Can Europe Make It?

Euro elections 2014: You Tell Us (17/02/14) Part Two

Young bloggers from across the EU tell us what's on their minds. Leading this week are the protests in Bosnia and the EU's communication problem.

Alex Sakalis
20 February 2014
  • The EU is not in a position to navigate the high seas of foreign policy
  • As a Roma, integration means something different to me
  • The situation in Bosnia is big news in Croatia...but for the wrong reeasons
  • Italy is quickly turning from one of the most pro-EU countries, to one of the most eurosceptic, with less than 100 days to go to the EP vote.
  • Back to the basics: let's talk democracy out
  • The EU is not in a position to navivgate the high seas of foreign policy

    by Maximilian von Berg

    Times of crisis generally generate uncertainty and fear. People and states tend to fall back on what they know and can control. They seek to refocus at home when they are failing abroad. Though there exists much misunderstanding between EU institutions and the many people living under its banner, the EU’s tentative foreign policy certainly does not contribute in giving confidence to Europeans, and probably encourages them to turn their back on Europe even more.

    The EU remains a blurry entity in many European countries – one currently experiencing rough seas. For many, the European supranational framework is a costly set of institutions filled with technocrats poorly informed of on-the-ground realities – a system that threatens people’s way of living more than it protects it. This is because the EU has largely failed at communicating with the people living within its boundaries. With so many other priorities on the agenda, it is unclear why the EU is heard more about topics falling out of the EU than within its boundaries. If the EU seeks to be a loose arrangement amongst countries that disagree on most issues, centrifugal forces will continue to affect it and it probably will not resist the test of time.

    I was astonished by EP President Martin Schulz’s comments during his visit in Israel. According to him, "(w)e can discuss until Christmas the legality or illegality of the settlements . . . what we need is not a debate about legality, but practical solutions." Such comments are clearly one sided and disregard International Law. Israel’s aggressive colonising of the West Bank is and will remain a scandal that friends or foes of Israel should not accept. It is an absolute necessity to put as much pressure on Israel to stop allowing new constructions. In fact, unless we want to throw International Law into the sea, settlements will also need to be dismantled. The debate on Israel’s policy in Palestine goes far beyond legality: it is about freedom and Human Rights. Why am I referring to this issue here? That is simply because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be a tribune for MEPs. Their role is primarily in Europe, not in the Middle East.

    If the EU has not been successful in communicating internally, how can it be credible externally? Current sentiment of a failing Europe can in fact be traced to public apathy. Euro-skepticism, as some have coined it, is the logical consequence of people feeling disconnected from the EU. But that is symptomatic of a narrow view of the EU, which fails to gauge the fundamental advantages enshrined in the free market of goods and labour under common social and legal umbrellas. It is because people are not informed about the EU’s positive role that they increasingly doubt its capabilities. If the EU were coherent, it would not overstep its mandate to comment on thorny issues that spur controversy not only out, but also in the EU, and would taper the enlargement agenda.

    Unfortunately, pessimists about Europe as an economic and monetary union, and on the potentiality for a political union in the future, may be correct in that the EU is inefficient at communicating with the average citizen and inaudible in its foreign policy discourse. The latter is a highly visible area where countries diverge. The EU is not cohesive on the foreign policy front, but there is no reason why it should be in 2014. The EU is composed of sovereign states with different interests and different challenges.

    Accordingly, they should not have to comply with a single view on the policy they lead abroad. The EU and its organs must focus on rebuilding a strong market with healthy actors. It must regulate the financial industry, apply strict criteria to member states if they are to remain within, continue protecting and supporting its members, encourage freedom and development abroad, but it should not go one bridge too far. Neither is now the time to consider enlargement, nor is to become politically engaged abroad.

    The next European legislature will take office at a crucial point in time. The future of the EU and the European ‘vivre ensemble’ project will be on the table for negotiation. It is therefore more important than ever to consider the European project carefully. Most Europeans generally demonstrate little interest in EP elections, which is why it is essential that on this occasion in particular they take vote; vote for people who will be given the powers to shape tomorrow’s politics and society. Echoing one of my previous columns, people need to take control of their destiny. Democracy comes with the duty of making informed decisions about the way forward. We should not be asking for what Europe cannot offer, such as a foreign policy discourse resistant to high seas.

    What we can expect, however, is for European legislators and executives to focus on building Europe within and to give us reasons to follow and support them in that enterprise.

    As a Roma, integration means something different to me

    by Csaba Olah

    This blogpost was written as a reaction to the recent statements of Ms. Viviane Reding, European Commissioner, on the situation of Roma and the need from their side to integrate and to have a normal way of living.

    When trying to identify European values - values we all share in Europe, or within the political community of the European Union - I am in a very difficult situation. Not because there are no common values we all, or at least most of us share, but rather because I am a bit reluctant to label them immediately 'European'. Democracy, justice, equality would be among the first ones on the lists of many if they had to answer what they think are the most important values of our society. But are these values exclusively European? Does democracy refer to a form of government, or is it simply about fairness? Is it only we Europeans who stand for a just society in which all the citizens are treated equally?

    We should probably see European values and European identity as productions or possible outcomes of a process we are all part of. The process of creating a European society.

    As a Hungarian Roma and a citizen of the European Union, I often come across political statements which draw the public's attention to the importance of integration. The idea of integration has been playing a significant role in my life. I have also practical experiences with it, mostly as a subject of related policies. My ethnic origin is often far more than enough to be seen as the one who has to catch up, improve, or simply change. But living in central-eastern Europe I also know that, if we work hard, one day we will catch up with the west.

    Nevertheless, integration, in this case social integration, is especially important to me, but means something different. I would rather define it as a process to decrease social distance between people, without considering any people, social or ethnic group as a reference point to which the others should fit. Many of us are committed to building up a more integrated society. We have to face, however, many difficulties when trying to put the idea of a just, fair and more integrated European society into practice. There is a fundamental problem we, who believe in a European reality and not in a European utopia, have to deal with. 

    Let me name the problem. The problem are the more than 500 million citizens who live not only in western European countries, but also elsewhere in the European Union. Even in Bulgaria and in Romania. More than 500 million people, who are all different from each other and who all have their own understanding of what it means to be European. Children and adults, men and women, rich and poor, believers and atheists. More than 500 million, most of whom only know less than 0.0001%, and many of whom understand only less than 10% of their fellow citizens. We really need dedication if we want to build up a society in which, regardless of all of these differences, we really treat each other as fellow citizens. The different communities living in the European Union need a strong commitment to be willing to integrate, so that the next generation can live a normal life.

    The European Union is home to a very very diverse community. We - the ones who believe in the future of the European Union - consider our differences as fundamental values we can build our future on.

    We all need dedication to be willing to contribute to a more integrated society, but at the same time we also have to accept the fact that there are more than half a billion different ways to define normal life within the European Union.

    The situation in Bosnia is big news in Croatia...but for the wrong reasons

    by Marko Boko

    For the last ten days or so, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a hot topic in Croatia as well as in other ex-Yugoslav countries. The whole situation has been ''analysed'' or interpreted through the complex relationship between Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian people in ''post-Dayton'' Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are very few mainstream socio-economic analyses of the situation, and the main public discourse is, unfortunately, the ethno-nationalist one. Unfortunately the situation became big news in the Balkans because some groups wanted to characterize it as a nationalist movement, instead of listening to the workers and protestors who were trying to keep the focus on its social character.

    In short, the uprising began in early February when workers of five factories in Tuzla began protesting against privatization of their companies, which is often a bad omen in the context of the post-Yuglosav era, characterised by a misguided hope of building capitalism overnight, only resulting in the further deterioration of people's economic and social conditions. Following a violent police intervention, ordinary citizens joined the protests and by the end of February 7, several cantonal governments buildings, various local institutions, political parties and some banks were burned down and demolished. These buildings were not attacked by mistake, for people considered them as emblems of the responsibility for the whole situation of corruption and misuse of power which had led to the mass protests.

    Of course, the fact that protests ended up violent was used by the media (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian) mainly to discredit protests and protestors' demands and to show that they are just hooligans looking for trouble. In parallel with that, Croatian and Serbian media have been focused on running stories accusing protestors of ''Bosnian unitarism'' and the centralization of Bosnia, totally ignoring the socio-economic background of the protests. Moreover, Croatian and Serbian politicians have called for stability and peace, but Croatian PM Zoran Milanović went a bit further as he has visited Mostar (a town with a Croatian majority, but not the BiH capital) to bring a peaceful message. The real purpose was to keep the Croatian people removed from the truth behind the uprising. And what about the EU? EU High Representative Valentin Inzko stated that EU troops could be called upon for reinforcement if violence escalated.

    Although protesters have been opposed and sabotaged by the media, political structures and political elites, protests are still marked by social motivations and workers are keeping their nationalist ideologies. A really strong message was sent out when one of the protestors said, ''It is cynical and rude to ask people who are hungry 'Are you hungry together or separately?'''

    But, the primary intention of the blog was not to explain what is going on in Bosnia, as a limit of 700 words does not permit this. My idea was to do a short parallel with the general situation in Croatia, as in a few Croatian cities rallies were organized to support workers in BiH. Also, various groups were trying to motivate Croatian citizens to start protests against the Croatian Government, but they were much more successful on Facebook than on the streets as only dozens or a few hundred people have shown up.

    Some interest groups are trying to present protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina as nationalistic. Unfortunately, when it comes to Croatian citizens, they are indeed more focused on your world-view and nationalist questions rather than on social ones. What could motivate Croatian citizens to take to the streets and show how they live and what they think of the political system and the elites, mostly formed overnight during the war and post-war period?

    To prove this statement I will just mention a campaign launched by a right wing NGO (supported by right wing political parties and the Catholic church) which gathered 749,316 signatures for a referendum to constitutionaly define marriage as being between a man and a woman, thus creating a constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage. The other example is a campaign driven by a group demanding a referendum to end the official use of Serbian Cyrillic script in some parts of Croatia. They have gathered over 650,000 signatures, but it is still unclear what will happen with it, as EU and Croatian Government do not support the cause, which is inherently provocative, but also as the referendum question still has to be decided.

    These days people are protesting in BiH, in Montenegro and Serbia, and it happened a year ago in Slovenia. There are more than 383,000 unemployed people in Croatia. The youth unemployment rate is more than 50%, large scale de-industrialisation is all around us, privatisation of public utilities and commons, corruption, ineffective public administration... It is clear that we do not live any better than other Balkan countries, but how do we find out what people think of it?

    Italy is quickly turning from one of the most pro-EU countries, to one of the most eurosceptic, with less than 100 days to go to the EP vote.

    by Jacopo Barbati

    Italy is quickly turning from being one of the most pro-EU countries – one of the six founders of the ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community, precursor of the current EU), the homeland of Altiero Spinelli (main author of the “Ventotene Manifesto” and founder of the Movement of European Federalists in 1943 ) – to being one of the most eurosceptic countries, where it is likely that these anti-EU parties will win a large number of seats at the European Parliament following the May elections.

    The Euopean parliamentary elections are indeed very close (22-25/05/2014) and currently the political debate is dominated by issues of internal and national politics. When talking about theEU, eurosceptics take centre stage.

    And talking about the “stage” is appropriate, because the leader of the main eurosceptic party in Italy, called Movimento 5 Stelle (“5 Stars Movement”, M5S) is Giuseppe Piero “Beppe” Grillo, who gained notoriety in the 1980s for being a satirist on Italian television. When his satire began pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on TV, he began touring Italy with live shows characterized by highly political content. He then moved from the stage to the web, making his blog one of the most followed in the world.

    His main points were about the corruption of Italian politicians and the necessity of giving the politics back to citizens (the so-called “antipolitics”). From those foundations, he founded the M5S party, which was able to get 25.5% of total votes at the 2013 Italian general elections. And now, Beppe Grillo is ready to go back on stage touring Italy with his new show, called “Te la do io l’Europa” (“Here you are, this is Europe”). As deducible from the title, this show has as its main point Grillo’s view of the EU. Reading the show synopsismakes things clearer:

    “A monster is haunting Europe. It is called the euro. Those who have met it often ended in misery. Whole states have become debtors of a bank, the ECB. If you do not pay, instead of the mafia, the Troika - so much worse - comes. Political Europe has turned into a financial nightmare. Unknown officials are managing our lives, from the mortgage to the cormorant hunting. […]”

    Italy was hit very badly by the worldwide economic crisis. For most Italians, the equation was simple: " 2001, I was living in a country which had the seventh biggest GDP in the world. Now I live in the same country but we have nearly 40% of young people who are unemployed, with enterprises closing every day, and businessmen committing suicide over their debts. What changed since 2001? A-ha! The euro! We got the Euro!". Nobody is explaining to people, who are indeed really suffering, that the situation is a bit more complex; that the euro is a great opportunity for financial stability but that it is currently showing its limits only because there is not a common government (democratically legitimated) to rule it; that the EU has no real powers over financial policies and thus member states are trying to solve, at a national level, a crisis that has international origin; that abandoning the euro to go back to the lira (as proposed by a steadily growing number of politicians and economists) would be a step backwards rather than a step forwards.

    In a few words: no one, among the most known Italian political parties or politicians, is taking the responsibility to say that leaving the euro is not the only way to move towards the solution of this crisis: we can also push to have a reform of the EU treaties that will lead to a European federation, thus making a United Europe one of the most – if not the most – developed and trustworthy regions of the world, something we cannot hope to accomplish if we go back to our small nation states.

    But only one of the major parties has the fight for a federal Europe in its political programmes. That is the Partito Democratico (“Democrat Party”, PD) which is currently drowning in a sea of internal conflicts – too large to be explained in this brief blog – with the only result being the reluctance to talk about the future of the EU, with less than 100 days to go to the EP vote.

    This Kafkaesque situation is of course feeding Grillo’s antipolitics: his show will be sold out everywhere and M5S will go beyond the 25%, at EP elections. That is what’s happening in Italy.

    Back to the basics: Let's talk democracy out

    by Maria Antica

    In almost three months from now citizens across all 27 EU member states are called upon to cast their votes for a new European Parliament. Frankly, Brussels is just too far away and too complicated for people to care much, with all their empty and bureaucratic talks about austerity versus growth policies, while unemployment rates are still high. Citizens can’t see much prospect of things getting better any time soon, with or without a new Parliament. Add to this the different ways MEPs are elected and ask yourselves how much power do citizens really have upon the elected ones in order to influence decisions and give directions and you’ll get a broader picture of the so called ‘insignificance’ of these European elections.

    However, this must be just the right time to sit down and talk more responsibly about what kind of Union we want, what sort of representation we need, what kind of involvement do we encourage, what and who matters the most in the decision process and, above all, how do we communicate all these. The widening gap between the elected representatives (be they European or national) and citizens or the ones between the citizens themselves is way too big and, if ignored, way too difficult to handle as they can only lead to other sorts of crises for which no bailouts or any other solution will do. But, will a vote be enough to give us democracies that work?

    What’s going on?

    Especially against the backdrops of economic and financial crises, European governments seem to have a hard time in dealing not only with the acute issues of budgets and debts, jobs and unemployment, but also with people’s lack of trust in their institutions, politicians, parties and the proposed solutions and policies. Preliminary results from the last Eurobarometer read that over half of the people interviewed don’t trust the EU (58 percent), while only 31 percent do. The trend began to fall steadily in the spring 2008: from 50 percent until 47-48 in late 2009, then from 41 percent in early 2011 to 34 at the end of the same year, in a period that has coincided with the debt crises and protests in Spain, Portugal, Ireland or Greece.

    Ever since, populist and nationalist speeches have increased in intensity and number, with supporters both from citizens and politicians. But this doesn’t automatically mean that people have started to trust their own states’ institutions more. The same barometer reads that people’s lack of trust in their national governments and parliaments is even deeper than the one for the EU: 72 percent for the first one and 69 percent for the second one, the level of trust dropping considerably from 33 percent in 2011 until it reached 23 percent at the end of 2013.

    Don’t worry, though, this is not confined to matters ‘European’. All across the world, in mostly all of the democratic countries, it seems the gaps between their institutions, political leaders and parties, democratic processes, on the one hand, and their citizens, on the other, is widening as we speak. The 2014Edelman Trust Barometer shows there is an increasing lack of trust in the governments globally.

    Results from the European countries analyzed by them (Netherlands, Germany, France, UK, Italy, Poland or Spain) show that none of these countries is on the list of the ‘Trustworthy’. But one of the most interesting things highlighted by the study is the fact that ‘large’ publics questioned in their survey showed a substantially lower level of trust compared to informed citizens (“college-educated, with a significant media consumption and engagement in business news and public policy” and with satisfactory salaries).

    Then what kind of crisis?

    Although within these democratic countries citizens do have more rights and freedoms than ever before, it appears this is not enough to make them feel an active part of the changes and political process around them. Besides all the economic and financially-driven fears behind most of the protests across Europe in recent years, people have voiced their dissatisfaction with the way they are being represented and listened to by their elected politicians. Protests in Romania from both winter 2012 and autumn 2013, those in BulgariaUkraineor the recent ones in Bosnia show citizens are awakening from a sort of apathy they were accused of. They want to be able to lay claim to having functioning democracies and their options considered when decisions are taken on their behalf.

    As Ivan Krastev put it, democracy has always been in crisis as what it does, basically, is to practice the “art of bearable dissatisfaction”. In democratic societies it is only normal to have people openly complain about their elected politicians, state institutions and so on as the system ‘allows’ it and, I would say, should even encourage it (compared to an authoritarian political regime). So any so-called crises can seem bigger than they really are.

    But if this state of mistrust can be considered ‘normal’ in democratic regimes, than the question is to what extent is this permissible only so long as things won’t fall apart? Street demonstrations or violent protests should be used only as a last resort in democratic societies in order to voice your options. When they take place, it’s already a sign of mistrust or legitimacy crises. When other mechanisms of listening to the citizens are missing or malfunctioning, waiting the next electoral campaigns in order to punish current officials is ineffective and leads to higher levels of frustrations. And although these protests and manifestations of dissatisfaction do mostly occur on the national scale, they do also reflect the wide gaps between Brussels and those in the streets.

    What’s with those not taking to the streets? Some of them are still trying to use the democratic tools at hand (public debates, sending amendments, suggestions, signing petitions and so on) hoping their messages will get through. About the rest, the silent citizens, they are either too disappointed and convinced they can’t make a difference no matter what they try, or simply don’t know what’s going on.

    One reason for the latter must be the lack of relevant, balanced, visible, accessible, well- and responsibly-presented informational materials on issues and processes of great importance for all citizens. These should be readily available in the media and can reach a much larger number of people than it currently does.

    Usually people try to find informational shortcuts even for those topics that are of interest for them but when these are not treated as important or unbiased by a larger number of mainstream, national media outlets, then it becomes even harder for one to treat them as such. Even local/national elected politicians try to avoid talking about complex decisions that are taken at the EU level, let aside the ones taken at a national one, unless there is an electoral gain that could come out of this.

    What can be done?

    Now say that the acceptable and bearable level of dissatisfaction in a democratic society grows a lot bigger than the ‘norm’. So much so that the societies eventually fall apart and no call for coming to elections, no change in the voting system could save it, no immediate solution could help. Do we really know what is at stake? Or do we really need to wait for such a crisis or for any crisis to realize people need to be more in the center of the decision process and that they need to have a feeling of empowerment for the decisions taken on their behalf?

    This feeling doesn’t necessarily come from a tighter, permanent control over the elected ones but from the way they explain their decisions, they communicate fairly what the options are and are willing and ready to invite and engage in dialogue with more citizens than they already do (with the uninformed ones, too). It is true that through votes people hand away part of their responsibility to decide in all domains what a society can have and are directly related to their lives but they still need to have their options heard and their opinions asked for. 

    This is where the legitimacy of both the EU and its institutions and that of the national ones comes from for the electorate. Although hard to achieve, working closer with the media for example, in a way that would make possible approaching more sensitive topics that need to be treated fairly would be an option. At least a faster one that could reach more people at once (including those not knowing English or even not having access to internet) so that less room is left for manipulative or distorted opinions to prevail, assuming there is a will for it.

    A sense of cohesion or of mutual trust are either overlooked or harder to achieve and control as behind such concepts there are complex measures, decisions, strategies and concrete steps to be adopted, which harden things up. But these ‘states’ of citizenship can be achieved when the values and principles based on which societies work are being talked through and jointly agreed upon (if not as a consensus, at least as a compromise). Active, honest and direct dialogue, as well as continuous efforts and engagement to make out of the citizens real partners in the decision making and implementation process are only some of the steps to consider in order to overcome EU’s and its national governments’ so called ‘lack of legitimacy’.

    I am expecting to see greater, larger debates on issues of concern for European citizens and those asking for their votes, projects laid down and solutions looked for in a joint effort, rational arguments and mutual listening and not any big, electoral bubbles that would burst once again when reaching Brussels. Especially now, when people are sensitive to some sorts of speeches and radical solutions, let’s give arguments a try and see how we can handle best the level of bearable dissatisfaction from our own societies and from the European one as well.

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