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Tag: Events

Everyday I Love You Less and Less: Here’s what you missed at our Western Balkans event

  • December 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

 

 

The Centre for European Progression held a panel discussion on Monday 9th December entitled The EU and the Western Balkans – An End of a Romance? Our panellists shared some vital insights for the future of the EU and for the Western Balkans.

 

CFEP’s CEO István Szekeres began the event with a brief introduction to the topic.

 

The first speaker was one of the few MEPs to hold a Serbian passport, Andor Deli MEP (EPP), a dual national of Hungary and Serbia. For him, the EU accession of the Western Balkan states is personal. He knows people who have been waiting two decades to become part of the European Union.  He spent his younger years in Vojvodina, Northern Serbia, which were marked by travel bans, embargoes, and NATO bombing. These experiences make him want integration even more.

 

For Mr Deli, keeping Serbia on the European path is essential, but the pace of the process is too slow. The October veto has also led to a loss of trust between the EU and the Western Balkan states. However, he sees a chance for a reset and rebuilding of trust with the new Commission. The Western Balkans can serve as a litmus test. If Member States can reach an agreement on that, they may yet be able to tackle thorny policy problems in other areas.

 

Andreas Schieder MEP (S&D), the Chair of the Delegation to the EU-North Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee, spoke next. Before becoming an MEP, he was the Chair of the Austrian-Serbian Parliamentary Delegation. For Mr Schieder, the Balkan states are part of Europe and, by extension, should be part of the EU. He believes that the Balkan states must work with other countries to solve their regional problems. In that regard, North Macedonia fulfilled all the conditions. The promise that Western Balkan countries will be rewarded for solving tricky issues no longer works after Macron’s veto.

 

The whole European Parliament, possibly bar the Identity and Democracy group, supported accession talks. Mr Schieder met North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on the same day they found out the answer was No. He learned there is a risk of nationalist grievance-based resurgence surrounding the name change.  After the EU’s decision, early elections in North Macedonia will take place at the end of April. At this point, Mr Schieder noted there was a chance to approve the talks in a March summit. For him, as the talks do not begin immediately, it is possible to reform the enlargement process (as Macron suggested) and open accession talks at once.

 

Alexandra Stiglmayer, of the European Stability Initiative think tank, was the third speaker. She presented a variety of statistics on the Western Balkans and discussed several problems with the accession process. The first was its lengthy nature, which results in painful reforms for a distant future benefit. Another problem relates to the EU institutions. There are over 70 veto possibilities. Member States have to approve progress at each stage (application, official candidacy, negotiations). These vetoes often have little to do with the country’s actions, but with domestic views on enlargement.

 

She also noted that even if certain countries are ahead in the accession process, it doesn’t necessarily reflect their readiness to join the EU. North Macedonia, which has not yet begun negotiations, is ahead of Serbia in Commission assessments. Secondly, Commission reports are also vague and lack concrete details which could guide foreign investors or NGOs. Thirdly, she added that these countries lag far behind the EU average and do not get much help to catch up.

 

She noted the Commission often argues that the Western Balkans do not have the absorption capacity to spend their allocated EU funding. Romania and Slovenia do not spend their entire allocation either, and yet they have seen dramatic improvement. Committed governments, such as North Macedonia, would make use of the money. The monitoring mechanism also needs reforms to include merit-based and detailed key requirements. These would aid comparison between states and remove the potential for political vetoes. Her third, and final, proposal involves pre-accession single market access. This would involve the implementation of 60-70% of the acquis. It could also motivate politicians who otherwise think in electoral cycles.

 

Dr Isabelle Ioannides, a Senior Associate Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, was the final speaker. She was cautiously optimistic about the chances of enlargement to the Western Balkans. It was not just any Member State that blocked the talks: it was France, which holds big sway at EU level and whose preferences cannot be overlooked. However, she noted that experts have had long-term concerns about enlargement policy and that there is a case for reform. These include ineffective development conditionality, double standards, and poor performance in Common Security and Defence Policy missions.

 

The risk, according to Dr Ioannides, is coupling enlargement reform to internal reforms. This could potentially push enlargement off the agenda. Shared responsibility is needed: willingness from below and pressure from above. She remained optimistic as a result of the continued pro-European and pro-enlargement majority in the European Union, and the re-election of MEPs with experience on the Western Balkans. The Commission should be given a chance, although she remains concerned not just about France, but other Member States which have questioned Albania’s readiness (such as Greece). Others still are happy to hide behind France’s veto. In light of the Commission resulting from backroom manoeuvres, she wondered if it would be able to stand up to the Member States on enlargement. For Dr Ioannides, enlargement was never a romance. It is a long-term process of hard work and sacrifice. Western Balkan countries need to understand it is a road of sacrifice, and the EU needs to be more understanding of the sacrifices made.

 

Audience questions touched on Macron’s non-paper ‘Reforming the European Union accession process’, the role of non-EU states in the region, Turkey, Ukraine, and, finally, the future of the region in 2030. Dr Ioannides did not think any of the Western Balkan countries would be members by that date. Ms Stiglmayer was more optimistic, perhaps seeing North Macedonia and Montenegro as members by 2030. For Mr Schieder, 2040 was a more realistic time schedule. By contrast, Mr Deli felt something had to happen by 2030 for the enlargement policy to remain workable.

 

The region’s future may be uncertain, but what is certain is that the EU-Western Balkans debates are here to stay – whether the Member States like it or not.

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Scotland’s Story: here’s what you missed at our panel discussion

  • November 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

The CFEP held a well-attended panel discussion on the Wednesday 6th November at the Press Club Brussels on the topic of Scotland and independence: out of the frying pan and into the fire? If you weren’t able to attend, here’s a brief summary of what you missed.

Sheila Ritchie MEP began the event with a passionate defence of Scotland remaining in the UK. She cited her party’s preamble, stating that “Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries.” The Liberal Democrats oppose another independence referendum and support a referendum on Brexit. This is often challenged for inconsistency, but for Mrs Ritchie, it is about ending existing chaos and preventing additional chaos. She explained that the difficulties of undoing a 46-year old partnership between the UK and the EU would only be amplified in undoing a 416-year-old partnership between Scotland and England. For people new to Scottish politics, Mrs Ritchie provided an insight into what it was like to campaign against independence in 2014. She described it as the worst experience of her political life and the beginning of post-truth politics. Economics does matter, and she noted that Scotland’s deficit is above the 3% target required for EU members under the Stability and Growth Pact. People, however, matter the most: Mrs Ritchie highlighted that a lot of Scots are married to people from other parts of the UK, and raised concerns about building divides between those communities. Her party wants a “reformed, federal, and fair union”. She conceded there would be little chance of this under a Boris Johnson government, but noted that this was another reason why they were fighting to stop him in the December 12 General Election.

 

Christian Allard MEP naturally disagreed with Sheila, but the two MEPs had a good-natured debate. For Mr Allard, his identity as a French Scot demonstrates the openness of the independence movement for people from everywhere. It was important to him that people’s ideas were not castigated, but that people were given respect and space to talk about their ideas. He believes most people are not hardcore supporters of either side and they make their decisions on polling, noting that he knew people who voted for their chosen side and would have been content with the result either way. Indeed, he sought to oppose the notion of two camps as simplistic: there were people in Scotland who voted Yes and Remain, Yes and Leave, No and Leave, and No and Remain. Overall, what matters for Mr Allard is the future. He explained that the future that people want is what really counts, and they should have the democratic and legal chance to vote on it. He acknowledged it would have been easier to become independent in 2014 because back then both Scotland and the UK were fully aligned to and participating in the EU. That is what united the two MEPs: they differ on independence but are fighting to keep the whole UK in the EU.

Schams El Ghoneimi spoke next, mentioning his time at the European Parliament. Part of his role involved assessing what an independent Scotland’s foreign policy would look like. Would it be like Denmark? Would it have opposed the Iraq War, if that happened today? Would it agree to host migrants from Italy and Greece, and then follow through on those commitments like many other states did not? His aim during his interventions on our panel was to look at the nuances of the issue: there were obstacles, but also things that had changed since 2014. For example, Josep Borrell stated that Spain would not block Scotland from joining the EU.

Mr El Ghoneimi added that this is a totally unprecedented situation, and so the EU would likely find a way over the political hurdles. The economic ones may be more complex to deal with. He noted, however, that there are real economic hurdles and that the Scottish independence campaign has work to do to win over those who voted No in 2014. He added that the EU would enjoy a strong message that joining is still desirable – and another net contributor to the budget. Scotland has an inclusive vision of what it means to be Scottish, but its pro-Europeanness is not perfect. Neither Lib Dem or SNP MEPs supported harmonising corporation tax rates or transnational lists. Opposition to the Euro persists, due to Scottish integration in the UK currency union. The most important consideration for Mr El Ghoneimi is where the most pro-European dynamic lies: it would be unlikely for the UK to remain in the EU, but that would be good for the world. If it did not, Scotland could be tempted away in favour of the EU.

 

Finally, Larissa Brunner rounded off the panel with the EU’s perspective on an independent Scotland. She agreed that Scottish membership would give the EU a PR boost. Furthermore, Scottish participation in the Common Fisheries Policy really matters for the other Member States. The only way to guarantee that it will continue to take part is remaining in the EU. Spain, particularly, does a lot of fishing in Scottish waters. She also agreed it would not veto Scottish independence: it sees the Catalan and Scottish cases as distinct based on legality and cooperation with the central government. It is also politically costly to veto, and Member States are unlikely to expend political capital to do so.

She described Scotland’s potential EU role as being part of the group of small Northern European liberal Member States that do not have the Euro. Such states used to hide behind the UK so they would not have to voice their own concerns but will need to speak up for themselves after Brexit. There is the danger of being marginalised by the Franco-German concentration of power, but these countries will all still have a vote and a Commissioner. She disagreed with commentators who suggest there is a ‘queue’ for membership but noted that Scotland will still have to go through the steps (albeit that this will be a short process.) Ms Brunner suggested EFTA could be a good holding place for it: Scotland being ‘small and humble’ enough to accept being a rule-taker and paying into the EU budget.

Audience questions were varied, discussing everything from the state of the Scottish border after independence to the nature of democracy as we know it. At the CFEP, we aim to facilitate discussion about the future of Europe and help people in the Brussels bubble learn more about the stories they see in the news. Our audience asked some insightful questions about the details of devolution in Scotland and federalism, and our panellists used some terms you might not have come across before.

Scotland has a system of devolved and reserved powers. This gets complex. The Scottish Parliament has an infographic summarising which issues are decided there and which are retained at Westminster. How does this relate to the EU, you might be asking? As Mr El Ghoneimi mentioned, Scottish Government representatives participate in EU meetings in their areas of expertise. As set out in this guide for Scottish Government officials, it is almost assumed that they would want to attend Council Working Parties on environmental, agricultural and fisheries issues. Mrs Ritchie sought to explain Henry VIII powers: the issue with Brexit is that the EU Withdrawal Act allows the UK Government to use these powers to copy EU law into UK law without having to consult Parliament. One question our audience members asked relates to the internal debate about these competencies – once they are regained from the EU, there is a controversy about when they will be devolved to the Scottish government.

 

Finally, we ended our event by imagining the future. If Scotland became independent, in its first Council Presidency, our panel generally agreed it can and should prioritise leading on climate change. Mr Allard added that he wanted to refocus Scotland and Europe on wellbeing, plugging Nicola Sturgeon’s TED Talk on the topic, and Mrs Ritchie wanted Scotland to take advantage of the EU’s tools to assist its smaller, more remote regions.

 

We hope you enjoyed our event, and that you learned something about Scotland and its potential futures. Watch this space for our next discussion event in December!

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1 in 6: Mental Health in Europe

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

1 in 6: Mental Health in Europe

Source: Pixabay

European institutions and countries have to keep up the momentum on mental health

This post will discuss suicide prevention and mental health. There is help and support available for anyone who’s been affected by these issues, in Belgium and further afield:

Crisis centres in Europe

Helplines for young people

Community Help Service Belgium

 

(more…)

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EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

  • June 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

EU-Ukraine relations: a window of opportunity

Unlike for the cast of HBO’s Chernobyl, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet.

Ukrainian flag

Source: Pixabay

 

 

 

HBO’s bleak, bureaucratic miniseries Chernobyl has put Ukraine at the top of the cultural agenda. As Ukraine and the EU move into a new stage of their relationship, policymakers on both sides may well empathise with the series’ characters who cooperate to overcome inertia.

 

Indeed, EU-Ukrainian cooperation has been marked by division in recent times. In the economic sphere, European farmers have turned their ire on a Ukrainian chicken breast exporter exploiting a loophole in the EU-Ukraine trade deal. Out of the EU’s desire to preserve a key tool of Ukraine’s European alignment, the resulting agreement largely benefited Ukraine. Members of the European Parliament may provide serious resistance in passing the deal.

Recent elections both in Ukraine and in the EU have given both sides an impetus to reboot their efforts. Although concerns have been raised about newly elected President Zelensky’s populism, it is not the same kind of populism we see in the European Union. Zelensky, for one, is not a pro-Kremlin figure. Putin’s understanding of that fact underlined his offer of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas region. A pro-EU and pro-NATO Russophone politician undermines Russia’s narrative that Ukrainian Russophones are loyal to Russia.

 

Zelensky’s political party is ahead in the polls by a substantial margin, before the Parliamentary election in Ukraine scheduled for 21 July. He can expect to have a strong parliamentary majority for reform ahead of the new European Commission coming into office. On the EU’s part, the feared populist revolution failed to materialise. Russia would have enjoyed the emergence of a populist bloc in the European Parliament, large enough to hamstring the EU’s action. In its absence, Ukraine and the EU are free to continue deepening their relationship.

 

This will not be an easy journey. The EU last assessed the implementation of the Association Agreement in November 2018. It noted that progress was being made, particularly in public services – pensions, healthcare and education. Energy is a key area of focus for both sides. Indeed, the Ukrainian Parliament recently ratified amendments to the Association Agreement, laying the groundwork for Ukraine’s integration into the European energy market. The spectre of Nord Stream 2 hangs over these discussions. It has been referred to as ‘Ukraine’s worst nightmare’, and sends conflicting messages about European commitment to energy security and Ukrainian economic development.

 

In addition, reform itself is a difficult path to tread. Challenges persist in anti-corruption measures, economic stabilisation, and the continued conflict and destabilisation efforts by Russia.

 

The Ukrainian public (excluding the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), according to February 2019 polling from the Razumkov Centre, has a negative attitude to the ongoing series of reforms: land, healthcare, pensions, education, judicial reforms, as well as the mass privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The poll also highlighted brain drain from Ukraine as a threat, calling for discussions on partial reimbursement for education spending on emigrants.

 

However, unlike for Chernobyl‘s cast, there is hope for EU and Ukrainian policymakers yet. Global Skills Partnerships are gaining traction in European policy circles to share the benefits of migration between destination and origin countries. For example: two Ukrainians would train at home. One would choose to stay and the other to migrate to the EU. An EU organisation in need of their skills would pay for the migrating student’s training in full, and also pay for half of the remaining student’s. The migrant worker would then commit to work for that organisation for a period of time and pay off the training costs with a fraction of their salary. Both countries gain highly-skilled employees, while their governments do not bear any of the cost – helping to tackle the ‘brain drain’ problem.

Although Ukrainians may have a negative perception of Association Agreement reforms, they remain positive about the European path as a whole. Data from the International Republican Institute, Sociological Group Rating and GfK demonstrate this. When Ukrainians[1] were asked to choose between joining the EU or a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, support for the EU fluctuated between 30 and 40% from November 2011 to February 2014. In March 2014, support for joining the EU shot up to 52% and has had majority backing ever since. Support for the Customs Union has become a minority opinion. The presidential elections have not changed this – support for joining the EU was 57% in May 2019. NATO accession has also gained some popularity after Russian military action on Ukrainian territory began. In May 2019, 49% of Ukrainians stated they would support joining NATO in a referendum.

Support for joining the EU finds majority backing among supporters of all Ukrainian political parties with the potential to win parliamentary seats, bar the pro-Russia Opposition Platform. The picture is similar for NATO. It wins majority support across most party supporters, a plurality among Zelensky’s party supporters, and strong opposition from the Opposition Platform. Although it will not be a straightforward journey, it is one that voters in Ukraine across the political spectrum remain committed to.

 

Overall, the convergence of Ukrainian and EU electoral cycles provides a window of opportunity for both sides to recommit to their cooperation. On the Ukrainian side, the government must use this impetus to continue with structural reform and anti-corruption measures while working with the EU to alleviate citizen concerns. The EU should remain a strong backer of Ukraine’s European pathway and resist the temptation of rapprochement with Russia.

[1] Figures from after April 2014 exclude Crimea. Figures from after September 2014 exclude occupied Donbas.

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