A Bridge over Troubled Water: The Balkans and the EU

 

Agnese Olmati

Imagine how the map of the European Union could look like in 2030. A compact conglomerate of Member States, with only two small black holes – Switzerland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Oh, three actually: Great Britain will have become the third one by that year.
While the UK is slowly putting out to the sea, definitively leaving the well-known harbor of the European Union, there are some countries which are struggling to join those that might seem safe and still waters. Lucky for them, they do not have to cross any stormy sea, as they are in the heart of the continent. According to the captains, the first Balkan ships should enter the EU in 2025 if nothing goes wrong during the remaining voyage. But bad weather seems to be a permanent feature of the European political scene and by that time the secure Union could have become an even more troubled and tempestuous harbor unprepared to welcome the newcomers.

At the moment, the incoming fleet counts six components. While Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina still hold the position of potential candidates, Albania and the FYR Macedonia already have the candidate status; Serbia and Montenegro are progressing with accession negotiations and thus are at the forefront in the path towards the European harbor.
Apparently, Serbia and Montenegro now start to see the light at the end of the tunnel – a very long one. The integration process of Western Balkan countries has been on the European agenda since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. Afterwards, stabilization and association agreements have entered into force with all six partners. However, expected progress has faltered. Enlargement has been hindered by numerous hitches, including the slow pace of reforms and economic growth, the influence of external actors such as Russia and Turkey, together with problems both in the domestic and European contexts.

2018 might prove a pivotal year in this long and turbulent voyage. Enlargement in the Balkans is one of the priorities of Bulgarian Presidency at the Council of the EU and in May a summit will be organized in Sofia for Western Balkan countries – for the first time since 2003. This new wave of engagement could lead to advances in each country’s process. Continue reading “A Bridge over Troubled Water: The Balkans and the EU”

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What does it mean to be a European citizen? The realities of EU citizenship and the nationalism problem of Europe

 

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Source: EUtopia Law

Elizabete Marija Skrastina

In 1992, forty years after the European Union was established, the Maastricht Treaty introduced the notion of a “European citizen”.

It did not go well. Not only did this new term awaken mistrust between the peoples of the EU’s different Member States, it even caused such considerable internal controversy states such as Denmark that the European Council had to release a statement in order to confirm that “citizenship of the Union is a political and legal concept which is entirely different from national citizenship (…)”. In the same year, the European Commission sought ways to create common EU symbols but faced strong resistance from the Member States. A good example of this was the Commission’s proposals to have athletes from all Member States appear as one delegation during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, a proposal which was fully roundly by governments.

Now, 1992 seems a long time ago, and surely, one would think, that after more than twenty years, with a generation already born as European citizens coming into adulthood, this term would have to be something warm and familiar, something, we cherish as much as our nationality.

But, for most, it is not.

In the European Union’s web portal, it is still stated that “EU citizenship is additional to and does not replace national citizenship.” Eurosceptics keep arguing that to overcome nationality is impossible, and those who think otherwise are to be regarded as utopian fantasts. With Brexit, it feels like the utopian idea of a one strong, united Europe is slowly drifting away. More and more people from the Member States reject the idea of an ever-closer Europe, often out of fear that their state might lose its sovereignty under the pressure of common policies. On this note, one might even argue that it is the lack of trust and general indifference among the Europeans that is the main reason why the European Union is facing such problems now.

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A group of British Eurosceptic politicians. Boris Johnson, current Foreign Secretary of the UK, is in the middle.

A survey conducted by TNS political & social at the request of the European Commission in 2015 shows that there still are people in the Member States – fortunately, not too many, and the share of them is declining – that do not even fully understand the term “European citizen” and the mystery hidden within the term . In 2015, 13 % of the respondents stated that they have never even heard the term “citizens of the European Union”, while 35 % of respondents said that they have heard about it, but do not know what it means exactly.

Maybe this is the reason why, when looking at the statistical data from 2015, over 30 % of the Europeans admit not feeling like a European citizen.  In addition, 38 % of all Europeans admitted that they not only do not feel like a European citizen, they actually see themselves as exclusively a member of their nation.  This, again, might be the reason why European citizens distance themselves from European affairs – this can be seen in all its “glory” when looking at the 2014 European Parliamentary election where only 42.6% of all people holding European citizenship voted. 42.6%! Not only it is that the lowest turnout since the first European elections in 1979, it also makes one think – what happened?

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A demonstration by the UK’s European citizens

It is not like the idea is not being promoted. There are different levels of Erasmus programme available to encourage exploring other Member States, there are European days, information centres in every country, videos, information campaigns and the homepage run by the European Commission – europa.eu – can be accessed in every single official EU language. But somehow, the notion does not reach its target. It seems that on the way from Brussels to our homes, the information gets lost and never really reaches us, the citizens of the European Union.

So what does it mean to be a European citizen?

Let’s put it in an everyday perspective.

To be a European citizen means that you can finish your dinner with your Spanish family, and carry on your night with drinking a nice, cold bottle of German beer, maybe snacking on some French macaroons while watching Downton Abbey and texting with your best friend from Bulgaria. It means that you can say “Hello” in at least five languages, and your “bad” words collection is enormous thanks to your friends from Italy, Estonia and Greece.

Being a European citizen means you can spontaneously buy some low cost airplane tickets and have a nice weekend whether up in the snowy mountains, deep into mysterious forests or sunbathing in the sunny beaches, regardless whether you are from Latvia, Portugal or Slovenia.

 

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European Union

On a more serious note, it means that you can make your voice heard by a petition, or a letter, or even by becoming a candidate for Parliamentary elections and you have the fundamental right not to be discriminated whether by race, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation. It means that, as long as you stay within the borders of the Union, you are never “illegal” and you can work and live abroad, and are always protected by the diplomatic and consular authorities in another twenty-seven countries, excluding your homeland. Being a European Citizen means that under certain conditions, if you feel that the national court of your homeland has ruled unfairly, you can bring the country to Court of Justice and fight for your truth.

To have the fortune to be a European citizen means that you have the rare opportunity to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world in new ways again and again, and yet – stay true to your own nationality.

That is what being a European citizen means. Simple as that.

Elizabete Marija Skrastina is new to The Euroculturer. Keep up with her latest stories by following The Euroculturer on Facebook or by subscribing to our newsletter.

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Portuguese Brexit? EU sanctions from the Portuguese perspective

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Lisbon, Capital of Portugal

 Elisa Abrantes

The term ‘Portuguese Brexit’ has been popping up in Portuguese media as of late. While this is a very unlikely scenario, I think that in the context of growing Euroscepticism and growing support for right-wing populist rhetoric in the EU, this merits some attention, especially given Portugal’s generally favourable attitude towards the EU.

The idea of a Portuguese Brexit was voiced by Catarina Martins, Chairperson of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda party in Portugal, who is campaigning for a referendum to be held on Portugal’s membership of the EU. This situation arose in response to the possibility of sanctions being applied to Portugal and Spain for “lack of effective action” in dealing with levels of “excessive deficit”, which was discussed earlier this summer.

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The Euro is at the heart of Potugal’s EU woes

The decision to discuss the application of sanctions came after a meeting held by Ecofin, the EU’s economic and financial affairs council, as a result of Portugal and Spain’s failure to comply with rules stating that EU member state’s budget deficits should remain within 3% of GDP (gross domestic product). Had the commission decided to apply sanctions, these would consist of a fine that could go up to 0.2% of the country’s GDP, and would be the first case of sanctions being applied to a Eurozone country.

Feelings of outrage and injustice were sparked in Portugal and Spain as a result. In the case of Portugal, its deficit stood at 8.6% of GDP in 2010 and was reduced to just over 3% by 2015. This was the result of horrendous salary cuts and reforms which have characterized an economically precarious situation for Portuguese citizens in the past few years. António Costa, Portuguese prime-minister, argued that imposing sanctions on a country that is implementing demanding measures in order to reduce deficit is unjust and unreasonable, highlighting the unfavourable social and economic European context in which this situation took place. In a period of weak economic growth, perhaps asphyxiating that growth through sanctions is not the wisest move.

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A Portuguese Street

Furthermore, Portugal and Spain were by no means the first, nor the worst, member states to breach the 3% deficit rule. Fingers were pointed at France, with 11 violations, as well as Italy, and even Germany for surpassing this figure. The debate then turns to the EU’s (in)ability to challenge larger member states. As one Portuguese politician argues, it is inequality that is killing the EU. All this is not to say that the EU shouldn’t take its role of ‘refereeing’ countries that fail to keep within the established deficit seriously, but that discussions and punishments not be dished out arbitrarily, and not throw weaker member states under the bus.

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European Commission, Brussels

In the end, the commission decided not to go forward with the application of sanctions against the two countries, recognizing the immense sacrifice that has been made by the Iberian people in order to improve their countries economic situation. Both member states are now tasked with coming up with measures to ensure the deficit will be within the 3% limit by 2017, a process which is currently being tackled in Portugal. The situation is a little more difficult across the border in Spain, in the midst of the political gridlock taking place there, due to the fact that the provisional government is not able to make any kind of binding budgetary proposals, thereby assigning this task a more challenging nature.

While sanctions were not applied, bitterness towards the EU for its supposed unfair treatment remains. Situations like these only serve to increase criticism of an EU that is far removed from the lives and interests of European citizens, and will do little to remedy the issue of the perceived democratic deficit in EU politics. Perhaps the commission would do well to pay less attention to the well payed economists of the Eurogroup and instead find a way of decreasing the space between the EU and the ordinary European, . Unless it does this the EU risks  fuelling a domino-effect of campaigns for referenda on EU membership in the aftermath of Brexit, jeopardizing the entire European project in a period of great turbulence.

For more by Elisa Abrantes, click here

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