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Antimicrobial resistance is a global threat that needs global action – now

Fri, 14/04/2017 - 14:05

A 2017 OECD report, ‘Tackling Wasteful Spending on Health’, warns that one-fifth of health expenditure makes no or minimal contribution to good health outcomes. It’s alarming news – especially at a time when public budgets worldwide are under pressure. Governments could spend significantly less on healthcare and still improve patients’ health.

Inappropriate use of antimicrobial medicines is both wasteful and one of the biggest threats to clinical care, as it encourages the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Many of the achievements of modern medicine, including surgical procedures and the care of premature new-borns, are intrinsically based on our ability to prevent and cure infections. All these medical achievements may be swept away by AMR if action is not promptly taken. From 2014 to 2016 the United Kingdom carried out a comprehensive and independent AMR review. The review panel, chaired by economist Jim O’Neill, estimated that up to ten million people worldwide may die by 2050 due to six common diseases whose resistance is growing.

AMR also puts healthcare budgets and the whole economy under stress. Patients developing resistant infections are more difficult to treat. Each patient costs up to an additional US$40,000 due to increased medicalisation and additional time spent in hospital. This figure is likely to double once indirect costs such as absence from work are considered.

So where are we going wrong? Microorganisms can learn how to withstand attacks by drugs. By using antimicrobials incorrectly, we are helping them to do this more quickly. Fundamentally, we are making two mistakes.

“Since 2000, only five new classes of antibiotics have been put on the market ‒ none targets the deadliest bacteria”

First, our consumption of antimicrobials is largely ineffective. In some countries we consume too many antibiotics – the largest category of antimicrobials – and often for the wrong reasons. About half of all the antibiotics prescribed by healthcare facilities in OECD countries do not meet medical prescription guidelines. The extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture sustains the growth of AMR: worldwide, up to 70% of antibiotics are given to animals, often for no other reason than to make them grow more quickly. Conversely, some less wealthy countries consume too few antimicrobials because people cannot afford to buy them when needed. About 600,000 children under five are estimated to die of pneumonia in low- and middle-income countries because they do not have access to effective antibiotics.

To promote the effective use of antimicrobials, alternative interventions are needed. They include those triggering behavioural changes (such as stewardship programmes and educational interventions) and organisational changes (the use of diagnostic tests or delayed prescriptions), as well as economic incentives (like pay-for-performance schemes). Countries should strengthen their efforts and upscale successful local actions to the national level.

Second, the way in which we give incentives for research and development (R&D) into new antimicrobials is flawed, creating a huge threat for the future. The last major new class of antibiotic was discovered in 1987 but the approval of novel therapies has fallen eight-fold since then. Since 2000 only five new classes of antibiotics have been put on the market. None targets the deadliest bacteria.

This lack of innovation is largely due to market failure that also triggers ineffective use: the (wrong) incentives to make large use of antimicrobials. Industry seeks adequate return on investment, so has an interest in selling a lot of pills, thereby triggering ineffective use, or increasing the price, which limits access and affordability. Any newly-developed drug would need to be restricted to prevent diseases from becoming resistant to the new antimicrobials. For the pharmaceutical industry, this means that investment in other therapeutic categories is far more appealing. Innovation in antimicrobials suffers as a result.

“Up to 70% of antibiotics are given to animals, often for no other reason than to make them grow more quickly”

We need to identify innovative economic approaches to address the lack of sufficient investment in the antimicrobial R&D pipeline, from the early research phases to the commercialisation of the final product. New incentives to promote an effective use of newly-developed antimicrobials are also badly needed. This means ensuring that access to the drug is granted when and where it is needed and that we have in place strong actions to prevent ineffective use.

The good news is that the world has woken up to the challenge. It is now widely recognised that there is no time to waste: we need to step up global efforts to tackle AMR before it becomes uncontrollable. At the Elmau and Ise-Shima summits in 2015 and 2016, G7 countries committed to tackle the issue, as did G20 leaders in Hangzhou in 2016. Leaders called on the OECD, the World Health Organization, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organisation for Animal Health to support them.

Health ministers from the 35 OECD countries and their counterparts from Colombia, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Peru, Saudi Arabia and South Africa met in January in Paris under the chairmanship of the UK’s Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt. They discussed AMR as part of the broader agenda of tackling ineffective spending in healthcare systems and managing the innovation process in medical technology. Together with other international organisations, the OECD is working to support G20 countries in tackling the issue.

Breaking the vicious circle that has led to the emergence of AMR will be crucial. It will require action in many ways, including rational use and good surveillance in the animal and human sector, and in promoting the development of new antimicrobials. We cannot afford to put off the issue much longer. The stakes are high: the benefits of success and, crucially, the risks of failure are enormous for our economies and societies.

IMAGE CREDIT: kadmy/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

“We have wrecked the world” – inside Syria’s international civil war

Thu, 13/04/2017 - 09:10

“When our uprising started, we chanted ‘Syria is for all’, meaning that it’s for all Syrians. But it became for all the people around the globe. Mostly the bad ones, too. They misunderstood us”, Ahed Festuk told me. She is a 28-year-old pioneer activist who worked in the rebel-held east of Aleppo for more than five years.

There are no accurate statistics on the number of foreign fighters who have invaded Syria over the last six years, but it is estimated that between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria and Iraq since the Syrian uprising started in 2011. Data provided by the Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy firm, in 2014 said that the identifiable number of foreign fighters was approximately 12,000 from 81 countries.

Yazan, an activist from the city of Idlib, wrote on his Facebook page recently: “Six years ago, if I found a foreigner visiting my town I would have taken a picture with him as a souvenir! Now foreigners are the ones who should be taking pictures with me, because I am the only Syrian in my neighbourhood!” Yazan lives in a neighbourhood that is mostly inhabited by international jihadists and their families.

As the borders between Syria and Iraq have been removed it is difficult to tell how the fighters are distributed between the two countries. In Syria, most of the fighters have joined the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh, and have been living with their families in its territories in eastern Syria and the northern suburbs of Aleppo.

“The worst humanitarian crisis of our time has contributed to the worldwide rise of extremism”

But these are not the only newcomers storming Syria. A head of one of the rebel groups told me last year, after their battle against Syrian government regime forces in Retian, in northern Aleppo: “To call what is going on in Syria a civil war, aren’t we supposed to be fighting other fellow Syrians? Well, in this battle alone, we have captured ten fighters attacking our city. None of them are Syrian! They are Afghan refugees from Iran, and Lebanese fighters.”

Researchers Vincent Beshara and Cody Roche concluded that 53 foreign militias are fighting on the side of the Syrian government regime. They are mostly Shia Muslims. Iran alone commands a force of around 25,000 Shia Muslim militants in Syria, mostly made up of recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan. While 61% of Syria’s population fled their war-torn homes, thousands arrived in Syria from Iran, Pakistan, the Gulf states, Iraq, Russia, Chechnya, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia, Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Syria did not previously host such a variety of nationalities even in its peak tourism seasons. Now there are regular reports of American soldiers being killed while doing ‘consultancy’ work in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria; it is common to see videos of Turkish flags and soldiers in other rebel-held areas as part of their ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation.

There are now dozens of single-nationality militias that don’t allow Syrians to join, each using their own flags, leaders, territories and bases. There are so many conquerors that Syrians can’t keep up with their languages and cultures.

Suddenly Syrians are getting local news from the Russian media and news agencies. The Russian Defence Minister announced the details of the Aleppo forced-evacuation deal. The President of Russia is speaking on behalf of the Syrian army and state. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani is held up as an example of the success of the Syrian Arab Army.

“Some analysts have even referred to the Syrian crisis as the reason behind Brexit and Russia’s increasing international power.”

“I passed the Russian checkpoint; in front of me is the bad Lebanese Shiites’ one, then the Iranians’. Both are moody and don’t respect the deal, so I am still terrified”, wrote Ola, an activist from Aleppo, to her sister as she was evacuated from Aleppo in December 2016.

Despite reaching an agreement with the Russians, the Iranian and Lebanese militias attacked the first convoy trying to leave the city, halting the evacuation process until their conditions were met. Russia, who granted the deal, even announced that they would be fire back on anyone targeting the convoys. The Russians livestreamed the process using drones.

Syria became the land of international complications. And Syrians have exported these complications to the rest of the world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and around one million have requested asylum in Europe.

Germany, with more than 300,000 applications, and Sweden, with 100,000, are the European Union’s top receiving countries. This number excludes all the family-reunion applications that allow a minor and one parent to bring the rest of the family to join them.

The worst humanitarian crisis of our time has contributed to the rise of extremism in all parts in the world. We feature in western parliamentary discussions and election debates, used by the left and the right to frighten those who do not support them.

Some analysts have even referred to the Syrian crisis as the reason behind Brexit and Russia’s increasing international power.

“We have wrecked the world”, I wrote after the UK’s EU referendum. A British friend of mine replied: “This is how I would define our karma for leaving Syrians to suffer alone for six years, being killed by all kind of internationally forbidden weapons, breaking every single decree in international human rights law. We Europeans are paying the price”.

IMAGE CREDIT: zurijeta/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Headscarf bans in the workplace: neutrality at any price?

Wed, 12/04/2017 - 12:33

Last month the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued two judgments that led the mainstream media to proclaim that “employers can ban headscarves”.

The headlines were overly simplistic. Workplace policies requiring staff not to wear any clothing or symbol of a religious, political or philosophical nature are allowed, but must meet a set of criteria, and only national courts can decide whether these are met. What is of great concern from the point of view of human rights is the guidance that the ECJ gave to national courts to make these decisions.

In the first case, Achbita v G4S Secure Solutions NV, the ECJ ruled that it is the Belgian court that referred the case must decide whether it had been legitimate to dismiss the employee, Samira Achbita. She had not complied with a demand from her employer, security company G4S, to work without a headscarf. The company alleged that she had been informed of its policy requiring ‘neutral’ clothing from the beginning of her employment.

The ECJ’s guidance to the national court is very troubling. It suggested that a company’s objective of presenting a ‘neutral’ face to the public can be used to justify restricting an employee’s freedom of religion or belief, and that this policy’s negative impact on employees’ rights can be acceptable as long as it applies only to staff who work directly with the public.

The problem here is that under international human rights conventions, which all European Union member states have signed up to, a desire for neutrality is not acceptable as a justification for restricting the right to freedom of religion.

“Is it not important for young people of all identities and faiths to see people like themselves as role models in visible positions in society?”

In our diverse and cosmopolitan societies, who decides what is neutral and what is not? Could the company have considered an alternative form of neutrality that would comply with human rights – a policy where all displays of religious and cultural identity, and none, are welcome? If the policy is to exclude entire sectors of society from a range of jobs, doesn’t it become the opposite of neutrality? Some customers might think so, if they knew about the policy. But the ECJ was concerned only with the outward image of the company: excluding people is allowed, as long as this exclusion is hidden from sight.

By arguing that G4S’s policy may be acceptable because it applies only to public-facing staff, the ECJ appears to be saying that it is acceptable to limit employment and career options for a significant sector of our societies – particularly Muslims, Sikhs and Jews. Muslim women in particular already face significant discrimination in access to employment.

On this point, the answer of the court’s Advocate-General (whose opinion formed the basis of the Achbita judgment) is that people can simply choose not to wear religious clothing to work. Samira Achbita, she argues, demonstrates this because she “opted” not to wear a headscarf when she started work at G4S. This flies in the face of decades of human rights case law, which requires freedom of religion or belief to be protected, including its manifestation in public. It also fails to take account of the ‒ sometimes profound ‒ changes in religious belief and practice that people can undergo during their lifetimes.

Achbita herself refuted the idea of wearing a headscarf being optional through her actions – she chose to lose her job rather than the headscarf (as did Asma Bougnaoui in the second ECJ case, Bougnaoui v Micropole S.A., where the Court ruled that a French company was wrong to require an employee not to wear her headscarf on the grounds that it had made a customer feel uncomfortable). This is a choice that non-religious people, or people who do not feel their faith requires religious clothing, do not have to make.

“It is deeply troubling that the proposed solution to the neutrality ‘problem’ is to make diversity invisible”

Crucially, it is fair to ask whether calls for neutrality might simply mask intolerance of Muslims and other minorities – by customers or employers. The ECJ must not be blind to the rising tide of discrimination against Muslims in Europe and elsewhere, with people caught in an echo chamber of hate, between the outbursts and discriminatory executive orders of US President Donald Trump on one side of the Atlantic, and anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politicians and commentators on the other.

The problem is multiplied for women from minorities, who are subject to criticism and regulation of what they wear and how they look. The furore over the clothing choices of Muslim women – be they headscarves, hijabs, full-face veils or burkinis – has been fuelled by misogynistic and xenophobic stereotypes.

Finally, it is deeply troubling that the proposed solution to the neutrality ‘problem’ is to make diversity invisible. Companies have been told that they cannot dismiss an employee based on the negative reaction of a customer, but all they need to do to avoid that situation is to bring in a blanket policy allowing them to consign all crosses, headscarves, kippahs and turbans to the back office – or not to offer the wearers a job in the first place. National courts can declare such policies discriminatory, but the ECJ’s guidance in the Achbita judgment does not encourage them in that direction.

Is it not important for young people of all identities, convictions and faiths to see people like themselves as role models in visible positions in society?

The EU proclaims pluralism to be one of its founding values in its treaties – but we have a right to question the message this particular judgment sends about the many identities that make up our continent.

IMAGE CREDIT: Ruud Morijn/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Headscarf ruling reminds us that religious freedom is not absolute

Tue, 11/04/2017 - 17:05

The European Court of Justice provoked considerable controversy last month when it decided that banning the wearing of headscarves in the workplace could be lawful if part of a general policy barring all religious and political symbols.

The Court, judging a case referred from Belgium, held that a ban on wearing visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs did not amount to direct discrimination. But a ban could amount to indirect discrimination unless such a policy could be justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim were appropriate and necessary.

Security company G4S Secure Solutions had an unwritten policy banning the wearing of all visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs. When a Muslim receptionist, Samira Achbita, said that she wanted to start wearing a headscarf, G4S explained that this would contravene company policy. G4S approved an amendment to the workplace regulations, to put the prohibition in writing. The policy stated “employees are prohibited, in the workplace, from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from giving expression to any ritual arising from them.” Achbita was dismissed.

The Court held that G4S’s “position of neutrality” in its contacts with customers was a legitimate aim if it applied only to employees dealing with customers directly.

“Overblown rhetoric is not only way off the mark, but it seriously risks damaging efforts to integrate religious minorities”

The test of legitimacy and proportionality will be context-sensitive and, ultimately, for national courts to decide. What constitutes ‘reasonable’ will inevitably vary depending on the national identity of the EU member state concerned. This is reflected in the fact that G4S operates a neutral clothing policy only in Belgium, which has a deep-rooted custom of neutrality. But from a British perspective, the recent ruling will change nothing. As a spokesperson for G4S in the United Kingdom, where the company has its global headquarters, said: “We work hard to create an inclusive environment for our employees in all countries where we operate. The recent opinion issued by the advocate-general in a case in Belgium will not affect our UK business.”

This is because the court’s opinion simply mirrors existing British equality and anti-discrimination law, which protects diversity and promotes social cohesion by offering the same level of protection of religious minorities as anyone else. Such laws protect the rights of individuals to manifest their religion or belief, but clearly there is sometimes a balance to be struck. The right to manifest a religious belief is not absolute. The European Court of Justice ruling simply reflects this.

The reactions of press and social media to the judgment were perhaps more problematic than the judgment itself. The ruling was seized upon by both the far-right and the regressive left to further their narratives. Judicious analysis made way for clickbait sensationalism. Headlines around Europe suggested that employers now had a free reign to prohibit headscarves and other items of faith.

The actual ruling was far more nuanced than this, but that didn’t stop those peddling victimhood from claiming that the ruling represented the enshrining of ‘Islamophobia’ into law. One British commentator went as far as to claim that the ruling was a clear sign that “Islam and Muslims are no longer welcome in Europe”.

Overblown rhetoric such as this is not only way off the mark, but it seriously risks damaging efforts to integrate religious minorities by promulgating a false and divisive narrative. Such commentators also fail to recognise the many efforts that have been made to integrate religious communities. As long ago as 2001, London’s Metropolitan Police Service accommodated the hijab as an optional part of the force’s official uniform, and many other police forces have since done the same.

“A secular state that is fair to all its citizens is the best model for guaranteeing freedom of religion and belief”

Concerns about the potential harm that restrictions on religious clothing could inflict on integration of religious minorities are valid. It is in nobody’s interest – other than hard-line Islamist clerics – to further marginalise and push Muslim women out of public life. But that doesn’t mean that liberal Western democracies must sacrifice principles they hold dear to accommodate every religious demand.

Islam has many faces, and social cohesion will not be best served by capitulating to demands from interpretations of Islam that care nothing for liberal pluralism.

The case concerned the Muslim headscarf specifically, but the principle applies to the wearing of any form of religious clothing. There are clearly circumstances where it will be both reasonable and appropriate for businesses to restrict the wearing of the full Islamic face veil. This judgment allows for that. But there is however nothing in the ruling that should worry religious minorities or embolden the far-right.

The judgment simply acknowledges that there may be circumstances where a business may wish to place restrictions on employees manifesting their beliefs in the workplace, and doing so may be legal, provided that workplace clothing rules are applied equally across the board, and that the company’s actions are fair and reasonable. This is a high barrier.

A secular state that is fair to all its citizens – a state based around common citizenship rather than religious identities – is the best model for promoting social cohesion and guaranteeing freedom of religion and belief. Such states should be open to plurality, but at the same time willing to defend their principles in the face of Islamic exceptionalism.

IMAGE CREDIT: rrodrickbeiler/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

Climate change is a feminist issue

Tue, 11/04/2017 - 09:19

Climate change is the single most pressing global injustice facing present and future generations, and one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time.

But climate change is not gender neutral. Women are disproportionately affected by climate change, but only a small part of climate funding is allocated specifically to the needs of women in the most affected countries.

And while there is a gender gap on climate funding, there is also a gender gap when it comes to the increasing problem of climate change denial.

Recently-published research shows that climate change denial is strongly correlated with accepting patriarchal or hierarchical structures. One extremely visible example of this is the new President of the United States, Donald Trump. He has attacked women’s reproductive rights and produced a litany of sexist remarks; he has also referred to climate change as a “hoax” and promised to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris climate change agreement.

Climate denial is also on the rise in Europe, linked to an old faith in oil and coal as job-creating money machines, and to nationalism. Climate change is an inconvenient truth for nationalism: it is a problem that cannot be solved at a national level; it requires collective action between states and between all actors in society at all levels. And perhaps more provocatively, it calls for gender equality and the renouncement of a western masculine identity with its links to consumption patterns.

“Climate change is an inconvenient truth for nationalism: it is a problem that cannot be solved at a national level”

Lifestyles with a larger carbon dioxide footprint are linked to a high income, while lower incomes are linked to lower energy consumption. The traditional distribution of money and power, with men in possession of greater wealth and freedom of movement, therefore results in men being responsible for higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. While rich women in the western world are responsible for higher CO2 emissions than poor men in developing countries, they are still likely to have a lifestyle that emits less CO2 than men with the same income do.

Research shows that polluting habits attributed to men are the result of the norms and values which define traditional masculinity and femininity. These images are very strongly embedded in our minds, reinforced by advertising aimed at increasing consumption. A car, for example, is sold as symbol of a man’s wealth and social status; we are told that ‘real’ men eat meat. Hegemonic masculinity explains why some forms of masculinity become dominant and others subordinate, and why certain traits come to define a ‘real man’. These traits change over time and vary between cultures, but are usually associated with power, strength, domination and aggression.

Breaking with traditional norms of consumption can therefore encourage a more gender-equal society and combat climate change, with both genders encouraged to use public transport and adopt a vegetarian diet. While this presents no problem for many progressive men, others – including many on the conservative right – have their identities increasingly tied up with notions of traditional masculinity. This makes green policies even more provocative: they challenge a gendered identity.

Considerations of gender are also necessary as we work to limit the negative impact of climate change upon the world’s population. Globally, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men, primarily because women constitute two-thirds of the world’s poor and because their livelihoods are more dependent on the natural resources that are threatened by climate change.

In 2015 the World Bank published a report showing that climate change in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. Without a fair distribution of resources we face a world with millions of climate refugees: the United Nations estimates that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050. But with a rapid, inclusive and gender-sensitive development agenda focused on adapting to changing climate conditions, most of these impacts can still be prevented.

“Globally, women’s livelihoods are more dependent on the natural resources that are threatened by climate change”

Raising awareness of climate justice, the need for gender mainstreaming and the consequences of climate change is a prerequisite to tackling the challenges we face. The balance between adaptation and mitigation is unjust, and those who need the most frequently receive the least. Climate funding has become ‘big business’, and the most affected and most vulnerable are not part of the deal. The Paris agreement offers, for the first time, a chance for climate policymakers to focus on human rights and gender equality. This is crucial to ensure that climate mitigation and adaptation policies do not endanger the full enjoyment of human rights.

Women and men living in rural areas within developing countries are especially vulnerable. They face great challenges in securing water, food and fuel for cooking and heating. For women this issue is frequently coupled with limited mobility and unequal access to both resources and decision-making processes. In short, women often face social, economic and political barriers that limit their coping capacity. It is vital to identify gender-sensitive strategies to respond to the environmental and humanitarian crises caused by climate change.

Integrating gender into climate policy is efficient policymaking and a necessary tool to achieve climate justice on a global level. By introducing gender aspects into climate measures, policymakers will have to consider how different social factors, such as gender, education, income and age, determine our access to resources and our opportunities to act in a climate-friendly way.

The result of a gender-sensitive approach is that the diversity of social groups is more likely to be taken into account when formulating climate policies. That is why gender analysis is the starting point in making climate policy socially fair – and why climate change is certainly a feminist issue.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Annette Bernhardt

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Categories: European Union

The French election is a battle of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism

Thu, 06/04/2017 - 09:04

Is there ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism? In the wake of last month’s general election in the Netherlands, Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde focussed on this theme, pointing to the juxtaposition of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ‘good populism’ and the ‘bad populism’ of Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigration and anti-Islam Freedom Party.

The theme also applies to the French presidential election. It seems that every man and woman among the eleven candidates running to be head of state is positioning themselves as an ‘anti-system’ candidate, each brandishing their own virtuous populism.

Only five – possibly  six – stand a chance of winning more than five per cent of the vote. From Left to Right, these candidates are Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Benoît Hamon, Emmanuel Macron, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. The sixth is Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who has until recently has barely figured on the pollsters’ radar but who, in the face of Fillon’s decline, has advanced from around two per cent to five per cent in the polls at the time of writing.

The two with the most obviously populist messages are Le Pen, on the far right, and the ‘Left of the Left’ candidate, Mélenchon. This underlines the old truth that sometimes more binds extremes than separates them.

“Is there ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism?”

Both deploy the language of ‘people’ and ‘nation’ at the heart of their projects, promising to refocus the energies of the state on saving the national economy. Mélenchon’s ‘Keynesianism in one country’ and proposals for renationalisation are not so far removed from Le Pen’s ‘intelligent, patriotic protectionism’. This is not surprising when we remember that the author of her project, Florian Philippot, is a defector from the Jacobin Left.

Both Mélenchon and Le Pen see globalisation as a false dogma and the root cause of France’s economic ills. Mélenchon, a forthright critic of the European constitution that was rejected by French voters in 2005, argues that the European Union has failed to protect workers from the effects of hypercapitalism, and has become a ‘market space’ instead of a social project. If elected, he would renegotiate the treaties before holding a referendum on continued membership. For her part, Le Pen has promised an autumn 2017 referendum on France’s EU membership. Le Pen’s rhetoric relies on her role as perennial outsider: the ‘victim’ of a system that has always manoeuvred to exclude her in the same way it did her father.

Mélenchon and Le Pen would also dismantle the Fifth Republic, France’s constitutional set-up since 1958. Mélenchon would do this by means of a constituent assembly, which he hopes would lead to the creation of a parliamentary republic (not unlike the Fourth Republic, but with extended recourse to referendums and the right of electors to ‘unelect’ Members of Parliament).

Le Pen, by contrast, has promised a series of constitutional reforms that would establish national priority and a plebiscitary dictatorship. What distinguish the two from each other are their positions over immigration and culture. Mélenchon envisages a more open France with better mechanisms for integrating migrants. He is unconcerned about the ‘death’ of the French culture that Le Pen ‒ and to some extent Fillon ‒ seeks to reverse.

Of Hamon, Macron and Fillon, the least expressly populist candidate is perhaps Hamon, the Socialist candidate, who is much more focussed on the challenges regarding the mechanisation of the French workplaces and environmental issues. For him, the EU is the key to France’s future, but it needs greater democratisation through the creation of a eurozone assembly comprising members of national parliaments. But even Hamon is proposing greater use of referendums, enshrining in the constitution what amounts to a popular power of veto over legislation.

“If France is to avoid a populist candidate winning in 2022, the ‘system’ must make the most of its last chance”

Macron and Fillon seem to be the least likely populists. Yet only a few days after the Dutch election Macron told Le Journal du Dimanche that he was happy to adopt the mantle of a populist on the grounds that he is a candidate who has not come through the party ranks or been involved in politics for many years: Fillon, for example, was first elected to parliament in 1981; Mélenchon became an MP in 1986; Le Pen inherited a party from her millionaire father.

But if one of the features of populism is to fill the air with big ideas but very little detail, Macron is quite the opposite. There is rhetoric, as one would expect from a candidate trying to bind together a diverse political centre, but it is often the sheer detail that leaves his listeners baffled. As a member of his audience put it after a campaign meeting, “Since he mentioned figures, here are mine: I understood about 30% of what he said”.

Fillon’s attacks on ‘the system’ focus on the public sector. The divide between ‘us and them’, public and private sector, is a deeply embedded cultural marker in France, and Fillon’s promise to cut 500,000 public service jobs is not just designed to deliver savings for the state, but would undermine an electorate that is not his. Generally, public sector workers vote Left or far right. But it is the rigidity of the state and over-regulation ‒ from Paris or Brussels ‒ that Fillon wants to render more flexible, hence the comparisons drawn between him and Margaret Thatcher.

The breakdown of the traditional Left-Right confrontation in France has contributed in no small way to the use of the ‘anti-système’ approach and the rise of the far right. Every voter feels that they are excluded from the system in some way, with more or less justification.

The two openly populist candidates, Mélenchon and Le Pen, are not likely to win the run-off election on 7 May. But if France is to avoid a populist candidate winning in 2022, the ‘system’ must make the most of its last chance.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / Flickr – Blandine Le Cain

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Categories: European Union

The tax shortfall of the robots

Wed, 05/04/2017 - 13:01

At a recent Friends of Europe roundtable on the 4th Industrial Revolution, Estonian MEP Kaja Kallas put her finger on one of the most alarming threats confronting Europe. It’s hidden from sight, but of profound importance. It’s not the eurozone, nor the EU’s widening north-south gap. In fact, it’s none of the problems making headlines today, but something far more fundamental and scary.

Kallas made the point with an almost century-old anecdote about industrialist Henry Ford and trade union leader Walter Reuther. Ford, showing off his newly-installed automated assembly lines, boasted of the huge boosts these would give to productivity, and therefore profitability.

“Yes,” replied Reuther, “but your robots won’t be buying your cars,” referring to Ford’s famed start-up policy of ensuring that all his employees could buy a car on advantageous terms.

Now, an ageing Europe needs to start planning for how artificial intelligence will change our industrial society – and find its own solutions to the rise of untaxable, non-consuming machines.

The implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and the robotics revolution are especially unsettling for Europe. Debate about the march of the robots has so far centred on whether or not they will destroy jobs and usher in an era of massive long-term structural unemployment. But we should instead be worrying about an opposite effect.

“The implications of artificial intelligence and the robotics revolution are especially unsettling for Europe”

There will of course be disruption as machines take over mechanically routine tasks and even make inroads into sophisticated services currently performed by skilled technicians. The safest jobs probably range from the intellectually creative to the more humdrum, such as plumbers.

But far from there being too many workers, vulnerable to the robots or not, there won’t be enough of them. Robotics may well compensate for dramatic shrinkages of population and of workforces in almost all EU countries, but as Walter Reuther observed, smart machines won’t consume and nor will they pay taxes.

Europe’s demographic outlook is widely ignored. Policymakers tend to shelve ageing and shrinking as problems for tomorrow. But they are very real threats advancing on us at breakneck speed. Despite the attention justly paid to unemployment, especially among young people, Europe has a labour shortage that is rapidly getting worse.

The working age population of the EU, including the UK, is currently 240 million. Immigration, controversial as it is, isn’t keeping up with the rate of retirement.

If migrant job-seekers continue to arrive at their present rate, the European workforce will drop to around 207 million by the middle of this century. That means there won’t be enough people in work with taxable incomes to pay for retirees’ pensions. (And there will be just two workers per pensioner, not the four we currently have.)

“If migrant job-seekers continue to arrive at their present rate, the European workforce will drop to around 207 million by the middle of this century”

No one can yet forecast with any confidence the impact of robots on industrialised societies. Perhaps they’ll help care for our aged populations, while also making us wealthier. But it’s hard to find silver linings to a cloud that consists of untaxable, non-consuming machines along with unstoppable waves of would-be immigrants who lack the skills needed to complement the robots.

The hole in governments’ finances that a reduction of more than 30 million taxpaying workers implies risks crippling Europeans’ cherished social welfare systems. Perhaps the robots’ profitability will fill some of the gap, but these machines will also be available to competitors worldwide. And that also makes it tricky to tax them directly.

On the brighter side, the AI revolution could be turned to advantage if policymakers quickly seize its opportunities. E-learning could teach skills that would transform the economies of developing countries – especially in Africa.

In Europe, where the stakes are so high, a revolution in education is needed to produce a new generation of IT-savvy workers. The first step is for the European Union to focus on this major shift in our industrial society and start planning for it.

Related content:

IMAGE CREDIT: zhudifeng/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

In the Netherlands, governing means losing votes

Wed, 05/04/2017 - 08:52

In the Netherlands, being part of the government means losing votes. This was once more illustrated by the March 2017 elections to the lower house of the Dutch parliament.

The governing Labour Party (PvdA) lost 29 of its 38 seats – an unprecedented loss for a single party. The liberal -conservative VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte also lost eight seats but remained the largest party, with 33 out of 150 seats.

In electoral terms, governing has become increasingly unattractive for the Dutch parties, although taking part in the government does, of course, also offer a good opportunity to shape policy. So how will the Dutch parties deal with these conflicting incentives towards government and opposition during the current coalition formation process?

Until the parliamentary elections of 2010, the Dutch coalition formation process started with the monarch being advised on the formation of a coalition by the chairs of both chambers of the parliament, the vice-president of Council of State (the government’s most important advisory body), and the leaders of the elected parties.

But since 2012 the Dutch lower house, the Tweede Kamer, has taken charge of the process. The day after the 2017 elections a meeting between the chair of the lower house and the leaders of the elected parties resulted in the appointment of an ‘explorer’ (verkenner) proposed  by the VVD – their own Health Minister, Edith Schippers.

Even if the tradition has it that the largest party takes the initiative in the coalition formation process, there is no guarantee that it will be part of the government. After the elections of 1977 and 1982, the PvdA – the largest party at the time –  did not become part of the government.

“Parties like coalition partners that are ideologically close”

In this year’s elections, the Eurosceptic populist Socialist Party (14 seats; down one), the GreenLeft party (14 seats; up ten), and the new migrant party Denk (three seats) informed the explorer of their preference for a six-party Christian-left coalition without the VVD.

But the economically and culturally right-wing Christian-democratic CDA does not like this combination. Quite understandably, the PvdA is also not much in favour of governing right now. And last but not least, it is rather unlikely that the largest party in both chambers will be excluded from the government, given the current fragmentation of the Dutch parliament. The inclusion of the VVD in the new government seems therefore almost unavoidable.

Most parties also indicated that they did not want to govern with the second-largest party, the anti-Islam and anti-EU Freedom Party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders (20 seats; up five). The parties did so on principle, citing ideological differences. The VVD and CDA also referred to the fall of their minority government (2010-2012) amidst an economic crisis, after Wilders withdrew his support.

Parties like coalition partners that are ideologically close. It allows them not only to shape policies to match their own preferences, but an ideologically coherent coalition government limits the possibility for conflict. In a competitive electoral market, it also means that their main competitors are sharing the burden of governing ‒ which is losing votes. It is therefore no surprise that the economically right-wing VVD and CDA and the pro-market liberal D66 party (19 seats; up seven) prefer to work together, despite some policy differences.

However, a fourth party is necessary for a majority, not only in the second but also in the first chamber of parliament, which has the right to approve or reject bills that passed the second chamber. But which party will fill this role?

D66 distinguishes itself from VVD and CDA on issues of migration, environment and European integration, to name just a few areas. The party would therefore prefer the GreenLeft party to join. This combination of four parties is also more likely to keep a majority after the First Chamber elections in 2019.

“Even if governing means losing votes, being in opposition is no guarantee for electoral success either – in the fragmented world of the Dutch party politics, there is no safe space”

However, there are big ideological differences between the right-wing parties and GreenLeft when it comes to sustainability, migration and income policies in particular. This is quite a challenge, especially when major revisions of the taxation and pension systems lie ahead. Nevertheless, the leaders of these parties have agreed to start negotiations led by a so-called ‘informer’, Edith Schippers. GreenLeft leader Jesse Klaver and the majority of his voters perceive participation in government as a mean to steer policies in the direction they prefer. But joining the government would make it vulnerable to its electoral competitors: the PvdA, the Socialist Party and the Animal Rights party (five seats; up three).

For its part, the VVD would be vulnerable to competition from the Freedom Party. It remains therefore to be seen whether these four parties succeed in forming a government.

Other options are still open. The ChristianUnion (five seats) ‒ centrist in social-economic terms, pro-environment, and conservative on ethical issues ‒ can also provide the support needed to achieve a majority in both chambers. But its participation in government can be problematic because of its opposition to proposals to widen possibilities of euthanasia, supported by D66, GreenLeft and VVD. That leaves the option open for a minority government of CDA, VVD and D66, which could win majority support in both chambers of parliament with ad hoc agreements with the GreenLeft and ChristianUnion as well as other constructive parties, such as the orthodox-Protestant SGP (three seats).

One thing is certain: the coalition formation process may take some time. This is not news for the Netherlands, which is used to this: it has a post-war average of three months between the elections and the installation of a new government.

The new coalition government will also shape the parties’ chances in the next election. If the new coalition government includes the PvdA’s competitors – GreenLeft, D66 and CDA – the electoral prospects of the PvdA increase.

But even if governing means losing votes, being in opposition is no guarantee for electoral success either, as the Socialist Party illustrated in March 2017. In the fragmented world of the Dutch party politics, there is no safe space.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Roel Wijnants

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Categories: European Union

A reforming president in France can trigger reforms in Europe

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 13:02

The 2017 French presidential elections are an opportunity for change. They are an opportunity for the citizens to elect a president who will create a new place for France in today’s globalised world; who will tell citizens the truth about opportunities and what’s needed to seize them. Far from trying to stop one candidate, this election must be about regeneration and growth for France.

For too long France has been living beyond its economic means, placing the burden on future generations rather than undertaking much-needed reforms to make public debt sustainable. France’s competitiveness has been falling in recent years, something that is clearly reflected in international trade figures. Many talented and highly competent people are losing motivation. Significant reforms to the education system are also required, to provide people with the skills that are needed for the modern job market. France is the country of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, but too many citizens find themselves permanently excluded from the system.

There are significant geopolitical threats facing France and the rest of the European Union, and these will hang over the new president. Following Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States it is evident, for the first time since the Second World War, that American policy will be aimed at dividing Europe rather than uniting it. The Turkish and Russian Presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin respectively, are at the EU borders, with interests that they will defend relentlessly, violating the European values of freedom, liberal democracy and the rule of law.

For the first time since the EU’s creation a member state, and a major one at that, has opted to leave. This event will have deep consequences for the EU but also for individual countries, including France. Time will tell what kind of deal will be negotiated, but the interests of all EU citizens need to be defended. National politics is incapable of responding adequately to threats such as climate change and terrorism; neither greenhouse gas emissions nor terrorists respect international borders.

“France has much that it can bring to the European project but it is not living up to its potential”

Not all these reforms will be easy but they are essential. And I believe that if citizens get a full explanation for the changes, then they will be ready not just to accept them, but even to support them.

So these elections in France are an opportunity to reject overly-simplistic, unrealistic solutions, and instead propose concrete, achievable projects that will make a difference to citizens’ lives – starting with the most marginalised. Lies told before elections create disappointment afterwards.

France has much that it can bring to the European project, to strengthen and reform it, but it is not living up to its potential. Over the last twenty years it has failed to show itself as a committed partner with a vision for the European project. This means, inevitably, that it has lost European influence.

France needs significant and credible reforms, in addition to balancing the budget and reducing public spending. In many cases, decision-making power should be devolved from Paris to regional and local authorities. Here, people fully understand the complexities of their specific situation and are better able to create innovative solutions. For example, a greater police presence in communities can develop relationships and networks that contribute to protecting citizens from security threats.

Better management of our reduced public finances is essential. To break the vicious cycle of social exclusion and poverty, often linked to long-term unemployment and limited education, more resources need to be allocated to the most deprived areas. Through this we can ensure that all of France’s young people gain the skills required to find their place in the workforce of the 21st century. For adults too, we can help those lacking in marketable skills to retrain, so that we can adapt to the new flexible working models that are now flourishing. This is essential if we are to create a truly inclusive society. It is only once these reforms have been undertaken that France can truly be seen as a credible partner on the European stage.

“Backroom, opaque deals need to stop, and citizens need to be better informed about how and why decisions were made”

National reforms need to go hand in hand with European reforms. In certain fields national sovereignty has been pooled to the European level, giving the EU sovereignty on the global stage. Trade is an exclusive European competence and yet this European sovereignty needs to be reinforced to ensure that the best possible trade deals are negotiated and ratified, and that they include ambitious social and environmental norms.

The same is true for economic and monetary union (EMU). Remarkable progress has been made so far – for example, the European Stability Mechanism rescue fund, created to provide stability to the eurozone, and the Banking Union. But governance remains incomplete. There are flaws that urgently need to be addressed. EMU needs to be strengthened and given its own budget to enable it to pursue genuine European policies.

Increased decision-making at the European level needs to be accompanied with genuine democratic reforms within the EU, to ensure greater transparency and accountability. Backroom, opaque deals need to stop, and citizens need to be better informed about how and why decisions were made. These reforms do not automatically require a treaty change.

European sovereignty needs to be created in other fields too. In 2017, with international terrorist networks, wars on the EU’s doorstep and post-truth politics reaping electoral success, we cannot remain static. As Donald Trump looks to weaken NATO, we need to strengthen European defence sovereignty, which can complement other international cooperation. This would make the EU stronger, safer and provide significant savings to national budgets. If Europe controls its external borders it will be able to provide security to its citizens. This must be genuinely European control, not a pooling of national controls, starting with a real EU border force and coastguard. A European intelligence bureau is needed, not merely the mechanisms for member states to share information if they feel like it. National egos and competition must be put to one side. It is measures like these that will address citizens’ very legitimate fears.

Far from the French elections being about trying to stop something out of fear, they are about embracing the chance of creating something better and stronger, and increasing our potential – as individuals and as a Union. The populists win when moderates do not offer a credible alternative. By electing a French president with a vision of how to create a strong, influential Europe, the citizens of France can contribute to this vision becoming a reality.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Miwok

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Categories: European Union

Waiting for Boris

Tue, 04/04/2017 - 08:59

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has postponed his visit to Moscow, and declared that he will not be “cosying up” to the Kremlin. The news is a source of disappointment for Moscow, which is interested in getting to know the ‘great Brexiteer’ and perhaps experiencing the ‘Boris effect’ on Anglo-Russian relations.

Links between the two countries are at a low point, and some emotional baggage needs to be cleared. Johnson offers the sense of fresh start. Accepting misunderstandings and hearing the Russian side of the story would be a graceful thing to do, and it would also allow the Russians to admit that they have not always been virtuous.

Russia’s current state will determine how it hears the message. Criticisms of Russia’s domestic policies, the treatment of its LGBT community and violations of human rights which have been usually brought up by the West will fall on deaf ears in Russia.

Many Russians believe that the West has lost the ability to lead by example. Its power to influence political transformation elsewhere, including in Russia, is diminished and invalidated. The Russian public observe Western politicians with their own problems that they failed to recognise as coming or cannot handle. So how can they lecture others?

But what of Russia’s much-publicised ability to influence Western domestic affairs? Well, it is much exaggerated. Americans did not elect Donald Trump as President of the United States because they watched Russia Today (just as the Bolshevik revolution, 100 years ago, was not the result of the Germans backing Lenin).

“Western problems are not of Russia’s making ‒ even if Moscow can be accused of exploiting them”

There is no evidence that Moscow was behind Brexit or benefitted from it. François Fillon, whose Welsh wife is reported to have enjoyed a windfall from public money, did not win the centre-right primary through electoral fraud orchestrated by the Kremlin. Marine Le Pen is not a Moscow puppet, but a response to the failure of the main parties in France. It was the Greek crisis that exposed divisions in the EU, while the response to Ukraine united it.

Established Western politicians are under pressure, but seeing a Russian hand everywhere is too much of a stretch. To Moscow, the accusations of ‘Russian interference’ appear inconsistent on two counts.

First, Western efforts to support Russia’s opponents were presented as ‘supporting democratisation’, while a hint of Russian payback made the West distressed.

Second, it attributes to Moscow the ability to project power well beyond the Kremlin’s wildest dreams. It appears that with fairly simple tools and a degree of luck Moscow has managed to achieve much more in a decade than the Soviet Union did in 70 years.

Western problems are not of Russia’s making (even if Moscow can be accused of exploiting them). Even if the alleged Russian hackers penetrated the US Democrats’ servers, it is clear that Hillary Clinton’s team had things to hide. The best response to a ‘Russian threat’ is not cyber-security, but ensuring that the actions are above-board.

The truth is that the West may be having its own ‘Orange revolution’ moment, ready to believe in outside manipulation as it struggles to come to terms with the shocking political outcomes delivered by their own societies. Similarly, Moscow saw no legitimate grounds for popular protests in Ukraine in 2004 and 2013, attributing them to external forces.

Rather than ascribing actions to foreign conspiracies, we need to acknowledge that the world has changed since 2014.The clocks cannot be turned back.

“Boris Johnson has the chance to start a new chapter for the West and Russia”

Russia will not give up Crimea. Sanctions produced a modest economic setback, but also fostered political consolidation and the development of alternative alliances. Ukraine is the thorniest issue, and the conflict there is a liability rather than an asset for Moscow.

Johnson will have to respond to Russian concerns: what is the strategy behind British assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces? How would London react if Kiev attempted a military solution in the separatist Donbas region ‒insist on a return to the Minsk peace process, or endorse the offensive?

Russian intervention in Syria is a fact. Russia’s army has turned out to be more capable than thought. And Moscow’s strategy is at least consistent: it backs a recognised government that is battling the forces of terrorism. It does it in messy and brutal ways, but the West does not offer a winning alternative, as expectations of a nearing victory in Iraq may be over-optimistic.

Russians have a different approach to conducting wars. They are brutal affairs when one inflicts and sustains casualties, but going all-in, they believe, shortens the period of destruction and brings fewer casualties. The rebuilding of physical infrastructure opens the road to peace faster than good governance programmes. The question Moscow has for Britain is what replaced former prime minister David Cameron’s mantra of “Assad must go”? Who is a friend and who is a foe in Syria?

Not wanting a Cold War, Russia braces itself for a Cold Peace ‒ mobilising the economy, military resources and ideas. Its assets are its core elite, who think sufficiently alike to make policymaking and execution easy, and its ability to combine quick reactions and strategic patience.

Vladimir Putin is not Napoleon. The Russian President’s ambitions are limited – for the West to recognise Russia as an independent player in world affairs, acknowledge its interests in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, such as through ending expansion of NATO and halting support for the domestic opposition.

Johnson – when he finally goes to Moscow – has the chance to start a new chapter for the West and Russia.

IMAGE CREDIT: katatonia82/Bigstock

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Categories: European Union

The EU’s real problem is over-promising and under-delivering

Thu, 30/03/2017 - 10:54

More than ever, the European Union finds itself in a legitimacy crisis. The need for change is crystallising, and so the EU has embarked on a new debate on the future of Europe.

The big challenges the European continent faces are well known: migration; unemployment and the economy; the future of the euro; climate change; Brexit; relations with the United States.

Failure to deliver responses to these challenges risks destroying the remaining trust citizens have in the EU’s ability to bring together a community of nations to solve common problems.

But even delivering adequate responses to these major challenges is unlikely to be enough. The EU’s challenge is not only that it needs to convince voters that it is still relevant in addressing the big problems. That will be the minimum requirement.

The EU’s key challenge is to prove that it can deliver on the promise of a Europe that works for citizens.

These days, the EU displays a startling weakness: too often, its upbeat rhetoric does not match reality. The EU needs to match citizens’ belief in the power of the EU to improve their lives and demonstrably deliver on its promise of a European ‘Union’.

We have come a long way. In many areas we do have a common market (although in others, we do not). Freedom of movement is real. Real successes exist.

But in too many areas, official rhetoric often creates the impression that we have come (or will soon go) further than is the case. Ironically, these shortfalls are most often discovered by precisely those who see the real benefits of the EU for themselves – those who try to cross borders to work, study or take a holiday, or who shop online from a different member state.

“We have come a long way: real successes exist”

These people’s expectations for a functioning ‘Union’ are high. But when they set out to take advantage of the EU’s purported achievements in real life, Europeans far too often find a reality that is below their expectations.

This is something that is far more damaging to the EU than you may think. These are the experiences of people who actively wish to make use of the EU’s advantages, who can see the concrete benefit the EU can bring to their lives. If they are disappointed, the most likely advocates for the European project will be lost. If they are not convinced that the EU keeps its promises, nobody else will be.

Apart from the very important fundamentals of the four freedoms, from which citizens moving across borders very obviously benefit, numerous other mundane encounters with the EU suggest the Union under-delivers in real life.

For example, Belgian residents (including citizens of other EU member states) are banned from driving cars that do not have a Belgian licence plate. If you live in Antwerp and you borrow your mother-in-law’s car from Brussels, that’s fine. But if your mother-in law lives in the Dutch city of Breda and you drive her Dutch-registered car in Belgium, you risk a fine and immobilisation of the car. There are a few small exceptions to this rule – one, interestingly, being for employees of the EU institutions.

Another example: if you have an EU driving licence, it is genuinely valid in all member states. If you change your country of residence, local authorities may encourage you to exchange it for a local one. If you follow that advice (which you are not obliged to), you discover that it is not enough to just hand in your old licence. You also need a certificate from the original issuing authority that specifies that the licence is still valid and what, if any, restrictions are attached to it. Most of the restrictions are codified in an EU directive so that the numerical codes can be easily cross-referenced.

But the certificates are not standardised – so that a German certificate which also shows the explanation of the codes (in German) causes the Belgian authorities to request an official translation of the certificate (at a cost of €250). A genuine European effort to make life simpler fails miserably in practice.

There are many other examples. Non-UK residents, unfazed by Brexit talks, can open a basic bank account in the UK thanks to an EU directive, but they cannot use the bank’s smartphone app because they do not have a UK mobile number. Erasmus students registering their residence in their temporary new home country may find that they need to get their multilingual international birth certificates transcribed into an equivalent local document that looks the same.

“The rhetoric of the EU institutions almost never matches the reality, and that is now rapidly becoming a problem for the EU’s legitimacy”

And of course, there are numerous accounts of hospitals refusing to accept the European Health Insurance Card, leaving tourists with high medical bills to pay. Even if reimbursements can be claimed later, people ask themselves what the EHIC is there for in the first place.

All these experiences send one clear message: the EU doesn’t deliver what it promises.

The failure must lie with an EU decision-making structure that appears to be less concerned with citizens’ experiences and more with accommodating the status quo. In doing so, the institutions have collectively created a huge credibility gap. The rhetoric almost never matches the reality, and that is now rapidly becoming a problem for the EU’s legitimacy.

So what should be adjusted – the rhetoric or the reality?

Changing the reality won’t be easy – resistance to change is strong. But changing the rhetoric to reflect the reality is also unattractive at a time when it is more crucial than ever to demonstrate the value of the EU.

Both options can work, but a choice needs to be made if citizens are to continue to believe in the European project. Changing reality require a hard and honest look at how the existing intended benefits for citizens are delivered in practice, and how this delivery can be improved.

There is much work to be done – and it is work that genuinely needs to be done.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – European Council

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Categories: European Union

Brexit and the joys of starting over

Tue, 28/03/2017 - 17:12

Anniversaries are special moments. They can be sombre affairs, such as the first anniversary of the Brussels terror attacks, an occasion made even grimmer by the 22 March tragedy in London.

Anniversaries can also be a time for reflection and sober deliberation. The European Union’s celebration of its 60th anniversary on 25 March was just such a moment.

And then there is 29 March. History is being made today as Britain triggers Article 50 and starts negotiations on its divorce from (sorry, its ‘new relationship’ with) the EU.

Brexiteers are in celebratory mood. After all, it’s not every day that a nation takes back control of its destiny, unshackles itself from 44 years of EU domination and morphs magically into an independent and intrepid world power (also known as ‘Global Britain’).

But pro-EU demonstrations in London are proof that not everyone is dancing with joy. Many share European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s description of Britain’s departure from the EU as a “tragedy”.

Not to be forgotten amid the Brexit focus is a simple fact: it’s not just Britain that is starting over.

29 March will also be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’. Having renewed their vows in Rome, EU leaders embark on a new journey together, without Britain.

It will be a difficult voyage. Far-right populism, increased polarisation of minorities and unending economic problems are not going away anytime soon. Refugees and migrants will continue to knock on Europe’s doors, creating divisions and challenging EU solidarity. Difficult elections lie ahead in France, Germany and possibly Italy.

“29 March will be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’”

The American and Russian presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, now joined by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have made no secret of their dislike of the EU and all it stands for.

But the conversation is changing. Thankfully last year’s talk of a ‘collective depression’ and ‘existential crisis’ is no longer making headlines. Instead, as Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian premier and host for the Rome celebrations underlined, “the EU is choosing to start again”.

This is good news. Starting over, as John Lennon sang to us all those years ago, can be exciting and exhilarating. EU-27 leaders would do well to take Lennon’s advice and put more poetry, emotion and imagination into their courtship of EU citizens.

The thousand-word Rome declaration is good enough, but won’t really do the trick. If Europeans are to fall in love again with the EU, leaders, ministers, politicians, even EU officials, must – as Lennon sings – “spread their wings and fly”.

Perhaps for the first time in recent history, the public in many parts of Europe wants the EU to soar.

Brexit, Trump’s election and just plain common sense about the need to work together in a difficult world have galvanised many Europeans into supporting the EU.

Importantly, there are European politicians who are passionate about countering the anti-EU message of xenophobic far-right politicians.

“We will miss Britain – but we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union”

Jesse Klaver, the charismatic young leader of the Dutch GreenLeft party, Emmanuel Macron in France, and Martin Schulz of the German Social Democrats are upfront about their support for the EU, embracing the vision of an open and diverse Europe.

Klaver, who increased his party’s seats in the Dutch parliament by a factor of four, has shown that being Dutch-Moroccan-Indonesian is not a barrier to success.  His advice to young people is to “never give up” in the face of challenges.

Others need to have a similarly positive message of inclusion and participation. A safe and secure Europe must also be an inclusive one, not one that fears diversity.

The EU in the 21st century may be ‘multi-speed’, with less being done in Brussels and more in capitals. It may or may not be able to become a more powerful global player and may or may not have a real common defence and security policy.

But what’s important is that the conversation about Europe’s future has started.

Indian author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor pointed recently to the “shambles of that original Brexit” when the British departed from India in 1947, leaving behind chaos and violence – and the birth of independent India and Pakistan.

This time it’s different. We will miss Britain – some of us very much. But we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union.

Related content:

IMAGE CREDIT: CC – Flickr / Number 10

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Categories: European Union

Allowing resources for the deported can be in Europe’s interests

Mon, 27/03/2017 - 16:07

Fear cannot be our guide in this era of change. As novelist and poet Herta Müller wrote, fear is the “thief of freedom” – something that takes away, along with the future, our present.

One of the greatest sources of fear of current times is forced migration, combined with the threat of terrorism, sneaking into all areas of everyday life. To address the tangle of migration and terrorism, both of which have hit Europe hard over the past year, we need to start facts and new ideas.

Non-governmental organisations that work along the migration route from sub-Saharan countries, via the Middle East, up to our shores in Europe emphasise one fact we should already know: migrants are not extra-terrestrials that just materialise and enter our countries. Instead, all migrants have their own stories: ones that begin in faraway villages, from which they are forced to flee for one reason or another. Solutions here need to be matched with solutions there.

“One of the greatest sources of fear of current times is forced migration”

Migrants are not isolated individuals but part of communities. They are the children of countries with which Europe needs to have as good a relationship as possible. But Europe should not be naïve when it comes to the increasing demand and need for security, and should keep in a strong relationship with local institutions and representatives of civil society, a key relationship.

Côte d’Ivoire is a good example. It has an ongoing project funded by the European Union that aims to promote vocational training of artisans in various fields – an effort to shift from an ‘informal’ to a ‘formal’ economy. Many citizens work as artisans, but they can boost their businesses only if they are given help on how to act more professionally and become better equipped; to hire more staff and start long-lasting development in their community. These projects, including local authorities, governors and chambers of commerce, can help to limit migration.

Indeed, why should a young Ivorian who has the chance to work in his own country and enhance his own home and community arrive in Europe to end up in a grey zone of anonymity, sleeping on the streets and becoming a prey for terrorist recruiters?

“Europe needs to think realistically how we can enhance the time spent in Europe by people who will be deported”

The EU-funded project succeeds because it offers young people a cornerstone: work combined with education. Work without education often translates into forms of unstable and frustrating insecurity, which is why by counting on the cooperation of different partners – business, individuals, international and local institutions, civil society – it can properly address the complexity of the situation.

But together with these interventions and projects, we must take responsibility for the whole issue of repatriation, one of the pillars of the EU’s Migration Compact. A deportation order handed to a migrant who has spent the family savings to cross deserts and has endured violence to reach his dream of a European paradise does not automatically send him back to his home village. Shame and failure are powerful deterrents: better to stay in Europe, even as an outlaw.

Europe needs to think realistically how we can enhance the time spent in Europe by people who will be deported. Perhaps in this waiting period before they return home – a period that has a cost for Europeans – we can consider profitable and mutually-beneficial activities. A migrant who has learnt to start a business while waiting for repatriation has more chance of finding work and has a chance to set into motion a virtuous cycle with rewarding consequences.

We in Europe should at least try to exchange experiences in this area – and ensure that we do not give fertile ground to those who seek to sow terror.

IMAGE CREDIT: radekprocyk/Bigstock.com

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Categories: European Union

60 years after Rome: how is the EU really doing?

Fri, 24/03/2017 - 09:01

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, and much of the coverage is likely to focus on the travails of the past decade, including economic stagnation, political malaise and non-stop crisis management culminating in Brexit.

But viewed over all six decades, how has the European Union as a whole and its member states fared? To mark the anniversary, McKinsey Global Institute took stock of economic achievements and challenges in a paper entitled Rome redux: New priorities for the European Union at 60.

Looking back at European Union’s history, we note five key highlights:

  1. Economic growth: on a par with the US, especially for early members

Overall, the EU’s GDP per capita followed more or less the same growth trajectory as that of the United States, until recently. Growth was especially buoyant from the signing of the Treaty of Rome until the early 1980s, then underperformed in the late 1980s and 1990s, but picked up again relative to the US until the 2007‒08 financial crisis.

However, the sovereign debt crisis in 2012‒13 threw Europe into a double-dip recession that the US managed to avoid. In 2007‒2016, the EU’s GDP per capita grew at half the rate of the US, at 0.3% compared with 0.6%.

It is interesting to look at how the growth of GDP per capita correlates with the accession date of an EU member state. The original six signatories of the Treaty of Rome ‒ have done the best by far, with a sense that the later a country enters, the lower its momentum.

  1. Social progress: the EU’s DNA

The EU’s economic activity, as measured by GDP per capita, remains lower than that of the US. At the current growth level, it would take more than ten years to catch up to the current US level.

One often-heard argument is that economic activity is a very crude measure of our welfare – the area in which the EU may indeed be scoring better than the US.

If one corrects economic activity by various indicators of welfare, as per the methodology of two renowned Stanford economists, Charles I. Jones and Peter J. Klenow, we find that the gap with the US is cut in half. Also, as the welfare growth rate is one point higher than the GDP growth rate, the welfare-adjusted gap to the US is more manageable: barely five years.

The EU has certainly been a powerful engine for social progress over the decades: gender equality is among the highest in the world and the EU scores highly across a range of social indicators, from the quality of healthcare to environmental protection.

Within this overall picture there is considerable variation among countries, as Nordic and continental European countries tend to perform better than their southern and eastern European counterparts.

  1. Financial markets: EU wins gold

This may come as a surprise, especially given that the US has the largest and most liquid capital markets in the world. Western European bonds have posted higher total inflation-adjusted returns in the past half-century than US bonds (4.4% versus 2.5%), while the return on western European and US stocks has been similar, at around 5.7%.

  1. Labour productivity: a fading victory

Europe’s labour productivity grew strongly from the 1950s to the 1970s, catching up and overtaking labour productivity in the United States.

The initial Treaty of Rome countries overtook the US in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s, the entire EU, then comprising 15 countries, was ahead. The trend subsequently turned when US productivity (particularly in services) accelerated from the late 1990s, leaving Europe behind.  Since the 2007‒08 financial crisis, productivity growth has been similarly weak on both sides of the Atlantic.

  1. Employment: more inclusive than thought

While political and popular attention has been focused on unemployment, which remains much higher overall in the EU than in the US, the employment rate ‒ the proportion of the working-age population that is employed ‒ tells a different story.

EU employment increased steadily from the early 1990s until the financial crisis, as female and senior participation rose. During the crisis, the US employment rate fell more sharply than in the EU, narrowing the gap even further to just three percentage points. However, there are big differences among the EU member states.

But where do we go from here?

While the EU’s 60-year record is impressive in parts, the last ten years have nevertheless been marked by weak performance. The EU will have to deal with disruptive global forces that will impact growth in the years ahead.

These forces include ageing, digitalisation and automation, as well as tough new competition from emerging economies. Our research has shown that Europe could boost GDP by two or three percent annually through a combination of national structural reform and pan-European investment.

“However proud of its past achievements, this is no time for Europe to rest on its laurels”

For the future, the EU’s scale will be an asset, but the single market remains unfinished business in many areas, including energy, capital markets ‒ and especially digital.

On the latter, many markers point towards Europe trailing and being more and more challenged.

For example, most countries in the EU have a negative balance in digital goods and services with the US; the UK, the most digitised economy, has voted to leave the EU; the most vibrant city in continental Europe for artificial intelligence might be Zürich, in non-EU member Switzerland. Europe is also slowly losing ground in the global networks of data flows, with the centre of gravity shifting rather fast to the East and Asia.

The European Union will need to innovate as it adapts to the changing world of work: the technological advances reshaping the workplace will require a major overhaul of education systems to place greater emphasis on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills.

The EU must also look for ways to better serve its citizens. New governance and accountability are needed. More citizen engagement and direct democratic interaction can be achieved by leveraging technology. For example, digital platforms can give ordinary citizens a voice and can be used to crowdsource solutions.

“Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results,” reads the standard disclaimer that money managers and mutual funds routinely put in their communications. For the EU on its 60th birthday, that caution also holds true.

However proud of its past achievements, this is no time for Europe to rest on its laurels.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr.com – European Council

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Categories: European Union

Sexual violence against refugees goes on: Europe can and must act to end it

Thu, 23/03/2017 - 15:51

Women asylum-seekers leave conflict zones seeking refuge from acute threats, including wartime rape. But Europe is no haven from sexual violence.

The media and non-governmental organisations report how refugees in Europe face threats of sexual violence along migration routes, at ports of entry, at transit sites, in detention, and in reception centres. Perpetrators include smugglers, aid workers and fellow refugees.

Reports suggest that refugee women and girls may be particularly at risk of rape, sexual abuse, trafficking and pressure to engage in ‘transactional’ or ‘survival’ sex, given their vulnerable legal, social, economic and political status. Despite high-level responses to the problem, many reception centres and transit points throughout the European Union lack sufficient security to protect women and girls from sexual violence. It’s time to examine and adopt best practices from around the world to reduce these risks.

In March 2016, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution outlining a series of policy recommendations to boost protection. These included a critical need for separate shower, bathroom and sleeping facilities in reception and transit facilities throughout the EU.

MEPs also called for more female staff members at migration and reception sites, stronger legal asylum routes to reduce the demand for smugglers and the prioritisation of vulnerable people, such as women, children and disabled people, in reception procedures.

“Europe is no haven from sexual violence”

Reports from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights suggest that many member states have yet to implement the Parliament’s recommendations. Persistent problems include overcrowding at many reception centres, especially those in Spain and Greece. Many facilities lack separate accommodation for children, which may result in children lodging in adult facilities. Other problems include a lack of privacy and security for women and children in reception centres.

These failings create an environment in which perpetrators prey on refugee women and children. For example, Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees reported 18 cases of rape and 13 cases of sexual abuse of children at reception centres in Finland in 2016. As of January 2017, problems of lack of privacy and safety persisted at these facilities.

The refugee crisis in Europe is staggering and poses serious political, legal, logistical and security challenges. However, the gravity of the challenge does not mean that sexual violence should be ignored. States can work with NGOs and other partners to implement programmes modelled on ‘best practices’ to improve reception conditions for women refugees and to fulfil international commitments such as the Istanbul Convention, which provides for the protection of refugee women against violence. Three programmes outlined by the World Future Council, and implemented in Germany, could be replicated in other countries to improve reception conditions for women and girls. These include local protection plans, safe spaces for women and girls, and support for women’s refugee organisations.

Local protection plans are minimum standards for facilities that accommodate refugees. In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) worked with the United Nations’ children’s rights agency, UNICEF, to develop minimum standards for its reception and accommodation facilities.

The standards — which pertain to the construction and design of facilities, personnel, standard operating procedures in cases of violence, and monitoring — have been implemented at centres in cities across Germany, including in Hamburg. European states should work with UNICEF, which is conducting an evaluation of the protection plans, to assess how they could adopt similar programmes in cities with high refugee populations.

Other innovative practices include the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for women and girls that can be coordinated by NGOs, aid organisations and other assistance bodies to allow women and girls to have a physical space in which they can discuss concerns such as domestic or gender-based violence and learn about opportunities for counselling and legal and medical assistance.

“While there are many challenges to refugee women’s political participation and mobilisation, there is also great unrealised potential”

The ‘safe space’ programme in Germany resembles programmes — also known as women’s centres or women’s counselling centres — that the UN Population Fund has promoted, and positively evaluated, in Jordan and Lebanon.

Finally, women refugees are vital partners in reforming asylum policies. Member states should collaborate with organisations such as the European Network of Migrant Women, a network of NGOs that formed in 2012 to advocate for the rights of migrant women in Europe.

Noteworthy domestic groups include Women in Exile, an advocacy organisation comprised of refugee women in Germany, which since 2014 has organized bus and boat tours of German refugee camps to raise awareness of issues such as sexual violence of refugee women. This group demonstrates the resilience of women who collectively work to change policy and practices, even within a highly contentious political environment.

Although there are many challenges to refugee women’s political participation and mobilisation, there is also great unrealised potential. The European Commission should strongly consider using grant funds, possibly through its Daphne programme, to fund projects that combat violence against women and children. Such grants could empower refugee women to provide constructive input into processes to improve travel and reception conditions.

As the Commission prepares to release its revisions to the Dublin Regulation, including an expected end to the ‘first country of entry principle’, it must encourage member states to improve the refugee reception situation for women and girls. Doing so will not only fulfil states’ human rights obligations; it will also increase peace and security in the region and the world by signalling that the EU is committed to protecting the bodily integrity and human rights of women.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr.com – United Nations Photo

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Categories: European Union

Safe zones give Europe a chance to rebuild Syria

Wed, 15/03/2017 - 11:47

The manifest dreadfulness of the Syrian crisis requires the international community, and particularly Europe, to look at options to invest in Syria. This does not include the drain of Syria’s brightest and best to advanced countries around the world, something that would condemn Syria to terminal and irreversible decline.

The ‘humanitarian safe zone’ concept recognises that rehoming more than five million refugees is not a long-term option for Syria. If nothing is done to reverse the outflow from Syria, this could grow by another seven million people, who are currently displaced in Syria and who are most definitely heading to Europe.

Safe zones would also be the catalyst to rebuild this flattened and devastated land and get meaningful amounts of aid in quickly. Europe, with its resources and know-how on Syria’s doorstep, should take the lead.

Europeans have hitherto failed to provide military support to protect the people of Syria. Now is the time to show some European unity and strength to rebuild this shattered land to which too many have turned a blind eye.

The humanitarian safe zone concept acknowledges that a clear majority of Syrians want to remain in Syria or return to Syria, if it is freed of the tyranny and the terror of the self-style ‘Islamic State’, or Daesh. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, now supports safe zones for Syria, and this could be the key to getting Russia and Iran to sign up to this approach too. Russia, not unexpectedly, suggests caution – but it does not dismiss the idea. A pilot scheme in north-west Syria is achievable, in my opinion, and the best way to get this process underway.

A 1,500-square-kilometre safe zone in north-west Syria could be bounded by a line from Kilis in the North, to Aleppo, south to Idlib, and around to Reyhanli. This pilot scheme would enable re-investment in Syria; to begin to reverse the exodus of Syrians, especially the intellectuals and young people; to create the conditions in Syria that would enable refugees to return and begin the prospect of some sort of civilised future for Syria.

“Safe zones would be the catalyst to rebuild Syria, the flattened and devastated land, and get meaningful amounts of aid in quickly”

The aim is to restore hope to the Syrian people who have been attacked by the country’s President, Bashar al-Assad, and Daesh to a point where life in Syria is untenable for the vast majority of the population, leading them to take great risks to abandon their country for the prospect of a better future, especially in Europe.

The ceasefire brokered in the Kazakh capital, Astana, last month now offers hope that safe zones could be achieved relatively quickly – but Europe should take the lead with the ‘heavy lifting’ to rebuild this shattered country.

The pilot scheme could be a bridge-head for Syrians to re-occupy their country as the viable alternative to the ill-perceived life of peace and prosperity in Europe. If successful, the concept can be replicated in the south, on the Jordanian border and beyond.  At the same time, the global fight against Daesh can begin in earnest in Syria with US, UK, Turkey, Russia and all allies working together, with the safe zone expanded into areas when liberated from Daesh.

The proposed safe zone in north-west Syria is currently free of Daesh and Assad regime troops, and is located some way from Russian key locations in Syria, Latakia and Tartus. The area is not thought to be of strategic interest to Russia, so it makes an ideal location to set up the first safe zone. United Nations forces will be needed to deliver aid and support reconstruction. Europe should step forward to provide these troops. The UK has suggested it would, and most other European countries also have excellent soldiers for this type of task.

There are currently about 500,000 refugees in camps on the Syrian side of the border living in extreme despair and poverty. Food, water and electricity could flow in from the many aid groups situated just over the border in Turkey, and refugee camps expanded. Syria Relief, a British charity, runs some of the very few functioning schools, but a generation of children is still completely missing education. This can be reversed.

Meanwhile, international medical charity UOSSM runs several very effective hospitals and clinics in the area, and is prepared to up its efforts if the safe zone materialises. UOSSM figures indicate that 75% of children between the ages of 9 and 13 suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (UOSSM figures): these children need urgent help.

UOSSM has proved it can run effective medical facilities in the area. Our main hospital at Bab al-Hawa, just over the Turkish border near Reyhanli, has treated many of the most challenging cases from east Aleppo and continues to do so, but is short of some critical medicines and equipment. UOSSM has proved that it can service medical facilities across this region, and its model of local employment of doctors and logistic networks, financed by international donors, is a model worth following (or at least bears scrutiny to replicate its success).

“There are currently about 500,000 refugees in camps on the Syrian side of the border living in extreme despair and poverty”

Safety and security are the underlying and critical requirements for the safe zone. The Assad regime must stop dropping barrel bombs indiscriminately on civilians, which kill many people each week and cause more people to leave. Places like east Ghouta are still under attack even with the ceasefire in place. Chlorine barrel bombs are perceived as the greatest terror on the ground ‒ “we can hide from bombs and bullets but not gas”, says one civilian.

Security in the safe zone could be supported by naval ships in the eastern Mediterranean, with radar and missiles. This would negate the need for coalition aircraft to fly in ‘Syrian and Russian’ airspace, which is guarded by effective anti-aircraft assets.

Humanitarian aid and infrastructure must be allowed to flow into the area as quickly as possible.   Many aid groups have stockpiled equipment on the Turkish side of the border for this eventuality. But there is going to be a huge challenge to get this aid in as the two crossings at Reyhanli and Kilis are in poor condition. But with coordination and energy, I believe this challenge can be met.

Accommodation, ideally prefabricated at first, needs to be rapidly provided. The refugee camps need to be expanded; homes, schools, roads, bridges, electricity infrastructure needs to be built. The mobile phone network has proved remarkably resilient, and is of course the reason we have been able to morbidly and helplessly follow the atrocities as they unfold in real time.

Nobody is under any illusion about the challenges ahead for safe zones in Syria. It will require Turkish, Russian, Iranian, American, British, European and international support and agreement. Significant resources are required for success, and this is where the wealthy European nations should step in. It will cost less than housing between five and 12 million people in Europe and less than allowing the terminal decline of this once-great nation.

But most importantly, leadership is required, however imperfect. The Astana talks have bought what looks like a meaningful ceasefire. President Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, look set to talk. But it is Europe that has most to gain from a peaceful Syria, and with its considerable skills and resources for ‘muscular’ humanitarianism, Europe could start to get Syria back on its feet.

There is just a glimpse of a silver lining for Syria in these troubled times. Let’s hope that those who shout loudest in Brussels do not miss this fleeting opportunity to save Syria and provide some moral benefit for the world as a whole.

IMAGE CREDIT: radekprocyk / Bigstock.com

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Categories: European Union

The Empire strikes back

Wed, 15/03/2017 - 09:20

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, the glorious memory of ‘Empire’ is back. You know, the one where the sun never set?

The Brexiteers’ pro-Empire narrative is simple. Freed of the ‘shackles’ of the EU, Britain becomes a standalone, autonomous superpower, especially in trade. No more listening to instructions from Brussels; no more following stringent EU rules and regulations.

Just London and the Commonwealth: a love affair.

Ah, the Commonwealth. Ministers in London wax lyrical about shared values, a common language, familiar institutions and similar legal and regulatory systems across the 52 member countries. An estimated 2.4 billion people looking back with great fondness at a time when Britain was the undisputed leader. Those were the days.

Only it didn’t quite happen that way. 13 March may have been Commonwealth Day and Brexit Britain may be basking in the golden glow of nostalgic nationalism. But for many of the Empire’s former citizens, the past wasn’t pretty.

Just ask Shashi Tharoor, an Indian Member of Parliament, author of ‘Inglorious Empire’ and former United Nations under-secretary-general.

He noted recently: “There’s no real awareness of the atrocities, of the fact that Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of Empire, the fact that Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.”

“Why are some already branding British plans for stronger ties with the Commonwealth as ‘Empire 2.0’?”

The new post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ is going to be different. Once Article 50 is triggered and the Brexit divorce procedures start in earnest, Britain will be dealing with Commonwealth members as equals.

So why are some already branding British plans for stronger ties – including free trade agreements – with the Commonwealth as ‘Empire 2.0’?

To be fair, London is moving fast to consolidate hitherto fragile ties with the Commonwealth. The bloc’s trade, industry and investment ministers met in London last week to endorse an ambitious ‘Agenda for Growth’. A Commonwealth summit will be held just before Britain is expected to formally leave the EU in March 2019 with the aim of revitalising and re-energising the Commonwealth.

Trade is expected to be the centerpiece of the relationship, with London looking to its former Empire to replace lucrative EU markets it will lose after Brexit.

As US President Donald Trump thumbs his nose at free trade and fears of protectionism stalk the world, any effort to liberalise global trade is good news. Engaging with emerging markets is important.

But let’s lay to rest the Empire 2.0 myth that Commonwealth governments are desperate to clinch trade pacts with London. Or indeed that Britain will find it easier, simpler, smoother to negotiate free trade agreements with its Commonwealth friends than the EU does.

It just isn’t that simple. Shashi Tharoor is probably right: Britain’s offer of a free trade deal with India is more likely to go down like “a lead balloon”.

“Nostalgia about the Empire and the Commonwealth makes for good films and excellent television”

Trade negotiations are complicated affairs. Australia, New Zealand and India are focused on negotiating free trade pacts with the EU and can’t embark on formal talks with Britain until it has left the EU.

Many of the obstacles that have arisen in the EU’s trade talks with, say, India (which, among other things, wants easier rules on temporary migration of workers), are also likely to emerge in Britain’s trade negotiations.

Some African countries are tempted by trade agreements with Britain because the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) are proving so complicated to negotiate. But as the largest market in the world, the EU will continue to be important for African states.

It’s also worth noting that Britain sells more goods and services to the EU than it does to the Commonwealth. Once Britain leaves the EU, goods from many Asian and African countries will be subject to higher tariffs on the UK market.

Nostalgia about the Empire and the Commonwealth makes for good films and excellent television. But a walk down memory lane is no way to conduct business in the 21st century. Reviving the Commonwealth will not compensate for leaving the EU.

Related content:

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / Flickr – Number 10

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Categories: European Union

We must tackle long-term job insecurity, not just the excesses of the ‘gig economy’

Tue, 14/03/2017 - 10:09

Over the last decade the economic prospects facing European workers have changed. For most, it’s been a change for the worse: less job security, less wage growth, more low-paid work, erosion of pensions and healthcare, and increased fears about future employment prospects, particularly for young people.

The ‘gig economy’ – in which people hold several temporary, part-time or on-demand jobs rather than working for a single employer – is a new element with an uncertain future impact on the labour market. But it must be seen in the context of the longer-term trend of rising labour market insecurity and inequality that has plagued Europe for more than a decade.

The gig economy – also known as the online platform / on-demand / collaborative / sharing economy – involves only a very small portion of the total European workforce, according to the best available data. While claims abound that large numbers engage in such work, evidence shows those assertions typically refer to a wide range of ‘independent work’, of which only a small portion is arranged through online platforms.

It is nonetheless part of a continuum of erosion of long-standing employment relationships that are based on open-ended contracts between workers and employers that provide important rights and social benefits. The rise of involuntary part-time and involuntary temporary work, and increasing use of subcontracting, undeclared work and disguised employment relationships, means that gig work is part of larger challenge facing Europe.  Policy responses should address the need for an overall rebalancing of rights and social protection for working people and tackle the widespread erosion of quality employment.

Forces contributing to this erosion include the huge expansion of the global labour force after China joined the global economy and the Soviet-led communist bloc collapsed, and technological change that reduced demand for certain types of labour while increasing the types of work that could be shifted across borders. These changes shifted bargaining power away from workers and towards employers.

This supply and demand change is global, but the impact on working and living standards has varied widely between countries. That is because outcomes in labour markets depend on the rules set by national governments and the steps they take to define rights, support incomes and steer their economies in ways that take account of the needs of working households.  Some governments have failed to address these needs and instead adopted policies that favour owners of capital, already beneficiaries of the structural shift in labour supply and demand. The European Commission has the power to set minimum standards or guide states’ actions, but in general its reaction has been fragmented at best, and at worst indifferent to the increasing difficulties facing working households.

“Policies should address the need for an overall rebalancing of rights and social protection for working people”

Policy solutions include labour laws, social protection systems and macroeconomic measures. Labour laws and regulations must enshrine clear and broad definitions of employment that cover full- and part-time work, temporary and open-ended contracts, and non-standard forms of work.  They must make it difficult for employers to evade labour laws or avoid the payment of social insurance contributions – a practice facilitated by engaging workers on short-term contracts or short hours, or misclassifying employees as independent contractors.  It is important that labour laws avoid introducing ‘cliff edges’ whereby workers can be denied rights and benefits if they work less than a certain number of hours or have a limited-term contract.

With respect to labour engaged by online platform firms for their own profit, that too is employment and it must be defined and treated as such. Clarifying and closing loopholes in the definition of employment would guarantee the ability of all workers to organise and bargain on their own behalf and benefit from social insurance, including those in the gig economy.

The proposed European Pillar of Social Rights – a European Commission plan to ensure fair employment opportunities, working conditions and social protection – should provide a strong and unambiguous guarantee that the status of employee will be accorded to all who labour for remuneration under the control or direction of others.

Social protection measures have also been weakened by the fragmentation or denial of such employment relationships. Pensions, unemployment insurance and (in some countries) health insurance systems that depend on contributions by employers and employees have been cornerstones of the economic security of European working households for half a century or more. They have underpinned economic stability and prosperity.

But these automatic ‘stabilisers’ have been undermined by employers who no longer contribute because they use temporary contracts, reduce hours below qualifying minimums, misclassify employees as independent contractors or simply do not declare work performed for them. Many firms that profit from gig work have avoided making social contributions altogether, robbing people of the security to which they are entitled.

Insurance schemes are now underfunded at a time when ageing populations and persistent high unemployment have made them more essential than ever. Clarifying the breadth of the employment relationship is a necessary step towards restoring the financial integrity of these important social benefits and ensuring that they provide coverage for current and future generations.

“The political shocks of 2016 should not have been a surprise, given what has been happening in European labour markets”

The fact that some workers may have multiple employers or work intermittently can be easily addressed through the electronic software that currently tracks their work, authorises payments and takes profits.  It is simply a matter of using laws and regulations to require companies to do this and updating national social insurance systems to receive such data and contributions. Such updates could also be linked to reporting and collection of other taxes, which would help to level the playing field between responsible employers and evaders.

It is also important to reform the non-contributory social benefit schemes that are funded from general revenue. These safety nets will always be needed for those people who cannot participate in social insurance or whose low income histories make the benefits from those schemes inadequate. Built-in thresholds that cut off social benefits when recipients start to work should be replaced by graduated eligibility, providing both adequate income security and positive incentives for participating in the labour market.

A supplementary EU-wide unemployment insurance scheme should be created to support countries or regions during periods of high unemployment. This would be analogous to the United States’ federal unemployment scheme, which has been credited with boosting economic recovery.

On a macroeconomic level European austerity has strongly depressed demand for labour and kept unemployment rates high in most countries. EU, national, and Eurozone austerity measures also reduced income and social safety nets for low- and middle-income households in many countries, further spreading economic hardship. This has left many people desperate for incomes and more likely to accept precarious employment, having a further negative impact on the labour market situation and household anxiety in Europe.

And this leads to a larger point: what does the European Union represent today for middle- and low-income European households?  For young adults who want to work but are unable to find good jobs? For distressed regions and communities across the Union? The political shocks of 2016 should not have been a surprise, given what has been happening in European labour markets for the last decade or more. There were only two surprises: that the political protest took so long to materialise and that, so far, only right-wing demagogues have taken advantage of the widespread economic anxiety.

Meanwhile many centre-left and centre-right governments and the EU continued to give unjustified support to so-called ‘market-based responses’ – measures that increased returns to capital holders who were already gaining larger shares of national incomes based on global and technological forces. Many people predicted that this self-reinforcing vicious circle would provoke social unrest or a political backlash. And now it has. Europe is truly at a crossroads.

The European Pillar of Social Rights presents an opportunity to adjust the course in ways that would be visible and comprehensible to the European public. If we are serious about tackling the economic malaise and insecurity facing much of Europe, the steps on employment status and social protection systems proposed here should be adopted swiftly, implemented as a matter of urgency and aggressively enforced.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / Flickr – Jon Crel

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Categories: European Union

What are Britain’s post-Brexit migration options?

Mon, 13/03/2017 - 09:33

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will mark a ‘reset’ moment for immigration policy.

In her major Brexit speech at Lancaster House in January, British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to prioritise immigration control in any deal she strikes with the EU. This ended speculation that free movement may continue in some form, and closed the door on continued membership of the single market.

But while control over immigration will be one of May’s ‘red lines’ in the negotiations, she has also said that she wants to get the best possible deal for the economy, which means maximising access to European markets.

So while Britain’s policy on EU migration looks certain to change, a constructive new deal with the EU, covering both trade and immigration, has not been ruled out. From a British perspective the deal must work in the interests of our politics as well as our economy, and remain attractive to our negotiating partners.

The British public has lost confidence in how governments have managed immigration. Successive governments failed to predict, prepare or plan for the largest migration wave in British history, after the EU expanded eastwards in 2004. They then broke, and broke again, a pledge to cut the net migration numbers dramatically.

Most people, however, are clear that they blame the politicians, not the migrants themselves. British Future’s post-referendum research shows that the public combines scepticism about the current system with moderate, nuanced views on the right migration policy to replace it after Brexit.

“Most people, however, are clear that they blame the politicians, not the migrants themselves”

Two-thirds of those surveyed would like fewer unskilled workers in future, but only one-in-four would cut the number of those who come to work in care homes. Only a fifth of people want to cut skilled or student migration – rather more people would prefer the numbers of migrant nurses, doctors and scientists to increase. 84% believe European nationals currently living in Britain must be told they remain welcome in the UK.

There is no public support for an indiscriminate anti-immigration crackdown. Broad majorities are open to arguments about how both to manage the pressures and secure the gains of immigration.

Three-quarters of people – including a striking 80% of Leave and Ukip voters – now see Brexit as offering an opportunity to get the balance right: to have more choice and control over who comes to Britain while keeping the immigration that is good for our economy and society, and maintaining our tradition of offering sanctuary to refugees.

These attitudes present an opportunity for a deal based on pragmatic consensus, even on this most noisily polarised of all public policy issues. Seizing this opportunity would help to rebuild public confidence that immigration and integration make a positive contribution to Britain.

That chance will be lost if the Article 50 negotiating clock were to run out with no agreement. In that scenario the UK would logically fall back on treating EU and non-EU migration similarly. This would probably lead to loosening the current non-EU regime to secure the inflow of migrant skills the economy needs. This would be a political failure, not just for Theresa May but for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders too.

However, this is not the only alternative to full freedom of movement.

A new UK immigration system for EEA nationals – offering preferential European access to the UK labour market as part of a UK deal on trade with the EU – would be a constructive offer as the UK seeks to negotiate a positive post-EU partnership.

“A new UK immigration system for EEA nationals would be a constructive offer”

A version of free movement could continue, reciprocally, for those with a job above a particular salary or qualification threshold. This would be supplemented by quotas for low-skilled migration, set annually by Parliament after public hearings with employers and local communities. This kind of solution would offer the UK control over the immigration that voters care most about.

The first option to fill the low-skilled migrant quotas would be to make a preferential offer to Britain’s trade partners. While this model could work for future UK trade negotiations with countries like Australia, India and Canada, it would make sense to offer such a preferential trade and migration deal to our European neighbours first.

Such a proposal could secure broad political and public support in Britain. It would bring unskilled migration under UK’s own control while still accepting, under the new rules, some of the low-skilled workers from Europe that businesses need.

It would reflect popular support for skilled and student migration and move us away from a net migration target that has only served to undermine public confidence in the immigration system. It could help to rebuild that trust, showing how a controlled migration policy could keep Britain open to the skills that we need and want.

This is obviously not freedom of movement as it stands, so it would not secure unaltered single market access for the UK. But it would give the EU-27 considerably more access to the UK labour market than if the negotiations were to end in failure.

And, importantly, it would be a positive, constructive offer to put on the negotiating table when the UK sits down with the EU to thrash out a deal.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr.com – John O’Nolan

The post What are Britain’s post-Brexit migration options? appeared first on Europe’s World.

Categories: European Union

Young Dutch voters need to understand that their vote counts

Fri, 10/03/2017 - 09:00

On 15 March the Netherlands will hold parliamentary elections, with 28 parties vying for votes – including those of the 850,000 Dutch young people who will be voting in a national election for the first time.

Analysts suggest that around ten seats could swing based on young people’s votes. But this is only if they actually go to the polls. Young people aged between the ages of 18 and 24 belong to the largest group of non-voters. Almost one-third of people in that age range did not vote in the 2012 Dutch parliamentary elections.

For young voters, the political arena is abstract, complex and distant. Interest in politics is very low among young Dutch people because the topics debated by politicians do not relate to their interests. 18-24-year-olds are mostly students, engaged in pursuing education, finding employment and setting up their lives.

Another issue is that many young people in the Netherlands do not fully understand what each party stands for. The policy documents and debates are often technical and explained in a language they are not familiar with. Dutch politicians need to explain their ideas to young people and show them that politics is about their future too.

“For young voters, the political arena is abstract, complex and distant”

Due to a lack of participation in national elections, young people are not well represented in the Dutch political system. And the participation gap between the young and the old is only growing. The older generation governs the country and makes decisions without considering future generations – a result of the passivity of young people and an almost collective decision not to vote.

The Netherlands is not the only country that is struggling to get to grips with an ageing population and a growing generation gap. Many of the people who voted for Britain to leave the European Union in last year’s referendum were from older generation, but the decision will have lasting consequences on future generations – their education and their opportunities.

The younger generation of the Dutch must be aware of the results of the national election. It will not only shape national policy but the position of the Netherlands in Europe.

The current polls demonstrate that Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) is rising in popularity. If the polls are to be believed the Eurosceptic PVV will make decent gains while the parties currently forming the government will lose out: the Liberal VVD will maintain its current seats, and Labour (PVdA) is almost certain to suffer losses.

Given the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the United States presidential election and the outcome of the Brexit referendum, one can question the reliability of polls, although the election in the Netherlands takes place in a slightly different context, given that to achieve a majority in parliament a coalition is needed – and this can happen only if the parties work together.

“Dutch politicians must build a bridge between politics and future generations”

The upcoming elections are among the most important elections in recent Dutch history. This is especially true for the younger generation, which will be affected the most. For the sake of future Dutch generations it is vital that young people vote, taking their rights seriously, regardless of their view of politics.

First, the media should give those young people who are already participating in politics the platform to inspire and inform other young people about voting. Most young people are more willing to listen to their peers than older generations.

Second, the government should provide an opportunity for young people to vote at colleges and universities, making it easier for them to cast their ballot.

And third, higher education institutions should provide students with information during their classes. These institutions could work together and invite experts to speak to students about forthcoming elections and political movements.

But Dutch politicians also must build a bridge between politics and future generations. They must demonstrate leadership in mobilising this group, encouraging them to vote regardless of their political identity. Should they fail, the consequences could be severe.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / Flickr – Adam Scotti

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Categories: European Union

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