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Better Late Than Never

  • November 2017
  • Ágnes Szűcs

Better Late Than Never

The first EU Social Summit in 20 years

 

 

I was wandering around Frankfurt Airport, waiting for my flight. I suddenly saw a bag. It was pure awesomeness. Love at first sight. 209 euros. I couldn’t really complain about my wage, I was earning twice as much as the national average in my home country and 1,5 times more than my mother being a teacher for 30 years. I could have bought the bag and kept eating or paying my bills that month. But still, something deep inside prevented me to do so. It was so insane. You just can’t buy a bag for 209 euros when a huge bulk of people earn 300 in your county. 27 years after the change of regime and 12 years after EU accession, me, a pro-European-minded middle-class intellectual took the plane heading home to Eastern Europe in a deep existential crisis and slight jealousy for the lucky girls in Western Europe.

 

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” I know, it’s not that sexy to quote Karl Marx, but still, I believe he had a deep understating about how people’s minds work. If you feel deprived and have to constantly struggle to make ends meet at the end of the month, you won’t really burn for any ideology, idea or cult. It is true for the EU as well. Because the idea of sharing the same history, culture and values is definitely heart-melting and fascinating. Especially for us, who are sitting in our warm and stylish offices from 9 to 6 and then go to share our commitment towards the European integration and beer on Plux. But for construction workers fighting weather and fatigue for 300 euros, I don’t think that the Ode of Joy or the House of European History would truly ring a bell.

 

Populists can also take advantage of this completely reasonable approach. For example, the once-far-right and now-center-approaching Hungarian political party Jobbik has announced recently a campaign on “wage union”. They claim that they would raise the wages to the Western European level, so that everyone could stay in their home country. And in the wave of rising nationalism and xenophobia, people do tend to believe them. Even though French President Emmanuel Macron is far from being a classic populist, when he talks about foreign workers providing services in France, just to distract the attention from his unpopular labor market reforms, he subscribes to the same logic.

 

They argue upon a completely distorted logic, though. It is indeed useful for everyone to spend some time abroad and learn new things. By the way, craftsmen travelled all around Europe looking for an apprenticeship in the Middle Age. When they learned the profession, they went home and opened their own atelier as masters. One doesn’t need a permanent contract at the Commission to see the advantages for the host and for the sending country as well.

 

But people’s attention should be drawn in a smart way to the fact that we indeed have the EU, where it is all possible. Not to mention that we also have the Eurozone that helps the convergence of wages and therefore social standards. Yes, it is true that it doesn’t and will never fulfill the criteria of Robert Mundell’s Optimum Currency Area (OCA). European people (and humans in general) are not completely mobile so they could just leave their country in case of an economic shock and go to work abroad. They have family ties and language barriers. And even if they don’t have them, the German work market couldn’t absorb half of the Greek population. It is not a graph in the Handbook of Macroeconomics for first-year university students. But as the OCA model suggest, the central authority (aka. the EU) has other options to foster convergence and economic growth.

 

 

 

The wonderful news of the day is that it’s happening right now in Gothenburg at the EU’s first Social Summit in 20 years. Obviously, one can ironically call the EU’s social pillar Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s pet project and cite hundreds of graphs about the differences between European social systems and labor markets. But guys, something is finally happening!

 

We can write one more study about the problems of EU’s democratic legitimacy in a suit-and-tie fashion, and then have drink with our like-minded buddies. But it will not give the European people the perception that the EU is doing something for their well-being. I don’t even claim that this summit will bring any breakthrough. But at least, decision-makers do something.

 

By the way, it is not that new at all. Jean Monnet’s original idea was also based on the integration’s output legitimacy, namely that it provides well-being and security for ordinary people. The functional logic has always worked. This time, it only needs to be well communicated to the people, so that they would believe again in Europe, rather than in populists.

It’s a date!

  • November 2017
  • Andrea Lotesoriere

It’s a date!

Brexit date is officially announced

 

 

 

Source: RTÉ.ie

 

29th March 2019, 23h. This is the date chosen by Prime Minister Theresa May as the official deadline for Brexit. This could be a move to re-assert her authority over the Parliament and to avoid internal turmoil in the party about the “exit day” strategy. She has her will in an amendment to the “Withdrawal bill” in order to avoid any “attempts from any quarter to use the process of amendments to this bill as a mechanism to try to block the democratic wishes of the British people by attempting to slow down or stop our departure from the European Union”. This way, any pro-EU MP who wishes to stop the procedure must publicly declare his opposition to it by March 2019.

 

She goes on by saying that this date will be put on the “front page” of the bill to show just how determined Westminster is to leave the Union. The opposition who aims at a soft-Brexit threatened to “filibuster” the bill by presenting hundreds of amendments. The PM was clear on this point as well and said that she is opened to discussion but won’t allow obstructionism or other form of protest which would stop the democratic process started with the referendum.

 

The government coalition is heavily influenced by recent scandals as well as by a profound division on how the negotiations should be conducted. This fragility worries Brussels which is now preparing for every possible outcome, including an hard Brexit or no Brexit at all. The EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier spoke in Rome about his worries on regulations in the UK market and said “the United Kingdom has chosen to leave the European Union. Will it also want to move away from the European model? That’s another question”.

 

The negotiations continue and Brussels still confirms its will to resolve the financial settlement before proceeding with trade talks, but many other issues loom on the horizon for London. From a growing impatience of US investors over the uncertainty of the situation, to the Irish border and a possible new general election which could bring the Labour party to power. Nevertheless at least now we have a date, how well will this deadline serve the British Government is yet to be seen but, at the very least, we now have something concrete to look forward to, as ambiguous as it can be.

Can’t buy me love, can buy me passport

  • November 2017
  • Edo Katanic

Can’t buy me love, can buy me passport

Dubious Practices of Gaining EU Citizenship

 

Source: European Commission’s website

 

As a kid, I used to love Cold War and spy movies. Never was there a better time to consume the “shaken, not stirred” culture than when you are imaginative, naïve and playful. Back then my home town hosted the British Council’s library, where I read all of Ian Fleming’s novels. Come to think of it, if I ever apply to work for the Council, I am pretty sure I will mention it in my cover letter or in the interview. Anyway, if there could be a modern meaning of the legendary phrase from the movie The Russians are coming, the discovery by some EU countries that business with citizenships can be a good way of attracting money to their countries could be an ideal contemporary application.

 

While we are used to the usual clichés surrounding Russian oligarchs coming to EU countries for a variety of reasons, especially if you ask Londoners and fans of football club Chelsea, nowadays some countries tend to be looked upon more directly due to the issue and the context. The International Monetary Fund pointed out in a report that wealthy individuals want an EU citizenship or residency rights in order to improve their mobility, tax planning and for their families’ security. Critics would add that the scheme destabilises the concept of citizenship as such, could be a strong security issue and an exit for Russians that want to avoid sanctions imposed on their country. Also, it could be used as a way to launder money. Not to mention the issue of migration, which is so sensitive in contemporary Europe.

 

The practice of giving away passports is often criticised in the media. For instance, the British press have written about it frequently, of course in their traditional Eurosceptic manner, arguing that the UK security is under threat. The BBC even made a documentary about it, and besides being moderate, diplomatic and old-fashioned, even named one article “Where is the cheapest place to buy citizenship?”. The newspaper The Guardian wrote that Russian and Ukrainian corruptive elites are among hundreds of individuals that obtained EU passports through these schemes. However, they would rather go to Malta or Cyprus, than to bother with obligations imposed by the UK. Also, one needs to take into account the strong and stable instability that the process of Brexit has brought.

 

The country I first had in mind was Malta. While it has been strongly criticised for its rule of law, especially in this week’s European Parliament plenary session, I will just focus on their Citizenship Act, which was introduced by the current party in power in 2013, firstly as a temporary measure to counter the budget deficit. For personal ethical reasons I will not mention the sums, but it aims to attract investments by giving not only the residence permit, but the full Maltese citizenship to people that invest a certain amount of money in the country. There is no residency requirement and the money goes into government funds. According to some numbers that I found online, more than 1000 individuals profited from this scheme.  They plan to sell 1800 passports, focusing on wealthy individuals from China, Russia and the Middle East, which would bring them almost a third of total annual government revenue.

 

The issue has created a deep politically divide in the small country, and the opposition is arguing that the scheme has nothing to do with investment in Malta, but with getting access to the freedom of movement offered by the EU citizenship. The whole process also lacks transparency, with a deficit in information on the amount of money, how the money is spent and who the people that are obtaining the citizenship are. Last month, even the Italian Anti-Mafia commissioner complained on the lack of transparency of the Maltese government, as the names could be connected to drug smuggling and similar criminal activities in Italy.

 

This practice has been strongly criticised in a European Parliament debate some three years ago, but not much has been done since. In addition to that, in the same year the European Parliament Research Service published a study called EU Citizenship and Residence Permits for Sale, which is available online and worth checking out. For the lazy ones, there is a decent summary as well.

 

To jump a bit from Plux to Schuman, the Commission recently stated that they cannot do anything to stop Malta, arguing that the EU Court in Luxembourg already had some cases where the outcome was that the citizenship matter is solely in the hands of each Member State.

 

The other country I had in mind is Cyprus. They have a scheme for “naturalisation of non-Cypriot investors by exception”. You can obtain their citizenship with direct investments, but you need to also have a private residence in Cyprus. In 2012, as a result of a financial crisis, they offered a quick way to obtain the citizenship by doubling the amount needed to directly invest. However, as it did not work out, a year later they decided to lower down the price of direct investment, aimed mostly to Russians. In the meantime, the price of direct investment was additionally lowered, and you can gain citizenship in around three months. A European Commission spokesman said some time ago that the issue was discussed in 2014 with the Cypriot government, but said nothing more than that.

 

The foreign investment scheme and “Golden visas” are not new and there are of course other European countries that offer similar models, like the Portuguese Golden Residence Permit programme, which gives foreign investors a residence permit. They are free to travel around the EU and after six years they can obtain Portuguese citizenship. The majority of applicants are apparently Chinese. Similar models exist in Spain and Greece as well. However, one needs to acknowledge the difference between giving away a residence permit and a country’s citizenship.

 

Basically we now have a situation where rich and well-situated individuals are buying themselves a place in the EU, while the poor and less lucky migrants are sleeping in parks throughout Brussels and Berlin. While every country reserves the right to have their own citizenship policy, it is deeply disturbing that we are witnessing this lack of transparency in the whole process, as well as justified fears that some criminal or corrupted elites are using the scheme to buy their way into the EU. As in similar debates, many would agree that some things should not be for sale.

Choose your future

  • November 2017
  • Ágnes Szűcs

Choose your future

The Parliament prepares for 2019 elections

 

 

“Damn. We only have one and a half year left till the next elections.” “No, buddy. It can’t be true.” “It is. We have to draw a proposal!” Then, the guys responsible for the EP’s communication strategy went on a two-hour lunch break to digest this frightening discovery. When there was no more excuse, they put themselves into work and came out with this 10-page long miracle, leaked exclusively to Politico. Or at least, I imagine the working process this way.

 

I don’t want to be too mean with those buddies facing short deadlines and overwhelming administrative tasks, but this strategy reminds me of the good old days at university, when we started to work on a project the day before the deadline, inserting as many clichés as possible by the help of a good bullshit-generator site.

 

What I truly appreciate in the current proposal is that they didn’t write down the magic term of “EU’s democratic deficit”. Either it was too outdated according to the EU bullshit generator 3.0, or they felt they could add two more pages by describing the problem itself. But all in all, the outcome lacks this keyword, so one might feel they would come up with something new.

 

And the proposal does indeed! My personal favorite is the expression of “networked ground-game effort”. It sounds so fancy that you have no idea what it is about. The good news is that the authors didn’t have an idea either, because they mentioned cost-free media coverage as an example. But a couple of pages later, they suggest to organize seminars for 3000 journalists to raise their awareness of the importance of the upcoming European elections.

 

Well, in my previous life, I was a journalist and took part in a couple of media seminars organized by the Parliament. I don’t know what cost-effectiveness means in the EP jargon, but for us, it was a joyride. Many of us travelled the first time by an expensive (aka not Ryanair or Easyjet) airlines. Once in Strasbourg my awareness of the EU’s merits and the Alsatian kitchen was raised so successfully that I was sick for days after having eaten too much. If the guys at the Parliament have developed a different tool to make journalists happy, I am afraid it won’t be as effective as over-feeding them. But who knows.

 

Thankfully, the paper continues to be very inspiring. “Following an analysis of data available from a range of related Eurobarometer surveys, three target groups who maintained a pro-EU attitude throughout the years can be identified: opinion-makers, young voters (15-24) and students (who intersect with the young target to some degree, but also reach beyond it, i.e. many students are above the age of 24).” Just to see how they prove their scientific approach by citing the Eurostat and setting up categories. But the comment in brackets is definitely pure gold, reflecting the added value of their own research.

 

“In developing and implementing the European Election Strategy, the Parliament must bear in mind that 2019 will be a far cry from 2014. (…) International terrorism, increasingly unpredictable international relations with important powers such as Russia, the United States and China, the impeding shadow of Brexit negotiations, the phenomenon of » fake news « and the influx of refugees barely figured in most Europeans’ minds when they went to polls in 2014.” Thank you, guys. Without you, we would have never known that.

 

Buddies at the Parliament have wasted years observing how Europe and the world changes, but quite possibly spent only an afternoon on drawing a communication strategy for the upcoming elections. They answer those challenges by the good old clichés of media seminars, promoting the Spitzenkandidaten system, while hoping to reach the younger generations by Twitter through using simple and catchy slogans like “Choose your future!”.

 

“It’s a D! You can sit down”, I would say if it was a university project. But this proposal was indeed about our common European future. And it is very sad.

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