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”→
It is often said that knowledge is the tool with which you change the world for the better, and, as such, promoting the acquisition knowledge and its diffusion should be a top priority. One more step, considering the globalizing world, may be intercultural exchange of knowledge, achievable thanks to improved means of communication along with the mobility of people and goods. Student mobility is growing exponentially, at different levels, and has been proven invaluable in the past few decades, but this may be just the beginning. There are several exchange programs with different impacts ongoing across the globe. Some of them are bilateral but limited to a few universities, some are consortiums formed from different institutions, across several countries and continents. The US offers numerous opportunities and scholarships through their Fullbright Program, among others, which has been providing grants and promoting exchange for nearly seven decades. The US effort to implement such a project has been laudable, however, it may be easier to develop such program within a federal system when compared to a supranational organization as the EU. The latter has the Erasmus exchange program, what is probably known today as the greatest example of student mobility worldwide.
The EU is facing several issues: internal; such as the ongoing financial crisis still affecting several members; and external, foreign policies regarding the fight against terrorism and the consequent refugee crisis. Nonetheless, regional movement and funding for students willing to study within the EU area and collaborating countries have increased steadily. The Erasmus Programme creation has not been a smooth or easy process. After several postponements and additional debates, an agreement was reached in 1987, following a six-year trial program. Despite initial delays, the amount of applications received were above expectations- even for the first round, which happened during the academic year 1987/1988. The program evolved through the Socrates Programme, in 1995, and in 2000, and eventually into the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP), in 2007. Only recently, in 2014, the program became Erasmus+, a new version of the former program to further promote “education, training, youth and sport for 2014-2020.” Continue reading “Erasmus for the World? Approaching Two Decades of the Erasmus Programme”→
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.
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?
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.
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 Skrastinais new to The Euroculturer. Keep up with her latest stories by following The Euroculturer on Facebook or by subscribing to our newsletter.
Who will be the next president of the United States of America seems to be the big question of 2016, but in the European Parliament another game of thrones has begun.
At the last European Parliament elections in 2014, the conservative EPP and the social democratic S&D made a deal and signed a written agreement that meant that Martin Schulz, the S&D candidate, would become president for the first half of the legislative period and that the EPP would pick the president for the second half.
Now with the first half coming to an end in January 2017, the current president Martin Schulz does not seem to be willing to leave office, despite the EPP insisting on the instillation a new president from among their own ranks.
The face of EU policy
Schulz has been, with interruptions, president of the EP since 2012 and a Member of the EP (MEP) since 1994. He is often portrayed as a down to earth politician, ingrained and diligent. He is said to have strengthened the position of the European Parliament and even critics say he has made the EP more visible to the European public and the world.
He is considered to be the most influential president in the history of the European Parliament.
However his path to power and appreciation was rocky. The son of a police officer, he wanted to become a football player in his youth but a knee-injury made a professional career impossible. As a result this crushed dream Schulz became an alcoholic in the mid-70s which saw him lose his job and almost get thrown out of his own apartment.
However, despite this inauspicious start, Schulz eventually overcame his addiction with the help of his brother.
What followed is a remarkable career. After a career as a bookstore manager Schulz became mayor of his home town, Würselen, following his first engagement in the German Social Democratic Party. In 1994 he was elected member of the European Parliament and became its president in 2012. He reached a high point of his career when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize together with van Rompuy and Barroso on behalf of the European Union.
In 2014 Schulz wanted to become president of the EU Commission, but in the European elections the Conservatives became the largest party and their candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker became president of the Commission, a post he still holds to this day. Nevertheless, this setback did not stop Schulz from being re-elected as President of the EP.
Power play in the middle of the greatest crises in the existence of the EU
Schulz’s future, however, is unclear, as the first half of this legislative term comes to an end. According to the agreement, Schulz will be replaced by EPP member. However, for some, the agreement does not fit the new circumstances Europe finds itself in.
The S&D argues that with Juncker as President of the Commission and Tusk as President of the Council, already two of the key positions are held by EPP members; and to keep the balance between the largest EU parties, the presidency of the EP should stay with the S&D.
Even a prominent EPP politician and former competitor supports the idea of Schulz retaining the presidency after January 2017, with the simple reason:
“We need stability.”
Just recently Juncker spoke about the many challenges the EU faces in his ‘State of the Union’ address. Brexit, the refugee challenge, economic stagnation and youth-unemployment among many other things.
“Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.” said Juncker.
To keep stability in these difficult times, Juncker would like to keep the leadership of the institutions as they are, namely, Schulz as president. It is no secret that Martin and Jean-Claude work closely together, Der Spiegel has even accused them of mutually securing each other’s posts. Juncker said:”The relationship between the Commission and the Parliament has probably never been as good as it is now”, so “Why change a reliable team?”
However the EPP has made it crystal clear that they will not have Schulz for the next half of the legislative period. Schulz has been heavily criticised for not sticking to the agreement and the same critics have claimed that he has made the representation of the European people a one-man-. These critics claim that “if Schulz gave the parliament a face, it is primarily his face”.
On the other hand, if Schulz id removed; whom is the EPP going to nominate? For an internal primary on 12 December candidates need to be found. However, they lack strong candidates:
So far the Italian Antonio Tajani, the French Alain Lamassoure and the Irish Mairead McGuinness have been mentioned as possible successors to Schulz. However Tajani is weakened by being close to former Italian PM Berlusconi, who has been disgraced by many scandals. Also as former commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, he supposedly involved in the emission scandal and has already been summoned before the investigation committee. All of this means that he is seen as unenforceable in the parliament.
The other candidates have similar shortcomings. Lamassoure has the reputation of being uncontrollable and prideful, some say thinking of himself as the French president. McGuinness, as a woman, current EP vice-president and a representative of a small EU Member State, seems to have the best chances of getting a majority in the parliament. Nevertheless she is perceived as a rather plain Jane candidate and has not excited much attention.
Currently, Schulz is fighting to forge a coalition with Liberals, Greens and EPP renegades. Yet it seems to be unlikely that he will cobble together enough votes without the backing of the EPP.
So what is next for him? Luckily another throne, perhaps a greater one, is up for grabs. In Berlin, some people would like to see Schulz as chancellor- the candidate for the SPD in place of the unpopular Sigmar Gabriel, to challenge Angela Merkel in the elections for the German parliament 2017 Regardless, it looks like Schulz has only begun to play.
From 28-31 October 2012, the MA Euroculture Groningen class went on an excursion to Brussels. Armed with cameras, (digital) compasses, and semi-rested minds due to the previous week’s reading week (which was by most interpreted as a relaxing holiday), we set off for the six-hour train ride and waved goodbye to some of our teachers.
Floor Boele van Hensbroek | firstname.lastname@example.org
Wildest first impression
After arrival, we dropped off our bags at the hotel and started exploring Europe’s political heart. Most of us had not seen Brussels before and we were surprised by its sparkling beauty. Secretly I had expected to see cold and stately buildings, people in suits with deadly-serious glances but, in reality, Brussels is a charming city with a rich history and a lively atmosphere. After having seen the Grande Place, Rue de Bouchers, Place Flagey and tons of chocolatiers showing off their chocolate in creative ways (chocolate hippos?) we stopped for some vlaamse friet. This gave us renewed strength and good soil for our next destination: Delirium Café. This bar is known for its lo(ooo)ng beer list and, of course, we wanted to grab this opportunity to extend our knowledge of this well-appreciated drink. Beer beyond your wildest dreams flowed from the taps, like cactus beer and spice beer which reminded us of Christmas. We enjoyed listening (and watching) a teenager brass band that had spontaneously dropped in and rocked the café with catchy tunes and a swarm of dancing fans. Brussels kept surprising me! Let’s say: we went to bed satisfied.
The coffee smell from Barroso’s desk: the European Commission
The next day brought with it some serious business. After stuffing ourselves with pain au chocolats at the hotel breakfast, we visited the European Youth Forum: a platform for youth organisations throughout Europe. The forum represents and advocates for the rights, needs and interests of all young people in Europe by engaging and participating in both national and international initiatives. After the Youth Forum, and a quick lunch on the go, we visited the European Commission. I am not sure what we expected but probably some juicier insider information than the general information talk on the European Union that we got. The speaker was however intriguing and he was able to answer some questions. Also, I found it cool to be so close to where the magic happens, if you know what I mean. Secretly, I was quite impressed by the EU’s political buildings, as if I could almost smell the coffee on Barroso’s desk, or as if I was just an instant away from important decision-making processes ready to determine my future (OK, let’s not exaggerate). For the first time, I started to think about a career with the EU. I have always neglected this option as I see myself as non-competitive, a bit weird, and overly chaotic, and for some reason this doesn’t rhyme with ‘EU career’. But well, who knows…? After the Commission we visited the Committee of the Regions, where we were warmly welcomed and informed extensively on the work of the CoR. In the evening we had a splendid dinner at a restaurant called Le Volle Gas, situated at Ixelles Elsene. We walked to most of our destinations, when we had the opportunity see lots of the city and, even better, to question each other about our future dreams, past experiences, opinions and knowledge of silly jokes.
Ceci, n’est pas une histoire: Lobby Planet EU
Early the next morning we visited Musée Magritte. Magritte, you must know from his famous “ceci n’est pas une pipe” written under a painting of a pipe. If you ever go to Brussels, don’t miss this one! Thereafter we had a meeting with Koen Roovers, a University Groningen alumnus and coordinator of an ALTER-EU project (Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation) at CEO (Corporate Europe Observatory). Of this meeting I will tell you some more as it has opened my eyes to the reality of the EU decision-making processes in Brussels.
ALTER-EU consists of about 200 civil society groups, trade unions, academics and public affairs firms that campaign against the increasing influence of corporate lobbyists on the political agenda of Europe, the resulting loss of democracy in EU decision-making and the postponement, weakening, or blockage even, of urgently needed progress on social, environmental and consumer-protection reforms. One interesting phenomenon that ALTER-EU campaigns against is the ‘revolving door’, through which many EU officials go. This means that when they leave their EU job, they soon start working for corporations or lobby firms, often even in the same policy area. It also happens that lobbyists go through the revolving door and start working for the EU. As ALTER-EU itself states “When this happens, corporate groups gain inside-knowledge, vital contacts, and above all, powerful influence”’. An example of a fellow who took the revolving door is Mogens Peter Carl, who was Director-General at DG Environment until 2009 and, only six months later, became senior adviser to one of Brussels’ biggest lobby consultancies which, amongst others, represents a vehicle company. Well that just stinks! Don’t you think? ALTER-EU demands tough, new rules to block the revolving door, such as a ban of at least two years before EU staff can become lobbyists. ALTER-EU offered us a booklet called “Lobby Planet EU”, which shows a map of Brussels with all the lobby firms and large corporations marked on it. Just looking at it makes you think… Brussels really is a wasp’s nest!
Last minute surprise in El Parlamento Europeo
On the same day we also visited the European Parliament. Unfortunately, the information talk was again not entirely adapted to the knowledge we already had on the EU and its Parliament, however we were pleasantly surprised when in the end a Dutch MEP’s personal assistant dropped in to give us some nice insider information on his job. After the visit I asked our supervisor (and ex-Euroculture student), James Leigh, whether he ever considered working for the EU. He answered by describing EU workers as ‘glorified slaves’. Enough said I guess.
At this point it was time to hurry to the train station, buy some last minute chocolates and get back to Groningen. I think we all felt tired, but satisfied. Indeed, we were much more knowledgeable about Brussels, the EU, and definitely each other.
Floor Boele van Hensbroek, Contributing writer
I am Floor, Dutch, and 25 years young/old. I studied interdisciplinary social sciences at Utrecht University before starting with Euroculture. I love travelling, dancing, art, theatre, documentaries, tasty food, classy wine and.. actually a lot of other things. I was born in the bush of Zambia with a bush of black curly hair, although now I’m blond as blond can be 🙂 I’m a cynical optimist, that looks for truth even though I believe that all truth is constructed.