FRANKLY SPEAKING | Europe-Asia relations become a priority in the age of Trump

Asian governments are still trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s unpredictable approach to their region.

After lambasting both Tokyo and Beijing over their trade and currency policies, the new President of the United States has made constructive contact with the leaders of both Japan and China.

But conflicting statements by American policymakers indicate that Washington will take time to craft a lucid, well-thought-out policy towards Asia.

As America reassesses its Asia policy, Europe must redefine its own relationship with the region. Asia’s economic growth continues to be strong, but political antagonisms and rivalries are on the rise.

North Korea’s recent firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast, the first such test since the US election, is one important indication of Asia’s significance for global security.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s recent visit to the US, where she discussed the future of the Iran nuclear deal with the new administration, is a welcome sign of Europe’s proactive stance on global challenges.

The EU should show similar determination to craft a standalone policy towards Asia which, despite America’s dominant presence and China’s growing clout, still looks to Europe for trade, investment, technology and security support.

“It’s time for the European Union to further enhance its own distinct trade, political and security profile in the region”

America has been both a rival and a vital ally as Europe has expanded its ties with Asian countries. It’s time now for the EU to further enhance its own distinct trade, political and security profile in the region.

Brexit and the EU’s many other crisis and economic woes have tarnished some of Europe’s lustre. But here are three ways in which Europe and Asia can work together to ease some of the anxieties of the Trump era.

First, Europeans and Asians have a common interest in working together on issues such as climate change, preserving the Iran deal and safeguarding multilateral institutions, including the United Nations.

In addition to its soft power credentials in areas such as peace-building, preventive diplomacy and conflict management, the EU is also a valuable partner for Asia in areas such as maritime security (including anti-piracy operations), counter-terrorism and fighting cybercrime.

A more visible European security profile in Asia will have the added benefit of helping the EU’S long-standing desire to join the East Asia Summit, an annual forum of Asian countries that since 2011 has included the US and Russia.

Second, given America’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and its disinterest in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the EU should work harder to finally clinch pending free trade agreements with Japan, India and individual South-East Asian countries.

As EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström underlined recently, trade is essential for employment – with some 31 million European jobs dependent on exports – and a way to spread good values and standards.

Brussels should therefore get serious about negotiating a free trade pact with the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and speed up trade talks with Australia and New Zealand.

Importantly, the EU and Asians should join forces to inject new life into the World Trade Organization.

“Europe needs to use its influence to prevent the rise of unwise nationalisms, destructive conflicts and confrontation”

Third, the EU should make a serious effort to upgrade its bilateral relations with Asia’s key players and regional organisations.

Brussels has worked hard over the years to engage in a sustained manner with China, Japan, Korea, India and ASEAN. These links are significant and impressive but often get muddied by small irritants. They must be given more resilience, strategic substance and direction.

Europe should take a closer look at other regional initiatives in Asia such as trilateral cooperation efforts by Japan, China and Korea (whose relationships with the Trump administration will be the subject of a Friends of Europe debate on 22 February).

While disagreements over historical issues and North Korea have long strained relations between the three countries, Japanese, Chinese and Korean leaders have held several trilateral summits since 2008 and are currently reassessing ties to take account of the new US administration.

Another summit is being mooted while the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat in Seoul continues to work on its mandate to promote peace and common prosperity between the three countries.

In addition, in today’s uncertain and volatile world, ASEM (the Asia-Europe Meeting), which brings together more than 50 European and Asian countries, is needed more than ever to deepen connections and networks.

The EU’s Global Strategy calls for a deepening of economic diplomacy and an increased security role for the EU in Asia. That commitment should be translated urgently into action.

Europe’s history and experience make it imperative that it uses its influence to prevent the rise – both at home and abroad – of unwise nationalisms, destructive conflicts and confrontation.

Friends of Europe’s regular ‘Frankly Speaking’ column takes a critical look at key European and global issues.

FRANKLY SPEAKING | As Trump disengages from the world, Europe and others can take the lead

The new President of the United States, Donald Trump, is upending liberal democracy, spreading ‘alternative facts’ and smashing civilised values.

The loss of US leadership in championing democracy and human rights is worrying. But America’s retreat from the global stage is also an opportunity for others to craft a different vision for living together in the 21st century.

As Trump puts ‘America first’ and disengages from the world, other nations must take the lead in fashioning more inclusive societies, rethinking global governance, reforming and galvanising multilateral institutions and creating new networks and coalitions.

Europe can and should be at the forefront. It can do so by rebuilding its fractured unity but also by revamping and reinforcing its still-fragile global profile. Given the rapidity with which Trump is enacting his campaign promises there is little time to lose.

The European Union’s response should be in three steps.

First, EU leaders should use their forthcoming summit in Valetta to take a hard look at just how Europe is going to conduct itself in the Trump era.

Second, the EU must rethink its stance on refugees and immigration, its trade and aid policies, and its relations with key emerging powers – including Russia and China, which have markedly divergent views on Trump.

And third, ahead of the Treaty of Rome anniversary on 25 March and elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy, Europe’s mainstream democratic parties must work harder to forge a new and inspirational narrative to counter populist rhetoric and reconnect with citizens.

“America’s retreat from the global stage is an opportunity for others to craft a different vision for living together in the 21stcentury”

The EU must act quickly. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has already told Trump that the war on terrorism is not an adequate reason to renege on the 1951 Geneva Convention, which requires signatories to help people fleeing from conflict.

The Valetta summit should go further. It should send an even stronger message to the new American administration on the ‘Muslim ban’ and other controversial edicts of the last few weeks.

If it is to be taken seriously, however, the EU must practice what it preaches and stop EU leaders who are also spreading anti-Muslim and anti-migrant hate and fear.

Individual EU governments and leaders who think they can forge bilateral bonds with Washington should learn from the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. Even holding the President’s hand and showering him with compliments is no guarantee he will spare you major embarrassment just hours later.

EU policymakers are also well advised to bury the illusion that Trump’s appointments will be more Euro-friendly than their boss.

For further proof, European leaders should listen carefully to Trump’s likely pick for ambassador to the EU, Ted Malloch. He told the BBC that he was looking forward to being in Brussels because he had previously “helped bring down the Soviet Union. So maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.”

Time must not be lost in rethinking Europe’s refugee, migration, trade, aid and foreign and security policies.

Certainly, all European nations should meet the NATO commitment to spend two percent of gross domestic product on defence. But the EU’s global security strategy, adopted last summer, needs to be revised to take account of new geopolitical realities triggered by Trump’s isolationism.

“EU leaders should now grab the opportunity to grow up, and morph Europe into a global actor in its own right”

The EU is certainly on the right track. The last few years have seen Europe stepping up its engagement in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, even though discord remains on key issues, such as relations with Russia.

Significantly, as President Trump moves to make the his country more insular, transactional, and narrowly interest-driven – saying the US will buy American and hire American – China has set up stall as the defender of economic globalisation and free world trade. As Chinese President Xi Jinping warned at the Davos World Economic Forum last month, “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war”.

And as Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made clear he was ready to press on with the TPP with China, rather than US, at the centre.

Others are also stepping into the space being vacated by America. When Trump signed an executive order known as the ‘global gag rule’, withholding US government funding from aid groups that perform or promote abortions, the Dutch and Belgian governments said they would help set up an international abortion fund.

The EU has so far been more than happy to play second fiddle to the US, shadowing Washington on most international issues, and waiting for the US to make up its mind before taking a stance.

But all has changed. EU leaders should now grab the opportunity to grow up, and morph Europe into a global actor in its own right.

Friends of Europe’s regular ‘Frankly Speaking’ column takes a critical look at key European and global issues.

VIEW FROM ABROAD: We live in interesting times: Trump, Muslims and Europe

AHEAD of Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President, New York City is as vibrant and dynamic as ever. Locals mingle with tourists, immigrants and foreigners in the icy cold. The ferry to the Statue of Liberty is brimming with excited Chinese visitors. The stores and restaurants are full.

This is New York, proud global city, still basking in a soft post-New Year glow. It is also in combative mood, braced for a fight with the new president.

“Are you here for Trump’s inauguration,” my Dominican taxi driver asks. I say no, I’m attending a high-level forum on anti-Muslim hate being organised at the United Nations by the European Union, Canada, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — and the US.

“So it’s Obama’s parting shot,” he chuckles. “These Americans are crazy to elect Trump. They are already regretting it. At least here in New York.”

Certainly, the new US President is not this city’s favourite son. The 58-storey Trump Tower may be the fanciest, glitziest building among other fancy, glitzy luxury stores which line Fifth Avenue, but New Yorkers are fed up with the increased security, the barricades and the gawping tourists.

A small but stalwart and loud group of protesters stands outside the Tower, shouting, “No Trump, No KKK, no fascist USA”. Policemen look on warily as tourists take pictures.

Ever since Trump won the election, the protective measures around the Tower, which is his primary residence and where his wife Melania will stay while their son finishes his school year, have caused a dramatic slowdown in business in the neighbourhood, according to PBS journalist Rhana Natour.

Shopkeepers say they are not happy with the chaos. Tourists and shoppers aren’t keen to get caught in the protests or run into policemen and police dogs. If Trump keeps coming to New York, as he has said he will, business just won’t pick up.

Americans are gearing up for a struggle. On Jan 21, a day after the inauguration, a massive Women’s March will be held in New York and other cities across the US and the world.

This city has its own heroes. New York Governor Andrew M Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, have made clear that they will stand firm on their principles.

Cuomo has called New York “a safe harbour for our progressive principles and social justice”. De Blasio joined actors Alec Baldwin and Mark Ruffalo, as well as film-maker and activist Michael Moore, for a protest against Trump. “This is New York. Nothing about who we are changed on Election Day,” de Blasio promised in a tweet.

Trump’s shadow looms large over the UN meeting. Outside the UN building, flags from across the world still flutter. But in the rain, they have a forlorn air. Colleagues worry about the future of the UN. Trump is not a believer in multilateral cooperation. “But this is why we have to stand firm and speak out,” says a friend.

As the forum begins the mood is understandably sober and reflective. It’s also surreal. The keynote speeches in the first hour warn of rising anti-Muslim hate and discrimination without mentioning Trump by name.

UN Secretary General Antònio Guterres refers to a recently launched initiative “Together — Respect, Safety and Dignity for All” which is designed to strengthen bonds between refugees, migrants and host countries and communities.

David Saperstein, American Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom warns, “Anti-Muslim hatred does not occur in a vacuum…the rise of xenophobia across the world creates challenges that focus our attention and the data leaves us no doubt that this is happening.”

But then the discussions get more animated. No one can say whether Trump intends to implement his campaign promise of setting up a “Muslim registry” but there is little doubt that his election has triggered an increase in anti-Muslim hate.

In Europe, there is concern that populists are riding high in polls in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Intolerance and anti-Muslim diatribes have become the norm for leaders in Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European countries.

But the forum is not about Muslims as victims but about empowering Muslim minorities in America, Europe and in other parts of the world.

There is talk of creating civil society coalitions against xenophobia, working with other faith groups, countering misinformation and forging positive stories of Muslims in the news and popular culture.

“Some say we live in a post-truth world,” says EU human rights envoy Stavros Lambrinidis. “We must have the courage to confront narratives when they are based on prejudice, or blatant lies, so that they do not become part of the mainstream.”

Several panellists highlight the importance of establishing relationships with local political and law enforcement agencies, saying that as New York has shown, mayors are key to ensuring that cities are more open, tolerant and diverse.

I head home to Brussels just hours before Trump moves into the White House. The New York Times has an editorial chiding the new president for his pro-Russian and pro-Brexit rhetoric and his anti-Nato and anti-EU diatribes.

There is no immediate Trump tweet in reaction. But we know: it is going to be an interesting four years.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2017

VIEW FROM ABROAD: As EU-Turkey relations crash, it’s time to consider ‘Trexit’

TURKISH President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have succeeded in convincing Pakistan’s government to expel Turkish teachers accused of links to an alleged terrorist organisation — a decision now put on hold by a Pakistani court — but the Turkish leader’s links with the European Union have hit an all-time low.

There is talk of “Trexit” or an end to Turkey’s decades-old bid to join the EU. Erdogan has hinted that he is fed up with the EU and ready to move on and seek other partners.

But the message from Ankara is confusing. In Brussels this week, Turkish officials were adamant that “full membership” of the EU was still their aim. And they insisted that Turkey wanted above all to talk about “rule of law” with the EU.

Yes, readers, EU-Turkey relations are complicated. They are difficult, tetchy and at times amusing. Both sides need each other but don’t trust each other. “Can’t live with you, can’t live without you”.

Deep inside where it matters, EU policymakers are wary of opening their club to a majority Muslim nation. And similarly, deep inside where it matters, Turkish officials think Europeans are arrogant and Islamophobic.

Both assumptions are correct. Blame it on history, the crusades, Christian-Muslim rivalries that cast a dark shadow even in the 20th Century. But the love-hate EU-Turkey relationship is entering an even more fraught era.

The EU agreed years ago that Turkey could join the EU — and negotiations began in earnest in 2005.

The talks have never been easy — not least because of the shadow cast by the divided island of Cyprus.

Things are now coming to a head. The European Parliament voted last week to freeze negotiations on Turkish membership of the EU, saying Ankara was guilty of a “disproportionate and repressive” response to the failed military coup against the government on July 15.

“Since the failed military coup in July 2016, tens of thousands of people, including military personnel, public servants, teachers and university deans, prosecutors, journalists and opposition politicians, have been fired, suspended, detained or arrested,” the European Parliament said in a press release.

MEPs are also concerned about the crackdown and the threat by the Turkish President to reintroduce the death penalty.

The non-binding parliamentary resolution calls for a temporary freeze on the EU accession negotiations until the “disproportioned repressive measures are lifted”.

But allegations of human rights abuse by the Turkish government against its own citizens are piling up at the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court said last week that it has received some 850 petitions from Turkish citizens in the past two weeks.

Not surprisingly, Erdogan has reacted angrily to the European Parliament move. The Turkish leader threatened to tear up a landmark deal to stem the flow of Syrian and other refugees into Europe. He also warned that he would seek other partners in lieu of the EU.

For all their anger and frustration at Turkey’s conduct, few in Europe think it wise to allow a further worsening of relations with Ankara.

But there is a growing number of people both in Europe and Turkey who believe that Ankara should push the “Trexit” button. In other words, instead of trying so hard to join the EU, Ankara should reflect on another form of partnership with the bloc.

The new arrangement would take into account massive changes in both the European and Turkish landscapes. Clearly, both the EU and Turkey are very different today than they were when they started their courtship in the 1960s.

The EU was still a modest club of six democracies seeking peace and stability after the devastation of World War II. Turkey was struggling with numerous economic and political challenges including efforts to keep the Turkish army away from national politics.

Fast forward to 2016, and the EU counts 28 members — with Britain on the way out. The bloc is big but chastened, still powerful but also increasingly fragile.

Turkey is an undoubtedly important regional power — but also less influential than many thought it would be in dealing with Syria and Iran.

Given the changes on both sides, there are calls for the EU and Turkey to put aside the long and difficult debate on membership and focus instead on a new 21st century strategic partnership which reflects new geopolitical realities.

“That Turkey’s accession is not a realistic goal for the foreseeable future should be the starting point of this new discussion; but that acknowledgement should not be a punishment but an opportunity to redefine the relationship according to mutual interests: the refugee crisis, economic integration, counterterrorism and energy, to name a few,” argues Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

The approach makes sense to many in Europe and to some Turkish scholars. But the Turkish government insists that past promises of membership cannot be cast aside.

Instead of looking for new avenues for partnership, both sides remain prisoners of the past, unable and unwilling to readjust their ties to a changing world order. The current impasse creates difficulties for both Europe and Turkey. Quite simply, it’s time to change tack.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2016

EU frets as ‘Populist International’ moves fast to win votes


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Legend has it that the European Union thrives on crisis and shows its true colours — its strength and resilience — when life gets tough. Not this time.

As predicted in this column two weeks ago, Donald Trump’s election victory has dealt the EU a body blow. All 28 EU governments — and yes the EU still has 28 members until Britain actually goes out the door at a yet-undecided date — are still reeling from the surprise election result.

To be fair, the bloc has a lot on his hands. Brexit and the refugee crisis continue to weigh heavy. Relations with Russia and Turkey are at an all-time low. And populists, both in government and in opposition, stalk the land.

And now, their bedrock, the “transatlantic relationship” looks like it is in tatters.

As they bade a teary-eyed farewell to President Barack Obama last week, EU leaders had much to worry about.

First, Trump is certainly unlikely to be a pro-European president. He does not like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), is sceptical of Nato and if Moscow is to be believed has promised to normalise relations with Russia.

Second, all this would be manageable if EU countries were able to put aside their differences and forge a united stance vis-a-vis Washington.

Alas. Hopes of a united front to deal with Trump have been dashed. A hastily scheduled working dinner of EU foreign ministers called by the German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier and EU special representative for foreign and security policy Federica Mogherini last week was boycotted by Britain and France.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who once said he was afraid of running into Trump while in the US, decided he was tired of the EU’s “whinge-orama” over Trump’s election victory. France said it had urgent business to attend to at home.

Some EU officials like Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have warned that Trump must get up to speed on how Europe works in order to avoid “two years of wasted time” when he assumes his new role.

“Mr Trump, during his campaign, said that Belgium was a village somewhere in Europe,” Juncker said in his frank remarks to students in Luxembourg, adding: “We must teach the president-elect what Europe is and how it works.”

Juncker said that Trump had called Nato into question, which could have “harmful consequences” because it is the model of Europe’s defence.

The US president-elect had also “taken a view of refugees and non-white Americans that does not reflect European convictions and feelings”, he added.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has lectured Trump on “shared values” and hinted relations depended on the future American president’s respect for “democracy, freedom, respect for the right and dignity of every individual, irrespective of origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation or political attitude”.

No surprise then that Obama’s farewell visit to several EU countries, including Germany, last week turned into a long and painful goodbye.

Emotions were running specially high in Berlin where Obama and Merkel praised each other as “outstanding partners”, with the US president expressing hopes that Trump would stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin when he deviates from US “values and international norms”.

In a joint op-ed, Obama and Merkel defended aid for refugees “because we know it is our treatment of those most vulnerable that determines the true strength of our values”. They hailed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — from which Trump has threatened to pull back — as a cornerstone of peace.

Still, even Merkel knows it’s time to move on. As the de facto leader of the EU, the German chancellor has a lot on her plate. The next few months are going to be extremely difficult for Berlin and Brussels.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has vowed to resign if he loses a referendum on constitutional reform on December 4, saying the “decrepit system” that would be left in the wake of his defeat would have to be taken care of by someone else.

Meanwhile in Austria, far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer and former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen will run again on Dec 4 after Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the results of May’s presidential vote and called for a rerun.

The court said the May election, in which Van der Bellen narrowly beat Hofer, would have to be repeated after the discovery of irregularities in vote counting across several districts.

Although the presidency is a largely symbolic role in Austria, the Freedom Party’s potential success would herald a major victory for Europe’s far right parties ahead of elections next year in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

The fear in Europe is that far-right populists Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen will give mainstream parties a run for their month in both the Netherlands and France.

Ominously, Breitbart, the so-called alt-right news organisation that is often described as “misogynist, racist and xenophobic”, is reportedly planning to expand to Europe ahead of the crucial elections next year.

Breitbart is believed to have been instrumental in helping Trump win the elections. Steve Bannon, executive chairman of the organisation, has been appointed senior counsellor and chief strategist for Trump.

Meanwhile, Aaron Banks, the millionaire who helped fund the Brexit campaign in the UK, has also promised to take his campaign to France ahead of the elections.

Members of “Populist International” are moving fast to gain votes while EU leaders wring their hands in despair.

FRANKLY SPEAKING | A good moment to reflect on tolerance

Did you know that 16 November is the ‘International Day for Tolerance’? This year, more than ever before, let’s take a moment to contemplate.

Talk of openness and inclusion may appear quaint in a world dominated by hate and harshness. Who wants to “respect and recognise the rights and beliefs of others” – as the United Nations would like us to do on Wednesday – when there is so much fear to spread, and so many angry ‘strong’ men and women to elect?

Life is just too short to be polite. People want tough leaders, not more soppy political correctness. Let’s leave softies like Canada’s Justin Trudeau to fight injustice, oppression, racism and unfair discrimination. The rest of us have better things to do.

Actually, we don’t.

Being mean and nasty can be exhilarating for a naughty moment. There is a thrill in breaking taboos, hurling insults and breaching red lines. Building walls and fences and deporting immigrants can sound like great fun.

But the excitement won’t last. And a permanent state of hate and anger is not a recipe for societal well-being. Living together – even without ‘them’, just among ‘us’ – requires a degree of courtesy and polite interaction.

Taming the demons of racism, nativism and populism unleashed by America’s president-elect Donald Trump during his election campaign – which may be cultivated over the next four years – will not be easy. But here are six ways it can be done.

First, let’s remember that millions of Americans did not buy into Trump’s toxic rhetoric. While the Electoral College certainly voted for Trump, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton secured a majority of the popular vote.

In other words, those who embrace pluralism, tolerance, inclusion – and who reject the nightmare version of a new Trumpian world order – cannot be easily shunted to the side lines. Their voice will continue to count. It may become even louder.

Second, it’s more important than ever to craft an inspirational narrative to counter and outsmart Trump’s European wannabes in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

As elections in these and other countries draw closer, instead of pandering to the ‘Populists International’, mainstream political parties in Europe must reach out with more conviction and passion to the majority of Europeans who believe in an open and tolerant Europe. Their voices are currently drowned out by extremists and ignored by others.

This is no time for old, wishy washy slogans and bland speeches. It’s time to fight fire with fire.

Third, underlining the principles of liberal democracy – as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did in her message of congratulations to Trump – is a good first step. But it will mean very little unless EU leaders take tougher action against those inside the EU – including Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the Polish government – who violate these very values.

Fourth, even as they lecture Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on human rights, EU leaders should make sure that they practice what they preach at home and that their own treatment of minorities – as well as migrants and refugees – is above reproach. For the moment, it isn’t.

Fifth, even seemingly small things matter. Christmas traditions like ‘Black Pete’ in the Netherlands may seem harmless to white Dutch people but they send a harmful message of exclusion to the country’s many black citizens.

Offensive language, of the kind European Commissioner Gunter Oettinger used recently when speaking of his Chinese counterparts, sends the wrong message to European citizens and a watching world.

Last, let’s debate and discuss the reasons for Trump’s success, the rise of populists, the flaws of liberal democrats and the pros and cons of globalisation. As with Brexit, there are important topics to analyse and reflected upon.

For the moment, the killing fields of the 21st century happen to be far away, in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. But not so long ago it was here in Europe that racism and discrimination led to wide-spread devastation, death and destruction.

History should not be allowed to repeat itself.

Friends of Europe’s ‘Frankly Speaking’ column takes a critical look at key European and global issues.

VIEW FROM ABROAD: Trump victory will shock Europe — but not his many European fans

BY now, Europeans are used to shocks, both internal and external. There’s been Brexit, the mass arrival of over a million migrants and refugees, sporadic terror attacks and a continuing economic slowdown, not to mention earthquakes in Italy.

But the jury is still out on whether Europe will be able to cope with the “mother of all shocks” in the shape of an election victory for US Republican candidate Donald Trump.

The short answer is no. Most Europeans are rooting for Hillary Clinton and can’t think of anything worse than having to deal with “President Trump”. He’s a populist, a bigot, offensive, outrageous and unpredictable. He’s too close for comfort to Russia. And he’s not sure about the significance of Nato.

The long answer is more complex. While most EU policymakers go pale at the thought of Trump in the White House, others are hoping against hope that he will get the job.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, has said that she would vote for Trump. Nigel Farage, a major figure in the successful campaign for the UK to leave the EU, has appeared on the campaign trail with Trump.

Anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared at a fringe event of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, praising Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration into the United States.

In fact, whether he gets to be president or not, Trump has already been a gift from heaven for Europe’s far right. He’s shown them how to talk the rough talk, to be rude and coarse, to break taboos and to get away with it.

He’s also boosted the credibility of some of the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic who think like him (keep out the Muslims), talk like him and are building the fences and walls that Trump wants to construct.

But it’s the far-right parties in opposition in France, Netherlands and elsewhere who love Trump so much, their leaders even want to look like him: blonde, wild-haired and blue-eyed.

Like Trump, they like to think themselves as “anti-establishment” and “anti-globalisation”. They rant against “Brussels” just like Trump rages against “Washington”.

Much to the delight of the Brexiteers, Trump cheered Britain’s vote to leave the EU. He sees the Union as outdated and said nations needed to take back control over their future.

They share Trump’s dislike — dare I say “hatred” — of Muslims and hark back to the imaginary Utopia of a Christian and white Europe unsullied by outsiders.

Even though elections in France, Netherlands and Germany are some months away, just like Trump, Europe’s populists are giving mainstream candidates a run for their money.

In some ways, they have already won. Instead of countering the toxic populist narrative, many mainstream European political parties are embracing their ideology.

That’s the case for Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right French politician who wants to come back as president to replace Francois Hollande. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May sounds like Farage in many of her comments.

However, while Hillary Clinton has spoken openly of her desire to welcome immigrants and Muslims as part of the American story, here in Europe only German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a public stance in favour of tolerance and openness.

The shrill tone of the US election, where fiction and simple slogans count for more than facts, is likely to be reflected in the upcoming polls in Europe.

As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier underlined recently, “hatemonger” Trump and his cronies in Europe prey on people’s fears.

Clinton’s popularity in Europe is no surprise. She was respected as Obama’s Secretary of State. And although there was some concern that her “pivot to Asia” would leave Europe out in the cold, that fear was eased when America continued to engage with the EU on many issues, including climate change.

Trump is feared by the mainstream for his closeness to Russia, his sceptical view of Nato and he has explicitly discussed rapprochement with Russia, a renegotiation of Nato’s budget. Small surprise then that in response some in Europe are now talking of building an EU army.

Significantly, most people in Europe believe that neither Clinton nor Trump is likely to want to complete already difficult negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.

That’s probably just as well given the obstacle course the EU had to run to get approval of the Canadian free trade deal, with last minute objections from Belgium’s Walloon regional government almost scuppering the deal.

The CETA deal with Canada was done at the eleventh hour — but not before that too had sent shock waves across Europe.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2016

Young, gifted Arabs hold the key to peace


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Helle, Hajer and Hussein are young, articulate and ambitious. They dream big and aim high. They want the best for themselves and for the countries – Tunisia, Libya and Syria – they live in.

You won’t read about them in traditional newspapers. They aren’t making headlines just yet.

But more, much more, than their governments, these young people and millions of others like them hold the key to our future.

Almost 65 per cent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is under the age of 30.  The choices that Helle and her friends make will determine the fate of their own countries. But they will also have a strong impact on Europe and the world.

I met these “Young Mediterranean Voices” – teachers, journalists, environmentalists, social entrepreneurs, peace and democracy activists – at the MedForum 2016, organised last week in Malta by the Anna Lindh Foundation.

The energy and enthusiasm of more than 500 savvy, young Europeans and Arabs whom the Anna Lindh Foundation had identified as “change-makers” rang through the Valetta conference centre. The talk was of crafting a narrative of hope, dialogue and cooperation that runs counter to the extremist discourse of hate and violence.

‘No-one is born a terrorist’, says one young man. Instead of trying to counter the extremists’ poisonous voices, many underline the need to articulate an inspiring vision of societies where people can live in peace.

Religion is the last thing on their minds. These young people want to fight for better education, jobs, clean government, stability and hope. And forget the stereotypes: the girls – including the small number who wears headscarves – are even more confident than the boys.

The focus on civil society and young people as agents of social change is not new. But there is a consensus on the need to act urgently.

The good news is that the Anna Lindh Foundation is getting the attention and support it deserves. The message of the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to the Forum highlighted Europe’s commitment to engagement with young people.

And there are growing opportunities for young people to make a difference.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250, agreed last December, emphasises the crucial role they can play in managing conflicts and establishing peace. And building stronger Euro-Mediterranean bonds is going to be a key priority for Malta, which takes over the EU Council presidency in January 2017.

The conversations in Valetta provided many lessons for policymakers.

First, stop obsessing about religion and start putting money where it really matters: into schools, job creation and investment schemes.

Second, engage with civil society – don’t fear it. MENA governments too often reject the ideas and passion of young people instead of seeking to channel their enthusiasm for change and reform into positive contributions to national policymaking. And while many EU cooperation agreements include an important people-to-people component, these programmes need to be made more crucial and more exciting.

Third, even as it seeks to engage with MENA governments, the EU should invest in the region’s young people. This is essential if the region is to have long-term peace and stability.

Certainly many parts of the Arab world are jolted by conflicts and wars. Violence and economic deprivation are driving many young people to come to Europe.

But the gathering in Malta is proof that Europe’s southern neighbourhood need not be a place of death and destruction. With the right policies, the right people in charge, and sustained support, it can be a region of hope and peace.

The curious contours of a new European conversation


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As the European Union gears up for its 60th anniversary next March, there’s good news and bad news.

Let’s celebrate the renewed interest in the EU, both at home and abroad. But let’s also be prepared for a long and difficult struggle with those working against Europe.

The surge in interest in Europe is encouraging. Demands for change and new ideas to build a more dynamic, vibrant and relevant EU are not in short supply.

Interesting ideas – some big, some small – came fast and furious at Friends of Europe’s annual State of Europe brainstorm and conference last week.

The voices of those who have thought about, talked about and worked for Europe for many years are valuable. They should be listened to.

But importantly, others across Europe are beginning to speak up too. They include young people, women and minority groups whose engagement in EU affairs has been minimal. Business leaders, trade unionists, civil society representatives, academics and journalists are making their voices heard. They should be encouraged to say and do more.

Ironically, the shock of Brexit has enlivened the conversation. The Brexiteers may have damaged Britain’s economy (and much more) but they have, unintentionally, also sparked heightened awareness of and popular interest in the EU.

Such renewed curiosity is an opportunity to start a new conversation about Europe. It should be one which looks at the EU’s past, present and future.  It must look at the achievements but also at the failures and weaknesses of the Union.

The confrontation between different visions of Europe is already part of daily life. This contest was evident in the run-up to the 23 June referendum in Britain and will be an essential part of the negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

There are Euro-enthusiasts and Euro-doubters in national capitals and parliaments, and in all EU institutions.

And then there are the populists, both in and out of government, who are not just against the EU but also fighting actively to undermine liberal democratic values. In uneasy and uncertain times, their message of intolerance, xenophobia and “Little Europe” is already attracting voters.

With elections scheduled in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year, the fight for the hearts and minds of Europeans is going to get even fiercer.

France’s National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his friends in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have no scruples about publicising their dark vision of Fortress Europe. Their voices will get louder.

But those who believe in an open and compassionate Europe should be equally passionate about voicing their beliefs. Contrary to what the populists want us to believe, a majority of Europeans do not share their nightmare version. They also need to be seen and heard.

In a new world where truth and facts appear to matter less than lies, perceptions and fiction, the confrontation between the two visions of Europe is going to be dirty and ruthless.

The naysayers’ simplistic anti-EU diatribes must be countered by equally simple but clever slogans.

Those in favour of Europe should be proud of what has worked, and what makes the EU relevant and important – for example, contrary to conventional wisdom, the EU “peace project” still makes sense in a world where violence and war still rage just a few kilometres from Europe’s borders.

But enthusiasts must also be frank enough to say what has not worked.

Gentle speeches in comfortable settings just won’t do the trick. Those who believe in the EU will have to take their arguments to the people, not wait for people to fill the conference halls.

Those who favour Europe must be as charismatic, eloquent and single-minded as those who oppose it.

Next March’s anniversary of the EU should trigger a discussion on repairing and renewing the EU, but must also be a moment for reflection on what it means to be European in a complex and challenging world.

As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told the Friends of Europe conference, Europeans must ‘buck up and not talk yourselves into a funk’.

More than ever, Europe is a vibrant mix of people, cultures and religions. The EU is an important part of peoples’ lives, often taken for granted, often criticised and much too often under-estimated and under-sold by self-seeking politicians.

French statesman Georges Clemenceau famously said that ‘War is too important to be left to the generals’.  Today, Europe is too serious and too important to be left to politicians.

VIEW FROM ABROAD: Britain, Europe and the Brexit ‘pantomime’

LONDON in early October and I’m reassured: nothing appears to have changed since the June 23 vote to take Britain out of the European Union. The bustling city is still home to millions of happy “foreigners” of all colour, creed and race. The cafes, theatres and shops are doing a thriving business. Nobody looks at me with hostility or even interest. This is London as we know and love it.

My passport is stamped by a border policeman who is clearly of South Asian descent. The taxi driver is from Cyprus. The waiter at the trendy restaurant my son and daughter take me to is Dutch. Everybody and everything seem as they were before the Brexit referendum and I chide myself for worrying about the post-Brexit future of one of the world’s most wonderful cities.

Fast forward a few days and I am back home in Brussels, worrying again. As I watch and listen to the news coming out of the British Conservative Party conference, I can hardly believe my ears. British Prime Minister Theresa May has declared war, among others, on foreigners, Europe, global elites, and banks.

The rhetoric is straight out of the first half of the 20th Century. Britain is being taken back in time to an imaginary past when it was prosperous, white and Christian. There is no mention of the days of the Raj — but that may have been an oversight. Clearly, May’s version of Britain is a country stuck in a time warp and uncomfortable with life in an interconnected and globalised world.

Luckily, the prime minister’s views are not universally popular. Those favouring Brexit were and still are in a small majority. Many of my British friends are desperately looking for new non-British passports. There is a friend who is becoming Dutch, others are applying for Belgian nationality. Still others are looking desperately for similar deals. There is anger and confusion. The country May is building seems to be more science fiction than reality.

And London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is adamant the London after Brexit will remain open to foreigners. “It’s not simply a state of mind or an attitude — it’s what we are: open for talent, for business, for investment,” Khan told the Financial Times newspaper.

But May is on a roll. Britain is going to become a “country that works for everyone”, she underlined at the conference in Birmingham as her party faithful gazed adoringly at her. The camera zoomed in on an uncomfortable looking Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary and one-time Leave campaigner. Everybody is laughing, nodding — and some are falling asleep.

May has called the Brexit vote in June a “quiet revolution” and insists that she is now in charge of the country’s future. No, parliament will not be consulted. The people have spoken — and they want to leave the EU.

Only of course it isn’t that simple. The referendum was an advisory one, Britain is still a parliamentary democracy and the Brexit vote is being challenged in courts. Also, while turning her back on foreigners and elites, May still wants to retain the maximum possible access to EU single market while ensuring full control over immigration.

As everyone knows, however, nobody in the EU — least of all German Chancellor Angela Merkel — will allow Britain full benefits of the single market without free movement of people. May has admitted that the upcoming Brexit negotiations — once she invokes Article 50 on taking Britain out of the EU in March next year, are going to be tough, requiring “some give and take”.

Worryingly for Europe’s liberal democrats, May, who was supposed to be in favour of “Remain” in Europe when she was in the last government, has suddenly started sprouting populist rhetoric which is reminiscent of Ukip, the British anti-EU party, of Marine Le Pen and other leaders of the many far-right groups which are proliferating in Europe and America’s Donald Trump.

In Birmingham, she described the June vote as a “quiet revolution”, when people “stood up and said they were not prepared to be ignored anymore”. She promised to change how the British elite related to the working classes. And then came the killer judgement: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, she said.

Amber Rudd, the British home affairs minister, added fuel to fire by insisting British companies should hire “British citizens first”. She promised a crackdown on companies, such as minicab firms, that hire illegal migrants, and on landlords that rent properties to people without papers. Only foreign students who graduated at top universities such as Oxford or Cambridge would be able to stay and work in the UK.

Fortunately, there is a backlash over proposals to force companies to disclose how many foreign workers they employ, with business leaders describing it as divisive and damaging.

And as the value of the British pound tumbled to another historic low, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon described May’s vision of Brexit Britain as a “deeply ugly one” and warned that she could call for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Britain’s exit talks are to start in March and last at least two years. Expect more poison and posturing from Britain and anger and stubbornness from Europe. Caught in the fire are the country’s young people — and the economy.

However, judging from their performance in Birmingham, May and her team are sanguine about the future and appear to view the upcoming EU negotiations as little more than a traditional Christmas pantomime. They are likely to be disappointed.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2016