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We must avoid losing the talents of a generation of refugee students

Mon, 19/06/2017 - 09:37

There are nearly 21.3 million refugees worldwide, around half of whom are under the age of 18, according to the latest figures from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. But what is the future for this generation of young people?  And since it is vital that they continue their studies, what can universities do?

Before the current conflict, young people in Syria had good access to higher education. The Syrian education ministry allocated around five percent of the country’s gross domestic product to education. In the 2012-13 academic year there were an estimated 650,000 students in higher education.

Figures from the Institute of International Education show that there are at least 100,000 university-qualified students and 2,000 university professionals from Syria alone among those displaced. Many have come to the UK. So how can British higher education institutions help to ensure that this generation of students does not miss out?

An online petition by the campaign group Refugees Welcome in 2015 urged university heads to open their doors to refugees, and higher education institutions such as SOAS University of London, the London School of Economics (LSE), and the universities of Warwick, Sussex and Edinburgh did so. Today, around 40 universities offer some form of support to refugees.

In developing a suitable scheme at SOAS we encountered challenges, particularly given that our aim was to reach the most vulnerable. The first challenge was eligibility and determining who was a ‘refugee’. The second was the scope of the awards on offer. The third was determining whether targeting assistance was needed – such as providing support for English language skills to help them further their education.

“Student refugees have made considerable contributions to the British economy, academia, science, culture and the arts”

Our decision to target the most vulnerable students meant developing criteria that was specifically for people who did not qualify for financial support. Our five-year scheme provides fee waivers for six undergraduate students and one postgraduate student and will typically be open to those who are in the process of seeking asylum, have discretionary leave to remain, require humanitarian protection, or have limited leave to remain.

But while this is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. In 2016 Dr Georgina Brewis at University College London’s Institute of Education published a paper on ‘Student solidarity across borders’. She argued that a sector-wide approach is needed rather than a “patchwork” response.

University students, she wrote, form a highly-skilled and motivated group of refugees that has historically given back to receiving societies much more than they have received in aid. She added that student refugees have made considerable contributions to the British economy, academia, science, culture and the arts as well as to society more generally. So we cannot afford to let this exceptional pool of students slip away. We know that it is taking longer and longer to resolve conflicts, but at some point in the future we hope that countries will return to peace and stability. When they do, the serious task of rebuilding begins. Countries will need all their talent to support that rebuilding process. We must do all that we can to support the next generation. And there are some initiatives that can help.

Digital access to higher education could offer a solution. MOOCs4inclusion aims to assess the use of massive open online courses and free digital learning among refugees and migrants. The platform provides a catalogue offering refugees access to higher education resources, support to learn a language or to develop a skill for employment, and help to integrate in countries in the European Union.

The European University Association has brought together the activities of universities aiming to help refugees through a Refugees Welcome Map. It features around 250 European participants from more than 30 countries who are working to support refugee students, researchers and academic staff.

“We must ensure that we don’t lose a generation of young people through a lack of education and opportunity”

SOAS is an institutional supporter of the Council for Assistance to Refugee Academics (CARA). Since 2008 the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies has offered fellowships and mentoring programmes to female academic refugees from across the world.

While maintaining access to higher education for refugees presents challenges, there is also the issue of how best to support refugees as they seek to integrate into a new society. Very often their skills and qualifications are not recognised.

At SOAS we are piloting a new extracurricular language learning programme, called Chatterbox. This is an initiative that employs refugees to help deliver language education to university students. The scheme offers SOAS language students one-hour sessions with native language speakers to help them practice and improve their speaking and listening skills.

Student initiatives also play an important part in supporting refugees. Last year SOAS students launched Camden Cares, a project in London to help settle incoming refugee families from Syria. Through sport sessions, cultural events and translation services, the students worked with twenty Syrian refugee families who had recently been housed by the London Borough of Camden.

These are small but important steps in the face of a backlash against refugees seen in the United States and so many countries in Europe. But we must continue to do all we can to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and the reasons for their displacement. And we must continue to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of young people through a lack of education and opportunity.

IMAGE CREDIT: bibiphoto/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Using hope not fear, individuals can build a brighter collective future

Thu, 15/06/2017 - 08:44

Being political has nothing to do with political parties. To be political is to have opinions. Political parties always begin as communities of like-minded individuals – people who share values, goals and opinions. But problems come when these communities become ideological establishments that are no longer communities of equals but classic and rather old-fashioned hierarchies.

My own political movement, the Pirate Party, has been struggling to define its place on the spectrum of traditional politics. We include people from across this spectrum, going beyond labels of Right and Left that do not apply to today’s world. In this regard the Pirate Party is like Iceland’s Women’s List party, which was founded in 1983 to advance women’s rights in legislation and pave the way for more women in parliament. Once the party had achieved its main objectives it merged with other parties, in 1999, to form the Social Democratic Alliance. Some Women’s List members left during the merger because they felt that their agenda was holistic rather than exclusively leftist.

Like the Women’s List we have a horizontal internal structure. The aim is to reach consensus on issues rather than rule by (often narrow) democratic majorities. There is no Left and Right, but right or wrong. We want to offer an alternative that puts the focus on human rights in the digital era, and how to maintain and structure these rights in a totally different world order.

“We want to offer an alternative that puts the focus on human rights in the digital era”

Young people are crucial to this alternative vision. Global voter turnout indicates that there are very few parties that appeal to young people, yet this is the age group that overwhelmingly supports us. We find that young people want to be engaged, but in a different way to older people. This work requires more direct engagement and empowerment – often defined as direct democracy.

But it still requires alliance-building and collaboration with others, whether formal or informal, around core issues. The big issues are those of progressive and evolutionary change, the change we must undertake to save our democracies and even humanity from a bleak future of the ‘corpocracy’ where human rights are never as important as the right to make profit by any means.

Our alternative future – perhaps the only way to save democracy – is based on the understanding that we are connected, not divided, and that when it comes to our communities and societies we cannot free ourselves from our responsibilities. Not long ago in Scandinavia, most people understood that the system was not a separate hostile entity but something of which they themselves were part. If you cheated the system, you were cheating yourself and your community. More positively, if you put effort into improving the system you were benefiting yourself and your community. This is perhaps less an ideology, more common sense.

It is clear that not everybody wants the same. We see divisions everywhere, between races, religions, nations, political persuasions and generations. But these divisions serve to keep us fighting among ourselves and prevent us organising ourselves to achieve the dignity and justice for which we yearn, and to hold powerful people to account.

“We need to realise when systems are becoming alien and outdated”

So how do we do this? Laws are the tools for this job, but we need to ensure that people believe the law has their interests at heart. We must invent ways to make laws more resilient and functional, using the current framework to do so. We must also reimagine our values in a fast-paced world but acknowledge when it is impossible to keep up with rapid change using the current framework. We need to be honest and understand what needs to change and how we see those changes and values in the future.

We need to cut through both the complexity and the seemingly easy solutions. We need an inclusive story that embraces the idea that democracy demands our care and attention, and that freedoms are never to be taken for granted. We need to realise when systems are becoming alien and outdated and have the courage to shed the old world and build something new – something that reflects our values, and to which we feel we can truly belong.

Individuals can and must change the world – but we need to connect to each other to do this. We need to spend less time analysing problems – we all know what’s wrong – and more time on solutions. This is a collective challenge: if individuals spend half an hour each day thinking of possible answers I believe that we can collectively fix problems – especially if this process is underpinned by a strong media, free access to information, the right to privacy, direct democracy, social engagement and accountability. Under these conditions, we can go beyond the old ideologies and create, together, a wise and compassionate blueprint for the future.

IMAGE CREDIT: Susan Montgomery/Bigstock

The post Using hope not fear, individuals can build a brighter collective future appeared first on Europe’s World.

Categories: European Union

The role of integrated national plans in building an Energy Union

Wed, 14/06/2017 - 08:37

Energy – its origin, cost, use and security – impacts on global sustainability, on citizens’ health and wellbeing and on industry’s competitiveness. The world is currently transitioning from a traditionally fossil fuel-based system to an increasingly diversified energy mix. The European Union, through its 2020 and 2030 energy and climate targets, its leading role in creating the Paris agreement, and the launch of a comprehensive Energy Union Strategy, is fully engaged in Europe’s energy transformation.

This transition requires appropriate tools, and one of the main tools for the decades to come will be the governance of the Energy Union.

The principal objective of the proposed Regulation on Governance of the Energy Union, proposed by the European Commission last November, is to ensure the collective achievement of the Energy Union goals of sustainability, energy security and competitiveness, and the targets defined in the framework of the 2030 energy and climate agreement.

Together with other Commission initiatives, the Governance proposal will also ensure that international climate commitments made under the Paris agreement are fully achieved in a timely manner. The proposal further establishes a coherent legal framework aimed at preserving and enhancing long-term regulatory stability and certainty for investors while reducing the administrative burden for member states.

To attain these aims the proposal includes several innovative elements. Foremost among them is the first ever obligation for member states to define their integrated national energy and climate plans. Covering an initial ten-year period whilst also including a long-term perspective, these plans will offer long-term certainty to investors on national policy priorities and will play a crucial role in ensuring the achievement of the Energy Union objectives.

“Positive momentum has to be maintained and increased if the integrated plans are to be ready by 2020”

A comprehensive template for the plans is proposed in the Regulation; this will provide investors with a clear picture of member states’ planned objectives, policies and measures across the five dimensions of the Energy Union.

In the areas of renewables and energy efficiency, national trajectories will offer full visibility on member states’ priorities in terms of technology and sector preferences. A strong analytical foundation, together with proposed requirements for regional cooperation, will further translate member states’ visions into credible, reliable and cost effective objectives.

National consultations on the plans will promote participation from citizens and stakeholders in defining national priorities, thereby enhancing local acceptance and ensuring an inclusive and informed debate in all member states.

The 2030 energy and climate framework has introduced a new and challenging approach by setting renewables and energy efficiency targets for the whole EU, replacing the previous system that was based also on national targets.

Member states are now free to define their level of ambition based on their national priorities, cost effectiveness and geographical constraints. This bottom-up approach leaves member states with a great deal of responsibility: through definition of their national plans, member states are expected to adequately contribute to the 2030 targets agreed by heads of state and government in October 2014.

But the national plans as such may not be enough. How can we ensure that we reach and maintain a sufficient collective level of ambition across the five dimensions of the Energy Union? How can we stop a fellow diner leaving the restaurant without paying their share of the bill?

To address this issue, the proposal introduces its second innovation: a set of articulated provisions aimed at guaranteeing both the initial agreement of a sufficient collective level of ambition and sufficient progress towards long-term goals at the EU and national levels.

The Commission will play a central role in ensuring that a sufficient collective level of ambition is reached, and in guaranteeing the timely delivery of the Energy Union objectives. For that, the Commission will have at its disposal several instruments, including recommendations to member states and the introduction of additional EU-level measures to ensure an adequate level of ambition across Europe.

“Member states are now free to define their level of ambition based on their national priorities, cost effectiveness and geographical constraints”

For instance, the proposal lists a number of possible specific instruments to ensure the deployment of renewables across the continent and strengthen energy efficiency policies. In the area of renewables, member states can be asked by the Commission to introduce additional national measures, with the introduction of a new financial platform rewarding early movers.

For the new governance system to work, it will be important for member states to be ambitious and not to abuse the trust, flexibility and responsibility the proposed Regulation grants them. While active and detailed discussions on the legislative text are currently ongoing in the Council and Parliament – discussions that will determine the law’s final details – we can already see that member states are delivering on their shared vision. By now more than half of member states have created national working groups and structures specifically dedicated to the preparation of their national plans. More than two-thirds have also started the political processes needed to define their plans’ priorities and objectives, and several EU countries are actively engaging in discussions with their neighbours on the subject.

Positive momentum has to be maintained and increased if the integrated plans are to be ready by 2020. The Commission stands ready to facilitate their swift development, notably by supporting forms of regional cooperation and assisting technically with the preparation.

But the commitment of the Commission alone will not be enough. If we want to maintain our goals in terms of both timelines and ambition, we need the commitment and engagement of all European institutions and the support of European citizens and stakeholders.

Ultimately, the pace of the energy transition is not determined by Brussels or by European capitals, but by the daily commitment of all citizens in Europe.

This article reflects only the personal opinions of the authors and does not reflect the official position of the European Commission.

IMAGE CREDIT: Carl Attard/Pexels

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Categories: European Union

Another Romanian winter of discontent

Tue, 13/06/2017 - 08:44

Shortly after their landslide victory in the December 2016 parliamentary elections, and during one of the decade’s harshest winters, Romania’s new governing coalition decided to roll out a series of legislative ‘hot potatoes’ that challenged the rule of law. The ‘emergency decree’ that would have allowed corrupt politicians to escape or avoid jail was passed at night, in secrecy. Nevertheless, 300,000 people came out onto streets in more than 30 cities across the country.

The government, led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), won the elections by promising higher pensions, higher salaries in the public sector, lower taxes and holiday vouchers. But in attempting to save its own corrupt members from jail (and preventing others from facing trial by redefining the legal concept of abuse of power) they underestimated public reaction, particularly among the young, educated, urban population.

Recent years have already seen a series of protests: against austerity measures in 2012, against the cyanide open-pit mining at Roșia Montană in 2013, against government corruption that led to a fatal nightclub fire in 2015, and against a deputy prime minister whose abuses of power led to the death of a police officer in his motorcade in 2016. The 2017 protests had numbers (the largest since 1989) and seemingly endless supplies of humour and creativity. But what made them stand out is that dissent had become mainstream: the streets were filled with people often mocked for their corporate affiliation, marching alongside students and faculty members, entrepreneurs and various civic groups that otherwise would find themselves worlds apart.

For several days, Romanians seemed to forget to fear their state’s authoritarian practices as they demanded a government that abides by the rule of law.  Generous coverage from the European media proved helpful: for the first time in decades major newspapers ran articles on the people’s demand for an independent judiciary and transparent decision-making. But as the light of live coverage fades and a selfie with a protest banner becomes ‘so yesterday’, many of us are aware that the road ahead is long, and that a better government will only be achieved through protesters’ continued presence in the public sphere.

Ten years after joining the European Union, we in Romania look less to Brussels’ leveraging power and more at our own capacity to generate social change. With an ever-growing interest in accountability, environmental justice and inequality, and in transnational issues such as migration, Romanian society might find itself at the core, rather than at the periphery of Europe.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Sorin Mutu

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Categories: European Union

The last chance for social Europe?

Mon, 12/06/2017 - 09:07

For many years, ‘the values of the European Union’ represented a beacon of fairness and social progress, with a powerful influence on neighbouring countries and even further afield.

But things started to change with the financial crisis in 2008. In some member states the eurozone’s ‘economic governance’ regulators began to impose punitive measures that by-passed democratic authorities, and the process of upward economic and social convergence stopped in the newer member states.

The results are well-known: growing anger and hostility towards the EU across Europe, giving rise to an illusory desire to ‘take back control’ at national level – culminating in the Brexit debacle.

In the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), we have been warning of this spreading malaise for years. People are fed up with seeing their living and working conditions in freefall, coupled with a sense that decision-makers are not listening. Back in the days of Jacques Delors, European Commission president from 1985 to 1995, if social Europe stood for one thing it was hope.

We demanded proof that the EU was doing something for workers and their families. So, when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced plans for a ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ in September 2015, we welcomed the initiative – and waited to see what it would mean.

The Commission finally announced its package of measures in April 2017.

Many of the proposals were long overdue, and in line with our long-standing demands. But overall the Social Pillar was not as ambitious and concrete as trade unions wanted.

“The Social Pillar certainly does not encompass everything trade unions want, but it must not be strangled at birth”

We must now reinforce the momentum towards genuine upward convergence, making concrete improvements for working people in Europe. Much depends on the Commission, but not everything: member states must play their role by refraining from objecting in the name of subsidiarity, and instead build together a stronger European social model.

On content, the draft legislation on paid parental, paternity and carers’ leave is very positive and much-needed, although it is regrettable that it does not yet improve protection against dismissal for mothers returning from maternity leave. The lack of willingness of some employers to negotiate should not stop the Commission from taking the legislative initiative. Trade unions would be supportive.

With more and more Europeans forced into precarious and low-quality jobs, the ETUC also supports the introduction of standards to protect self-employed and atypical workers.

In its Spring Economic Forecast, the Commission recognised that divergences between member states’ economies are still much too wide, allowing social dumping to threaten jobs and undermine wages. Too many people are making do with part-time work when they actually need a full-time job. They are getting by in the gig economy or on zero-hour contracts.

We welcome the planned revision of the Written Statement Directive obliging employers to inform workers of their contractual rights; and the proposal for Access to Social Protection for All will be crucial in securing the right to a decent standard of living for everyone in Europe.

The Social Pillar is a strong signal, but still faces formidable obstacles. Many of the proposed measures will need to be applied by national governments. And we have already seen employers’ reactions embodied in BusinessEurope’s ill-judged hostility to stronger parental rights. Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen herself estimated that enabling more women to join the labour market could save the EU up to €370bn a year, making an important contribution to growth.

The Social Pillar certainly does not encompass everything trade unions want, but it must not be strangled at birth, and we will fight to make it stronger and see it grow to maturity. We are ready to engage in consultation on these proposals, since social dialogue will be crucial to their success, and we invite all employers’ organisations to join us.

“The EU is much maligned, yet remains a unique and remarkable model of international cooperation”

The pillar must apply across the whole of the EU. Any move to restrict it to the eurozone or a small group of ‘the willing’ would worsen existing inequalities. Indeed, the Commission has confirmed that the formal proclamation of the pillar at the end of the year will implicate all 28 member states, since the United Kingdom will still be part of the EU.

In mid-May, as part of her general election campaign, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a Tory government would introduce a raft of new rights for workers. Could it be that she recognises the potential backlash if workers in post-Brexit Britain found themselves left behind and denied the benefits promised across 27 member states?

There is not a moment to lose. The election of pro-EU President Emmanuel Macron in France has given Europe some breathing space, by avoiding the risk of further defections from the Union for the time being.

But the Commission must act rapidly on its pledge to enforce existing European social legislation and rights, and indicate how it means to implement the Social Pillar and more generally the social dimension of Europe. The EU is still in danger of reaching a tipping point which would put continued support from Europeans out of reach.

In the meantime the EU is on the road to economic recovery, and growth is on the rise. Workers must also benefit, yet all the evidence shows that inequalities are growing. That is why the ETUC has launched a major campaign for investment for quality-job creation and for #ourpayrise across the EU, demanding that workers’ salaries also recover their value.

The clock is ticking. The EU is much maligned, yet remains a unique and remarkable model of international cooperation. It is well worth saving, but that can only be done if it puts social rights at its heart.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – DG EMPL

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Categories: European Union

Cost-effective energy policy must be key goal of governance plans

Thu, 08/06/2017 - 08:35

Two years ago the European Commission published its Communication on the Energy Union, marking a new approach to the European energy sector.

It was based on an accurate diagnosis of the challenges facing the sector: a high dependency on fossil fuel imports; ageing infrastructure; a major crisis in markets that delivered high retail prices but low wholesale prices, thereby discouraging investment in carbon-free power generation.

The Communication also identified the winning strategy for Europe. Decarbonise the economy to reconcile sustainable development, security of supply and competitiveness. It announced consistent policies and measures regarding the five dimensions of energy and climate policy: security of supply, market integration, energy efficiency, decarbonisation and research and development.

EDF Group, as a leader in low-carbon electricity generation and in R&D, welcomed this initiative and its ambitions for innovative low-carbon growth.

The Communication logically suggested that some sort of governance should be implemented to ensure that national policies would lead to compliance with the European objectives. With the ‘Clean Energy for all Europeans’ package, we now know how this governance could be organised.

But does the proposal accurately address the main issues facing the European Union? As is often the case, the glass is half-full and half-empty.

“We can be confident that the target of 27% of renewable energy sources will be met”

We need an institutionalised dialogue between member states and the European Union, and more transparency regarding national energy policies. To some extent, the Communication achieved this, launching a process of continuous discussion and triggering visits by Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission’s Vice-President for the Energy Union, to the European capitals to discuss the role of member states in the Energy Union.

The future national plans will ensure wider long-term visibility for member states’ projects. If such a dialogue had occurred earlier, we might have developed renewable sources of electricity more efficiently. And we might have prevented stop-and-go policies that induced serious shocks on the renewables sector and tensions that resulted from the impact of variable energy on power trade.

Furthermore, greater consistency has been introduced in energy and climate policy since the Energy Union was created. Before, many initiatives were developed separately and the impact of new draft legislation on existing texts or on legislation in progress was not always taken into account. The Clean Energy Package aims at consistency by launching simultaneously interlinked pieces of legislation based on a common approach. This is a positive move.

But there are downsides. The glass is half-empty in the sense that one very important element of energy and climate policy is not part of the package: the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) Directive.

The ETS Directive was launched before the Communication was released and it will be adopted before the political discussions on several elements of the package are complete. This is extremely concerning since the package’s provisions regarding renewable energy sources and energy efficiency have a major impact on the carbon market. The higher the ambition and the less flexible the governance, the higher the risk of depressed carbon prices – and possibly even a breakdown of the ETS, Europe’s main tool for cost-effective decarbonisation.

This is why the governance aspect of the package must be further enhanced. Some of the key performance indicators should measure the efficiency of energy and climate policies. It is also necessary to identify where policies may overlap and interfere with each other, to prevent any negative consequences.

It is possible, for instance, to neutralise the impact of increased energy efficiency on carbon markets. Some amendments are currently being prepared to this end, and they merit serious discussion.

“We need an institutionalised dialogue between member states and the European Union”

It is also possible to allow for enough flexibility to be able to cope with a potential crisis. The 2008 recession proved that the carbon market was not robust enough to adapt to a shock if the rest of the energy climate framework remained rigid. The ETS is under particular threat in the next five or ten years and we must introduce enough flexibility, in particular by avoiding rigid trajectories, to protect it.

We can be confident that the target of 27% of renewable energy sources will be met; most member states are sufficiently ambitious. Should any doubt arise, the mid-2020s will be the right moment to decide how to deal with any difficulties. Let us not waste time anticipating problems that may not occur.

One more point is worth mentioning: the new target to ensure that every member state reaches an interconnection capacity with networks in other countries that is equivalent to 15% of its installed capacity. This target does not fully take into account that energy policies must necessarily be cost-effective. In this particular case decentralisation is preferable to governance: Europe is better off having interconnectors with a positive cost-benefit ratio rather than sticking to precise targets.

The proposed Governance Regulation appears at first sight more political than other elements of the package. In a sense this is true: we are about to define the respective roles of the member states and the Union and the organisation of their dialogue.

But governance is also about meeting targets at optimum cost and contributing to an efficient functioning of markets. Governance is an essential element of a cost-effective European energy and climate policy, and decision-makers must keep this in mind.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Håkan Dahlström

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Categories: European Union

Neither Brexit nor independence: Scotland’s strange election debate

Wed, 07/06/2017 - 08:56

After two terrorist attacks in the last two weeks of its general election, the UK heads to the polls this Thursday unsure how the vote will finally turn out. With the polls predicting anything from a hung parliament to a substantial increase in Prime Minister Theresa May’s majority, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is for now being labelled the political ‘winner’ of the election, with May’s negative ratings increasing as her poll lead has declined.

Will the SNP hold the balance of power at Westminster?

If it is a hung parliament, then attention will turn rather quickly to the third-largest party at Westminster, the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP are expected to lose between five and ten of the 56 seats they currently hold (out of a total of 59 in Scotland), though they would still have 46 MPs even if the worst-case likely scenario. The Tories in particular – but Labour and possibly even the LibDems – all look potentially set to increase their seat tally in Scotland from the one MP each they currently have (Labour having been Scotland’s dominant party until 2015).

But the polls still have the SNP on between 40% and 43% of the vote while, just as in England, different polls tell different stories for the Scottish Tory and Labour share of the vote (one suggesting they had levelled at 25% each, another putting the Tories on 30% and Labour on 18%).

“Brexit has been the elephant in the room in the Scottish election debate”

Where is the independence in the EU debate?

Apart from the unpredictability of the results, another curious dimension of Scotland’s election campaign has been the lack of debate over the SNP’s declared aim of independence in the European Union. Two weeks before Theresa May triggered Article 50, Nicola Sturgeon – Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader – had announced that in the face of Brexit she wanted a second independence referendum once the withdrawal deal was done in autumn 2018.

May responded “no, not now” to this request. The Tory leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, then chose to make her Scottish general election campaign all about saying ‘no’ to a second referendum. The stage was set it seemed for a big debate about Brexit with the UK or independence in the EU. But it hasn’t happened.

Nicola Sturgeon has said that having a majority of MPs in Scotland – along with being the largest party in the Scottish parliament and winning the local council elections early last month – would mean she has a ‘triple lock’ on her request for a second independence referendum. But she has also been keen to stress that the election is about electing SNP MPs to provide opposition at Westminster to Conservative austerity policies, benefit cuts and reductions in public service spending. This has been her main line of attack.

Sturgeon has also said that if she wins a majority of MPs (which she is bound to do) she will demand a seat at the Brexit negotiating table, and will again call for Scotland to be allowed to stay in the EU’s single market and the UK (as proposed last December in the Scottish government paper ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’). This is rather curious.

The UK government rejected Sturgeon’s proposal for a differentiated deal for Scotland (on the same day as they triggered Article 50). UK government Brexit Secretary David Davis wrote to his Scottish Government counterpart Mike Russell to say – without a hint of irony – that Scotland could not be in the UK and in the EU’s single market as it would create significant trade barriers between Scotland and England and ‘regulatory confusion’. It is also clear that Nicola Sturgeon would not agree with May’s approach to the Brexit talks (outside the EU single market and customs union) – yet she is putting the emphasis on these two demands: a seat at the table and a differentiated deal.

It appears that, despite taking the bold step of calling a second independence referendum in the face of Brexit, and coming down on the side of an independent Scotland being in the EU not the European Economic Area, Nicola Sturgeon does not want to debate these issues. As a result, with the Scottish Tories and Labour both doing well out of strongly opposing a second referendum, Sturgeon looks on the defensive.

“If it is a hung parliament, the attention will turn rather quickly to the third-largest party at Westminster, the Scottish National Party”

Where is the Brexit challenge?

Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader – and Labour’s leader Kezia Dugdale – have been allowed to argue against independence without being challenged on Scotland being part of the UK’s Brexit, and on all the associated costs and damage that the Brexit decision is already doing and will do even more in the near future. It is understandable that the SNP did not want the general election campaign to be run as if it is a referendum campaign – with arguments over what currency an independent Scotland would use, how it would fund its deficit, and what would happen to the England-Scotland border.

But the SNP had plenty of potential Brexit ammunition to use over the damage to living standards caused by the fall in the pound since 23 June, the slowdown in growth (with eurozone growth in the first quarter of 2017 two-and-a-half times that of the UK), the trade barriers that Brexit will reintroduce, security and more.

To put the focus instead on an anti-Tory, anti-austerity narrative and, when talking about Brexit, to prioritise the demand that Scotland should be in the UK and in the EU’s single market, suggests an SNP that is not on the front foot on independence in the EU.

In the rest of the UK both Labour and the Tories accept Brexit – and so it was pushed to the sidelines of election debates. In Scotland, there is clear blue water over Brexit between the Tories and Labour, on one side, and the SNP (and Scottish Greens) on the other.

Yet Brexit has been the elephant in the room in the Scottish election debate. And whether there will be a second independence referendum before 30 March 2019 is, for now, quite unclear. It is one more Brexit conundrum.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – First Minister of Scotland

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Categories: European Union

Young people can map a European future for the Balkans

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 08:57

When people think about the Balkans, it is most often as the ‘powder keg’ of Europe: a region that produces more history than it can consume. But this small group of countries next door to the European Union has been trying for more than two decades to change this stereotype. After fierce ethnic conflicts during the 1990s the Western Balkans have been moving towards the prospect of EU integration.

The joint EU accession project remains the major inspiration for peace, stability and security in the Western Balkans, whose history, culture, society and economy are inseparably linked to those of the rest of Europe. But ethnic divides are set to remain a source of instability; the enduring legacy of ancient conflicts.

The prevailing perception of the Western Balkans is that of a divided and distrustful society. I became aware of this divide as a student in Sarajevo in 2000. Bombarded buildings show a town’s suffering much better than the bitter stories of its residents. I also saw the immense impact of ethnic conflicts on the younger generation. We mixed very little with the ‘others’ – those of a ‘different’ ethnicity – whose parents or grandparents were responsible for certain past events. The scars of conflict were still fresh. Young people, despite their energy and forward-looking nature, were not yet ready to place themselves at the head of the much-needed reconciliation process.

“Conflicts of the past have left behind prejudices and intolerance”

Many hoped that time would heal the wounds. But even the young people today who have never experienced a single day of war have grown up in divided societies. The conflicts of the past have left behind prejudices and intolerance, exploited in propaganda by nationalists who consider young people to an easy target and a Balkanised generation. We see young people fighting at football matches or singing nationalist songs; it is clear that the hoped-for reconciliation has not yet arrived. This process needs time and – more importantly – work.

Reconciliation is essential for lasting peace. Reconciliation needs simultaneous top-down and bottom-up processes. And reconciliation needs effective leadership, including the efforts of ordinary citizens and (in particular) younger generations, to propel societies away from a divided past and towards a shared future.

There are lessons from elsewhere. The Franco-German Youth Office was established in 1963 to bring the young people of these countries together after two world wars. The Western Balkans is using this model today as a source of inspiration. During the 2016 Paris Western Balkans Summit an agreement was signed to set up the Regional Youth Cooperation Office. RYCO, a joint initiative of the prime ministers of Albania and Serbia, with its seat in the Albanian capital Tirana, is designed to nurture a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation among young people in the region; to strengthen bonds and promote mutual understanding. Recently there have been positive developments in this area, particularly thanks to top-level political exchanges. But political deals alone do not have the power to boost such cooperation.

Substantial reconciliation requires regional cooperation. Good neighbourhood relations can be forged only through constructive and peaceful dialogue among citizens, young people included. At a time when nationalist and populist rhetoric is gaining ground in Europe, including in the Western Balkans, young people have a responsibility to take an active stand against it.

Politicians should reject nationalism and trust young people, allowing them to take a leading role in maintaining dialogue and building bridges of friendship. Today’s young people are tomorrow’s decision-makers: they will have responsibility for ensuring sustainable security and stability in the region, as well as continued socio-economic development and further integration into the European family.

“Good neighbourhood relations can be forged only through constructive and peaceful dialogue among citizens”

This could be a hard process in a region where the wounds of conflict have not yet healed. But there is no viable alternative. European integration is a shared goal and challenge; it serves as the motivation to achieve reconciliation. But the long waiting time to join the EU, social problems arising from unemployment, slow economic growth and the lack of trust in weak institutions combine to create disappointment among young people, who tend to view themselves as a ‘lost generation’. Our societies cannot risk wasting their potential, which would seriously threaten the region’s long-term development.

The RYCO may have just taken its first steps, but there are big expectations. This does not mean that there were no such exchanges prior to this initiative or that it will immediately solve all the problems facing young people in the region. But a regional organisation that guides and coordinates cooperation among young people would strengthen the overall reconciliation process. It has the potential to gather momentum and lend a new perspective to reconciliation. Regional cooperation can only truly become a real success story in Western Balkans when it lives in the hearts and minds of its young people.

To this end, this initiative need to be associated with new policies to stimulate economic growth, create new jobs, consolidate the rule of law and democratic institutions, ensure observance of human rights and fight against corruption and organised crime. These actions would help ensure the future that our young people deserve, bringing them closer to the promise of Europe.

For the EU, stability, security and prosperity in this region are of special interest. So Europe needs to invest in young people and keep their part of the promise. Young people in the Balkans have much to offer for the future: energy, an awareness of the past, and the ability to play an active role in building a common European future.

IMAGE CREDIT: Borodin/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Britain’s leadership crisis comes at the worst possible time

Fri, 02/06/2017 - 08:51

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leaders.

Britain is undoubtedly living in extraordinary times ‒ in about 660 days’ time, ready or not, it will leave the European Union: destination unknown.

Sadly, the extraordinary leaders are not there. Worse, the current general election campaign showcases probably the weakest array of party leaders in living memory. The four main UK-wide parties are each headed by someone with less than two years’ experience at the helm, and it is showing.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, called the election on the back of opinion polls that showed her, and her Conservative Party, to be wildly popular.

May was a shoo-in for a return to 10 Downing Street with a beefed-up majority in the House of Commons, an untouchable leader with support across the country. She would be ready to ‘do battle with Europe’ and be welcomed back “as a 21st-century Gloriana”, in the words of one of her more obsequious colleagues, comparing May to Queen Elizabeth I.

But daylight was let in on the May ‘magic’. Presented by her party in near-presidential style and as “strong and stable”, Theresa May soon became “weak and wobbly” with a series of flip-flops. A half-baked plan on social care funding threatened the savings of pensioners, a core source of votes for Conservatives, and was dubbed a ‘dementia tax’; this followed a previous u-turn on a tax plan in the Budget earlier this year.

“Britain is undoubtedly living in extraordinary times ‒ in about 660 days’ time, ready or not, it will leave the European Union”

The ‘dementia tax’ was quickly dumped, but while May falsely insisted “nothing has changed”, her reputation certainly had in the eyes of many voters. She has been duffed-up in TV interviews, and was mocked for failing to attend a seven-way debate with other leaders a week before polling day. Public interaction has been minimal. The campaign has been relaunched, with the Conservative brand more prominent, and Brexit – an issue on which May remains trusted – restored as the core theme.

But a political leader does not necessarily have to be brilliant; only better than her opponents. In that respect, May has had remarkable good fortune.

In the Conservative leadership election last summer, she had to do little more than be a grown-up as her hapless colleagues shot themselves in the foot. And now she is up against Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader and the only other person with even a faint hope of entering Number 10.

Corbyn has had a good campaign. He’s had fairer media coverage, and has been personable, more polished and less irascible than usual. Labour’s opinion poll numbers have surged, cutting a pre-campaign deficit of 20 points to one of between three and ten points. Some optimistic polls, perhaps naively considering that young people will buck a historical trend and vote in droves for Corbyn, point to a hung parliament.

Time for a reality check. The Conservatives are still likely to score a comfortable win. Corbyn is doing well only because expectations of him were subterranean: around three-quarters of his parliamentary colleagues wanted him gone a year ago, only one year into his leadership, only for the leader to be saved by fervent, more radical party members.

And Corbyn’s hard-left history, rebellious stances (including association with various toxic groups such as the IRA and Hamas) and inexperience will damage him, as the Conservatives try to frame him as unreliable and May as the safer pair of hands as Brexit talks loom.

Of the smaller parties, who are being squeezed out in this election, the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party are saddled with their own leadership crises.

The LibDems’ Tim Farron has a net approval rating of minus 31 according to pollster YouGov. An evangelical Christian, he began the campaign in a muddle over his views on homosexuality. His attempts to push a pro-European line and win over the ‘48%’, those who backed Remain in last year’s EU referendum, are set to fail as the proportion of ‘Re-leavers’ – those who backed Remain, but accept the decision to leave – grows.

UKIP’s Paul Nuttall is even less liked; worse, he’s ridiculed for self-aggrandising claims made in his unsuccessful campaign to win a parliamentary seat earlier this year. With the more charismatic Nigel Farage gone, and with UKIP’s main aim nearly fulfilled, many people are questioning UKIP’s relevance. The party seems, instead, to have turned right, to an avowedly anti-immigrant and (in some cases) anti-Islam position.

“Being open about the choices – and making them – is a test of leadership”

And this shift may well assure Theresa May’s return to Number 10: the UKIP collapse, with their votes shifting to the Conservatives, could well give the Prime Minister the increased majority she craves.

Even with an increased majority, this unnecessary election – eating up seven weeks of precious negotiating time as the EU institutions stand ready to talk – has not given Theresa May the unassailable status she craved.

Brexit talks begin just eleven days after the election, but May (like Corbyn) has not set out the realities of leaving the EU: no trade deal can be better than the current arrangements; ‘no deal’ is not better than a bad deal, but simply the worst deal; immigration will not end overnight; your public services will not miraculously improve because Britain’s not in Europe any more.

It would be politically unpopular to say these things – and potentially very damaging in an election campaign – but real leadership involves a degree of honesty with the people. It requires explanation of the harsh realities. This will have to be done sooner or later, unless Britain goes down the dangerous route of blaming malevolent Europeans for failure in the Brexit talks.

Being open about the choices – and making them – is a test of leadership. But it’s absent in this ‘Brexit election’, which exists a fantasy world where The Vote of June 2016 is sacred, irrespective of the costs.

With May most likely to be in charge, “Gloriana” will soon face rumblings and rebellion from her backbench MPs, the right-wing media and the public when she, inevitably, concedes ground. Her recent history of about-turns will not help, giving Brussels encouragement not to cede ground in negotiations. Perhaps, unlike another woman Tory PM who talked tough to Europe, this lady is for turning.

The next two years will be fraught. The talks will require honesty and decisiveness. We will soon see whether extraordinary leadership emerges, from both the government and opposition, to steer Britain through these extraordinary times.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Number 10

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Categories: European Union

Syria shows it’s time to take climate migration seriously

Thu, 01/06/2017 - 08:52

Most people remember the first news reports on the political unrest in Syria in 2011. After the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it was merely a matter of time before Syrians would take to the streets and demand the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Within weeks, the uprisings escalated into a fully-fledged civil conflict. Fighting broke out between the Syrian government, opposition forces, Sunni Arab rebel groups, the Kurds, al-Nusra and Daesh (Islamic State). To date, more than 465,000 people have died; more than ten million civilians have had to leave their homes.

Not many people know that extreme droughts and bad agricultural planning in Syria between 2006 and 2010 led to the collapse of the agricultural sector in the north-east of the country. It forced 1.5 million unskilled farmers to migrate to the cities, and it is broadly seen as a contributing factor to the civil unrest. Six years since the conflict began, policymakers in the region and in the West urgently need to give the issue of climate-induced migration the attention it deserves.

Traditionally, the agricultural system in north-eastern Syria produces more than 65% of the country’s crop yield. The region is heavily dependent on rain: more than two-thirds of water for agriculture comes from a six-month rain period each year. The rest of the water comes from irrigation and groundwater. The variability of year-to-year rainfall adds to the importance of groundwater reserves.

“More research is needed on the climatic drivers of civil unrest”

During the presidency of Hafiz Assad (Bashar Assad’s father) from 1971 to 2000, the country increased its dependence on agricultural production and started to exploit land and water resources. This led to depletion of the groundwater and made agricultural success even more reliant on weather conditions. When the country was hit by extreme drought in 2006, it had a huge impact on agriculture. The lack of rainfall and high temperatures caused the soil to dry out, and there was no groundwater to compensate this.

This was not the first time drought had occurred in Syria. Since 1931 the Fertile Crescent (a band of territory stretching across the top of the Arabian peninsula, from the Nile Valley to the Persian Gulf) has witnessed a 13% drop in winter rainfall, and droughts have occurred occasionally. But the 2006 drought came relatively quickly after the 1998-2001 drought, from which the agricultural sector had only just recovered. The 2006 drought also lasted longer than previous dry spells, causing the harvest to fail year-on-year.

The effects of the drought were not limited to agriculture. Vegetation for grazing became scarcer, causing herders to lose large parts of their livestock and forcing them to sell some of the remaining animals to pay for feed. As market prices were heavily influenced by the drought, prices for livestock were low while prices for food and seed increased. This happened at a time when food subsidies for farmers were abolished due to a fall in Syria’s oil revenue and as part of Assad’s new liberal market policy.

In 2009, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) published a Syria Drought Response Plan, following remarks by the Syrian agriculture minister that the economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with’. Unfortunately, to date only 33.4% of the plan has been funded ‒ not enough to assist the herders and farmers and prevent a mass migration to the cities, as some 1.5 million Syrians from the north-eastern region migrated to Damascus, Aleppo and other urban areas.

These cities had already had to absorb more than one million refugees from Iraq in 2006, and so the new wave of refugees settled on the edges of the cities, where living conditions were poor and access to employment limited. The new influx of people also placed a huge strain on urban water supplies, which added to existing political unrest.

“The Syrian drought is one example of climate change as a threat multiplier”

In March 2015 climate scientist Colin Kelley published an article in which he compared models of greenhouse gas emissions from human interference with rising temperatures in the Fertile Crescent. He concluded that the increase in greenhouse gases due to human activity had an impact on the duration and severity of the drought. This is worrying. But what is more disturbing is that Kelley’s study and climate models by the International Panel on Climate Change suggest that this region will become drier in the future, as greenhouse gas concentrations continue. In fact, some studies suggest that the entire Fertile Crescent is likely to disappear by the end of the 21st century because of human-induced climate change.

This terrifying prospect requires that the phenomenon of climate refugees is taken seriously. The Syrian case demonstrates how dangerous climate change can be when it affects vulnerable populations in countries that are not resilient to changing weather conditions and mass migration. High vulnerability to rainfall and temperatures due to unsustainable agricultural policies led to the migration of unskilled labour to cities that lacked urban and infrastructural planning, adding to political instabilities.

The Syrian drought is one example of climate change as a threat multiplier. Droughts, limited natural resources and mass migration will be extra burdens on existing difficulties. Accommodating refugees regionally is only possible if resources are available to house and feed them. As temperatures continue to rise, more parts of the Middle East will become uninhabitable.

More research is needed on the climatic drivers of civil unrest. But for now, it is crucial that countries most affected by climate change, as well as nations in the global North, take the phenomenon of climate refugees seriously and develop effective emergency plans for the migration of climate refugees.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Joel Bombardier

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Categories: European Union

The governance beast: a guide to understanding Energy Union governance

Wed, 31/05/2017 - 08:43

Have you seen the governance beast?

This mysterious creature made his debut appearance on social media last year. Best described as a cross between a goat, an eagle and a Gruffalo, each part of his outlandish body has a meaning for European Union energy and climate governance.

WWF designed the beast in the run-up to a proposal on EU energy and climate governance, which was part of a package of draft energy and climate legislation released by the Commission on 30 November 2016. The governance element is responsible for ensuring climate and energy targets are met, and for planning and reporting on progress.

It may sound dry, but getting governance right is crucial to reaching 100% renewable energy in the EU and winning our fight against climate change.

WWF’s governance beast featured all the elements we wanted to see reflected in the European Commission’s proposal. Wings for high ambition – going beyond the EU’s 80% to 95% emissions reduction 2050 target, set before the EU signed up to the more ambitious Paris agreement. Sharp claws to prevent EU countries backsliding and to ensure they get more ambitious over time. Teeth, to ensure compliance with EU targets. A big heart, to ensure a fair and just transition to 100% renewable energy. Ears for listening to stakeholders.

One of the most important parts of the beast is its eyes. For WWF, it was essential the governance proposal did not stop at 2030, but looked ahead to 2050. Longer-term climate plans are crucial for investor confidence and for avoiding stranded assets – investments which are lost, for example, in a coal plant that becomes obsolete.

“The governance element is responsible for ensuring climate and energy targets are met, and for planning and reporting on progress”

In fact, in the energy sector short-term plans alone make little sense, since power plants and renewable energy infrastructure have lifetimes measured in decades. Shorter-term plans can be shaped only once the longer term strategies are in place.

When the bundle of proposed energy and climate legislation, officially entitled the ‘Clean Energy for all Europeans’ package, was actually released, we found the governance draft to be one of the stronger parts.

It is a good attempt by the Commission to bring energy and climate change together, and to put the current multitude of different planning and reporting obligations under one roof. To do this, the Commission proposes that member states develop national energy and climate plans (NECPs) up to 2030.

But the governance proposal does have weaker elements. One of these is the lack of clarity on how the Commission will enforce the already-agreed 2030 climate and energy targets for renewables and energy efficiency – the teeth of the governance beast. How will member states be encouraged to deliver renewable energy pledges that are enough to reach the EU’s goal of 27%?

Another undeveloped element is how the public and stakeholders should be involved in developing and implementing the plans – the beast’s ears.

But the main governance shortcoming concerns long-term climate planning – the beast’s eyes. For a start, it only gets a small mention.

Second, member states are asked to hand in their long-term plans in 2020 – that is, after they hand in their 2030 plans in 2019. This makes no sense. No business would ever do their shorter-term plan before the longer one.

Third, the Commission talks of 50-year plans, from 2020 to 2070. For NGOs and politicians alike, 2070 is too far away to be meaningful, and an invitation to put off prioritising climate ambition. The best timing would be for 30-year plans, up to 2050, as EU countries are already working to that deadline and we know that the EU must be fully decarbonised by then at the latest. 2050 is close enough to provide a clear direction for the 2020-2030 period and to have an impact on decisions today, while still providing a longer-term vision for businesses and society.

A fourth drawback is the lack of guidance from the Commission on what should be included in the 50-year (or preferably 30-year) plans. WWF is running an EU LIFE-funded project called MaxiMiseR, which focuses on making long-term climate plans as good as possible.

“For NGOs and politicians alike, 2070 is too far away to be meaningful, and an invitation to put off prioritising climate ambition”

Compensating for the lack of clear information from the Commission, MaxiMiseR will soon produce its own guidance on what should be in a longer-term plan or strategy. Elements like regular review and monitoring, stakeholder engagement, high ambition and integration with other parts of the economy are all as important for long-term plans as they are for the 2030 national energy and climate plans of the governance proposal. All these areas were assessed by MaxiMiseR when it ranked member states’ current long-term climate strategies – and found that there was much to be improved.

Clearly, if we were to redraw our governance beast today to reflect the Commission’s proposal, it would be simpler than the original design. Some body parts are smaller than they should be. The wings of ambition would be tiny, for one, so the beast would be flightless.

But interestingly the Commission has now created its own governance beast. Inspired by WWF’s effort, the Commission produced an Energy Union governance ‘firefly’ to show the elements of its proposal. Some of these appeared to match ours, such as wings for ambition and eyes to look to 2050. Yet the design does not yet match the reality: the firefly needs to grow some more beast-like elements – such as teeth – to be up to the job.

The next two years are a chance for the EU member states and the European Parliament to beef up the weak body parts and improve the governance proposal. We will be following the process closely to ensure this key policy proposal is improved during the negotiations, particularly when it comes to long-term climate plans, stakeholder engagement, and enforcement of energy and emissions reduction targets.

Getting Energy Union governance right is about more than a funny ‘beast’. It will make meeting our energy and climate targets much more likely, and reduce the costs to consumers of doing so. It will ensure we live up to our commitments under the Paris agreement. And it will help Europe remain a climate leader, playing its role in the fight against climate change.

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Categories: European Union

Do you hear me?

Tue, 30/05/2017 - 08:53

Across the world, in the wake of massive disruptions in demography, technology and the economy, large numbers of citizens are struggling to adapt and popular pressure is building on governments to deliver solutions. From Lebanon and Malaysia to Guatemala and Romania, there are demands for real reforms and to address real problems: to counter corruption and generate decent jobs; to provide access to health and education; to modernize infrastructure and to collect the rubbish.

Much popular dissatisfaction today is driven by the failure of governing elites to respond to the wants and needs of the people. In a connected world, this gap between government and the people has become perilous. To respond to rising pressure, governments must put citizens’ needs and preferences at the centre of decision-making, and ensure that the people’s voice is heard.

In some places, such pressure is dismissed as ‘populism’, in the face of unruly and prejudiced street movements. Elites have been too quick to dismiss this popular backlash without trying to understand the underlying issues. While some people’s participation in populist movements can be explained by racist or xenophobic thinking, the majority are those who see their jobs disappearing and feel uncertainty about their futures.

The movements are in large part about whether governments are responsive to citizens, who are now expressing their distrust of an establishment that they see as self-serving and unresponsive to their needs and demands. They believe that the policies advanced in the halls of power and bureaucratic offices don’t adequately address their problems and fears.

Very often, they’re right. Decisions are taken at too high a level in bureaucracies that seem far removed from people’s daily lives. Policymakers have, in some cases, advanced an agenda that appeals to urban and moneyed elites, but ignored the industrial heartlands. Globalisation hasn’t delivered on the promises made to working class constituencies. The Naples and Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in the 1990s were a precursor to the Occupy movement a decade later; a foretaste of danger to come. Real wages have not risen in the United States for 15 years. And in the wake of the 2008-9 financial and fiscal crisis, the wealthy had their bailouts, but regular people did not.

If, in response to popular discontent, political parties continue to dig in their heels, the populist agenda will become more and more divisive. The better approach is for political leaders and parties on both the left and right to take the public’s concerns seriously and seek to identify a common and coherent agenda around which both sides can rally. Ensuring that governments are responsive to the needs and desires of their people, both in what they provide, and in how they provide it – allowing citizens to participate in decision-making – will be essential.

“We must recognise that governments are in place to serve their citizens, not to service the needs of the bureaucracy”

Courses of action will of course vary by country, by region and by city. But these should be based on a set of six core principles.

First, recognise that governments are in place to serve their citizens, not to service the needs of the bureaucracy. Political parties must do a better job at setting policy agendas that focus on responsive governance for all citizens and not just vocal interest groups or the portion of the country that voted them into power. Governing agendas must address citizens’ basic needs: healthcare, education, infrastructure, skills and quality jobs.

Second, understand the importance of the way government policy is implemented. Vast networks of lobbying companies, big consulting firms and government budget insiders cut sweetheart deals with each other and capture policy for special interests. Officials often use a ‘revolving door’ to switch from government to company, and vice-versa. Pressure groups consciously or unwittingly block the forces of positive disruption that would shock governments into adapting to today’s world. This flow of influence, budgets and contracts does not serve the broader public.

Third, government services should take advantage of the digital age and be reinvented as platforms for service delivery. Critically, these platforms must be seen as public utilities. We must resist the temptation to let them be privatised and monopolised by corporations – a recipe for neo-feudalism and exclusion. And services must become cheaper: the (inflation-adjusted) costs of core services such as healthcare, education and social services have risen dramatically over the last 50 years. People are paying more but receiving less. An embrace of cost-effective digital delivery can enable faster decision-making cycles and allow for greater responsiveness to citizens’ concerns.

Fourth, understand that the voice and participation of citizens is essential. People have felt ignored, neglected, looked down upon. The desire to make themselves counted – sometimes quite literally as one of many at a protest – is in part a consequence of being excluded from decision-making. In most countries, channels for public participation exist – sitting on a school board, lobbying an elected representative, or taking part in a consultation – but these do not necessarily meet the needs of today’s citizens. The American political philosopher John Dewey, writing in the 1920s, argued that the state is just a mechanism that should do what citizens want it to do in any moment in time; the challenge is how to find the right mechanisms to produce a public consensus on the role and functions of the state. For citizens, good governance means being heard.

This requires mechanisms for governments and the media to listen to people and to understand the specific drivers of disaffection and malaise. Instead of dismissing vast constituencies, these centres of power must try to understand the root causes of their distrust of the elite by really hearing what those communities have to say, and then put forward constructive policy measures to address the issues raised.

“We must guard against nationalism but preserve a common sense of nationhood”

Fifth, recognise that a common identity for a political community is healthy. Identifying on the basis of membership in a nation state has great advantages. We must guard against nationalism – meaning rejection of the ‘outsider’ or the supremacy of the state over the individual (rather than the state being the servant of the people). But to preserve the sense of common political community that underpins our democratic system, it is important to have a common sense of nationhood, and a common identity based on a location – whether a city, province, state or nation – in the form of civic nationalism. This can also balance the current trend towards identity politics.

Sixth, anticipate the future. The countries that are adapting to our new century well are those that are thinking ahead and using foresight tools and policy planning to craft industrial and post-industrial strategies. As new technologies and economic realities continue to disrupt the landscape there will be a measure of adapting to the inevitable, but there is still vast scope to shape the policy environment to the needs of people.

What would these principles mean for different parts of the world today? In the Middle East, six years on from the false dawn of the Arab Spring, people are still protesting in the streets and agitating online, refusing to give up the search for more responsive government. In countries that have experienced decades of authoritarian rule, the social contract between citizen and state has been fractured, and must be rebuilt. In the United States, a new common agenda is needed to link the middle of the country and its coastal regions, based on core common interests – decent work; opportunity; cost-effective education and healthcare; revived infrastructure.

In Europe, it means rethinking the European idea so that it puts the needs, interests and desires of its citizens at the centre, and gives real meaning to the principle of subsidiarity, allowing nation states to set their own agenda and continuing to allow local regions to find the right policy mix for their circumstances. Across these regions, we must recognise that cities, states and districts are where the bulk of decisions are made – and that the question is usually not a stark choice between centralisation and decentralisation but figuring out at which level each function should be provided.

Citizens are on the march. If the governing elites do not respond, in the form of more responsive government and more accountable leadership, the voices will only get louder. But if governments get ahead of the trends, there is a pathway to renew the social contract and reinvent government for the 21st century.

IMAGE CREDIT: chris cintron/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Cultural convergence is the key to rebuilding EU-Maghreb relations

Mon, 29/05/2017 - 15:56

In the western Mediterranean we encounter a paradox: there is the reality of the strength of relations formed between Europe and the Maghreb countries of North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia); then there is the perception of a growing gap between the two sides. To bridge this gap and achieve greater harmony, we need to change our perspective. We need to replace Eurocentric ideas of ‘cultural integration’, and instead focus on ‘cultural convergence’.

This will not be easy: the religious fault line between the Judeo-Christian northern Mediterranean and the majority Islamic southern Mediterranean is particularly acute, not least against the backdrop of multiple inequalities in the region, the post-9/11 security deterioration (the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East, and the rise of extremist groups ‘reclaiming’ Islam), and the rise in anti-Muslim populism in Europe.

The poor results of political and economic partnerships have also contributed to the perception of a widening gap. The Euromed partnership – also known as the Barcelona process – is more than two decades old. But the dream of the transformation of Arab societies, democracy and open economies, all to be achieved with structural support from Europe, has faded with the Arab Spring uprisings, which were perceived as evidence of the failure of Europe’s policies to support the region. Now Euromed is often condemned – especially from the European side – as having produced mediocre results or even having ground to a halt.

Euromed’s objectives were ambitious, but the strategies and funding were inadequate and the process unbalanced: for example, a free trade area where almost anything can move except people from Maghreb countries is not a partnership of equals. The new European Neighbourhood Policy – essentially a strategy to secure the frontiers of ‘wider Europe’ – seems to mark the end of perceptions of the Mediterranean as an autonomous geopolitical entity. The policy – including its post-2011 amendments – is based on a pre-Arab revolts mindset and puts in doubt Europe’s stated aim of democratisation of the southern Mediterranean.

“The growing frustration of young people makes them easy prey for radical preachers and extremist propaganda”

Working with its Maghreb partners, Europe must learn lessons from Euromed to create a long-term strategic vision and an improved, more equal partnership. We can achieve greater cultural convergence; reduce disparities; establish a better dialogue. This important work can start by taking four steps.

First, we must counter negative perceptions. Swallowing the narrative of extreme-right parties, many Europeans see Islam as an enemy and immigrants as the source of all problems. These are ideas that have now taken root in the collective European consciousness, fuelled by unprecedented numbers of refugees and terrorist attacks. For Maghreb societies, the European model has lost its appeal, with a breakdown in integration and perceived hostility to Islam and Arabs. In searching for a different modernity, Maghreb societies seek to challenge the dominant paradigm, whereby modernity equals Westernisation.

At the same time Maghreb societies are undergoing a period of great change and increasing polarisation. Political one-upmanship has helped widen existing divides between conservatives and progressives, and between Islamists and ‘secular infidels’. Arguments and controversies radicalise positions and threaten social cohesion, without producing any real constructive debate.

Second, it is vital to improve the situation for ordinary people on the ground. The Arab uprisings, which began in Tunisia, were a call to all countries in the region to pursue aspirations for economic improvement, social justice and political participation. Morocco is moving towards democracy and modernisation, a process that is far from complete. Aided by its strong leadership and clear vision, the Kingdom has consolidated, extended and implemented reforms. As the Maghreb’s main partner, the EU must offer support for such reforms, including regional integration that could boost gross domestic product by two percentage points.

Education is the basis of socio-economic development and open-mindsets. Both Europe and the Maghreb agree that the growing frustration of young people makes them easy prey for radical preachers and extremist propaganda. In Morocco, educational reform constitutes a central axis of its global strategy to fight against extremism and to promote moderate Islam.

In short, we need to give people a real stake in their own societies. Women, in particular, must be involved and valued equally (Morocco changed its constitution to ensure gender equality in 2011). But so too, in Europe, must young people with immigrant backgrounds benefit from equal treatment. Reducing their feelings of being second-class citizens would help prevent delinquency and radicalisation.

“We can build a sustainable, structured and equal Europe-Maghreb partnership that benefits everyone”

Third, we need to rebalance the cultural scales. There is currently great asymmetry in the cultural exchanges between North and South, partly due to the size of western intellectual and artistic output and its powers of outreach and communication. Reducing this asymmetry is vital in breaking down negative perceptions. Islam is a religion of peace, but that message is inaudible to a European public that remains reluctant, scared, or even hostile.

Erudite European specialists on the Arab and Muslim worlds remain silent, wheeled out by the media only to comment on terrorist attacks, where they are given a couple of minutes to explain a hyper-complex part of the world. And few European countries have had the courage to ‘decolonise’ their educational outlook and revise their history textbooks. Here, the cultural services and ambassadors of Maghreb countries must play their own role, increasing their efforts and inventiveness.

The Maghreb diaspora in Europe has the potential to serve as a bridge, but is hamstrung by its limited influence over policy and, in some cases, the absence of voting rights. And, naturally, the cultural gap must be spanned online and on social networks.

Fourth, we need a permanent and constructive dialogue between equal partners and a method to achieve cultural convergence. We need to encourage the growth of research platforms, of think-tanks (such as EuroMeSCo), and of spaces to facilitate understanding and solidarity. The Anna Lindh Foundation, which aims to bring people together from across the Mediterranean to improve mutual respect between cultures and to support civil society, needs much better funding to renew intercultural dialogue, making it an everyday reality. We should make more of the cultural and artistic boom being experienced in the countries of the Maghreb: seminars, forums, festivals, fairs, exhibitions and concerts abound, vying for public and private sponsorship. But above all we need mobility: freedom of movement between countries north and south of the Mediterranean is a must.

By taking these four steps, we can start to build a new bridge across the Mediterranean. We can realise that both sides have much in common, ending what Freud called ‘the narcissism of minor differences’. And we can build a sustainable, structured and equal Europe-Maghreb partnership that benefits everyone.

IMAGE CREDIT: saiko3p/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Building a bridge between powerlessness and hope

Fri, 26/05/2017 - 09:59

There are now more than 65 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide, according to the latest figures from the United Nations. These people have fled terror, poverty, violence, persecution and discrimination in regions torn apart by conflict and crisis – not least the Syrian civil war, currently the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster, which human rights organisations say has claimed the lives of around 300,000 people and wounded a million more.

The violence in Syria has triggered a mass movement of refugees and displaced persons: there are now 6.6 million displaced persons in Syria itself and a further five million refugees in neighbouring countries. This makes Syria the largest origin country of refugees worldwide. Most have sought sanctuary and the chance of a new life in Turkey (2.5 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (664,000) and Northern Iraq (250,000). Many of these host countries also need support in providing for and integrating the new arrivals.

In Iraq, for example, local communities are themselves bearing the brunt of armed conflict: in the past two years alone millions of Iraqis have been displaced or forced out of their villages by violence. More than 200,000 have fled to other countries.

As part of its response to the crisis the international community held the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference in London in early 2016, pledging more than €9bn to improve living conditions in and around Syria. During a follow-up conference held in Brussels in February this year the international community reconfirmed the necessity to meet the massive needs of the populations inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. The pledged funds will be used to ensure that all refugee children in the region have access to schooling, to improve healthcare, and to support employment creation programmes for refugees. Jordan, Lebanon, northern Iraq and Turkey are also the focus of the European Union’s Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis. This fund invests in education, training and the social integration of refugees and provides psychosocial support for the many people who are deeply traumatised by their experiences.

“We live in a globalised world, and interaction is its lifeblood”

Development cooperation is vital: it helps to create livelihoods and prospects for refugees in their new homes outside the war zones. But it is almost powerless when it comes to curbing wars and armed conflict. So the debate about aid for war refugees cannot simply be subsumed within the broader context of long-term international cooperation.

The movement of refugees to Europe raises one question with growing urgency: is the fact that people are still leaving their homes and attempting the journey a sign that development cooperation has failed? The answer sounds both simplistic and cynical: development cooperation is not about preventing people from taking action. It is about providing support and improving people’s skills and living conditions, wherever they may be, and enabling them to earn a decent living. But this requires long-term commitment, patience and a strategic approach, as well as a degree of flexibility.

We live in a globalised world, and interaction is its lifeblood. Success depends not only on free but regulated movement of goods, capital, services and ideas; it relies on the movement of people across national borders. Globalisation is an arrangement based on reciprocity, and together we must resolve how we should shape all these mutual relationships. Needless to say, our European values must be built into the solution, and one of these values is assisting people in need.

On behalf of the German government, and often with co-funding from the EU, GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit)is committed to creating jobs and providing access to education and decent housing in the countries around Syria. Supporting refugees and the communities that offer them sanctuary is fundamental to our work. GIZ combines short-term aid, aimed at alleviating suffering, with medium-term and long-term infrastructural projects designed to increase the capacity of host countries to manage the crisis.

In northern Iraq, where more than a million displaced people and 250,000 Syrians have sought refuge since late 2014, GIZ is working on behalf of the German government to help these individuals regain a measure of control over their lives. Refugees and host communities are participating in a cash-for-work programme that provides a temporary income to cover basic needs. For the participants, the work is a welcome break from enforced passivity. Various employment options are available: road-building, school refurbishment and maintenance of sanitation systems.

“Development cooperation is vital: it helps to create livelihoods and prospects for refugees in their new homes outside the war zones”

The daily wage is skills-dependent and amounts to €20 to €30 for up to 50 days. The refugees can spend their wages on additional food for their families and school books for their children. To avoid social tensions the schemes always benefit the local community as well. This employment drive, initiated by the BMZ (the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development) and largely carried out by GIZ, reached 58,000 people in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey by 2016. With these broad-impact, short-term projects we are offering people hope and helping to create new prospects for their futures.

As well as rapid measures to improve living conditions, psychosocial support has a vital role to play. Refugees on the move are extremely vulnerable, with few defences against sexual assault, extortion or physical violence. GIZ supports them as they deal with these traumatic experiences. In northern Iraq community centres have been set up in refugee camps to offer mental health services and counselling. They have already reached around 250,000 people, helping them to gradually rebuild their lives.

In the medium to long term, further capacity-building in these countries will be essential, with many of them still engaged in their own development processes. On behalf of the German government, we have been working for many years in water-poor Jordan, providing access to clean water and raising awareness of the need to use this vital resource sparingly. Partly because of our cooperation with local partners, Jordan was better equipped to manage the arrival of the Syrian refugees.

Our cooperation has also helped to mitigate the social conflicts that can arise when large numbers of refugees place increased pressure on this already-scarce resource. Much of Jordan’s precious water is lost because its supply network is in a poor state of repair. Making a virtue of necessity, we have invested in training plumbers. So far around 300 Syrian refugees and Jordanian women have completed the training programme, which has encouraged them to build their own future.

These small, innovative and inspirational projects have a vital role to play. But long-term engagement is also needed to offer brighter prospects for people in the crisis region around Syria. And this is precisely the purpose of development cooperation: to make a sustainable investment in the future.

IMAGE CREDIT: radekprocyk/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Defence reinforcements: how much is enough to defend Lithuania?

Wed, 24/05/2017 - 08:39

Due to their vulnerable geographic position and complicated history, the Lithuanian people have seldom felt secure. The exception is the period from 2004, when Lithuania became a member of the European Union and NATO, to 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and occupied and annexed Crimea.

A 2012 survey suggested that more than 60% of Lithuanians did not see any major threats to their country, but another in 2016 indicated that 60% now believed Russian foreign policy to pose a serious threat to their country. Direct military invasion is considered the most devastating risk, but hybrid activities, such as those employed by Russia in Ukraine, are seen as a more likely threat. Russia’s previous tactics towards Lithuania have included economic blockades, trade wars, political pressure and interference in internal politics.

Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine have made Lithuanians anxious that Russian President Vladimir Putin also intends to intimidate the Baltic states. These fears were reinforced by Russian militarisation, the uneven military balance in the region and frequent snap exercises directed against NATO. Russian armed forces outnumber NATO’s by ten to one. There are also serious geographical ‘holes’ in Baltic defence. Russia’s hybrid strategies are difficult to identify and attribute in the early stages, and may not even fall under the scope of NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence clause.

In response to this deteriorating security environment, NATO has taken a number of steps: the deployment of four NATO multinational battalions in the Baltic states and Poland by the end of 2017, to remain on a rotational basis; an additional American brigade in Poland, on a bilateral basis; the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), approved at NATO’s 2014 Wales summit, to be used in the case of aggression.

These measures have increased the Baltics’ sense of security. But new studies suggest that they would not be sufficient to defend against a large-scale conventional attack. A recent report from RAND, a think-tank, argues that Russian forces could reach the outskirts of Baltic capitals within 60 hours, and that seven brigades deployed in the region are needed to prevent such an outcome.

Lithuania has devoted a considerable amount of attention to improving its own defence capabilities. Since 2014 it has steadily increased defence spending, planning to reach two percent of GDP by 2018. It has invested in equipment and reintroduced conscription. Measures are being taken to reduce the country’s vulnerabilities against hybrid attacks, and these steps are strongly supported by politicians and the public.

Whether this is sufficient to ensure Lithuania’s security will depend on developments in Russia and transatlantic dynamics. New security challenges might require new reinforcements. Belarus is building a new nuclear power plant 50 km from Vilnius, with Russian investment. This project may be a geopolitical tool to blackmail Lithuania – a sign that more creative security strategies are needed.

IMAGE CREDIT:CC/Flickr – Maciek Lulko

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Categories: European Union

Providing jobs for refugees won’t fix the broken system

Tue, 23/05/2017 - 08:47

In their new book ‘Refuge’, published last month, Oxford professors Alexander Betts and Paul Collier argue that “the broken refugee system” can be mended by establishing jobs for refugees in special economic zones (SEZs) in countries neighbouring conflict areas. The authors focus on Jordan, currently host to an estimated 650,000 refugees from Syria.

The proposition is simple: provide companies with tax incentives and opportunities for trade in return for providing refugees with opportunities for work, autonomy and self-reliance. Developing countries ‒ who host the vast majority of the world’s refugees – will receive much-needed economic support. In return, refugees will decide not to come to Europe, sparing further political fallout from the arrival of those who make it – and the deaths of those who don’t.

The idea that jobs for refugees could be a ‘silver bullet’ has led to largely positive press for the book, most notably from politicians desperately seeking solutions and from businesses keen to find new ways to make money. But for many others – in particular those working with refugees on the ground – the focus on the SEZs is a red herring, distracting policymakers from the much more complex and difficult task of addressing the drivers of forced migration and the highly varied socio-economic and political contexts within which refugees live.

Many question the geographical starting point. For Betts and Collier, the world woke up to the refugee crisis in April 2015 when 700 people drowned crossing the sea to Lampedusa, Italy.

What they mean, of course, is that Europe woke up. Millions of people have been displaced from their home countries to neighbouring countries in the so-called developing world for decades. The fact that the European Union was unable to deal with the increased arrival of refugees and migrants, more than half of whom were fleeing the conflict in Syria, says more about the political and policy failings of Europe than it does about the realities of forced displacement.

Others challenge Betts and Collier’s assertion that their ideas are new. The authors accuse the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of living in a time warp and failing to provide refugees with opportunities for economic autonomy, instead trapping them in ‘humanitarian silos’ where they are left to fester for decades.

“Low-skilled, often poorly-paid manual work in the absence of rights and protection simply did not give the refugees hope for the future”

This is a gross representation of the UNHCR’s work. Socio-economic rights for refugees are included in the 1951 Refugee Convention policies. Allowing refugees to work, advocating for them to live outside of camps and addressing the root causes of forced displacement have been at the heart of UNHCR’s approach since the early 1980s.

Today only 21% of the world’s refugees live in refugee camps. The problem is not the UNHCR or the international framework for refugees but rather the failure of states to step up to their obligations and to create the conditions in which refugees can thrive, not simply survive. Nowhere has that been seen more clearly than in Europe.

Putting Europe’s failings at the centre of any proposal to address the needs of the world’s refugees is therefore deeply problematic.

For a start, it is clear that the only reason the SEZs have come to the centre of the policy debate is because the interests of Europe and Jordan align. On the one hand politicians and policymakers are urgently looking for ways to reduce the number of refugees coming to Europe. At the same time countries such as Jordan are looking for ways to improve their economic and political position.

While the arrival of large numbers of refugees had undoubtedly imposed strains on the Jordanian economy, Jordan’s budget deficit stood at US$1.44bn even in 2011, before the first Syrians began to cross the border. This deficit is largely attributable to structural constraints and domestic policies, including a bloated public sector and dependence on others for more than 90% of the country’s energy needs.

Second, evidence from India and elsewhere shows that labour rights in the SEZs have often been compromised, resulting in extremely low wages, forced overtime and different forms of abuse – so  much so that in India they have been dubbed ‘special exploitation zones’. The jobs on offer are typically low- or semi-skilled, repetitive, and with long hours.

In Jordan, those who have tried to hire Syrians within the SEZs have found the situation complicated. For many Syrians the gains of being legally employed are simply not worth the losses. Outside of the SEZs Syrian refugees are barred from applying for jobs as accountant, doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers for which they have previously been trained.

“Jobs for refugees remain secondary to the overarching objective of the refugee system: to provide protection to those fleeing conflict”

Finally, it’s difficult to see how the SEZs could be part of the solution in countries where large numbers of refugees are currently hosted. The interests of the EU and Jordan may align but the interests of the EU and Iran, currently host to nearly one million Afghan refugees who are registered and nearly a million more who are undocumented, , most definitely do not. And what about Chad, host to 420,000 refugees from surrounding countries and reeling from attacks by Boko Haram? Or Sudan, with an estimated 356,000 refugees and whose President, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, is ‘at large’, facing an International Criminal Court warrant alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity?

Our own research with 500 refugees and migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to Europe during 2015 found that many had moved on from countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey not just because of the lack of economic opportunities but because they couldn’t secure protection, education and healthcare for their children. These findings are reinforced by research published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

Low-skilled, often poorly-paid manual work in the absence of rights and protection simply did not give the refugees hope for the future. Rather than giving governments the opportunity to shift the focus away from protection, we need to reorient the discussion towards how we can secure refugee rights, both in countries that are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and those that are not.

None of this is to suggest that jobs for refugees are not important. But they remain secondary to the overarching objective of the refugee system, namely to provide protection to those fleeing conflict, persecution and human rights abuse in their own countries.

Giving refugees protection and rights makes it much more likely that jobs and other opportunities will follow. Without protection and a sense of the future, refugees will continue to move on.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – CAFOD Photo Library

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Categories: European Union

Will troubled waters spoil ASEAN’s celebrations?

Fri, 19/05/2017 - 11:23

The Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) celebrates its 50th birthday on 8 August 2017. It should be a joyous occasion, were it not for the profound uncertainties brought about by the election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States. Trump, through his ‘Twitter diplomacy’, his outbursts and his appointments of ‘hawks’ to defence and trade positions in his cabinet, has signalled major changes in US foreign policy. His threat to slap tariffs on Chinese goods and launch a trade war would have disastrous consequences for the region.

As ASEAN gears up for its golden jubilee it is crucial to reflect on the challenges, to manage future risks and prepare for uncertainties. A united and cohesive ASEAN is vital if it is to help its member states navigate its way through the choppy waters and storms ahead, and to survive for another 50 years.

ASEAN was founded in 1967 at the height of Cold War tensions, and with regional disputes still fresh in memory, particularly the ‘Konfrontasi’ unleashed by Indonesia in 1963 against its smaller neighbours, Singapore and Malaysia.  Against this background ASEAN’s original aim was modest: to keep peace in the region through respect for each other’s sovereignty and adherence to the principle of non-intervention. ASEAN was to be a forum, a tool for member states to manage common threats of communist insurgencies while balancing internal sensitivities and conflict.

The Association has come a long way since then. It has had its fair share of ups and downs, of trials and tribulations. But what is remarkable is that despite initial scepticism about its feasibility and continued doubts about its relevance, ASEAN has been able to reinvent itself and confound its critics to survive for half a century.

ASEAN began as an organisation to manage the insecurities and the legacies of conflicts in South-East Asia, and to build confidence among its founding members. So it has prioritised form over substance, focusing on process rather than outcome in its initial years to maintain a modicum of order and civility.

“ASEAN has been consistent in rejecting the EU as a model”

Norms and practices such as ASEAN’s principle of non-interference and its consensual approach to decision-making, its lack of formal institutions and legal framework, have led scholars and policy-makers to criticise the Association. This was particularly the case for those who held the European Union as the ‘gold standard’ of regional integration. Yet ASEAN has survived for 50 years and been recognised as a key expression of regional cooperative activities in South-East Asia. Its norms and practices have also extended to other broader regional frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), setting the stage for what is referred to as ‘ASEAN centrality’. Through this ‘centrality’, ASEAN has played a key role in managing major power relationships in the Asia-Pacific.

Although it is tempting to draw comparisons with the EU, ASEAN has been consistent in rejecting the EU as a model. But in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, and facing serious economic competition from China and India, it has begun a process of pursuing deeper regional economic cooperation. It has started to adopt some euro-jargon and speak of creating an ASEAN Economic Community with an emphasis on institution-building and formal rule-making. This has resulted in the adoption of the ASEAN Charter, which was signed in 2007, marking 40 years of ASEAN cooperation. Another significant milestone of ASEAN’s deepening cooperation was achieved at the end of 2015, with the launch of the ASEAN Community.

Despite all these achievements there are concerns about the ability of ASEAN and its member states to meet future challenges as it embarks on its next phase of regional integration and community-building under the ‘ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together’ agenda.

2017 promises to be a year fraught with uncertainties:  populism, nationalism, Brexit and Trump all have serious implications for the region. But ASEAN’s unity has already been breached and its centrality already questioned as China aggressively asserts its claims in the South China Sea – part of increasing geopolitical competition with the US. Four out of ten ASEAN members are claimant states in the South China Sea disputes and tensions have been rising over competing claims. These claims have, sadly, accentuated intra-ASEAN differences. Combined with China’s divide-and-rule strategy, it meant that for the first time in ASEAN’s history a joint communiqué was not issued after a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in 2012.

“ASEAN’s original aim was modest: to keep peace through respect for each other’s sovereignty and adherence to the principle of non-intervention”

The election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines in May 2016, and his changing rhetoric towards the US and China, had unexpectedly scaled down the tensions between China and Philippines over South China Sea. The Philippines takes over the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2017 and is hopeful that progress on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea could help ASEAN-China relations.

China may be prepared to strengthen ties with ASEAN as it faces an unpredictable Trump. The President has threatened China with trade tariffs; called China a currency manipulator; and tweeted that even the long-standing ‘One China’ policy is up for negotiation. Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement shifted the spotlight to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed deal that would bring about greater economic integration between the ten ASEAN member states, China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. ASEAN needs to retake the initiative in the economics arena by deepening its own ASEAN Economic Community, and provide the necessary leadership to advance negotiations within the RCEP.

While ASEAN’s original role was to manage security dilemmas and to provide some margin for manoeuvre and autonomy in a region of contesting major powers, in the coming years ASEAN’s efforts will focus on economic issues: helping to keep the global economy open; pushing back against anti-globalisation sentiments; combating anti-trade sentiment. The successful conclusion of the RCEP will provide some cheer to those fighting rising protectionist forces.

The increased tension and rivalry between the US and China, and the potential for a real clash between these two, will challenge ASEAN’s centrality. But the very risks and the enormous harm that would be inflicted on all of us should there be a conflict between these two giants should energise ASEAN to stay united and engaged with them, and help them to bring about a grand bargain. The EU should welcome this and work closely with ASEAN to bring about continued peace and stability in the region.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – EEAS

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Categories: European Union

A neighbour’s view of Brexit

Fri, 19/05/2017 - 09:10

While the initial shock and disbelief that surrounded Brexit have receded for the people of Ireland, uncertainty and anxiety have only increased. Nine months after the referendum, we are no wiser about the future status of the border or the Common Travel Area between the two countries.

Initial hopes that the United Kingdom would opt for a Norwegian-style arrangement have been dashed, and there are very real fears that a ‘hard’ Brexit will have dire consequences for both territories on the island. We feel rather like an innocent child caught in the crossfire of an increasingly messy and bitter divorce; we did nothing to cause the breakup but will undoubtedly suffer the most.  Facts and details are in very short supply, but speculation is rampant and in Dublin there is talk of little else.

There is a widespread perception that neither the UK nor the European Union fully appreciates the impact that Brexit will have on the economic and political landscape of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Indeed, Westminster’s lack of attention to the border issue is seen as reflective of the Leave campaign’s very England-centric attitude, as well as Westminster’s own general indifference to the plight of the regions.

The peace process, economic prosperity and the viability of the agricultural sector in Northern Ireland are all seriously threatened by this secession. The Republic remains firmly committed to EU membership but worries that its voice will not be heard in the negotiations, as it is but one (small) member in a collective of 27. And while there may be opportunities to be exploited in terms of foreign direct investment (especially in the financial and technology sectors), the general belief is that the economic consequences of our second-largest export partner leaving the single market will be negative.  The potential loss of the UK ‘landbridge’ for the import of goods from mainland Europe will also serve to raise prices.

Finally, one of the great ironies of the referendum outcome, which was initiated by the officially-titled Conservative and Unionist Party and supported by the Democratic Unionist Party in the North, is that the issue of Irish reunification is now firmly back on the agenda. And for nationalist parties, who all supported the Remain campaign, this has been an unexpected boon.

IMAGE CREDIT: Christobolo/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Today’s chemical warfare is history repeating itself

Thu, 18/05/2017 - 09:07

When examining photos of the victims of the chemical attack in Idlib province in Syria, it is striking to note the similarities with those of Iranian soldiers and civilians during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, and of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988.

Chemicals used by Iraq during the 1980s had four purposes: to terrify the target population directly and indirectly; to drive people from sites that the government or armed groups sought to depopulate; to cause a large number of casualties without destroying buildings and facilities; and to deny the enemy of territory or routes of attacks.

It is possible that Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, and his closest circle have learned two lessons from Iraq’s use of chemical weapons.

First, Iraq’s chemical weapons had decisive military and psychological effects that resulted in Iran’s leaders suing for peace. This would probably not have happened if Saddam Hussein had not had access to chemical weapons.

In 1982 Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, pledged “Even if the Security Council orders, we will not make peace. Even if the whole world gathers, we will not make peace. Peace with the criminal [Saddam] is a crime against Islam.” But he had to break his word by July 1988, when Iran announced it would accept the United Nations Security Council’s call for a ceasefire.

“Chemicals used by ruthless leaders can be very effective in suppressing uprisings by unprotected militias and their supportive civilians”

When the president of the Iranian Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was asked why Iran had done so, he said that “the chemical weapons that Iraq used in bombing Shalamcheh were among the advanced weapons that even the Germans had not developed during World War II. […] Under these conditions, Iraq could make Tabriz, Esfahan, and even Tehran the targets of its chemical attacks in which case, like the tragedy in the town of Halabcheh [Halabja], all the people would die.”

Second, chemicals used by ruthless leaders can be very effective in suppressing uprisings by unprotected militias and their supportive civilians. An example of this is the Kurds, who were Iran’s allies throughout the Iran-Iraq War. In the 1980s, the Kurdish militia was able to occupy large parts of northern Iraq while the country’s focus was on Iran

But in early 1988 Saddam Hussein’s ruthless cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid ‒ nicknamed Chemical Ali ‒ was sent to northern Iraq to crush the Kurds with chemical weapons. Within three days the Kurdish fighters and leaders had fled to Turkey and Iran. By September 1988, thousands of Kurds had been killed and injured by chemicals.

It is likely that chemicals weapons will be used in the future for both internal and external purposes. As long as Assad remains in power in Syria, his military will use chemical weapons internally for the purposes stated above. But Assad is unlikely to use chemicals for external purposes against Israel, for example, because the country is well prepared to defend itself.

In Libya, the situation is somewhat similar: some of the militia leaders controlling the various territories or cities probably have access to caches of chemical weapons and, if so, would employ them for internal reasons such as reducing the strength of competing militias, settling scores between different ethnic groups, and/or bringing about international intervention.

Further afield, it is unclear how North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, might deploy chemical weapons, but it is probable that the weapons would be used for external purposes, possibly to harm and terrorise South Korea or Japan. As the American troops are well equipped to defend themselves from chemicals, it is doubtful that North Korea would attack them.

“Until the UN Security Council can actually end violence resulting from the use of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons are likely to be used in the future”

And beyond recognised states and governments, we will probably see limited use of chemicals by the self-styled Islamic State (Daesh) and other well-organised international terrorist groups. To date, Daesh has not been effective using chemicals such as chlorine and mustard gas. Chlorine can be acquired by terrorists who capture urban areas with water treatment plants, but, except for terrorising civilians, chlorine is an inefficient chemical weapon and so not of high concern. Mustard gas might be found in leftover depots from Saddam’s chemical warfare programme, but will be mostly deteriorated or difficult to access.

The situation would change if Daesh or its other terrorist organisations were somehow able to acquire nerve agents. However, while Daesh might be able to recruit, or capture, chemical scientists, it would probably find it difficult to put them to work due to a lack of proper precursors and equipment.

While the world has an efficient body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), that can investigate real or alleged uses of chemical weapons, the major issue with chemical warfare is that it is up to the UN Security Council to decide on how to handle transgressors of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

As has been demonstrated numerous times since the Assad government first used chemical weapons in 2013, the Security Council has been unable to stop Assad from ordering one chemical attack after another because of vetoes wielded by Russia. Were North Korea to launch a chemical attack, the Security Council would probably again be blocked by one or more vetoes by its permanent members.

Until the parties of the CWC are able to work together to reform the Security Council so that it can actually end violence resulting from the use of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons are likely to be used in the future – with serious consequences.

IMAGE CREDIT: Golden Brown/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Europe should give meaning to the rule of law online

Wed, 17/05/2017 - 08:49

Online, we do not yet have a tradition of the rule of law. We are not certain how to apply existing laws when the internet is used to attack or to repress. In the absence of clear rules that safeguard principles such as fair competition and non-discrimination, big technology companies are filling the vacuum. But the rule of law must retain its meaning in a hyper-connected world, and Europe should pave the way in setting norms that put people’s rights and freedoms first.

The foundations are there: the General Data Protection Regulation; net neutrality enshrined in law and multi-million-euro fines imposed on tech companies for abuse of dominance and competition rules. It is time the EU embraces norm-setting in the digital world as a competitive advantage, and becomes a global leader by developing policies in the public interest beyond the digital single market.

The alternative – where the internet is ruled by the laws of the jungle – is unfolding before our eyes. During the United States presidential election, the Democratic Party was hacked. American officials immediately accused Russia of seeking to manipulate the election outcome. While the evidence is being gathered, we should reflect on the consequences of such unprecedented acts and, more importantly, how to prevent future hacks.

Fake news flourishes on online platforms where sensational headlines beat fact-checked reports for clicks and advertising revenue. Daily reports about hacks, leaks and propaganda have eroded trust in the internet, which hinders its economic potential. This stands in sober contrast to the promise of democracy going viral, which many considered possible when all people on the open internet could access information, speak freely and connect globally.

In a major 2010 policy speech, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton highlighted internet freedom as a core issue for her foreign policy agenda. She argued that on top of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms there should be a fifth: “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The Freedom to Connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace.”

“A situation where the internet is ruled by the laws of the jungle is unfolding before our eyes”

Sadly, the US has since lost credibility – not by limiting people’s ability to connect, but by intrusively following them afterwards. To keep the internet open, trustworthy, free and safe, both states and companies must take responsibility.

From the technological infrastructure to the services sent over it, the private sector is increasingly influential online. It is essential to look across borders and beyond traditional governance models to ensure the rights and freedoms of internet users are respected, wherever they may log on. This is easier said than done in the shifting dynamic between sovereign states and the borderless internet.

The knee-jerk response of creating a closed-off ‘splinternet’, where states seek to develop an online space in sync with territorial borders, must be avoided. It rejects the notion of an open, global internet. The urge to regain control over citizens goes hand-in-hand with the use of technologies to repress populations or wage war. The most drastic way to control people online is to completely block access, which happened in Egypt during the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. In Turkey and Bangladesh blackouts hit specific regions or services such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter. The Ugandan government forced internet service providers to block Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook in the run-up to elections, and Algeria closed social media to avoid cheating during exams. China has built a ‘Great Firewall’; it seeks to keep its population controlled and foreign companies out.

With these drastic moves governments are shooting themselves in the foot. Closing off the internet has major economic consequences:  81 blackouts over a 12-month period in 2015-16 caused US$2.4bn of damage to the global economy. The immaterial damage is less easily measured, but felt by people unable to call relatives or an ambulance, or get news amid the chaos.

There have been few concrete repercussions, although for EU candidate countries such as Turkey, digital rights form part of the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, the basic standards for entry into the bloc. The EU can do more to ensure existing laws are enforced when digital freedoms are violated. Development aid conditions on respecting human rights should always include freedoms online.

Unfortunately, the rule of law and effective judicial and democratic oversight are concepts that are not always respected in democratic societies. Despite revelations about the practices of American and British intelligence services and court rulings against aspects of these practices, intelligence services still want to collect data in bulk. In both the UK and France new legal frameworks gave intelligence agencies extraordinary new powers to track individuals online. Besides the fact that major question marks arise about whether these measures actually make societies safer, the credibility of democratic countries is undermined. The EU must lead by example and raise the bar for respecting human rights online.

Recent terrorist attacks in European cities have created additional momentum for governments to adopt laws that prioritise national security over cybersecurity. EU member states are calling for ‘backdoors’ to messaging apps and access into encrypted communications. But computer scientists argue any form of specialised access would make communications infrastructure vulnerable to attack at its core. This in turn would make it more difficult to protect our digital infrastructure and personal communications from unauthorised access. A global company cannot provide special access to one government and oppose it for others; creating backdoors would negate the things we seek to defend: cybersecurity, the open internet and open societies. Encryption is a logical extension of the freedom to connect, since it enables individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age. This deserves strong protection.

“Educating people about basic security measures should become mainstream, but states must also take responsibility”

Educating people about basic security measures should become mainstream, but states must also take responsibility for avoiding escalation and global collateral damage. The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy proposal to declare the internet’s core infrastructure a neutral zone can prevent the worst damage. We need to move from a zero-sum assessment of security and freedom to an appreciation of ways in which they reinforce each other; we must replace a digital arms race with an understanding of the mutual dependence between states and companies in an online world.

Beyond states, large technology companies are increasingly acting as ‘new sovereigns’. Because of their major global role, they are increasingly confronted with challenges that traditionally landed on the desks of diplomats or politicians. Should companies apply censorship under pressure from foreign governments, because content posted on their platforms causes deadly clashes? Can governments tackle violent extremist radicalisation without cooperating with social media giants? And what checks and balances are in place to limit the removal of information?

Large tech and social media companies are filling the regulatory void and developing norms that conflict with the rule of law. Facebook removed pictures of a centuries-old statue in Italy for being ‘sexually explicit’. YouTube wrongfully identified one of my political speeches as spam and took it down. With many citizens accessing news only via social media platforms, and certain search engines being used for nearly 100% of searches, the public interest is at stake. States operate with a growing dependence on tech companies to protect critical infrastructure. How should this be regulated, and who is ultimately responsible?

The EU’s leadership in developing normative rules for the open internet and its use is essential if we want to prevent closed, top-down control practices or profit-maximising business models from becoming the new normal. This is not only a moral duty: it is in our core interest to deliver upon the promise of a networked society that empowers individuals and respects and protects fundamental rights online; one where users can have access to information without any form of unjustified censorship. The EU should be ambitious. It should go beyond a digital single market. It should lead the world in giving meaning to the rule of law online.

IMAGE CREDIT: gualtiero boffi/Bigstock

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