The EU Is History, Now Enjoy The Museum


Merkel panned

Museums about the European Union are a bit like the No. 71 bus in Brussels — you wait ages for one to arrive and then three show up at roughly the same time. The first to open its doors was the Parlamentarium, which sounds like a giant water tank filled with EU lawmakers swimming around, but is actually the European Parliament visitors’ center. The museum, which was inaugurated in October 2011, is stuffed with interactive gizmos like a 3D tactile model allowing starry-eyed guests to explore the EU assembly in its three places of work — Strasbourg, Brussels, and Luxembourg. There is even a “tunnel of voices” which “immerses you in Europe’s multilingual heritage” — although you can get the same experience on the No. 71 bus.

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One Man, No Vote

On May 8, European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding announced 12 new proposals to boost citizens’ rights in the EU. Point six – aimed at “strengthening citizens’ participation in the democratic process” – pledges to work on ways to “enable EU citizens to keep their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin. The practice in some Member States of depriving their citizens of their right to vote once they move to another EU country effectively is tantamount to punishing citizens for having exercised their right to free movement.”

One of the member states Reding is referring to is Britain, which stops citizens voting in their motherland after 15 years abroad. I am a victim of this absurd rule and although the European Commission’s chances of forcing London to change the law are slim – what voting systems member states use is a matter for them, not the EU – it is a welcome move.

I wrote about this issue in an editorial piece for the Wall Street Journal in 2007. As it is now behind their paywall I am publishing it here:

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And you thought the EU was bureaucratic?

Just when you thought no institution could be more bureaucratic than the European Union, along comes the United Nations to give the EU a lesson in writing jargon-filled mumbo-jumbo.

In a job advert for an undetermined number of editor positions at the UN’s New York headquarters, the organisation’s careers service helpfully informs candidates:

This position is located in the Editorial Control Section (ECS) of the Editorial, Terminology and Reference Service (ETRS) of the Documentation Division of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management. The incumbent is under the general supervision of the Chief of ETRS and the immediate supervision of the Chief of ECS.

Maybe the UN careers service could do with a few editors of its own. Their first task? Writing job adverts that are clear, succinct, devoid of meaningless HR jargon and are meant to attract quality candidates who believe in the UN cause rather than faceless bureaucrats who fret about what section of what service they will be assigned to.

An Obituary Writer’s Obituary

Last week, a 71-year old journalist wrote his own obituary as his last reporting assignment, according to a report on Jim Romenesko’s blog:

Harry M. Polster, who had a successful career in New York before editing the Brunswick Times Record in Maine,  prefaced his obituary with these words:

Greetings from the beyond, wherever it is. While death is life’s only certainty, most don’t know the when and how. I did, and I decided it would be fun if my final writing assignment were my own obituary.

The article reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was about 25, shortly before I started as a journalist and never wrote a word of fiction again. It is about an obituary writer who feigns his death in order to read his own obituary. The articles written by fellow obituary writers prove so spiteful that he kills himself. The story, written in the style of an obituary and heavily influenced by reading too much Roald Dahl, was originally published by New Welsh Review. It has never been published on the internet because there was no internet back then. So here it is:

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No Wonga, No Words

Hungry for News

Hungry for News

Most journalists take pride in championing the underdog, exposing injustice and fighting exploitation. But when it comes to their own working conditions many are curiously submissive, accepting high stress and low wages as the inevitable by-product of their trade. Which is why Nate Thayer’s tirade against the Atlantic Magazine Tuesday was all the more exceptional.

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The Golden Cage of Brussels

Six years ago I wrote an article about my mixed feelings about living in Brussels for so long. The Guardian published it but it is no longer on their website. As several people have asked what happened to it I’m posting it again.

Living in Brussels is like living in a golden cage – you feel trapped and you dream of escaping almost every day. But you never do because you know life will be more difficult, more complicated and more expensive on the outside.

I should know. In 1993 I came to the Belgian capital to do a five-month traineeship at the European commission. Fourteen years later and I’m still here, complaining about the squally weather, lousy service and infuriating officialdom, making plans to move to Britain, the United States or the south of France but secretly suspecting that the most likely way I’ll leave Brussels is in a coffin.

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One Election Under God


Ten things I’ve learned about U.S. politics from following the election

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain in ‘Innocents Abroad’. Not always. Travel can also confirm and cement previously held beliefs – as I have discovered during the last three months in America. Before I came here via Britain (where I was born) and Belgium (where I live) I thought Americans were the kindest, loudest, warmest people on the planet. How right I was. I also thought they would be as open about their politics as their personal lives and as polite in their political discourse as they invariably are in public. How wrong I was.

Having closely followed the presidential campaign from its stormy first act in Tampa to its tragic finale on the Northeast seaboard, here are 10 lessons this election has taught one non-resident alien about politics in the United States:

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Eyes off the Prize

Contrary to the reams of mockery unleashed on Friday and over the weekend, the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is absolutely the right idea. The EU is one of the great achievements in human history, and its contribution to peace in Europe and elsewhere is beyond doubt.

The only problem is, the Nobel comes at completely the wrong time. It would have made perfect sense 20 years ago when the Cold War was over and Europe was whole, free and at peace for the first time in its history. But with the continent mired in its gravest social and economic crisis since the 1930s and the EU project in danger of unravelling, it feels like a consolation prize — like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars or a retirement gift for decades of loyal service.

In his 1950 declaration that gave birth to what eventually became the present-day union, French foreign minister Robert Schuman called for the pooling of coal and steel to make war between France and Germany “not only unthinkable, but materially impossible.” Today, a military conflict in the heart of Europe is indeed unimaginable — as it is between other democratic trading nations like the United States and Canada or Australia and New Zealand.

Despite what the cynics say, the EU deserves much of the credit for this for devising a system in which European disputes are solved in drab Brussels boardrooms rather than on battlefields. But it did not act alone. As U.S. President Barack Obama said when accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world.” The presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops helped keep the peace in Europe. NATO continues to supply a security umbrella for most European states. And globalization has bound countries ever closer together through trade and business ties.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee praised the EU for helping turn Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.” This is only partly true. While its members have kept the peace between themselves — no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting — the European Union’s fringes have been anything but peaceful. In the last two decades alone, there have been wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing with the violent splintering of Yugoslavia.

“This is the hour of Europe,” declared Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1992 as the Balkans started to burn. But instead of demonstrating Europe’s strength, the conflicts in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and finally Kosovo highlighted Europe’s impotence. A club with pretensions to become global a power could not even stop slaughter an hour’s flight from its capital.

As storm clouds gathered over the Balkans in the early 1990s, EU leaders met in Maastricht to sign a treaty that is at the root of many of the bloc’s problems today. Far from uniting Europeans — one of the aims of the single currency that was unveiled in the 1992 treaty — the euro has divided the continent and contributed to the EU’s deepest crisis since its foundation.

It is cruelly ironic that on the day the peace prize was announced, the top four headlines on the European Union page of British broadcaster Channel 4’s website were: “Greek government cracks down on foreigners,” “Greek police clash with protestors during Merkel visit,” “Spanish government set to unveil more cuts,” and “Clashes in Greece as strikers protest austerity measures.”

No wonder the decision was greeted with incredulity on the streets of Athens. “The leader of the E.U. is Germany, which is in an economic war with southern Europe,” retired lawyer Stavros Polychronopoulos told the New York Times. “I consider this war equal to a real war. They don’t help peace.”

This is grossly unfair to Germany, which is helping to bail out the Greek economy. But it is a sign of the dangerous divisions that have resurfaced inside the EU after decades of “ever closer union.” For peace is not just the absence of war. It is harmony between different peoples. It is tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. And it is solidarity between different classes and generations. The EU has constantly fostered these ideals, and authors such as Jeremy Rifkin have argued that these values represent some sort of “European Dream” to rival America’s.

But in 2012, this European Dream lies in tatters. Partly as a result of Europe’s economic woes and the threat to national identity posed by the EU, extremist parties advocating racism, nationalism, and intolerance are on the rise across the continent — a fact recognized by Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland Friday when he warned: “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating.” Nobody would benefit from the re-Balkanisation of Europe, which is why Jagland called on Europeans to “focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

At its heart the EU was, and still is, a peace project. But it is an unfinished one. If the Nobel Prize serves any purpose, it should act as a call to responsibility to EU leaders who often adopt an adolescent approach to matters of war and peace. They complain about U.S. hegemony but are unprepared to pay for their nations’ own defence. They lecture the world about European values but are either incapable or unwilling to stand up for them. And they talk of EU solidarity, knowing perfectly well the union has neither the duty nor the capacity to come to the aid of an attacked member — or even, apparently, one whose economy is melting down, until it’s nearly too late.

Whoever accepts the Nobel Prize on behalf of the EU should have the courage to say, as President Obama did in his 2009 speech, that well-meaning declarations are not enough to protect and promote cherished values. Sometimes, preserving peace means preparing for war — as France and Britain understood in Libya. Sometimes, solidarity means writing checks, as well as delivering moral sermons. And sometimes, promoting stability in Europe — for example by speeding up Turkey’s EU entry — means confronting prejudices and arguing that European values only make sense when applied.

The EU’s Nobel recipients should also have the vision to move beyond issues of war and peace entirely. Harking back to 1945 for a raison d’être is hardly the most forward-thinking philosophy for a 21st-century organization. Likewise, warning of a return to war if the euro fails, as some European leaders have, is not the greatest vote of confidence in the core values the bloc has supposedly embedded. If the EU wants to remain relevant in the world and connect with citizens who are rapidly losing faith in the European project, its leaders should use the Oslo award ceremony to offer a new central narrative for the union that resonates with a generation whose only knowledge of continental conflict comes from history books.

This article was first published in Foreign Policy Magazine in October 2012

10 Tips for the pro-EU Crowd

The European Union is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of its citizens. Public support for the EU is falling, European values are under attack, many of the EU’s biggest projects – the euro, enlargement, Schengen – are under threat and voters are turning in droves to populist parties that are the antithesis of the European dream.

Unfortunately, supporters of further EU integration often don’t help their cause by lacking fresh ideas for the bloc’s future, failing to match words with deeds and being resistant to change, prickly about criticism and contemptuous of the people on whose support the EU project depends. So here are 10 tips for getting the Union back on track from a critical friend of the EU who has worked inside the Belgeway for the last two decades.

1. Don’t mention the war

The European Union is, first and foremost, a peace project aimed at banishing the spectre of the war from the continent. It has largely achieved this goal in western Europe, to the extent that the idea of France and Germany fighting each other again is unthinkable. Instead of harping on about the Second World War – which ended 67 years ago – pro-Europeans need to develop a new central narrative for the Union that is fit for the 21st century and resonates with a generation whose grandparents were born after 1945.

2. What’s the story?

EU officials are often excellent at answering detailed questions about their policy briefs but hopeless at grappling with more existential issues such as: What is the European Union for? What value-added does it bring? What are the core beliefs that bind its people together? Most Europeans take peace, free trade, open borders and a single currency for granted. So what is the EU’s next big idea? Instead of looking to past gains, the EU should be about creating a leaner, keener and greener Europe based on a highly skilled and educated workforce and a low-carbon, cutting-edge economy. It should also be more bullish about enlargement – the EU’s biggest success story – and be more muscular on the world stage.

3. Be radical

EU drum-bangers tend to be terribly conservative and more concerned at amassing further powers than questioning whether they are needed in the first place. Instead of feeling obliged to defend silly policies and useless institutions, they should adopt a more radical and more ruthless approach. Do we honestly need the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee – not to mention the plethora of other agencies that have mushroomed in recent years? Does it still make sense for the EU to spend over a third of its budget subsidising the five percent of Europeans who till the land? Is pumping tens of billions of euros a year to poor countries and regions to build motorways and sewage plants the sanest way to build world-class modern economies? A new narrative requires new policies, new institutions and new budget prioritie

4. Accept criticism

The EU has never been very good at accepting criticism or admitting mistakes. “Criticism of the EU is almost considered a heresy,” said former Europe Minister Denis MacShane. “Its like going to see the Pope and saying ‘I might be a protestant your holiness.’” Instead of endlessly repeating pro-EU mantras, supporters of the European project should create a culture of debate by listening to the people and entering into an honest dialogue with them. They should also occasionally admit they are wrong – on the euro and the admission of a divided Cyprus for example – and have the humility to apologise.

5. Emit less hot air

In the middle of one of the least smart, inclusive and sustainable urban landscapes in Europe – the EU area of Brussels – I recently saw a banner draped across the European Commission’s Charlemagne building advertising a symposium on “paving the way for smart inclusive and sustainable cities.” A small vignette maybe but symptomatic of the mismatch between the EU’s lofty aims and less prosaic reality that reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men:’ “Between the idea/And the Reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow.” The EU should beware of raising expectations that it cannot meet – such as its pretension of having a truly common foreign and security policy or its risible new millennium ambition of becoming the world’s most competitive economy by 2010. Sometimes, it is better to have limited aims – like cutting roaming charges – but actually achieve them.

6. The EU isn’t Europe

The problem with many Euro-cheerleaders is that they constantly confuse the EU (a political construct with 27 states) with Europe (a continent with almost 50 countries). It is quite possible to dislike – or feel no affinity – with the former whilst feeling deeply attached to the latter. Instead of obsessing about passing new laws, adopting new treaties and creating new institutions, fans of the EU would be better off trying to foster a European spirit among people. As former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek said: “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans.”

7. Value your values

The values that are supposed to define Europe – peace, tolerance, diversity, solidarity, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights – are often flouted by those states that are the keenest on pushing for greater EU integration. It is difficult to see how opposing Turkey’s EU entry (as France and Austria do) or refusing to back the use of force against a murderous dictator (as Germany did during the Libya conflict) or calling for more EU laws while continuously flouting existing ones (as Belgium and Italy do) tally with the Union’s values. The EU needs to be more consistent, more united and more robust standing up for its values – even if that means annoying the Chinese and Russians.

8. Don’t forget the people

The EU spends tens of millions of euros a year promoting democracy around the world, yet its own decision-making structures are hardly the most shining example of people-power. The Commission, which has the sole power to propose new laws, is not elected and its president has no popular mandate. The head of the European Council is appointed in a similar manner to the Pope. And most decisions in the Council of the EU are made by ambassadors before they reach the desks of ministers. So despite the furious denials of eurocrats, the EU does have a democratic deficit that is opening up a massive chasm between rulers and ruled. The Eurozone crisis has widened this divide. Much to the delight of officials in Brussels, technocrats have replaced elected politicians in Greece and Italy. And the Commission has amassed further powers over national budgetary decisions that are normally the prerogative of elected parliaments. No wonder the president of the German constitutional court recently remarked: “It would be tragic and fatal if we were to lose democracy on the road to saving the euro and to more integration.”

9. Create an EU 2.0 from the bottom up

The EU has been an elitist project since its inception. This mattered little when the Union was primarily a trade club. But now that it has taken on many of the trappings of nation state – a single currency, border protection, increasing control over budgets and the ambition to raise its own taxes – its policies have a much greater impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Without their support and involvement the EU will wither like a vine starved of water. This means more democracy – at the very least elected European Council and Commission presidents – but also more efforts to engage with Europeans at their level and using their language.

10. Just connect

The EU has traditionally been terrible at communicating. It confuses information with propaganda, is obsessed with process rather than results and is incapable of communicating in language ordinary people understand. If the EU – and its backers – want to connect with citizens it needs to explain its policies using simple, clear language. But above all it has to show how it changes people’s lives for the better. If the EU can convince hard-working taxpayers in Milan, Manchester or Munich that it puts more money in their pockets, makes their jobs, streets and pensions more secure and provides better schools and hospitals for them and their families then it will succeed. If it doesn’t it will creak, crack and ultimately collapse.

Scoring an own-goal for Europe United

The European Parliament is used to scoring own-goals. But even by its standards, the assembly’s call last week for the EU flag to be flown at major sporting events and for the European emblem to grace athletes’ shirts was the political equivalent of a defender back-heeling the ball into his own net.

Admittedly, parliament’s report on the European dimension of sport contains plenty of worthy calls for member states to devote a greater share of their budget to sports and for racism, violence and corruption in sport to be rooted out. But as the EU has few competences in the sports arena, this amounts to little more than meaningless political posturing.

Parliament insists the European flag would be displayed alongside national symbols on athletes’ shirts and would be entirely voluntary. What could possibly be wrong with that? Quite a lot actually.

As I argue in the latest edition of Foreign Policy Magazine, there is no such thing as a European people and top-down attempts at moulding one are likely to end in failure.

In opinion polls voters identify themselves much more with their nation state than with Europe. As former European Commissioner Chris Patten has said: “The nation is alive and well and more potent than ever in some respects. It is the largest unit, perhaps, to which people will willingly accord emotional allegiance.”

In fact, even the nation is too big for many people to associate with. Europe has 20 more countries than in 1988 due to the splintering of countries like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and others. And there will be more on the way if Belgium, Spain or Britain shatter.

In September the New York Times ran a front-page article about plans to have a British soccer team representing the UK in the London Olympics this year. Quite logical, one might think. Except there is no such thing. Instead we have Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish teams and all but the English are against joining Team GB. Said the head of the Scottish football federation – “We need to protect our identity and we have no interest in taking part.” The Welsh former goalkeeper Neville Southall asked: “What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well it’s not my flag; my flag’s a dragon.”

The journalist helpfully pointed out that “It is sometimes hard for outsiders to comprehend how deeply tribal Britain is, and how resistant to the idea that there is a unifying notion of Britishness.”

Not just Britain. In Belgium there is such a vicious division between Flanders and Wallonia that the country’s football association recently voted to divide national amateur leagues along linguistic lines.

Call me tribal, but despite living in Belgium for almost 20 years I am Welsh and proud of it. The symbols I identify with are the dragon, the leek and the daffodil, not a flag designed by a committee of experts half a century ago. When our rugby team beat Ireland on Saturday I jumped for joy like most of my compatriots. The pleasure of beating our opponents – because that is what sport is largely about – would not have been any different if the European flag had been fluttering above the Aviva stadium in Dublin or if the players had worn the 12 stars on their shirts. Its presence would simply have been an irrelevance.

This is not to deny that one can have multiple identities. Many Europeans are Catalan, Spanish and European. Others are Muslim and French. But identities cannot be artificially created – they are forged early on and never go away. As the Jesuits’ used to say: ‘Give me a child until he’s seven and I will give you the man.’

Europeans are slowly coming together after centuries of division – and that is a good thing. Most Europeans care more about the result of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League final than the European Parliament elections. Thanks to no-frills airlines like Ryanair and easyJet, Europeans are criss-crossing the continent like never before. And Brits with no great fondness for the EU cheer on French, Spanish and Portuguese soccer stars playing for their ‘local’ clubs and afterwards head to the pub to drink Belgian and German lagers.

Much of the credit for this is due to the EU for scrapping national airline monopolies, granting Europeans the right to live and work in any member state and ending quotas on foreign soccer players – although, perversely, parliament’s report says that an “over-dependence on the transfer of players can undermine sporting values.” But ultimately Europe will not be built by Brussels edicts but European citizens – whether border-hopping footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar DJs like David Guetta or brash entrepreneurs like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.

In his magisterial book ‘In Europe,’ the Dutch author Geert Mak writes: “People need stories in order to grasp the inexplicable, to cope with their fate. The individual nation, with its common language and shared imagery can always forge these experiences into one great cohesive story. But Europe cannot do that. Unlike the United States it still has no common story.”

There are huge differences between states in America but at the end of the day Americans feel American and are proud of the fact. Their hearts beat faster when they sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ or watch their athletes winning gold medals in Olympics. Most know their constitution and roughly how their political system works. They speak the same language and are obsessed by the same sports.

The European Union, on the other hand, has created common institutions, laws and even a currency. It has created all the symbols of a nation state – a passport nobody swears allegiance to, an anthem nobody knows and a flag that is only voluntarily waved at the Ryder Cup golf championships between the US and Europe. What it lacks is a people who share a common culture, language or narrative – or at the very least are able to identify with the political construct that has been created in their name. “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans,” was how former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek put it.

The problem is you cannot manufacture Europeans like toy soldiers. It takes time for a people to evolve and imposing artificial political bodies on disparate peoples has ended in failure or disaster throughout history.

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