Last week’s chilling news about the murder of Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnírová at their home close to Bratislava marks the second case of an investigative journalist paying the ultimate price for their work in an EU Member State. In October 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb as a result of her investigations of Maltese officials regarding fraud, money laundering and links to the Panama Papers.
This time the victim was Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old journalist working for the news website Aktuality.sk. Kuciak was investigating cases of suspected VAT fraud by two businessmen Marian Kočner and Ladislav Bašternák, who are both associated with the ruling party in Slovakia, Smer. Kuciak had also recently been investigating the Panama Papers scandal and the suspected theft of EU funds destined for Slovakian by the Italian mafia group ‘Ndrangheta. Months before his death, Kuciak had filed two complaints with the prosecutor’s office after receiving several threats. Neither had been followed up.
Cases like these are doubly worrying. Not only do they reveal that violent and ruthless methods for stopping investigative journalism are taking a hold in the EU’s own Member States, but the lack of effective investigation into these killings by the national authorities responsible also exposes deeper problems regarding impunity and the rule of law.
While the hotspots of the so-called migration crisis in the EU can be found in the south-east of the continent, thousands of migrants are jumping the fences of Europe’s only territorial border with Africa in the Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla in the north of Morocco. And the EU? They seem to stand back while the Spanish Guardia Civil violently govern the border territory without restrictions.
“Viva España, boza, boza!” Hundreds of African migrants storm the fences of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast shouting out their popular war cry. It gives them hope, it gives them power, and there is faith that God will help them in their first, second or even tenth attempt in reaching the Spanish territory. Hoping they will manage to climb the high fence, wishing that the Spanish border police do not literally kick them back to Moroccan territory. Continue reading “Fortress Europe in Africa: EU’s silence on Ceuta and Melilla”→
On the 17th of January, a housing corporation in the Dutch province of Groningen will be deciding whether to tear down or completely refurbish close to 400 houses, my own parental home included. This is just the latest in a series of decisions concerning the roughly 150,000 houses whose structure has been compromised in the wake of dozens of unnatural earthquakes that have haunted the area for years. The earthquakes are a direct result of the extraction of gas at Europe’s largest natural gas field in Slochteren by NAM (owned by Shell and Exxon Mobil), which has been putting over €265 billion in the hands of Dutch governments since the 1960s.
It is not completely surprising that the government is reluctant to give up this steady stream of money. While the newest coalition has agreed to dial down the gas extraction a bit further, it is still not at a level which is deemed ‘safe’ by experts in the field. This is, naturally, angering those who are feeling the consequences the most: home owners in Groningen.
On the international level, coverage of the issue is remarkably meagre. While some news outlets have attempted to bring the story to a wider public, the real debate has remained primarily domestic. The EU (more specifically: the DG Energy) has spent most of its time lamenting the decrease of Dutch gas in its Quarterly Reports on European Gas Markets while mentioning the very legitimate cause for it not even once. Continue reading “A Sustainable Future for the EU: Sponsored by Shell?”→
The American Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger famously once asked “Who do I call when I want to call Europe?” The modern day version coming from Rex Tillerson might be, “Who do I call, email, text, tweet…”, but the premise remains the same – who does one call to get the lowdown on Europe? With certain leadership figures rising above the crowd, the current U.S. Secretary has some pretty good options available.
Emmanuel Macron – The ambitious new kid on the bloc
The poster boy of French politics, Mr Emmanuel Macron has recently joined the ranks of rosy-cheeked nation state leaders on the world stage. After founding his own party En Marche! in early 2016 (a keen observer will note it shares the same initials as his own name), he led his party to victory less than a year later in the French parliamentary elections. His triumph was unprecedented and audacious; the presidential election was his first time running for public office and he won it with apparent ease. Such a rapid rise power is rarely achieved in politics by democratic means, although comparison could be made to a certain head of state across the Atlantic Ocean who also circumvented the typical route in his bid for Presidential office. Continue reading “The Who’s Who of Europe: The Powerful Personalities in the EU”→
I have now lived in Europe for over a year, and previously spent a month here followed by another two weeks. People often ask me what qualities of Europe I’ve found strange or different, what’s shocked me the most. I always have trouble answering – I’m still in developed countries, usually Western, so I’ve just adjusted to the small cultural and infrastructural differences as they’ve arisen. Truthfully, there is only one thing that never ceases to shock me:
Since the beginning of 2017, the world has been adjusting to the idea of “America first.” The United States’ shift towards isolationism and protectionism came as no shock under the incoming president, but – lest there be any mistake – he’s been very clear on the matter from the get-go.
Europe has rolled with that punch, responding with resolute determination to stand on its own and fill any potential gap left by America’s retreat from the front lines of the international forum. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Europe cannot only rely on the US to solve problems, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently proposed further globalization, integration, and a stronger EU presence on the world stage. This is good, and necessary, because President Trump hasn’t changed his tone.
In his addressto the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017, the US president reiterated his America-first stance, and, perhaps in an attempt to make the idea more palatable, insisted that every country should take the same approach (he used the word “sovereign” 21 times in 42 minutes). The thing is, a lot of countries don’t want to. The leaders of the European Union, save for one notable exception, believe that they are stronger together. Continue reading “Trump to UN: You’re Welcome”→
After President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker finished his third State of the European Union speech on the 13th of September, the thing that stood out to most people was the almost unchecked optimism in his message compared to his gloomy address last year, when – in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum – the general sense that the EU was heading to imminent disintegration seemed all too real. According to Juncker, the EU now has “wind in our sails” and he urged to “make the most of the momentum”. He did so by proposing a wide range of initiatives, some bolder than others, but all encapsulating this sense of optimism and determination. Nothing showed this more clearly than Juncker’s reluctance to talk about Brexit – the hour-long speech devoted only one minute to the painful issue. The looming threat of inertia and disaster that marked the State of the Union speech in 2016 seems to be replaced by a general sense of growth and hope. How can it be that the tables have turned so drastically in only a year? And is this truly the state of today’s Union?
The State of the Union speech is – in a true European fashion – a product of import. In the United States, the State of the Union is an annual event that is deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. In Europe it was only introduced in 2010, when the Lisbon Treaty stipulated that the President of the European Commission must address the European Parliament annually to reflect on and discuss the successes and failures of the European Union in the year before, in order to stimulate transparency and democracy in the European political arena. Continue reading “Blowing the wind into your own sails – Juncker’s State of the European Union”→
Around 150 students are holding up sheets of paper in blue, white, and red. Rester avec nous, they shout, stay with us. In the moment the camera clicks to shoot the French flag formed out of sheets of paper, the sun breaks through the clouds again. A good sign for Europe? Maybe. What is sure, is that the pulse of Europe now also beats in Groningen.
On a Sunday afternoon, on the second of April, 2017, the first Pulse of Europe event was held in Groningen. Pulse of Europe is a pro-European movement that has emerged in Frankfurt, Germany, around the end of last year. Against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum, the election of President Trump, and the rise of nationalist sentiments all across Europe, the initiators aim at raising awareness about the many advantages European integration has brought to European citizens. They have been organizing weekly events on Sunday afternoons, first only in Frankfurt, then in an increasing number of cities in Germany, now all over Europe. (see http://pulseofeurope.eu)
The first Pulse of Europe event in Groningen took place on the square in between the University of Groningen’s main building, and the University library. Blue and yellow balloons distinguish the pro-European character of the event. An estimated 150 people gather around the stand that offers free lemonade, and on the stairs of the Academiegebouw, the main building of the University of Groningen. Most of them are students, and they seem to be mainly internationals. The German percentage remains unspecified, but might rise up to 70 percent according to the author’s educated guess. Possibly unsurprising: several generations of Euroculturers are seen amongst the supporters as well.
The event starts off with the European anthem, Freude schöner Götterfunken. As expected, nobody knows the lyrics. But this is no problem, because of Jeremy’s enthusiasm. Jeremy, who is the organizer of this first Pulse of Europe event in Groningen, is genuinely happy about the number of people that have showed up. After only eight days of organization, the turnout is a remarkable success. Jeremy invites us all to hold short, three-minute-long speeches about our opinions and attitudes towards the EU. Although the open microphone had been announced beforehand, students are reluctant to take stage. Nevertheless, many important topics are brought up by the students daring to speak to the crowd: Europe as a peace project, borderless Europe, the EU as a refuge in times of globalization, Europe as a space for diversity and exchange rather than close-minded nationalism. A lot of praise for the EU indeed, but students are, after all, those who benefit most from European integration.
After a couple of speeches, the organizers hand out the sheets of paper in white, red and blue. The reference is clear: the flag serves as an appeal to the French citizens to make a clear statement for Europe, diversity, and collaboration, and not for Marine Le Pen’s chauvinistic nationalism, in the upcoming Presidential elections. The next Pulse of Europe Groningen-event is scheduled, of course, for April 23rd: the day of the French election. That time the event will take place on the Grote Markt, the central square in the Groningen city center. Can more people be attracted than only the students who directly benefit from the EU and its Erasmus program, or who are regular international students? Let’s hope so. After all, rester avec nous should nowadays be pronounced in all European languages.
An earlier version of this article was first published with the Montesquieu Instituut. Following the results of the Northern Irish Assembly elections, it has been updated.
Of all the complicated consequences of Brexit that have been analyzed at length in European and British media, one issue is often brushed aside as a detail. The island of Ireland is to become home to the EU and UK’s only land border, potentially upending two economies and threatening a fragile peace between Unionist and Nationalist extremists. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have long enjoyed an open border as members of a UK-Ireland Common Trade Area, and since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 all Northern Irish citizens have been able to avail of Irish and British nationality, bringing stability to a region once afflicted by intense religious and ethnic violence.
However, to paraphrase Irish poet WB Yeats, the situation after Brexit is changed utterly. Already, in emergency elections being held on 3 March in NI due to a whistleblower scandal, the Irish nationalist party seeking unity with Ireland, Sinn Fein (SF) has managed a dramatic surge in support at the expense of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by highlighting the DUP’s support of Brexit and their role in a whistleblower controversy that revealed tax payers money was misspent on an ill-conceived incentive system aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by paying companies to turn green. The former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, has come under especially severe criticism for her role in the controversy. SF has managed to get within a single seat of the DUP, and Unionists for the first time ever have lost an outright majority in Northern Ireland, although they still remain the largest political force as a whole. With the outright Unionist majority gone, the political balance that has been maintained since Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s has been destroyed. Under the Good Friday Agreement, SF and the DUP must now enter negotiations to restore government. These contentious negotiations could elapse the set period of time, triggering fresh elections, or more likely, lead to the reinstatement of direct control from the UK parliament in Westminster, a situation that would certainly hurt Northern Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations. Negotiations that already hold direct dangers for Northern Ireland and Ireland’s open border.
The media have been happy to suggest that some sort of deal can be struck to keep the border open, although Kevin O’Rourke’s recent article in the Irish Times has acknowledged how difficult this could prove. In the case of the “hard Brexit” promised by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, the UK will be out of the EU’s customs union. To avoid tariff cheating between the EU and UK and by other trading partners seeking to exploit Europe’s single market or the UK’s favorable rates, both the EU and UK will likely have to insist on a customs check on the island.
Likewise, as long as people can travel into the UK through the North’s open door, Ireland, without needing an ID, May can’t curb EU migration into the UK, a central pledge of the Brexit campaign. This leads to the conclusion that a so-called “hard border” will be the inevitable consequence of Brexit in Ireland.
Nevertheless, with peace and the economy on the line, it is not impossible that May and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who have promised to keep the border invisible, might be able to find an innovative solution to the border problem.
Some solutions to this border problem can be dismissed quickly. For instance, a “United Ireland” approach where NI merges with Ireland has, despite what the recent election might suggest, little popular support in NI or political capital in Ireland. Similarly, while the DUP’s Foster, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, have suggested a soft border based on “new technology”, this concept has remained vague, and unrealistic in light of the customs and immigration issues.
More likely is the “All Ireland” solution, suggested by the UK, where Ireland would be allowed to take over maintenance of the borders of the island of Ireland, pushing British border control back to the island of Britain but leaving NI and Ireland politically distinct. If a special customs deal could be reached so that EU goods can move freely into NI, this could be a potential compromise. Thanks to the Good Friday agreement, NI citizens would also have EU citizenship, allowing them to retain many of the privileges of full EU membership.
However, this option could face significant resistance from NI’s Unionist majority, who would face border checks when entering other regions of the UK, but not gain many of the benefits of the EU in return, such as EU subsidies or freedom of movement for work in Europe. Unionists, often fearful that they may be “abandoned” by the UK, could see this as the first step towards a United Ireland, making it a politically toxic strategy, and an unlikely resolution to the border issue.
One way of getting Unionists to agree to the “All Ireland” strategy might be the so-called “reverse Greenland” proposal. Proposed by Scotland, this is the idea that individual UK regions, such as Scotland and NI, could be allowed to retain their membership of the EU or the EEA even as other regions, like England and Wales leave. This model is based on the Danish territory, Greenland, which left the EU in 1985 while remaining a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
For NI this option might offer the most promising outcome, although NI would require far more autonomy from the UK for it to be possible. As with the “All Ireland” solution, the UK border would be pushed back to Britain, granting NI, as an EU member, access to the customs union and the single market, while limiting EU immigration to Britain. For Unionists a major attraction would be access to EU subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy and EU structural development funding, vital lines of funding for NI’s economy, while retaining all the benefits of being a part of the UK.
Assuming the DUP, who voted for Brexit, is won over, a “reverse Greenland” for NI would face several other obstacles. The main would be UK reluctance to grant Scotland a similar deal, as it might encourage an independence campaign that has picked up steam in the wake of the Brexit referendum. While the UK as a whole might not be affected by NI adopting this unique position, a border between Scotland and England would be unthinkable economically and politically. Coupled with the difficulties in negotiating such a bespoke arrangement, the chances of this approach being implemented are slim.
Hard Brexit, Hard Border
The options outlined above constitute a wish list, not a likely reality. The real shape of the future border is dependent on more than innovative options. It depends on some of the most complex divorce proceedings ever undertaken, the disentangling of thousands of laws, economic relationships and partnerships. It depends on this not just going well, but going amicably, with the UK and EU being able to find common ground. It depends on the EU making exceptions to some of its most dogmatic rules, and the UK softening the blow of its Brexit. For now, with everything as it stands, with an end to free movement and the UK’s membership of the common market, a hard Brexit means a hard border.
This is the first in a series where The Euroculturer dives into the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. In this first article, Arne van Lienden explains the stakes in the Dutch elections.
It is safe to say that 2017 will be a decisive year for the future of the European Union. Not only will the EU have to negotiate the exit of the UK from the Union, following the Brexit referendum, but it will also have to contend with uncertain elections in three founding Member States. Among these three are Germany and France, who, especially after the UK’s departure, are the most financially and politically powerful members of the Union. With populism on the rise and anti-EU sentiment becoming more widespread, it is needless to say that these elections will be vital for the survival of the EU, at least in its current form. With the French elections in April and the German elections in September, it might be easy to overlook the Dutch elections this month. Although The Netherlands is significantly smaller and less powerful in the European arena than France and Germany, the elections on the 15th of March will serve as a lipid test for how the electorates of the so-called ‘core’ countries of the EU will respond to the Brexit referendum, austerity measures and budget cuts, as well as the influx of refugees. It is the first round in a series of fights that will decide Europe’s future.
The surge and decline of Geert Wilders
In order to form an executive government in the Netherlands, a party needs a majority of the seats in the Tweede Kamer (Parliament). This comes down to 76 seats out of the 150 available. In contrast to, for instance, the UK, a Dutch party has never managed to win 76 seats outright. Therefore, the Dutch government is always a coalition of different parties, often with strikingly different political ideologies. Especially in today’s fragmented political climate, polls show that the biggest party will probably get no more than 25 seats in this election. This will mean that there is most likely going to be a broad coalition government, which sometimes can consist of four or five parties. The coalition system ensures that governmental policies are always the result of a consensus between different, often opposing, parties, making it impossible for radical policies to get passed. However, a common criticism is that practically nothing ever gets done due to this balancing act.
It is important to understand the coalition system to understand why, in the last months before the election, far-right Eurosceptic Geert Wilders is dropping several points in the polls per week. Of all the 28 (!) parties that are participating in the elections, only a few have not ruled out Geert Wilders’ PVV as a coalition partner. PVV’s stance on Islam and immigration were a deal breaker for parties on both the left and right. For current Prime Minister and leader of the right-leaning VVD Mark Rutte, there is also a personal factor that rules Wilders out as a coalition partner. Rutte’s first government fell after Wilders withdrew his support, something that Rutte has never forgiven. The slim chances of actually ending up in government made the PVV lose many voters – voters who rather strategically support a party that will be able to form a coalition. Nonetheless, recent polls still show that the PVV will end up as one of the biggest parties – if not the biggest – in the Netherlands, and for that reason it will be an important voice in the opposition of the future government. Some people also fear that promises of moderates to not work with the PVV will be forgotten once the votes are cast. Mark Rutte’s VVD in particular is seen as a party that could pragmatically change its tune after the elections.
Puzzling for a coalition
With new polls coming out every other day, Dutch politicians and citizens are puzzling to find a workable coalition that has 76 or more seats in Parliament. The VVD and PVV seem to be leading in the polls, but few other parties want to work in a coalition with these two parties. A more likely option is a center-left government, including Christian-Democrats, socialists, environmentalists, and classical liberals. A loud proponent of a possible center-left coalition is the young Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks (GreenLeft). Often compared to Justin Trudeau for his appearance and political style, Klaver’s GroenLinks is expected to go from four seats to 18 or more. Klaver’s political star is rising and this is frightening the VVD and PVV, who both chose to resign from a televised debate after they heard that Klaver was invited behind their backs. Right-wing tabloid De Telegraaf started the offensive against Klaver and was surprisingly joined by other leftist parties that were aiming to win back voters that have been lured over to GroenLinks. Lodewijk Asscher, the new leader of PvdA (Labor), attacked Klaver for allowing prices to rise due to higher taxes on driving cars and more subsidies for green energy.
Nothing is settled yet, and the coalition negotiations after the coming elections will be fierce and difficult. Although Klaver has repeatedly reached out to the Christian-Democrats as a possible coalition partner, these parties might very well choose to join Mark Rutte’s VVD. The VVD is still rising in the polls, but with a strikingly smaller margin than in 2012. Austerity measures and integrity scandals have made trust in Rutte and the VVD decline significantly, and the campaign by the VVD revolves completely around regaining lost trust, combined with a more right-wing tone to siphon votes from the PVV.
The Netherlands in Europe
What does the current political climate say about the role of the Netherlands in Europe? It is clear that the Netherlands is heavily divided over issues of integration, finance, and Europe. Like many European countries where populism is on the rise, the political debate has become more complicated. With Wilders trying to delegitimize the media and Rutte refusing televised debates, it seems that democracy has already become a clear loser in the upcoming elections. The role of the Dutch in Europe is contested, but except for the PVV and some marginal right-wing parties, it is a political consensus that the Netherlands needs the EU more than that it suffers from the EU.
However, even though the PVV is unlikely to form a part of the government, it has succeeded in hardening the tone of the Dutch political debate and making anti-EU rhetoric more acceptable. To be pro-European is often frowned upon, and needs more explaining than to say one is against the European project. Although the Dutch elections precede the French and German ones, government policy will, for a great part, rely on how the new German and French governments will deal with the EU. The Netherlands is too small to unilaterally turn its back on Europe or to single-handedly speed up the integration processes. It relies on the policies set in the European powerhouses. The normalization of anti-EU rhetoric in the political arena of a founding EU Member State is a frightening development that promises nothing good for the future of Europe. On the other hand, a pro-European center-left coalition could serve as an example to other European countries that, even in a time of populism and the alt-right, progressive policies still stand a chance.