does this mean for the Member States? Can we realistically expect them to step aside and let go the reigns, especially those that have never really lost the appetite for world domination? And if it develops a stronger role internationally, will this come at the expense of its real (or perceived) soft power? And does all this matter at all, since the Commission has been promoting a stronger global role for the EU long before anyone was asked whether they supported it or not? How does this fit with the idea of a democratic Europe? Or is foreign policy – as Kagan was suggesting – something that should be still dealt with by the old boys in the corridors of power? None of these provocative questions was really raised during the debate.

Instead, discussion turned quickly to the US – why everyone hates it, why it doesn’t matter, why it should, etc. – while the topic of the EU was pushed aside. Clearly, even for the panelists there were more interesting subjects to discuss. To be fair, the ECFR made an effort to engage the broader public in the debate, for example by posting some interesting throughts on the survey (but receiving only 1 response at the time of writing). However, the briefing was strangely reminiscent of those dull Brusselite luncheons where everyone is too polite to start a proper discussion. The only one who did, Lord Desai, ranted on about a chart in the handouts, only to be gently told that he was reading it upside down, and then made some completely unfounded statements about how the Enlargement and the Single Market have failed (sic!). Everyone else sat silently in their dark suits (even the very few present women appeared dressed for a funeral). This was hardly stuff that gets people excited about the EU in the world.

Now, I know I am being a little harsh, but this is because I really think the ECFR has huge potential, and I want it to succeed. However, if it truly wants to rock the debate on Europe – especially in the UK – it’ll have to be a little more daring and provocative than today. So here are my 3 little suggestions to make the next event more captivating and perhaps memorable:

1. A more diverse panel: less pompous academics (notoriously allergic to criticism) and younger, more unconventional thinkers with strong and sustained views on the subject could have generated a much livelier debate, and perhaps generated 2-3 more challenging ideas about the role of Europe in the world. For example him. Or her.

2. A richer audience: I am not sure who everyone in the audience was, but if my understanding of English fashion doesn’t fail me, most were civil servants, press officers (not journalists) and the odd think-tank refugee. People from more diverse backgrounds (business, media, NGOs, even students) could have thrown in some hard questions at the survey and at the panel. In line with the ECFR’s stated objective of being truly 2.0, why not – for example – invite next time also a sample of some of the most provocative and interesting British Euro-bloggers (them, or him, to begin with)?

3. A cooler venue: the Foreign Press Association felt like one of those old boys’ clubs, where men used to go smoke cigars and discuss politics away from the madding crowds. The ECFR debates should happen instead in exciting new venues, where businessmen, artists, creators, or architects hang out, and where think-tanks rarely set foot. London is awash with exciting places where to hold events. One example for all, the Bloomberg Space:

Bloomberg Space, London

There, I said it all. Now let’s hope I haven’t just secured my banning from all future ECFR events…!

A new Euro-star is born

Europe at night - Copyright: Planetary Visions Ltd.; Courtesy: Kevin M. Tildsley

No, I am not talking about a new train (although the London-Paris Eurostar is about to be moved from Waterloo to King’s Cross, which is very exciting for me, since I live within walking distance of the station), but about a new pan-European initiative, headed by Mark Leonard, and staffed with lots of young bright things: the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Its purpose? Amongst others, to develop a more coherent and vigorous European foreign policy, in order to tackle an increasing number of global challenges, including climate change, world poverty, nuclear proliferation and the surge of violent extremism.

There haven’t been many interesting reactions to the birth of the ECFR within the blogosphere so far. Mark Leonard set the tone a few days ago as a guest-blogger on the Economist, while others – including the Dubliner Magazine, the Cult of the Dead Fish and Infowars – simply followed his lead, reproducing the press-release from the launch. Personally, I think the blogosphere should be more about opinion-making than info-replication, so here is my personal take on the new initiative.

Three things excite me about the ECFR. First: its young leadership and unreserved Europhilia, which brings a breath of fresh ideas and enthusiasm to a political debate about the future of Europe that has recently been – to say the least – soporific. Second: its decision to base its headquarters at the heart of the eurosceptic London and its satellite offices in Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Warsaw and Sofia. This will bring a truly pan-European perspective to the debates, allowing in particular the voices of the South and East to be heard, as opposed to the claustrophobic and incestuous rants of most Brussels-based think-tanks. Third, its very interactive website, blog-inspired, simple to access and to navigate, a sign that the ECFR is serious about taking to people, and is generally a modern, forward-looking organisation.

But while there are many reasons to celebrate, two aspects at least concerns me. The ECFR is heavily-backed by Soros, and while I personally like the man and his ideas, he has certainly made quite a few enemies across the European Neighbourhood. His involvement in the initiative is welcome, for it gives it financial viability, but the ECFR should also ensure it maintains a degree of separation between the issues it’s trying to tackle and the political interests of those who are backing it, lest it be quickly dismissed as Soros’ Council on Foreign Relations.

In addition, it is supported by a string of European politicians and analysts who are all-too-keen to see a stronger Europe in the world. While a more vigorous foreign policy might be the right answer to many of today’s global challenges, it should never come at the expense of Europe’s aimed neutrality, and of the recognition of its responsibilities towards the developing world, which call for caution every time we are tempted to undermine their sovereignty. Preventing genocide is of course admirable, but the last thing we need is another baton-wielding US, bullying nations into doing what we think is right (more often for us than for them). A respect for diversity should, above all, remain at the core of Europe’s foreign policy.

Having said that, I very much look forward to seeing the new star rise high above the other European constellations and I wish good luck to Mark and to all this team!

Babelblogs launched

On the savory topic of Web 2.0 as a social-change and political participation tool, café babel – the infamous online magazine for Europhiles and their chums – has just launched Babelblogs, a unique multilingual blogging platform in Europe.

Apparently:

  • Babelblogs are European: a unique European platform for blogging.
  • Babelblogs are multilingual: select your language and have your blog translated by other babelians
  • Babelblogs connect Europeans : we want to get Europeans together!

I am not entirely sure of how the system works, but it does look promising…

Italy’s buffoon

Beppe Grillo

To the outside observers, Italy is a country of majestic artworks, stunning landscapes, beautiful cities and delicious food. But to the insiders, all these appear trivial amenities compared to the ever-present decay of the country’s public and private sectors. Corruption is still rampant, despite the bout of inquiries and arrests that characterized the 1990s. Politicians and businessmen are often embroiled in obscure dealings surrounding company takeovers, sales or mergers. No one is ever found guilty, and even if someone is, the likes of him (for it is always a man) ending up in prison are pretty slim.

Given this picture, you would expect most media-savvy journalists to be up in arms, ready to seize the opportunity given by a political or commercial scandal to uncover some dirt, clean up the nation, and become rich and famous along the way. Instead, the tightly controlled Italian media (either in the hands of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, or under the watchful eye of the major political parties in power) appear generally more interested in the sexual habits of the country’s many showgirls, or in the latest fashion trends. Scandals gain complexity over time, like in the case of Parmalat’s collapse, and slowly become incomprehensible to the layman. People end up loosing interest in the matter. Eventually the spotlight turns to another scandal and a dark fog of silence descends on the entire affair. This way, the show can go on.

Not many people dare speak the truth, but one such man is Beppe Grillo. A comedian by profession, Grillo has long ago embarked on a crusade to do what other journalists don’t do: point an angry finger at those who are responsible for the ruinous state of the country. Banned for obvious reasons from performing on television, he has turned to the internet – and in particular to his blog, which Technorati ranks among the world’s 20 most visited blogs – to reach an even wider and more politically-motivated audience. Bloomberg’s Flavia Krause-Jackson and Chiara Remondini have written an excellent piece about his efforts to uncover bad management practices in Italy’s major companies.

“There are signs the public backlash against the excesses of public officials has started to effect change in Italy. Prime Minister Prodi, who met with Grillo shortly after winning the 2006 election, cut his own annual pay by 30 percent to 86,102 euros ($115,575), and extended the reductions to 102 ministers, deputies and undersecretaries. Italy’s ruling classes will need more than lower salaries to restore their reputations. That may explain why many of the 81 shows Grillo has scheduled for concert halls and small-town football stadiums this year have sold out.”

While in today’s colloquial language a buffoon denotes a ridiculous yet amusing person, in the Middle Ages the court jester performed an important political role, that of using irony and humorous metaphors to reprimand the king on his errors and advise him on policy matters. It was accepted norm that the buffoon should not be punished for his statements, for no one else was in a position to speak so bluntly to the ruler, lest he be charged with treason. Grillo is in every sense a modern buffoon, whose jests and mocking accusations should be heard more often by the Italian ruling and ruled classes alike.

The French candidates vs Globalization

Jose Bove' a la Rambo 

More on Europe’s 50th anniversary tributes/commentaries. As often is the case, some of the most thought-provoking articles come from outside the EU. In this one, published on the Yale Global websiteJean-Pierre Lehmann – professor of political international economy at the International Institute for Management Development – notes how France was once a prime mover of integration. But the nation has since become insecure and insular, and leading contenders in the French presidential race reflect the mood. “All this hardly bodes well for the future of France or for the future of Europe,” writes Lehmann. “This in turn may have a negative impact on the rest of the planet.”

What occurred in Europe in the late 1980s and 1990s was undoubtedly remarkable in its own right, yet European developments should also be seen in the much broader context of the “globalization revolution.” This revolution was marked by a series of simultaneous discontinuities, with the end of the Cold War as key landmark. While throughout most of the 20th century, the vast majority of people lived under highly restricted conditions of both political and economic freedom, by the beginning of the 21st century, reforms in China, India, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and more, and the global integration of markets that ensued, resulted, very suddenly, in the vast majority of people living in regimes of economic freedom and with increasing political freedom, or, in China and Vietnam, under a system that been termed “Market-Leninism.”

.

For France, which after 50-plus years of state-driven mollycoddling has become a nation of risk-averse functionaries, globalization has produced a terrible jolt. The French enjoyed the easy life: secure jobs, thanks to an inflexible labor market and protectionism, and in the last few years requiring no more than 35 hours of “toil” per week. Hence European enlargement and globalization tend to be perceived by the majority of the population as threats. Instead of reaching out, France has hunkered down. José Bové, the iconic moustachioed militant “peasant” leader, known for, among other things, having destroyed a McDonalds with a bulldozer and vandalized a Monsanto field of genetically modified crops, is also a presidential candidate and one of the most popular figures in the country: a contemporary Asterix!

.

If this aggressive inward-looking defensive stance were limited to “eccentrics” à la Bové, France would be okay; but it applies to virtually all the candidates, including the two main contenders, Nicholas Sarkozy on the right and Ségolène Royal on the left. Neither candidate has international experience, neither has studied abroad, neither can converse easily in English. In fact, never in the history of the 5th Republic has there been the prospect of so parochial a president.

Read the full article here and the companion to this article by Shada Islam here.

Tu Quoque, Margot?

Bad Escape?

As it turns out, our dear Margot Wallstrom is apparently attempting a ‘Louis Michel’ escape, having agreed to run a strategy group for Sweden’s opposition party in Europe, prompting the FT’s Andrew Bounds to ask: will the last Commissioner to leave please turn the lights off?

Well, that’s a bit unfair, actually. She’s apparently going to juggle both jobs. Clearly running an entire DG is not enough of a challenge for some…