Writer, speaker and advisor on Europe

Author: Joop Hazenberg

Europa in 2015: de geschiedenis als een losgeslagen paard

Op 11 november sprak ik de volgende column uit voor een groep Nederlandse rijksambtenaren, die hier in Brussel op werkbezoek waren. De geschiedenis als een losgeslagen paard We leven 26…

Op 11 november sprak ik de volgende column uit voor een groep Nederlandse rijksambtenaren, die hier in Brussel op werkbezoek waren.

De geschiedenis als een losgeslagen paard

We leven 26 jaar na de val van de Muur en dit is een tijdperk waarin de geschiedenis niet voorbij is, maar juist als een losgeslagen paard ruiterloos door Europa draaft. Telkens weer worden we overvallen door historische gebeurtenissen op ons continent en bij de buren. Dachten we dat vorig jaar een krankzinnig jaar was, met Russische agressie, een neergeschoten verkeersvliegtuig en oplaaiende oorlogen in het Midden-Oosten, 2015 doet dat nog eens dunnetjes over. Een greep uit de gebeurtenissen van dit jaar die de Europese Unie tekenen/bepalen:

Een miljoen mensen zullen dit jaar naar Europa vluchten,een verviervoudiging van 2014. Nu al zijn er minstens 750.000 vluchtelingen geteld – en dat is niet het hele plaatje.

De eurozone heeft op een haar na een lid verloren, na een onvoorstelbaar scenario inclusief een referendum over een miljardenpakket, een in het geniep opnamen makende minister van Financien, een uitgeputte Merkel en een speech in het Europees Parlement van Guy Verhofstadt die miljoenen keren is bekeken. Griekenland heeft het drama uitgevonden, zo weten we, en die kunstvorm houden ze hoog.

Terreuraanslagen op en rond Europaschokten onze samenlevingen. Zijn we Charlie Hebdo nu al vergeten? Misschien wel, door alle bloederigheid die sindsdien heeft plaatsgevonden.

Oekraine staat nog steeds op de rand van instorten, maar intussen lukte het een burgerbeweging in een van de rijkste lidstaten van de EU om een referendum over het Associatieakkoord te houden.

De Britse premier Cameron dreigt met een stemadvies voorvertrek uit de EU,voor dat andere referendum in het VK, als de Unie niet instemt met ‘hervormingen’ als beperking van sociale rechten voor migranten, schrappen van de ever closer union clausule en het beter respecteren van het verschil tussen eurozone en niet-eurozone lidstaten binnen de EU.

Een van de meest gerespecteerde bedrijven uit de wereld, uit een van de meest rigoreuze landen ter wereld als het gaat om de rule of law, blijkt massale fraude te hebben gepleegd met emissiestandaarden voor motoren. Wat blijkt nu: de lidstaten die een grote autoindustrie hebben, zijn er in geslaagd de EU buiten de deur te houden voor onafhankelijke testen voor auto’s. Het zijn de Amerikanen geweest die de zaak aan het licht brachten, ondanks hun quote unquote neo-liberalisme.

Over de Amerikanen gesproken: die hebben een vergaand handelsverdrag gesloten met Oost-Azie terwijl Europa zeer aarzelt over TTIP. Gaan we onze ‘way of life’ opgeven, de markt openen voor chloorkippen en gemodificeerd voedsel? De campagnevoerders tegen TTIP zijn dermate succesvol met hun doemverhalen, dat het verdrag onderhand echt in de gevarenzone komt. Terwijl het aandeel van Europa in de wereldeconomie jaar in, jaar uit krimpt en dit handelsverdrag de laatste kans is voor het Westen om standaarden te bepalen.

De Commissie spreekt zelf over de ‘laatste kans’ die Europa heeftom bijeen te blijven. Onze eigen commissaris Timmermans is somber en voorziet een mogelijk falen van het project. Intussen is het ijzeren gordijn in Midden-Europa terug van nooit weggeweest. Maar ditmaal staat dat gordijn tussen de lidstaten, en niet tussen het Westen en Rusland.

De geschiedenis herhaalt zich ook in Syrie.Daar bombarderen Russen rebellen die met Amerikaanse wapens vechten. Waar hebben we dat eerder gezien? Precies, in Afghanistan in de jaren tachtig. Een paar jaar geleden was het opheffen van de NAVO nog als een serieuze optie gezien. Nu ja, die optie is onderhand wel van tafel.

Er is ook goed nieuws te melden, not all is lost.De eurozone groeit weer. De werkloosheid daalt,soms spectaculair, en dat is heel belangrijk omdat een verloren generatie dreigt, vooral in zuid-Europa. Het vertrouwen van burgers in de EU neemt overigens toe.

De Commissie heeft duidelijk een nieuwe weg ingeslagen.Echte resultaten laten op zich wachten maar er is veel grondwerk gedaan om Europa sterker en ook leaner te maken. Denk bijvoorbeeld aan de Digital Single Market Strategy, aan het hervormen van de interne markt en het uitbouwen van het buitenlands beleid. Maar ook de inzet voor de aanstaande klimaattop in Parijs staat bol van de ambitie, al kan dat natuurlijk wel een tandje hoger want het bestrijden van klimaatverandering gaat lang niet snel genoeg.

Ik woon nu drie jaar in Brussel en het tempo van de historische veranderingen is adembenemend. Zelfs in deze hoofdstad van Europa staan we niet stil: deze buurt was ronduit verwaarloosd, maar nu is er een Apple store om de hoek, de weg voor de deur is eindelijk vernieuwd en er is zowaar een grote voetgangerszone in het centrum gerealiseerd. Zelfs de bouwwerven van de metrostations Arts-Loi (Kunst-Wet) en Schuman zijn bijna voorbij, na jarenlang argeloze bezoekers van Brussel te hebben geterroriseerd!

Maar ook hier zien we het conservatieve Europa de loef opsteken: duizenden migranten mochten maandenlang in een park slapenwaarbij de overheid weigerde te helpen. En onder druk van de taxilobby is Uberpop in deze stad verboden.

2015 is bijna voorbij. Wat zal 2016 ons brengen? Ik hoop over een jaar weer een verhaal te houden voor deze groep. En ik hoop dan ook dat Europa en de wereld in iets rustiger vaarwater komt. Het galopperende paard zonder ruiter mag van mij wel eventjes in de stal.

Joop Hazenberg is EU Watcher.

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GeenPeil slaat de plank mis

Het initiatief van GeenPeilheeft de drempel van 300.000 handtekeningen ruimschoots gehaald, een knappe prestatie. In het voorjaar van 2016 organiseert de Nederlandse regering een raadgevend referendum over het Associatieakkoord tussen de…

Het initiatief van GeenPeilheeft de drempel van 300.000 handtekeningen ruimschoots gehaald, een knappe prestatie. In het voorjaar van 2016 organiseert de Nederlandse regering een raadgevend referendum over het Associatieakkoord tussen de EU en Oekraine – een akkoord dat al ondertekend is door 26 van de 28 lidstaten en waarbij alle parlementen met overweldigende meerderheid ja hebben gezegd.

Volgens de initiatiefnemers van GeenPeil staat ‘de democratie op het spel’ en is dit referendum een uitgelezen kans om het Europese project halt toe te roepen. In een debat bij RTLZ met GeenPeil-aanvoerder Thierry Baudet, noemde hij het referendum zelfs ‘de heruitvinding van de boekdrukkunst’ waarbij het volk ‘bottom-up’ in opstand komt tegen de elite.

Je kunt het debat hierterugkijken. In dit blog som ik de argumenten nogmaals op waarom A) GeenPeil geen goed initiatief is en B) Nederland niet zonder de Europese Unie kan.

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Paardenmiddel
Het referendum is een paardenmiddel dat op de verkeerde manier en op het verkeerde moment wordt ingezet. GeenPeil zegt dat dit referendum niet gaat over Oekraine. Maar over onze democratie die op het spel staat.

Op het nationale niveau is genoeg democratische controle op Europees beleid. Europa is een permanent onderhandelingsspel op basis van mandaten van het parlement. Zo hebben we felle discussies gezien over bijvoorbeeld het tweede steunpakket voor de Grieken, en recent het debat over de Europese verdeelsleutel van vluchtelingen.

Het parlement is het juiste forum voor het geven van een mandaat aan Nederlandse ministers om in Brussel te onderhandelen, niet een stemhokje met een ja/nee knop.

Verkeerd onderwerp, valse framing
Het associatieverdrag met Oekraine betekent niet dat het land lid wordt van de EU. We hebben dit soort verdragen ook met Georgie en Moldavie. En dan nog. Met Turkije wordt al vijftig jaar gepraat maar dat land wordt simpelweg nooit lid – bijvoorbeeld omdat meerdere anti-Turkse landen referenda zullen houden als de toetreding ter sprake komt. De EU wordt op termijn nog ietsjes groter, maar alleen met een paar kleine landen op de Balkan ergens rond 2025. Daarna is het afgelopen.

Zo’n associatieverdrag gaat om het exporteren van stabiliteit, het is een soort uitgebreid handelsverdrag. En dat heeft Oekraine, een falende staat in Oost-Europa, keihard nodig. Europa is nu omringd door een ring van vuur, kijk maar naar het Midden-Oosten. We moeten nu vooral samenwerken in plaats van ons opsluiten.

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Betere onderwerpen voor referenda
Nu ben ik niet tegen referenda maar wel tegen deze opzet. Als Europa besluit tot een gemeenschappelijk asielbeleid, moet daarover een referendum komen. Als we een echt bestuur krijgen voor de eurozone, moet de kiezer zich daarover uitspreken. Ik had liever gezien dat Nederland bij de invoering van de euro of de toetreding tot de interne markt (vrij verkeer van personen, kapitaal, goederen en diensten) een volksraadpleging had gehouden. Dat waren twee echt ‘beslissende momenten’ waarbij we grote delen van onze soevereiniteit overhevelden naar Brussel.

Het tekort aan democratie is er, maar niet in Den Haag
Waar Europa echt tekort schiet is de democratie op het Brusselse niveau. Om maar met Wilders te spreken: daar zit het werkelijke nepparlement. Er is in het Europees Parlement nauwelijks debat, zijn werk gaat aan de mensen voorbij, zijn invloed is beperkt en er is geen oppositie of coalitie.

Nu de Europese Unie steeds meer macht krijgt, moet de democratie in het ‘verre’ Brussel worden versterkt. Ik wil dat langs nationale lijnen doen: het opnieuw invoeren van een dubbelmandaat zodat Tweede Kamerleden ook in het Europees Parlement zitten. En een rechtstreeks gekozen commissaris.

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Europa heeft een gedeelde geschiedenis
Ik kan hier een verhaal ophangen over de vele voordelen van Europese integratie, of waarom meer Europa moet. Maar dat doe ik niet. Ik geloof in Europa, in een continent dat een gezamenlijke, gedeelde en rijke geschiedenis heeft. We moeten nu en in de toekomst die gezamenlijkheid benadrukken. De natiestaat is een recente uitvinding. Ik zeg niet dat die weg moet, maar wel dat er ook altijd een Europese geschiedenis is geweest.

Ja, de Grieken en de Finnen, de Ieren en de Portugezen, de Nederlanders en de Polen – wij delen DNA, in letterlijke, figuurlijke, culturele en historische zin. Laten we daar naar handelen in plaats van ons op te sluiten in het eigen gelijk.

Nationale identiteiten blijven de leidraad
Thierry c.s. willen terug naar het veilige verleden. Maar dat is niet realistisch. We kunnen globalisering niet ontkennen of de ICT-revolutie terugdraaien. Grenzen zijn en worden gesloopt, irrelevant. De staat wordt steeds machtelozer.

Moeten we dan opgaan in een Verenigde Staten van Europa? Absoluut niet. Nationale identiteiten blijven belangrijk. Ik geloof zelf absoluut niet in Europese partijen, of in Europese democratie. Ik zal van mijn levensdagen niet op een Finse presidentskandidaat stemmen, wel op een Nederlandse commissaris.

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Doorgeslagen balans tussen EU en lidstaten
Ik wil dat er een betere balans tussen de EU en de lidstaten komt. Die is nu volstrekt verstoord door de snelle uitbreiding en verdieping van de EU. Op sommige vlakken als economisch bestuur en buitenlands beleid hebben we meer Europa nodig. Het alternatief is de eurozone opheffen en grenscontroles weer invoeren. We zitten met een halfbakken project, we staan in het midden van de Rubicon – gaan we door of waden we terug?

Mochten we het halfbakken project afwerken, dan kunnen we op een aantal terreinen ook weer macht teruggeven aan de lidstaten. Bijvoorbeeld door het stoppen van het Gemeenschappelijk Landbouwbeleid en het stopzetten van de Structuurfondsen.  We kunnen ook de verdere uitbreiding stopzetten en limiteren tot de Balkan.

De ‘ever closer union’ van steeds diepere integratie heeft nu wel zijn grenzen bereikt, maar we moeten niet het kind met het badwater weggooien. Referenda zijn nuttige en noodzakelijke instrumenten om burgers (eindelijk) bij Europa te betrekken, maar dan moet de vraag die op tafel ligt wel proportioneel zijn. Daarom is het referendum in het Verenigd Koninkrijk helemaal geen slecht idee. Laat de ultiem eurosceptische Britten zich maar eens uitspreken, of ze nu wel of niet volwaardig bij de Europese club willen horen.

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The coal map: Exposing the role of coal in Europe

It’s been a while since I blogged but the summer and a fulltime job were in the way. As part of my communications work at Climate Action Network Europe, I developed…

It’s been a while since I blogged but the summer and a fulltime job were in the way. As part of my communications work at Climate Action Network Europe, I developed an online interactive European Coal Map with a team of coal experts and data visualisation specialists. There is also a good amount of ‘brand journalism’ included in the project.

Why a coal map?

Here are some facts.

In the European Union, around 280 coal power plants are operating in 22 different EU member states. The majority of these plants is more than 30 years old, meaning they are inefficient, polluting and outdated. Burning coal is one of the biggest sources of CO2 and causes around 23,000 Europeans a year to die prematurely. Germany, Poland and also the UK are the biggest users of coal and responsible for the lions’ share of emissions. Meanwhile governments continue to invest tens of billions into the ailing industry.

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For the first time, Europeans have a comprehensive and solid overview what role coal power plants play on the European continent.

The low hanging fruit in the fight against climate change

Getting the story on coal out now is crucial, because we are just two months before ‘Paris’. In December, countries from around the world will hopefully close a deal in the fight against climate change in the context of major UN-led negotiations. Coal should be high on the agenda for governments as it is one of the low hanging fruits in the fight against climate change.

Local resistance against coal

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As I mentioned above, ‘brand journalism’ is another aspect of the Coal Map. Because many of the policy choices around the coal industry are nationally based, many citizens and civil society organizations have begun campaigning on coal, on the negative impacts on clean air, the devastation from mining or how it is fueling climate change. And this is where the developments get very exciting. The Coal Map also introduces fifteen stories of local and national fights against coal power plants and mines. From Scotland to Turkey, citizens and NGOs have been struggling for years to get rid of coal. And not without success: in recent years, the majority of new coal projects have been canceled.

For several stories we hired a journalist to do the reporting. But I went also into ‘the field’, meaning I visited coal plants and anti-coal campaigners in Italy and Greece. Here’s the video I made of the situation in Northern Greece (and on the Coal Map you can also read the story):

After the launch in September, the Coal Map got worldwide attention from media, featured in thousands of tweets  and was for instance covered in The Guardian and Le Monde.

Finally, the designer team made an explainer video of the Coal Map that performed well in our campaign to raise attention to the map. The video has a ‘lighter touch’ than the communication language of the Coal Map and it really serves as an introduction to what role coal plays in Europe. It is a bigger role than most people think, but also a role that can diminish quickly if national and European politicians act.

https://vimeo.com/138616562
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Six reasons why reporting on the EU is so difficult

Recently, I had to give a couple of presentations on my experience as an EU correspondent in Brussels. Because I now work in communications for the NGO called Climate Action…

Recently, I had to give a couple of presentations on my experience as an EU correspondent in Brussels. Because I now work in communications for the NGO called Climate Action Network Europe, I have taken a little bit of distance from reporting. And I made a short overview of six reasons on why covering EU news (often) is difficult. Here is the overview in text, rather than Powerpoint format.

  1. European integration is technical

Check the national political news of today. You may find discussions about reform of the health, education or social security system. There could be a report on struggles within the coalition. Or a failed privatisation of the railways causes upheaval.

The contrast with the European news cycles usually is big, and the debate in the EU bubble is characterized by a deadly dulness. When I worked for the German press agency DPA, I had to cover digital economy subjects. Sometimes it was about concrete stuff as the abolishment of roaming surcharges for mobile phone users. But most stories were on lengthy and highly technical debates on data protection, cyber security, net neutrality and copyright issues.

As the world becomes ever more complex, so does its governance. On a national level policy developments already are already hard to follow. On a European level, many (fundamental) debates are so detailed that journalists, most of them trained as generalists meaning they can write about everything, will have trouble fleshing out a juicy story that is understandable for a wider audience. Let alone get to the realcore of the issue.

  1. Process doesn’t matter. Results count.

The EU legislation process is all about… process. And if one thing is NOT interesting, it is process. Only outcomes matter. Journalism is about news. And news is about things that happen, have an impact, and can be descibed in simple terms.

Because of the structure of the European process to make laws, a real outcome and a real result often only become visible at the last moment. By that time the draft law – let’s say one on scrapping milk quotas – actually is accepted, numerous rounds of proposals from the Commission, hundreds or even thousands of the amendments by the Parliament, and a lengthy (secretive) negotiation round(s) with the Council (Member States) have been added to the milk quota dossier.

Problematic is that in each of these little steps, communication people from the EU institutions jump up to say that a ‘historic’ vote has passed, or that the Council has now finally reached a compromise on the quotas, while they still need to be agreed upon by the Parliament.

This happened to the TTIP discussion. It may take years before a trade deal with the Americans lies on the table. But in May, a committee in the EP had a ‘historic’ vote, that then had to be repeated by the plenary session. Both the debate and the vote were postponed for months because their was infighting between the Socialists and Democrats Group. And the resolution, on a part of TTIP, will just be nothing more than an advice, that the Commission can easily ignore. So process is being hyped as news, which is in the end counterproductive.

  1. Politics is about real conflicts, sex and scandal

Fans of House of Cardswill agree that there can be no entertaining politics without victims. Yes, politics is drama. Politics is a play. Politics is about winners and losers. Not really about visions on the future or on classic debates between left and right.

Even the more text-book definitions of politics do not match with politics happening in Brussels. The fights are utterly dull, unless there is real fire going on like the eurocrisis or sanctions against Russia. Then the coverage of Brussels’ news becomes better, more lively, more entertaining.

There are several reasons why the EU’s political sphere is so a-political. For a start, there is no real European government, so there is also no real coalition in the Parliament – and neither an opposition. Members of the Commission cannot be sent home or torched publicly on Place Luxembourg. The Council (member states) is a black box that shows very little of the enormous political mechanisms going on, because these are primarily a diplomatic mechanism, and that needs to remain unseen.

The sheer lack of spectacle, of scandals and of sex makes Brussels a very yawn-inducing area for political reporters. Newshounds cannot live without the smell of blood.

  1. Timing of impact

Even when the EU (‘Brussels forbids X’) takes a striking decision, usually there is little real debate in the national media. Because member states have several years, between two and five years usually, to implement the new rules (directives and regulations to be precise). So by the time the EU bans plastic bags, people will respond shocked. Hey, what happened! When was that decision taken? What can we do? The debate was light years away in the viewpoint of national politicians, so they can just say: ‘Brussels imposed this rule on us. Ich habe es nicht gewusst.’

The smart correspondent who did try to get the piece on plastic bags in his paper, will have gotten just a column, but by the time they are really banned, he can start the aftermath-reporting.

  1. One journalist, one entire governance layer
Eurobubble

The estimates differ but between 750 and 1000 journalists roam the streets of the EU quarter. That means one journalist on every Member of the European Parliament (there are 751). But the journalist also has to cover the Commission (28 members, around 25 directorates-general), the Council (28 member states, thousands of diplomats), plus all the thousands of interest groups, lobbyists and other EU bubble related folk.

In other words, one correspondent needs to be able to follow an entire governance layer. Some media send several reporters to Brussels, but often it’s just a solo operation.

How does this affect the work of the correspondent? He/she makes some tough choices on what to report. Stays on the surface. Is susceptible to spinning from all institutions, lobbyists and people who want their angle to lead the story. Unless you are truly brilliant, a savant, it is sheer impossible to follow all the policy developments of the EU. Even staying up to date and well informed on one policy area, like the digital economy, was a daunting task during my DPA time.

At one point DPA asked me to write two articles a day on the digital economy. There was little time for research, going in-depth, expanding the network. I had to grab every news opportunity that I got. Colleagues who work for national newspapers just focus on the eurocrisis and drop everything else.

  1. National political dynamics do not match the European one

The last impediment to reporters is that the political dynamics in the EU, or the European agenda so to speak, do not align with the national political news agenda. Maybe on national level there have been elections, the government has collapsed, or everything is about the revision of the retirement age. In the meantime in Brussels, the debate is on TTIP, copyright reform, saving/dumping Greece, extending sanctions on Greece.

It is hard for journalists operating from the EU level, to make the connection with political debates at home. Sometimes it works, for instance when the Dutch parliament had a serious debate on the second rescue package for Greece. But most of the time the political discussions seem to be taking place in parallel worlds, with little interest from national christian-democrats for their colleagues in the European Parliament.

The European Union’s policy work is technical, blurry, boring, has an inbuilt delayed effect and stands on its own. These matters need to be taken into account before people in Brussels start complaining that the media are not covering their work. There are ample reasons for the lack of attention.

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How the European Union works: the media perspective

One of the usual attacks on the European Union, is that it is so intransparent. Rules are designed and discussed behind the scenes, nobody knows what’s going on except for…

One of the usual attacks on the European Union, is that it is so intransparent. Rules are designed and discussed behind the scenes, nobody knows what’s going on except for some eurocrats, and then the member states have to swallow the Brussels diktat. That’s more or less how the argument goes.

But, is it true? In my journalistic activities, the experience is rather different. With two important exceptions.

Commission: an open house
First, the Commission. With a staff of around 26,000 people (there are various way to count the number of fonctionnaires) and with a range of (big) buildings in Brussels, the lawmaking institute does look a bit like a moloch. The Commission has 33 directorate-generals, plus a number of service bureaus and agencies. It’s hard to quickly find the person/information you are looking for.

Once you get in though, most people are more than willing to talk to you – whether you are a journalist, a lobbyist or a citizen. There even seem to be rules that mails have to be answered within a certain number of days. My questions to the Commission are most of the time quite sensitive but I still found the staff to be helpful. For instance, I wrote some articles on the Telecoms Package, a controversial set of rules that are still under negotiation with the European Parliament and the EU member states. After a request for a ‘state of play’ the spokespersons’ service set up a meeting with a high-level expert, and I could even quote him (without naming him directly). I also talked to the responsible director-general, he replied within half a day at a request and the interview was on the record.

In general, I am really surprised the Commission to be so transparent and straightforward. Most cabinets of Commissioners can be found entirely online, including phone numbers and mail addresses. I have talked to several Commissioners online (via Twitter). And from seasoned diplomats and other EU insiders I always hear that the Commission more or less is an open house – once again, if you manage to click on the right buttons, but that’s just bureaucracy.

European Parliament: a chaotic place, not a fortress
Hardly ever reported on in the national media, the European Parliament is often regarded as just another EU institute full of money-grabbing pricks. They decide on rules over our heads while claiming to be there for the citizens. No wonder only 43% of voters turned out at the last two elections of the European Parliament.

Because it’s so big with 751 members and thousands of staff (a lot of them located in Luxembourg, who knew that), and with two meeting locations – Brussels and Strasbourg – this circus of democracy is not really a glass house. The buildings themselves are a real maze. Only last month did I find out, after two years, how to get from one entrance to the other. And if you do manage to get in, try to get out! You can’t just walk out, certainly not over the blue carpet, then you’ll have a lot of people screaming at you. No, you have to smile at the security guard, and he’ll open the gate for you – but please, give your sticker back or you’ll get scolded again.

On access and transparency: the trouble is not the lack of information, rather the abundance of the stuff. It drives everyone crazy. What doesn’t help is the shitty website of the Parliament. Or the way the political groups work: the main ones are over 200 people big, so good luck finding the right Member of European Parliament (MEP) that actually has a real mandate. For instance on copyright rules, there are different voices on the matter in the Socialists and Democrats Group, ranging from conservative to progressive, or representing a national rather than a European view.

So to find out what’s going on, as an EU Watcher I have to follow ‘Committees’ who have ‘Rapporteurs’ writing ‘Reports’ on Commission proposals. These reports are then heavily amended, sometimes with 4000 amendments (!) and after the Committee votes on them, they can be changed again in the so-called plenary vote. You can also have several Committees talking about the same proposal. Let’s take the reform of the Emissions Trading System, which was set up to put a price on CO2. The Environment Committee and the Trade Committee have a say – but which one is more important?

I can’t go through 4000 amendments, so as a journalist I am susceptible to analyses and spin, produced by the EP groups themselves, lobbyists and other journalists. Further on, the stuff that’s on the table is often highly technical. Free mobile roaming sounds cool, but then you hit the wall when MEPs start talking about ‘wholesale access pricing’, ‘the BEREC report on RLAH+’, ‘network circumstances’ and other things that sound super boring but are in the end, super relevant. European integration is in the end about merging 28 different systems.

But by and large, if you take enough time to delve into a subject, you can get the hang of it and pull out some red threads, sticking points and other political issues that can be communicated to a larger audience. What does not help is that MEPs are overwhelmed by the work load and the constant travelling between Brussels, Strasbourg and their home countries. I find it annoying that on many occasions, the MEPs do not respond to requests for interviews. With one Austrian parliamentarian, our interview was moved three times in the agenda, and when I finally got to speak to him, he had one (1) minute. Not very helpful.

Black box 1: The Council
Commission: quite open. Parliament: quite chaotic. Council – the conglomeration of diplomats and government experts from the 28 – member states: quite a black box.

The two federalist institutes of Commission and Parliament have a tendency to be pro-European, constantly proposing European solutions for the many problems we face – be they economic, social or political. For those who do not like this continuous churning of  European laws, they have a protecting mechanism: the Council.

The Council is about the only institute you’ll see on the tv news. It’s right opposite the Berlaymont building, which is the headquarter of the Commission. This is where the heads of governments meet several times a year, and where deals are struck on salvaging Greece, punishing Russia with sanctions, size and scope of the EU budget, et cetera. The European Council is the real powerhouse of Europe. It is therefore also a black box.

I have been in the Council once when I was a diplomat. Many diplomats of the ‘Permanent Representations’ (let’s say embassies at the EU’ spend more than half of their posting in the unassuming building, attending endless ‘Working Groups’ to discuss all the proposals of the Commission, but also preparing the ministerial meetings of the Council, such as the Telecoms Council or the Eurogroup. Some ministers have to attend these ministerial Councils on an almost monthly basis.

I call the Council a black box because it’s not transparent at all. And for a good reason, say people at the Council: negotiations between EU member states need to be done in a certain outsider-free environment, so that the arguments can float and power-play can be applied without meddling of the media.

True, there are a lot of documents to be found on the (dreadful) website of the Council. But seldom do I encounter a document that tells me what is going on inside a Working Group. So I have to talk to the press officers, who are very helpful indeed, but because they work for an institute that attaches a value to secrecy, can only talk ‘on background basis’ and can only be quoted as ‘EU source’ – not even ‘Council source’. Otherwise the risk of distorting ongoing negotiations can be too big.

Another back-door solution is to talk to the Permanent Representations. Again, most of the press officers are helpful, often responding quickly and being quite open. They will most of the time let you talk to the diplomat/expert that’s the country’s representation at the Working Group. But they will never mention a member state that is blocking a deal. Nor are they very willing to share the ‘secret’ negotiation documents (code word: RESTRAINT). Unless you work for the Financial Times, of course.

Many times you throw in a pie into the Council machinerie, and then, after many months of deliberations, the end result: a cookie! Nobody really knows how that happened, but it usually has to do with protection of national interests, lobbying by big companies, or other mechanisms.

Black box 2: the trilogue
Still here? Good! We are nearly getting to the end. The EU lawmaking process is all about compromises. So first the Commission makes a proposal – for instance, rules on the protection of consumer data – and then the Parliament wants to sharpen that proposal. So it adopts a lot of amendments, aiming to protect the consumer rights even better. At the same time the member states discuss the original proposal as well, usually with the intention of watering it down.

As the European Parliament got a real say in most EU topics since the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, a second black box has popped up in the Eurobubble. And that is the trilogue. An informal get-together of Commission, Parliament and Council to negotiate a compromise text that all institutions can live with. The trilogue is now hugely popular, though it formally does not exist and really takes place in the backroom. Around nine in ten law proposals are dealt with in this way, leading to a faster adoption of laws by the European Parliament.

But is that good for democracy? I doubt it. Striking deals is important, but there is zero transparency in this intra-institutional haggling. Not even within the Parliament. Only a few MEPs, usually the Rapporteur and some colleagues, do the negotiations and then present the end result with an attitude of take-it-or-leave-it to their democratically chosen fellow MEPs.

Thinking has started amongst the institutions how to change the trilogue system, but right now, it is the only way forward to deal with the range of new EU legislation that the Juncker Commission will produce in the next few years.

To conclude, is the EU intransparent? No, not really. But you have to be equipped with context and contacts, in order to cover the European Union.

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George Soros: ‘Europe’s way of life is in danger’

The politically active billionaire George Soros payed a visit to Brussels on October 22, promoting a new essay on the relations with Ukraine. His organization Open Society Foundations (OSF) has been active in Ukraine…

The politically active billionaire George Soros payed a visit to Brussels on October 22, promoting a new essay on the relations with Ukraine. His organization Open Society Foundations (OSF) has been active in Ukraine for decades – even before its independence – promoting civil society, democratic values and freedom of information. ‘I am a firm believer in an ever closer Union of like minded states and open society. The OSF has deep routs in Ukrainian society and I have been going a lot to the country.’

Europe has lost its way

Right now Soros is deeply worried that all this work has been for nothing, as Russia has invaded Ukraine and Europe is indecisive in really helping the eastern neighbours, with disastrous effects. ‘The EU has lost its way as a result of the financial crisis and its failure to fulfil its original mission let to dissatisfaction. And now Russia has emerged as an alternative to liberal democracy.’ Russia could be described, according to Soros, as a ‘maffia state, where you combine political dominance with financial exploitation.’ The country now is challenging Europe in Ukraine, ‘and no one in Europe really understands the challenge and the seriousness of what’s happening.’

‘The EU is an experiment in international governance, but a failing one, just like the UN. International law is more a concept than a reality. But still, the EU represents the rule of law, while Russia represents the use of force. Which expresses itself by repression at home and aggression abroad.’

How could Europe save Ukraine? The businessman and philanthropist sees the emergence of a ‘new Ukraine’ which is radically opposed to the old Ukraine, which was a maffia state under Yanukovich. ‘That new Ukraine is devoted to the original concept of Open Society and the EU.’ You might think that Soros is promoting his own organization but at Sunday’s general election in Ukraine, indeed the pro-European parties won the ballot. ‘These people are willing to die for a better future, a European future.’

How to steer away from the cliff

Supporting the new government is therefore important. But Soros also wants more financial backing for Ukraine, apart from smacking sanctions onto the Russians. In the aforementioned New York Book of Reviews essay he spells out how to help Ukraine steer away from the cliff, in short his measures boil down to these ones:

  1. The IMF/EU programme has to reassess the situation because of the continued fighting, the financial needs of Ukraine far exceed what was originally assessed. An incipient financial crisis looms. Ukraine needs an injection of additional 20 billion dollars. That is not an unattainable figure, says Soros.
  2. Bailing in sovereign bond holders would be terrible mistake, basically leading to a default, and would make it impossible to get financing for companies. Instead of that the EU/IMF should provide debt relief.
  3. The state-owned gas monopoly continues to be a source of enormous waste of gas and of dependence on Russian supplies. The new Ukrainian management would need an initial investment of like 10 billion, for instance to introduce meters for gas (right now, households cannot control temperature, they have to open their windows even mid-Winter). The gas company should bring costs in line with the market basically by cutting costs and limiting use. That would stimulate local gas production, Ukraine has its own gas supply under the ground which is not tapped into.
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Putin has the upper hand

According to Soros, Putin is still winning the game. He basically ‘observed the abominable cease-fire’ while he could he just have moved into the country, creating a corridor stretching all the way from Russia to Transnistria. Putin probably is waiting for the effects of a cold harsh winter on Ukraine that will be starving out of gas, accelerating a financial collapse. And then he just picks up the pieces of the remainders of Ukraine. ‘Europe needs to prevent this.’

The Association Agreement that was agreed upon between the EU and Ukraine, will not resolve the situation. ‘We have to recognize the deficiencies of the EU as an international organization,’ explains Soros. ‘It is extremely rigid, has its own timetable, and expects reality to conform to the timetable. We have seen this with the eurocrisis and now with Russia.’ Rather, Europe sleepwalked into the Association Agreement, being utterly surprised when then-President Yanukovich refused to accept the proposal in 2013, as it had a lot of demands and gave little back to Ukraine. ‘It was not difficult for Putin to outpit it, and so he did.’

George Soros thinks that the EU shouldn’t be too intrusive into Russian interests and promote ‘regular commercial relations’ with Ukraine.’ But that is the long run. Right now the EU needs to stop President Putin as he ‘wants to destabilize all of Ukraine. If the country collapses or is neutralized then Europe will have to fend for itself. The geopolitical consequences would be far reaching. Europeans wake up! Our way of life is in danger.’

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