IN A WORLD OF BELLIGERENT NATIONALISMS, IT’S NOT JUST CATALONIA THAT NEEDS COOL-HEADED MEDIATION

With Spain and Catalonia still locked in confrontation, cool-headed mediators are desperately needed to take the heat out of the escalating Catalan crisis. The European Union and Spain’s European partners have been little more than concerned bystanders so far. They cannot stay out of the fray any longer. Madrid and Barcelona need urgent outside help to navigate the increasingly troubled political waters.

The Madrid-Barcelona standoff, Spain’s heavy-handed response to Catalonia’s independence referendum, and the EU’s failure to stop the slide into confrontation have dangerous repercussions for Spanish democracy, the EU’s standing with an already-jaded European public, and the future of other European separatist movements.

There’s more, however. What happens in Europe doesn’t stay in Europe. The explosive Catalan situation risks casting a dark shadow over the EU’s crisis-prevention and crisis-management capacities, thereby denting the EU’s global standing at a time when belligerent nationalisms, tough-guy politics, and hard-line winner-takes-all policies are becoming an unfortunate global norm.

With populism, public disaffection, and ethnic strife further straining an already tense global order, the EU has so far taken a strong stance against government crackdowns and state over-reaction to public protests in many parts of the world.

No two crises are the same. Still, the question must be asked: can the EU be seen as credible in defending human rights and preaching non-violent solutions to others if it is seen as impotent in dealing with such violations at home?

The question is especially important at a time when the United States, under President Donald Trump, is unable to stand up as a defender of fundamental freedoms. This leaves Europe in the spotlight, with many people across the world looking to the EU for help and support. It’s a responsibility that Europe cannot shirk.

The stakes are high, therefore making it imperative that the EU seek out new and innovative ways to defuse the Catalan crisis. While direct European intervention is ruled out, the EU has so far shown a striking lack of imagination in seeking alternate, less public, and less visibly intrusive paths to reduce Spanish-Catalan tensions.

Public grandstanding and high-profile interventions and declarations are not the only tools at the EU’s disposal. Policymakers, including MEPs should be seeking ways to engage in creative third-party mediation, which could include turning to trusted non-politicians, including non-Europeans, who can persuade Madrid and Barcelona to abandon confrontation in favour of dialogue and negotiation.

It won’t be easy. The Spanish government continues to reject any outside help. But recent public calls for dialogue and the Catalonian authorities’ willingness to accept mediation are encouraging.

Down the road, the EU should go one step further by making mediation a central plank of its response to dealing with seemingly intractable political challenges, whether inside Europe or outside.

In principle, mediation is already part of the EU’s on-the-ground preventive diplomacy and a component of the EU’s conflict prevention and peace-building toolbox for conflict countries. Last year’s EU Global Strategy makes a convincing case for the EU in preventing conflicts and engagement in pre-emptive peacebuilding and diplomacy, promising that Europe will redouble efforts on prevention, monitoring root causes such as human rights violations, inequality, pandemics, resource stress, climate change – which is a threat multiplier that catalyses water and food scarcity – and displacement.

It’s time to move from policy to practice. The continuing tragedy of violence and discrimination against the Rohingya population in Myanmar, the crisis in Yemen and Libya, and even the impasse over North Korea did not emerge out of the blue. Preventing further escalation demands that the international community move from official declarations of condemnation and remorse to a more pro-active and preventive role which takes account of early warning signals of conflict and confrontation.

This requires that the EU is more actively engaged in global mediation efforts, either by taking on the role itself or, when it cannot do so, by providing increased support to different European and international organisations – whether formal, informal, private or public – which have the expertise, experience, and know-how to do so.

Through its many public declarations, EU institutions are profligate commentators on world affairs. Such statements are an important indicator of Europe’s view of global politics. An equal amount of EU time should be spent on making sure that the unfortunate events which make such commentary necessary do not happen in the first place.

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Europe, Turkey and the importance of reputations

REPUTATIONS are fragile constructs. Whether we’re talking about individuals, companies, countries or even cities, perceptions matter. Brands count. That’s why PR firms, image consultants and advertising companies do a roaring business across the world.

This week, I’ve had the European Union and Turkey on my mind. Not just because the relationship between the two continues to be troubled and turbulent.

My reflection started with what is now being called the “Catalan crisis” and its impact not just on Spain’s reputation as a democracy but also the implications of the vote on the EU’s image, both at home and abroad.

And then came disquieting news from Pakistan about the abduction by armed men of Mesut Kacmaz, former director of the Pak-Turk International Schools and Colleges, and his family which made me think of just quickly Turkey’s standing as a democratic nation, an inspiration for other Muslim countries, has taken a beating in recent years.

First, the EU. Brexit was a bad blow to the bloc’s reputation and confidence. But even as Britain prepared to leave, slowly and painfully, the EU27 bounced back with new projects and a renewed determination to make Europe count both at home and on the world stage.

Worrying violations of EU values in Hungary and Poland are being tackled through constitutional means, in keeping with the Lisbon Treaty.

But just as the going seemed to be getting better, with Europe finally forging ahead with the “wind in its sails”, the crisis triggered by Catalonia’s pro-independence referendum and questions raised about the shockingly harsh Spanish response to the vote have upset the cart.

The EU’s response so far to the explosive situation in Catalan has been stifled by concerns it might be seen as meddling in the internal affairs of one of its member states.

However, as the clock starts ticking towards a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament, prompting fears of more bloody confrontation between Madrid and Barcelona, there are calls for external mediation to calm down tempers on both sides of the dispute.

The Catalan crisis has significant — and possibly devastating — repercussions on nationalism, democracy and politics in Europe.

The bottom line is this: can the EU be seen as credible in defending its values and preaching non-violent solutions to the rest of the world if it is seen as impotent when grappling with these issues at home?

Turkey’s international brand has also lost its shine. EU leaders meeting in Brussels on October 19 and 20 are scheduled to try and bring their relationship with Ankara back on a less hostile track following a summer of unprecedented anger and acrimony. But it won’t be easy.

Turkey’s relations with the EU — especially Germany — have been fragile for months. The EU’s deal with Turkey on controlling the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe notwithstanding, the bloc’s promise to open its doors to Turkey lies in tatters.

Negotiations on Turkey’s EU membership are at a standstill. Although the talks have not yet been broken off officially, the view in most European capitals is that Turkey no longer meets the EU’s political criteria for accession.

Turkish officials put the blame at Europe’s door. Europeans say it’s Ankara that is upending years of political and reform efforts. The situation has worsened since the failed coup attempt in July last year.

As Carnegie Europe’s visiting scholar Marc Pierini wrote recently, “Nearly 140,000 government employees have been dismissed, including members of the military, police, judges, and academics, while more than 50,000 people are in jail, among them many journalists, intellectuals, human rights activists and business people. More than 2,000 schools and universities have been shut down. Media have been closed. Businesses have been seized and their assets transferred to the state.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also made no secret of his dislike of the Pak-Turk Schools, which he accuses of having alleged links with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, or his ‘Hizmet’ movement which the Turkish leader says was behind the failed coup.

While the Pakistan government has agreed to play ball — with new Pakistani Ambassador to Ankara Syrus Sajjad Qazi recently saying the government “will ensure that no stone is left unturned to deal with the problem and ensure that these people are no longer in Pakistan” — deporting the teacher and his family would be an unwise move.

First, given the current situation in Turkey, the teacher and his family will not be welcomed with open arms. They will almost certainly face imprisonment and possibly subjected to torture.

Second, while such a move would endear Islamabad to the Turkish president, it is unlikely to win Pakistan many friends among the millions of Turks who want a return to democracy and the rule of law in their country.

The Pakistani envoy also told the Anadolu Agency: “If something good happens to Turkey, it is the Pakistani heart that dances with joy.” Harassing, abducting and deporting law-abiding Turkish citizens in Pakistan will not make Turkey a better place or make Pakistanis happier. And it will certainly do nothing for the reputation of either Turkey — or Pakistan.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2017

Macron, Merkel and May: Europe is getting very complicated

EUROPE is getting very complicated. And even more confusing than usual. But there’s no doubt that after years of political paralysis and economic stagnation, the continent is on the move again, with no dull moment.

So French President Emmanuel Macron is Europe’s new saviour, Germany’s recently re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel is the trustworthy bearer of the European flame and Theresa May? Well, the British prime minister, in the words of her erstwhile colleague George Osborne, is a “dead woman walking”.

The trio dominate the European landscape for the moment but truth be told, poor May is being edged out of the game by her own rebellious party members and the once-again resurrected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Macron remains the European superstar. Given his tough reform agenda, the French president may not be popular at home with trade unions and other defenders of the status quo but his star continues to rise across Europe.

The French leader’s plan for an overhaul to make the EU more integrated, more democratic, and more competitive, dominated the headlines last week, overshadowing the fallout of the German elections — including the worrying success of the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — and the quivering speech on Brexit made by May in Florence.

Macron in contrast spoke for more than 100 minutes at Paris Sorbonne university, delivering a stirring vision of a refashioned dynamic and vibrant Europe which had Europhiles applauding across the continent. “I don’t have red lines, only horizons,” he said.

The French leader laid out a vision of the EU in 2024 that would be based on “common democratic values” as well as a “simpler, more protective” single market. This EU would include a more integrated eurozone with its own budget managed by a finance minister who would be held responsible by a eurozone parliament.

The European Commission would be reduced to 15 members and half the members of the European Parliament would be elected through trans-national lists as soon as 2019. Macron also proposed a common defence budget, with a “common doctrine” and a “common intervention force” by 2020. He proposed a “European intelligence academy” and a European prosecutor to fight terrorism.

The French president said that the EU should have a common agency to manage asylum requests and centralise interconnected databases and biometric IDs. The EU would have, at the same time, a common policy to train and integrate migrants.

“The only way to ensure our future is to rebuild a sovereign, united and democratic Europe,” he said. And if needed, he said, the EU would evolve at different speeds.

Macron’s speech, coming only two days after Merkel was returned to power in German elections, signals the start of a new wave of European efforts to rebuild the EU after years of difficulties and economic stagnation.

It won’t be easy. Many of Macron’s ideas are seen as too much, too soon. Critics say he is out of touch with the difficult reality of transforming ideas into actions.

Merkel — still seen as Europe’s most trusted leader — will spend the next few weeks trying to build a difficult coalition with the liberals and the Greens.

Her star has been tarnished by the electoral success of the populist AfD, which opposes her decision to welcome refugees and migrants. But Macron said he was sure that Merkel will choose “audacity and the sense of history” rather than “timidity”.

Strikingly for a French president, Macron encouraged young Europeans to speak at least two languages and to live and work in another European country. “The Europe of multilingualism is a chance,” he said.

The French president’s passionate defence of Europe and array of ideas for the future is music to the ears of EU policymakers, who say the bloc is ready for a new spurt of growth.

Earlier this month, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker also laid out his plans for Europe’s revival — although many of his ideas were immediately trashed as too ambitious by several European leaders.

But even as they squabble over just how to move forward, most EU leaders agree that the bloc’s new upbeat mood means it’s time to make some important changes in decision-making procedures and to set out more ambitious targets.

And one of the reasons for the burst of energy is Brexit. Much to the chagrin of many Brexiteers, far from drowning in tears at Britain’s imminent departure, the EU27 appear to be in celebratory mood.

Nightmare scenarios under which other EU status would seek to emulate Britain by also demanding a Euro divorce have proven to be little more than scare-mongering. If anything all talk of other “exits” has disappeared.

In fact, Brexit and the arrival of US President Donald Trump have given added energy to the EU.

In any case, May’s future looks increasingly grim. Squabbles among key members of her cabinet dominate the headlines while newspapers have begun to talk of Labour leader Corbyn as Britain’s next prime minister.

Interestingly, even as Britain’s media appears increasingly obsessed by the infighting in May’s cabinet and the details of Brexit, their counterparts on the continent hardly seem to care about the future of British democracy. Britain has very sadly written itself out of the EU’s future. And neither Macron nor Merkel seem to care. Really, they don’t.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2017

German elections mean populists are here to stay – but so are the immigrants

After she has completed the painstaking task of forging a new ruling coalition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel must join forces with other European leaders to tackle the re-awakened demons of Far Right populism.

The success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the much-watched German polls is a sobering reminder of the power still wielded by Europe’s populists and the abiding attraction of their simple and unabashedly anti-Islam, anti-immigrant and anti-EU message.

True, Mark Rutte in the Netherlands and France’s Emmanuel Macron managed to ward off the Far Right threat in milestone elections earlier this year. The increasingly erratic performance of US President Donald Trump – a hero for most European Far Right populists – and the post-Brexit chaos in Britain has further dimmed the allure of Europe’s populists. But the battle has not been won.

Europe’s mainstream politicians will be further tested in legislative elections in Austria on October 15. Stridently xenophobic and anti-immigrant slogans continue to dominate the government discourse in Hungary and Poland. With the AfD becoming the first Far Right party to enter the Bundestag in more than half a century, there is little doubt that Europe’s Far Right populists, aided by powerful domestic and foreign backers, are part and parcel of the continent’s political landscape.

European politicians should become bolder in tackling the populists’ racist agenda

The populist parties may be here to stay but so are the immigrants.

If they are to contain – and even diminish – the power and attraction of the Far Right, European leaders must steer clear of embracing – and thereby amplifying – the populists’ xenophobic rhetoric. Instead they should take the more courageous route of speaking out in favour of more inclusive and diverse societies, the approach successfully adopted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

It’s time to go further. European politicians should become bolder in tackling the populists’ racist agenda. Given the toxic and corrosive nature of the current debate, developing a fresh and credible European narrative on immigration – a “heroic story” – will not be easy. Here are six suggestions:

First, use the coming months to hammer out a new and convincing policy, based on rules and obligations, which looks beyond the current migration “crisis” to creating more effective, intelligent and realistic legal pathways for migrants seeking to live and work in Europe.

While many people, businesses and non-governmental organizations have been welcoming and compassionate in their response to refugees and migrants seeking shelter in Europe, governments’ often messy and erratic response has led to confusion and panic. A balanced and effective migration management policy will require the opening of legal pathways to migrants, rights-based partnerships with countries of origin and transit and more development assistance, trade and jobs as well as education-centred policies for countries in Africa.

Second, speak truth to the public. While open-door Europe was a necessary humanitarian response at a difficult time, it is not a medium-term option. But neither is Fortress Europe. Immigration is a global phenomenon and a fact of life. People will continue to move across borders in search of jobs but also to escape war, famine and environmental degradation. Europe will remain an attractive destination.

Third, for all the fire and fury directed at migrants by the Far Right, ageing Europe needs the talent, skills, energy and youth of migrants, both skilled and unskilled. Countries that accept immigrants (like Canada) are thriving. Migrants are needed to pay the pensions for the elderly, work in hospitals and schools and perform a million other tasks in a growing 21st Century economy.

The populist parties may be here to stay but so are the immigrants

Fourth, confront the conventional anti-Islam clichés by showing respect and being inclusive of Europe’s Muslim minorities. Far from being terrorists and criminals, “the vast majority of Muslims in the EU have a high sense of trust in democratic institutions despite experiencing widespread discrimination and harassment,” according to a recent report by the European Fundamental Rights Agency.

Fifth, while making new policies, do respond to the fears and anxieties of those who fear being submerged by alien cultures and traditions but also remember that the majority of Europeans are open and tolerant and distressed by the Far Right’s diatribes. Europe has always been and will always be resilient enough to cope with change and diversity.

Sixth, practice what you preach. European governments and European Union institutions have been woefully slow in recruiting ethnic minorities into their ranks. There was a golden opportunity to turn this around earlier this year when the Commission published a new “Diversity and Inclusion Charter”. But sadly the document’s goal to create “a better workplace for all” does not mention ethnic minorities. European Parliament elections in 2019 can and should correct this error by adopting more inclusive policies.

Finally, instead of being wrong-footed by the Far Right, Europe’s leaders need to celebrate their Union’s diversity. In an increasingly competitive and globalised world, Europe’s future depends not on pandering to nostalgic nativists but on mobilising the energy, talents and skills of all Europeans.

Shada Islam

Who cares about Brexit now that the EU27 have ‘wind in the sails’?

AS snubs go, this was a resounding one. Setting out his vision of a strong, successful and even more integrated European Union to the European Parliament last week, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker waited until the almost-end of his long speech to make a brief mention of Britain’s departure from the EU on March 29, 2019 as a “sad and tragic moment”.

Europe was not made to stand still. So the really significant event was not Brexit but the day after, he proclaimed, when “we will be a Union of 27”.

There will be a special EU summit organised in Romania on March 30, 2019 to mark Europe’s changed membership and, as Juncker put it, “the moment we come together to take decisions needed for a more united, stronger and democratic Europe.”

And what will this re-energised Europe “with the wind in its sails” look like?

Juncker was not short on optimistic ideas: it will be a place “where we all stand by our values. Where all member states firmly respect the rule of law. Where being a full member of the euro area, the banking union and the Schengen area has become the norm for all EU member states. Where we have shored up the foundations of our economic and monetary union so that we can defend our single currency in good times and bad…where our single market will be fairer towards workers from the East and from the West…where terrorists have no loopholes to exploit”.

Also, “where we have agreed on a proper European Defence Union. Where a single president leads the work of the Commission and the European Council, having been elected after a democratic Europe-wide election campaign”.

The Commission chief’s agenda for the remaining two years of his presidency is breathless — and breathtaking. The long address had important messages for friends and foes, admirers and critics, for Europeans and those watching Europe from the outside. Here are some key points:

First, that Juncker and the Commission are back — with a bang. Member states, led by Germany and France, have taken the lead in recent years, with the EU executive body being sidelined and overlooked. With Berlin and Paris coming out with new ideas for Europe’s future, the Commission chief has made clear that he and the institution he heads are back in the EU driving seat. Or at least sitting (very close) next to the driver(s).

Not surprisingly, many EU leaders have balked at his calls for further integration by proposing the appointment of one “EU president” who combines the jobs of the current president of the European Commission and his counterpart who heads the European Council. For eurozone members, Juncker proposed a “European Minister of Economy and Finance” who would chair the Eurogroup while also being Commission vice president and work to promote structural reform in member states.

For EU citizens, Juncker promised more efforts to prevent cyberattacks through the creation of a European Cybersecurity Agency, continuing efforts to stem the flow of illegal migrants, an emphasis on returning those who have no right to protection, more sharing of intelligence to stop terror attacks by setting up a European intelligence unit — and also opening up “legal pathways” for migrants.

There were other messages too. US President Donald Trump wasn’t mentioned by name — in fact there was no reference to the “transatlantic alliance” — but Juncker’s message to the US president can be paraphrased thus: you may be doing your best to destroy US democracy, but Europe isn’t impressed. In fact, said Juncker: “three principles must always anchor our Union: freedom, equality and the rule of law”. And oh yes, President Trump, while you may believe in the law of the strong, in Europe it’s about “the strength of the law”.

China’s President Xi Jinping wasn’t mentioned by name either, but the Chinese leader knows that Juncker’s proposal for a new EU framework for investment screening is aimed at ensuring that key sectors — energy infrastructure, ports and defence technology — aren’t allowed to fall into Chinese hands. “Europe must always defend its strategic interests…we are not naïve free traders,” said Jucker.

Turkey was mentioned and told that it could put its hopes for joining the EU in the freezer “for the foreseeable future”. No matter that Ankara was helping to stem the flow of Middle East refugees coming to Europe, Turkey was “taking giant strides away from the EU for some time”. And there would be no further EU enlargement to include the Western Balkans either at least until 2019. But “thereafter the EU will be greater than 27 in number”.

But the strongest message was for Britain’s fervent Brexiteers. As the beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May gets ready to make her much-heralded speech on Britain’s future relations with the EU on September 21, Juncker couldn’t have been clearer: it’s been a barrel of laughs but it’s time to go. So long and take care.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2017

As EU emerges from ‘valley of tears’, there’s new hope but also challenges

BY now everyone knows: 2016 was the European Union’s “annus horibilus”, the year of living dangerously and on the edge. The year of “polycrises” and much lamenting on how the bloc was drifting towards oblivion, irrelevance and perhaps even dissolution.

Brexit was a body blow to the EU’s self-confidence. Toxic populist politicians dominated the political conversation. Migrants continued to arrive in waves, triggering a wedge between a (relatively) welcoming Western Europe and Poland, Hungary and Slovakia who built fences to keep the unwanted out.

The arrival in the White House of President Donald Trump with his visceral dislike of all things multilateral, including the EU, led to much moaning about the demise of the liberal Western-led liberal order.

Seriously, as Trump would tweet, it was bad. And sad.

But guess what? While America struggles to make sense of the president it elected, Europe is back — and it’s looking good, at least for now.

The repugnant Geert Wilders and equally repellent Marine Le Pen did not secure the votes they needed to hijack democracy in the Netherlands and France respectively.

The Netherlands caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte is still trying to set up a new government following elections on March 15. In France, the reformist, liberal and pro-EU Emmanuel Macron is president.

And although there are German elections later this month, most Europeans admit that the polls are unexciting.

Both candidates — incumbent German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat contender Martin Shultz — are stalwart pro-Europeans. So even if Merkel is defeated (unlikely given the current opinion polls), Germany will not veer off the EU trajectory.

Small wonder then that EU policymakers say with a sigh of relief: “We are out of the ‘valley of tears’.”

Indeed. It’s time to stop weeping, to hammer home Europe’s resilience. To tell Europeans that they are not as vulnerable, weak and fragile as the populists would have them believe.

It’s time to spotlight, the EU’s achievements and strengths and to promise to tackle its weaknesses. It’s time for a sober pat on the back, not yet time for a full-fledged celebration.

So what does the EU — EU27 without Britain — have to do to make this temporary reprieve into a permanent peace? Here are some very subjective suggestions:

Stay calm in the midst of all horrible noise, fury and bluster. It’s a noisy and distracting world, crisis-ridden, moth-eaten and getting louder by the day. If it isn’t Trump tweeting, it’s frothing and fuming over Brexit that dominate our lives. Like it or not, the EU is the adult in the room. And the authority it exerts now comes from quiet self-assurance, peacefulness and grace under fire. Let it stay this way.

Change with the times. It’s no use hankering after “US leadership” or the “good old days” when the West ruled the world. That post-World War order is over, forever. It won’t come back after four years or even eight years of Trump. The world is moving on, quickly. The EU should use the coming years to forge its own global identity, move out of America’s shadow and build new strategic friendships — and reenergise existing ones — with the new kids on the bloc, including China and India.

Even as they rejoice in Europe’s rebirth, EU policymakers should be careful not to come across as complacent and arrogant. The populist threat in Europe has not disappeared. The East-West split over refugees, values and freedom of expression is serious and dangerous. Brexit will be a drain on energy and resources. The current peace is not permanent.

Start getting serious about tackling the many challenges in its neighbourhood. It’s fine to criticise and slap sanctions on Russia and Turkey — and to put off further enlargement with the Western Balkans states — but current tensions cannot go on. Like it or not, the EU has to keep engaged with the “bad hombres” who lead some of these countries. And even if it puts relations on hold with governments in the region, there must be no suspension of help and support for long-suffering people.

Avoid creating Fortress Europe. The EU has welcomed thousands of refugees and migrants in recent months and has kept its doors open despite the populists, internal divisions and a nagging press. While the number of people seeking to enter Europe may have gone down, young men and women looking to escape war or find a better life will continue to come to Europe. It’s important to start a serious rethink of EU immigration policy, especially in view of Africa’s growing populations and Europe’s shrinking and ageing one.

Keep Europe open for business. Interestingly, while the US withdraws from trade deals and contemplates new ways of protecting domestic producers, the EU has been seeking out new trade deals with an array of partners. The recent EU-Japan political deal on a free trade agreement has sent the right message on Europe’s desire to keep its markets open. It would be a pity if that message of openness was overshadowed by stringent new EU moves to keep out investments — including those from China.

The short list above is not comprehensive. The months ahead will be dominated by talk of serious reform and change, including in the functioning of the eurozone, and the speed of future integration.

While leaders try and pick up the gauntlet on the big issues of the day, important messages on at least some of the suggestions above would be useful.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2017

Brexit is loud, noisy and probably pointless

IT’S a noisy world — and it’s driving all of us just a tad crazy. How else to explain the chaos, confusion and lawlessness which blights much of the world?

Just listen: radios and TV sets blaring, people who can’t stop shouting, at home, on the street or in offices. Mobile phones going beep, beep, honking cars, thunderous lorries, airplanes flying overhead.

TV anchors shouting at you, reporters shrieking, talking-heads and “pundits” clamouring for airtime. And of course, the bullets, bombs and crying babies. The pleas for help that no one hears because their cries are drowned out by all that noise.

Even the written word has become loud and shrill. For proof, look no further than the tweets by US President Donald Trump with their exclamation marks and capital letters. All that anger and fury, all that hate. The insults and lies jump out at you from the screen, their venom startling and scaring even the bravest and most resilient.

In this noise and clamour, it’s easy to get distracted, to lose a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, to stop setting priorities, to fight and to blindly follow unscrupulous politicians whose deafening speeches only help to fan the fires of fanaticism.

Returning to work after the summer break, I’m stunned by the sound and fury of our complex, complicated and chaotic world. And this constant and unrelenting noise, I’m convinced, is wreaking absolute havoc with our characters, making us more callous, intolerant and uncaring.

My theory would help explain the current madness in Washington. It’s difficult to stay on the straight and narrow when policy is being made through shrill tweets and full-throated bellows and rants. Who can think amid all that noise?

Here in Brussels, it’s relatively calmer. Or at least it has been. But as Britain starts talking to the EU27 about its impending divorce, the noise being generated by the Brexit negotiations is threatening to become overpowering.

The Brexit talks were always going to be difficult but judging by the way they are proceeding, no quick and happy end is in sight.

The talks have only being going on for a few weeks — they started on June 19 — but Brexit negotiations have already turned into a loud and noisy “he said, she said” argument.

EU officials are clearly frustrated at what they view as Britain’s lack of preparedness for the talks. Just recently, EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker blasted Britain’s failure to answer “huge numbers of questions” on its Brexit plans.

Juncker has scoffed openly at a series of British negotiating papers published over the summer which Prime Minister Theresa May’s government claims were proof that London was responding seriously to the detailed proposals agreed by the EU27.

The commission chief was scathing: “I would like to be clear that I did read with the requisite attention all the papers produced by Her Majesty’s government; I find none of them truly satisfactory…so there are huge numbers of questions that need to be settled.”

These included issues of rights for EU citizens in Britain and Britons in Europe after Brexit and the EU-UK border that will stretch across the island of Ireland, he said.

“We need to be crystal clear that we will begin no negotiations on the new economic and trade relationship between the UK and the EU before all these questions are resolved … that is the divorce between the EU and the UK,” Juncker said.

Unfortunately, the latest round of talks in Brussels last week do not appear to have cleared the air, with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, saying there had been no progress on major issues and warning that time would run out to reach an orderly withdrawal.

All of this has of course provoked a noisy response from Brexiteers who accuse the EU of being inflexible and much too rigid, with Barnier’s stance being criticised as being “ill-judged and unhelpful”. Barnier told reporters, however, that he can’t accede to UK demands to be “flexible” until he knows what Britain wants.

To make matters even more acrimonious, Brexit enthusiasts went totally ballistic last Friday when former British prime minister and EU-enthusiast Tony Blair came calling on his friend Juncker.

The commission described the meeting as a regular chat between “good friends and former colleagues”. But British tabloids screamed unfair, warning that the former British PM was seeking — single-handedly — to derail the talks and keep Britain in the bloc.

Finally, just as conspiracy theories broke through the sound barrier and the din became unbearable, the current British PM May — described by her former colleague George Osborne as a “dead woman walking” because of her grim performance in recent British elections — chipped in to say she had no intention of quitting and planned to lead the Tories into elections in 2022.

As I’ve often said in recent months, politics in 2017 have become brutal, volatile and unpredictable. They have also become incredibly noisy. So let’s try and make a collective effort to turn down the volume and enjoy a bit of silence. Who knows, by doing so, we may even be able to find peace amid the quietness?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2017

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.