EU elections: why I will vote tomorrow

CC/Flickr/Rock Cohen

CC/Flickr/Rock Cohen

We are now halfway through the 2014 European elections, and no matter which way things go, we will have to own up to our choices (or the lack thereof) for the next five years. Yet on Thursday, British and Dutch citizens went to the voting booths in record-low numbers (less than 35% in the Netherlands).

The European Parliament arguably has more power than ever in influencing the workings of the Union and is the only directly-elected institution within it. Yet EU citizens care less and less at every election.

Voter turnout in the European Parliament Elections. Picture credit: Quartz

Voter turnout in the European Parliament Elections. Picture credit: Quartz

No matter whether you are pro-EU or eurosceptic, the Union and its member states are at a turning point: the aftermath of the economic crisis, the negotiations surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States of America, the diplomatic crisis with Russia, the digital transition undergone by our society, and, most importantly, the repositioning of European member states within the global order…

Part of the answer will happen through the European Union. For better or worse, its institutions have changed the lives of hundreds of millions of European citizens through the internal opening of its borders, its agricultural policies, its fight for civil rights, etc. Whether it is to take apart, or to make it stronger, citizens must take it upon themselves to show up at the booth to make their preference is taken into account.

This year in particular, the votes gathered by European parties should actually impact the election of the President of the EU Commission as a result of the 2010 Lisbon Treaty. Critics pointed to statements from Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy indicating the European Council may present an outside candidate for the post (such as Frenchwoman Christine Lagarde), but few have talked of the reaction of the future eurodeputies: parties such as ALDE, the EPP or the S&D indicated they would shut down the European Parliament if they were imposed an outsider, yet stressing again the growing importance of the elected body.

People often complain the European Union is not democratic enough, but how can we believe they really do want to participate in its decision making if they pass out on the EP elections? Go vote if you haven’t done so already.

Picture credit : European Parliament

Picture credit : European Parliament

Party candidates for the EU Commission Presidency

*EPP – center-right: Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg)
*S&D – center-left: Martin Schulz (Germany)
*ALDE – liberals: Guy Verhofstadt (Belgium)
*Greens: Ska Keller/José Bové (Germany & France)
*European Left: Alexis Tsipras (Greece)

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Marine Le Pen: “Who stole all that money?”

Screen capture of the April 10th debate Des Paroles et Des Actes

Screen capture of the April 10th debate Des Paroles et Des Actes

This is usually material for our Marine’s Gems/Perles de Marine section, but it was too good not to write a blog post. 

On April 10th, far-right leader Marine Le Pen participated in Des Paroles et des Actes, one of the most prominent TV debate shows in France. The least that can be said is that Le Pen made an impression on the public.

Why is it important for us? She talked a lot about Europe, and helped the show set an audience record in the process!

Several French media (Nouvel Obs, Le Point, etc.) have since proclaimed Le Pen’s domination over the evening, and harshly attacked the producers of the show for their lack of journalistic skills throughout the event.

Since this is a blog on Europe Affairs, we’ll focus on the middle of the debate. First we’ll note that the question was: Europe, a chance or a trap for France?

The first controversy of the European debate happened even before Le Pen walked onto the stage. Her opponent of the night was supposed to be Martin Schulz, the current president of the European Parliament.Le Pen stated she would not attend the debate if she was opposed to a foreigner.  The German was thus replaced at the last minute by Alain Lamassoure, leader of the UMP list for the European elections in France.

Back to the debate itself.

Lamassoure presented Europe as a source of peace and reconciliation: according to him, 2 out 3 Frenchmen perceive Germans as the  population they felt closest to. This is an unparalleled development given that these two countries/tribes/cultures had fought throughout the major part of the last 2000 years, he says. According to the UMP politician, Europe is the only way for France to preserve its international clout in the  face of globalization and developing third-world countries.

Marine Le Pen during the 2012 French presidential elections.  CC/Flickr/abodftyh

Marine Le Pen during the 2012 French presidential elections.
CC/Flickr/abodftyh

Le Pen responded by attacking the character of Lamassoure, stating how (sarcastically) happy she was to face him in particular:

“You are the human incarnation of the European Union. You are the one who thinks Europe is protecting us from globalization.” (1:04:25)

She even brought a little array of slides depicting political leaflets to argue traditional parties had been trying to chance Europe for the past 20 years.

The debate degenerated in a variety of attacks from both sides on topics such as the attendance and voting record of Marine Le Pen at the EP(even Lamassoure knows about sites such as VoteWatch Europe) or negotiations with Turkey and Ukraine.

But did Lamassoure really advance the debate? I would personally venture he did not. Le Pen was able to stir away from any piercing question on her European policies. There was no question linked to the actual benefits or disadvantages brought about by the Union. And for me, that’s a win for the far-right politician. All that is left from that bout with Lamassoure is maybe Le Pen’s slide show moment and screaming about Turkey.

This points to the craftiness of the FN leader when it comes to political communication.

Here’s another great one for the debate: the euro has always been a sore spot for Le Pen. She thinks it is the Union’s most terrible flaw, but has had trouble putting together her arguments. You may or may not agree with her. But who needs arguments? She swept away the economic growth argument (+22% GDP growth in France since 1999) with one roaring sentence:

“But who stole all that money?” (1:25:27)

This is what probably stuck with spectators after one and half hour of debate on a Thursday evening.

One last gem for the road ( from the last part of the debate against Yann Galut):

“You’re the one who thinks our country is small. You don’t believe in France anymore. I believe in France. (…) [You believe] we can’t get on without the European Union. Singapore is half the size of Ile-de-France, but they manage. They have their protectionism and their own currency.” (2:00:29)

Make up your own mind about this debate if you understand French: it is available here (I recommend it).

Fast (and sometimes fun) facts about Marine Le Pen:

*45 years old
*President of the National Front for the last three years
*Member of the European Parliament for the last ten years (click here to find her voting record and attendance for her last mandate)
* A French lower court just ruled that it was legal to call her a Fascist, as the leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon had done.

A couple of French perceptions of Europe on Twitter published during the debate

https://twitter.com/C_Dwicq/status/454348494099451904

Translation: We are too many in the EU. The mistake was to enlarge the Union to 28 member states. 

https://twitter.com/NeylTazi/status/454353505386770432

Translation: We cannot get out of the EU today. It would lead to huge trade losses and take away possibilities. Plus we get help from the EU.

Commentary: Nobody likes the European Union

If there is one conversation killer for a regular dinner, it may well be the European Union. Or do you disagree?

The EU is perceived as this remote and complicated institution that has a say on several aspects of your everyday life, and which is so easy to blame for any problems existing at the national level. Unemployment? The result of free movement within the EU. The global crisis? The result of the limits imposed on state power by the Euro. Today, euroscepticism has never been so high in the member states of the Union.

In a way, it is interesting to hear these things from heads of states when you know that the most powerful body of the European Union is not the Parliament or the European Commission: it is the European Council, which is manned by these very same state leaders.

But it works.

Louis de Gouyon Matignon is the 22-year old leader of a new French party called the Parti Européen (European Party), which he has launched in February 2014. Why a new party? Because he thinks older generations are not doing enough with the amazing tool that is the European Union.

As the elections get closer, he often hangs out in front of universities, trying to engage fellow students in a discussion on the need for new European objectives in France. The responses of these young people often echo the eurosceptic rise present in the French society: the EU is too far from our reality, the EU costs too much money, the EU is too complicated, the EU is taking away power from France…

You always fear what you don’t understand, states a popular saying. The Union has been around for over 50 years in one form or the other, and yet it remains a mystery to most of the European population.

Maybe it is time that one way or the other, the EU makes a choice on what it intends to be. Why have a President of the European Commission, or a  high representative for the EU’s foreign and security policy, if these jobs are to fulfilled by people lacking authority and charisma?

5 quotes on the role of France in the EU

“France is lacking self-confidence, and with this self-confidence, maybe it can start a dialogue with Germany. If that is not achieved, I think there is little to hope for [the European Union].”

Mario Monti, former Italian Prime Minister (2011-2013) and former EU Commissionner. Project Europe Town Hall in Madrid on February 28, 2014.

“[About the French intervention in CAR] This is the second time in a year that France has courageously taken the lead in a serious crisis. (…)The French response has helped avoid a civil war, perhaps even genocide.”

Herman Van Rompuy (Belgium), President of the European Council. European Summit, December 2013.

“It is only natural that the Eastern part of the continent will become our preoccupation for years to come, because Germans see this as a matter of historical destiny. The most fundamental priority we have is trying to integrate all of Europe. But for France the underlying issue is all about coming to terms with its loss of influence in the world.”

Herr Immo Stabreitformer German Ambassador to France, International Herald Tribune, September 11-12, 1999.

“Of course one can jump up and down yelling Europe ! Europe ! Europe ! But it amounts to nothing and it means nothing.”

Charles de Gaulle, French President (1959-1969). Excerpt from an interview during his presidential campaign, December 1965.

“The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations. In taking upon herself for more than 20 years the role of champion of a united Europe, France has always had as her essential aim the service of peace. A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.”

Robert Schuman. French Foreign Affairs Minister. Schuman declaration, May 9, 1950.

3 ways to make EU elections ‘sexier’

It’s a fact: the number of Eurosceptics is growing throughout Europe, as shown lately in Germany. Yet no matter the individual opinion, the only tool available to make the Union better are the upcoming elections. At this point, even EU Commissioner Viviane Reding only hopes for a voter’s turnout of around 50%. So why not imagine things that could make these elections ‘sexier’ for everyone in France and in the EU as a whole?

Not saying we have to go as far as the Norwegian band Kollektivitet (BUT…)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4waVhT1euQo

1. Let EU citizens vote directly for the EU Commission president. The Union has already taken a step in this direction by giving more prominence to the nomination of candidates for the post within European parties. Several people oppose this solution, including EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who believes the current institutions do not need to be reformed.

The fact is however that the Union needs solutions to better involve the entire European population in this democratic process. European politics are often overshadowed by domestic affairs : as seen in the 2010 constitutional treaty referendum debacle, EU votes can turn into a popularity contest for the current national government. This is another log added to the Eurosceptic fire in France, given the all-time low rating of President François Hollande. 

We’re talking about the highest office of the sole body with power of initiative within the EU institutions. A direct elections of the Commission’s president may take away the national dimension associated which each party to consider what the candidate may actually be able to achieve at the European level. It is a face people will be able to relate to and associate with the Union. 

2. Create better promotional videos! If you were in the United States during the 2012 presidential elections, you’ve seen the Lena Dunham/Obama video ad. Of course, this one is biased, but there are many other (fun & objective) possibilities. Short videos are a great way to grab the attention of voters from different generations. So far, the EU has remained rather low key: with under 100 days to go before the EU2014, the two promotional videos of the Parliament’s website (actually just one video: most of the images are the same) arguably lack inspiration. The tone is rather serious and historical, with scenes of crisis and the Berlin wall and the EU appearing as a beacon of hope… Where is the European innovation?

UNICEF Ambassador Selena Gomez.  CC/Flickr/ellasportfolio

UNICEF Ambassador Selena Gomez CC/Flickr/ellasportfolio

3. Find some sexy/famous/inspirational/knowledgeable EU ambassadors ! It is the time the EU comes to term with the strategy it has been pursuing for the past thirty years or so: the pursuit of a European identity is in a way the creation of a brand. As a brand, it needs faces to represent the concept, and EU commissioners are not cutting it. Look at the ambassadors of UNICEF! Of course, these ambassadors are advocating children’s rights, but some will argue that the contribution of the Union to peace is worth the go. What impact could celebrities from all member states that are both knowledgeable about the Union and ready to advocate EU elections in their respective countries have in May?

Here is at least one fun step in the right direction.

 This is actually an initiative of Old Continent,
an agency aiming to develop the EU brand!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HLkIJAAEBI

How about you?
What are your ideas for sexier elections?

Please comment below!

Swiss migration referendum: fast facts

CC/Flickr/twicepix

CC/Flickr/twicepix

What is the situation?
On Sunday, the Swiss population passed by a narrow margin (50,3%) an initiative promising to set limits to mass immigration in Switzerland. One party behind this referendum: the Swiss People’s Party (SVP or UDP depending on the national language), a conservative right-wing party who led the initiative to ban minarets in Switzerland.  In the last years, the country had welcomed annually over 70,000 EU workers. Foreigners currently represent around 23% of the Swiss population, to which you can add approximately 150,000 frontier workers coming from Germany, France & Italy.

Who is concerned?
Anyone who wants to reside in Switzerland (foreign workers, asylum seekers, family members of people residing in the country, etc.), since entries will now be limited by set quotas. The right of foreign residents to receive social benefits or an authorization for long-term residence may also be limited.

What will it change for France? 
First, there are the direct consequences of the vote, which will affect the lives of several French workers either living in Switzerland or crossing the border every day to work (approximately 65,000 people in this last group). Most importantly, this is an additional incentive for France to “protect” its borders for foreign migrants: if prosperous Switzerland is doing it, why shouldn’t one of its closest neighbor do it too? We’re talking about a country with which France has several economic ties, on top of a common historical background. It will be interesting to follow how French politicians handle this Swiss development. National Front leader Marine Le Pen has already reacted, congratulating the Swiss on their lucidity in a press release.

This Swiss victory will reinforce the French people  in their will to stop mass immigration and to take back the control of their borders in their face-off with the European Union. Marine Le Pen

At the other extreme, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius declared that Switzerland will suffer “from being inward-looking.”

When will the Swiss decision be implemented?
All international treaties (a.k.a the agreements Switzerland has made with the EU) will have to be renegotiated within the next three years.

UPDATE
According to Martin Grandjean, from the University of Lausanne, the “cantons” most favorable to the immigration regulation initiative were those where there were the least foreigners.

For those reading French, here is the full text of the referendum initiative.