Happiness: the real divide between nations

I DON’T know about you but much of the world today seems to be angry, unhappy and fearful. Insults and offensive language are common currency. Lies and “alternative facts” abound. No one says “sorry” anymore. To do so, would be to confess to being a “softie” in a world which is only impressed by tough men and mean women.

So it’s reassuring to learn that contrary to my grim view of the world, there are entire countries which can be described as “happy”. According to the World Happiness Report 2017, Nordic countries are the happiest while Africans and some Asians are mostly miserable.

The answer for the divide is simple: all of the top 10 countries have high values in all six of the key variables used to explain happiness differences among countries and through time — income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.

I re-read the report just before going on vacation. Its holiday time and most of Europe — including this correspondent — will be taking a well-deserved vacation, coming back refreshed and reinvigorated and ready to tackle the world, once again.

That’s the theory. That’s what we talk about in Brussels these days: the burn out, the exhaustion, the “I can’t stand this world anymore” laments from friends and foes.

So the plan is to forget about US President Donald Trump and his crazy tweets, his creepy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his weird plastic-coated children for a few weeks.

To stop obsessing over Brexit and the fate of a now-small country once known as “Great” Britain.

And to take our minds off the wars in the Middle East, the danger emanating from North Korea and the corruption scandals in most corners of the world.

As I said: that’s the theory. The problem is that it just isn’t going to happen. In this world of constant news, non-stop social media and instant messaging, very few people are going to be able to really turn off.

And this means that come September, we will all probably be as tired and nervous as we are today. We will probably not be very happy.

The World Happiness Report says it doesn’t have to be so bad. Yes, we can be happy. But only if the right policies are in place.

The report’s key message is that trust and equality are the key to building happy societies and nurturing people who are joyful in their skins.

“Happy countries are the ones that have a healthy balance of prosperity, as conventionally measured, and social capital, meaning a high degree of trust in a society, low inequality and confidence in government,” according to Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Sustainable Developments Solution Network which publishes the report and a special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General.

The aim of the report, he added, is to provide another tool for governments, business and civil society to help their countries find a better way to well-being.

The big headlines are about the fact that Norway has displaced Denmark as the world’s happiest country. But that should not be such a cause for concern because Nordic nations overall are the most content in the world.

Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden are identified as the top 10 countries.

South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Togo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic are at the bottom.

Germany was ranked 16, followed by the United Kingdom (19) and France (31). The US dropped one spot to 14 because of anxiety caused by the erratic policies of Trump. Nations such as China (79), Pakistan (80), Nepal (99), Bangladesh (110), Iraq (117) and Sri Lanka (120) fared better than India, which was ranked on the 122nd spot. Interestingly, the report also points out that people in China are no happier than 25 years ago when the country was much poorer.

The rankings are based on six factors — per capita gross domestic product, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, social support and absence of corruption in government or business.

All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.

The report is meant to encourage governments to put in place policies which make people happy. Some countries have already appointed a “Minister for Happiness” to make sure this happens.

Imagine a world where instead of engaging in war and conflict, nations competed with each other on which one had the happiest citizens.

And on this upbeat note, it’s au revoir and so long for a few weeks.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2017

It’s a crazy world — get used to it

SOMETIMES a conference, a picture or even a tweet captures just perfectly the state of the world. For historians studying the 21st Century, the 2017 Group of 20 summit held in Hamburg this week will undoubtedly be remembered as having showcased just how quickly the world has indeed changed in the last six months.

Here are some rapid-fire key new trends:

The United States under President Donald Trump has abdicated its long-standing role as leader of the free world, the defender of liberal democracies and the promoter of a multilateral rules-based system. True, the US was on a path of retreat from the global stage under Barack Obama but the myth of the “indispensable nation” remained strong. As he turns his back on free trade, withdraws from the climate change accord and rages, rants and tweets against adversaries, migrants and Muslims, Trump has made clear that his “America First” policies are not just campaign stunts, but real policies with an impact both at home and abroad.

As the US turns inwards, the spotlight is on Europe as the standard-bearer of the liberal order. It’s a task that some in Europe are dying to take on. EU leaders make no secret of their readiness to defend free trade, stand by international agreements and forge new partnerships to ensure peace and stability in the Trump era. In a clear riposte to Trump’s anti-free trade stance, the EU and Japan signed a major new free trade agreement just ahead of the G20 summit, with both sides making clear the deal was meant as a signal of their commitment to fight protectionism. According to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “It is a strong message to the world.”

Within Europe, it’s Germany, host of the G20 summit, which is being watched the most closely as the bloc’s undisputed leader. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may demur at being called “leader of the free world” — but for many she is the best candidate for the job, especially since Berlin can now count on working with Paris under President Emmanuel Macron to strengthen European unity.

But Europe has significant fault lines of its own. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are in open conflict with their EU partners over their harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and restrictions on press freedom. The split between small and big EU members was in evidence last week as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called European lawmakers “ridiculous” for failing to turn up to an address by Malta’s prime minister, saying they should show more respect for smaller members of the bloc.

Juncker, himself from the small Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, was visibly annoyed as he watched the proceedings in the near empty parliamentary chamber in Strasbourg.

Outside Europe, all eyes are on China and President Xi Jinping whose public declarations of support for the climate change accord and strong pro-free trade stance have won him kudos in Europe. China’s multi-trillion dollar visionary Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with its vast connectivity networks across continents has also captured the world’s imagination. Not surprisingly, the Chinese leader was quite the hero at the G20 summit. But Beijing still has to deliver on opening up its own markets to foreign exports and investments and is under pressure to tame North Korea.

Despite continuing talk in Britain of its global ambitions, last year’s Brexiteer slogans of “Global Britain” and “taking back control” are beginning to sound tired and tedious. Contrary to what the politicians and others favouring a so-called “hard Brexit” may believe, Britain today is actually a diminished power, not a “strong and stable” one. As such, Prime Minister Theresa May — widely seen as a caretaker leader — made little impact at the Hamburg gathering.

While Europe defends the liberal system, Trump will find friends in Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who have more in common with the US leader than anyone in Western Europe. The Germany Chancellor has warned, however, that “anyone who thinks that they can solve the problems of this world with isolationism and protectionism is making an enormous mistake.”

Merkel insists that G20 leaders can and should send a message of determination as regards their great responsibility for the world and the need for international cooperation.

Unfortunately, the meeting — and others like it in the coming months — is expected to do the exact opposite by illustrating the divisions, discord and acrimony among some of the world’s leading nations. The message from Hamburg is quite simple: it’s a crazy world. Get used to it.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

FRANKLY SPEAKING | Rivalry, resilience and resistance: the new normal of a changed world

It’s difficult to discern patterns of conduct in this rollercoaster world. Still, halfway through 2017 is a good a time as any to try and capture some vibes – however fleeting – of a world in flux.

Geopolitical competition and rivalry – among nations, people, banks, businesses and just about everyone else – continues to tear us apart. But, there is also a new resilience in the system and in people. Shocks happen, we are shaken – and then we bounce back. And if we don’t like what is happening, we make sure our voices are heard and bad policies are resisted.

First, rivalry. There is nothing new about bitter rivalry and tensions over competing territorial claims, including in the South China Sea or in the Middle East, which continues to be a battleground between competing states, factions within states, and religious groups. Ongoing economic and political rivalry among the ‘Great Powers’, America and China, or indeed between Russia and the West, remain in the headlines.

But even as they compete with and challenge each other, intelligent rivals and competitors are trying to work together, bilaterally or through multilateral conventions, to avoid open conflict. This is the case of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, which are trying to negotiate a code of conduct to manage conflicting claims in the South China Sea. India and Pakistan are more or less managing their chronically acrimonious relationship.

“The EU has made resilience-building a key component of its foreign and security policy”

But in the conflict-racked Middle East the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar has ratcheted up long-entrenched intra-Arab rivalries and divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims. How America and China manage their rivalry concerns a watching world.

Second, resilience is the real buzzword for a 21st-century world that is constantly shaken by destabilising rapid-fire shocks. Not surprisingly, handling disruptive pressures and shocks has become the new normal across the world.

Development experts are trying to build resilient societies in fragile nations, disaster specialists want resilience built into national policies to reduce disaster risks, and people across the world, including in Europe, are showing commendable resilience even as they face terrorism and devastating violence.

Resilience in the face of man-made disaster was in full view after the Grenfell Tower fire in London as people came together to offer succour and support to victims.

Resilience, courage and stamina are also the name of the game for refugees and migrants as they embark on perilous journeys to seek shelter and better lives. And many countries and cities in Europe are opening their arms to the newcomers, confident and proud of their societies’ resilience.

The EU has made resilience-building a key component of its foreign and security policy, saying it’s time to move from crisis containment to a more structural and long-term approach to global challenges.

“Shocks happen, we are shaken – and then we bounce back”

A similar strategy, with an emphasis on anticipation, prevention and preparedness, needs to be followed at home. The EU has in fact shown remarkable strength and resilience in the face of the populist threat that only a few months seemed about to engulfing parts of the bloc.

Despite being shaken by Brexit and the venomous campaigns led by populists in France and the Netherlands, anti-EU forces have been put on the back foot in those two countries as well as in Austria and Germany. In Britain, the electorate appears to have voted against a harsh divorce from the EU.

Which brings us to ‘resistance’, whether it’s in the US, where courts, journalists and women are putting up a strong (and often successful) fight against some of the craziest actions and policies of the American President, or in Egypt, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and other states where courageous men and women are standing up for their rights in the face of detention and worse.

For many, the new French President Emmanuel Macron embodies the resilience of a confident new Europe. But beware of complacency. Europe’s East-West divisions continue to fester. Many will resist the reform and change that are needed to embed the European bounce-back.

But even if it’s just for a moment, let’s acknowledge, consolidate and celebrate Europe’s unexpected revival and resilience.

FRANKLY SPEAKING | Six lessons from Europe’s bounce-back

Remember when soap-opera politics used to be the preserve of what was contemptuously described as the ‘third world’? No longer. The topsy-turvy world of Western politics is providing an even more interesting spectacle to a watching world.

For proof, look no further than recent unpredictable developments in Washington, London and Paris.

US President Donald Trump remains mired in a bitter battle with the ousted head of the FBI, James Comey, over alleged ties between Russia and the Trump administration.

In London, a discredited and weakened Prime Minister Theresa May is clinging on to power despite having failed miserably to win the massive parliamentary majority she expected to help her engineer a hard Brexit.

And in France, the ‘revolution’ sparked by Emmanuel Macron continues as the French President’s La République En Marche party looks set to dominate the National Assembly.

These and other changes in three key Western democracies have obvious and important repercussions for their own citizens – but they also impact strongly on Europe and the world.

“The topsy-turvy world of Western politics is providing an even more interesting spectacle”

Here are some quick and easy lessons to keep in mind as we navigate new and sometimes choppy waters.

First, after almost a year of talking down Europe it’s time to be upbeat about the future. The energy generated by the French elections should be quickly channelled into serious discussions about giving shape to the European bounce-back through change and reform.

Second, even as we mourn America and Britain’s slow slide into irrelevance let’s seize the moment to make Europe matter even more on the global stage on key issues like global governance, security and climate change. In a quick-moving world, nobody is stopping for America. And as Global Britain behaves more like ‘little England’, it inspires little respect.

Third, let’s celebrate the power and political nous of young Europeans and ‘citizens of the world’, including ethnic minorities, who turned out in huge numbers to vote in the British elections, giving a bloody nose to the ruling Conservative Party in the process. Macron’s success is also proof that building a new and more vibrant Europe is about reaching out to all citizens, regardless for age, colour or faith.

Fourth, it is possible to defeat populists and populism – but only if the politicians who take them on are authentic, passionate, social media-savvy and strong enough to fight fire with fire. Europe needs a new narrative based on openness, inclusion and compassion. Both France and Britain have shown that there is limited appetite among voters for racists and hate-mongers. Let’s keep that in mind, especially ahead of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament.

Fifth, the EU’s political muscle-building is being paralleled by significant shifts in Britain. There’s an undeniable shift in the UK government’s approach to Brexit, with its previous stance on a ‘hard Brexit’ due to be significantly softened. The upshot of the election is that the House of Commons is back in control.

“The politicians taking the populists on need to be authentic, passionate, social media-savvy and strong enough to fight fire with fire”

Robbed of a majority, the Tories’ hard Brexiteer ministers will have to submit all the necessary enabling legislation to parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the MPs are reckoned to be anti-Brexit, but were cowed into silence by the referendum result.

Sixth, the pro-EU membership Tory and Labour MPs will no doubt gain in confidence and assertiveness once the Brexit negotiations get under way next week. Mrs May’s battle cry of “no deal is better than a bad deal” has already been abandoned, and the growing likelihood is that David Davis, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, will be forced by circumstances to acknowledge that Britain should stay in the single market.

That would mean accepting the EU’s four freedoms of movement – for capital, goods, services, and crucially labour – leaving voters in a possible second referendum to ponder the question of what Brexit is really all about.

Although it’s probably a stretch to ascribe the British electorate’s negative verdict on May’s appeal for a stronger Brexit mandate to shifts elsewhere in Europe, French voters’ massive rejection of populism by electing Macron to the presidency and giving him a landslide parliamentary majority has certainly been echoed in Britain.

If populism can best be described as the triumph of dangerously simplistic and short-sighted solutions to complex long-term problems, then the populists are being routed on both sides of the English Channel.

FRANKLY SPEAKING | Summertime signals warmer EU-Asia ties

Perhaps it’s down to global uncertainties sparked by US President Donald Trump’s volatile policies. Perhaps it’s the result of the European Union’s new Brexit-inspired sense of urgency and purpose. Or perhaps George Gershwin is right – and summertime just makes living easy. Whatever the reasons, Asia and Europe are finally starting a serious and strategic conversation on shared global challenges.

Europeans were active participants at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing earlier this month. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum and celebrations of ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in Manila in August. European and Asian senior officials are meeting in June in Brussels ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) foreign ministers encounter in Myanmar in November. There will be a gathering of ASEM economic ministers in Seoul in September, the first such meeting in many years.

It’s not just the frequency of these and other encounters that is significant. Meetings between Asian and European leaders, ministers, policymakers and business representatives take place often enough. But they have habitually been much too formal, and in some cases little more than photo opportunities.

Although important challenges still lie ahead – and regretfully EU relations with India and Pakistan have yet to truly take off – Asia and Europe are slowly but surely expanding the scope and deepening the substance of their conversation.

“Maintaining the new momentum in Europe’s ties with Asia’s leading nations will continue to require hard work, clear-headed strategic thinking and a spirit of compromise”

Significantly, the EU’s Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, is working hard to get trade deals finalised with Japan and several ASEAN countries. Talks on a region-to-region free trade agreement with ASEAN look set to be revived.

Trump’s lack of commitment on issues such as global security, trade and climate change is one key reason for closer dialogue and contact between Asia and Europe which equally depend on and defend the rules-based multilateral global order.

The increasingly volatile international outlook also certainly demands stronger Asia-Europe cooperation. Whether it’s North Korea’s erratic nuclear conduct or violence in Syria, Asians and Europeans are equally concerned by the worsening global security situation and its impact on their own stability.

Refugees, terrorism and violent extremism, as well as cybersecurity threats, test both Asia and Europe. Tensions in the South China Sea worry Europe, which depends on those sea lanes for a large percentage of its trade.

Asians are concerned about the impact of Brexit on their investments in Britain and their economic ties with the EU-27. Both regions face the challenges posed by populists, rising inequalities, and meeting the aspirations of young people for jobs and a better life amid rapid technological transformations. Human rights in many Asian countries continue to be a source of major concern.

As illustrated by their interest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan and similar discussions within ASEM, both Asia and Europe give priority to forging stronger links between countries and regions, encompassing infrastructure, digital networks and people-to-people ties.

This new EU-Asia relationship is evident in four recent developments.

“Future relations would get a boost if there is a quick ASEAN decision to open the doors of the East Asia Summit to the EU”

First, compelling new global realities are giving a new lease of life to ASEM. With its informal format and flexible structure, this forum offers a unique platform for an open, no-holds-barred brainstorm on all issues of mutual interest.

Second, EU relations with ASEAN are also advancing, as shown by Mogherini’s trip to Manila. Future relations would get a boost if there is a quick ASEAN decision to open the doors of the East Asia Summit to the EU.

Third, although trade relations between Beijing and Brussels remain strained, the BRI has the potential to spark a more ambitious and truly strategic EU-China conversation on crucial issues of global peace, security and economic governance. As EU leaders prepare to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for the 19th EU-China Summit in Brussels on 1-2 June, the EU should widen its view of BRI, seeing it as not merely as an economic ‘project’ but as a reflection of Beijing’s ambitious vision of its role in a rapidly-transforming world.

And fourth, EU-Japan relations look set for an enormous geo-economic boost following the imminent conclusion of an ambitious comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

Maintaining the new momentum in Europe’s ties with Asia’s leading nations will continue to require hard work, clear-headed strategic thinking and a spirit of compromise. Expectations will also have to be managed.

So let’s enjoy the summer and warmer EU-Asia ties – but make these relationships resilient enough to face possible storms and cold weather ahead.

VIEW FROM ABROAD: EU’s female defence ministers kick-start bloc’s hard power

LONG known for its “soft power”, the European Union is finally getting serious about upping it’s “hard power” defence and security credentials. And while the plans are still relatively modest in scope and content — there’s not going to be a European army any time soon — the bloc is moving forward with more determination than many anticipated.

Interestingly for those who, like this correspondent, keep a watch on such developments, the latest constellation of EU defence ministers includes five trailblazing women who could finally get long-standing plans for a European defence union off the ground.

It’s a historic shift in a world long dominated by male defence chiefs. Even in Europe where women have made more inroads into political life than in many other regions, men have dominated the world of guns and tanks. But no longer.

Until 2002, Finland was the only EU country to have had a female defence minister (twice). Last week’s meeting, on the other hand, was attended by Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen, France’s Sylvie Goulard, Italy’s Roberta Pinotti, Spain’s María Dolores de Cospedal, the Netherlands’ Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and EU’s “high representative” for foreign and security policy Federica Mogherini.

The spotlight is especially strong on Goulard, a member of the European Parliament, who like the new French President Emmanuel Macron is an ardent pro-European politician.

The appointment signals Macron’s determination to work towards greater European defence integration. A close ally of Macron who speaks four languages, Goulard is respected in Brussels as a straight talker, having acted as adviser to former European Commission president Romano Prodi.

The new EU focus on security is not surprising. European governments which are also members of Nato are under intense pressure from the US to increase defence spending to the UN target of two per cent of GDP.

Some like Germany have baulked at the US criticism but many others agree that the bloc must spend more on defence to ensure its own security and to be taken more seriously by a watching world.

Dependence on the US-led Nato alliance also makes the EU a permanent junior partner in other aspects of the transatlantic relationship, according to some EU policymakers.

Although he is scheduled to attend the upcoming Nato summit, US President Donald Trump’s on-off trades against Nato have added to Europe’s unease about excessive reliance on the organisation.

Difficult relations with Moscow have further bolstered the EU defence drive as has the need to cooperate more effectively and efficiently on counterterrorism operations. In addition, opinion polls show European public favouring more intra-European security cooperation.

Ironically, the imminent departure of Britain from the EU has also given a boost to the plans. France and Britain are the two European nations with the most military clout.

But, led by France and Germany, the EU has in fact identified defence cooperation as a key area for rebooting the crisis-hit bloc after Britain’s traumatic vote to leave.

“This is one of the fields where European Union integration is advancing the most,” Mogherini said after EU defence ministers met in Malta recently. “Now with crises all around, we hear from our partners, starting from the UN … that a rapid reaction force from the EU would be needed to be deployed in some crisis areas,” she said.

Britain, nuclear armed and with a permanent veto at the United Nations, long opposed such efforts, fearing the creation of a “European army” commanded from Brussels. But Brexit has taken Britain out of the equation.

In March, defence and foreign ministers approved Mogherini’s plans for an embryonic military headquarters to coordinate EU overseas security operations, and military training missions in countries such as Somalia and Mali.

In other decisions, the EU has agreed to strengthen security cooperation with partner countries, with the aim to adopt more strategic Common and Security Defence Policy (CSDP) partnerships with a focus on partner countries that share EU values, including the respect for international law, and are able and willing to contribute to CSDP missions and operations.

There will also be a focus on capacity building for security and development in partner nations including for the prevention and management of crises on their own and developing civilian capabilities and enhancing the responsiveness of civilian crisis management, including the possible creation of a core responsiveness capacity;

A renewed effort will be made to reinforce military rapid response, including EU battlegroups.

And in a tacit endorsement of a multi-speed Europe, EU members are working on an inclusive “permanent structured cooperation” (PESCO), composed of EU member states which are willing and able to collaborate further in the area of security and defence. More cooperation with Nato will take place, including in counterterrorism.

The agenda is undoubtedly modest by world standards. The EU defence plans certainly pale in comparison to the military swagger of the US, China and Russia.

But it would be a mistake to discount European ambitions. And if it can mix and match its soft and hard power by combining aid, trade, diplomacy with some military muscle, the EU could become a smart power which is valued at home and abroad.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2017

FRANKLY SPEAKING | China’s Belt and Road blueprint augurs changed global order

Domestic quarrels and a distaste for global engagement may be the hallmarks of Donald Trump’s erratic presidency of the United States, but the world is moving on.

On 14 May Emmanuel Macron was inaugurated as French President, raising hopes of a re-energised European Union. On the same day in Beijing Chinese President Xi Jinping showcased his ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), an ambitious vision of a refashioned, interdependent and closely connected world.

The three markedly distinct conversations in Washington, Paris and Beijing reflect different domestic imperatives. They also provide compelling insights into a rapidly transforming global order.

Trump’s presidency hurtles from crisis to crisis, many nations are questioning America’s role as indispensable global power. In France (and Europe) the talk is of reform and renewal as a young president takes power – and of the hard work still required to modernise, adapt and adjust while keeping the twin evils of populism and nationalism at bay.

But while the West takes time out, the rest of the world is in transition. The trillion-dollar BRI, Beijing’s ‘project of the century’, was spotlighted last weekend at a mega-conference attended by 28 world leaders, more than one hundred representatives of states, and an equal number of business representatives, academics and journalists.

It was quite a party – and rightly so. Not since America’s Marshall Plan pumped millions of dollars to revive war-devastated Europe has a country undertaken an endeavour of such spectacular scope, vision and financial magnitude.

“While the West takes time out, the rest of the world is in transition”

The Chinese leader is no amateur when it comes to undertaking bold, headline-grabbing initiatives. He made a strong stand for economic globalisation and open trade at the Davos World Economic Forum in January this year.

And the BRI is only part of the story. Significantly, China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is already working to meet the world’s enormous infrastructure investment needs.

Also, as the US withdraws from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the pan-Asian trade pact which excluded China, Beijing and countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are moving ahead with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to boost trade within the region.

In a message that was in stark contrast to the inward-looking announcements being made in Washington, Xi told the BRI meeting that his aim was to build an open, connected and inclusive world.

Xi’s blueprint articulates Beijing’s self-confident repositioning in an uncertain era. Not surprisingly, the US and Japan are not pleased. Most Europeans are interested but cautious.

But others are willing to join BRI and see how they can best benefit from the plan. China may not always be the gentlest of interlocutors, but many countries are ready for a change.

After all, the world needs to get better connected. Global infrastructure needs are enormous. Better connectivity is crucial for trade, to attract investments and to achieve some of the most crucial anti-poverty goals included in the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Clearly, BRI is not just about helping others. The search for new engines for domestic Chinese economic growth is an important driver. China wants to boost growth in its western regions, which lag behind the well-developed east coast. Steel and cement are in oversupply and will be used in the BRI projects. There will be job creation for thousands of Chinese workers, as well as foreign nationals.

“Beijing’s journey to greater global influence has truly begun”

And in a competitive world, this is also about learning by doing. China will have to ensure that BRI becomes more transparent, procurement rules become more rigorous and projects fit in with the SDGs, including environmental standards.

Significantly, as the initiative gains traction, China is beginning to conduct itself as a ‘traditional’ development partner, abandoning its ‘non-interference’ policies for a stance that is more concerned about the domestic affairs of its partner states, including on issues like governance and terrorism.

Finally, for all the Western concerns that the BRI will allow China to steamroll its partners, in most countries China is not the only show in town. Most states have access to US and European funds, not to mention aid from Japan and Saudi Arabia. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Asian, African and other representatives I met in Beijing underlined the importance of the tectonic geopolitical shift taking place. “This a historic and transformative moment. We can see the world is changing,” an African ambassador told me.

The way ahead is going to be complicated and difficult. China will need to learn how to deal with complex demands and painful facts on the ground in its myriad partner countries.

But if he was worried, President Xi certainly wasn’t showing it. Nobody should expect quick fixes, he cautioned.  “We will move forward step by step”. Beijing’s journey to greater global influence has truly begun.

FRANKLY SPEAKING | Forget the doomsayers: Trump’s 100 days have been good for Europe

US President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have been a breathtaking rollercoaster ride for Americans, but also for many in Europe.

He may be the least popular new president in the modern polling era (with an approval rating of just 41%) and mainstream American media (excluding Fox News and Breitbart) may talk disparagingly of ‘100 days of gibberish’, but the Trump presidency has been a wake-up call for Europeans, women, complacent liberal democrats, progressives, minorities of all kinds and for ‘citizens of the world’.

Trump and Brexit have taught us that we can no longer take values like democracy, human rights and freedom of expression for granted. No more can we believe that racism and bigotry are evils of the past. We cannot be lazy about defending minorities, refugees, the vulnerable and the marginalised.

After years of inertia and complacency about the progress we have made in living together, we now know that everything we have struggled to achieve – respect, human dignity, tolerance and building inclusive societies – can be taken away from us at any moment.

We have learned about the evil and wickedness in people – the lies they can tell and the insults they can hurl. How ‘alternative facts’ can be more powerful than the truth. We have learned about stupidity and the power of a tweet.

It’s been a steep learning curve. At times, the hateful narrative of the populists against the media, women, Jews, Muslims, African Americans and others has been cause for despair.

But it’s also been energising, galvanising and reassuring. More than ever before, it’s made many of us appreciate the values, the raisons d’être and the significance of the European Union.

In America, we’ve been impressed by the resilience of institutions and traditions of democratic constitutionalism as well as the formidable resistance put up by women, judges, officials and ordinary folk.

The media, after having helped create the Trump phenomenon by abdicating their responsibility to question lies, are now back to performing their true function of speaking truth to power and checking facts.

It’s been a steep learning curve. At times, a cause for despair. But it’s also been energising, galvanising and reassuring.

As highlighted at a panel discussion organised in Brussels by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists last week, and ahead of the World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the press is more aware than ever of its historical duty to challenge untruths and ‘fake news’.

Here in Europe, we’ve also been learning fast. Europeans remain unsure and uncertain about what to make of President Trump and how to deal with him.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cringe-making kowtowing visit to the White House doesn’t appear to have made much of an impression on Trump. He recently underlined that his priority was to do a trade deal with the EU, ahead of a similar pact with Britain.

The US leader’s far-right acolytes in Europe – Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France – haven’t been as successful as Trump would have hoped.

Wilders did not secure the crushing victory that many anticipated in the Dutch elections held in March. And (fingers crossed) Marine Le Pen is likely to lose out to the tolerant and pro-diversity candidate Emmanuel Macron in the second round of French presidential elections on 7 May.

The British elections will probably result in a victory for the Conservatives, but Theresa May and her hopes for a “strong and stable government” is being challenged as never before.

Across Europe, the conversation on immigration, refugees and Muslims is getting ever more animated. The European Commission is finally getting tough on Hungary.

Trump has blown hot and cold on Europe and NATO. After having urged other EU states to follow Britain’s lead by leaving the EU, Trump now believes that Europe is a “good thing”. NATO appears to have salvaged its reputation after having been denounced as an “obsolete” organisation.

Even as they hanker for an American partner and ally that they could rely on, European leaders are learning, slowly and hesitatingly, to walk alone.

The greatest test of whether Trump’s hold on Europe is truly broken will come on Sunday, with the French presidential vote.

If, as many expect, Macron does win, Europe’s message to Trump will be clear: populism and bigotry are not universally popular. Not all Europeans want to turn back the clock. Many have the confidence and the courage to make globalisation work for them. Many believe in an open and progressive Europe. Many want hope.

True, Trump is still the most powerful man in the world who can probably count on other ‘strongmen’ like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi of Egypt or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But power in the 21st century isn’t about who shouts the loudest, has the most people in jail, the biggest missiles and the most destructive bombs. It’s about building societies based on hope, openness and inclusion.

FRANKLY SPEAKING | Macron’s breakthrough signals rising EU hopes

f elected president, Emmanuel Macron would change the narrative on Europe, say Giles Merritt and Shada Islam. The centrist candidate would not only breathe new life into the Franco-German ‘locomotive’ but offer a more hopeful and upbeat message for the future.


The European Union’s fortunes look to be on the rise. When Emmanuel Macron topped the poll in the first round of France’s presidential election – putting him on course for the Elysée Palace in the final round on 7 May – there emerged a single clear message from what political analysts had been describing as an unprecedented muddle.

The message is that this French election joins at least three others this year as more a European than a domestic election. The snap 8 June election called last week by British Prime Minister Theresa May is all about Brexit. The mid-March general election in the Netherlands marked a significant defeat for Eurosceptic Geert Wilders. September’s German elections will determine Berlin’s future positions on many key EU questions.

But the outcome of the French election is unquestionably the most vital. The country’s left-right political tussle is being eclipsed by starkly different positions on the EU’s future.

All around Europe there have been fears that if the National Front’s Marine Le Pen were to gain the presidency it would spell the end for the EU in its present form. Her battle cry has been withdrawal from the eurozone and a ‘Frexit’ referendum on quitting the EU.

These threats alone guarantee Macron the support of many voters other than rabid Eurosceptics; his platform is encouragingly Europhile. He wants eurozone reform in the shape of a common budget under a eurozone ‘finance minister’, and he also proposes ‘democratic conventions’ to identify EU reform priorities.

“Macron’s pro-European stance is important for revitalising the European Union”

Whether Macron can reconcile his pro-market reforms to boost France’s competitiveness with his stance on supportive social policies remains to be seen. The unpopularity of the current President, François Hollande, stems in large measure from attempting just that.

But if elected president, Emmanuel Macron’s most significant achievement would be to breathe new life into the Franco-German ‘locomotive’. The Paris-Berlin axis that had driven European unity forward for many years lost momentum when French support waned, and now it looks set for revival.

Macron’s pro-European stance is important for revitalising the EU. Also significant for the future of Europe is Macron’s refreshing and counter-intuitive no-holds-barred defence of liberal democratic values.

Certainly, Le Pen’s performance in the first round is proof of the continuing appeal of populist and nativist politicians who can win over disaffected anti-globalisation Europeans with simplistic (and misleading) messages. Her party is not going to go away.

And let’s not overlook the frustrations of those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s mix of social reform, higher public spending and hostility to the EU.

But with Macron eschewing nostalgic nationalism in favour of hope and openness, France has sent an important message to those who thought populism and bigotry provided the only road to electoral success.

Not all Europeans want to turn back the clock. Many have the confidence and the courage to make globalisation work for them. Many believe in an open and progressive Europe. Many want hope. And most are fed up with traditional political parties and their time-honoured left-right divide, especially on economic issues.

“Not all Europeans want to turn back the clock – many have the confidence and the courage to make globalisation work for them”

There are other lessons to be learned by European politicians, especially ahead of British and German elections and for those preparing for the European Parliament polls in 2019.

Macron stands in stark contrast to the divisive ‘us and them’ rhetoric from US President Donald Trump and the hard-hitting anti-immigration stance taken by May and those pushing for a hard Brexit. Like Dutch GreenLeft leader Jesse Klaver and Austria’s Alexander Van der Bellen, Macron has stayed on message with his views on tolerance, inclusion and ending discrimination.

Significantly, unlike May and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte, who have embraced aspects of the tough anti–immigrant agenda espoused by populists, Macron stayed true to his agenda of an open France, even in the face of public outrage at the tragic terrorist attack just days before the elections.

Macron campaigned energetically for the votes of France’s disaffected citizens of immigrant descent, voicing anger at their marginalisation, insisting they were part of France’s future and saying he favoured “positive discrimination” to end decades of neglect.

His campaign was refreshingly free of anti-Muslim diatribes. Macron has told voters security will “not be better served by closing national borders,” and insisted even as Le Pen lashed out against Islam that “No religion is a problem in France today. We have a duty to let everybody practice their religion with dignity.”

On 7 May, France once again faces a historical choice. It can opt to look inwards, leave the EU, and embrace policies based on hate and fear. Or French voters can really move ‘forward’ with a politician whose upbeat message will, in Macron’s own words, highlight “the new face of French hope”.

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IMAGE CREDIT: BigStockPhoto / Pixinoo

FRANKLY SPEAKING | Brexit and the joys of starting over

Anniversaries are special moments. They can be sombre affairs, such as the first anniversary of the Brussels terror attacks, an occasion made even grimmer by the 22 March tragedy in London.

Anniversaries can also be a time for reflection and sober deliberation. The European Union’s celebration of its 60th anniversary on 25 March was just such a moment.

And then there is 29 March. History is being made today as Britain triggers Article 50 and starts negotiations on its divorce from (sorry, its ‘new relationship’ with) the EU.

Brexiteers are in celebratory mood. After all, it’s not every day that a nation takes back control of its destiny, unshackles itself from 44 years of EU domination and morphs magically into an independent and intrepid world power (also known as ‘Global Britain’).

But pro-EU demonstrations in London are proof that not everyone is dancing with joy. Many share European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s description of Britain’s departure from the EU as a “tragedy”.

Not to be forgotten amid the Brexit focus is a simple fact: it’s not just Britain that is starting over.

29 March will also be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’. Having renewed their vows in Rome, EU leaders embark on a new journey together, without Britain.

It will be a difficult voyage. Far-right populism, increased polarisation of minorities and unending economic problems are not going away anytime soon. Refugees and migrants will continue to knock on Europe’s doors, creating divisions and challenging EU solidarity. Difficult elections lie ahead in France, Germany and possibly Italy.

“29 March will be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’”

The American and Russian presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, now joined by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have made no secret of their dislike of the EU and all it stands for.

But the conversation is changing. Thankfully last year’s talk of a ‘collective depression’ and ‘existential crisis’ is no longer making headlines. Instead, as Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian premier and host for the Rome celebrations underlined, “the EU is choosing to start again”.

This is good news. Starting over, as John Lennon sang to us all those years ago, can be exciting and exhilarating. EU-27 leaders would do well to take Lennon’s advice and put more poetry, emotion and imagination into their courtship of EU citizens.

The thousand-word Rome declaration is good enough, but won’t really do the trick. If Europeans are to fall in love again with the EU, leaders, ministers, politicians, even EU officials, must – as Lennon sings – “spread their wings and fly”.

Perhaps for the first time in recent history, the public in many parts of Europe wants the EU to soar.

Brexit, Trump’s election and just plain common sense about the need to work together in a difficult world have galvanised many Europeans into supporting the EU.

Importantly, there are European politicians who are passionate about countering the anti-EU message of xenophobic far-right politicians.

“We will miss Britain – but we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union”

Jesse Klaver, the charismatic young leader of the Dutch GreenLeft party, Emmanuel Macron in France, and Martin Schulz of the German Social Democrats are upfront about their support for the EU, embracing the vision of an open and diverse Europe.

Klaver, who increased his party’s seats in the Dutch parliament by a factor of four, has shown that being Dutch-Moroccan-Indonesian is not a barrier to success.  His advice to young people is to “never give up” in the face of challenges.

Others need to have a similarly positive message of inclusion and participation.  A safe and secure Europe must also be an inclusive one, not one that fears diversity.

The EU in the 21st century may be ‘multi-speed’, with less being done in Brussels and more in capitals. It may or may not be able to become a more powerful global player and may or may not have a real common defence and security policy.

But what’s important is that the conversation about Europe’s future has started.

Indian author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor pointed recently to the “shambles of that original Brexit” when the British departed from India in 1947, leaving behind chaos and violence – and the birth of independent India and Pakistan.

This time it’s different. We will miss Britain – some of us very much. But we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union.

Anniversaries are special moments. They can be sombre affairs, such as the first anniversary of the Brussels terror attacks, an occasion made even grimmer by the 22 March tragedy in London.

Anniversaries can also be a time for reflection and sober deliberation. The European Union’s celebration of its 60th anniversary on 25 March was just such a moment.

And then there is 29 March. History is being made today as Britain triggers Article 50 and starts negotiations on its divorce from (sorry, its ‘new relationship’ with) the EU.

Brexiteers are in celebratory mood. After all, it’s not every day that a nation takes back control of its destiny, unshackles itself from 44 years of EU domination and morphs magically into an independent and intrepid world power (also known as ‘Global Britain’).

But pro-EU demonstrations in London are proof that not everyone is dancing with joy. Many share European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s description of Britain’s departure from the EU as a “tragedy”.

Not to be forgotten amid the Brexit focus is a simple fact: it’s not just Britain that is starting over.

29 March will also be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’. Having renewed their vows in Rome, EU leaders embark on a new journey together, without Britain.

It will be a difficult voyage. Far-right populism, increased polarisation of minorities and unending economic problems are not going away anytime soon. Refugees and migrants will continue to knock on Europe’s doors, creating divisions and challenging EU solidarity. Difficult elections lie ahead in France, Germany and possibly Italy.

“29 March will be remembered as the formal birthday of the new ‘EU-27’”

The American and Russian presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, now joined by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have made no secret of their dislike of the EU and all it stands for.

But the conversation is changing. Thankfully last year’s talk of a ‘collective depression’ and ‘existential crisis’ is no longer making headlines. Instead, as Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian premier and host for the Rome celebrations underlined, “the EU is choosing to start again”.

This is good news. Starting over, as John Lennon sang to us all those years ago, can be exciting and exhilarating. EU-27 leaders would do well to take Lennon’s advice and put more poetry, emotion and imagination into their courtship of EU citizens.

The thousand-word Rome declaration is good enough, but won’t really do the trick. If Europeans are to fall in love again with the EU, leaders, ministers, politicians, even EU officials, must – as Lennon sings – “spread their wings and fly”.

Perhaps for the first time in recent history, the public in many parts of Europe wants the EU to soar.

Brexit, Trump’s election and just plain common sense about the need to work together in a difficult world have galvanised many Europeans into supporting the EU.

Importantly, there are European politicians who are passionate about countering the anti-EU message of xenophobic far-right politicians.

“We will miss Britain – but we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union”

Jesse Klaver, the charismatic young leader of the Dutch GreenLeft party, Emmanuel Macron in France, and Martin Schulz of the German Social Democrats are upfront about their support for the EU, embracing the vision of an open and diverse Europe.

Klaver, who increased his party’s seats in the Dutch parliament by a factor of four, has shown that being Dutch-Moroccan-Indonesian is not a barrier to success.  His advice to young people is to “never give up” in the face of challenges.

Others need to have a similarly positive message of inclusion and participation.  A safe and secure Europe must also be an inclusive one, not one that fears diversity.

The EU in the 21st century may be ‘multi-speed’, with less being done in Brussels and more in capitals. It may or may not be able to become a more powerful global player and may or may not have a real common defence and security policy.

But what’s important is that the conversation about Europe’s future has started.

Indian author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor pointed recently to the “shambles of that original Brexit” when the British departed from India in 1947, leaving behind chaos and violence – and the birth of independent India and Pakistan.

This time it’s different. We will miss Britain – some of us very much. But we can also make sure that the heartbreak of Brexit goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of a reinvigorated European Union.