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Blog VoxEurop

  • UK towards Brexit: The Boris Johnson gamble

    VoxEurop
    14 August 2016

    Barely a week old into his unexpected assignment as Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson was already making headlines. Yet, could Boris Johnson be more than a wild card in Theresa May’s new cabinet?

    The baptism of fire came early on his second day at the new job when Mr. Johnson got [booed](http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-booed-at-french-embassy-brexit-foreign-secretary-a7138306.html] by guests at the French Embassy reception in London. Then came the terrorist attack in Nice and the need to grapple with the fallout of the coup d’etat attempt in Turkey.

    But the reaction he received from the U.S. press corps during his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry really caught Mr. Johnson with his back against the wall. The joint press conference that followed saw a Boris Johnson taken to task by reporters asking him about the insulting references he made to world leaders, including comparing Hillary Clinton to a “sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and attacking President Obama for his “ancestral dislike for the British Empire”. Peppered with questions and grilled for his past uncanny comments, the former Mayor of London refused to apologize, :

    “I’m afraid there is such a rich thesaurus of things I’ve said that have been one way or another, through what alchemy I do not know, somehow misconstrued, that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned,” he told reporters during the press conference, his first with his U.S. counterpart.

    His controversial appointment as the UK’s top diplomat came with a swift and incredulous reaction on the world stage. Many rolled their eyes as Mr Johnson took his place among the leading foreign dignitaries of the global.

    Unfortunate mishap or calculated risk?

    Inserting Mr Johnson in such a position is considered by some not so much as an unfortunate mishap but as a massive political gamble. Handing one of the great office of state to him, an erratic and controversial political figure, in a time of political discontent and uncertainty is a huge gamble. Yet, this might well be a calculated risk and Mr. Johnson could prove to be the right man for the job.

    Firstly, the Foreign Office is not as important as it once was. Already under Tony Blair, the Prime Minister Office has started intervening in a variety of areas, including foreign policy, hollowing out much of the power of this department. The ministry saw its attributes watered down by other areas of the government. Prime Minister May doubles down on this trend, bringing the most important issues of British foreign policy under the newly established Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Secretary of State for International Trade.

    Boris Johnson is now heading a Foreign Office that looks more like a sales department for British interests, making it the perfect place for an unpredictable yet charismatic politician who managed to sell London to the world and win the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

    The move is also intended to unite the Conservative Party, quell any sort of internal discontent and bring the grassroots and right-wingers, for whom Mr. Johnson remains a popular figure, on board. With a slim majority in the House of Commons of only 12 MPs, Ms May is very susceptible to divisive party rebellions. Keeping the populist and Eurosceptic Boris Johnson close makes strategic sense as Theresa May believes that with him in office, there’s less of a chance for warring factions within the Conservative Party to turn against the Prime Minister.

    Also, as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson will be traveling the globe, spending large amounts of time away from London and from plotting party coups against the newly appointed PM. Yet having Mr. Johnson as the most absent figure in her cabinet doesn’t save Theresa May the trouble of dealing with all kinds of diplomatic incidents her Foreign Secretary is prone to.

    Brexit is Brexit

    Boris Johnsons’ support amongst a large number of Tory MPs, especially amongst Brexiters, helps not only Ms. May stay out of trouble, but also sends a clear message that the new cabinet is determined to take the UK out of the EU.

    In her inaugural speech, Theresa May was quick to point out that “Brexit means Brexit”, dismissing all hopes that the UK might change its minds about leaving the European Union. Having Boris Johnson, leader of the Leave camp, enlisted in a top ministerial position shows that triggering the now notorious Article 50 and parting with the EU is just a matter of time.

    In a quest for party unity and political stability calling upon Boris Johnson to serve in office is a smart move with far wider consequences. But populists, just like Mr. Johnson, remain appealing to voters mainly when kept outside public office, unaccountable to voters and away from the harsh realities of governing a country. Giving populists the chance to step up to the plate and take charge holds but only two possible outcomes: fail big or become run-of-the-mill politicians. Either way, we could see populism across the continent losing ground, proving that disarming it might be more a matter of implication rather than isolation.

    This article was first published on Katoikos.eu

    Cartoon by Daniel Murphy/CartoonMovement

  • Brexit and the media: A newspaper for the 48 percent

    VoxEurop
    08 July 2016

    In just ten days, a weekly newspaper for the anti-Brexit voters has been launched in the United Kingdom. It aims at providing them "in-depth analysis of the Brexit process, its implications and progress as well as a celebration of European life and culture".

    A new weekly popped up in British newsstands on this 8 July: The New European. Although it shares its name with a few Brussels-based newspapers and think-tanks, the paper specifically targets the 48% who voted to remain in the European Union in the 23 June referendum.

    The New European is published by the Norfolk-based Archant, which is planning to publish four issues initially. “Reader interest will decide whether it lasts beyond a month. Distribution will be focused on areas that voted strongly for remain, such as London and the south-east, Liverpool and Manchester”, reports The Guardian.

    The New European will provide in-depth analysis of the Brexit process”, says the newspaper’s site, “its implications and progress as well as a celebration of European life and culture with contributions from some of the most respected journalists and opinion formers from the UK and Europe.”

    The New European is not aligned with old political divisions but with an enthusiasm and love for Europe” – the latter being rather unusual in the United Kingdom, although the massive rally on 30 June in London showed that there are actually quite a few people who still value the UK’s membership of the European Union.

    It was the outpouring of enthusiasm and anger from the “Remainers” and their critic assessment of the way the British press covered the referendum campaign – and the EU in general – that prompted the publisher to think about “a printed product that reflected very clearly the values of the 48 percent”, says The New European’s launching editor and Archant Chief content officer Matt Kelly. In his opinion, they counted only on “a couple of newspapers traditionally perceived to be on the left of British politics, but both of which had seemed uncommitted to the Remain cause up until the last moments of the campaign, by which time it was — evidently now — too late.”

    After the referendum, Kelly adds,

    the sense of dismay and disenfranchisement has continued without any sign of fading. The fact that the Leave camp is so openly clueless about what the plan is now only adds to the sense that this is a self-inflicted wound of elephant gun proportions.

    The unusual business of launching a print newspaper without any market research has been achieved thanks to short-term expected lifespan of The New European – a month, maybe more – and to the fact that the readership already exists: it’s the 48 percent.

  • After the UK referendum: Don’t let the Brexiteers run Britain

    VoxEurop
    30 June 2016

    With their xenophobic rhetoric and their lack of pragmatism, the leaders of the Leave campaign, in particular former London Mayor Boris Johnson, have awakened forces that are spiralling out of control.

    Almost a week has now passed since the UK voted to leave the European Union. And during this time events in Westminster have oscillated between tragedy and farce, as heads roll, Remainers turn upon each other and Leavers sheepishly retract their promises of extra cash, stronger trade and restrictions to immigration. It seems increasingly clear the electorate has fallen victim to what the Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade has calledthe biggest con in the history of British voting”, spearheaded by opportunists and ideologues with no serious plans for what to do now.

    Economic crisis looms, and newspapers have leapt on stories of Leave voters now regretting their choice in the cold light of day. The liberal left has gleefully relayed news of a former Sun editor’s “buyer’s remorse” days after urging readers to leave. A friend’s father, though proud of his decision to vote Leave, is nevertheless applying for Irish citizenship.

    Supporters of EU membership can draw some comfort from the testimonies of regretful Leavers as the UK’s economic woes deepen. But it is likely millions more will continue to believe the hardship worth it for a chance to reduce immigration. It is this hard core of angry voters that is so terrifying. Boris Johnson has scurrilously stoked the fire of anti-immigration sentiment, and promised Sun readers they would see immigration fall if they voted to leave.

    Yet Johnson’s recent Brexit manifesto, published in his weekly Telegraph column, indicates his real priorities lie elsewhere. He wants to reassure “our neighbours, brothers and sisters who did what they passionately believe was right” that they will retain their right to free movement and access to the EU single market. Like so much of what Johnson writes, ‘our’ could be replaced with ‘my’ at no cost to comprehension. His neighbours live in a particularly well-heeled part of Islington, a Remain heartland, while his brother and sister are part of the same political-journalistic elite, but campaigned strongly against Brexit. His promise of a fabled ‘point-based system’ for immigration, casually thrown in towards the end of his article, has all the half-heartedness of a man who knows the EU will never agree to it —

    Yes, the Government will be able to take back democratic control of immigration policy, with a balanced and humane points-based system to suit the needs of business and industry.

    Johnson, for all his xenophobic pandering to the press, seems largely uncommitted to the key plank of his campaign. His cynicism means treating voters concerned about immigration as a force to be mobilised and then ignored. Johnson has form here. He has been happy to raise the spectre of 3,000-4,000 Islamist extremists heading for Britain, bravely insulting them before claiming ““I am not scared of Jihadi revenge attacks.” Given he invented the threat, his courage is not exactly impressive. As a key figure in the Conservative party’s smear campaign against Labour mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan, he used his Telegraph column to hint that Khan’s immigrant background made him untrustworthy —

    In Islam and the Labour Party there is a struggle going on, and in both cases Khan – whatever his real views – is pandering to the extremists. I don’t want him running our capital.

    Johnson is a master of dog-whistle politics. So he can easily brush aside accusations of inciting anti-immigrant feeling, just as he has scrupulously avoided sharing a platform with openly xenophobic Ukip leader Nigel Farage. But at the same time he has benefitted from the surge in anti-immigrant feeling that propelled his Leave campaign over the finish line.

    The danger is Johnson has awakened forces he won’t be able to control. For fear of immigration seems to operate on a mythological logic that rejects pragmatic political responses. And for all Johnson’s failings, he has signalled he would approach EU negotiations – and particularly the question of immigration – as a pragmatist. But he has encouraged the re-emergence of a xenophobic rhetoric that implies immigrants are by definition a burden. According to this logic, no immigration rate will be low enough, and the very presence of foreigners on British soil constitutes an affront. It is not a game mainstream politicians can ever win. Viktor Orbán in Hungary, no one’s definition of a moderate, is under increasing pressure from the yet more extreme rhetoric of the Jobbik party, having made immigration controls an electoral priority in a country where barely 2% of residents are foreign born.

    Likewise in the UK, Farage’s Ukippers are waiting in the wings to demand ever more extreme ‘crackdowns’, while Britain’s gutter press will continue to exaggerate or invent stories. In the immediate wake of the vote to leave, The Sunday People pasted its front page with the warning “500,000 Migrants Heading to Britain”.

    Boris Johnson – whatever his real views – is pandering to the extremists. I don’t want him running our country.

    Cartoon by Andrea Vitti/CartoonMovement

  • EU referendum: The Scot referendum campaign was far better

    VoxEurop
    22 June 2016

    In the last hours before the referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, it is time to assess the quality of the campaign. A comparison with the Scottish referendum illustrates just how bad it has been.

    A less open vote than in Scotland

    The referendum on Brexit poses a democratic conundrum: British and Commonwealth citizens living in the UK are entitled to vote, but not continental Europeans. This was not the case in Scotland, where Europeans from outside the rest of the UK could also make their voices heard. This openness was extended to the lowering of the legal age to vote to 16. That did not stop the Scots from deciding to remain within the UK. It is therefore paradoxical (or hypocritical, depending on your point of view) that European citizens have been able to vote in one case but not the other. And even more so this time, since the stakes are clearly at a European level.

    Both referendums unclear on Britain’s relationship to the EU

    One of the great weaknesses of the Scottish referendum was the lack of clarity on whether Scotland and its citizens would be in the European Union or not, were it to vote for independence. Europe’s national leaders seemed jumpy about the matter. In the Brexit vote, things are little clearer. Here, the vote is directly linked to EU membership… But we still do not know what the country’s future status will be: will it follow the Norwegian model, the Swiss, or a new approach? Negotiations with European partners over the next two years promise to be fraught and lengthy. Member states will be tempted to make Britain an example to others who might also be tempted to pull out...

    In addition, British voters are to express their views on the country’s relationship to a partner that is likely to see huge changes over the next few months, with the federalisation of the eurozone and perhaps the establishment of a two-speed Europe. Should this happen, is it possible Britons voting to leave Europe as it stands would agree to be in an outer circle more focused on the economy than on political integration?

    A campaign dominated by hysteria

    The polemical and spiteful campaign poster unveiled by Nigel Farage – showing hoards of migrants from the continent preparing to invade the UK – illustrates reasonably well the level of this campaign. Both camps have used the crudest of arguments: the end of the world in the case of Brexit, or the end of (white) British culture in the case of Remain.

    In the Scottish referendum as well, the last weeks of the campaign proved to be the toughest. But the level of debate was much higher, centred on reasoned arguments. It was striking to observe how little anti-English sentiment was present during the Scottish campaign. It was far removed from the animosity depicted in Braveheart or Outlander-style cinematic productions. It was about affirming difference, not rejecting otherness.

    The Brexit campaign was strongly marked by the spectre of a loss in identity. Fear dignifies neither the debate nor citizens.

  • The EU and refugees: A call for a humane migrant policy and a Federal Europe

    VoxEurop
    07 May 2016

    Promoted by the Young European Federalists of Pescara in collaboration with Europe in movimento, the following appeal calls on European leaders to suspend the agreements recently signed with Turkey in the field of refugees and the adoption of inclusive migration policies.

    Human beings keep dying in the Mediterranean Sea – only two weeks ago about 500 people according to UNHCR met their death as they were trying to cross the sea between Libya and Italy. Meanwhile the responses of European decision-makers do not appear to shift from an established pattern of opportunistic uncertainty, selfish denial of responsibility, securitarian obsessions, bureaucratic pettiness and renewed barrier-building contradicting the very foundation on which Europeans meant to re-construct their polities and build their common home after the new Thirty-Year War in the XX century.

    The EU-Turkey Agreement is a case in point. It has been severely criticized, even before its coming into force, for granting Turkey the status of “first country of asylum” and “safe third country” in the face of repeated violations of refugees’ rights on the part of the Turkish authorities. Fifty-nine MEPs across the political spectrum questioned the compliance of the Agreement with the principle of non-refoulement and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) raised human rights questions over EU-Turkey migrant deal. The PACE resolution's rapporteur Tineke Strik stated the Agreement “at best strains and at worst exceeds the limits of what is permissible under European and international law” .

    As European citizens who are deeply concerned about the approach European politics has taken in relation to migrants and refugees, we would like to draw your attention to an appeal – “Without a humane migration policy and a federal Europe there is no future” – which was drafted at the beginning of April by the Young European Federalists of Pescara in collaboration with the Italian group “Europa in Movimento”.

    Among other things, we demand the suspension of all agreements on migration matters recently signed with Turkey and a wholesale change of policy. You will find the details of our proposals in the text of the appeal (at bottom). Of course we do not merely intend to correct a bad course of action. In promoting this appeal we also aim to contribute to reconstructing the European project together with migrants and refugees.

    After a good response in Italy, where we collected in a few days more than 500 individual signatures and we received the support of 50 associations, we are ready to promote the appeal at the European level with the signatures of the first 130 individual endorsers from 18 European countries, representing a variety of organizations and ONG working on refugees and migrants issues.

    Sign the petition!

  • Fostering security in Europe: More measures don’t mean better results

    VoxEurop
    29 April 2016

    The promise for more security in the wake of the latest terrorist attacks led European countries to take individual action against civil liberties and basic freedoms, while citizens ask for a common European approach and to safeguard Europe's core values.

    Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’.

    This, indeed, is how it feels shortly after the tragic events that took place in Brussels at the end of last month. Similar to the reaction of European decision-makers in the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, every policy move is now a new promise for more security.

    New borders and divisions in Europe have emerged, and a more hands-on approach to citizens’ personal data is envisaged. Excessive checks and long queues at the borders are an everyday reality. The Directive on the Passenger Name Record (PNR) has regained its momentum and secured the necessary votes after having been rejected twice by the European Parliament on grounds of lack of proportionality between the proposed security measures and the citizens’ rights.

    Eurosceptic politicians are using this situation in an opportunistic manner by initiating referendums and promising a safer life to their citizens through the prospect of leaving the European Union. A thorough impact assessment of the proposed patchwork measures, of the promises to society, or of the fundamental rights and freedoms is largely missing.

    Strangely enough however, the déjà vu feeling experienced by European citizens who witness their decision-makers recycling the same populist measures while promising a different outcome may not be appreciated. It seems as though Europeans share a different view of the situation and decision-makers are missing the point once again.

    A recent survey of the Bertelsmann Stiftung on Border protection and Freedom of Movement (January, 2016) reveals that 79% percent of Europeans consider freedom of movement to be of great importance, and believe it should be defended at all costs. The fact that this is the most cherished right of European citizens is not any news, and the Flash Eurobarometer on EU citizenship (October 2015) reconfirms this by showing that 71% of Europeans believe that free movement of people within the EU brings economic benefit to their country (4 percentage points higher than in 2012).

    The restoration of borders and the shrinking civic rights and liberties against increased security is not what Europeans want. Moreover, those who have lived through communist regimes at the other side of the iron curtain know well that such a promise never delivers positive effects, but rather offers great potential to result in “insanity”. According to the Bertelsmann Stiftung survey, the majority of Europeans think policy makers should be defending the rights of European citizens by devising a common European approach to the current crises.

    This is particularly the case with regard to the migration crisis, as shown by a survey conducted by the European Parliament in September 2015, and others. In order to create such a common European approach, European decision-makers should ensure the rule of law by effectively implementing the tools that they already have at their disposal and by efficiently carrying out actions for which they have been mandated by European citizens.

    Sharing information is a crucial part of effective and coordinated border control and law enforcement. The Schengen Information System (SIS) plays a central role as a platform for exchanging information in order to trace terrorist suspects and conveyances used for terrorism and serious crime purposes.

    A recent report by the European Commission identifies serious gaps and shortcomings in the implementation of the Schengen acquis. These include a lack of relevant national legislation and procedures in some founding Member States of the EU, which hampers their ability to process alerts and to take advantage of the existing security framework.

    As surprising as such a finding could be, it clearly shows the need for urgent improvement of both national level capacity and international cooperation in the area of freedom, security and justice. Until Member States do their homework properly and prove that the effective use of the instruments already in place is not enough for addressing current challenges, the adoption of new security-related measures at the expense of fundamental rights and freedoms should not be even discussed.

    Moreover, it is very difficult for citizens to understand the reasoning behind some of the proposed “solutions” to the problems. The fact that the Belgian police are unable to find a convicted criminal in violation of parole when coming back from Syria somehow leads to the prospect of sharing the personal data of everyone boarding a plane.

    Simply because it took the police four months to upload the address of a known safe house of the most wanted terrorist in Europe after the Paris attacks to a national database, free movement and civic rights are scrapped. One cannot help but wonder if it is really sane to introduce new measures if the existing ones are not even properly enforced.

    Transforming exceptional rules of limiting free movement into a general rule is against both the will of European citizens and the mandate given by them to European decision-makers through the Treaties. Moreover, in terms of values and with regard to the future of Europe as an area of prosperity, freedom, security and justice, it is the ultimate recipe for disaster.

    Cartoon by Tjeerd Royaards/CartoonMovement

  • 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns: Wolfgang Teubner: Let’s ‘re-build a sustainable and inclusive Europe’

    VoxEurop
    12 April 2016

    Ahead of the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns (Bilbao, 27-29 April), the ICLEI Regional Director for Europe, reflects on the insights of an event that will bring together local and regional governments representatives, European and international institutions and civil society to discuss the future of local sustainable development in Europe.

    Why is the 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns so relevant in the current European and worldwide scenario?

    In an urbanising world, cities are key actors for the implementation of the key global frameworks for sustainable development, namely the UN 2030 agenda as defined in the universally applying Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Both these frameworks implicitly address the limits of global resources and ask for a massive societal transformation. At the same time cities feel the impact of the economic and financial crisis in Europe, and the pressure from the refugee crisis that reveals a wider crisis of the European Union. Therefore we have to discuss how the necessary transformations and the European crisis can be jointly addressed on the local level based on a strongly engaged civil society, in order to re-build a sustainable and inclusive Europe.

    How will the event help to shape the future of urban sustainable development in Europe?

    The event will discuss the potential of new and innovative ways to address these issues from a city perspective and how this can be supported by international and European frameworks. It will bring forward new ideas, showcase good examples from cities and provide live experiences in the Basque country that is a lighthouse of transformation.

    What are the expected outcomes of the Conference?

    We expect a strong declaration that is outlining new pathways towards an urban and societal transformation. It will also provide new impulses for joint and shared activities of cities in Europe, and is asking for a more supportive policy framework from upper levels of government. Maybe even more importantly we expect a lot of new and practical ideas that provide inspiration and guidance for local politicians and practitioners that want to become active in their cities.

    Why do local governments need to have a voice on sustainable development?

    In Europe almost 75% of the population is living in cities and the urbanisation trend is not yet over. Cities plan and develop infrastructure and services for the majority of the people and therefore have a big impact of lifestyle choices and sustainable opportunities of their inhabitants. However, cities cannot do it on their own, and need the support from national and international levels that should support them in their efforts. Therefore they need to have a strong voice in national, European and international processes that define the frameworks for local action.

    Is there a European model of urban sustainability?

    Based on the long history of urbanisation in Europe dating from the Middle-Age, we can say that there is a European model of cities that is usually compact, based on walkable neighbourhoods with mixed use, with a clearly defined centre. There are also some shared ideas and principles based on common frameworks like the Aalborg Charter, the Aalborg Commitments, the Leipzig Charter, the Reference Framework for sustainable cities or even the Covenant of Mayors. But whether this leads to a European model per se might be questioned. We also see considerable cultural and economic differences between North Western Europe and South Eastern Europe. We believe that based on common principles and shared goals the models and ways can and maybe even should differ.

    What has been done so far on the field in Europe and what needs to be done?

    First, I can again refer to the frameworks mentioned above. We should also not forget to mention the European Green Capital Award that also refers to some sort of model, as well as the smart cities EIP and several other initiatives. In the past, most schemes had a planning approach with a focus on participatory approaches, as most successfully shown in thousands of Local Agenda 21 processes. Now the time for transformative action has come, and for this we need a different quality in the involvement of the civil society, which can be best described as co-design and co-creation. We will also have to consider a new type of financial and economic engagement particularly of the urban middle class, as, for example successfully demonstrated in the energy transition and the urban food agenda. This will also contribute to bridge the emerging gap between citizens and the political actors in many countries.

    Image:Max Thabiso Edkins/ICLEI

    For more information: ...

  • UK referendum: David Cameron’s lost opportunity at the European Parliament

    VoxEurop
    18 February 2016

    While paying lip-service to "more democracy" for the European Union, the British Prime Minister has preferred exclusive meetings behind closed doors to a real debate in front of MEPs and European public opinion.

    It should have been this week’s great European moment for the media: David Cameron at the European Parliament. But sadly the Prime Minister turned down the Parliament’s invitation to speak. Instead he was happy just to meet the heads of each parliamentary faction. What a shame, given that Brexit is an issue for all European citizens.

    David Cameron refused to take part in this democratic moment for two probable reasons. First, because he did not want British television channels to cherrypick a likely confrontation with Nigel Farage. This would have placed the anti-European leader of UKIP on a pedestal at a time when his party is enjoying a (slight) popularity boost in the UK. Next, because Cameron would have been attacked by most MEPs without being able to respond immediately afterwards, as is the case in the House of Commons.

    But it also makes a lot of sense. Cameron has based his renegotiation strategy on bilateral discussions away from the public eye. Admittedly, this tactic has involved more than a little blackmail: let me have fundamental changes or I’ll campaign to leave the European Union, his argument goes. This kind of approach can only take place in the sheltered realm of diplomatic discussions.

    Unfortunately for all of us citizens, bilateral negotiations kill off any public debate. In any representative democracy there are, of course, closed negotiations. But time for public debate means the final document presented at the end of negotiations has had a chance to evolve. Here, this is no longer possible: if national leaders, worn down over a marathon negotiation session, accept a highly problematic point, there can be no going back. This is exactly how diplomatic negotiations and international treaties work. But there will no longer be any space for a European public debate: national leaders will have squeezed this out of existence.

    The lack of a European public debate

    Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ visit to the European Parliament allowed for a real discussion and shed some light on the debate for people watching. His words were no longer warped through the lens of national media outlets. Normally, news from Greece would be chosen according to a set of national preoccupations rather than actually reflecting the Greek context. And the same thing was true of Tsipras himself. At the European Parliament he could finally address European citizens outside of Greece and put forward his own arguments without being constrained by Greek issue. It was a true moment of European democracy.

    The absence of European public debate is one of the Union’s greatest weaknesses. There are effectively 28 national public spheres instead of one when it comes to discussing issues with a European dimension.

    Brexit is a perfect example of this democratic deficit. The UK’s exit or continued membership of the EU affects all Europeans and not only British citizens. But the discussions are exclusively taking place between diplomats, away from the prying eyes of European citizens. A Europe-wide question has been, ultimately, brought within the borders of a single nation.

    And this plays into the hands of the “Out” campaigners, since the debate is only happening from a British (or even just English) perspective. People are only talking about British interests when they should be asking what the consequences would be for non-British EU citizens living in the UK. Countries in Central Europe have highlighted this, but also from a national perspective to protect “their” citizens.

    If the idea of Europe is in its death throes, it is thanks to the nationalisation of public debate.

    Translated from the French by Simon Pickstone

    Cartoon by Nicolas Vadot

  • Italy’s battle for gay unions: A relic from the past century

    VoxEurop
    14 February 2016

    The vagaries of a country where the Vatican has much too much impact.

    There is a country in Old Europe where gay people cannot marry (nor have the equivalent of a French “Pacs” – a civil union) and neither gay people nor singles can adopt. This relic from the past century is Italy, my birthplace, several times condemned for discrimination against gay people by the European Court of Justice.

    Italy is, of course, a very Catholic country, but I do not think this is enough, per se, to explain what is going on: we Italians are a special breed of Catholics, expert in eschewing Catholic dogmas. Most of our right-wing politicians, although they defend the traditional family, have divorced and remarried (divorce is legal since 1975, and even abortion is).

    Italy, however, is on the verge of change.

    If everything goes as planned, soon we should see the approval of the Cirinnà bill on gay civil unions – taking its name from Monica Cirinnà, the dauntless MP from PM Matteo Renzi’s Democratic party party who presented it. Correction: the law, hopefully, will be approved in the Senate, but then it will pass to the lower Chamber of Deputies where the government has enough votes to approve it with ease – but, if it were modified, it would go back to the Senate and so on. The road is long.

    The battle in the higher Chamber, where the government’s numbers are fragile, has exemplified until now every possible horror of the Italian political life. First of all: we’ve been waiting for a law of this kind since the first project was presented thirty years ago. Secondly, this law is a watered down, tame compromise accurately studied to offend as little as possible: the Cirinnà law does not prescribe gay marriages, just “civil unions” that guarantee most of a marriage’s rights, but do not consent adoptions. But the real controversy in Parliament exploded around an article that would permit the so-called “stepchild adoption”.

    Clips of far-right senators knotting their tongues trying to say – in English – “stepchild adoption” during the Senate debate have made Facebook a merrier place for days. This part of the law states that any partner can ask to to adopt the biological child of his/her companion to protect the child’s right to remain in a safe environment. Objectors say it is a veiled authorization to march out of Italy and procure a child through a surrogacy mother (the practice is illegal in Italy). The real fun part, however, is that adopting a partner’s child is already inscribed in the adoption law since 1986, and recently, at least in one case, a judge assigned the same right to a lesbian couple. So this part of the new law just reiterates something which already exists.

    Italians have been battling for weeks now with the intricacies of the Cirinnà bill, trying first to understand, then to decide what they think. We had a Sunday with supporters of the law demonstrating in dozens of Italian cities and proclaiming “We are one million people!”. The following Sunday, another demonstration from the Catholic side was held in Circo Massimo in Rome and the cry was “We are two million people!” – having of course to double, at least, the post (Realistic estimates suggest the first demonstration called to the streets about 100,000 people, the second perhaps 200,000).

    We’ve had people yell in Parliament that surrogacy is akin to “a crime against humanity” (although surrogacy is never mentioned in the law), and, also in Parliament, a senator asking a gay collegue “how much did you pay for your child?”. Another senator accused the Speaker of the Senate, Piero Grasso, of being a “stupid servant of the power”. The Speaker answered suavely “Your insults are a medal of honour, Senator Giovanardi”...

    I can afford to consider the matter with a modicum of humour, because I am convinced that the law will pass. However, I have yet to find a reliable poll on Italians’ real opinion. Right-wing politicians declare the country is with them. Supporters of the law assure that Italians agree with the Cirinnà bill – or, at least, they don’t care. I tend to agree with them. Italians, I believe, in the majority couldn’t care less one way or another. Somebody does care, though: the Vatican cares.

    The Catholic establishment battled gay marriages in France and Spain as best as it could, and letting go of Italy is the ultimate abomination. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the president of CEI (the Bishops’ Conference), invoked a secret vote in the Senate (hoping that it would make it easier for the senators from the majority to vote against the law). Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, rather curtly, suggested it is for the Senate to decide. But it has to be remarked that he gave his senators the moral freedom of voting as they like on the notorious stepchild adoption.

    Meanwhile, as a single woman who does not have children and is starting to wonder to whom she will leave her cookery books, I can’t help but wonder if modernizing Italy will mean one day also enabling single people to adopt – not to mention rainbow families. There are about 25,000 children under the care of the State in Italy. About 40 percent manages to return to their families. But many are simply too old or too problematic to be adoption material. A fraction of them goes into foster care; singles can foster, but few have the strength to start fostering a child that they could never adopt. The rest grow up to 18 in an institution. They deserve better; we all do.

    Photo: The pro-gay marriage demonstration in Piazza del Pantheon in Rome on 22 January 2016, by Alessandra Quattrocchi

  • General elections in Spain: The Spanish exception

    VoxEurop
    19 December 2015

    European politics has been experiencing a radicalisation towards the extremes over the last few years, following a string of events that have shaken the continent. The most recent of these, the Paris attacks, unleashed a wave of terror and fear along with a furious reaction across all of Europe. No less important, and over a much longer time-frame, is the surge in immigration to Europe during the past year from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

    The result of the first round of France’s regional elections was the first political response to the impact of these events on French public opinion. The National Front secured almost 30% of the vote, in some regions reaching above 40%. In the second round, a curious but not unprecedented alliance of left and right stopped the extreme-right party from governing any region. But the trend has been on the up for many years, remaining solid in any case and markedly different from the decline of the socialist left, led by President Hollande, and the right, represented by former President Sarkozy.

    But France is far from the exception. Other countries have also followed this tendency of radicalisation towards the extremes. A few weeks ago, Poland voted in the Law and Justice party (PiS), an extremely conservative group that, as one of its first measures, announced the country would close its borders to immigrants coming from the Middle East, in doing so emulating Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. In the United Kingdom, UKIP, an ultranationalist party, has been making hay with David Cameron’s difficult compromise to hold a yes-no referendum on EU membership (known as “Brexit”). In Scandinavia the extreme right has been riding high.

    In Spain we are travelling in a different direction, and this in spite of having been hit by same two elements that have led to radicalisation in other countries. We have been victim to islamist or jihadist terrorism – lest we forget the most bloody attacks in Europe killed 191 in Madrid in March 2004 – and have seen the continent’s most intense immigration over the past 20 years. In spite of all this, there is no political party in Spain that has included closing the borders within its political agenda, even when faced with such events and such threats. John Carlin writes in El País of “Spain’s enviable politics” and of the “increase in the quality” of democracy brought about by the emergence of new parties, as a reaction to what he labels, perhaps a little exageratedly, “the political poverty of the past” —

    the same people who viewed Spain with disdain from abroad today must see it as a country to be envied, particularly in the context of the most interesting issue of our age in Europe and the US: the sudden emergence into the political sphere of parties or individuals – “the insurgents” as the British press calls them – who are threatening to break with the established order.

    The fundamental question under discussion is without doubt that of the crisis of the traditional two-party system, a phenomenon we share with other European countries. But the emerging Spanish parties, who like to distinguish between “new” and “old” politics, have not gone looking for scapegoats from abroad. Perhaps the priorities of the public have been moving in a different direction, and these parties have yielded to them, namely the devastating effects of the economic crisis and the demolition of Spain’s political class in the eyes of the public following a series of corruption scandals. These two main issues have brought about the convergence of the two parties representing “new politics”, Ciudadanos and Podemos, towards the centre, as the New York Times puts it. Referring to Ciudadanos, it claims —

    The splintering of politics in Europe has spawned the rise of numerous upstart parties, usually on the extremes, be they left or right. But in Spain’s shifting political landscape one new party, surprisingly, is managing to attack from the center, challenging conservatives and Socialists alike.

    As for Podemos, the newspaper writes —

    Mr. Iglesias has struggled to shift his party toward a more centrist electorate without losing the support of the far-left faction that founded it in 2014.

    On 20 December, the day of Spain’s general elections, we will see just how far the effect of this “new politics” reaches. And in the weeks to come, we will find out whether these new players have the ability to try and form a government alone, or – the most likely option – in a coalition with other parties, and so determine Spain’s political future.

    Translated by Simon Pickstone

    On the picture by ABC: Prime minister Mariano Rajoy, Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos) and Pablo Iglesias (Podemos).