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Overheard in Brussels VI: Putin and the EU

Strength in politics  is measured by your ability to create problems. Unpredictability is Putin’s big strength  – the EU on the other hand is the embodiment of predictability.

Foreign policy analyst (event in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.

Overheard in Brussels V: Pro-EU campaigning in the UK

All pro-EU organisations in the UK are old, ineffective and have no significant grassroot support – or to put it differently: nothing comparable to UKIP exists on the pro-EU side. Plus, nobody wants to spend any “career capital” in pro-EU campaigning.

–  British writer/commentator on EU issues (at an event in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.

Overheard in Brussels IV: The EurActiv mystery

Why is it that EurActiv never breaks a big EU story? They’ve been around for ages so why does nobody outside Brussels takes any notice of them? I mean, you never read in the FT, NYT or in the Guadian  something like ‘as reported by EurActiv’ or ‘revealed by EurActiv’ – even if they actually did break the story. They have some good journalists there. So is it a problem of the name? Or because it is a online portal? Or because it is yellow?  I don’t know.

– Freelance journalist

This blog post is part of my “Overheard in Brussels“ series.

Overheard in Brussels III: Writing for The Economist

What’s it like to write for The Economist? Who is your audience? And what do people in Brussels expect you to know?

“There is so much noise and fog in Brussels, it is hard to identify the story that matters outside the bubble. As a journalist in Brussels I have to pretend that I know a lot about many things. I usually write for the tired Indian businessman who does not know much about EU politics and reads the Economist with a glass of whiskey.”

Tom Nuttall – Charlemagne columnist at The Economist (Cambre breakfast event: #Brusselscalling, 28/1/2015 )

This blog post is part of “Overheard in Brussels“.

Overheard in Brussels II: “I was wrong about Spitzenkandidaten…”

“To be honest, I was wrong about the Spitzenkandidaten process. It is an important first step to give the EU a face – and it gives the public a buy-in to EU politics.”

– Former UK cabinet minister (at an event in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of “Overheard in Brussels“.

Calling for an ‘end to austerity’ does not work in German. Here is why.

One of the recurrent problems of the eurozone crisis is a discursive misunderstanding between Germany and the rest of Europe.  But it is not only a political or ideological issue, it is also about language and what sort of meanings we attach to certain words and phrases.  The most striking example is the word ‘austerity’. In German it is usually translated as “Sparpolitik” (to save + policy). Of course it is possible to say “Austeritätspolitik” but this  is really an academic concept, not a word used by the general public.  The ‘man in the street’ and most German media usually use words like ‘sparen’ (to save) or “Sparpolitik”  to describe ‘austerity’.  But everything connected to “sparen” has a very positive connotation in German – and with everything I mean everything (examples include”Sparbuch”, “sparsam”, “Bausparvertrag”, “sparsamer Motor”, “sparsamer Rohstoffverbrauch”, “Energiesparlampe”, “Sparschwein” … )  Basically, it is almost not possible to think of a word, a sentence or phrase that would create a negative context for “sparen” – with the exception of “kaputtsparen” maybe.  Compare this with the word “austere” which has an ‘absolutely negative, gloomy connotation’, as @SubsidiarityMan on twitter pointed out.

However, this leads to the problem that ”Sparpolitik” is considered to be something positive (regardless of what it means in policy terms). In German it just sounds like a reasonable thing to do. This effect is probably even stronger among people that don’t know much about economics (so basically almost everyone).  Now, calling for “end to austerity” would mean to end something very positive and reasonable. So calls for an “Ende der Sparpolitik/Sparkurs” simply don’t work in the public discourse.  Changing the German approach to the eurozone thus requires to change the discourse within Germany: either find an alternative word or phrase for “Sparpolitik” that invokes a different set of meanings – or focus on more specific policy projects that replace the current focus on ‘austerity’.

A note on German politics

On the political level ‘austerity’ is not only connected to Greece or the eurozone – above all it is a domestic issue in Germany.  Merkel and her CDU are obsessed with “balanced budgets”  and this idea of “zero new debt”. If Merkel said that austerity in Greece was wrong she would automatically admit that domestic economic policy had also been wrong.  And this is usually not how politicians operate. Instead of admitting mistakes they focus on other topics or change some of the fineprint without making a big fuss about it. And even though Merkel managed to do several big u-turns over the years it is unlikely that she will change her approach on this issue. So, expecting that the German political elite is admitting that everything  they did over the years – both in a domestic and European context –  had been wrong, is a rather naive hope.

Update 6/2/2014:  This blog post seemed to have inspired France 24.

Overheard in Brussels: “Germany has the nicest house, but…”

[Welcome to a new blog category. Basically short posts with interesting stuff I heard at various events in Brussels, during coffees breaks or over a beer. Funny quotes, interesting observations or revealing analogies. If an event was held under Chatham House rule I will not attribute the quotation nor will I reveal the nature of the event.]

“Germany has the nicest house but the value of the house will decrease if the neighbourhood continues to deteriorate.”

– Retired British politician (debate in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of “Overheard in Brussels“.

David Cameron has gone mad

Yes, honestly. Read this!

Then a tweet made me smile:

Early signs of denial? I am afraid I have bad news, David…

PS: The virus is spreading around the world. US President Obama, German Interior Minister de Maizière and Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator have all come up with similar ideas…

What is your favourite EU affairs newsletter?

It’s Friday afternoon – and for many of  us this is also the time of the week to tidy up the inbox. But wait a minute, are there actually newsletters you enjoy reading? If yes why?  I know email newsletters are so 1990s and we are all using twitter and RSS feeds. But we still (sort of) rely on some of the old school newsletters (I do for some press reviews in the morning – and I tend to keep track of a few selected organisations for various reasons). There is even talk about “the return of the newsletter“. And having found some beautifully curated newsletters lately (nope, not in the political arena), I was wondering what the ‘Brussels Bubble’ is reading.  Are there any  well written/interesting/ well curated daily/weekly/monthly newsletters on EU affairs that are worth reading?

You know the sort of press reviews you tend glance over in the morning or the weekly policy analysis digest that is really important for your sector – or is there an interesting curated newsletter that just comes with the right mix of EU topics?  Which organisation/institution/think tank/news service/consultancy sends out the best newsletter? Do you prefer a paid service – if yes which one (if I may ask)?  Or do you rely on the internal comms services of your institution?

It would be great to crowdsource a list of “must-read EU affairs newsletters” in the comments of this blog post.  Or  – if nothing springs to mind – what sort of EU related newsletter would you like to subscribe to?

So feel to share your favourite newsletters – or newsletter ideas below!

(PS: You can post your comment anonymously)

PSS: I also came across this Quartz Global Executive Study which sort of confirms the importance of email newsletters – at least for “Executives”. They (still) use newsletters as their primary news source, the inbox is a news homepage. For these “Executives” email is also the main social network. So time to rethink the newsletter concept?

Quartz_Global_Executives_Study_-_2015-02-06_10.41.41 Quartz_Global_Executives_Study_-_2015-02-06_09.17.19

EU reform: If It ain’t broke, why fix it?

I really did not want to write about this dreadful “EU reform as imagined by David Cameron” thingy. Everything has been said. Cameron’s  “EU reform” is essentially a bad idea because (1) we still don’t know what it means and (2) it is linked to a referendum pledge (which is seen in the rest of the EU as simple blackmailing).  This week Angela Merkel is travelling to London to meet David Cameron. Apparently “EU reform” is on the agenda so the media started speculating about what may or may not happen. Basically nothing will happen – here is why.

If It ain’t broke, don’t fix it

First problem: what does Cameron want? Over the past couple of months Cameron announced that his unknown ‘EU reforms’ will require treaty change. Topic-wise it all seems to boil down to put an end to  “ever closer union” (a term only relevant for Tory backbenchers and UKIP supporters) and “something with immigration/ benefit tourism”.  A few months ago a slight problem emerged over the issue of ‘benefit tourism’: it sadly does not exist. Similar story with ‘immigration’:  ‘Intra-EU migration’ (aka free movement!) is not seen as a problem elsewhere in Europe. But if It ain’t broke, why ‘reform’ it?

Basically most  reform ideas identified by David Cameron are not real EU problems –  or include EU policies that are already underway (for example TTIP, strengthening of the single market etc.). Interestingly, the UK media also fail to realise that most stuff Cameron is banging on about is already happening. A few months ago the European Council conclusions included a clarification on ever closer union and in the new Commission work programme a “Labour Mobility Package”  has been included. The  aim is of this package is to support “labour mobility and tackling abuse by means of better coordination of social security systems, the targeted review of the Posting of Workers Directive”. This is quite an achievement taking into account that these problems barely exist outside Tory HQ.

The second mistake is the focus on Germany and Angela Merkel  as Philip Oltermann pointed out. The EU consists of 26 other member states. A clever negotiator would collect several reform ideas from different EU members, forge a coalition and try to push through a big compromise which is acceptable for everyone. Once you have done this you can announce your referendum – but don’t announce stuff before you thought about how to deliver it.  But this is not how David Cameron seems to operate.

What will Angie do this week?

Well, nothing really.  Cameron  needs to win an election to actually start his negotiation  (question also remains: with whom does he want to negotiate after alienating most other EU leaders over the years?) Everything that Merkel will say to him at this moment: “Calm down David, forget treaty change and let’s talk after the elections.” And frankly, we should do the same…

PS: Maybe David and Angie should read this article by Jean-Claude Piris (former Director of the Legal Services of the Council of the EU)  who explains that Cameron’s renegotiation is basically a non-starter: “the timing of the procedure makes it unfeasible (..) [and] the substantive problems look equally insurmountable“.

PSS: The title of this blog post refers to David Cameron’s “EU reform”. It is not to say that the EU does not need to change, the opposite is true: we need a lot of changes on the EU level – but (unfortunately) most of what Cameron wants to change is irrelevant/not real problems. This in itself says a lot about the EU debate in the UK…


The Hearings: Flawed politics or a useful democratic exercise?

top3[A blog post that will ultimately fail to answer the brainy question in the title… because the hearings are both, flawed and useful]

The hearings are over, we (almost) have a new European Commission. The Slovenian problem will surely be solved more quickly than most people expect (OK, I wrote the post before the nomination of Violeta Bulc..).  In case you missed #ephearings20014 check our project blog here.

Anyway, after having followed far too many of those hearings, I started wondering what we should change next time. [The biggest flaw is obviously the rule ‘each member state sends one candidate’ – and the subsequent problem to find 27 “very important” portfolios.]

I. It is the European Parliament: It is politics, stupid!

It is a parliament, there are parties, there are ‘Members of Parliament’. Are people really surprised that we are dealing with power games and political games? But this seems to be the problem in Brussels: Commissioners tend to think they are well paid administrators (instead of politicians)- and observers think Parliamentary groups or Parliamentarians don’t do politics. However, as soon as it gets a bit messy (basically there are no clear majorities in the EP) we seem to struggle to make sense out of it because we tend to compare the whole event with what we know from national politics.

II. This time it was different – or was it?

There might have been slightly more interest in covering the hearings this time,  but let’s be honest, we have seen it all before.  A candidate got rejected, another one got a second hearing, additional written questions etc. It’s business as usual. The European Parliament has had a de-facto veto on  individual Commissioner nominees for quite a while. It basically has become a normal part of the hearings. (Anyone remember Jeleva or Buttiglione?)

III. MEPs – please improve your questioning skills!

Let’s face it. Some questions posed by MEPs were appalling. And I am not talking about the questions about the Queen or Hitler. (those questions are a good reminder of what sort of people we have elected to the EP – but that’s another story) It is about asking questions that produce relevant and revealing answers. Here are a few simple rules:

  • Don’t ask 3 questions if you  know that the Candidate is only allowed to speak for 2 minutes;
  • Ask follow-up questions instead of simply repeating questions;
  • Try and coordinate your questions better – among the MEPs in your political group but also within the Committee (I know this is already happening – but somehow it doesn’t seem to work).
  • MEPs, don’t reiterate your political convictions or use your question as an opportunity to give a speech. You are wasting everyone’s time!

IV. We need consistency – for all hearings and committees.

This may contradict an earlier point but seen from the outside the hearings lacked a certain degree of consistency. What do I mean by that?  Different committees seem to evaluate candidates using different criteria. I know there are procedures and criteria that are supposed to prevent this from happening but we should have a debate over the next years about the purpose of these hearings, especially when it comes to how to evaluate portfolio knowledge of the candidates.

V.  The format is seriously flawed.

3h? Give us a break!  There is research that suggests that the human brain can’t concentrate for longer than an hour or so (google the details…) The point is, these hearings are too long – at least a toilet break for the Commissioner nominees and MEPs should be introduced. I am also not sure whether we really need a 3 hour hearing – 2 hours will do just fine (if MEPs work on the questioning skills).

We also should think about changing the format and make it more ‘conversational’ – let’s allow direct follow-up questions to clarify issues. Another idea is to actually organise the hearing as a series of thematic blocks in order to cover certain topics more comprehensively.

VII.  “Wrong” candidate? Thank you, member states!

Yes, the hearings are a ‘sort of job interview’ but there is also an element of accountability involved. It’s about two things: making sure that member states send useful and appropriate candidates to Brussels and to approve the portfolio assignments of the EC president.  This time it was actually much easier to spot second-rate politicians as we had a couple of outstanding performers. A rejection of a candidate – or a ‘second hearing’ is always a reminder that some member states simply don’t seem to nominate their most capable politicians. This issue is also linked to the role of he Commission President who has only limited clout over the nomination process.  A strange/unsuitable candidate is the responsibility of the respective member state – and the hearings are a useful reminder that we get the Commissioners the member states want us to get…

British politics in a nutshell

British politics – be it about “Europe”, immigration, the NHS, whatever really – is a predictable affair. The Conservative Party tries to appease UKIP – a strategy destined to fail. The LibDems went into a coalition with the Tories – but failed to deliver anything beyond rhetoric . The opposition? Well, Labour try to win the next election – they could still fail. The Greens failed to get noticed  while UKIP basically get away with everything they do…

So British politics is based on a few eternal ‘truths’. This is an ongoing tweet series. I am sure I will add some more tweets to this blog post in the coming weeks/months/years…

Analysing #ephearings2014

The hearings of the nominated Commissioners are underway in the European Parliament – and we are trying to make sense of them. We (a group of bloggers and communication experts) set up a small group blog to analyse the performance of individual commissioners. The basic idea is to assess each candidate using a ‘political comms’ perspective. Posts are rather short, there are grades involved and we usually publish them during or shortly after the hearing  – see here, here and here for a short introduction to the project.

Do we really need EU reform? Or just different policies?

The most annoying feature of the EU debate these days is the claim that we need “EU reform” – and this widespread belief that a well developed reform agenda actually exists is some hidden drawer. (This post is not about the question whether there is a need for reform but it deals with the rhetorical phenomenon called ‘reform’ which is becoming a useless catch-all phrase)

Unfortunately very few ask the right questions  (journalists in particular don’t seem to be interested in the fine print) and wonder what “EU reform” actually means. Does it mean we need a new ‘reform treaty’ or do we simply want to change existing policies? Is it about the Eurozone or the EU? It is also telling that most commentators and politicians who enjoy talking about “EU reform” or the EU’s “identity crisis” fail to say what exactly needs to be changed. The underlying “analysis” often boils down to something like “everyone knows it is not working at the moment so I don’t need to explain it”. And instead of giving concrete examples of what is not working and how it can be fixed, all we hear – at least in the UK – is a series of superficial statements (something about national power, immigration and repatriation).

The reform debate is also a rhetorical trap. It is impossible to say “I am against reform” as this would imply that everything is just fine, so many just go along  hoping that they can support one aspect of “EU reform”. Even if you agree with one specific reform idea, it is almost impossible to argue “I am against EU reform but I would like to change X”.

David Cameron’s ‘reform’ rhetoric is exactly designed to have this effect. We don’t really know what he means, nobody challenges him, his analysis is guided by the referendum pledge and based on what his backbenchers want to hear:  ‘strengthening  national parliaments’, ‘stop immigration’ and remove ‘ever closer union‘.  He cleverly mixes policy and structural issues and does not make a difference between Europe, the EU and the national level. Simply put, Cameron’s EU reform is not about the EU. However, the danger is that slowly but surely the British version of ”EU reform” is becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

But let’s have a look at three core claims that are often used to make the case for “EU reform”:

1. “We need to reform the EU because the EU is not working”

Usually this statement never includes any details about what *exactly* is not working – but nobody seems to care.  Rhetorically, the claim is often linked to declining trust in EU institutions, the missing European demos and an apparent malfunction in the system. I don’t want to argue that these things don’t exist, but I think we can only approach those rather complex issues by talking about concrete ideas – and not by using a term that is neither defined nor filled with any content.

Another dimension of the claim (especially in the UK) is the idea that the EU is a ‘one size fits all’ organisation that somehow bullies member states into projects they neither support nor want. But looking at institutional realities this is simply not true. We have enhanced cooperation and a series of agreements and treaties that do not include all EU member states. The Fiscal Compact, the ESM and the EFSF, the Schengen zone and the Euro. Of course one could argue that these constructions are not perfect and a lot of things can be improved – but it is simply not correct to argue that the EU should be more flexible to accommodate the wishes of certain member states. We effectively  already have a two – or even three – speed Europe!

Last but not least, there is  an issue of policy and policy competence when we talk about the “EU that is not working”. We often hear arguments about “growth” and the missing “competitiveness” of Europe. But what exactly would be the role of the EU in this?  Do we need to change policy? Would that mean better rules to make the single market work better?  If yes, in which sector? And does this change actually concern the European level – or can we achieve improvements by changing how we deal with EU issues on the national level? These are important questions – but if we continue  to hide those issues behind “EU reform” we lose the ability to discuss different policy ideas.

2. “We need a bigger say for national parliaments/governments”

I would like to see evidence why the current system is not sufficiently developed. National governments can effectively veto every EU law.  The Lisbon Treaty strengthened the European Council by making it a fully fledged institution with  a full time president. During the euro crisis there was a clear power shift towards the member states.  So what exactly was it that you want to “reform” – and would it help to change anything?

Another debate is the role of national Parliaments.  (and there is an important debate whether strengthening national parliaments would automatically improve EU legitimacy) But also in this case it is worth looking at what we already have. Yes, it’s the yellow card procedure – but it is hardly been used. So instead of talking about introducing a new ‘red card’ procedure maybe we should think of how to fix the current system first. If hundreds of yellow cards had been issued (with minimal effect on EU institutions) it might be easier to argue for a new system. Interestingly, the only successful yellow card procedure in 2012 (latest report available) actually resulted in the withdrawal of the EC proposal. I am also intrigued by the absence of national parliamentarians in this debate: What do they think about the potential additional workload? Do they think they need to replicate the work of MEPs? Are we talking about  the role of national Parliaments in EMU issues or the role of national Parliaments in scrutinising EU policy? And above all, why do we, the citizens, vote for MEPs that are supposed to work on EU legislation – if this is now an issue for national parliaments?  The logic is simple: Many who  advocate a “strengthening of national parliaments” are effectively arguing against the idea of having a European Parliament. (and again, this essentially boils down the argument of low turnout, missing  EU demos, etc). Prime ministers and heads of governments also seem to enjoy talking about this issue (probably because they think they can use their parliamentary EU committee as an additional veto mechanism).  Funnily enough they never talk about  the Danish model where MPs give ministers a clear mandate for negotiations in the Council..

The point I am trying to make is this: By simply talking about “EU reform” we miss some of the essential questions about the future of EU democracy. And don’t be fooled, it is a framing issue:  A debate on “EU democracy” will be different  to a debate  that focuses on “EU reform” as it allows us to discuss different ideas – instead of having to argue about whether we need reform.

3. “The European Parliament Elections showed that people want reform”

This is also an interesting claim. The European Parliament elections are (unfortunately) second order elections. It is an opportunity for people to  vote against their government. It is often used as an opportunity to cast a protest vote. Most analysts would agree with that statement – but when it comes to this abstract “EU reform” the same people would argue that “the people” wanted this or that to be changed on the EU level. This is disingenuous and simply inconsistent.

In most countries the majority of people voted on national issues – so how can you claim that they want “reform”? Most parties that campaigned did not  propose any wide-ranging reforms of the EU (and if they did the ideas were very different and can’t be summarised with one word) – so how can you claim that people want your kind of “reform”? The claims that the European Parliament elections should be analysed as a “political earthquake” are also grossly exaggerated. The radical/eurosceptic vote is only marginally larger than in previous elections (and most eurosceptics basically want out of the EU – not to “reform” it) – so how can you claim that those people want “reform”? 60 %  of European did not got to vote – do they really want “reform”?

If there is anything people want it is  better – or different  – policies (although many are confused what is EU and what is national policy). Arguments about institutional reform  don’t usually feature very high on the public agenda. Of course there might be a case for a “more democratic EU” or a “more competitive EU” –  but it is far from obvious what actually should be done. And yes, a clear division between the Eurozone and the rest of the EU would be desirable. But is it politically possible?  There might be a case for institutional reform but we should also be clear about what exactly needs to be reformed and – more importantly – we need to distinguish between institutional changes (that could even be implemented under current rules) and policy changes (that require political will to change existing directives and policies).  We should not forget that the last “Reform Treaty” (the provisional name of the Lisbon Treaty!) has not been around that long and it seems to me that there is still potential to use current rules to change things.

PS: The ‘reform’ crowd often underestimates treaty ratification dynamics. Any new treaty would need to be ratified (also via referendums!) by all 28 Member States. It is very difficult to win referendums on institutional questions (as some might remember from Lisbon and Nice) and if a new treaty is simply seen as a vehicle to give  concessions to one member state (ie UK) it is destined to fail.


A rambling blog post on why we can’t continue talking about “reform” without saying what *exactly* needs to be reformed.

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