Thursday, January 19, 2012

JEF Netherlands - Exciting Times

I wanted to share with you all a week of teaching I was part of in November of last year. JEF was involved in a project called Young Ideas for Europe. We engaged with a 'high' school in Den Haag and presented them with the challenge to come up with political manifestos on the topics of climate change. This project aimed to educate the kids about the EU, climate change policy on a local, national and EU level, and to get them engaged in the working of the Institutions that are so oft derided. 

JEF is a relatively young organisation in the Netherlands, however they were here many years before so we are really in a phase of rejuvenation and resurrection. Europe needs mascots and standard bearers at this difficult time. Brussels is blamed all too easily for failures that are far more systemic or ingrained in the Member States themselves. JEF provides a platform for young people to get involved, grab hold of some idealism and work towards greater integration throughout the Union.

JEF has a strong platform for innovation and reform for the EU, although I'm not sold on  total Federalism myself, that is not say I don't support closer integration, in fact I'm all for it, without vehicles like JEF, change will only be negative and regressive. If you want peace and stability in Europe, then look no further than its greatest success story: The European Union.

Here is the report into the week:

Young Ideas for Europe 14-18 November 2011: 
Venue: Zandvliet College Den Haag, The Netherlands in Association with JEF Netherlands
JEF Netherlands landed its first major success of the year with its participation in the Young Ideas for Europe (YIfE) project in cooperation with IFOK, Berlin. This year, the focus on the project was on ‘New Energy for Europe’, encompassing policy and technological innovations. 
Merian Lelieveld, Matthew Barker and Osiris Hoepel represented JEF Netherlands and ran the weeks’ events giving classes and facilitating expert speakers to a group of enthusiastic 14-15 year old college students from The Hague. We would like to thank Rita Kwint, project coordinator of the Zandvliet College for her great support and assistance throughout the preparation phase and during the project week.
The aim of the week was to expose youngsters to the workings of the European Institutions and as to what problems are facing the whole of the region with special focus on energy. The students learned about megatrends such as energy security, globalization and sustainability. From this knowledge they were free to form their own opinions as to what problems are faced locally, through to a pan European and also a global level. We encouraged the students to think as freely and as creatively as possible in an effort to come up with alternative solutions. Every day they shared their ideas and thoughts with a partner school. Zandvliet College shared with Staatliche Rötlein-Regelschule, based in Zuelenroda-Triebes, Germany using Skype, this was a valuable tool for both sets of students, and gave many laughs when confronting stereotypes and learning from each other in a positive, constructive manner.
Expert Presentations
Midweek saw the arrival of our first guest speaker, Mr. Tobias Dander an energy and climate expert from the Dutch political party D66. In the presentation, he spoke of Europe’s 2020:20 drive and the specific measures which The Hague is implementing. The students asked him probing questions at the end, and a sense that something tangible was being achieved pervaded amongst the students - The Hague leads the way in the Netherlands in its attempts to cut green house emissions, in particular that of CO₂. The following day saw a more sustained set of presentations, hosted by the Huis van Europa, next to the Binnenhof in the centre of The Hague. The day kicked off with a presentation by Leonie Meulman from the Clingendael Instituut. This is an NGO acting independently for other NGOs, government and the private sector. They provide research papers for the provision of energy and the impact it has locally on the environment and society. Closely followed was a discussion by Henry Terlouw who represented the Municipality of The Hague. Last but certainly not least was a technical presentation by Otto Bernsen from the Dutch Agency on Energy and Climate, he gave a valuable insight into Dutch energy policy and interesting comparisons between the Netherlands and other EU Member States. 
Down To Business
The final two days were taken up by letting the students loose with political parties. They were split up into four political groupings, Liberals; Socialists; Christian Democrats and; Greens. Here we encouraged the students to think differently, along a prescribed political platform, taking them out of their own opinions and thus out of their comfort zone, they excelled and really thought uniquely and intelligently through the issues surrounding their proposed policies. Of particular highlight was the Green’s very own party name: The Dutch Tree Huggers, an excellent reference as to their intentions - their policies were equally unwavering in their ideological zeal! If that was not enough, we also had a press corps who saw to it that nothing was missed on the day of presentation and our very own spin doctor, who schmoozed his way round the candidates with aplomb, dishing out well needed criticisms and ensuring every party was at their maximum potential. 
As a final bow out, Tobias Dander of D66 returned for the electioneering day hosted by the College and its Headmaster Mr. den Hijer. The students took it in turns to present their policies and manifestos to a crowd peppered with parents, students and teachers. The receptive audience was then asked to give their views on different political ideologies in a physical division. Opinions were split over how energy policy should be conducted, how much of a role the state must play, and ultimately who should pay the bill to ensure our energy supplies. There were no ‘silver bullet’ answers, but divisions ran deep and made for interesting observation. Finally we were ready to vote, in a close run battle the Liberals ran out triumphant with a two vote advantage over their nearest rivals!
Final Thoughts
The week was entertaining, hard work and hugely rewarding, not just from our perspective, but also the students’. A great boost for JEF here in the Netherlands, we have been invited back to organize a similar event next year, with the possibility of the school partaking in other events in the interim. JEF needs exposure, and what better way than to get involved in the youth of tomorrow, for it is them whom we are leaving these thorny issues of energy sustainability and security to. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Europe: Between Isolation and Solidarity - A Reply

This is in response to an article published on The New Federalist Webzine the other day.
Amongst most pro-Europeans it is commonly held that criticism is more sharply dealt than by Euro-skeptics. This is simply on the basis that such criticisms do not follow populist, ‘sitting targets’ and generally have a deeper understanding of the interplay between the Member States, the Institutions, and the wider world.
I wish to deal in turn with each heading to show that not everything in Europe is destined to fail.
The Rise of Xenophobia
It is worrying to read that there is a rise in xenophobia anywhere in the world, what is more troubling is the clamouring by the fashionable liberal elites which views public opinion as something to be ignored. The liberal elites have for the last twenty years managed to ignore the concerns and wishes of their electorate for their own self congratulation. Tolerance works both ways, how tolerant is it to exude one ideology whilst trying to suppress another simply because you disagree with it. Like it or not, but the rise of the far Right parties in the Nordics, the UK and in the East of Europe are not unusual in times of economic strife. 

What is unusual is the consternation by more centrist politicians and commentators that such parties have no right to voice their opinions. The BNP are a repugnant party, the majority of voters accept that and vote accordingly against them in general  elections. However they do secure council seats, they have their leader in the European Parliament. That means that they have secured a legitimate democratic mandate to exercise office in some capacity or another. So why did 1 million vote for the BNP in the last election? Tolerance of the BNP is rooted in freedom of speech, and every politicians’ right to appeal to certain sections of society. Should we then look at denying people the vote simply because they did not vote Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat? There is a very short answer to that question, and that is No.
More troubling still is the direct example of using the US as a ‘mirror’ for how to be tolerant to all. In a society where if you are born black you are statistically more likely to end up in jail simply because of the colour of your skin - this is a disgrace and hardly indicative of tolerance. Furthermore since the tragic events of 9/11 the US has been on racial and cultural lockdown, making it more and more difficult for any nationality to enter their country with hugely draconian security measures. The US has been in two expensive (both in terms of human life and money) wars with little to show for it. Neither war was motivated for any real democratic value, and have been seen by many as deeply unpopular. 
France was slapped on the wrist by the Commission with regards to their treatment of the Roma, however as a founding Member State with more political leverage than most, the Commission was never going to win without going directly to the European Court of Justice. As an aside, no action as of yet has been taken in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), it remains to be seen if any is taken as to what sanction would be imposed. 
The Euro Crisis
This will have been written on to death, but bear with me. To simplify the reaction of the Northern European states as Protestant versus Catholic is simply unpleasant and hugely insulting. As a Catholic from the UK, there is no place for any such sectarian vitriol. Club Med economies are many things, but the religion of the states and their respective populations has absolutely nothing to do with it. A complete failure by the financial services across the Western world along with many governments positively encouraging the amassing of cheap debt as a way to get what you want, whenever you wanted it contributed to the current crisis. This is a simplification also, but it goes someway to dealing with the difficulties facing the mindsets of both Northern and Southern Europeans. A two speed Europe may actually be a more useful tool to get out of the current mess, but if it is to be done, then it must be done a short time frame with a full integration plan agreed on with strict rules governing accession by the worst offenders.
In 2004 Germany enacted quite severe austerity measures within its own economy, the government reigned in spending and subsequently has prospered during these straightened economic times. So the German state fixed its roof whilst the sun was still shining, thus minimizing the pain that would be felt come the inevitable bust. The EU, and in particular, the ECB did very little to encourage other states with less stable economies to follow suit. Unprecedented personal wealth and economic growth seemed too good to be true - and it was. Simply put, if you borrow, you have to pay it back, and sovereign states are no different. 

Taking Greece as an example of how badly austerity has had to bite shows an endemic reliance on public sector job creation, with golden handshake pensions and quite frankly bizarre conditions for retirement. The tipping point of such a system was that fairly corrupt regimes were buying votes. If you convince your electorate that they will never go hungry, have a home and a job to keep them secure, then what better way than to provide it yourself. In essence a distrust of capitalism in a pure form bred such an explosion in public sector appointments. It was never affordable, it was never sustainable, there is no wealth generation of the type that could cover such huge costs.
The Eurozone bailout is not a free meal ticket to being made solvent. Consequences of economic mis-management must be felt by some. Unfortunately the cuts made in the Greek economy are too deep and too late. The shock treatment is not making the patient any better and there is a growing anxiety within the markets, and the other 26 Member States as to what Greece does next. Euro bonds are one way - but the German state seems dead set against this. How much longer before Germany is brought to heel by bigger forces than its ability to export? 
It was mentioned that the EU will lack democracy and an identity - this should be wholly rejected as an argument as for a 60 year old project it has plenty of identity and democratic legitimacy - in fact since Lisbon the EP has grown up and is now a much bigger, more effective force for change than ever before. It is early days, such a crisis will test even the most seasoned and stable of democratic institutions, we need not pile on more pressure just because there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve such a complex issue. 
The Lack of Foreign Policy
This is an area that I have to agree primarily with the sentiment of, the EU looks weak and incoherent in its current set up. This has been compounded by the UN General Assembly voting down a motion for the EU to accede to its chamber. Foreign policy is an unusual creature, states prefer to keep their own interests of paramount concern, this is seen most sharply in the UN Security Council. For the EU to become a more coherent and powerful force it needs to look less at militarized interventions and more in the diplomatic sphere, being a skilled negotiator with common values, common goals, dropping the quasi-imperialistic tendencies for ‘spreading democracy’. 
France and the UK showed how decisive the EU needs to be in times of crisis with their actions in Libya. NATO was eventually convinced to bring its might to protect civilians, but there is an overwhelming sense that even NATO doesn’t have the stomach for such battles. The EU is clearly waiting for something, what that is, is firm leadership, with a vision for the future, less linked with outcomes and so-called deliverables, but more about aspirations and a feeling of solid authority. Baroness Ashton does not embody any of the above, and the rather insidious van Rompuy is not trusted much as a figure-head after several high profile gaffs.
The question of the accession of Turkey is one that has bubbled since 1963, we are no closer today than we were a decade ago. Perhaps a bit of direct democracy across the Union to gauge public opinion on the matter would give any negotiations more credibility, and perhaps go some way to assuaging the fears on both sides as to the final outcome of any accession agreement. If you want to bang on about democratic values and principles, then this is a perfect platform for the EU to ask its masters, Member States’ populations, what they want and to actually to listen to them.
Weaknesses of Leadership within the EU
An interesting statistic was brought to bear that only 28 German MPs remain since the fall of the Berlin Wall. What this is supposed to prove I am unsure. Since 20 years have passed I’m sure that many who were politically active have long since retired. Fresh blood and new ideas should not be misconstrued as an affront to the ideals of the ‘ancien regime’. If Germany lacks confidence in the EU then they should look at the role they play in the institutions. Is it more a question that Germany since reunification no longer has the money to both rebuild its own back-yard and bail out others and simply wants to see a return on its investments? If that is so, is that such a bad thing, it certainly goes hand in hand with accountability, both economic and democratic. The Commission recently acknowledged its poor practice of simply signing cheques with no reasonable follow-up to check the money had been spent wisely. It has since changed fundamentally how it dishes out the old ‘regional funds’ and has quite rightly attached more obligations to any money sent out. 
What Consequences?
From all that froth, will the EU fail? Ultimately it will fail if Member States start to split and faction off, if we have a state of play where the UK or Germany asks to leave, then we have a problem. The realities of such an occurrence are sadly muffled by the rabid Euro-skeptics such as UKIP. In a time of austerity and much pessimism, we need more active participation in the European project, roundly criticizing those who wish to put the brakes on some issues of cross border policy does not mean a rapid descent onto the slippery slope to failure. If we are to defeat elements that wish to destroy the EU, then suppression is not the way forward. Convictions and ideas are necessary, but political will is sadly lacking in the centre of European politics - the far Right and far Left have stolen a march on us all - it is time to wake up. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Project Mobility 4X4

Having just watched the last in the current series of Top Gear (UK) I was amazed to see one of the best ideas for those brave men and women injured in the front lines of Afghanistan. Soldiers who are wounded and who have had aggressive amputation surgery have come together in a off-road rally team who hope to participate in the Dakar Rally (

Most people will bleat over the justifications of going to war, I am unashamedly not one of those people. The important point of debate is how well we as a nation care for our armed services and how much investment the Government can give to ensuring and extending that care.

This project, along with many others is a testament to the courage and spirit of our armed forces.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Stress and State Finances

A smug feeling must have pervaded through the Square Mile of London on Friday, when none of the major English banks failed the ECB stress tests. This is however only a slither of a much longer drama being played out in both the financial markets and the media. Spanish banks lead the way with their already known banking failings, yet the Spanish state seems powerless to do anything about it. The economy is much the same as Italy - it is only a matter of time before a bail-out becomes a reality. The question is not when, but how much? Personally I hope not to see Spain go 'cap in hand', it would be disasterous to the Euro-zone. Feelings in the British press seem plainly ignorant to the contagion effect such a financial meltdown would have on UK plc, and UK banks. 

Should we be worried at all by any of this? When looking at the Spanish banks, they are not universally traded, they have little or no economic power outside of Spain ( , and it would appear that they do not hold much Greek debt. Be that is it may, it is troubling to many that Spain has allowed these same banks for years carry on without  enough sovereign reserves. At time of writing, Spain has not suffered any sort of mass sell of of banking stocks and shares. Cold comfort then for nations such as Greece, Germany and France. If the Greek government defaults then there is a dangerous after-shock waiting for some of those bigger banks in Western Europe. They hold much of Greece's sovereign debt and are exposed heavily to any default. 

Another issue that is troubling economists at the moment is the levels of capital reserves imposed by Basel III. At the current rate banks would need somewhere in the region of 41 Billion euros to keep their ratios above the agreed 7% margin. This is expected already by the financial markets, though a criticism levied at the ECB in their stress tests, is that their bar is too low: 5%. It remains to be seen as to how this will level out, in the meantime banks would be wise to 'stock up' on reserves hoping that the much mooted Greek default passes by with less of an impact than feared.( I am no economist, I don't proport to understand the intricacies of the markets and how confidence can be shattered in an instant. However it seems plain to me that if banks don't have enough cash reserves for the proverbial rainy day, then it is madness to expect governments, who are already saddled with debt far exceeding their own incomes, to bail out banks yet again. 

Gordon Brown and Barak Obama were heralded as saviours of the financial world - my view is that they simply threw money they didn't have at a problem they failed to recognize and tackle to the core. A dangerous precedent has been set by governments 'paying' off banks because 'they are too big to fail'. The current reset of this capitalist cycle is not complete - it is simply on pause.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

New Look & Relaunch

As you may have noticed, the blog has had a summer spruce. Just to fill you in on a couple of points, I'm now a board member of the JEF Leiden Section newly created in the Netherlands. (Young European Federalists). Don't despair as to the title, I've not gone all totally integrate or be damned just yet!

As this has taken place I should be able to 'blog' a little more on issues that arise in the JEF universe - not everything they say in Brussels I agree with, but more to the point I think their goals and aims for young Europeans are perfect. Awareness is key, and what better way than to be involved in a organization who dedicates itself to the youth of Europe.

Coke, EU and Skeptics - Europe has a bit of an image problem.

14th July 2011 - We are bombarded by images all day long, be it on TV, the internet or the simple bus-stop billboard. The most famous of all being that of Coca Cola - after reading an interesting piece in yesterday’s Euractiv ( on the lack of successful marketing the EU does for itself, my mind turned to a thorny issue that haunts the EU particularly in skeptical states such as the UK. 
Being a Europhilic Englishman brings its own problems, but one of the most worrying is the lack of press directed at the EU other than to tell us that our bananas are not straight enough (, or that perhaps our national football team ‘could be forced’ to wear the EU flag on their jerseys as soon as the dastardly European Commission has got its wicked way ( As comical as these stories are, it highlights a popular problem associated with the Union. In simple terms there is not enough positive coverage, nothing adorning billboards or television to tell an electorate what good the EU actually does. Countries such as the UK who have advanced infrastructures and developed economies rarely ‘see’ returns on their European investment. This is far from the truth, as beneficiaries of the European Union Cohesion Policy will no doubt attest to, as if it needs more confirmation, universities and further education centres in the South West of England under the old South West RDA received £20 million alone from the period running 2007-2014, with nearly £20 million more committed just to ensure that the projects did not run out of money. (Source:
Now, one can argue as to what efficiencies are gained from such large sums of money being committed early on, also one can discuss protective measures to ensure that the money does not go missing. But all of this misses the point. In a time when the government of the UK is perceived to be cutting higher education funding (this includes bricks and mortar) the EU is still funding projects, be they bricks and mortar or less tangible. All of the information listed earlier is readily available on the Regional Policy website of the European Commission. Problem is, I had to look quite hard for it. As a case in point I spent well over an hour looking for the amount of money spent by the EU on advertising itself (it is now an entirely online operation, with paper advertising slowly being phased out). Another difficulty I faced was that although I could tell you all about Cohesion, Competitiveness and the like, I couldn’t pin down any hard figures. Given another hour I’m sure I would have found something more appropriate, but that defeats the point. 
So what are we faced with? A flood of information is ‘easily’ available online, but the issue is how to get to it. Even Google struggles bringing up the correct financial information for the EU. Alas the Commission’s marketing strategy, though sophisticated, cutting edge and bristling with that en vogue watch word: Transparency, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi!  So what of the article I mentioned at the beginning? Well, an American educated Indian, heading the French business school INSEAD pretty much knocked the issue on the head. In his interview he focusses on how national, or rather European (not Union) pride should be pooled and exported as a marketable image. The key components of culture, longevity and a uniqueness of the society as a whole. I’m not advocating that the people of Europe package themselves and put a gaudy label on a lunchbox and ‘sell’ themselves in order to promote the EU. The EU should instead be moving towards a direction where the humble bus-stop is a chance to extol the virtues of being part of a Union. Make them region specific even - though the costs may rise, nothing makes life easier for any legislating body if it is popular because of what it does. Negative press is free and readily available from all quarters, be it in the blogosphere or senior cabinet ministers. Myth busting websites go someway to alleviating this problem, but if the population don’t know what it is you are doing to help them personally, then it remains remote at best, meaningless at worst. 
As a member of a new JEF section in the Netherlands, I feel that even in one of the most pro-EU perceived nations there is a vacuum in which many citizens don’t know what the EU is, or does for them. I enjoy telling new-comers about what we do, what the EU does and the benefits that come with membership of this exclusive club. That does not mean that I am blind to those excesses and failings that creep just around the corner, waiting to trip me up in the guise of another Euro-skeptic. Coca Cola tells us all the time that its there, whether we look or not, it is always there. (If you don’t believe me, look at the local kebab shop sign.) Saturation advertising and a pervading sense of the brand gives people something sub-consciously to recognize. If you associate Coke with a vending machine, you are more likely to purchase the product next time you go to a vending machine. If you are constantly being reminded that the EU is there as a force for good, and personal improvement, then the extreme views that strangle development of the Union will fade slowly with time. There is unfortunately no quick fix, but one must start somewhere, and where better than to be known for building a library, a school, or a wing of a hospital with ‘your money’ from investing in the EU.
It is just a thought - but when skeptical nations such as the UK start to add up Project 1 investments and their like, they will soon forget about those pesky straight bananas.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mulling over a Cup of Coffee and the UK's perception of the EU

It has been some time since I lasted posted, but I will attempt to remedy this.

This morning I was reading the Daily Telegraph and read something interesting about how the Coalition is seeking to harmonise food labelling requirements. Now the piece itself was not particularly extraordinary. What was though was the comments underneath. It would appear that some bright spark had trawled Google to find the EU Directive on food labelling standards and promptly used it as a weapon in order to further his own ends.

Nothing very new in that. However the lack of understanding for the legislative process outside of any specialisms in academia was brought to bare in all its ignorant glory. A simple note attached to the link was that the EU has complete and utter legislative control over the UK and its competences within this area. Now although some of that is correct it rather misses the issue that a Directive is not a Regulation. For most of us this is a dull and tedious point - "who the heck cares?" Well I do. It is important to know the difference between your apples and your oranges, so why don't you know the difference between secondary legislative acts of the most powerful club politically you belong to?

Primarily the Directive is to be implemented in the best way possible with a sensitivity becoming of that particular Member State. The guidelines are set out, now follow them as closely as possible. Looking at a Regulation, you've got no choice, it is immediately entered into the Statute Books without molestation. So far so good?

It has been well documented as to the UK 'wasting' its time and precious resources (read money) on such a folly as the EU. Never is there any mention of the roads and schools and university buildings which are partly funded by the EU through its development funds. Never do we assess the say we get round in the Commission or the Council of Ministers. Does anyone in England actually understand what any of these institutions do? I suppose not.

One day I'll read something good about the Union, but I dare say it won't be from the UK press. C'est la vie!