Friday 1 August 2014

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British officials in Brussels and the UK’s policy leverage

By Gergely Polner The UK still holds a high number of senior civil servants in the EU, but their number is in decline. The foreign office should encourage young civil servants and graduates to work in Brussels.

 

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An ode to Zeeland

Posted by Isarajka on 26th July 2014

In the stars

All paths lead to Zeeland that weekend. There seemed to be no way around it.

First of all, I had to leave my flat for that weekend. My friend and landlord was hosting other people there for a few days and asked me to spend the long weekend elsewhere. That was fine by me, and part of our deal, and a license to a small trip somewhere. Second, my parents’ friends invited me for lunch and coffee in Zeeland around that same time, to their summer house on the island of Walcheren to be precise, and that’s how I decided on my destination. Third, the universe seemed to like the idea and conspired to find me a great host on Walcheren, in the town of Vlissingen, and that with not much more than a few clicks on my favourite two websites, Couchsurfing.org and WarmShowers.org.

And there’s more. Fourth, it turned out my friend Irina had been near Vlissingen, in Middelburg, just the week before, and left her coat at the train station, and tasked me to pick it up; so I even had a mission. And, last but not least, well, there was Susan Miller, the online horoscope lady, who seemed to have talked to my landlord, my parents’ friends, my host-to-be, and my friend Irina, and concluded that I take a trip to a not too far away place around that same date, Thursday 12 June 2014, even though  Ascension and Pentecoste were behind us, and the timing thus not that obvious.

So, a long weekend was clearly in the stars for me, and well, the location, Zeeland, and Walcheren within Zeeland, a given as well. There was no other one.

And then a memory came back, of something both distant as from another life, and close as it had happened just last year. Or at least, I think it had, if I didn’t only dream it. At times indeed it seemed more like a dream, yet I had photos to prove it really happened. Not many admittedly as my camera had broken down back then, but enough to see that yes, apparently, according to those photos, I had already been there. To Vlissingen and Middelburg. To Walcheren. To Zeeland. Or somewhere around there. With someone who was no longer around and who therefore couldn’t confirm any of these claims.

Those memories were very vague; at the time I had just sat in a car, in a haze, and let someone drive me around, without ever consulting the map, barely knowing where we were. And indeed, I actually didn’t. Names of towns, villages must have gone by back then, but they didn’t stick; I remembered none. I remembered a few scenes instead, the beach, the place where we bought kibbeling for the first time and then sat down among the dunes, the place where we bought kibbeling for the second time, and then rushed off with the car, the place where we had uitsmijter and watched the cyclists. As if from distant childhood. And I preferred to not think of them now. Pretend I had never been there. Hoping not to recognize any of the places before me, not to be reminded of that distant and yet so very recent and raw moment in my personal history.

And then it was time. Friday morning. I caught the 7:21 train to Knokke and arrived at my bike rental place on Knokke’s coastline, Boulevard Bikes, at 9:15. Olivier, the guy in charge, rented me the coolest solid Dutch-style Gazelle bike ever, gave me a 30% discount and equipped me with a (free) bikebag, two (free) maps of Zeeland, and lots of (heartfelt and very free) tips and tricks on where to go. And by 9:45 I was on my way, feeling on top of the world.

Finisterrae

It was an easy ride to Cadzand, the first little town in Zeeland, right across from the Belgian border. A quick stop at the kibbeling shop, and I was all set for a heavenly picknick on the dunes. When I unpacked my kibbeling (and I had vowed to eat as much kibbeling and Hollandse Nieuwe as humanly possibly on this trip), somewhere between Cadzand and Bad Nieuwsfliet, I noticed that my phone had stopped working. And that I wouldn’t be able to get it working again for the next three days until I’d get to a phone shop in Belgium on Monday morning.  Apparently, the pressure of my backpack and the rhytm of my cycling had caused it to „enter“ a wrong pincode four times in a row, prompting it to now ask me for my puk – and I had no idea. Laugh or cry.

Lucky I remembered my address for the night. Oranjestraat 10. In Vlissingen. The Netherlands. And that would have to do. This would be a truly technology-free trip then. Couldn’t remember when I last spent three full days without my phone. A real time-out, almost a Vipasana meditation with no contact with anyone from „my normal life“. Somehow, that made me all the more curious of what was coming. Somehow, as long as we have our phones, we feel somehow „safe“ and able to connect with our „own people“ in case the ones we’re exposed to on this journey turn out to be idiots. But ok, I was going to have to do without that then.

Zeeuws Vlaanderen, which this part of Zeeland is called, the strip of Zeeland attached to Belgium, was as lovely as ever. I had been there before, three years ago, with my friend Joey, doing the same tour, also by bike from Knokke, past Cadzand and Bad Nieuwsfliet, all the way to Breskens. Back then, Breskens had seemed like a far-away place to us, and we were happy to call it a day there and cycle back. But I still remember the sense of awe I felt at having gotten that far, at having arrived at the end of something, where the land ends, and where the Schelde opens out into the open sea. The Schelde is the river, which separates Zeeuws Vlaanderen from the rest of Zeeland, and thereby from the rest of Holland. That pier in Breskens is where big ships would have passed on their way from Antwerp to far-away countries and continents during the Dutch Golden Ages in the 17th century. The pier was desolate back then, and I had a distinct sense of finisterrae, of this is where the world ends, and across from it where something new starts. And I spent three full years kindling the idea of going back there, to Breskens, and further, to the other side, but then never got around to it. In the meantime, I travelled to Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon and elsewhere, but that pier in Breskens never lost its appeal to me; it was like a memory from the past, or a call from the future, or a part of myself waiting to be explored.

Now that I was finally back on that bikepath, I was somewhat impatient to make it beyond that pier this time. I swiftly made it to Breskens, didn’t see the pier, didn’t even look for it, but found the ferry, immediately, and before I knew it, I was on it – and in Vlissingen less than half an hour later. On the other side. Almost too easy. The ferry was more like a metro; it cost four euro and went back and forth 2-3 times an hour. I felt like a Canadian soldier who had been here in 1944, and now came back, 70 years later, well into old age, and in supreme awe of how easy the crossing of that stretch of water proved to be this time around. I was in Vlissingen at 13:00, about four hours earlier than expected; I had somehow thought it was going to be a full-day trip.

Déja vu

Vlissingen was lovely. A medieval town, an orange town, orange flags and posters and t-shirts everywhere. A sunny and light-hearted town, with a blue sky, bridges, cobblestones, happy people, ice cream. Awaiting the football world championship Holland-Spain match scheduled for that night. „Vannacht moet het gebeuren“, the newspapers wrote that day. Louis van Gaal, the Dutch team’s coach, would „have to prove himself that night, and make it a historical night“. A lot of pressure, I thought. How could anyone stand straight in the face of that. And then the game was against Spain, the world champions. An unlikely bet. But hey, one never knows. And people were happy anyway. I dipped into a few shops, one sporting bright orange cyclists’ t-shirts, for ladies, the kind I would wear. The salesgirl promptly complimented me on my choice, „t’is leuk“, and we both came out with the same two words at the same instant, with one voice, „voor vanavond!!“, and she burst into laughter. As in: „You’ll/I’ll at least look nice when we loose“. And I would have bought it hadn’t it been for my budget.

I went about visiting Vlissingen with some sort of greed, some sense of this is where I want to be and this is what I want to see, and to absorb and integrate into my life. I first cycled all around it in one larger circle, and then, much like a predating bird, cut through into the centre of it, and then circled around that centre, twice, just to know what I already knew, which was – that I had been there before. And extensively. I knew every streetcorner. We must have spent a lot of time there. The greeting card shop. The 1 euro shop. The icecream shop. My stomach churned somehow, and I listened, and hesitated, but all seemed under control. No crashing yet. Crashing of my soul. I parked my bike. It was sunny, it was beautiful. I was on a high after the cycling, protected by a warm and floaty feeling. And the memory didn’t assault me, which was a bit of a miracle; last time I had gotten close to a location with that same legacy I spent the next two days crying. Here I was, taking it on squarely. I even had the nerve to get an ice cream at that same icecream place. And even remembered the flavours. Zeelandse bolus, the Zeeland specialty yeast cake with cinnamon, and stroopwafels. I had been in two minds between those two last year as well, and then chose stroopwafels. And found myself doing the same thing over again.

Feeling fragile, and yet reasonably in control, I decided to spend the last half hour before my appointment with my hosts by the beach, which was at about eight minutes cycling from the city centre. And which turned out to be our beach from last year. The one we dug a hole in, and laid ourselves down in for that last hour together. Back then, in another era. And the kibbelingstand by that beach was our kibbelingstand, the one on my photo, the one from my memory. It was spooky. And here I was, feeling, listening. Would I escape, would I cry, would I shake or would I stay? I longed for a moment on the beach, in the sand, by the water. And I had time to kill. And there was no other beach around. And again, with a lot of nerve, and maybe a touch of masochism, I locked my bike and walked straight down to the centre of that beach. Sat down among pink-bikinied teenagers and screaming blond children and oversized seagulls circling right above us. Unpacked my kibbeling. Yes, I would eat lots of kibbeling on this trip. If only I could swallow it. I couldn’t swallow it. I got up to do a cartwheel instead. And another one. And another one. The beach was mine. The sky was the limit; the water my element; the horizon a promise of better times to come. I would exorcise the ghosts from the past. Cleanse the place. I felt alive. And deliciously dizzy. And when I noticed that the seagulls were eating my kibbeling, picking through the paperbag, and flying off with big chunks of fish in their beaks, I didn’t even care.

Orange

Time to go find my hosts. Easy. Oranjestrat. „Bij de Oranjemolen“ as everyone was able to tell me. Sounded like the right address for this (historical and all-orange) night. Relieved and happy when I got there. And delighted with Froukje and Paul when I met them. Turns out they are hosting almost every day. Via Couchsurfing, Warm Showers or Vrienden van de Fiets. Couchsurfers and warm shower mensen stay for free; vrienden van de fiets would normally pay 19 euro per night, but Froukje in her overwhelming generosity often lets them stay for free, too. Just to give something back to the world, hear a new story, meet a new person, give or get some inspiration. Or at least that’s my take on why they’re doing this. Clearly not for the money as they’re not making any, and it’s not like they „need“ extra company either;  they’re surrounded by good friends and neighbours, a few of which I actually met.

Froukje, Paul and their neighbours Sebastian and Frank have created what they call a cooking club. Several times per week, and often joined by other neighbours, they take turns in cooking dinner, and then eat together around a large table in the garden. On that Friday night, the cook had been Sebastian, late forties, who treated us to artichokes for starters, yummy veg and chicken as a main, and a lucky dip into a big round bowl of strawberries for dessert. Served with whipped cream, coffee and Belgian chocolates. We ate like kings. And we kletsen nooit over geld. Wow. Dutch community and garden life at its best. Gezellig. And belying the cliché of the Dutch being stingy. No zuinig and gierig for that little garden community. And so nice and easy after a long day’s work. Ik schuif maar gewoon aan. Neighbours from heaven. Like from some Italian movie. Extended family dinners on a summery terrace, all generations, and lots of straight talking. And the Dutch are straight talkers, too, but I’ve always known that.

And then there was the game. The game. The historical moment. To be watched in one of the pubs in the centre. We were late. Spain was leading 1-0. No special emotions to be detected anywhere. The Dutch are a sturdy breed. And Spain was world champion after all. And then the miracle happened. Vannacht moet het gebeuren. Just before the break, Holland scored a goal. Tonight’s gonna be a good night. At once, all those people under all that orange facepaint, hairspray and clothing were coming alive. Jumping onto tables, high fives, hugging, whooping, we are the champions. And then it was break time. A well deserved one. Time to catch our breath. And watch the hilarious ads featuring a curvy Brazilian sexbomb on Copacabana beach speaking Dutch and mocking Dutch carnaval. Oranje. Super Dutch. Hup Holland Hup. Parodies of various movies. Voor Oranje begint de strijd nu, met power, respect, teamspirit. Want winnaars verliezen nooit. LOL. I whipped out my camera, people posed for my video, the tide was high.

Then we moved on to bar number two. Around the corner of Bellamy park, still in the centre of town. There the next miracle happened. Holland scored again. And then again. And then things got out of control. Holland scored four more times in that second halftime; five times altogether. After the 3rd Dutch goal, the Spanish gave up. Later that week, a Spanish friend told me that earlier that day, the Spanish state had sold off a major public services company, hoping the people wouldn’t notice in their narcotic football craze. And just days before, the King had abdicated causing the people to demand the abolition of the monarchy. „The country is falling apart; football was all we had left“ he diagnosed.  But one nation’s misery is another nation’s fortune, or at least in football. Later that night, the Dutch commentator told everyone that „there could have been a 6th and a 7th and an 8th goal“. During the game, people behind me were all shouting: „Tien! Tien! Tien! Tien!“ Getting greedy, loosing every sense of proportion. This was beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. You could almost smell the testosterone. „Je had jouw oranje t-shirtje kunnen aandoen“ some half drunk guy lurched when I walked past. Me, who was clearly Dutch with that orange hair of mine, and orange soul beaming through my darkblue sweater. And me who obviously had a whole selection of orange t-shirts and skimpy dresses in my all too Dutch wardrobe in my all Dutch home town somewhere. Maybe I should have bought that t-shirt after all.

Still delightfully immersed in an orange cloud of Dutchness, I woke up to an all orange breakfast the next morning. Boterammen, pindakaas, hagelslag, appelstroop and (orange) plakjes kaas. Only the musjes and vla missing to complete the cliché. And there was coffee. When I was younger, I used to have a postcard featuring two deliciously inviting coffee cups before a starchy white lace curtain saying „De koffie is klaar“, which I kept on my desk for years. The Dutch have a thing for koffie. They even drink it at night, with lots of foamy warm milk, in big comforting mugs, reassuring, lulling you to sleep. Froukje, Paul and I ended up having koffie and breakfast in the garden, with the neighbours greeting us as they walked by. Gezellig.

Headwind

I eventually braved the road, with a huge delay and only a vague idea of where I wanted to go. Domburg, then Veere I thought, then somehow on to Middelburg. Bike-guru Olivier had said the best ice cream was in Veere.  My parents’ friends had cancelled last minute, but I had made a coffee appointment with Anna, a couchsurfer in Middelburg. Plus there was Irina’s jacket; yes, I had a mission. And off I went. Following the coastline, I cycled northwestwards, and thought I’d hit Domburg within an hour. But things turned out different. What would have normally taken one hour, took me four. The weather had changed, it was much colder than the day before, a stiff little wind was blowing, and I soon found myself pulling out a sweater, and then another one, and tugging my scarf tightly around my face and hitting the pedal without much pleasure. I soldiered on just for the sake of it. I had to get there somehow, there, where, anywhere. The water on my left, the inland on my right, I navigated my way through dunes and dykes and ditches, and past other cyclists, but just didn’t enjoy it that much. Strain and headwind.

Until the way suddenly opened (and yes, there was a distinct sense of opening) when the road led straight into the adorable little village of Zoutelande. Which really lifted my spirits. And I can’t even say why.  The place in itself was not even that special, objectively-speaking, but I was just plain delighted. In a physical sort of way. Almost shivering with it. With a sense of having gotten away with it, or tricked the system. As if I hadn’t been supposed to come here, or come back here, or at least not alive, and yet I had. I had never been there before, or at least not to my knowledge, so maybe it was relief at not recognizing anything, and being allowed to explore something perfectly new. Or, on the contrary, it might have struck a chord with something from the past, long lost and found, broken and mended. The place was so jolly and blue and sunny again, with scores of beachtoys and bikinis dangling in the breeze outside colourful little shops, and people sitting on terraces in the sun and eating „opa’s appeltaart met slagroom and drinking more of that reassuring Dutch coffee. (In Holland, applecake’s being baked by the granddads nowadays; the grandmas are busy writing novels and travelling the world). A summer’s day, despite the changing weather, families, the north sea, my childhood maybe.

Then more cycling again. The weather changing again. Chilly. More headwind. Onwards to Westkapelle. Where the Allies landed in WWII. On 1 November 1944, with heavy amphibious warfare on even heavier ships. The full monty. Mainly Brits and Canadians. It must have been even colder and windier back then.

Turns out Walcheren played an important role in WWII. Little history lesson: On 6 June 1944, the Allies had landed in Normandy, also known as D-Day. Three months later, on 4 September, they captured the port of Antwerp, mainly to shorten the supply lines to their soldiers advancing towards Germany. But when Antwerp was captured, they couldn’t use it, as right above Antwerp there was Walcheren, and Walcheren was still controlled by the Germans. Now, Walcheren was difficult. The Germans were heavily fortified there, and the Allies first tried driving the Germans out of Holland from the other side. But after weeks and weeks of not making much progress, British Field Marshall Montgomery had enough and gave the opening of the Schelde “complete priority without any qualification whatsoever”. All eyes were on Walcheren again.

Next thing you knew was that between 2 and 11 October, a Canadian Lt-General called Guy Simons ordered the Walcheren population by radio and pamphlets to evacuate potential strategic objects, and on 3rd, 7th and 11th October respectively, the RAF Bomber Command dropped between 8000 and 9000 tons of bombs onto the dykes at Westkapelle, near Vlissingen and at Veere. Walcheren was instantly flooded and transformed into a massive lagoon rimmed by broken dykes. A few weeks later, on 1 November, at 05:45 in the morning, Allied commandos landed at Oranjemolen in Vlissingen, right behind Froukje and Paul’s house.

Casualties-wise, „the campaign to free up Antwerp cost the Allies dear”, says the History Learning Site. “They had lost 703 officers and 12,170 other ranks killed, wounded or lost in action, presumed dead. Over half of these casualties were Canadian men.” A few survivors of the campaign still gather, every year (yes, every year, says Paul, and one of them is in a wheelchair) on 1 November to commemorate them (and yes, right behind their house). In Westkapelle, the 3 October bombings are still known as ‘t Bombardement and remembered as the day when 180 Westkapelle residents were killed and the village all but wiped off the face of the earth by the bombs and the incoming sea.

Some footage of the flooded island on youtube -the wonders of youtube- at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FAFWYM9yvQ and voor de nederlandstaaligen among us, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fg7zGo9Wy08. Even one year after the bombings, three quarters of Walcheren were still under water and the devastation breathtaking.

Luctor et Emergo

Talking about floodings, turns out that Walcheren came under water again in January 1953, and so did other parts of Holland, when a heavy storm caused the dykes to break, killing 1,835 people and forcing the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned that day, 37,300 buildings were damaged, and an extra 10,000 completely destroyed. The Dutch coined a special word for the disaster – watersnoodramp- and the Dutch government set out to build an ambitious flood defence system, the so-called Delta Works, designed to protect the estuaries of the Rhine, Maas and Schelde rivers. Zeeland was particularly affected by the disaster. No wonder the province’s slogan (coined long before 1953) reads Luctor et Emergo – I struggle and I emerge – a reference to the interminable battle the province has been waging with the sea if not since time immemorial then at least for many decades. Indeed, the inhabitants of Zeeland’s small towns and villages have spent much of their history either at sea or keeping the sea away from hearth and home.

The Allied landing has left a strong mark on the island. No wonder the street next to Paul and Froukje’s street in Vlissingen is called Landingsstraat. And no wonder the tiny village of Westkapelle has its own war museum, and a monument on the dyke above the museum. When I reached that monument on the dyke that day, and admired the ironcast tank on top of a block of granite, I noticed a small figure all dressed up in a WWII uniform complete with helmet and rifle, climbing all over it. I blinked. An apparition? A wax figure? A guard? An actor enacting a scene from back then? Weird. And some others seemed confused by it, too. I looked again and discerned a little boy of maybe 8 years of age, wearing an original Allied WWII uniform, with a small Dutch flag sown onto its front. A little Dutch boy playing at war. I couldn’t help myself and walked up to the kid and asked in a playful tone where on earth he got that uniform from. In Dutch. No answer. In German. Maybe he was German and got it from the nearby museum as part of some fun historical reenactment exercise. No answer. Spreekt je Nederlands? Ja. Ok. Waar heb je die vandaan? No answer. Is die van jou? Ja. Ok. Of van je papa? Nee. Right. Ok, this is his own uniform and he’s simply – playing at war. Not sure I’m getting these parents. I was raised on „Nie wieder Krieg“ and my brother, born in 1969, kept from playing with anything even resembling a soldier. Even „action man“ was considered too violent. But maybe I’m missing something. After all, I am the granddaughter of those staunch and humourless people who dug trenches on Scheveningen beach, and who stole this little boy’s greatgrandparents bicycles. Hm.

Vlissingen has been of interest to many foreign powers throughout history. Significantly, the 44,500 people town is, despite its relatively small size, one of the few Dutch towns with names in two other languages. The French call it Flessengue and the English Flushing. Long before the Germans in the 1940s, Napoleon had laid hands on Vlissingen in far-away 1795, incorporated it into his French republic, and invested in it by building some heavy fortifications. To his mind, Vlissingen was going to play an important role in his plans to conquer England. Not surprisingly, the English didn’t like the idea and, in 1809, subjected the town to heavy bombardments.

Another 200 years before that, when the Netherlands were still ruled by the Spanish, and Willem van Oranje was slowly gaining ground in his struggle against the Spanish oppressors,  Vlissingen became famous for being one of the two first Dutch towns, which managed to free itself from Spanish rule. Oranje’s rebels rebels first captured the town of Brielle, on 1 April 1572, and then Vlissingen on 6 April 1572. These events marked a turning point in the 80 Years War between the Netherlands and Spain, and the event is still remembered today, with a rhyme for April Fool’s Day: “Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril, en op april zes verloor Alva zijn fles,” basically meaning that “on 1 April the (Spanish) count Alba lost his glasses (bril meaning glasses and referring to the town of Brielle), and on 6 April he lost his bottle (fles meaning bottle and referring to Vlissingen).” Ok, so Vlissingen has a tradition of freedom-fighting and insurgency.  Or at least it did 400 years ago.
Anyhow, I had neither glasses nor bottles to lose that day, mainly as I hadn’t brought any in the first place, but I missed them all the same as I felt my eyes water from the wind (no glasses) and my mouth go dry from a lack of water (no bottle). And I longed to arrive somewhere now.

Treats and tailwind

Next stop Domburg. So close and yet so far. The headwind didn’t help and neither did the dark clouds which were suddenly forming everywhere. Eventually I did get there, but when I looked at a clock it was 3pm. The 20km from Vlissingen to Domburg had taken me four hours. Granted, I had made a few stops, but still. Bit daunting when I thought of what was yet to come.  If things continued this way, I wouldn’t get back to Vlissingen before midnight. But first things first. I deserved a break. Time for lunch, and coffee, and cake, and a stroll. I parked my bike with a few other bikes. In Zeeland you don’t need to lock your bike to anything; just lock it „to itself“ and no one will touch it. „It’s too heavy to carry around“, says Froukje. Plus, where would they take it to? We’re on an island. And indeed, none of the hundreds of bikes I saw those three days were attached to anything. So very different from Brussels where according to some statistics they steal 75 bikes a night, and even the crappiest about-to-fall-apart bike requires a 60 euro U-lock to protect it from the bike-mob. So Zeeland really felt like a fairy tale world, or a long-lost timezone, where people and bikes still happily coexist and no one fears anyone else and everyone is getting enough.

And I certainly got enough in Domburg, too. „The beach is the main event in Domburg“ writes the Lonely Planet, but I didn’t even see the beach; it was just too chilly. That day, the main events in Domburg were clearly the Hollandse Nieuwe, the kibbeling, and the ice cream. Domburg is a quintessentially little Dutch village with one-storey houses, lace curtains and lacquered blue front doors, which has basically been transformed into an open-air tourist resort, but all that without having lost its soul. You still feel the sweetness of it. There’s a bakery, and two fish shops – one on each side of the village – and a whole array of charming little cafes and bistros in between. But the fish shops are clearly the most popular. Everyone happily munching their kibbeling. To the sound of Zeeuwse folklore music brought to us by a group of men in their 60s, all dressed up in the Zeeuwse traditional costume, standing there and playing just for our amusement. Melodious, jolly, brass. Watched by swarms of retirees and families with children, many Germans. No backpackers, no couchsurfers, few people in their 20s, 30s or 40s, or at least not many without kids. Domburg is the kind of place my grandmother would have loved. But I didn’t mind somehow, and loved being there, too.  Me who’s done Ukraine by bike, on my own, even ten years ago. Me who spent the last two summers couchsurfing and cycling through Morocco, and hitchhiking and wildcamping in France and Italy. Even I loved Domburg. And so did everyone else it seems. Olivier, the bikeguru and surfer thought it’s a „very, very, very niiice place“. And so did Irina.

My lunch consisted of three pieces of deliciously warm and fleshy (and overprized) Hollandse Nieuwe (at 2 euros a piece), met ujtjes, and a chicken piri piri pastry, which I jumped on for the sole reason that I had no idea what it was. It just sounded so quintessentially Dutch, a bit like saté kroket or bami and I just had to try it. I found a little bench in the sun (yes, the sun was back again) and indulged. And rarely has herring tasted so good, not to mention that buttery piri piri pastry. But not enough, I also had to have my appeltaart met slagroom. And two koffies. And, on my way out of town, an icecream on top. Haagse hapjes, vanilla with koffie. Just to get my blood sugar levels up all the way. Yes, I was eating myself into some kind of over-energised frenzy, which I though I’d need to master the rest of the day. Because the ride to Middelburg scared me. Another 25km, which would have been nothing under normal circumstances, but with this headwind, they looked daunting.
But then things turned out all different again. The headwind was suddenly tailwind, the sun back out, my sleeves rolled up, my spirits high – and I flew. Or my bike flew me. I barely had to pedal. And instead of taking what felt like four hours, I was in Middelburg within what felt like 40 minutes.

In between parties

While Vlissingen had been swinging with life and sunlight that previous day, and whilst Domburg had been brimming with happy people munching their all-Dutch junk food that afternoon, Middelburg – that evening – seemed dead. Not a soul on the streets, the wind blowing again, a few isolated jazz musicians rehearsing for the open air concert that night, and hesitantly striking some wailing notes, but to not too much of an audience. I must have gotten there in between parties. The football game was over, and the jazz concert hadn’t started yet.

And yet, it was a beautiful town. With an air of grandeur, or at least much more so than any of the other towns on Walcheren. Middelburg is the provincial capital after all. And an ancient one that is. Built in the 13th century, Middelburg grew into one of the Netherlands’ most important trading centres during the late Middle Ages. No wonder the town was full of beautiful architecture. Fivehundred years later, in 1940, Middelburg was heavily bombed by Germany, but rebuilt after the war, much of it in its original style. The Gothic townhouse, built in 1452, (again) a masterpiece.

The Lonely Planet calls the town pleasant, prosperous and sedate. And indeed, it had a calm, dignified, unhurried quality about it. As if this were where Dutch people go when they want to start anew in life. Like after a divorce, or a midlife crisis, or a burn-out from their hectic lives in Amsterdam, Den Haag or Utrecht. A bit like Spain or the south of France, but – in Holland. And then there’s the climate. Zeeland has a peculiar microclimate, which makes for clear skies and sunshine almost all year around. And, last but not least, there’s the dependable and obliging nature of the Zeelanders, who over the centuries have grown used to accommodating all sorts of guests and invaders. But then those stressed-out city people tend to be of an amenable and indulgent breed themselves. Which might be why they chose Zeeland in the first place. Actually, I have no idea. Purely speculating, trying to be clever. And bigtime deducing this from the handful of „import people“ I met there, who tended to be kind and generous NRC-reading, PvdA-voting social workers, civil servants, journalists and artists. But there may be entire colonies of retired VVD members dwelling on their yachts by het Veerse Meer somewhere; I wouldn’t know.

In any case, Middelburg, as pretty much every Dutch town nowadays, has a strong social conscience, or at least pretends it does, and persuasively so. That day, Middelburg hosted a festival commemorating the end of slavery, and the shadowy role the town had played in upholding slavery for many years before that. In Middelburg, there were shipyards, and those shipyards built the ships, which shipped tens of thousands of slaves from Africa to the Americas.

According to the Lifeline Expedition (www.lifelineexpedition.co.uk), an impressive reconciliation initiative launched in the UK in the 1990s bringing together the descendants of people from the three corners of the slave triangle (Europe-Africa-America), “the Dutch were among the most successful traders in slaves, especially during the 17th century.” Shockingly, and with specific reference to the role of Zeeland in all this, the Lifeline Expedition maintains that “altogether, ships from Zeeland made 672 recorded journeys transporting 278,476 slaves, compared to 173 recorded journeys from Amsterdam carrying 73,476 slaves.”  It goes on to say that “the biggest number of voyages was from Vlissingen”, and that “Middleburg and Vlissingen must have been virtual slaving communities, with a substantial amount of manpower involved in the traffic. In fact a report of 1750 confirms that Vlissingen’s only commercial branch of significance was the slave trade.” Hm. Not very palatable.

An excellent article on The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850 puts things into a larger perspective. The author basically suggests that, at the end of the day and compared to other European powers, the Dutch didn’t profit much from the slave trade, which in part explains why the economically disadvantaged province of Zeeland might have been more willing to get involved with it than Holland’s other more prosperous regions.

Past and present

One name I kept coming across on my journey through Walcheren, was that of Admiral Michiel De Ruyter.  Who is this guy, I asked myself, and googled him upon my return to Belgium. And well,  „BadassOfTheWeek.com“ sustains that „this dude is one of the toughest motherfuckers to ever come out of the Low Countries, and one of the most amazing seaborne murder-machines to ever pound his enemies to death with his massive (cannon) balls. In nearly 60 years sailing on the high seas during the Golden Age of Dutch Badassery, this Netherlandian (Netherlanderthal?) aquatic destruction-monger served in seven wars, led warships into combat in over forty engagements, and fought more than fifteen massive full-scale naval battles against the toughest sailors Earth has ever seen.” Right. Woah. But the text is meant to be funny and actually goes on to portray De Ruyter in a very positive light.

According to other and maybe more scientific sources, „badass“ De Ruyter was actually born in Vlissingen, in 1607, has streets named after him in pretty much every town in Holland, and played a significant role in Zeeland’s trading activities in the mid 17th century. Now, whether De Ruyter was a good guy or a bad guy is a tough one to answer. On the face of it, he’s very much a good guy; so at least all of Holland, and beyond, has agreed centuries ago. He heroically fought in the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, and is basically credited for the continued existence of the Netherlands as a sovereign country. Also, he is said to have been a kind and humble man devoted to the wellbeing of his crew, and, last but not least, to have „regularly freed Christian slaves by redeeming them at his own expense”. It appears that even in Hungary, of all places, there’s a monument commemorating the role he played in negotiating the liberation of 26 Hungarian clergymen who had been forced to work as galley slaves by the Spanish. On the other hand, I ask myself, what about the „non-Christian“ slaves? And, if he was one of the biggest traders in Vlissingen at that time, and if the main trade in Vlissingen was slavery back then – well, you do the maths. Unless, he was working to change the system from within? Or maybe I’m missing something. Other must have researched this before, no? In the meantime, he remains a hero.

And in the meantime, Middelburg concentrates on present-day slavery. That weekend, Middelburg was hosting a large-scale photo exhibition reminding people of the fact that slavery exists even today, mainly in the form of forcing undocumented migrants into 18 hour shifts for loans way below the legal minimum wages. And yes, even in EU countries. All documented on large billboards greeting me from above on my way into the town, and educating me on facts and figures. Nicely done (those Dutch!). But quite gruesome indeed.

And, talking about human rights violations (or genocide), well, just a few moments before reaching those billboards (we’re moving backwards now, rewinding the movie so-to-speak), I passed a large Jewish cemetery. Which featured a commemorative plaque honouring the Jewish citizens of Middelburg who were deported to the Nazi death damps. And surprisingly, the gravestones seemed to be chained to each other, which made me wonder whether there had been acts of vandalism. Apparently, Middelburg had quite a flourishing little Jewish community before the war, counting 131 people, says the Joods Historisch Musem website. Then, in 1940, the Middelburg synagogue was plundered by local members of the Dutch collaborationist NSB party, and in 1942, the Middelburg Jews were deported, and none of them returned alive.

Not an easy legacy for Middelburg. First that slave trade, then the ousting of the Jewish community. Driven by the German occupants of course, but possibly helped by the locals. But then, in 1994, the synagogue was restored and rededicated, and in 2004, the first Jewish wedding took place in Middelburg since before the war.  Eind goed, al goed? Minden jó, ha a vége jó? All’s well that ends well? Let’s just say yes. The town’s just too beautiful to be cross with it. By the way, Middelburg’s Jewish community goes back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when Jewish merchants moved to Middelburg from Spain and Portugal, compounded in the late 17th century by Jewish families fleeing pogroms in central and eastern Europe. So, in theory, the Dutch provinces of the Middle Ages, including Zeeland, were a land of refuge and asylum rather than the opposite.

Serendipity

I swiftly cycled through Middelburg, and straight to the train station, and the stationsrestauratie, and Irina’s blue coat. Which I found immediately. And, still inside the stationsrestauratie, I turned around and – there was Anna. My couchsurfing coffee appointment, and that without having made a real appointment. She just knew I had to pick up that coat at some point, and I was all the more delighted to see her. Sometimes things just work out.

Anna is a writer. And many things on top of that. An ex-business consultant that is. And someone hosting poetry and prose salons in Amsterdam, Den Haag and now also in Middelburg. And a woman who once travelled to Nepal to spend 12 months in Bhutanese refugee camp and then wrote a book about it. That is, about a Bhutanese refugee girl who was then resettled to the Netherlands to be precise. In her book, called Headwind, that girl experiences various difficulties as a child in Nepal and upon her arrival in the Netherlands, but then that headwind turns into tailwind and she gradually grows into a self-assured young woman. And yet, that headwind never leaves her altogether – which is probably true for all of us, refugees or not. Hardships, as facts of life, will always be there in one way or another, and it’s all in the „how we cope with it“.

And indeed, headwind had been the theme of my whole day. And Anna has had her share of headwind as well. In her life I mean. Which she’s gloriously managed to turn into tailwind. We spoke about all sorts of things, and it was refreshing to be able to go straight to the point, and talk about „what is really going on“ in our lives, in the way one sometimes finds it easier to talk to perfect strangers than to people one knows one will meet again at work the next morning. I loved Anna’s sunny take on life. I’ve made choices and changes, I’ve re-invented myself, and I’ve made it all work, could have been her line. And yes, she really has. No nonsense, down to earth, getting things done. She amused me with her tales about her upcoming novel set in the Victorian times, which has prompted her to „dress and live like a Victorian“ one day a week to get into her main character. I glanced down at her. „No, today’s the 50s“. Right. She was wearing a stiff blue dotted dress, tights and assorted shoes. The 50s, indeed. The Victorian day must be another day. Can’t wait to get my hands on that book.

After a chat in the station restaurant and a scenic bikeride through the old town, we ended up at Anna’s favourite kroeg, as in bar, or pub, and had another chat session there. That place was my kind of place, like an old sailor’s inn, on a street corner, jolly, open, and flooded with a golden afternoon light which warmed my heart and illuminated the ancient wooden beams framing the doors and windows. Anna ordered a glass of nutwine for me, a deliciously sweet beverage served with ice. A  group of young guys, just random guys from the town it seemed, in their 30s and 40s, entertained everyone and themselves with a roaring interpretation of We are the world, followed by The rivers of Babylon. One of them played the piano. Karaoke, but without the whole (silly) technology. Like in the old days. And they all knew the texts anyways. And all that over Anna’s stories.
I floated. A high. I had clearly arrived at my destination.

Eventually I said goodbye and set out to cycle back. As in, to Vlissingen. Bit tipsy, from the sun as much as from the nutwine. Not sure about my whereabouts. Somewhere in Holland, right. I asked an elderly couple cycling behind me. The road to Vlissingen? No answer; I figured they had to be German tourists. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Ja. Die Strasse nach Vlissingen? Their reply: Immer nach rechts. With a Dutch accent though. Right. Not Germans after all then. I was a bit sceptical. Immer nach rechts sounded a bit like immer geradeaus. But this was not 1940 in Scheveningen, and I didn’t look like a German soldier who had just stolen a bike, did I. I chuckled and came out with U spreekt toch wel Nederlands. Ja, they replied, en u bent Nederlands. As in, me. A compliment, half question, half statement. Nee, niet echt, I confessed. And they liked me all the same. We smiled, she was kind, and the direction was right. And the ride by the canal from Middelburg to Vlissingen memorable. A real treat. They should prescribe this against depression. Or sleeplessness. Or ADHD.
I came home to Froukje’s and Paul’s place 20 minutes later feeling all zen and grounded and blessed. And yes, home was the right word by now. I had missed out on the cooking club that evening, but there were still some of leftovers in the fridge. Mexican tonight, all beans and veg and cheese and salad. Delicious and therapeutic after all that sugar earlier in the day.

Doen!

Two new guests had arrived that night, Vrienden van de Fiets, a father and his 16-year old daughter, a most touchingly sweet little pair. Him involved in a squatting project in Maastricht. I loved the colourful array of people I met in Froukje’s garden, and I had barely scraped the surface of it. Froukje volunteers for 1001 organisations it seems; it was hard to find anything she isn’t involved with in some way. From the cultural centre inside her building to the Refugee University Fund, helping refugees to complete their education in the Netherlands.

And then our conversations. Like in the old days, before email and facebook. When people actually still talked to each other and without keeping the TV on while doing so. But, with perfect strangers. Which maybe wouldn’t have happened back then. Before the internet gave us insight into the fact that we’re basically all the same; striving for the same stuff, struggling with the same stuff. So, I was getting the best of both worlds. Modern day internet connectivity which had allowed me to hook up with them in the first place. And old school appreciation for real togetherness and communication. And it was so easy to talk to them. I’m always curious and one word gave way to another.

About the ties we have on this planet. Family and other ties. About who our friends are. Are facebook friends friends?  The kind we do know personally of course, but communicate with only to let them know that we’ve just gotten up to a wonderful new day, purchased a new pair of glittery pink sandals, or booked a holiday to Spain? And how about couchsurfing friends? Or vrienden op de fiets friends? Are new networks replacing vanishing old structures? Are fast-paced, short-lived friendships supplanting long-lasting ones? Friendship almost as a consumer good, something we can order and book online these days? We talked about giving and taking, and loyalty and betrayal. Verbijsterend teleursgestelt are two words that I learned that day. And that I won’t forget so quickly. They really struck a chord with me. And this whole last year. As the ultimate expression of a sense of total abandon by those one had cared about, relied on and trusted most. But is anyone of us really immune to that? And what happens when that stuff happens? How do we cope? Do we cope?

Froukje had a nice book about that. Called Borderline Times and written by Leuven-based Belgian psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter who maintains that many of us no longer do. And drift off into self-diagnosed mental illness instead. „I’m unhappy so something must be wrong with me“. And then fall into the pharmaceutical industry trap. „Let me purchase a pill to sort me out“. Helped by the growing hype around „trendy“ mental disorders like ADHD in adults, bipolar disorder and borderline syndrom. And yet, de Wachter says, it’s not so much those more vulnerable individuals who feel like there’s something wrong with them and who come seek help in his psychiatric praxis that are the sick ones. Instead, he says, it’s society as a whole, which makes them feel that way, that needs to be looked at. He calls it de geluksmaatschappij, the happiness society, where we’ve all made it our personal aim in life to show the rest of the world how happy and exciting our lives are. In colour, with pictures, on facebook, or elsewhere, and every day. It’s us, the mainstream, those creating and cultivating this climate and keeping up the pressure, and increasingly hiding ourselves behind shields and layers of – well, basically hypocrisy – who are the sick ones. Or sickly ones. Suffering from borderline syndrome. Often characterised by a sense of emptiness and fear of abandon. And yes, I could see that. Again, that family and other ties question.

Froukje and Paul seem to have resolved that question for themselves by opening their house and lives to all those who can appreciate it. And by taking action, serving, advancing and not looking back much. And by trying to keep in touch. „Why don’t you come to Zeeland in a year from now, when you have a stressful job, and treat yourself to little weekends in Zeeland and in Maastricht, chilling?“ she asked me, followed by her trademark line: „Doen!“ As in: „Just do it! And not just talk about it!“ In the same way she encouraged others to try camping, to borrow her bikes, and to organise a trip around the world.“ And I concluded that Froukje’s the kind of person who should have five children and ten grandchildren and who’d be a role model to each one of them.

On Sunday morning, Vaderdag, I said goodbye to my hosts, their guests and the neighbours from heaven, and started my retreat. Suddenly it was all over. My way back was uneventful. Within ten minutes I was at the ferry, within 30 minutes I was in Zeeuws Vlaanderen again, on the other side of the Schelde,  and within three hours I was back in Knokke.

And yet, I felt I’ve had it all. Headwind and tailwind, pain and pleasure, some fear and anxiety, much good fortune and lovely surprises, a sense of disconnect, and then again heart-to-heart connections, out of the blue, „boddhisatvas from the earth“, crowds and one-to-ones, past and present, history and mystery, insights into my life and the lives of the others, intertwining and parting again, like the waves of the ocean behind Froukje and Paul’s house.

An ode to Zeeland.

 

 

MH17: Why didn’t the EU put its flags at half-mast?

Posted by Georgi Gotev on 25th July 2014

Every little act is a symbol that you care. I fail to understand why the EU didn’t put its flags at half- mast following the downing of MH17. Friends from France, Spain, Bulgaria called me and asked: did the Commission put down its flags? It didn’t.

The Malaysian airplane carrying 298 people of which 222 Europeans was shot probably by mistake, but it was a murder. Those are innocent victims of another war on European territory. The Netherlands, a country that lost 193 nationals in the crash, took the lead in the identification of the bodies. Dutch government buildings flew the flag at half-mast on 18 July, the day after the crash. But I don’t think the Dutch felt that the EU was with them on that day. By the way, Downing Street has put the Union Jack down, as 10 UK citizens perished in the crash.
Many European citizens felt as bereaved as the Dutch. But the EU institutions left them down.
P.S. This is the answer I got: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/pla…

Europäisches Kartell

Posted by Günter K.V. Vetter on 24th July 2014

“Die EU-Kommission setzt auf Energieverschwendung” – das vernichtende Urteil der DENEF(Deutsche Unternehmensinitiative Energie-Effizienz) ist berechtigt… Statt um 40% will die Kommission den Energieverbrauch bis 2030 lediglich um 30% senken, und das nicht einmal für alle Mitgliedsstaaten verbindlich… Dass die EU-Kommission in derselben Sitzung die Reform des deutschen EEG durchwinkt, ist mehr als nur ein Zufall. Denn beide Entscheidungen hängen eng miteinander zusammen und sind getragen von demselben rückwärtsgewandten Geist.

Im Interesse des alten nuklear-fossilen Energiekartells und der eng mit ihm verbunden energie-intensiven Industrie werden die für die gesamte Gesellschaft so wichtigen und übergeordneten Ziele einer vernünftigen Energiepolitik über Bord geworfen, vom Klimaschutz über die Verringerung der Abhängigkeit von Energie-Importen bis hin zur Senkung der stetig wachsenden Kosten für die EU-Energie-Importe…

Dabei war Deutschland auf einem guten Weg: Mit der Energiewende wurde vorgemacht, wie Effizienz, Ausbau der Erneuerbaren und Reduzierung des CO2-Ausstoßes wirtschaftlich zu schaffen sind. Doch Gabriel und Oettinger praktizieren offenbar auch auf EU-Ebene und in Sachen Energie die Große Koalition: Der deutsche Energieminister hebelt das EEG aus und sorgt für weiterhin großzügige Strompreisrabatte, ausgerechnet für die größten Stromfresser, und Oettinger sorgt dafür, dass der Druck zur Energie-Effizienz aus Brüssel nicht zu groß wird.

Das Ergebnis: Mit den niedrigsten Industriestrompreisen seit 2005 sinkt die Bereitschaft der Unternehmen für Investitionen in Energie-Effizienzmaßnahmen nahezu auf Null – und nebenbei freuen sich RWE., E.ON & Co., weil gerade diese Stromfresser zu ihren wichtigsten Kunden zählen.

So schließt sich der Kreis: Energiepolitik hat eben leider auch im Jahr 2014, auch in Zeiten von Klimawandel, Energiewende, Ukraine-Krise und schwindenden Ölreserven nur begrenzt etwas mit Vernunft, dafür aber umso mehr mit Interessen, Macht und Geld zu tun.

How to unlock the EU this summer?

Posted by Dan Luca on 22nd July 2014

By Dan Luca Federica Mogherini. Jonathan Hill. Names and nominees are floated for future Commissioners, but can't Europe do better? The best thing for the UK's relationship with the rest of Europe, for example, is to put forward David Miliband in the field. Yes: his brother leads the Left in Britain. But David is by far the best choice for all stakeholders, including the Conservatives.

Réformer les Traités ou réformer la Commission ?

Posted by EU-Logos on 22nd July 2014

 Pourquoi la Commission ? D’abord, elle a concentré les critiques et l’impopularité et son efficacité et sa légitimité ont été mises en causes occultant ses mérites durant toute la crise, perdant de vue que ses pouvoirs ont été renforcés en matière économique et budgétaire. Les principaux enjeux politiques pour réformer la Commission sont faciles à appréhender au moment où commence un nouveau cycle politique avec l’élection du Parlement européen, une nouvelle Commission, un nouveau président du Conseil européen, un nouveau Haut représentant pour les relations extérieurs, un nouveau président pour la zone euro…

Dés lors il est naturel que resurgissent des débats sur les modifications des traités. Il est le fait pour l’essentiel de la société civile qui propose de lancer une « grande » Convention pour réviser les traités, c’est le cas par exemple de la Plateforme Europe+ qui vient de rassembler plusieurs ONG bien connues, des vétérans pour la plupart du militantisme européen. Tous souhaitent un grand débat sur le contenu de l’avenir européen, dans le cadre d’un processus ouvert promouvant démocratie directe et transparence. Il convient de saluer ces initiatives. Mais il convient aussi d’en souligner les limites et de s’interroger sur leur réalisme, pour ne pas parler de leur opportunité. Faut-il rappeler que les élections européennes ont été marquées par une poussée du vote eurosceptique, désormais bien identifiable ce qui cependant a eu le mérite de coaliser les forces pro européennes, largement majoritaires. Le pourcentage des citoyens européens qui ont pris part au vote stagne ((43,09 %) malgré une campagne qui sur la fin a essayé d’insuffler un nouvel intérêt pour les affaires européennes et les encourager à se déplacer pour voter. Cette tentative n’a pas été couronnée d’un franc succès.

La société civile le reconnait : les réseaux de militants doivent être consolidés, la mobilisation demeure un enjeu crucial pour assurer une plus forte pénétration à l’intérieur des Etats, assurer un plus grand rassemblement pour une plus grande visibilité. La société civile européenne reste encore trop faible et trop peu visible pour lui donner une valeur stratégique et l’engager dans la réforme des traités, une opération au demeurant trop abstraite pour la plupart des citoyens. Cette société civile d’avant-garde souhaite l’organisation d’une Convention sur l’avenir de l’Europe, une telle convention a déjà eu lieu de 2001 à 2003 et la société civile y a été formellement associée. Ce fut, il faut le reconnaitre, un échec pour la société civile et Jean-Luc Dehaene, en charge au cours de la Convention de la société civile, a multiplié les critiques sévères à son égard, notamment celles de « technocratique ». A sa suite le Parlement européen, comme chef de file, a organisé trois agora de la société civile : ce ne fut pas convainquant et surtout chacun de ces évènements est resté un « évènement » isolés et sans lendemain. Le fonctionnement de la société civile pour l’Europe est celui d’un oligopole. Enfin se lancer dans une réforme des traités, c’est du pain bénit pour David Cameron comme pour ses successeurs.

Tout cela doit faire réfléchir : la priorité n’est pas de se pencher sur le moteur du véhicule, mais sur le voyage, l’itinéraire et la destination. Trop de mécaniciens et pas assez de pilotes ou de navigateurs. Pourtant ces derniers ne manquent pas : récemment Antonio Vitorino avec Yves Bertoncini a produit un « Réformer la Commission entre efficacité et légitimité » (1) qui mérite une lecture attentive : avec concision et simplicité il est allé à l’essentiel. De longue date il développe une stratégie d’innovation et de sortie du marasme mais largement à Traités constants. Invoquer comme préalable la réforme des Traités revient à se créer un alibi pour ne rien faire, estime-t-il.

Antonio Vitorino fait un petit nombre de constats et retient un petit nombre de grands principes, en eux-mêmes, simples d’un simplicité biblique loin des sophistications des grands institutionnalistes de l’Europe, mais aux conséquences décisives

1.• Les membres de la Commission n’étant pas élus directement, la légitimité de la Commission est nécessairement double : elle repose sur le Conseil européen (un commissaire par État membre, tous dotés du même droit de vote à la différence des Conseils avec ses votes à la majorité pondérée) autant que sur le Parlement européen (dont les membres élisent le président de la Commission et investissent le collège).

• Une application effective du principe de collégialité est nécessaire afin de promouvoir une vision politique large : la taille du collège peut la rendre plus difficile, mais c’est le rôle du président d’oeuvrer en ce sens. Le fait d’avoir un commissaire par État est un fait négatif en soi (ce n’est plus un collège mais une assemblée délibérante diront certains) mais A. Vitorino s’il se résigne à voir ce principe perdurer en propose les antidotes notamment pour éviter d’en faire un Coreper de plus.

Un profil politique marqué des commissaires est déterminant pour le dynamisme de la Commission.

• Les pouvoirs du Parlement européen ont été renforcés par tous les traités successifs, et le Conseil européen est apparu plus légitime en période de crise. Il convient de faire remarquer au passage que les compétences en la matière n’étaient pas toutes inscrites dans le marbre des Traités, la dérive intergouvernementale dénoncée ici ou là en devenait inévitable sans être pour autant être une tendance profonde pour le long terme. En temps « normal », la Commission ne peut qu’être plus influente si elle est bien conduite, y compris grâce à un nouveau collège bénéficiant d’une légitimité renforcée.

2. La légitimité et l’efficacité de la Commission dépendent d’abord du profil de ses membres, dont la sélection revient aux États membres, sous le contrôle du Parlement européen et avec l’habileté et le savoir faire du Président de la Commission : c’est à eux de nommer les bons commissaires aux bons postes. Ces dernières semaines témoignent du rôle grandissant dans cet exercice du Président de la Commission qui n’a d’autres obligations que de prendre en considération les suggestions des Etats membres. Les péripéties de ces derniers jours tendent à démontrer que le temps où un Etat membre pouvait choisir et « nommer » « son » commissaire, au poste qu’il s’est attribué, ce temps est révolu.

• L’organisation interne plus verticale qu’il faut promouvoir au sein du collège devrait découler non seulement des pouvoirs du président en matière d’attributions des responsabilités entre ses membres, mais aussi d’un nouvel usage du statut des 6 vice-présidents, qu’il faut choisir en fonction de leurs poids politique, et de leurs mérites propres et non pour compenser l’étroitesse de leur portefeuille.

• Les président et vice-présidents de la Commission coordonneront l’action des autres commissaires, dont les portefeuilles seront connectés à leurs sept domaines de compétences respectifs, sur la base d’un système de « clusters ».

• Les périmètres et noms précis de ces 7 « clusters » peuvent varier (L’annexe 1 du policy paper de Notre Europe en donne la liste), mais l’enjeu clé est que ces clusters rassemblent des commissaires agissant en fonction des mêmes réalités fonctionnelles et au service des mêmes grands objectifs politiques.

• Le principe de collégialité sera pleinement appliqué et utilisé (discussions politiques ouvertes au lieu d’accords purement formels ou tacites où le respect des procédures l’emporte sur le débat de fond et où les votes sont rares et le consensus la règle dominante).

3. Une possible consolidation légale de ces évolutions fonctionnelles

• Le « règlement intérieur » de la Commission devrait être revu afin de faciliter la mise en place du système de clusters, par exemple en donnant des pouvoirs spécifiques aux vice-présidents et en revoyant les procédures d’habilitation et de délégation.

• Après avoir reçu le pouvoir de se séparer des membres du collège, le président de la Commission devrait être en mesure de nommer lui-même les commissaires : c’est un principe de cohérence. Cette modification des traités renforcerait la probabilité d’avoir les bons commissaires aux bons postes, et donnerait en outre davantage de pouvoirs verticaux au président de la Commission. Une telle évolution est logique, inévitable au terme d’un processus long et progressif comme l’a été la désignation du président de la Commission, mais il n’est pas pour aujourd’hui

A ce stade il apparait clairement que l’objectif premier de la Commission devrait être d’encourager une vision de la Commission qui soit plus politique et globale, plutôt qu’une vision technique et sectorielle comme celle qui a tendance à prévaloir et qui empêche la Commission de jouer le rôle clé qui devrait être le sien par rapport aux États membres et à leurs opinions publiques. Il faut ensuite encourager des évolutions politiques, certes significatives, mais surtout acceptables, pour toutes ces raisons la voie de la Convention n’est sans doute pas, pour l’instant, la voie la plus efficace.

Enfin bien que pas évoqués jusqu’à maintenant, il doit être admis au moins tacitement que la zone euro et l’espace Schengen, ces deux réalisations sont la clé de voûte de l’Union politique.

CONCLUSION

Au terme de la lecture du texte de « Notre Europe » on est tenté de s’interroger : « quoi !c’est tout ? » Oui, rien de plus pour l’essentiel. Certes tous ces changements humains, organisationnels et légaux seraient complétés par d’autres, en particulier en ce qui concerne la nature et le nombre des accords institutionnels conclus par la Commission et les autres institutions avec au premier plan, la négociation et l’adoption d’un accord interinstitutionnel sur le programme politique de la Commission pour la durée de son mandat (2014-2019). Cette simplicité et cette concision devrait rassurer.

Mais c’est au Conseil et au Parlement à faire preuve de sagesse pour que de bons commissaires soient nommés aux bons postes. Ce qui doit l’emporter c’est la capacité du commissaire de savoir s’appuyer sur l’apport politique inestimable et bien réel qu’apporte son appartenance au collège de la Commission européenne, savoir user de tous les pouvoirs de la Commission (et en particulier de son droit d’initiative) et, enfin, encourager une vision claire et globale des politiques de l’Union européenne et de son avenir. Les commissaires proposés par les États membres devraient également être choisis sur la base de leur contribution potentielle à l’intérêt général de l’Europe, plutôt que pour des raisons de politique intérieure. Au bout du compte c’est le président de la Commission qui est le mieux placé (sa légitimité vient d’être renforcée)pour évaluer les profils des commissaires potentiels répondant au mieux aux besoins concrets de l’institution et de son organisation interne.

Le président de la Commission en viendra, un jour, à nommer naturellement les commissaires et au sein de ce nouveau cadre légal, le président de la Commission pourrait nommer plus facilement les vice-présidents et les commissaires, comme dans n’importe quel gouvernement national. Le président devrait choisir les vice-présidents en respectant les équilibres politiques de l’UE (grands/plus petits États membres et nord/sud/est/ouest en particulier).Les États membres pourraient sans doute accepter une telle hiérarchie politique interne de facto, alors qu’ils sont peu disposés à accepter une hiérarchie de jure comme les négociations en cours et passées le démontrent bien.

Quoi qu’il en soit, même si elles ne sont pas révolutionnaires en ce qui concerne la nature des traités de l’UE et le jeu politique, les propositions fonctionnelles présentées par A. Vitorino et Y. Bertoncini semblent être les seules options possibles et efficaces qui soient susceptibles d’insuffler , immédiatement, à la Commission toute la force nouvelle requise pour contribuer à relever les défis auxquels l’Europe doit faire face aujourd’hui.

(1)    « Réformer la Commission entre efficacité et légitimité » par Antonio Vitorino et Yves Bertoncini Notre Europe-Institut Jacques Delors http://www.notre-europe.eu/media/reformecommissioneuropeenne-bertoncini-vitorino-ne-ijd-juil14.pdf?pdf=ok

 

 


Classé dans:Actualités, BREVES

If we had taken measures, 180 Dutch wouldn’t have died

Posted by Lulea Marius Dorin on 22nd July 2014

Germany longed to be the leader of the European Union, but its Chancellor, Angela Merkel, proves that she is not capable to measure up to such a position.

The actual crisis in Ukraine and the plane crash hijacked by the pro-Russian troops with Russian armament, would have called for a clear and united position from the European Union.

Although 200 European citizens died, Germany does not want to show solidarity and prefers to play into Russia’s hands.

A partial guilt belongs to the other European Union states because they accept a compelling politics from Berlin and choose not to put pressure on the most powerful capital of EU.

If politicians from Berlin do not represent us, then we surely need new ones. Germany without the European space loses its status as a world power. It was the main winner of the European project and the only one not affected by the economic crisis.

Given past experience I would not be surprised if at the end of Merkel’s mandate she is employed somewhere at Gazprom. This would not be the first or the last case, the example set by the German leaders being objectionable.

England, France and Italy, the other powers of the EU are handling their internal politics scandals and prefer to let everything in the hands of Angela Merkel.

But is seems like these hands are too stained with Russian gas.

Europe needs new leader and it is a shame that USA has to come and make order in our ownhousehold.

The Romanian President Traian Băsescu declared that after Ukraine, Poland and Romania could be next and he mentioned that he was disappointed by the European Union’s reaction. He asked for more sanctions against the Russian Federation.

The Romanian President asked that the life of the European Union’s citizens to be put before the economic interest, given its importance. He blames the European leaders who vetoed the application of sanctions for the death of 180 Dutch. If measure were taken a month ago when they were proposed, then we wouldn’t have assisted to this tragedy.

The Romanian President underlined that the European Union should lay stress on what it has more valuable: the people. And even if there are consistent economic losses they would be at the level of the Russian Federation for sure, and this thing will stop the past aggressive style.

He believes that the more the application of firm measures is delayed the more we pay for the Vladimir Putin’s wish to restore the USSR.

Development Aid: the benefits of transparency

Posted by aleflo on 22nd July 2014

The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched an open data platform on Development Aid, aimed at improving transparency on funds to developing countries. The new website is still under development. The Ministry already provides OECD with an annual report on this data.
Information on 2004-2012 period is already available on the new website.

In 2012 most of Italian funds have been addressed to Tunisia (78 millions) Pakistan (61 millions) and Afghanistan (39 millions).
Best Italian donors are: central Public Administrations, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Development Aid Directorate).

Most of the money is targeted at funding projects helping refugees, build infrastructures and send humanitarian aid.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must soon decide whether to publish aid flow data on the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve the transparency of aid, development and humanitarian resources in order to increase their effectiveness in tackling poverty.

The common standard was called for in the Busan Partnership Agreement and further defined by the OECD.

After the Government of Japan has begun publishing to IATI in June 2014, Italy and Russia are the only G8 governments not taking part in the process.

According to the not-for-profit organisation “Publish what you fund”, the Italian aid portal is the first step this country has made in the right direction to make its aid transparent. However, in order to be truly useful, the information must be timely, comparable, comprehensive and accessible – so, it must be published to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Italy agreed to do this as part of its G8 commitments last year, so it must begin publishing to this internationally agreed standard if it really wants to keep the promise to open aid flows by the end of 2015.

Development aid is a precious resource. Open aid data also facilitates the participation of citizens and parliamentarians in holding their governments to account.

WILL JUNCKER GET THE COMMISSION HE NEEDS?

Posted by andrewduff on 22nd July 2014

Andrew Duff looks at the third, concluding phase of the Spitzenkandidaten experiment for the appointment of the new European Commission. He finds that the initiative now lies with President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker.

We have now entered the third and final phase of the constitutional innovation, introduced by the Lisbon treaty, on the matter of the election of the new European Commission.

The first two phases of the Spitzenkandidat experiment have been remarkably successful: the political parties duly put up champions to lead their election campaigns for the European Parliament; the more successful of those, Jean-Claude Juncker of the European People’s Party, was then nominated on 27 June by the European Council – despite some squealing – to succeed President Barroso. On 15 July, the European Parliament returned the compliment by giving Juncker an endorsement of 422 votes – a respectably larger vote than that the 409 votes it had accorded Martin Schulz, the runner-up Spitzenkandidat, for his election as President of the Parliament.

The third stage will tell us whether the new method really works. Will the President-elect, enjoying the strong dual legitimacy of both Council and Parliament, be able to shape the formation of the new Commission more or less to his taste?

Size and shape of the new Commission

Jean-Claude Juncker makes it clear he wants a gender balanced, pluralist college which delivers results. Good. But it is worth noting that his pitch for greater efficiency and effectiveness is already hampered by the decision of the European Council (of which he was then a part) to resile from the formula of the Lisbon treaty whereby the size of the Commission would be reduced in 2014 to two-thirds the number of member states. So he is lumbered with finding 27 colleagues for whom he needs to give respectable (if not always large) jobs.

The first shoes to fill are those of Cathy Ashton, the first Vice-President of the Commission who is also the EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs and who chairs the Council of Foreign Ministers. The treaty gives the power of this appointment to the European Council, with the consent of the President-elect. On 16 July, as we saw, the European Council failed to make the appointment of the High Rep. There are several reasons for this failure, mostly good, and all highly political: party, region and gender are all relevant factors in reaching a decision on top of the question of individual expertise and inclination. The fact is that nobody yet quite fits the bill. The problem is that without Ashton’s successor in the frame the rest of the package deal will be elusive.

The European Council cannot be envied, not least because the size of the package deal is smaller than it used to be. The Spitzenkandidat exercise has deprived the prime ministers of their former freedom of manoeuvre over the Commission presidency itself. There is also a sequencing problem: not all the jobs they have to fill come up at once. The precipitate decision to appoint a new NATO secretary-general earlier this year deprived the leaders of another useful bargaining chip. Herman Van Rompuy, the current President of the European Council, appears to be in no hurry to see his successor appointed (his term continues until the end of the year), while the post of chair of the Eurogroup does not need to be filled until next summer. And nobody dare speak of the identity of the President of the Convention which will have to be called in due course to revise the EU treaties.

So having failed to find a foreign minister, the European Council has left the matter officially until reconvening on 30 August. In the meantime, each government must make a formal nomination to the new Commission. Several prime ministers are rather unhelpfully pitching for specific (and often the same) portfolios. Most, including Cameron, Hollande and Merkel, are ignoring the need for gender balance. Renzi, while proposing a woman, is going for broke on the High Rep.

Jean-Claude Juncker, whose job it is to distribute jobs within the college, can – and, by all accounts, will – stand up to these unseemly demands from national capitals. His role has subtly changed, in this third phase of the process, from being the President-designate of a political party into President-elect of the Commission, whose task it is from now on to seek and find the general interest of all states and citizens.

Each Commissioner-designate will run the gauntlet of European Parliamentary hearings in September, where they will be tested for their competence, European commitment and indubitable independence. Then the entire Juncker college, plus its full political programme, is subject to a vote of MEPs – an open ballot by simple majority – in October. No national government in Europe is subjected to such a thorough inquisitorial parliamentary process.

The direction to take

Juncker already has the advantage of having published his ‘A New Start for Europe: Political Guidelines for the next Commission’, with ten political priorities covering jobs, growth, fairness and democratic change. These offer an intriguing contrast to the ‘Strategic Agenda for the Union in Times of Change’, which was offered up by the European Council at its June meeting. The latter document fulfils the European Council’s role of defining the general political directions and priorities of the Union for the next five years. The European Council wants an EU which is ‘stronger outside, more caring inside’. It advocates ‘stronger euro area governance and stronger economic policy coordination, convergence and solidarity’. But couched in such (inevitably) wide and ambiguous terms, it falls to the new Commission, and especially its President, to set the real political and legislative agenda – not least in terms of democratic renewal.

On the High Rep, Juncker says he wants ‘a strong and experienced player to combine national and European tools, and all the tools available in the Commission, in a more effective way than in the past’. He will establish a cluster of Commissioners under the new High Rep for the dossiers of trade, aid and development as well as for the key geographical regions. He also wants Commissioners with specific portfolios on rights issues and on immigration policy.

In terms of economic policy, Juncker will take forward the 2012 (but since seemingly abandoned) paper of Van Rompuy on ‘Genuine EMU’, and pursue enhanced convergence in the economic, fiscal and labour market policies of the eurozone. In legislative and budgetary terms, there will be a new special fiscal capacity for the eurozone, more emphasis on the social dimension, and better parliamentary control of the EU’s economic governance at both European and, where relevant, national levels.

Come the autumn much more flesh will be needed on a programme for the Commission if it is to serve Europe usefully for its full five year term. If the second term of Jose Manuel Barroso was characterised by crisis management, the first (and only?) term of Jean-Claude Juncker must be a time of steady reform and consolidation – the era of internal enlargement of the Union. In particular, a further round of budgetary reform (including revenue) is badly needed, and new financial instruments created to bolster investment beyond the €300bn so far envisaged.

In constitutional terms, the EU must be let to evolve logically so that its capacity to act effectively and legitimately keeps pace with the demands made on its system of government, at home and abroad. Not least among the challenges is Britain’s problem with European integration – a problem which grows larger by the day, and remains to be confronted, not least by the British themselves.

In this context, Jean-Claude Juncker has made a good start on his mandate. He is making a serious pitch for the appointment of a more political Commission whose task is to drive an agenda aimed at building a stronger, more united and democratic Union. As a federalist, I wish him well. Were I a nationalist, I should be worried.

@AndrewDuffEU
andrewduff@andrewduff.eu

Centennial Commemoration of World War I

Posted by The Eurocrat on 22nd July 2014

The killing of a man’s nephew triggered an event that changed the course of human civilization in the subsequent decades. It was on June 28, 1914 when a Yugoslav nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo.

What followed then was the July Crisis. And on this very day 100 years ago, July 23, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum against Serbia, for they believed that the assassination was concocted by a secret military society consisted of members of the Serbian military. The notion gave the Austrian government the opportunity for them to exert their influential authority over Southeast Europe and suppress nationalist movements.

The ultimatum though was impossible to abide as it threatened Serbia’s sovereignty. It was Austria’s expectation that Serbia would reject the remarkably severe terms of said ultimatum, thus giving it a “legitimate” pretext for declaring war. The Kaiserreich declared war on Serbia five days later, which also implied the declaration of the death warrants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and three other powerful empires in Europe that time.

It’s vital for us to memorialize the centennial anniversary of the “Great War”. But there is nothing great in war, especially in this one. World War I was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, one that cost the world €7.6b and resulted to 20 million senseless deaths, all caused by a few absurd yet essential factors, which include imperialist foreign policies, militarism, sheer nationalism, complex alliances, and domestic crises.

One of those factors still infect world politics today. Nationalism, still a major contributing factor to armed conflicts, continues to stand firm. 19th century nationalism was when great powers of Europe had the desire for dominance and prestige. This shameless and greedy desire for power should be condemned. And I have redundantly condemned the ideology in almost every piece I’ve written in this blog. And it deserves more damnation.

Ongoing civil wars in Africa and the Middle East, the rise of new terror extremists, the recklessness of rising superpowers and their refusal to adhere to international legal and diplomatic principles, the capitalist-consumerist policies that hinder world poverty reduction, and the lack of global progress in addressing climate change are just some of the major challenges our world currently faces. And they are the challenges that will continue to make human civilization suffer if we don’t act.

I realize that the planet is geopolitically divided. Power politics continue to evolve and dominate the current global order but I nevertheless believe that we citizens ultimately have the power to construct the world we want to live in. And we can achieve that by pressuring our governments to promote further enhancements in global governance.

From an EU perspective, the creation of a quasi-political union was the first step in promoting regional organizational integration as a mechanism to change an order to a system where unity of nations prevail over individual sovereign states. It’s time to take the next step. For Europe, it’s time to promote more integration. Not just inside the Union, but also outside, by advocating enhanced regional integration of similar organizations.

A huge step is to also reform the United Nations, starting with the Security Council. Reforming the UN is reforming the current global order. It needs to be adapted to contemporary global sociopolitical realities for it to genuinely fulfill its aim to maintain world peace and prosperity.

Let us learn from history. Let’s not do the same mistake. Nationalism was one of the gross factors that triggered the atrocities of the past century. It’s time for us to contemplate this and rationalize a new approach in changing our ways and our world. Thus, governments should start discouraging militarism and jingoism as it is the only way for human civilization to weaken our warmongering mentality. Warfare must be put to an end before it ends us.

 

 

(Political cartoons from Google Images, courtesy of the rightful owners.)

https://i.imgur.com/F4VlMib.jpg

https://i.imgur.com/phH8jBK.jpg

Israel’s ‘Protective Edge’: Why Now?

Posted by Fadi Elhusseini on 22nd July 2014

An air strike in Rafah in the southern of Gaza strip

Another Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip; it’s not the first and won’t be the last if the political equation in the region does not change. With the previous offensives launched by Israel on Gaza, several military goals were declared. This time, “Operation Protective Edge” comes within a different context, with new domestic, regional and international factors at play. These conditions, by and large, are more prosaic and complex and have been key elements in determining Israel’s goals for this operation, as part of a larger strategy that goes beyond the war itself.

A clear change in the map of world politics has underlined a rising Russian role. With Moscow’s fundamental stance on the Syrian crisis and clear US and EU bewilderment towards the Ukraine and Crimea, Russia’s political weight cannot be overlooked anymore; fading US influence has become a fact.

China has revised its position and role in the Middle East and opted to stay away from the limelight, maintaining its interests but with a lower voice. This was seen as the best option in order to halt its sliding popularity in the region due to its obvious support for the Syrian regime.

Regionally, this Israeli war comes when the events of the Arab Spring continue to surprise all observers. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, by force in Egypt and voluntarily in Tunisia; the escalated crisis in Syria; and the unprecedented chaos in Iraq, Yemen and Libya are cases in point. On the other hand, Iran managed to defuse international pressure and has been successful in reviving and preserving the diplomatic track of its nuclear file.

In Israel, a volatile ruling coalition has been facing mounting domestic criticism. Several domestic travails and economic difficulties have pushed many Israeli intellectuals and politicians to call repeatedly for the dissolution of the current government. In Palestine, the aggression on the Gaza Strip comes shortly after the long awaited national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah; a new deadlock in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations (Israel has been widely blamed for this stalemate); and a wave of violence in the West Bank, started by the killing of three Israeli settlers and followed by the murder of a Palestinian teen in cold blood.

Israel had constantly asked the Palestinian Authority to choose between reconciliation with Hamas and peace. For this reason, Israel could not hide its irritation at Palestinian reconciliation and the resultant unity government, and threatened the moderate PA with serious consequences. In response, its closest allies called upon Israel to put the Palestinian new government to the test and to give it a chance.

In light of the noticeable decline in Israel’s international popularity, its frustration was expressed in condemnation of the US administration’s willingness to work with the new Palestinian government. It is bizarre to see Israeli leaders accusing the Palestinian Authority of isolating Israel globally.

In this vein, one should concede that the Palestinian leadership has succeeded in building bridges with people and governments around the world. The international community has become closer to the Palestinian narrative on peace and international campaigns to boycott Israeli institutions and products have grown to include civil societies, universities and official positions.

Considering the above, it has become unimpeachable that the Israeli government had to find a way out of its domestic crisis and international dilemma. Domestic cohesion often requires governments to find an external bogey; the US has played this card at least since the start of the Cold War and it is not a novel strategy by any means. Concocting an external crisis, therefore seems to have been a foregone conclusion, but what, who and where, especially at this critical juncture for the Middle East? Israeli decision-makers had a number of options.

Iran: There is a broad swathe of anti-Iran sentiment in Israel, for example, and considerable popular support for a military strike on Tehran’s nuclear sites, although polls showed that Israelis are lukewarm about the Sisyphean task of attacking Iran unilaterally. So what about the northern front?

Hezbollah: Hezbollah may cause Israeli leaders to have sleepless nights but they are fully aware of the strategic, logistic and military capabilities that the Lebanese militia possesses. Moreover, the Israeli government is also aware that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and its losses there have not exhausted the movement enough to make military surprises on Israel’s northern border unlikely. That leaves the Palestinians.

Palestine: Whether it is true or not that Israel “fabricated” the killing of the three settlers by hiding the “fact” that they were actually killed in a car crash which was covered-up to provide the government with the “kidnap and murder” story, is irrelevant. The real fact is that Israel has been itching to pick a fight with the Palestinians. The military and political planners knew that no amount of bloodletting on the Palestinian front would bring down international condemnation or major losses; nor even garner much media attention given the current regional and international chaos

Hence, Israel blamed Hamas for killing the settlers, which the Islamic movement still denies. Before the government could benefit in this respect from the deaths, however, a number of Jewish settlers abducted and burned alive a Palestinian teenager.

As a result, Israel decided to transfer the battle wholesale to the Gaza Strip, intending to get Hamas embroiled in a confrontation and bring the movement to its knees. There was a specific sequence to Israeli attacks on the besieged territory; unpopulated open areas were targeted first and there was a gradual shift until Israel is now hitting anywhere and everywhere. This was done with the aim of pushing Hamas and other resistance groups into retaliating by firing rockets across into Israel.

Fully aware of the limited effectiveness of, and thus threat from, the Palestinian rockets, the Israeli government succeeded, despite some criticism, to unite its citizens against the perceived threat coming from the Gaza Strip and so distract attention away from domestic problems and international crises. Images of Israelis in bomb shelters were shown worldwide; the Palestinians, of course, have no such places to seek refuge from Israeli bombs and missiles.

Israel’s gains have not stopped at the domestic level. With every rocket fired from Gaza, the government gets closer to other goals. Whereas many in the international community had started to accept the Palestinian position and condemn Israel’s disproportionate violence, the rockets fired from Gaza brought them back to the Israeli side. Led by the usual suspects in Washington, London and Paris, we were told that Israel has the right to “defend itself”, regardless of its excessive use of force and the horrifying death toll among the Palestinians.

Not limited to these gains, Operation Protective Edge dealt a heavy blow to the Palestinian unity government. Any plans for it to implement the reconciliation agreement and prepare for national elections have been side-lined, with priorities changed by Israel’s fait accompli. In addition, Israel depended, as it has always done, upon the contradictory positions taken by the Palestinians on how to deal with such aggression, creating another setback for reconciliation.

The only military goals that Israel’s offensive can hope to achieve are to damage the capabilities of the Palestinian resistance groups, who are presumed to have a limited stock of weapons, destroy the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt and continue the siege.

It was always on the cards, therefore, that the Israelis would accept an unconditional ceasefire. Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire initiative was unexpected, placing the Israeli government in the position of having to consider an unplanned ground operation. The longer the operation lasts and the more losses that Israel suffers, the more likely that it will seek new terms with amendments to the 2012 truce in an agreement acceptable to its citizens.

Hamas and the Palestinian resistance groups, meanwhile, will not accept languishing in the besieged Gaza Strip any longer; they are unlikely to agree to the terms of the 2012 truce again. Finding an outlet to the world beyond its borders has become sine qua non; this could be the Rafah border crossing, a sea port or even an airport. It is obvious that neither Hamas nor the disgruntled and weary Palestinians in Gaza would accept a return to the detested status quo.

Appeared in: Arabian Gazette, Political Science Academy, Iran Review, Arab Media Network, the Daily Journalist, Middle East Monitor, Today’s Zaman, Daily News Egypt, News 24, Democratic Arab Center, Institute for Middle East Studies Canada, Pakistan Tribune, Al-Ahram Weekly, Tuck Magazine.

Could İhsanoğlu challenge Erdoğan?

Posted by Dimitris Rapidis on 21st July 2014

In August 10, Turkey holds its presidential election. This is the first time in the political history of the country that the President is going to be elected directly by the electorate, and not through the internal vote of the Parliament. Meantime, this election brings something new in the political landscape of Turkey: the candidacy of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, endorsed by five opposition parties, to compete Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Is he going to challenge Turkey’s PM with success or is İhsanoğlu candidacy the critical element of a wider project?

Erdoğan has declared as priority the constitutional amendment and the increase of executive powers of the President, which is literally interpreted as the shift from a parliamentary regime to a presidential one. In a broader perspective, this priority resembles the one Russian President Vladimir Putin put on track when he jumped from President to PM and back, wishing to keep his legacy and power intact throughout his statesmanship. Before the candidacy of İhsanoğlu, the presidential election of August seemed shallow-drifted as Erdoğan was expected to bring about another landslide.

The profile of İhsanoğlu

The 70-year old diplomat became known in the Arabic world after his tenure in the general secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Prescribed as a modest Islamist, born in Cairo, well-aware of the geopolitical balances in the Middle East, a strong lobbyist and effective technocrat so far, İhsanoğlu has preserved a low profile for himself, being almost unknown in the Turkish public – as well as among the Turkish political leadership. However, his candidacy is endorsed by five parties of the opposition, among which CHP and MHP, a fact that inevitably brings him in the center of the attention for the foreign media. His candidacy was based on some critical and qualitative elements that compose the Kemalist tradition in Turkey: İhsanoğlu strongly advocates for a secular state in Turkey, acknowledging the firm position of the army and the judicial corps in decision-making, and maintaining strong ties with the Western world, and especially with the United States.

In addition to that, he has also being networking with Saudi Arabia, being considered as a modest Islamist and a balancing figure between extreme Westernization and Islamism. In this respect, İhsanoğlu was also a founding member of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, established in the 1980s in Istanbul. The fundamental aim of the Centre was to build on the effective balance between the secular character of the Turkish democracy and the inner Islamic character of the Turkish culture; in other words, to create the necessary foundations for Turkey to increase its pivotal position in the Western world and at the same time in the Islamic world. All five parties have stressed out that his candidacy can pull a significant part of Erdoğan’s electorate, bidding on the fact that İhsanoğlu is intended to unveil crucial issues like religious freedom, social freedom and gender equality, while addressing the demands and unrest of a large part of the Turkish public in the urban centres that are accusing Erdoğan for being an authoritative leader (i.e. Gezi Park; Twitter shutdown, amongst other issues).

In front of a tough reality

Despite rumors for the support by Fethullah Gülen, one of the biggest burdens that İhsanoğlu has to deal with is the fact that he is completely unknown in the Turkish public. Even the President of CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, told in the media a couple of weeks ago that he did not know him before his being selected as a joint candidate. Media networks inclined to the opposition are making a great effort to shape his profile and make him known to the public, but time is pressing. However, the selection of İhsanoğlu may have a broader reference to the forthcoming general elections in 2015, turning his candidacy for the Presidency a crash-test so that both himself and the opposition can count their leverage and power.

Another issue we need to point out with reference to the presidential election is the shift of politics in Turkey towards conservatism, having  this applied into the wider political spectrum. This conclusion stems from the fact that the ideological platform of CHP has been considerably affected with respect to İhsanoğlu. Someone could wonder why the opposition did not choose a political figure that is more recognizable, and being more attached to the secular ideology that CHP represents. Another question would be why the opposition did not manage these 12 years of Erdoğan’s rule to prepare a solid sting of counter-policy proposals, especially in the field of media, youth, or the Kurds for instance. At the end of the day, for the Europeans it has always been hard to interpret Turkish politics and society, as it is truly an amalgam of conflicting yet extremely interested mixture of religious and power balance, social and economic development, regional assertiveness, multicultural growth, and way too prolific and inspiring comparing to what we experience in our western standardized frameworks.

Bridging Europe and JEF Turkey

Regardless of the political developments in August, Bridging Europe and JEF Turkey launched a couple of days ago a common project called “EU-Turkey Dialogue Initiative“, destined to enrich the exchange of different perceptions with respect to the Turkish society. Beginning from September 2014, these organizations are going to unveil a series of issues, ranging from cultural development, human rights, youth mobilization, and gender equality, topics that are not well-developed and often elaborated at the sidelines of the current political debate. However difficult is to predict whether Turkey is going to become or not a full member-state of the European Union, we both consider that knowing better what are the developments in our common topics of reference could definitely bring us closer, building on mutual understanding, especially for the younger generation.

You are all invited to read the PRESS RELEASE, available in English, Turkish, and Greek,  and bring your ideas and proposals into surface.

Versagen der Europäischen Union

Posted by Günter K.V. Vetter on 21st July 2014

Spätestens mit dem Flugzeugabschuss über der Ukraine sind die Handlungsunfähigkeit und das Versagen der Europäischen Union deutlich geworden. Während sich Europas Staatschefs über Posten und die künftige Ausrichtung streiten, herrscht in der direkten Nachbarschaft das Chaos. Für das Zögern und Zaudern in der europäischen Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik zahlen wir einen hohen Preis. Es sind unbeteiligte Zivilisten aus vielen Ländern, die am europäischen Himmel sterben, weil dem Krieg in der Ukraine tatenlos zugeschaut wird. Was kommt als nächstes? Syrien, der Irak, Libyen, Afghanistan, der Nahe Osten? Was passiert, wenn sich eine Rakete aus Israel oder dem Gazastreifen nach Zypern verirrt und dann der Bündnisfall ausgerufen wird? Europa kann es sich nicht länger leisten, zuzuschauen. Es muss handeln und gewappnet sein.

MH17 should be a wake up call for Europe

Posted by AEGEE-Europe on 20th July 2014

By AEGEE-Europe The shooting down of a Boeing 777 is a shocking reminder of the fact that, while the international community divides its attention between the bombing in Gaza and the holiday destination of the German world champions, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has degenerated into a civil war whose consequences are unpredictable.

City of Zagreb still playing with fire

Posted by Bankwatch on 20th July 2014

Seasoned Bankwatch-watchers may recall our successful four-year campaign to stop the EBRD from financing a waste incinerator just outside Zagreb. Between 2005 and 2008, we supported Zelena akcija/Friends of the Earth Croatia and local group UZOR to prevent the City of Zagreb from building a huge 385 000 tonnes per year waste incinerator in Resnik on the outskirts of Croatia’s capital.

The reasons against the project were clear: the low levels of recycling and composting in Zagreb, the lack of facilities to safely dispose of the bottom ash, fly ash and filter residues, the inflexibility of such a large facility and poor previous experience with environmental enforcement in Croatia.

Whether for these or other reasons, the EBRD and later the EIB wisely avoided financing the project, with the Mayor of Zagreb confirming in late 2008 that the project would not go ahead.

Since then however, the City of Zagreb seems intent on passing a waste management plan that includes almost exactly the same measures, in spite of Zelena akcija’s best efforts to promote alternatives. The city is again holding a public consultation for a plan that looks eerily similar to the previous.

Even though Croatia must recycle 50 percent of its waste by 2020 as per EU targets and Zagreb has almost a quarter of the country’s population, the city’s new draft waste plan still has the incinerator project as its centrepiece, now – incomprehensibly – with a capacity of 400 000 tonnes per year.

This in spite of the fact that Zagreb’s annual residual waste actually dropped to around 270 000 tonnes per year for the years 2009-2013, all with a very low percentage of recycling and no serious efforts to reduce the production of waste. So imagine what would happen if Zagreb’s authorities really made an effort on recycling, composting and waste reduction.

The proposed waste management plan foresees no less than EUR 360 million for the construction of the incinerator and an ash landfill, 35 times less money for recycling and separated collection, and zero for waste reduction measures. The costs of the incinerator alone total 83 per cent of the entire budget to implement the plan, turning the waste hierarchy on its head.

The only city-wide recycling measures include an increased number of recycling containers, which enable recycling only of a few materials and have long proven to be of limited use when people must walk further to use them and have no economic incentive to do so.

The need to treat waste sludge from Zagreb’s controversial wastewater treatment plant is often cited as a reason for the incinerator, but no alternative treatments are covered in the waste management plan, nor is there an explanation of what will happen once the backlog of sludge is burned and Zagreb does not produce enough other waste to fill it. Importing other people’s waste seems like the only outcome if the burner is built.

The incinerator would create around 100 000 tonnes of ash, but there have so far been no realistic proposals of where this could be landfilled, as all suggested locations have been met unsurprisingly with fierce local resistance. It is also unclear where the hazardous fractions of the waste eg. the filter residues, would be disposed of and how much this would cost, but considering that Croatia has no suitable facilities it can be expected that this could incur considerable costs and as well raise ethical questions about leaving other countries to bear the consequences of Croatia’s waste.

The frustrating thing is that the alternatives – waste prevention, recycling, composting and mechanical biological treatment with anaerobic digestion – are available and functioning in many cities, but the City of Zagreb refuses to see this. We must move quickly beyond this impasse and agree on a waste management plan we can all live with. And that means that the City of Zagreb will have to open its ears and start listening rather than blundering blindly on with its plans.

The question here is where the international financial institutions stand. A meeting with EBRD representatives in Zagreb in May 2013 showed that the bank is aware of the imperative of solving Zagreb’s waste problem and is interested in supporting the city’s efforts. But will it silently follow the City of Zagreb’s increasingly absurd plans or help it finally develop a waste management system we can be proud of?

The Ukraine Strategy Fiasco

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 20th July 2014

The tragic accident of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 has shocked the European public – and with good reason. Less justified, however, is the attitude of some EU national leaders who are trying to use this tragedy in order to slap more sanctions on Russia.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Moscow, gives a more balanced view of events in Ukraine and the way they should be interpreted:

“The west fully supports a Ukrainian government which originated from a revolution that toppled an elected – if obviously corrupt – president. True, the new president, Petro Poroshenko, has a solid popular mandate. Yet the referendums held in Donetsk and Luhansk two weeks prior to the presidential poll – and no less illegal than the Maidan revolution in Kiev – reflected a very high degree of dissatisfaction in eastern Ukraine with the deal they were getting from central government.

The legitimacy of the “people’s republics” is questionable, of course, but the Ukrainian government’s “anti-terrorist operation”, resulting in an ever-rising toll of civilian lives, does not do much to endear Kiev to the easterners. The west’s tendency to treat one’s allies more leniently than one’s adversaries – while sticking to the same high principles throughout – can and does backfire.

In Ukraine, a lot is at stake today. First, for the Ukrainians themselves, wherever they may live. The fate of their country remains in the balance – not just because of the armed conflict in the east, but as a result of the dire economic situation and an uncertain political future. Russia, too, is profoundly affected. Having clashed with the United States over Ukraine, it is now facing increasingly serious consequences in a number of areas – above all, in economy and finance.

For Europe, Ukraine represents a security risk far higher than the one it faced in the Balkans in the 1990s. In the US, Russia may have come to be seen as a nasty nuisance rather than a worthy competitor or a real threat. Yet there is an impression that the punishment already administered is not supported by a realistic strategy leading to a credible goal. If so, it could lead to a very different outcome from the one that the US might desire.”

 

Let us face it, what we are dealing with in Ukraine is yet another American-inspired policy quagmire. No clear exit strategy from the worrisome situation is available, even if the West has ample financial leverage on the Kiev government that could be used in order to put a stop to the military operations in the East and bring all parties involved in the conflict to the negotiating table instead.

A lingering question about the tragic MH17 accident remains. Why is it, that no EU or Ukrainian air safety official had taken timely measures to prevent commercial flights above a war zone ? In hindsight, these officials are at least as responsible for what happened to the unsuspecting passengers of the plane as the actual people who shot it down.

 

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