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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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?

Ukraine : fire and death, in the name of Europe?

In Europe, all eyes are turning to Ukraine. There has already been over 50 deaths, and the entire country has become a battleground. Even some of the country’s Olympic athletes, who have been training for four years for the end, have decided to stop competing and go home.

Protesters clash against police forces in the streets of Kiev CC/Flickr/tandalov.com

Protesters clash against police forces in the streets of Kiev
CC/Flickr/tandalov.com

After a quick meeting yesterday in France between the different EU member states, three foreign affairs ministers (from France, Germany and Poland) have met with Ukrainian officials today in Kiev. Officially, these ministers here to discuss sanctions, but there is only one objective for them: stop the violence.

Yet how did we get here? Protesters are chanting slogans such as “Ukraine is Europe,” and international media have underlined the fact that Ukrainians may have more belief in the EU than the population of its older member states  (let’s say France, for example).  One thing should be clear though: the question has never been whether Ukraine would be part of the European Union. The country is nowhere near applying for membership. What was behind the trade agreement was a search for influence.  

Small EU-related commentary/question here: where is EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton, and why didn’t she join the member states representatives? Surprising and revealing, given the fact she was in Ukraine earlier this month.

Looking back: 4 months of protest!

August 2013: Russia stops all Ukrainian imports at the border for customs inspection. Hint from the Putin government: this state of affairs may become permanent if Ukraine were to sign a trade agreement with the EU.

November 13, 2013: the Ukrainian Parliament refuses to consider the liberation of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

November 21, 2013: Ukraine puts a stop to its negotiations with the EU in favor of its relationship with Russia. First street protests with people chanting “Ukraine is Europe.”

November 23, 2013: Protests continue despite the attempt of Ukrainian PM Mykola Azarov to blame this decision on the International Monetary Fund. Tymochenko calls for the population to react “as if it was a coup.”

November 30, 2013: first violent confrontation between demonstrators & police forces. Thirty-five people are detained.

December 8, 2013: hundreds of thousands of protesters crowd the streets of Kiev and destroy the statue of Lenine.

December 11, 2013: the Ukrainian capital is under lockdown with thousands of police riot officers controlling the streets.

January 22, 2014: Police kills two demonstrators when shooting at the crowd, and another dies from a fall. These are the first deaths of the protest.

January 28, 2014: the government attempts to diffuse tension by repelling anti-protest laws that had allowed for the bloodshed a week earlier.

February 16, 2014: the protesters leave the Kiev City Hall they had been holding in exchange for the release of 234 jailed demonstrators.

February 18, 2014: 25 die among protesters and police after anti-riot lines were attacked outside of Parliament.

EU Corruption Report: the good, the bad and the ugly

On Monday, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström gave one more nudge to the EU boat when she reported her findings of the state of corruption within the EU member states. One number stood out : its cost (120 billion €/year), which indicates how much better we could do.

We are simply not doing enough. That is true for all Member States. Existing laws and policies are not enforced enough, and a firm political commitment to root out corruption still seems to be missing. Cecilia Malmström, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs (Sweden)

Yet we have to be careful. While the Commissioner’s recommendations are worth considering for future legal developments, most EU member states remain among the least corrupted countries in the world, according to Transparency International.

Why, then, is perception of corruption so high? Because it is just that: perception. In every single member state described in the report, there is a clear discrepancy between the number of people thinking their country is corrupted, and those having actually witnessed or taken part in an act of corruption.

We are arguably going through a period of economic and identity crisis. Its seriousness may depend on the country under scrutiny, but nonetheless affects the degree of confidence the population has in its direct environment.

Also, let’s be real: corruption in Europe does not have the same definition than in some African or Asian countries. We are not talking about having to bribe an official to use a road or get a passport!

Key conclusions on corruption in France 

  • No nation-wide strategy to fight corruption
  • Need for better control mechanisms for public procurement (55% believe the main problem is collusive bidding)
  • Not enough regulation of lobbying. A good example: public servants do not have to report their contacts with lobbies. There is always the possibility to voluntarily register on a lobbying list (one for the Assemblée Nationale, one for the Senate), but relatively few lobbies actually do.
  • Satisfying record in terms of prosecuting corruption practices within the country, but not in the case of international business transactions
  • Good practice : the creation of specialized inter-regional jurisdictions  ( judges focusing on organized and financial crimes and assisted by a team of experts coming from both the private and public sector). BUT need to better guarantee the independence of prosecutors in general
  • “Crisis of trust” when it comes to the relationship between the French government and its population

Once again, these critics are valuable feedback, but this is actually nothing new: Transparency International has been publishing similar recommendations for a number of years.

Some figures to remember (country sheet)

76% of Europeans consider corruption to be widespread in their country, as opposed to 68% in France.

6% of French feel personally affected by corruption (EU average: 26%).

6 out of 10 French companies consider corruption to be an obstacle to business, as opposed to 4 out of 10 in the EU as a whole.

Click here to read the full chapter on France.

France & the European Union : a history of schizophrenia

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CC/Flickr/European Parliament

“Of course one can jump up and down yelling Europe ! Europe ! Europe ! But it amounts to nothing and it means nothing.” Charles de Gaulle, 1965

President de Gaulle has come and gone, but his ideas seems to remain in line with the current French society. What is most striking about today’s France is the dual personality it has developed over the years when talking about the European Union in all its forms. No matter the political color of their leaders, the French have wanted more control over Germany while maintaining a maximum level of sovereignty. This trend was crystallized in the proposal in 2011 of a “two-speed Europe” by Nicolas Sarkozy, which would allow France to more closely integrate with the appropriate countries while keeping out other states such as Greece.

Since the beginning of the 2008 crisis, the Eurosceptic giant has begun to emerge (52% of the French desire “less Europe”). Add this number to the anti-EU pledges of Marine le Pen (Front National), and the declared support of Rachida Dati (UMP) for British PM David Cameron and his stance against Europe, and it is understandably difficult for Hollande to know on which leg to stand. To speak plainly, the numbers are simply not in his favor: the French public debt has reached unrecorded heights in 2013, and the dreaded unemployment rate he had vowed to turn around keeps rising steadily. As a result, the people of France are looking for alternatives to a government that has failed to provide them with the economic security they feel entitled to.

I believe that in order to understand the relationship between France and the EU, there are several factors to be taken into account: the relative ignorance of the French when it comes to the actual workings of the Union; the tendency of national parties to use it as a convenient scapegoat; the deeply-rooted tendency of humans to mistrust foreigners; the controversial resistance of the French society to the changes brought by globalization; the misplaced priorities when nominating French Euro-deputies; etc.

In the run-up to the European elections, this blog will attempt to analyze each of these facets.