Writer, speaker and advisor on Europe

Category: EU Watcher

Ten years in Brussels – a reckoning (part 2: life)

How is it to live in Brussels? You are asking someone who has been here for a decade now. In the first part of this Brussels scoreboard blog I zoomed…

How is it to live in Brussels? You are asking someone who has been here for a decade now. In the first part of this Brussels scoreboard blog I zoomed in on working in the city. Now it is time for the more entertaining / hilarious / bitchy review of the self-declared capital of Europe (I already wrote a mid-term review in 2019). Life in Brussels: the good, the bad and the ugly!

BXL – the good

I am extremely tempted to start with the ugly part of Brussels, because that is where most attention goes to whenever people talk about the city: dirty, chaotic, segregated…. But let’s not take that route. Let’s focus on the good bits first.

And there a plenty of good bits. So many, that I have decided to stay here. In alphabetical order why:

Cosmopolitan –> Brussels is extremely international. Only a quarter of the residents are of Belgian origin. Since the Belgian identity is weak, it is relatively easy for newcomers to integrate – there is not so much to integrate, in any case, with so many different nationalities in a city of 1.2 million souls. That is at least what pops up in international surveys amongst expats and immigrants. They like Brussels more than cities like Paris, for instance.

Nobody knows how many people work in the international (EU+NATO) bubble, maybe it is 70,000, probably more. But in case you are a cosmpolite looking for an extremely diverse working environment, Brussels is the place to go. I have always found myself surrounded by dozens of different nationalities; at work, at parties and by walking the dog. My dog is a Belgian princess by the way, adopted in a shelter in Flanders.

Edgy –> with so many contrasts, Brussels is anything but a boring city. When I go back to my hometown Amsterdam, it is all so clean and perfect, like a postcard. Not here. Here, life is edgy. Things are unpredictable and the unexpected is around the corner. Poor and rich people live side by side (though not necessarily interacting). You can have a chique Maison de maître in hip Ixelles and your Volvo XC40 is charging at the front porch, but if you go to Flagey for a drink you will pass by dodgy bars full of Portuguese first generation immigrants who watch trashy soap series on a tv which is mounted above a pinball game and a slotting machine. Next door is an organic takeaway store where the Vietnamese owners prepare delicious Thai food. Then you pass some bordered-up graffiti sprayed house, and tram 81 passes you which is loaded with rich expats, drunkards, school going Moroccan boys and girls and Dansaert Flemish who are reading Flaubert while listening to a psy-punk playist on Spotify. The Flagey square itself boasts a pop-up bar with beach loungers, while at the nearby ponds, a couple of refugees are camping in a tent. Nobody seems to care about all this diversity.

Grandeur –> The Netherlands is a bigger and richer country than Belgium. But when you’re in Brussels, you wouldn’t think so. The city boasts a lot of grandeur: big buildings, large alleys, impressive statues.

This is mainly thanks to the ambition of the 19th century King Leopold II to advance his country’s reputation and interests. Using the blood money from his personal colony of Congo, Leopold drastically changed the face of Brussels: notably by building the national palace, commissioning the triumphal arch in Jubilee Park that renders the Brandenburger Tor arch in Berlin to a miniature toy version, and ordering the construction of the Avenue Louise all the way to the Chamber Forest. Designed to impress, that was a bit the strategy. It elevated Brussels from a medieval town to a self-proclaimed glorious centre of new Belgian state (Belgium didn’t exist until it declared independence in 1830).

Just compare the Dutch and the Belgian work palaces. On the left, the one in The Hague that you’ll pass by bike in about 10 seconds (if you’re a Dutch biker: 5 seconds). The building is crammed into a small one-way street in the centre. You could miss it in case you don’t pay attention. On the right, slightly bigger, the national palace – only for work! – in the Brussels city centre. The bus will drive past it in one minute.

What’s my point here? Well, I like grandeur. It is pompous and absurd, but also makes you feel part of something bigger. Literally.

Green –> several times, Brussels has won prizes for being a very green city. This is absurd if you live in the centre, as I do, with hardly any parks available. But it’s true. Especially the eastern and southern sides of the city are full of parks and even forests. My favourite areas are the Red Cloister, the Abbaye de la Cambre and the Sonian Forest. All of which you can reach directly by bus or other means of public transport. Try that in Amsterdam, I would say: the closest ‘forest’ is het Amsterdamse Bos which was non-existent until a century ago and as it is near to the international airport, it is not very quiet.

Yes, you can take the bus to this little paradise.

Point of critique: still too many cars and too few trees on the streets. It’s also impossible to get 100% renewable electricity contracts here (thank you, socialists).

Improving –> Slowly but surely, Brussels is improving. It has now one of the largest pedestrian zones in the centre, compared to other European cities. Local politicians decided in 2015 to close down the main artery semi-highway (the Boulevard Anspach), from one day to the next and give it back to people on foot and bikes. Dozens of kilometers of bike lanes have been constructed since I moved here a decade ago. It is still outright dangerous to bike in the city, but the amount of cyclists has multiplied. You are no longer a loonie from the north if you jump on a bike – that definitely was the case in the past.

Crime has dropped significantly in Brussels, with a third less thefts since 2012. More and more streets are being renovated, house prices have gone up, parks are upgraded and in most of those parks there are now very nice bars and DJs in the spring and summer months. In the public transport, you can check in with your bank card. Oh and the price of a ticket has barely changed despite the inflation. Since many years, I pay 499 euro a year for my annual unlimited public transport card.

Did I already mention rental prices? I think not. Very affordable housing here, especially compared with other big cities. With my partner we rent a giant 200 m2 industrial loft in a nice part of the centre, furnished and with a parking garage, for the price of a 50 m2 apartment in some shitty zone in Amsterdam.

Bruss-hell: the bad

In this cosmopolitan, edgy, grand, green and improving city, not all is good. There is in fact, a lot of ugliness that makes me sometimes refer Brussels as ‘Bruss-hell’, the capital of ‘Hell-gium’. (My Belgian friends always get upset when I write this, but my expat friends fully agree)

Governance –> Brussels is divided in 19 municipalities and has over 1,000 elected officials including 19 mayors. They are kingdoms on their own and behave as such. Also there are several police zones and other weird divisions of public services. For the annual mandatory car check I can go to three different organisations in Brussels. One waste company has different rules than the other. If you move within Brussels to another commune (municipality), you will have to re-register and also probably change the company that deals with parking permits. It makes living here sometimes cumbersome and frustrating.

Lousy infrastructure –> The roads are generally in a bad shape in Belgium. Brussels is bad, but visit one of the other cities or towns in this country and you’ll be surprised. Parts of Antwerp look in a worse shape than the streets of Bucharest or Sofia (I’ve been to these places, I am not making this up). Belgians just don’t seem to care about the state of public infrastructure. They just use it to the last bare thread and then replace it. Maintenance? What is that?

The best example of course is the Palace of Justice in Brussels. A gigantic, monstrous building which is falling apart and leaking like crazy. Since the 1980s (!) there has been scaffolding around it. That scaffolding is now rusting so much that the building management put another structure around to prevent the scaffolding from falling… But in the next decade or so, the Justice Palace should be a Palace again, the plans to finish the renovation have kind of been approved.

Source: Wikipedia. The picture is from 2009, not much changed since then…

Taxes –> I already complained about the insanely high tax pressure in Belgium in my 2019 blog and it hasn’t improved since. One of the reasons why I am hesitant to become independent again, is the fact that my income will for two-thirds go to the state coffers. The Belgian government will hardly give me any services in return (see below) apart from the very cheap and high-quality healthcare.

The traffic –> it is one of the worst in Europe and even in the world. Bad urban planning, low maintenance and an addiction of Belgians to their company car (which is heavily subsidised by the government to increase mobility) are just a few of the reasons why Brussels seems to be permanently gridlocked. There are 600,000 commuters that go in and outside of the city on a daily basis, exhausting the infrastructure that is already decaying. Plus of course the horrendous governance of Belgium with their four federal provinces, Brussels being one of them. Doesn’t help when you want to ensure a smooth flow of traffic as there are always conflicting interests that delay decisions or result in disastrous ones. For instance, 14 million euros was invested in a park and ride facility near the city which is not used most of the time.

Sometimes, cyclists take over the city. But most days this is a dangerous jungle of aggressive car drivers.

Trash, dirt and pollution –> Unsurprisingly with so much traffic, this is a dirty city with bad air quality. You can lose years of your life if your house is situated near a street with lots of traffic, partly because there are so many diesel cars driving around in Brussels. Even if you manage to escape the dirty air, you will still be confronted with trash everywhere. The Belgians have an ingenious system to separate their waste in four, sometimes even five different bags. They are all collected on different days so there is a continuous presence of mainly white, blue and yellow bags on the road. These bags are then picked open by birds and rodents, and if they are not put on the street on the right day, the trash will just lie there for a week. Another irritation is that Brussel denizens like to dump their bigger waste on the road: mattresses, fridges, broken bikes, construction waste – anything will land on the pavements.

Oh, the irony!

The ugly face of Brussels

Finally, the ugly (and sometimes funny) face of Brussels.

Architecture and urban drab –> I live in a beautifully renovated former printing office of the Belgian postal services. But around me are many ugly cheap buildings that come often in the place of historic houses that have been demolished just to make some profit. Architects have a name for this phenomenon: Brusselisation. It is, quoting Wikipedia here: “the indiscriminate and careless introduction of modern high-rise buildings into gentrified neighbourhoods” and has become a byword for “haphazard urban development and redevelopment.”

The most infamous example of Brusselisation is the demolition of Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple in the chique Sablon area in the city centre. It was replaced by a characterless skyscraper. But you’ll see ugly architecture everywhere in Brussels (as well as in the rest of Belgium), right next to the most fantastic art nouveau and art déco buildings. It hurts my eyes.

What also annoys me is the urban drab, in the most literal sense: mud. The streets and parks are poorly maintained as I stated before. This is where I walk my dog every day, because there is almost no green space in the centre:

See the background? It could be like Paris here. But it looks more like a training field for the military.

Expensive supermarkets –> Don’t buy your groceries here. Or medication. Or cleaning products. Everything here is f***ing expensive, while just across the border – notably in the Netherlands and in Germany – prices for everyday stuff are much lower. Paracetamol costs 1 euro in my home country, here 5 euro. Fresh milk? Almost the same story. (1,35 euro in Albert Heijn, 3,50 euro in Carrefour). Deodorant, shampoo, soap: wait until you’re in Germany and then bring a big bag. That’s how my friends do it.

Lack of cohesion –> Very ugly part of Brussels. The city still has outrageously high unemployment rates especially amongst the young. A few hundred meters from where I live, Afghan soldiers sleep in tents on a brdige, next to the asylum seeking centre. Brussels is strongly divided in haves and have-nots and this situation continues to be explosive.

Road signs –> Let’s end with a smile! I have a fetish for the road signs in this town. They grow everywhere here and the government recently announced they would remove hundreds, as the overload of signs just confuses people. But I like them. Even if they are old, overused and contradictory, this ugly part of Brussels should always stay here.

I include a few of my favourites below, for more inspiration on Belgian ugliness you can follow Belgian Solutions, Ugly Belgian Houses and Weird things in Brussels.

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Ten years in Brussels – a reckoning (part 1: work)

I don’t think I would ever write a blog with this title. But here we are. Ten years in Brussels, and counting. Apart from the town I grew up in,…

I don’t think I would ever write a blog with this title. But here we are. Ten years in Brussels, and counting. Apart from the town I grew up in, I have never lived anywhere else this long. And for now, on plans to move in any case.

Today I was reminded of my idea to write a blog about a decade in the EU capital, after visiting a book presentation of a fellow Dutchman (Milos Labovic, maybe not that Dutch of a name) who presented his memoires on lobbying in Brussels. The event was in the Holland House, a club for mostly tall loud Dutch white middle aged men. I ran into two high-ranking diplomats, various journalists and even more lobbyists. After one cava and a mediocre white wine, munching on borrelnootjes on foldable plastic party tables, I decided it was time go to have better tasting beer and wine and watch an indie movie with my colleagues at the office (most of them much younger than me, and most certainly not from the Netherlands). I even skipped my pilates class at the Brussels Gay Sports club to be with them.

This is not how you start a blog, I know it, because the intro is not clear and it will not lure readers into the text that I am about to write. Stern blog writing experts will tell you to make your most important point in the beginning, add a short anecdote if you may, and then go straight to the story you want to tell. In max 600 words please, with a strong appealing headline and and even more attractive picture (I literally got this advice recently).

How to cram ten years into 600 words? I will not make the effort and rather answer the most burning questions that readers may have: why do you live there for so long? And what attracts you in living in this city? Let’s mainly focus on the EU bubble and work-related aspects in this first blog on a decade of life. I also include some lessons from the various experiences that I had here.

What I couldn’t find in Amsterdam, and found in Brussels

In hindsight, I guess that I went to this remarkable, unassuming, exhilerating, edgy, chaotic and vibtrant cosmopolitan city because I wanted to give my life a fresh start. And along the way, I found something that kept me here. In fact – I found a lot of things here, that made me stay, or got me stuck here (according to some of my more Belgium-bashing friends).

The very beginning was certainly as adventurous as I hoped it would be. Arriving nearly aged 35, I was not expecting to have a year of Auberge Espagnole kind of life; meaning lots of nightly festivities, meeting dozens of people from all over Europe, feeling to live in a daze. But that is actually what happened. I had no job, just a handful of freelance journalism tasks. My office was not more than a shared space in the Brussels Journalism Club. Most of my lunches were spent alone on a bench in a park near the EU premises. I rented a room with a friend. But I could smell and taste the adventure everywhere. And most importantly of all: I felt straight from the beginning, that Brussels was going to fulfil so many of my professional needs.

Do you see the spaceship in the background?

After nine months, I remember showing up on my own at the regular meeting places – Place du Chatelain on Wednesdays, Place Lux (‘Plux’) on Thursdays and Rue du Marche au Charbon in the weekend – and then usually meeting my new friends there. It was a wonderful feeling. But it didn’t last.

In any case it was a big contrast with my life in Amsterdam. Of course the Netherlands was (is) my home country. I had my partner there, we owned a wonderful small 1680s house in the centre, my social life was mainly in Amsterdam and I invested years in building up a professional network. Before I moved to Brussels, I established a think-tank in the Netherlands, published dozens of opinion articles, three books and a documentary, and was regularly on tv and radio to voice my opinion on issues like generation conflicts, the future of the welfare state and the lack of long-term thinking in politics.

It was a great time, but also a frustrating time. Because the Dutch are not that used to independent thinkers. So while I could easily get lots of speaking engagements, finding regular work – as a journalist, researcher, policy advisor or other job with content – proved very hard. Employers simply couldn’t grasp that someone with an independent mind like myself, could be of benefit to their organisation. One time I applied as a journalist for an international relations magazine and then the feedback was: “Joop, you need to spread your wings and fly.”

That was a bit of a setback. Another one was that the think-tank Prospect that I founded, never managed to get real funding – even though we amassed a network of several thousand young thinkers, organised many successful events and got noticed by leading organisations including political parties and state bodies. Also my books, on the Generation Y (I called it the ‘network generation’), on globalisation and the future of the state, weren’t having the effect I’d hoped for.

So maybe, I concluded mid-2012, the Netherlands wasn’t the best fit for my character, for my career, for my sense of fulfillment and purpose. Too much inward-looking, not interested in Europe or globalisation, too perfect and therefor sluggish. I needed a new direction. A new Northern Star. One that I found quite quickly, not in the north but rather south of Amsterdam. Lesson: it’s not what you want. But what you need.

Getting into the EU bubble

My prime goal was to get myself into the EU bubble – a competitive conglomeration of highly skilled cosmpolitan individuals who either want to build, criticise or just disrupt/destroy bottles (the latter category are a very small minority). There are probably around 60,000 – 70,000 people working here for the EU and other international institutions such as NATO, including all the organisations that hang in this bubble: media, lobbyists, trade organisations and NGOs. I wanted to be one of these folk who one person once described as ‘lost souls’.

I started as a freelance EU correspont, quickly getting some assignments because there are hardly any Dutch journalists in town. In 2013, the counter stood at 27. I also made a plan to start a new think-tank in Brussels, focusing on Europe’s young and delivering concrete policy advice from our generation. I called it Next Generation for Europe. This was the time that millions of millennials were without a job or study because of the long-lasting impact of the credit crisis that started in 2007.

The freelance work went well though it was incredibly badly paid – for one major European press agency I wrote long stories about the EU’s climate and energy as well as digital policies, they only wanted to pay me 200 euros per day (one day was usually 12 hours long), and they even didn’t have budget for pens or notepads – ‘Just get them yourself, OK?’

The think-tank didn’t fly and I closed the project after a year. Much to my surprise though, the European Commission named its post-corona recovery plan to my idea:

Finally famous. They never asked me for permission though

It was the time that Brussels was changing quite a lot. in the EU bubble, the Americans forced their way into the journalistic realms by establishing a a new department called POLITICO Europe. (Always write the first word of that name in CAPITALS please). I was at the launch with an impressive, bold and full-of-bravoure press conference, the initiators just bluntly stated that European journalism was dull, that it needed to be reinvented, and that POLITICO would become the prime journalistic hotspot in Brussels for years to come.

That is exactly what happened. Several media outlets just stopped (including the one I worked for at a salary of a cleaning lady). I of course applied as many of my other journalist friends. But I never got a foot in between the door. Also the work from the Netherlands dried up. Even as the EU got more and more powerful and relevant, the Dutch seemed to lose more and more interest in what’s going in in the unofficial EU capital. Lesson: being a successful journalist is for the happy few.

From writing to the ‘dark side’

So what does one do in such an hour of need? I jumped ship, to the dark side of communication and advocacy (lobbying). It started with a nine-month project at Climate Action Network Europe where I had to set up a European campaign on the phase-out of coal power plants. It was a great project, ending with taking part in the circus that was called COP21 and which actually resulted in the most advanced climate deal to date: the Paris Climate Agreement.

I was in the room when this happened. Chills went down my spine, I must say

After CAN Europe, I went to another acronym: GSMA Europe. It was the first time that I was headhunted for a job, to work for a trade association of the mobile telecommunications sector. I stayed there for more than four years. You may ask now, why? You don’t come across as a business type kind of guy. More a thinker, communicator and observer.

All very true, but the GSMA offered me wonderful experiences:

  • My boss gave me a lot of freedom to develop my own work. If I have freedom, I flourish. If I am micromanaged and someone is always looking over my shoulder, I lose my ambition and (may) rebel.
  • It was super political work. I had to foster the relation between the automotive and ‘telco’ sector, on the deployment of 5G in ‘connected cars’. Huge invested interests (billions of revenues, millions of jobs) came together on an industry that needs to modernise to stay alive. 5G in cars also is the advent (or some say a condition) for self-driving vehicles.
  • One lesson I learned is really important: understand the technology. I am an historian, not an engineer, but I spent a lot of time to fully grasp the differences between 802.11p (ITS-G5) and 5G / LTE-V2X. Thanks to the information advance I had, I quickly became known as Mr Connected Cars in this micro bubble within the bubble.
  • Working for industry can be fun, especially because you don’t have the corporate background. I never found people that are so professional and kind as within all these companies that I worked with.
  • When in 2018 I really wanted to focus more on climate/energy and not become a telco lobbyist, my boss gave me all the space to do this. Within a matter of months I was sent to the HQ in London to lead a team that developed the GSMA’s climate policies. I was pushing hard for the whole sector to become climate neutral by 2030. At first nobody really saw the need but we really did some groundbreaking work there.
Organising (or attending) fancy dinners is part of the job here

Annus horribilis

And then came covid-19.

Some of the following was related to the virus. While covid-19 broke out, I broke up with my partner in a very traumatic way. A month later I became a father and got into a new (lockdown-related) relation, faced gigantic struggles with the ongoing renovation of a farm in the Ardennes that I couldn’t visit because travel was prohibited. By July, I landed in hospital with severe panic attacks. In November, I was let go from the GSMA because the organisation was basically bankrupt (it couldn’t organise the money-making Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona with 108,000 visitors)

In hindsight, I don’t know how I pulled myself through that annus horribilis. But I did! And 2021 I wanted to make a resolute choice for jobs in the energy field, declining all other opportunities. I really aimed for a contribution to the energy transition in Europe and nothing else. After being in Brussels for a longer time, you should focus and find your niche.

And that is what happened. I got assignments for consultancy on the electricity market and electric vehilces, and did a maternity leave cover at the European Heat Pump Association to lead their policy team. It was the year that the European Commission announced a string of policy initiatives on the European Green Deal, which should set the continent on a path to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. My lesson for that period is: focus. There were so many draft sets of rules to analyse and to make a point on, that we couldn’t cover anything. So I pushed my secretary general hard to really use our resources on the Emissions Trading System for buildings and transport as well as the Social Climate Fund.

In 2022 I landed in a dream job as ‘Policy and Impact Director at the RE-Source Platform’, which is a mouthful, I know. In essence RE-Source is a coalition of the renewable energy industry (solar and wind) and many large corporate players that want to directly ‘source’ their renewable electricity in long-term energy contracts. As the director of the Platform I had to run the secretariat but also build out the network of the platform, influence EU energy policy and advocate for these long-term energy contracts. We also organise the biggest conference annually in Europe on this topic.

Edition 2022. I love moderating.

Dreams don’t last and some are even rudely interrupted. In January 2023, we decided to end our collaboration due to disagreements over the Platform. Lesson here: still processing. I have to bring back the IT equipment over the next few days and found myself in the job application tombola yet another time.

Another decade?

If you’d asked me in 2016 how long I would stay in Brussels, I would probably say just one or two more years. But I am still here and I have no intention to leave.

Lesson: the longer you stay and the more EU profile you built, the more attractive you become for organisations to hire your services

In the next blog, I will focus on life in Brussels and less on the EU bubble. Promise!

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New book: The Climate Action Guide

My new book The climate action guide is out now!

Climate change is real and a growing problem, evolving into an existential crisis for the world if we do not act fast. I am deeply worried about the way we treat our planet and atmosphere. It simply is the most urgent topic of our time. This is why my new book is all about climate change, in two ways. I am ringing the alarm bell as loud as I can. Politicians and business leaders have the difficult task to halt global warming. Their role is pivotal – but so is ours.

We, as consumers and citizens, can do much more in the fight against climate change than we often realise. Each of us can help to make the world a cleaner, greener and happier place. The good news is that we can start today, without giving up our way of life.

The Climate Action Guide is a translation of my climate book Zo redden we de wereld and now available as an e-book on platforms like bol.com, Fnac and Kobo Books. Here are the main points.

What is going wrong

First, let’s zoom in on the crisis. Things are going completely in the wrong direction right now. Despite the fact that we have been talking about climate change for decades, the problem is getting bigger every day. In the past 30 years, we have emitted more greenhouse gases than in the previous 200 years:

As a result, global temperatures and sea levels are rising faster and faster at the moment. If we do not intervene strongly in the next ten years, humanity is toast. This sounds dramatic, but it is. Climate change is an undeniable fact. We are truly beyond the pointless debate as to whether or not global warming is caused by humans. We must not close our eyes to a world which (sometimes literally) is on fire.

On the other hand, rescue is near due to exciting technological developments and the changing behavior of citizens. Almost all solutions are now within reach and they are affordable. That was not the case five years ago. Renewable energy is now often cheaper than energy from fossil fuels. In ten years’ time Airbus will come with planes that fly on clean hydrogen. McDonald’s has started to sell meatless burgers. And also in recent news: one in five new cars in Europe are fully or partially electric.

But the question is whether all of this good news will be enough (the answer: it isn’t). The temperature on Earth has already risen by more than one degree and we are now experiencing the first dramatic consequences. It’s a disaster that happens in slow motion. Humanity’s eight hottest years were the past ten years, as we can see from this graph. 2020 was the hottest year ever, together with 2016.

And this is just the beginning of a huge crisis unfolding. If we do not act now, we will end up in a similar situation as that of the corona crisis: we take measures, but every time too late, and then we can only do damage control. The evidence is staring us in the face. All relevant graphs and statistics are deep in the red, like this one for the amount of CO2 over the past 800,000 years. Do you see that dotted line on the far right, which is way above average? Humanity alone is responsible for a very scary jump of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

This is today. But what will the future bring? In a world that warms by two degrees, a point that we will reach within the next three decades, the amount of extreme weather events will increase significantly. Some land regions and parts of the ocean are warming so much that entire ecosystems can be destroyed. Coral reefs will die all over the world, which is disastrous for biodiversity as a quarter of marine life resides there. Hundreds of millions of people will experience heat waves above 60 (!) degrees every year. Water and food supplies are coming under enormous pressure. And so on.

That is why at the all-important Paris Climate Summit in 2015, the world agreed to limit global warming to two degrees (with an extra effort to limit to 1.5 degrees if possible). I was there because at that time I worked for a group of climate NGOs, Climate Action Network Europe. It was a truly special moment.

But since then, we have not started to bend the emissions curves downward, on the contrary – emissions have only gone up. They only went down in 2020 because of the coronacrisis, which paralysed half of the world economy and that still only resulted in around seven percent less emissions.

Even if all the Paris pledges of countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions were fulfilled, global temperatures will rise three to four degrees by the end of the century. If that happens, climate experts warn that we are entering uncharted territory.

The earth has not been so warm in the last three million years. Back then, in the Pliocene Epoch, trees were growing on Antarctica and worldwide sea levels were 25 meters higher. That in itself is already a worrying prospect. But if global warming goes beyond two degrees, the self-regulating system of the world’s biosphere and climate will run wild. Lots of ‘positive feedback loops’ will then exacerbate climate change, for example because most ice on Earth melts and the poles and glaciers no longer reflect sunlight back into space. Together with other feedback loops, our planet could be getting five, six, eight degrees hotter. That’s end of our story, for humankind as well as for our nature as we know it. It’s that simple.

What we can do to solve the climate crisis

Do not worry: it doesn’t have to come that far. However, drastic collective action in the next few years is needed, which goes further than installing more windmills, recycling plastics and planting trees. The actions are sometimes big, sometimes small, but together they will solve the climate crisis – and ultimately make our lives and our existence better.

As we can see on the graph, emissions have to go down very quickly, for both scenarios (1.5 and 2 degrees warming). In my book, I outline the path to a climate-neutral world by 2050, in which we halve emissions every ten years. It is a path that is technically and politically feasible, especially because of the revolution that is currently taking place in the field of renewable energy. The costs of electricity from solar and wind have fallen so much in the past few years that it is now cheaper than fossil fuels. In the future, this energy will become almost free.

Three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of oil, coal and gas. The diagram makes this clear: energy-consuming applications such as industry, transport, heating buildings and the production of electricity result in tens of gigatons of CO2 and methane emissions every year. The other quarter, and many people don’t know, is from agriculture. Livestock farming in particular is very bad for the environment and the climate.

I explain all of this in my book. But I also focus on what we can do to prevent disaster.

Ten consumer climate actions to help save the world

I have identified the ten most useful climate actions for consumers. The central idea is that we are going to live, travel, consume and eat in a different way. But we will also need to show citizenship and invest in the future. The actions include switching to renewable energy, renovating your home, limiting your stuff and clothes, buying an electric car (or even better, get rid of the car altogether), avoiding meat and dairy (including cheese), setting a personal flying budget, investing in green companies, limiting the amount of children and engaging with friends and family on climate action.

I hope that my brief description of the climate crisis – and the way out of it – will stimulate and inspire readers. I explain all actions in my book thoroughly and give more concrete tips. But it should also make people aware of the seriousness of the matter: man-made global warming has the potential to spiral out of control and will make life on Earth dangerous, if not impossible. 

Not all is lost. We can save the world as long as we act now. Christiana Figueres, who led the Paris climate negotiations in 2015, said it well: “In the face of climate change, we all have to be optimistic, not because success is guaranteed but because failure is unthinkable.” Let’s put her words into practice.

Does your organisation want a FREE presentation on the causes of climate change and how we can solve the climate crisis (online, one hour)? Please contact me to discuss the options! You can also order the e-book here.

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European climate action in 2020 – and beyond

2020 for sure was a disaster year, in which the world has been brought to standstill because of a virus so small, that it cannot be seen – even with…

2020 for sure was a disaster year, in which the world has been brought to standstill because of a virus so small, that it cannot be seen – even with a normal microscope. But in the future, this year may well be regarded as a turning point at which the planet has decidedly steered away from disastrous global warming, onto a path of climate neutrality. And it is Europe, one of the (historically) largest polluters of the atmosphere, that is showing the lead. Much depends however if all the promises put on paper to halt climate change, will be fulfilled. An overview of EU climate action in 2020 (and an outlook to 2021) is appropriate.

The right high-level ambitions are all there. Ursula von der Leyen, the new EU Commission president, has made climate her absolute spearhead with the announcement of the European Green Deal in December 2019. It is an ambitious and holistic programme without precedent. In March 2020, the Commission published its proposal for the first European Climate Law, which aims to put into legislation that Europe’s economy and society have to become climate-neutral by 2050. Almost nowhere in the world exist such legally binding and stringent climate laws, except for maybe the UK. The entire European economy must become more sustainable and transform into a circular economy, while almost the entire energy supply will run on wind, solar and hydrogen. Biodiversity in Europe will also be fully restored and agriculture made more sustainable. This action plan will require at least EUR 260 billion per year in additional investment until 2040.

New climate target for 2030

The climate law was just the start of a long string of legislative and non-legislative actions. An obvious and urgent one was to boost the climate ambitions for the next decade, as the world only has a few years left to severely cut emissions or otherwise face a future in which the global temperature goes up with more than two degrees celsius. This is why the Commission proposed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). The European Parliament had a big internal fight over this goal. More conservative, pro-industry parties found this goal too high and damaging for the European economy, while progressives and greens were pushing for an even higher target of 65% reduction. The same conundrum took place between the EU member states, notably between the western and eastern parts of the EU. Countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania are still heavily reliant on coal and nuclear energy and they oppose a quick energy transition. 

In 2019, the actual figure of greenhouse gas reductions in the EU was only 24%, so what was basically on the negotiation table was no less than a complete overhaul of Europe’s economy in a mere whisper of time. To the surprise of many, in December the European Council succeeded to support the original 55% target of the Commission. This clears the way for the three EU institutions to come to a final agreement on the revised 2030 target, probably early 2021. 

Two important developments will make the ambitious climate target more feasible. First, the coronacrisis. When covid-19 hit Europe, it was feared that the virus would push climate down on the political agenda and that governments would direct their funds to saving the economy, rather than investing in climate action. But thanks to continued pressure from the Commission and several progressive EU Member States, the opposite has happened. The EU has established a whopping 750 billion euro ‘NextGenerationEU’ recovery fund to overcome the crisis, and up to a third of this fund will be earmarked for climate-friendly investments. Also in the new seven-year budget, funds have been allocated for the transition to a green economy. 

Secondly, the EU is reforming its Emissions Trading System (ETS), which is a complicated system to put a price on carbon pollution. The ETS has never been a real success because the price of the certificates to allow industries to emit CO2, simply was too low. Also many parts of the economy do not fall under the ETS, such as transport. But since 2019, the cost of a carbon permit has steadily risen to 30 euros a tonne, which means that a real incentive now emerges for industries to find carbon-free alternatives to their production or operation. In June 2021 the Commission will propose a new reform of the ETS, in which not only the amount of tradeable certificates will be limited but where the system will now also apply to the shipping and aviation sector. According to experts, a carbon price of 50-100 euros a tonne is needed in order to really push Europe’s industry to decarbonise. 

Circular economy, second chance

The European Green Deal also sets an ambitious roadmap towards a climate-neutral circular economy, where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. In such a form of the economy, materials can be reused over and over again and products can be easily disassembled to allow repairs and a longer lifespan. This is not a new concept, the Commission has been advocating for the ideal of a circular economy for a decade. But it is hard to get rid of the take-make-waste linear economy model that the world is stuck in. Currently, only 12% of materials and raw materials are recycled in Europe, so the circular economy remains an unattainable dream for the time being.

This is why in March 2020, the Commission came up with a new Circular Economy Action Plan, basically using its powers as broker for the EU single market to intervene and make sustainable products the new golden standard. There are dozens of actions and milestones that the EC will undertake in this field in the next few years, notably to rebuild ‘key product value chains’ such as electronics, packaging, batteries, plastics, fabrics, construction and food. Whereas in the former action plan the measures where ‘regulatory-light’, in the new plan there are a lot of new and revised regulations coming to Europe’s industries. Watch this space as it will attract a lot of policy and advocacy attention in the EU Bubble, from NGOs and research bodies, as well as from trade associations and MEPs. 

The energy transition

As the bulk of manmade greenhouse gas emissions happen because of the usage of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), most focus in the fight against climate change lies on ‘decarbonising’ our economy. In the EU, almost 30% from the emissions come directly from the energy sector and almost a quarter are related to the transport sector (including aviation), whereas most houses and buildings in Europe continue to be heated with gas. 

The way out of this system is fairly simple on paper: we have to ‘electrify’ everything and the use cases that can not be electrified, should switch to ‘green hydrogen’. For the first category, this includes electric vehicles, boats, small airplanes and heat pumps, combined with a strategy to increase energy efficiency across the board. As for the really heavy industry and transport, such as steel and aluminium factories, big planes and ships, the switch to hydrogen or synthetic fuels is a must. 

Again, here is nothing new as the EU has had targets for the uptake of renewable electricity and for higher energy efficiency standards for a long time, though they were not mandatory for EU Member States. But the ambition has to be scaled up if the energy transition needs to be completed by 2050. Otherwise we will continue to need coal and gas power plants, as well as nuclear, to cover for the increased demand for electricity. This is especially true for the production of green hydrogen as this has to be done with 100% renewable electricity (instead of natural gas). 

The good news is that the share of renewables in the EU’s energy mix continues to rise, as prices for solar and wind continue to drop. Many EU Member States have announced large-scale deployment plans of both renewable electricity sources, as they are now competitive to (and in many cases cheaper than) electricity made from the burning of coal and gas. But renewables only make 15% of the EU’s energy mix (2018 figures) so the way to a fully decarbonised energy system is still very long. 

Note June 2021 in your calendar as in that month, the Commisison will propose new legislative proposals in this field, including a revision of the Renewable Energy Directive as well as the Efficiency Energy Directive. Advocacy behind and in front of the scenes has already started, for instance in the public consultations that the Commission has launched on both directives (deadline 9 February 2021). 

Farm to Fork

Saving the climate entails more than just getting rid of fossil fuels and decrease the world’s hunger for resources. It is also about making our food system more sustainable. Globally, agriculture is responsible for a quarter of the extra greenhouse gas emissions, for a large part because of livestock breeding. It is also connected to severe degradation of our biodiversity and the environment, as well as air pollution. 

The Commission has therefore launched another set of action plans in May 2020: the ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’ and the revised Biodiversity Strategy. They are in the very heart of the European Green Deal, according to the Commission. The focus on ‘Farm to Fork’ means that farmers in the EU need to halve their use of pesticides, as well as slashing their usage of fertilisers and antibiotics. Also, 25% of Europe’s agricultural land should be dedicated to organic farming by 2030. The Biodiversity Strategy has quite a few shared goals with the farming strategy, restoring degraded ecosystems across the EU and better preserving nature areas. Until now, the EU has missed all its current targets for protecting biodiversity, so this part of the European Green Deal needs to be followed critically. 

Green Dealing in 2021: legislative train at full speed

As in any cycle of the 5-year tenure of the European Commission, the opening year of sweeping statements and bold promises of von der Leyen’s team has come to an end. The next phase of her presidency of the Commission is all about translating the policy goals into technical regulatory language. In 2021 we will see a lot of these efforts being played out, with a string of public consultations, impact assessments, delegated and implementing acts and reviewed directives on the agenda. In EU speak: the legislative train is driving at full speed.

There are also non-legislative initiatives that should be taken into consideration by stakeholders in the Brussels Bubble. The Commission will start organising more events under the umbrella of the European Climate Pact, an attempt to bring together thousands of different organisations, companies and individuals to turn the fight against climate change in Europe into a societal movement. 

In March 2021, the Commission will announce the Green Digital Alliance. The EC is bringing together major leaders of the ICT industry and have them commit to carbon neutrality by 2030, two decades ahead of the headline goal for the economy at large. The companies will also commit to developing a calculator for the enablement effect of digital solutions: IT as an enabler to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the energy transition. The Commission regards the green and digital revolution as a twin revolution in which one cannot do without the other, and wants companies to take the lead.

Finally, the UN will host another climate summit, COP26 in the jargon, November 2021 in Glasgow. COP26 was scheduled for 2020 but it was delayed due to the coronacrisis. On the agenda are, amongst other hot topics, increased ambition targets of countries around the world, as the promises they made after the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, are by far not sufficient to limit global warming to two degrees celsius. With a new pro-climate action American President in the White House, COP26 will play a very important role to get the entire world to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. 

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Nederland: van gidsland tot probleemkind in Europa

Nederland heeft zijn pro-Europese koers ingeruild voor een nationaal-populistische houding. Zo isoleren we onszelf in Brussel.

Nederland heeft zijn pro-Europese koers ingeruild voor een nationaal-populistische houding. Zo isoleren we onszelf in Brussel.

Toen ik in 2005 bij Buitenlandse Zaken werkte, schreef mijn afdeling een notitie over  nationaal belang en Europese politiek. Nogal wat collega’s trokken een vies gezicht toen ze van het project hoorden. ‘Daar doen we niet aan!’ was de teneur. Het nastreven van nationale belangen ging rechtstreeks in tegen de geest van Europese samenwerking, en daar mocht je als père fondateur van de Europese Unie niet eens over nádenken. De notitie verdween uiteindelijk in een diepe lade.

Hoe anders is de realiteit van vandaag. Nederland trapt in Brussel op de rem wanneer het kan. We hebben jarenlang – in ons uppie – het openen van EU-toetredingsonderhandelingen met Servië tegengehouden, en deden dat vorig jaar dunnetjes nog eens over toen de kandidaatstatus van Albanië en Noord-Macedonië voorlag. ‘Een historische vergissing,’ fulmineerde de toenmalige Commissievoorzitter Juncker over die blokkade, die uiteindelijk in maart dit jaar werd geslecht.


Nederlandse politici en diplomaten traineren niet alleen het uitbreidingsproces, maar zijn ook bijzonder bedreven in het bewaken van de centjes. Ten tijde van de eurocrisis ging minister van Financiën Jeroen Dijsselbloem er met gestrekt been in om het nationaal belang te bewaken. ‘Ik kan niet al mijn geld aan drank en vrouwen uitgeven om vervolgens om bijstand te vragen,’ zei hij in 2017 tegen een Duitse krant, wat in Spanje en elders werd compleet verkeerd viel. Gedurende de eurocrisis had de grootste krant van Nederland het trouwens ongeneerd over ‘knoflooklanden’ waar ons zuurverdiende geld heen ging.

Deze cover van Elsevier leidde tot grote woede in Zuid-Europa

Premier Rutte heeft er tegenwoordig bijna lol in om de deur dicht te smijten. Tijdens de laatste onderhandelingsronde voor de nieuwe EU-begroting kwam hij in Brussel opdraven met een linnen tasje. De inhoud: een appel en de nieuwste biografie van Chopin (Rutte speelt piano). ‘Meepraten? Ik denk het niet. Ik zou niet weten waarover.’ De Nederlandse Permanente Vertegenwoordiging twitterde zelfs enthousiast over Ruttes tasje als deel van een startpakket voor zuinige lidstaten. Cruciale bondgenoten zagen er de humor niet van in. Bondskanselier Merkel verweet Rutte ‘kinderlijk gedrag’ en President Macron vond het allemaal maar ‘stuitend.’

De blokkerende opstelling van Nederland in Europa bereikt nu een nieuwe climax vanwege de coronacrisis. Samen met enkele andere (kleine) lidstaten gaan we tekeer tegen plannen om door Covid-19 zwaar getroffen landen als Italië en Spanje bij te staan. Onder geen beding mogen zij geld krijgen om hun economie (en samenleving) overeind te houden, wel kunnen ze geld lenen – met daaraan gekoppelde voorwaarden voor hervorming van de economie. 

Niemand verwoordde de ‘ons-ben-zuunig-houding’ beter dan een vuilnisman, die tijdens een recent werkbezoek van Rutte aan een afvalscheidingsbedrijf riep vooral géén geld naar Spanje en Italië te sturen. De premier aarzelde even, stak toen zijn duim op, en zei: ‘Ik onthoud dit!’ Wie deze uitglijder ook onthoudt, zijn miljoenen Europeanen: het filmpje werd ondertiteld, was openingsnieuws op het Italiaanse en Spaanse 8-uur journaal en ging viraal, onder meer in Brussel en in Spanje. 

Next Generation EU: 750 miljard op tafel

Dit keer krijgt het vermeende slimste, rijkste (denken we zelf) en meest irritante (zo ziet Europa ons) jongetje van de klas echter geen gelijk. Frankrijk is er namelijk in geslaagd Duitsland uit het zuinige kamp te trekken. Vorige week bliezen Macron en Merkel de Frans-Duitse as nieuw leven in door een gezamenlijk voorstel te doen voor een soort coronafonds van 500 miljard euro, dat wordt gekoppeld aan de Europese begroting. Lidstaten zouden hier bijdragen uit krijgen als ze in de coronaproblemen zitten, maar de terugbetaling vindt uiteindelijk gezamenlijk plaats. De Commissie wil hier zelfs 750 miljard euro van maken, als deel van de reddingsoperatie ‘Next Generation EU’.

Nederland gaat, samen met de rest van de ‘vrekkige vier’, onherroepelijk bakzeil halen omdat Merkel 180 graden is gedraaid. Zij was altijd – samen met de rest van Duitsland – tegen coronabonds. Maar nu realiseert ze zich dat er geen alternatief is. ‘Het gaat alleen goed met Duitsland, als het met Europa goed gesteld is,’ zei de Bondskanselier in een historische persconferentie waarin ze het Frans-Duitse plan aankondigde. En ze krijgt voor haar U-turn massale steun uit eigen partij en de rest van Duitsland. Zelfs CDU-havik en oud-Minister van Financiën Wolfgang Schäuble is het met haar eens, hij vindt de Nederlandse houding onbegrijpelijk. ‘Verdere leningen aan lidstaten zijn stenen in plaats van brood.’

Macron en Merkel kondigen gezamenlijk een plan voor een fonds van 500 miljard euro aan.

Natuurlijk is Nederland onwillig omdat vooral Italië disfunctioneel is (politieke polarisatie, gebrek aan economische hervorming, massale schuld) en de populisten in de nek van de middenpartijen hijgen met de verkiezingen van 2021 in het vizier. Maar als het huis van je buren in brand staat en daar geen blusapparaten hangen – ga je dan op hoge toon eisen dat de buren eerst een contract voor brandveiligheid tekenen, voordat je de brandweer doorlaat? Ook als de fik dreigt over te slaan op je eigen huis? 

Want dat is nu iets dat ‘Den Haag’ – of althans de huidige politieke en ambtelijke top – weigert te begrijpen. Gedreig met Nexit van de populaire rechterflank of niet, ons nationaal belang is Europees belang, zeker in tijden van corona. Liefst 71% van de Nederlandse export blijft binnen de Europese interne markt inclusief belangrijke afzetmarkten als Italië en Spanje. En als Zuid-Europa omvalt, eindigt de euro en daarmee de Europese Unie. 

Vroeger had Buitenlandse Zaken, naast de afkeer van nationale belangen, een wijzer motto: ‘Zo dicht mogelijk tegen de Duitsers aan zitten.’ Zeer verstandig gezien de politieke en economische verknooptheid van ons land met de grote buur in het oosten, en actueler dan ooit.

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The long way back

There is nowhere to hide from corona, apart from your living room. And this situation will not end soon.

It is Easter Monday and the streets in Brussels are deserted. Sometimes runners pass by, the occasional car makes it way on empty streets. Litter is dancing in the wind. Windows of houses display rainbows drawn by children, here and there people painted colourful signs on sheets: ‘Tous ensemble!’

This is the new normal. The corona normal. And it is not going to end soon.

So much has been written in the past month about the lockdowns, the spread of the coronavirus and the human tragedies in hospitals and nursing homes, that it is difficult to find words that haven’t been used already, to describe or capture this unprecedented, historical situation. That said, I want to share some thoughts – worries, mainly – about how we can get out of the crisis.

Possessing the truth

For starters, I am really annoyed by all those righteous analyses of people who claim to possess the truth on corona. The underlying argument of their story is always the same: ‘See, I knew this was going to happen because [select a cause] globalisation / neoliberalism / plundering the earth is out of control. We will go into a systemic change from now!’ I even read an article of someone claiming the link between climate change and the coronavirus. But this is a skewed line of thinking and won’t help us get any further.

I am the first to acknowledge that overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, industrial farming and high rates of globalisation all are factors that have made the risk of such a pandemic as we currently experience, very high. Widely shared on social media are speeches of Bill Gates, Barack Obama and other leaders stating that it is not a matter of if but rather when the pandemic will break out. And when it breaks out ‘we’ should be ready.

Clearly the world was not prepared – apart from Eastern Asia, which is a region that is harnessed well against outbreaks of viruses, notably after the SARS crisis of 2003. But for the rest of the world, there are no dams or barriers high enough to stop COVID-19 from spreading.

We found ourselves in a situation that is comparable to a period of grief. First there is denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. I don’t know in which stage the world is now, but my main point is that this is a crisis that will not go away after one, two or even six months of lockdown. Humans are extremely vulnerable to the virus and that just puts everything on hold.

Nowhere to hide

We should abandon the hope that the virus will pass soon. Until there is a vaccine that works there is nowhere to hide, apart from your living room. In the meantime, we should go to into a state of ‘open patience’, as the Dutch philosopher Luuk van Middelaar wrote a few days ago in NRC Handelsblad.

Of course, societies cannot remain on full lockdown for an extended time. For a start, it kills the economy. Nearly 200 million fulltime jobs will be lost in the next three months. In the United States, already the worst coronavirus-hit country in the world, 16 million people lost their jobs in the last three weeks – which equals ten percent of the American labour population. This is pictured in a mind-boggling graph:

Politicians across the globe are now doing the right thing: flatten the curve, stop the virus from spreading so fast that it overwhelms our healthcare systems. We all know this by now, but actually it took a few weeks into the crisis before this strategy became apparent.

But what after the intensive cares are no longer overloaded and infection rates have lowered, while testing has been ramped up? If the lockdown is respected, countries should be able to move into the next phase – a time in which we can relax the lockdown rules.

Surviving the summer (and fall, winter, spring)

In this phase, the virus is more or less under control, but the fire is not extinguished. Flames will flare up regularly, after which society immediately has to follow the stricter regime rules. So schools may open, and close again. People could go back to work: first a few days a week, then fulltime, and then suddenly they have to work from home again. The same applies to shops, cinemas, restaurants, event locations, airports and borders.

In other words, we turn our economies and societies partly on and off, until A) the virus vanishes miraculously or B) a successful vaccine is introduced. (I don’t believe in herd immunity as the third option, because that is years away from now and we don’t know if people are actually immune after contracting COVID-19). The advent of a vaccine will take a year if everything goes well, but it is likely to take longer. Until then, we’re fucked.

It is this phase that I am most worried about, for the simple reason that ‘we’ cannot hold our breath for so long. EU Commission President Von der Leyen says that we have to live with the virus for the time being. But we can’t. It kills us and puts our countries in a state of paralysis.

Apart from the massive discipline needed from citizens, my fears are about the following consequences of such an on-and-off society.

First of all, economic havoc will rain upon our heads in this time. And every week will lead to more damage, more job losses and more financial strain. The IMF is already stating that the world will experience the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression. This year alone, the economies of some countries could contract by more than ten percent (worst-case scenario).

Sectors that are hit extremely hard are in the field of transport, tourism and entertainment. A massive nationalism of airlines seems likely. The automotive industry is on its knees. Revenues of hotels, b&bs and other travel/tourism segments have evaporated. Millions of restaurants, cafes and cinemas across the globe face imminent bankruptcy. Even online food delivery services face a hard time in some markets.

Even if countries keep the economic damage limited, they will suffer from severe disruptions of supply chains, disappearing demand from key trade partners. We already see in the Netherlands a bizarre effect: millions of tulips and roses are destroyed because they cannot be sold. If flowers are not able to being exported, what then for machine parts, chipsets and other semi-finished goods? How long can factories run if supply chains dry up? The internationalisation of the economy has made itself fragile for disruption.

(Speaking of internationalisation, it goes without saying that countries without proper healthcare systems face an unprecedented crisis which will be much worse than here in Europe or Northern America. The hammer will hit hardest in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Read this tough analysis of the New York Times on the drama that will come)

Secondly, finance. As the economy grinds to a halt, states and financial institutions step in, with support measures of trillions of euros. The speed of the intervention of governments is unprecedented and should be welcomed. But debt levels of many countries have not recovered from that previous crisis, the credit crunch of the late 2000s. It seems we in the West will all be like Japan in a matter of months: unsustainable levels of debts for decades to come. Not to mention the huge risk that the ECB and others are taking with the ‘whatever it takes’ policy. Can our financial institutions survive a year of corona crisis, or will they collapse?

I also fear a plethora of knock-on effects as a result of the lockdowns. What will happen with developing economies and nations that now see foreign investments being hold back or even reverted? If one sector goes down, what will happen to the others? Can the 27 EU Member States coordinate their exit strategies, to prevent the Single Market from collapsing? Will budgets for addressing climate change be used for the emergency measures? Can democracies withstand the temptation to keep the current police-state measures in place, once COVID-19 belongs to the past? And what will the crisis do with our minds, our mental health, especially for those that have been hospitalised on the intensive care?

It makes no sense to formulate answers to these difficult questions, as we are at the very beginning of the crisis. But we need to observe, make plans, define strategies to handle the many dilemmas that will come on our plate very soon.

Let’s end with a few signs of hope.

Humanity is everywhere. Not just us as humans, but the way we take care of each other. By and large, societies across the world have wilfully accepted draconic measures that limit their freedoms. And all for the greater good: to save the old and the weak, out of respect for the healthcare workers, in consideration of the collective. Even in our highly individualistic societies that dominate the West, we think of the other. That goes beyond the bear hunts, the daily clapping ceremony, warning strangers to take a bit of distance. It is deeply empathic.

We reflect and reconnect. Suddenly our lives are put on hold. What do we do with all this time? I am only speaking about what I see in my direct environment, so not generalising for everyone, but I note that many people reach out to one another, reconnecting with friends, family and acquaintances, even if it is only online over Zoom, Skype or Hangout. Signs of aggression and impatience in public areas and in traffic are gone, people seem more polite and caring. We slow down and therefore see more details of our area of confinement: flowers in blossom, a renovated house, smiling neighbours. We hear the birds sing, we can sniff the clear and clean air, look at more stars at night. Suddenly people realise that humans are a part of nature and vice versa. We revalue the value of life, of living. Maybe this introspection will end with the eradication of the virus, but it is a wonderful side-effect of this fearful period.

Pharmaceuticals are united in their efforts to beat the virus. China released important characteristics of the virus at a very early stage, which helped kick-off research already in January, gaining critical time. Clinical trials are already starting. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help prepare massive production capacity for seven different coronavirus vaccines, even if only one or two of these will prove useful. Gates will waste billions of euros with this approach and he doesn’t care. Because we don’t have time to wait for vaccine production to start up only after the right one has been found. Better to bet on seven horses at the same time.

Finally, the state is back. In 2011 I wrote a book on the decline of the power of the state (De machteloze staat), but that thesis is (alas partly) no longer valid. We need governments more than ever. They are the only institutions that can protect us (this is the prime reason of existence of states), not just in economical terms but also as a society. And they do this well. In a time of deep polarisation in society, of a dismissal of the added value of governments or democracies, a surge in legitimacy and accountability, is a fantastic and hopefully longterm effect of this historic crisis.

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