Blog VoxEurop

  • After the general election in France: The majority voting system is a denial of democracy — Macron must reform it

    22 June 2017

    Despite not having scored the landslide victory that was expected, the French President's party will have three times as many MPs in the new National Assembly as the second-placed political party — a French anomaly that is the result of an unfair majority system.

    The official results are in: 351 of the 577 MPs elected to the National Assembly will represent one and the same political camp: that of the President of the Republic (LREM / MD, centre). The party, which obtained 31 percent of the votes in the first round of the legislative elections, thus gains 62 percent — twice the number — of seats. How is this possible?

    Well believe it or not, the French Republic, the land of human rights and welcoming political refugees, is not a true democracy in which voters are represented proportionately, but a regime with a majority system, in which the voices of the many stifle those of the few. Simply put, the country is divided into 577 constituencies. In each of them, electors appoint a single MP. If a candidate obtains 51 percent of the votes, 49 percent of voters will not be heard. This unfair system is illustrated by the graphs below.

    Distribution of votes in the first round of the French legislative elections:

    Distribution of seats in the National Assembly following the elections:

    And yet the outgoing president, François Hollande (from the leftist Socialist party, PS), had promised to introduce a proportional voting system. Has he fulfilled his promise? Not in the slightest. Nicolas Sarkozy (The Republicans, LR, on the right), his predecessor, had also discussed the possibility of introducing a more proportional system. Empty words! And François Bayrou, who rallied behind Emmanuel Macron's candidacy to seal his victory, had even made proportional voting one of his battle horses that almost propelled him to the second round of the 2007 presidential election. However, it is uncertain whether he will pressure his new guru to finally put a proportional voting system in place, given his clear setbacks on the moralization of the political life he was in charge of as the Justice minister (Bayrou resigned on 21 June after his name came out in an investigation over his party’s parliamentary assistant’s paybacks).

    Why do these political leaders not respect this promise, once they are elected? Some may say that they are obsessed with power and that once they get it, they will do everything possible to keep it. The majority vote consolidates the power of the biggest party and they decide that it is favourable to them because they are in control. But things change — five years later, resentful of the reforms that were passed, citizens no longer trust them. Their protest-vote has disastrous consequences for the outgoing power, as the Socialist Party are well aware: they’re left with just a handful of MPs, whereas a proportional vote would have allowed them to control the damage. This short-term vision has contributed to the downfall of the two great traditional parties (PS and LR).

    What is democracy?

    Here’s a small etymological reminder: the term democracy comes from the Greek words "demos" and "kratein" which, combined, give "power of the people". Not that of the majority, but of the whole people. This ideal can only be incarnated by a representation of all political currents (except those of derisory importance) in parliament. Only in this way can the assembly of people's representatives become a temple of debates of ideas, an essential component of democracy. The majority vote is all the more anti-democratic given the results of the 2017 general election, as the importance given to each party over the next five years will depend on the number of elected deputies. In this way, the Socialist Party, whose number of deputies will be divided by ten and 45 percent of whose budget is based on government subsidies, will have to make cutbacks. Les Républicains, who were already the opposition, see their number of MPs fall by a third, while the role of the main critics of the government will still be theirs as they will remain the second party of the assembly. I do not want to defend the privileges of the major political parties, but will one of them be ready to take over La République en Marche (LRM, Macron’s party) once the citizens choose the protest vote? It is a safe bet that with their limited resources, they won’t be more effective in five years’ time, and their weakness opens a space that the more extreme parties might fill.

    Low participation is one of the consequences of majority voting. Is there any use in trying if we already know the outcome? The lack of citizens’ engagement does not seem to have benefited the Front National (far-right) this year, but one can imagine that their electorate might show more engagement during the next elections. It would not be the first time in history that citizens’ lack of vigilance has allowed the far-right to come to power.

    But how does it work in other countries?

    The majority voting system was established in France for historical reasons. The Fourth Republic, which did indeed have a proportional voting system, was marked by troubles and instability. Charles de Gaulle decided therefore to establish a regime with a strong executive body that would benefit from a clear majority in parliament.

    Nevertheless, the politics of the shaky post-war era couldn’t make a return in 2017. In the 1940s and 1950s, the political scene was much more fragmented. For several years now, only one or two political blocs has dominated it.

    In addition, proportional voting has proved its worth in other countries. In fact, only France and the United Kingdom have a majority voting system among the 28 EU Member States. In France, the election is even divided into two rounds, which further favours the dominant parties. Let's take our neighbour on the other side of the Rhine, Germany, from whom we love to take inspiration. It has a mixed electoral system, combining a proportional and majority voting system, which could be a first stepping-stone before France adopts a proportional representation by list vote. At the present time, the composition of the German Bundestag is as follows:

    Distribution of the votes:

    It is true that no party has an absolute majority. But Germany is not an unstable country either, quite the contrary. The country has only had three heads of government since 1982! Since the current Chancellor came to power, the CDU / CSU has been forced into taking turns with the left and the center, but the coalitions are born out of compromise, the very essence of democracy. They did not prevent it from taking important measures and preserving German leadership in Europe.

    But let's go a little further east to Poland. For although Germany, Hungary, Romania and Lithuania have a mixed system, the other 22 member states have opted for purely proportional voting. In Warsaw, the first years of post-communist democracy were somewhat traumatic: the first completely free parliamentary elections in 1991 resulted in an assembly of 29 parties, including such incongruous movements as the Polish Party of Beer Friends or the Alliance of Women Against Life’s Hardships. The strongest group had only 62 seats, and the composition of the government changed every few months.

    The political scene has gradually stabilised, however, and a single prime minister even governed the country between 2007 and 2014. Only one party currently has a short majority in Parliament:

    Distribution of the votes:

    A call to Emmanuel Macron

    French democracy is sick. It is not normal for a party to win 62 percent of seats with the votes of 16 percent of registered voters. The experiences of our European neighbours show that proportional voting does not condemn a country to chaos. We already have the Senate, which represents the territories of the French “hexagon” in its diversity. At least leave the people the National Assembly, so that all voices can make themselves heard. The best way to fight the extreme right is not to block the road to parliament, but to let it wade in its own incoherence in the hemicycle. It is better to channel its voters’ anger in this place of democratic debate rather than inciting it to create a parallel state as its power rises.

    Mr Macron, as a great Democrat, should understand this appeal. He should be the one who, contrary to his predecessors, will truly take the decisive step and inscribe the principle of proportional representation into French electoral law. Not because of cold calculation, as François Mitterrand did for one election to win it, but to revive this democracy out of breath.

    And why wait until 2022? I urge him to convene new elections in the immediate future, if he has the guts; if he truly wants to create a new political style. Not for strategical reasons as Jacques Chirac had done. Not so that he has even more MPs, but precisely to have less because otherwise the government camp will fall into inertia, for lack of strong opposition.

    Translated by Felix Constant-Hynes

  • EU news coverage: Can an Erasmus for journalists improve reporting on Europe?

    20 June 2017

    One of the EU’s most successful initiatives, the Erasmus student exchange programme can be replicated for young and talented journalists and communications experts. It would foster innovation sharing and, ultimately, a better coverage of European affairs, says its initiator, Euractiv’s founder Christophe Leclercq.

    The Erasmus programme has celebrated these days its thirtieth anniversary. Launched in 1987, it has allowed over five million students from EU countries and beyond to spend a few months in an university in another European country (Spain tops the ranking) thanks to an EU grant and through agreements between institutions.

    Today, Erasmus is considered as one of the EU’s most successful initiatives — probably its most popular — and it contributed more than any other policy to forge the first generation of truly European citizens, the living ambassadors of the European integration and the pioneering heralds of a borderless and mobile Europe and of a European identity.

    Learning or perfecting another language, getting in touch with other realities and ways of living and studying, and meeting fellow students from other countries (and sometimes setting up a family together afterwards) has led the so-called “Erasmus generation” be part of a vast network of alumni who now came of age and are building up their career in many top jobs around the continent — in addition to being at the centre of French comedy by Cédric Klapisch L’Auberge espagnole and the starting point and main target of the participatory news platform Cafébabel.

    So if Erasmus offered unprecedented opportunities to European students, why not replicate it for professionals, and specifically for journalists? They might also benefit from spending some time in a newsroom in another country. Journalists sometimes collaborate with fellow reporters from other media either on specific projects, like cross-border investigations, or for short visiting periods. But there is no real reporters’ exchange programme.

    A new project, nicknamed “Erasmus for Media” aims to meet this need, while also tackling the 20-year long crisis hitting the European media sector, by providing newsrooms with a framework (and a budget) for journalist’s exchange, as its initiator, Euractiv news website's founder Christophe Leclercq — a strong supporter of the Erasmus exchange programme himself in his University days — explains:

    "The media sector is in crisis, even more than I thought before I interviewed 30 Editors, Publishers and experts across Europe in the last year and a half as part of the #Media4EU research project. There are many IT-centered projects and new journalistic networks trying to help. But most are not sustainable. And many media are really fragile SMEs, led by people who learned their trade 30 years ago... Hence we wish to boost innovation, by speeding up careers of young 'rising journalism stars', and organising cross-media exchanges around actual projects.”

    The Yes! to Erasmus4Media – Support media innovation! project, aims at promoting exchanges among young and talented journalists, who would spend some time in newsrooms in other EU countries, sharing their experience and skills with local reporters, thus contributing to “change” the latter’s mindset to “a more Europe-open one”. The project also targets “marketing and communications professionals, social media managers and IT”. It “has gained moral support from media organisations” — among which VoxEurop — “and professionals, and from some MEPs”, adds Leclercq. The EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and First vice-president Frans Timmermans also recently expressed some interest in it.

    As for funding, according to Leclercq, “to be both effective and in line with independence, this project should be supervised by media practitioners, and co-funded by the EU. Some MEPs, from several groups, help us to prepare a pilot project proposal. If assessed positively, it could be voted as part of the EU budget. By the way, this is the general ERASMUS programme started.”

    In his White Paper on the future of Europe, Juncker states that “We want to live in a democracy with a diversity of views and a critical, independent and free press”, recognising that a bigger coverage of EU affairs is essential for the European Union to work as an effective democratic organisation. However, notes Leclercq, “those statements of principle sound good, but they are not matched with actions yet. And there’s a real challenge ahead on having a true debate in the media on this issue. A debate that could build on the review of the Digital Single Market, provided it is not dominated by GAFA [Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple] lobbying, and if press associations get their acts together.”

    Leclercq will present the “Erasmus for Media” initiative, at the Global Editors Network annual summit in Vienna this week.

    Photo: Italian daily La Stampa's newsroom, in Turin.

  • Places in Motion — Culture wars in Poland: Torn between the Nation and Europe

    16 June 2017

    The new museum of the Second World War in Gdansk has become a battlefield between nationalistic and liberal views of Poland's national identity. What is debated is the extent to which Polish and European history are interconnected.

    Some of the most passionating pages of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum describe the siege of the post office of Gdansk on September 1st, 1939. At the time the city was a self-governing entity, separating Eastern Prussia from the rest of Germany and indirectly providing Poland with some access to the sea. Nazi Germany's attack on the city being the first act of belligerence that marked the beginning of World War II, it is not by chance that Gdansk has recently built a high-profile museum devoted to the conflict. Few hundred meters away from it are the shipyards that used to be the stronghold of Solidarność before 1989: this Polish city it is by all effects an European lieu de mémoire.

    One of the biggest museums of the country, counting on a international scientific committee, employing innovative exposition techniques, displaying an iconic building: the political and cultural significance of the enterprise underlying the Museum of the Second World War can hardly be underestimated – and it is further stressed by the 10 years of work and the investment surpassing 100 million euros. The museum has finally opened to the public at the beginning of this spring, but its permanent exhibition and governance have proved to be highly controversial in today's Poland, where the memory of World War II and national relations with the neighboring countries continue to be hotly debated.

    Even after more than 70 years from its conclusion, the war remains an incredibly popular subject for the European public, and it is continuously approached from dozens of different angles. The curators of the Gdansk museum necessarily had to choose a specific angle, so they took two fundamental decisions. First, the museum should focus on the everyday experience of the people affected by the war, not only of soldiers. To this end, many private donors contributed to the collection by offering thousands of objects belonging to their families. Second, the exhibition should stress the connections and similarities between the Polish people's experience and those of the other people in Europe. According to the renowned historian Timothy Snyder, “the museum is the only attempt in Europe or really in the world to actually present the war as international history.” It is this choice that has become politically contested in Poland.

    The debate on the Gdansk museum has become particularly tense after the comeback of the Law and Justice party (PiS) to power in 2015 (the museum had initially been promoted by their arch-enemy Donald Tusk, a Gdansk local). PiS leaders have not visited the museum, but they have made clear that they do not like it in any case. They engaged in a long battle to get rid of its director, which has come to an end in early April, when the Supreme Administrative Court sanctioned the appointment of a new director, Karol Nawrocki.

    Nawrocki is expected to be more in line with the Law and Justice's view on the memory of World War II. Indeed, he has already announced some changes to the permanent exhibition, which will give more space to the distinct Polish experience. The suffering of the Poles is likely to be stressed, while the authoritarian tendencies of interwar Poland and the acts of violence or cowardice committed by Polish citizens, e.g. against the Jews, will probably be downplayed.

    To be sure, no one questions the awful experience of Poles during the war, which was extraordinary indeed. However, a nationalistic reading of the past is central to the narrative of PiS, which relies heavily on the representation of Poland as a victim and on the exaltation of its singularity – contrary to other existing narratives, which are more inclined to linking the history of Poland with the broader history of Europe, and not to overlook the shadows tainting the national history. More in general, the Law and Justice's effort at gaining control on the Gdansk museum appears in keeping with its attempt at reducing the spaces available for independent, liberal narratives in the country, for instance by intervening heavily in the media sector and in other domains.

  • Theresa May defeat in general elections: Why Euroscepticism didn’t pay off

    12 June 2017

    The 8 June general election shows that, despite appearances, the British people want to stay firmly in Europe

    Although Brexit has taken a back seat in the run-up to the general elections, we should not forget that Theresa May called for the elections in order to have a ‘strong and stable’ Brexit. In other words, a Brexit at any cost; a hard Brexit; a Brexit with no concessions. But is this really what the British people wanted when they made their voices heard in ballot boxes on 23 June 2016? One thing cannot be denied: Britons opted for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, and this choice should be respected. Both major parties have taken note of this; yet the devil is in the detail.

    Did British voters vote against the European Single Market? Did they vote against the right of EU nationals — a number of which work the most thankless jobs, thereby contributing to society — to work in the UK? Did they vote against British senior citizens’ right to retire under the Spanish sun? Did they vote against the common fight against terrorism? What about the Charter of Fundamental Rights?

    I think that Theresa May’s hard learned lesson during the general elections answers these questions. The British people want to break free of the yoke of Brussels bureaucracy. They certainly had doubts concerning the rationality of EU expenditure, and perhaps the free movement of people scared them. Despite this, the 8 June vote shows that Britons are still firmly anchored in Europe.

    Supporters of the Remain campaign mainly voted for the Labour Party as, rightly or wrongly, its leader Jeremy Corbyn is considered the pro-European candidate, and voters know that he will fight for a smooth break from the EU. The prime minister wanted to secure a clear majority in Parliament for negotiations with the EU, reckoning that the Left and the Scots were standing in her way, but many right-wing voters ended up jumping ships and voting for the pro-European Labour Party.

    The Tories thus represent the hard Brexit camp (although May originally mildly campaigned against it), sweeping aside the Eurosceptic UKIP (whose score has diminished sevenfold in the last two years); meanwhile, Labour represents the soft Brexit, and perhaps even the Remain camp. In other words, the prime minister asked one question, but got the answer to a different one.

    Translated by Felix Constant-Hynes

  • Places in Motion – UK local elections: Manchester – a new capital for Britain?

    05 May 2017

    Apart from London, large urban areas have often been under-represented in the British political debate. Now this could change, as Greater Manchester and other cities have their first elected mayors – a novelty which might help to address some of England's growing divides.

    A couple of months ago, The Economist suggested that Britain should move its capital from London to Manchester. Bagehot's case was partly based on short-term pragmatic grounds (i.e. the poor state of the Westminster facilities), but also on serious long-term political concerns. The latter were directly connected to the fundamental redefinition of the UK as a polity in the wake of Brexit and of the growing unease in Scotland. It is actually because of this ongoing process that London will certainly remain the capital of Britain in the foreseeable future: Brexit alone will make the government and the parliament way too busy in the next years, they will not be able to address such an additional issue.

    Yet the case for moving the British capital to the North of England is not ill-conceived. "Look at Britain today and you see a country wracked by division": the political and economic divides between North and South, cities and countryside, London and the rest, are becoming deeper and deeper. These divides are clearly mirrored by the difficulties encountered by the main political parties in addressing the different realities of the UK with a coherent, convincing message. Especially for Labour, the dilemma is clear: messages that work in some areas of the country do not work – or are even counterproductive – in other areas.

    While London will remain the British capital city, an interesting development is taking place in Central and Northern England these days. On May 4 the main urban areas have elected their mayors: for the first time ever, the greater areas of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are now governed by single, visible, directly elected mayors – as it happens for London. It is a process in keeping with the devolution of powers begun some twenty years ago, and more specifically with the “Northern Powerhouse” project put forward by David Cameron's government. Under that scheme, the main urban areas could be given more powers and a more coherent governance.

    Until now, British political life has either taken place at the level of local councils and constituencies, or at the national level. Contrary to all the other big European countries, in the UK cities and regions exist as mere social and cultural realities, they rarely manage to express their distinct voice and views in the larger political debate. As Jonn Elledge put it in The Guardian, «England is about as ludicrously over-centralised as a country can be without actually slipping into dictatorship.»

    It is largely thanks to the fact of having single representatives with a strong mandate that Scotland and London are the only entities which manage to enter the Brexit debate. The newly elected mayors of the big English urban areas will also be able to voice the concerns of their citizens, many of whom did vote to remain in the EU. They are expected to put forward a more open and dynamic vision of the future of the UK, challenging over-represented conservative views on the one hand and London's exceptionalism on the other. After all, cities like Manchester and Liverpool have already been some sort of global capitals in the past – from the slave trade to the industrial revolution, from the Beatles to football.

    In his piece calling for the shift of the capital from London to Manchester, Bagehot makes one suggestive point: in Europe, "the countries where right-populists are doing best are those in which elites are concentrated in single geographical enclaves: Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, the Randstad, Vienna, Budapest. Those countries where the right-populists have done less well are those in which the elite is spread between two or more centres: Germany, Canada, Australia, Spain, Belgium (and indeed Scotland)." There are probably other factors at play, but geography does matter. To be sure, physical geography cannot be changed: Britain is bound to remain an island – but political geography can be changed indeed, and mayoral elections may matter in this respect.

    Photo: Manchester Panography. Ben Watkin/Flickr

  • Media freedom: Even Europe is no comfort place for journalists

    27 April 2017

    The Council of Europe published on 21 April the results of the first large-scale survey of journalists across Europe. More than two-thirds of the 940 journalists who took part said they experienced physical assaults, intimidation or harassment on account of their work in the past three years. As the Association of European Journalists’ Representative for Media Freedom, I described the survey as a ‘wake-up call’ to national governments in Europe to review their laws and practices to better protect press freedom. And added that ‘This survey demonstrates how the increasingly hostile working conditions for journalists reflect dangerously repressive tendencies in states across east and west Europe, and a shrinking of the space for free speech and the proper scrutiny of state power’.

    The Council of Europe study Journalists under pressure: unwarranted interference, fear and self-censorship in Europe, provides first-hand evidence that violence and threats, intimidation by police, online harassment and fear of unlawful or secret surveillance have all become commonplace risks to journalists who report on matters of public interest. Improper pressures from employers as well as from political or other powerful groups often lead journalists to practice self-censorship.

    The AEJ was one of five organisations which supported the conduct of the survey by experts from the University of Malta. The others were the European Federation of Journalists, Index on Censorship, International News Safety Institute and Reporters Without Borders.

    The same day was also marked by the release of the annual Report by the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe on the State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Europe . The report highlights a dangerous tendency towards ‘legislative nationalism’ . It also provides data showing that close to half of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states fail to satisfactorily guarantee the safety of journalists, with an increase in violence against journalists, criminalisation of the media’s news gathering work, and growing threats to whistle-blowers and the ability of journalists to protect their confidential sources.

    Cartoon by Silvano Mello / Cartoon Movement

  • French Presidential Election: The European single market, a scapegoat for the candidates

    21 April 2017

    Three out of the 11 candidates for the highest office have pledged to withdraw France from the European Union. Not to be outdone, most of the others have spoken out against the restraints imposed by the European treaties and "Brussels bureaucrats". France’s politicians are pretending to have forgotten the benefits of integration.

    One of the highlights of the only debate featuring all eleven candidates in these elections was the discussion about the posted workers directive. Most of the contenders – from the far left (Jean Luc Mélenchon) to the far right (Marine Le Pen) – have been viciously criticising this widely unpopular legislation. Even the centre right candidate François Fillon, who is meant to be pro-free trade and free market, has promised to "completely revise this directive" in his program.

    Another issue raised during this presidential race is the relocation of home appliance giant Whirlpool’s factory from Amiens (Northern France) to Poland. Far from being the only one virulently criticising the move, the socialist candidate Benoît Hamon has declared that the corporation should “immediately and entirely reimburse all public grants unduly received” through the CICE (Tax credit for employment and competitiveness). While this may sound like a good idea, it is in practice impossible since the stated objective of creating jobs is in no way mandatory for businesses, and pertains more to the government’s utopian wish list.

    These tirades, which characterise the opposition to the free movement of workers and capital, challenge the very idea of a European single market. Let us not forget that it was Jacques Delors, a French socialist, far from being the most fervent partisan of unbridled and immoderate capitalism, who gave the impetus to this European single market through the Single European Act. He simply remarked on how establishing a genuine domestic market would benefit Europe as a whole.

    Incidentally he was right, given that the single market allowed for the creation of almost 3 million jobs, and raised the EU’s GDP by more than 2 points between 1992 and 2008. He lay the foundations for the “four freedoms” that are nevertheless yet to be fully guaranteed, and may never be. The creation of a single market is more of a continuous process rather than a stage reached at a given moment, and the directive on posted workers contributes to this process.

    The document is certainly imperfect since it does not include standardisation of social welfare contributions. However, the presidential candidates’ vehement and hardly constructive opposition to it reveals a more general distrust of everything that comes from Brussels, particularly concerning economic matters. Despite this, it should be noted that thanks to the EU:

    • French exports to the EU amount to €271 billion

    • Many French people — 650,000, according to the register of French citizens established outside of France, which reflects only part of the reality — live in another EU member state and benefit from the same social and labour rights as nationals.

    • French consumers have the right to buy goods from all around Europe without having to pay customs duties, and are guaranteed that these goods meet French standards.

    The list of advantages to integration is longer still. French companies massively invested in Central and Eastern Europe after the 2004 expansion, revitalising them and contributing to the development of the French economy.

    However if there’s one distinctively French characteristic, it’s wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too. The European provisions that candidates have recently been denouncing contribute to a whole that largely benefits French citizens. If each national government began putting spokes in the wheels of the European project by vetoing texts that require sacrifices from certain groups of population, the EU wouldn’t get very far. European solidarity entails making concessions in certain areas in order to gain in others.

    Just four days before the first round of voting, the gaps between each candidate are so narrow that the media are talking about a “four way battle”. Among them, Marine le Pen is advocating for a complete exit from the EU, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon wants to impose his vision of the Old Continent on the other 26 European partners. If this condition is not met, he has threatened to take France out of the EU — a far cry from the EU’s culture of consensus.

    Should we be worried about a "Frexit"? We certainly cannot exclude this possibility, but France is a nation capable of measuring the scope of its decisions. And it certainly wouldn’t want to draw a line under the numerous advances brought forward by the EU — not only the single market, but the euro, the Erasmus program, the European research programs, and the guarantee of living on a continent of peace.

    Translated from the French by Felix Constant-Hynes

  • AEJ debate on the future of Europe: Voices from the European parliament on Brexit and beyond

    03 April 2017

    A chorus of discordant voices rang out in the European Parliament in Brussels as AEJ journalists met with MEPs from all parts of Europe and all the political groups for two days of lively debates in the run-up to the UK’s delivery of its ‘Brexit letter’, on 29 March. The event took place as the EU sailed into unknown territory beyond its 60th birthday and the UK prepares its own lifeboat to disembark from the mother ship.

    A chorus of discordant voices rang out in the European Parliament in Brussels as AEJ journalists met with MEPS from all parts of Europe and all the political groups for 2 days of lively debates in the run-up to the UK’s delivery of its ‘Brexit letter’ on Wednesday. The event took place as the EU sailed into unknown territory beyond its 60 th birthday and the UK prepares its own lifeboat to disembark from the mother ship. William Horsley writes:-

    ‘This is a sinking ship’, Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake said about the EU, which she herself has tried to reform in the field of civil rights. She blamed big retreats in the EU’s handling of refugees and migration, and the ‘exploitation of fear’ that she says has taken hold among parts of Europe’s population. ‘Europe turns 60 in the midst of its worst crisis ever’, echoed Juan Fernandez Lopez Aguilar, the Spanish Social Democrat and ex Justice Minister. ‘Europe ‘is frozen, paralysed’, he complained, telling the assembled AEJ journalists that Europe has failed to unblock a crisis of extraordinary complexity that has dragged on for ten years. That crisis included failures to manage Europe’s external borders, to respond to the humanitarian crisis of refugees, and to find answers to popular disaffection and unrest.

    There were voices of hope, too. Lopez Aguilar saw hope in the powers vested in the Lisbon treaty, at least on paper, to build a true Europe of values, with social rights and the rule of law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights with its supposedly binding force. But member states, he claimed, had behaved in appalling ways, by fighting the Commission when it sought to assert the common purposes of the EU concerning the basic rights of its citizens and the fair treatment of refugees and migrants.

    Several MEPs who spoke on the Future of Europe saw the option of a ‘multispeed Europe’ -- put forward as a possibility in Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent White Paper -- as a chance for a fresh start. Manfred Weber, the German CSU politician who leads the biggest grouping, the EPP, in the European Parliament, said that Britain had made a historic mistake in deciding to leave the EU. No European country, he said, could defend itself alone against extremism or the cyber-actions of terrorists. The remaining 27 EU member states would be tough in the coming Brexit negotiations, he declared.

    Mr Weber added that he ‘could not understand’ why prime minister Theresa May had not already guaranteed the rights of the millions of other EU citizens living in the UK, so leaving them in uncertainty as well as the UK nationals living on the continent. Some journalists present recalled that other states and senior EU representatives had said publicly that no specific matters could be settled before the actual Brexit talks begin -- not even that pressing human issue for some 4.4 million people across Europe.

    After Wednesday’s Brexit letter the first talks are likely to start in May or June. And Theresa May said on Wednesday that among the British government’s first priorities will be to reach a mutual accord with the ‘EU of 27’ on the question of the status of EU nationals living in the UK and vice versa. For the European Commission Michel Barnier has said the same.

    As for the consequences of Brexit, the Flemish MEP Anneleen van Bossuyt said she feared that the UK’s departure would mean the loss of a counterweight to the influence of Germany, with its strongly federalising tendency, and of France. The UK, she said, had fought for better regulation, free trade, and subsidiarity. Belgium as one of the smaller countries, would need to find new allies, as she put it.

    The panel discussion about Brexit, with four UK MEPs from various political positions, provided a glimpse in Brussels of the heated and many-sided debate which has engulfed the UK over the past year.

    Charles Tannock, a Conservative MEP, made very clear that he is opposed to Brexit and Theresa May’s hard-line approach to it, despite his party affiliation. He saw the UK’s decision to leave the EU as a ‘selfish and destructive act’ by the British. He saw huge or insuperable problems ahead for UK negotiators. The ‘hard’ Brexit’ approach of the UK government was mistaken. The EU side would show itself united and the UK would be unable to achieve the goals it had set out in the time available. Transitional arrangements would be necessary for some time afterwards. And he was not ready, he said, to give up the fight to avoid what he expected to be disastrous consequences for Britain. He would fight to keep the UK inside the EU if that was still possible.

    The MEP for UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), Roger Helmer, said it was ironical that his party’s position was closer to Mrs May’s than was Charles Tannock’s, as an anti-Brexit Conservative. Mr Helmer set out his goals: for the UK to be free of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, have strict control of the UK’s borders and migration, and a tough line on payment of any debts demanded by the EU. He wanted no form of ‘quasi or would-be EU membership’ after the UK had separated in two years’ time. The EU, he added colourfully, should be ‘put out of its misery’.

    Martina Anderson, an Irish Republican who sits for Sinn Fein in the European Parliament and served as a minister in the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday agreement of 1998, saw Brexit as ‘absolute madness’ and a threat to peace and stability in Ireland. She recalled that at the times of ‘The Troubles’ there had been 277 crossing-points between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, heavily guarded by armed British soldiers as part of the UK’s deadly conflict with the IRA. The prospect of bringing back any border checks for people or trade as part of a new external EU border between the Republic as an EU state and Northern Ireland would be unstable and dangerous.

    Sinn Fein wants a designated special status for that border to maintain the present open border, but Brexit would create a new situation. Ms Anderson pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that both Ireland and the UK were inside the EU. It also allowed for the possibility of a referendum in Northern Ireland on the creation of a united Ireland – an option which Sinn Fein had raised in the context of Brexit. So the breakup of the United Kingdom could be a consequence, either in Northern Ireland or in Scotland, where the Scottish parliament has demanded a new independence referendum.

    Richard Corbett, a Labour MEP who worked as an adviser to Herman Van Rompuy, the first President of the European Council, said that to create the kind of new, close partnership with the EU after Brexit that Mrs May had promised would require a vast amount of work by officials. They must deal with over 7000 issues now handled by EU laws and regulations --such as what to have instead of the UK’s membership of the EU’s Air Safety Agency. He ridiculed the hopes of the British minister for Brexit, David Davis, that the UK's future trade with the rest of the world could be a substitute for its current trade with the 500 million people in the EU's single market.

    Brexit campaigners had lied, he said, by suggesting that leaving the EU would be cost-free, and even that 350 million pounds a week in British payments to Brussels would be used instead to boost funds for the national health service. The Labour party was determined, when Brexit-related bills are presented for scrutiny in parliament, to hold the government to its pledge to win the same trade benefits with the EU as the UK has enjoyed as an EU state. Otherwise Labour MPs would vote the bills down, making it hard for the May government to get them through.

  • Data journalism: A new network for European data-driven news

    31 March 2017

    We are pleased to announce a new data-driven endeavour that will support European journalists. In October 2017, the European Data Journalism Network – EDJNet will start producing, sharing and publishing data-driven news content on European affairs across Europe and beyond. It aims at providing news media across Europe with trustworthy and rigorous content and support, and at providing the general public with valuable editorial tools for better understanding Europe.

    The content produced by EDJNet will be available for free through a specific multilingual and open source website and on EDJNet partners’ own website.

    EDJNet has been set up by a consortium of European media outlets led by Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (Italy) and VoxEurop (France), in close partnership with three other outlets – Alternatives économiques (France), Spiegel Online (Germany), EUObserver (Belgium) – and three data-journalism agencies – Journalism++ (France); Local Focus (Netherlands) and Journalism Robotics (Sweden). Eight other media – two data journalism newsrooms (BIQdata at Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland and Pod črto in Slovenia) and six major outlets (Askanews and Internazionale in Italy, NRC Handelsblad in the Netherlands , El Confidential in Spain, H-Alter in Croatia and Ouest-France in France) – already take part as EDJNet partners in this broad network. These partners have a cumulated potential audience of 70 million unique monthly viewers and the network will be open to new associates.

    EDJNet transnational board will:

    • Produce data-driven investigations, in-depth articles, explanatory stories and features, as well as infographics, videos and short reviews in up to 12 languages.

    • Develop automated tools to increase newsrooms’ productivity to report on European issues and curate existing data-driven resources, tools, stories and news to encourage users to follow and cover EU affairs.

    • Provide tailored, on-demand advice on data-driven news to journalists through its helpdesk and webinars.

    • Engage in news co-production and content sharing with other media outlets across Europe by setting up editorial partnerships and content syndication.

    Content will either be produced by single partners or jointly by two or more of them. Content will be adapted and localised to fit partner’s needs and reading habits of local audiences.

    The project will receive a grant from the European Commission, yet EDJNet and its members enjoy complete editorial independence.

    Interested media can check EDJNet as of October 2017.

    Meanwhile, more news on each partner's website, and at #EDJNet and #ddj.


    Chiara SigheleOsservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa

    Gian Paolo Accardo – VoxEurop

  • The Rome Manifesto: A vision for Europe

    24 March 2017

    Ahead of the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the signature of the treaty of Rome, on 25 March, the German-Italian Centre for European Excellence Villa Vigoni and the non-profit association United Europe, a pro-European initiative headquartered in Hamburg organised a group of leading young European scholars and professionals who have put forward an ambitious proposal for the renewal of the European project.

    IN THE BELIEF that the European Union of today is unfit to face the major challenges of our time,

    IN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT that the European future is in the people’s hands,

    IN THE CONVICTION that European unity, rather than division, is the best way forward,

    we, as young Europeans, have come together 60 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome to stand up for Europe.

    We believe that it is our duty as the next generation to contribute to the shaping of our common destiny, and we invite every European to join us in this endeavour.


    These are turbulent times. The world around us is changing quickly and often in contrast to what we expect. In Europe, too, extreme nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise, endangering the democratic values the generations before us fought to establish. European unity is under threat.

    We, the young generation, see it as our duty to not only uphold Europe’s legacy, but to strive for its urgent renewal. Our lives have been shaped by the ambitious project of a politically united Europe. We are the first generation released from the political divisions of the Cold War and from the harsh confrontation with our neighbours.

    We have experienced open borders and easy traveling, a single currency and common citizenship, education exchanges and new technologies, all of which have allowed us to meet other Europeans and concretely enhanced our conviction of belonging together.

    This is why with this Manifesto, we wish to set out how we see our future together: how our common identity is shaped; why we need European integration; how we can put people at the heart of the European project and what concrete institutions and procedures we propose for our European Federal Union.


    If we wish to live together in peace, prosperity and solidarity under one roof, we must understand what it means to be European: we can take pride both in our own country and feel at home in the rich diversity of other European countries, cities and regions. These components exist in harmony and are not mutually exclusive.

    “European identity is a mosaic, rich and colourful due to the diversity of its pieces.”

    European identity is a mosaic, rich and colourful due to the diversity of its pieces. This diversity cannot be lost without losing the essence of the mosaic itself. As the Greek myth of Europa shows, migration flows have always been a part of it, both challenging and enriching our identity. Everyone can be European regardless of one’s place of birth and can contribute to the shaping and to the future of the European project.

    Our identity is neither static nor monolithic; it evolves as we meet and speak with others. Being European means to be an active part of a broader community, facing common problems and embracing a common destiny.


    We do not need to learn to be Europeans, we just need to recognize that we already are. Our identity is built on reconciliation after terrible wars and cruelties. Our history binds us together as does geography.

    Ancient cultures and religions – the Greek and the Roman, the Jewish, the Christian and the Islamic, the Germanic and the Slavic – have produced an extraordinary legacy of literature, sciences, arts and music. The peaceful coexistence and mutual acknowledgement of different faiths are crucial for our future.

    Humanism, the enlightenment, rational and critical thinking have contributed to separating the roles of politics, law and religion within society. Today a set of shared beliefs defines our common good.

    Freedom and democracy constitute the foundation of European societies and cannot be unbound from respect for the rule of law. As outcomes of modern European political thinking, liberalism and human rights have provided the ground for the post-war reflection on equality, social justice and peace.


    After World War II, Europe embarked on the path of integration because nationalism had brutally failed.

    The European project, as proposed by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman in May 1950, promised peace and prosperity to European nations willing to pool their most important resources. This unprecedented approach was richly rewarded: European integration has delivered beyond expectation on its promise of peace and prosperity.

    Yet today, Europe’s achievements are mostly taken for granted and the old vision is fading. The European Union’s institutions are weakened because people consider them incomprehensible, bureaucratic, and lacking in democratic legitimacy. They have been unable to support Southern Europe in overcoming the economic crisis that has hit the younger generation particularly hard.

    Nationalist movements reject the idea of finding common solutions to common problems. We disagree. We believe that Europe is needed more than ever to safeguard our security and prosperity. European unity and solidarity are the only rational answers to the challenges of our age, from climate change to migration, from rising inequality to digitalisation, from terrorism to the threat of war.

    “Today, Europe’s achievements are mostly taken for granted.”

    European integration must move forward on new grounds because only together we can work towards a better global order. This is why we propose a European Federal Union that puts its citizens at the centre and focuses on protecting and serving them.


    The European Federal Union is based on a renewed social contract between Europe and its people, ensuring the following rights:

    Every person has the right to freedom and dignity. The Federal Union promotes and safeguards the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

    Every person has the right to live safely and free of fear of physical harm. The Federal Union protects people in its territory from internal and external threats to their security that cannot effectively be addressed at the member state level.

    Every citizen of the Federal Union has the right to a productive life anywhere within the Federal Union. The Federal Union ensures the free movement of people. It fosters prosperity and job creation by providing a fully integrated single market and a European level playing field.

    Every citizen of the Federal Union has the right to enjoy equal opportunities in terms of education and receive social protection to cover basic needs. The Federal Union is committed to social justice and the fight against unfair inequalities, exclusion and especially youth unemployment.

    Every person has the right to a clean environment. The Federal Union, acting also in the interest of future generations, protects the environment and promotes an efficient use of natural resources.


    The European Union today has a complex institutional architecture which is difficult to understand by the citizens, and fosters distrust vis-à-vis the EU. The current system of governance based on intergovernmentalism is unable to address the challenges facing Europe in an effective and transparent manner. We therefore call for a new constitutional architecture, designed to simplify Europe’s form of government and improve legitimacy as well as accountability.

    “We hold a Federal Union to be a system with clear separations of powers.”

    We believe that only an institutional regime endowed with clearly defined competences, and legitimated through appropriate democratic processes, will win the support of European citizens. We hold a Federal Union to be a system with clear separations of powers, vertically between the Union and its member states, and horizontally between the institutions of the Union itself.


    Vertical separation of powers will be achieved by neatly dividing the competences of the Federal Union and the competences of the member states. Sovereignty will be divided between the Union and its member states according to the principle of subsidiarity.

    The Federal Union shall have competence in foreign affairs and immigration, counter-terrorism and defence, the internal market, competition and trade. It will have a common currency and a fiscal policy designed to ensure the proper functioning of the economic and monetary union.

    The Federal Union shall not be a super-state. It will refrain from overly intrusive regulation. Any competence which is not explicitly delegated to the Union shall remain with the member states. Moreover, some competences which are currently exercised at EU level can be repatriated to the member states.

    Budgetary powers shall be divided between the Federal Union and its member states. The Federal Union will have a reasonable budget financed through taxation and not through transfers from member states’ budgets. The member states will be independently responsible for their budgetary processes and for the service of their debt according to the no-bailout rule.


    Horizontal separation of powers will be achieved by clearly distinguishing the functions of the various Union institutions. As required by principles of constitutionalism, the institutional system of the Federal Union will be based on a legislative, an executive and a judicial power.

    The legislative power of the Federal Union will be divided between the European Parliament and a European Senate – which will result from the merging of the current European Council and the Council. The European Parliament, directly elected by the Union’s citizens through a uniform electoral procedure, will act as the house of the people. The European Senate, composed of members of national governments, will act as the house of the states. Every piece of Union legislation, regardless of the authority initiating it, shall be approved both by the European Parliament, voting by majority, and by the European Senate, voting by qualified majority.

    The executive power of the Federal Union will be vested in a European President elected through a democratic process. The President will represent the Union in international affairs and head the European administration evolved from the current European Commission. In fields where neutrality is required such as monetary policy or competition, independent agencies will be established.

    The judicial power of the Federal Union will be exercised by the European Court of Justice, which shall be entitled to review Union legislative and administrative acts for compliance with the separation of powers and the existing Charter of Fundamental Rights. The European Court of Justice shall ensure the uniform application of Union law and its supremacy over state law.


    In order to prevent the break-up of the European project and to move forward with integration, we propose to draw up a constitution defining in clear and binding terms the powers and governance structure of the Federal Union. This constitution shall enter into force when a majority of today’s EU member states have ratified it through a dedicated procedure. The Federal Union will welcome any European country sharing its values.

    “European unity and solidarity are the only rational answers to the challenges of our age.”

    Countries which do not ratify the constitution will not be members of the Federal Union, but the Union will associate them as closely as possible. Member states of the Federal Union will not be allowed to obtain opt-outs. The institutions of the Federal Union are empowered to enforce compliance by the member states with the principles and values which are enshrined in the Union’s constitution.

    To ensure speedy adoption, we invite national parliaments to appoint at the earliest state delegates who shall meet in Rome in 2017 to draw up a constitution of the Federal Union reflecting the principles spelled out above.

    As the young generation of Europeans, we are convinced that change is necessary and possible. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we are not afraid of claiming that the true European spirit is democratic, tolerant, pluralist and cosmopolitan.

    Now, not tomorrow, is the time to show that we can build our house on stones so solid that it can withstand any storm.

    Viva l’Europa!

    Sign the Manifesto