Brussels from afar: Interview with Dr. Hardy Ostry from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS)

Interview conducted by Hannah Rittmeyer from the “Becoming Bruxellois from Afar” project

This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by a group of Groningen students as part of their Eurocompetence II project. The interviewees all work in Brussels institutions and were asked questions related to the Euroculture’s 2020 IP topic: “A sustainability Europe? Society, politics and culture in the anthropocene”. Here, Hannah Rittmeyer asked Dr. Hardy Ostry of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) about his perspective on democratic sustainability, particularly about whether or not the EU faces has a democratic deficit and if the current crisis is a threat or a chance for democracy in the EU.

Hannah Rittmeyer: Could you please provide us with a short overview of your organization and its work in Brussels?

Hardy Ostry: With more than 200 projects in over 120 countries and its headquarters in Sankt Augustin near Bonn and Berlin, the KAS is a worldwide operating institution. 16 offices in Germany alone maintain various projects. The foundation has been named after the first Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. His principles are the guidelines for of our work. As a political foundation, we nationally and internationally campaign for freedom and justice through political education. Our main focus lies in on cooperation and development towards the promotion of European unification, the consolidation of democracy and the intensification of transatlantic relations. Furthermore, the foundation offers scholarships, not only to German Citizens and has a prestigious literary award. The European Office, located in Brussels, has a team of 11 people. As a consulting agency, we analyse political action and develop scientific reports. In particular, KAS Brussels is responsible for following and processing events at the European level. Our main work lies in organizing events to different (current) topics, networking, reporting, and serving as a melting point for visitor groups from all over the world.  Continue reading “Brussels from afar: Interview with Dr. Hardy Ostry from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS)”

Brussels from afar: Interview with MEP Daniel Freund

Interview conducted by Michelle Wiesner from the “Becoming Bruxellois from Afar” project

This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by a group of Groningen students as part of their Eurocompetence II project. The interviewees all work in Brussels institutions and were asked questions related to the Euroculture’s 2020 IP topic: “A sustainability Europe? Society, politics and culture in the anthropocene”. Here, Michelle Wiesner asked Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Daniel Freund about his personal experience in Brussels and sustainability in politics, especially regarding corruption.

Michelle Wiesner: Could you please give us a short introduction about your work at the European Parliament, for example in which Committees you are working in? 

Daniel Freund: The two committees I focus on are the Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT) and the Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO). In the CONT committee, I fight corruption and fraud of EU money. In February, we went on a fact-finding mission to Prague, as Prime Minister Babis is suspected of having altered regulations on agricultural subsidies for his private profit. Corruption and fraud are deeply linked with the rule of law. Cronyism reinforces misappropriation of public money and autocratic structures might even be strengthened through EU money. Therefore, I advocate for a rule of law mechanism that conditions subsidies to democratic values. 

As part of the AFCO committee, I was involved in the assessment of the new commissioners’ integrity. In the end, we were able to prevent three candidates, which had severe conflicts of interest. In the long run; however, I fight for the creation of an independent EU ethics body whose purpose would be ensure the integrity of the EU institutions. Another topic that I continue to push in the AFCO committee is the improvement of the lobby register tool in order to make decision making more transparent. I am also in the TRAN committee where our goal is to make transport more sustainable. My favourite project is the expansion of the European night train grid.

MW: Why did you decide to run as a member of the European Parliament? 

DF: Before running for a seat in the European Parliament, I worked at the Brussel’s office of Transparency International where I led the work on anti-corruption in the EU institutions. After a while, I realised that my fight against corruption would be even more efficient if I could change the rules from within. Having worked as assistant in the European Parliament I already had experience with the EU institutions, I thought I could do it and it worked out! As MEP I continue to have close contact with civil society organisations and we cooperate to make EU politics more democratic.

MW: At the beginning of April, you held a webinar on lobbyism in Europe. Indeed, the EU is often criticised to be too intransparent in terms of lobbyism. Is the European Parliament planning any initiatives in this regard and how could they look like? 

DF: Actually, it is a bit ironic that Brussels is always blamed to be intransparent. Compared to many national politics, the EU has already good tools in place like the Transparency Register. Employees of the Commission are requested to only meet registered organisations and members of the European Parliament must publish all lobby meetings if they are rapporteur or shadow for that topic. But indeed: there is much to improve! Why not make it obligatory to publish ALL meetings, even if you are not rapporteur or shadow? Also, the Council still made no official commitment to use the Transparency Register as well. From a more technical perspective, the usage of the register should be more accessible. It should be easy to see which lobby meetings have led to which laws. Regarding this project, I am confident that there will be improvements soon. Together with a cross-party contact group, we are committed to improve lobby transparency.

MW: Looking at the current developments in Hungary and Poland, what is in your opinion the biggest challenge the EU faces in terms of democratic sustainability? 

DF: In Poland, the independence of the judiciary is under attack and Hungary has huge issues with corruption and state interference with the media. To fight these undemocratic developments we need a rule of law mechanism linking EU money to the compliance with democratic values – like the division of powers or free media. However, it will be a challenge to translate this into a law as the support of the national governments and of the more conservative groups like the EPP is needed. However, in the Council there are obviously two countries that have no interest in changing the rules and the EPP already showed its reluctance to fully exclude Orban’s Fidesz from their group.

MW: And the last question, can you please tell us where do you see Europe in five years? 

DF: In my vision, in five years, Europe has come out of this crisis by acting in solidarity. Particularly, the economic consequences of the Corona pandemic will be challenging but I believe that together we can get through this. By then, more people will have realised that the solutions do not lay in de-globalisation but in strengthening cross-border initiatives and co-operation. Maybe the first talks about the Federal Republic of Europe will start in 2025.

Picture credits: Personal file

The emerging role of small states amidst the crisis of multilateralism

By Christabel Fernandez

My time at the United Nations exposed me to the many fascinating facets of multilateralism and international relations. International Organisations like the United Nations are indeed a beacon of hope to peaceful international cooperation and a prevention of a third world war. Yet my time there also exposed me to the almost crippling and unbelievable reality of how IOs operate, and the blatant disregard for international norms and standards that large and powerful countries have. While the criticism against the abuse of power by states like those in the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) are widely known, less is known about the camp of small states that are seeing their collective voice grow, and for a more noble cause.  

Coming from Singapore, I have always had a sort of “soft spot” for small states and their struggles in international diplomacy. Their fights are numerous, from overcoming resource limitations, security and trying to gain legitimacy on an international level, and these are just some examples. Singapore, however, a tiny island nation-state, has managed to somehow make a mark in the world today. From leading the UNCLOS negotiations, [1] to holding key leadership positions in international organizations, [2] Singapore and Singaporeans have created a reputation for themselves as small, but capable. There is an affectionate term we use in my country known as being like “chilli padi”, a tiny red pepper with fiery seeds found in Southeast Asia – referring to the ability to pack an underestimated mean punch despite your small size. Continue reading “The emerging role of small states amidst the crisis of multilateralism”

The true millennium bug

By Guilherme Becker

We were not expecting this. We were not prepared for this. The year was 1999 and the world was faced with one of its greatest expectations ever: the 2000s. The new millennium. A new era. A time forged from the previous decades, especially in the 1990s, but then also completely different. From the 2000’s on, kids would grow up connected to computers and electronic devices with limitless potential. There was the Internet, with a whole new way of communication. Worldwide. Connection. There were cableless tools. There were Nokia’s, Motorolas, Sony Ericsson’s, and then the IPhone, and Android. A beautiful picture.

Those were only some of the expectations of that time. And you could say that indeed we live in this world today. But back then, blocking the door to that new period, there was a possibly huge problem. A problem that could actually stop the development of this beautifully cybernetic world or maybe postpone it for a couple of years: the so-called millennium bug. Continue reading “The true millennium bug”

Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?

By Dorottya Kósa

Over the past few days, my international friends have been bombarding me with questions concerning the new emergency law in my home country, Hungary. Receiving messages full of worries and having to pick up the phone to answer questions about the collapse of democracy in Hungary encouraged me to write this article. I hope to clarify certain things about the new legal realities and how it in fact did not change Hungary’s political powers.

Crash course on the legal framework of Hungary

Article No. 53 (State of Danger) of the Fundamental Law – the Constitution of Hungary – covers special legal orders for extreme circumstances such as a national crisis or a state of emergency. In a state of danger the government has the power to adopt means to suspend the application of certain acts, deviate from them, and take extraordinary measures. [1] As Article No. 53 declares, the means shall remain in force only for fifteen days, but the National Assembly can extend their power by voting every second week. The fourth paragraph pronounces that “upon the termination of the state in danger, such decrees of the Government shall cease to have effect.” Continue reading “Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?”

Covid-19: how will Europe get back up?

By Hannah Bieber

Disclaimer: this article was written on March 18th, 2020. Due to the instability of the situation, some of the information it contains might be subject to changes.

A lot of people were expecting it, and it finally happened: the world we live in has been challenged. Not the way we imagined it, not in the circumstances we expected, but it did. Europe is now facing one of its major crises since the day the European Union was created. And all the flaws that we knew that existed blew up in our faces. The demography of an old continent getting older and older, the weariness of our welfare states system, the instability of our financial organizations, the limits of a space without borders and the emergence of nationalism have now all been crystalized by a microscopic organism.

The recent Covid-19 outbreak and confinement measures will give us plenty of time to reflect on the consequences it will have on our societies, especially in Europe. Indeed, this virus is almost harmless for the majority of the population, but can be very harmful for the elderly, for instance. In 2016, one EU citizen out of five was over the age of 65. This is why the virus poses Europe an immense challenge today. But what about tomorrow? What will be the consequences of this crisis for the EU?
Continue reading “Covid-19: how will Europe get back up?”

Is this really the end of the Erasmus Programme in the United Kingdom?

By Gianluca Michieletto

It has been almost five years since my first taste of Erasmus experience in Brighton, United Kingdom. It was a crisp mid-September morning when I flew from “my” Venice to London Gatwick with one of the many flights that connect the two European cities. I was very excited and scared at the same time, trying to imagine how my life would change from that point on. The year in Brighton did not represent my first study-abroad experience, since I had already enjoyed several short language courses in Northern Ireland and England. However, this represented the first long-term experience away from my family and my country, and, for an average Italian youngster, it is never easy to leave your “mamma” and move abroad (I am sure that my Italian fellow students would agree with me on this). Yet, I could have never imagined that Erasmus changed myself and my life so much in such a positive way.

Even though it was only five years ago (2015), things have drastically changed: I was a degreeless 18-year-old boy, my English and life skills were the opposite of flawless, and Brexit had not happened yet. 

On January 9th, 2020, British MPs voted against the possibility of the United Kingdom to continue benefiting a full membership of the Erasmus programme after Brexit (344 to 254 votes). Proposed by the opposition, the “New Clause 10” would have in fact assured the participation of the United Kingdom also for the cycle 2021-2027.

Even though the government has denied the possibility to fully abandon the programme, the decision represents a crystal-clear stance against the EU. As reported by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in fact, different conservative MPs have argued that the decision was taken in order “not to have their hands tied in the next negotiates with the EU”.[1] For the moment, the government and the European Union claimed that funds for the upcoming year are secured and will be honoured, as well as the two-year scholarships. After the transition period, however, it is still not clear what is going to happen.

Yet, the United Kingdom would not represent the first country outside the Union to benefit of the Erasmus programme, since countries like Norway, Turkey and Iceland are called “programme members”’ and fully participate in the programme.[2] It must be mentioned, however, that the new British government’s plan aims at cutting all the old relationships with the EU, trying to maintain only economic ties. This currently leaves the UK with only one option: leaving the Erasmus+ Programme. Moreover, as the BBC reported, even though the United Kingdom wanted to renegotiate the terms and re-enter the Erasmus programme, it would not happen until the beginning of the next cycle,[3] meaning 2027.

Thus, there is a not-so-remote possibility that British universities would not benefit from the programme for almost a decade, consequently denying several thousands of students the possibility to enjoy this huge opportunity. At the same time, also students from other EU member states would have more difficulties applying to British universities compared to their previous “colleagues”, since the Prime Minister Boris Johnson will probably not be soft on immigration policies. Moreover, in the case of a “no-deal”, British universities would lose their appeal in the European university market, since European students would be forced to pay higher tuition fees. Indeed, the current agreement between the EU and Westminster “safeguards” member states’ students with a privileged status, thus paying the same tuition fees as British citizens.

On this line, at the beginning of 2019, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) claimed that EU students have been extremely important in British universities, accounting 5% and 8% respectively at the undergraduate and postgraduate level in 2017.[4] In the same year, moreover, it must be argued that 16.561 UK students enjoyed their semester or year abroad through Erasmus funds, while 31.727 students from other European countries studied in British universities.[5] Since then, the number of incoming and outgoing students have continuously increased.

The decision of the United Kingdom of not renewing the Erasmus+ agreements would deprive students of the possibility to live in another country, to integrate in another culture, to learn a new language, as well as meeting new people and experiencing unforgettable adventures. As the majority of Erasmus students argue, in fact, the Erasmus year represents the best year of their lives and a non-renewal would symbolize only a theft to future generations. Once again, as it occurred in the Brexit election, it is older generations, who never experienced such an opportunity, to decide for our (I also include myself) future.[6]

As already mentioned in the introduction, I consider my Erasmus year in Brighton one of the most important experiences of my life, since it somehow matured me and shaped who I am today. Erasmus is in fact not only responsible for the development of peculiar abilities needed in the university and work environment, but it is essential in the growth of personal skills and values. Indeed, what I did not tell you in the beginning is that the Erasmus experience enlightened my path of life. Some people could argue that it represents a stupid and naive sentence to say, but I am who I am today thanks to Erasmus and all its related experiences.

After my year abroad, in fact, my unconditional support for the European Union, its values and its possibilities, made me understand what I wanted to do after finishing my bachelor’s degree. In 2018, I was lucky enough to enrol in the Euroculture Programme, an Erasmus Mundus Master which focuses on European politics, culture and history. For those who may not know, Erasmus Mundus Masters are EU funded programmes, which give students the possibility to earn a double degree by studying in different countries. As for myself, I studied in Göttingen (Germany), Bilbao (Spain) and Indianapolis (USA).

After explaining my story and my points of view, I feel in the position to state that a possible agreement of the UK to leave the Erasmus Programme could only be considered catastrophic. Catastrophic, not as much for the United Kingdom and the European Union as political entities, but to their future students, who could not benefit from similar opportunities. However, while member states’ future students would continue to benefit from the programme by choosing other university destinations, British students would have fewer opportunities to study abroad, thus being sealed inside their own bubble.

Picture: Dunk, Banksy does Brexit (detail), Flickr

Sources:

Statista Research Department, “Brexit votes in the United Kingdom by age”, Statista, August 9, 2019. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/520954/brexit-votes-by-age/

Bieber, Hannah. “Brexit and the generation that was robbed”, The Euroculturer, October 13, 2019. Available at: https://euroculturer.eu/2019/10/13/brexit-and-the-generation-that-was-robbed/

Cosslett, Rhiannon Lucy. “Thanks to Erasmus programme, my small world grew big”, The Guardian, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/09/erasmus-programme-year-studying-europe

Adams, Richard. “UK ‘committed’ to maintaining Erasmus+ exchange scheme”, The Guardian, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/09/uk-committed-to-maintaining-erasmus-exchange-scheme

Tommasetta, Lara.”Brexit, il Regno Unito vota per abbandonare il programma Erasmus. Ma è davvero un addio?”, TPI News, January 9, 2020. Available at: https://www.tpi.it/esteri/brexit-regno-unito-addio-erasmus-20200109525875/

Guerrera, Antonello. “Brexit, Londra non conferma l’Erasmus: Eventuale accordo andrà rinegoziato”, La Repubblica, 9th January 2020. Available at: https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/01/09/news/brexit_il_regno_unito_dice_addio_all_erasmus-245321403/

Reality Check Team, “Erasmus: What could happen to scheme after Brexit”, BBC News, 9th January 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-47293927

To have more information, look also at: https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/about/brexit_en

[1] Antonello Guerrera, “Brexit, Londra non conferma l’Erasmus: Eventuale accordo andrà rinegoziato”, La Repubblica, January 9,2020

[2] Reality Check Team, “Erasmus: What could happen to scheme after Brexit”, BBC News, January 9, 2020

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hannah Bieber, “Brexit and the generation that was robbed”, The Euroculturer, October 13, 2019

[5] Ibid.

[6] Statista Research Department, “Brexit votes in the United Kingdom by age”, Statista, August 9, 2019

Report: The Maastricht Debate Aftermath

By Maeva Chargros

On Monday, April 29th, the first official debate of the European elections took place in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Organised by Politico with their usual partners, it featured five out of the six main groups running for the upcoming European Parliament elections, which are set to happen from May 23rd to 26th.

This debate was meant in every way to target young voters, for a number of good reasons. One of them being that young people are currently getting more and more involved in politics worldwide, be it through the Fridays for Future demonstrations or other “channels”. Therefore, the three main themes of this debate were picked accordingly: Digital Europe, Sustainable Europe, and the Future of Europe. Here are some observations pertaining to the content – but also the general atmosphere impression.

Stable Leader: Frans Timmermans (S&D)

Very honestly, Frans Timmermans was the most well-prepared candidate for this debate. He knew all the topics thoroughly, he was able to articulate specific proposal for each main question, and he did not wasted time on any unnecessary argument. However, it is easy to be in this position for someone who is currently dealing with all these topics as Vice-President of the European Commission. Slight advantage that he definitely seized. Showing leadership at every level, he called for Europeans to “vote Green”, reminding everyone that “there is no competition”. Indeed, the Dutch politician chose to be transparent about his intentions in case he was to become the next President of the European Commission: alliance with the Greens, the Left, and an open-door to negotiations with ALDE. Timmermans did not forget to build on the momentum created by the Spanish general elections on Sunday (28.04) evening – including regarding gender equality, which seems to be among the top priorities of all five candidates.

He is the clear winner of this debate, if we dare to forget his neighbour standing at the centre of the stage. Continue reading “Report: The Maastricht Debate Aftermath”

Ethnic & Caste Segregation: Deepening Social Divisions in India & Europe

By Nikhil Verma

On June 2014, a tattered body with a swollen face was dumped in a shopping cart in North Paris. After having found the lying body on the road, Ion Vardu Sandu, 49, a Roma mechanic, said that “he was barely breathing, and his eyes were closed.” In the following sentence, he added “but he was also a notorious thief. Teens like him steal and give Romani people like us a bad name.” The body belonged to a 17-year-old Roma known as “Darius” and who went into a coma.
Two months earlier, more than 7000 kilometres away, in the village of Kharda, India, Nitin Aage, a 17-year-old boy was found hanging on a tree. Nitin was a ‘Dalit’, and his only mistake was to speak to a girl from an upper-caste community. All 13 men who were accused of Nitin’s murder were acquitted in 2017.
But what killed Darius, Nitin and million others like them? Is it the dehumanisation, the stigma or the fear of loss of dominance? While the magnitude of the violence varies, the undercurrent remains the same. A similar social hierarchy can be observed in other parts of the world. The condition of Buraku in Japan, African-Americans in the US, Osu in Nigeria – groups that also suffer prejudice in their respective countries – also mirror the terrible condition of ‘Dalits’ in India, and ‘Roma’ in Europe. Racial and caste discrimination manifest themselves in ways that are demeaning to the core of human existence.

Caste & Race

In an essence, caste and race are contemporaries. Segregation, discrimination and violence along with a social status determined by birth occur in these societies. The Indian discriminative order is based on the notion of ‘Sanctioned Impurity’ often reiterated through menial jobs such as manual scavenging and leather tanning by Elitist Brahminical upper-caste forces; the African-American varies and is based on the notion of an inferior subhuman race and often reiterated through violence – termed as untamed ‘savages’ by European settlers who encountered native population.
However, in terms of similarity, both ‘Dalits’ and ‘Roma People’ stand at the lowest level of the socio-economic hierarchy in respective continents of Asia and Europe. Both groups are intentionally excluded from consumer markets, employment and housing. Both ‘Caste’ and ‘Race’ impose enormous barriers in civil and political rights.
Babasaheb Ambedkar and Martin Luther King Jr. were fighting against the oppression of their own kind. But while King was able to humanise white people, Ambedkar couldn’t emulate the same in the Indian ethos due to Gandhi’s intervention on a multitude of legislative and social fronts – most famously his persistence to keep Dalits in the Hindu fold by denying them a separate electorate, the communal award and subsequently blackmailing Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact through his hunger strike[1]. While political activism has been able to consolidate ‘African-Americans’ in the US, unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Indian social fabric.
This is evident from the fact that Dalits sit separately in government schools in 37.8% of the villages. In 27.6% villages, Dalits were prevented from entering police stations, In 25.7% of the villages, they are prevented from entering ration shops, and in 33% of the villages, public health workers refuse to visit Dalit homes.
In the case of Roma, there is pervasive illiteracy or semi-literacy (e.g., half of Roma adults in Greece, 35% in Portugal, and 25% in France report being illiterate) and extremely low-rates of completion of secondary schooling (from 77% to 99% of surveyed Roma across 11 European countries do not have an upper secondary school diploma). Continue reading “Ethnic & Caste Segregation: Deepening Social Divisions in India & Europe”

The European Parliament Triggers Article 7 against the Hungarian Government

By Karin Kämmerling

On September 12, the European Parliament voted on the triggering of Article 7 measures against Hungary. With 448 votes in favor of the motion, 197 against and 48 abstentions the required majority was achieved[1]. Now, the Council of the European Union has to approve the vote unanimously in order to launch possible sanctions. The Hungarian government, accused of silencing critical media, targeting academics and NGOs as well as removing independent judges, said the decision was an insult to the Hungarian nation and people[2].

What is the Article 7 about?

Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union states that the EU can take measures in case “there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2“[3]. These include “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”[4]. Members of the European Parliament must support the resolution by two thirds in order to launch the Article 7 procedure as it happened last month in Strasbourg in the case of Hungary. With this vote, it is now possible for the Council of the European Union to make demands to the Hungarian government in order to improve the situation and even launch punitive measures if the requirements are not fulfilled. Possible sanctions may be a harder access to EU funding and can even lead to the loss of voting rights in the EU institutions. Continue reading “The European Parliament Triggers Article 7 against the Hungarian Government”