View From Abroad: Europe’s soft power is a source of strength, not weakness

IT’S not easy being the only adult in the room. As the world lurches from bad to worse, US President Donald Trump insults and offends on Twitter, other leaders talk equally tough and everyone has zero-sum games on their mind, the European Union is the odd man out.

With its talk of peace and cooperation, building partnerships, creating networks and preserving the multilateral order the EU seems out of step with the toxic mood of the times.

The US rants about hard power, rockets and bombs, threatens to press on the nuclear button and warns of fire and fury if confronted by its “enemies”. Also on the cards are sanctions and plans to cut off aid for Iran and Pakistan, bombing North Korea and launching a trade war against China. The list is long, the talk is tough.

Trump’s America hates Islam and Muslims, thinks many African countries as well as Haiti and Salvador are “shitholes” and is retreating from its global “obligations” including on trade and climate change.

Viewed from the White House, Europe and Europeans are flabby and soft, such wimps. Not spending enough on defence. All that talk of values and principles, all those statements about human rights, all those promises to engage, discuss and dialogue. Such absolute losers.

True, some EU member states aren’t averse to equally harsh views on how to deal with an independent judiciary, media and minorities. But as spotlighted most recently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the EU — collectively — is a robust defender of a liberal, rules-based world order.

Take note of Merkel’s denunciation at Davos of the “poison” of populism, her commitment to finding multilateral solutions to global problems and her insistence that isolationism and protectionism are not the best way to deal with a complex and changing world. The French leader, meanwhile, made a similarly passionate appeal for environmental protection, gender equality and the need to fend of nationalism and populism. Macron also noted that in the Middle East and in Africa’s Sahel region, “we’ve got not only to win the war against terrorism but we’ve got to create conditions for durable peace.”

The Davos crowd of globalists and “citizens of nowhere” lapped it all up of course. Macron received a standing ovation. But Davos is not the real world. The conversation, for example, was very different at the “Raisina Dialogue” held in Delhi just days before the good and the great braved massive snow storms to arrive in Davos.

Organised by the Observer Research Foundation and the Indian ministry of external affairs, the two-and-a-half-day Raisina conference in Delhi offered striking and sobering insights into changing geopolitical dynamics, power shifts and the interests of countries — and their leaders — that many people in Brussels still view as the “rest of the world”.

And what a world it is too. America still matters, most participants seemed to agree. In fact, America matters more and more. President Trump’s tough talk resonates with the other strongmen in the world and many who back them.

Take Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who opened the Raisina Dialogue by highlighting the need to develop economic, military and political power to emerge as a strong nation because as he underlined: “The weak don’t survive.”

Forget all that talk of “soft power”, agreed others, the world belongs to those who wield “hard power”, have big military machines and are ready and willing to torture, maim and kill to defend their national sovereignty and the nation state.

What a contrast with a Europe which “doesn’t do geopolitics”, is unable to deal with a wily China and a resurgent Russia and waffles on about resilience and preserving the liberal international order, said others, adding for good effect that with the refugee crisis and eurozone woes as well as Brexit and populism, Europe was a spent force.

“What is suitable for the EU is hardly imaginable anywhere else in the world,” said a participant, adding that Europe may see itself as a model for others, but it was only a “regional organisation, unable to play a role on the global stage”.

For EU representatives at the meeting, all the strongman talk of “nation states was 19th century stuff”. “Sovereign states competing with each other without rules is a recipe for catastrophe,” said former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt. The EU’s decision to share sovereignty was based on experience.

But here’s the thing: the divide between Europe and a world hooked on the joys of hard power is set to grow wider and deeper. Trump and Brexit have unleashed the demons of populism and nationalism.

Europe’s ability to stand up to the geopolitical transformations will depend on whether it can practice what it preaches. The harsh, populist messages from Poland and Hungary, the presence of far-right politicians in the Austrian government with their loud anti-immigrant rants and Muslim-bashing, the treatment of refugees and migrants in many member states, erode Europe’s global standing.

The EU must also become less defensive, more self-confident and more assertive in protecting and promoting the real liberal democratic order. It must continue to speak out in favour of freedom, fundamental values and basic human rights. It should do so forcefully even in the face of criticism not just from Russia and China but also from Washington.

The need for a new and inspiring European narrative has never been more urgent and more necessary. Being peaceful — striving for peace, engaging in dialogue, speaking for the vulnerable — is not a sign of weakness. It’s the true strength and power of Europe. And it should remain so.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2018


European far right’s anti-Muslim rants are losing power to shock

CALL it “insult fatigue”. Only a few months ago, abusive insults and rants hurled at Muslims by Europe’s far-right parties — and by some Eastern European leaders who are equally fanatically anti-Muslim — had the power to anger and shock.

No longer. True, journalists are still reporting on some of the more outrageous comments by the motley group of Islam-haters. And the anti-Muslim diatribes of the far right on Twitter and other social media sites still get traction among their devoted followers.

But the truth is that for many average Europeans, it’s all turned a bit tedious. Far-right leaders, who were once seen as charismatic and worthy of 24-hour media coverage — including “blonde bombshell” France’s Marine Le Pen and her Dutch fake-blonde male counterpart Geert Wilders — have become much too predictable. They haven’t changed their tune. It’s the same old, same old, toxic song.

The far right’s demands to “keep Muslims out, send them home” have become ordinary and routine as have their claims that all male refugees are potential rapists and the women are submissive, oppressed and complicit.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that refugees from the Middle East are really “Muslim invaders” in disguise. The far right Freedom Party in Austria is part of the government and its interior minister wants to “concentrate” asylum seekers in special camps.

So what? Big deal. After all, it’s 2018, folks and ordinary people have other things on their mind.

The optimist in me is reassured by the European public’s collective yawn at the shenanigans of the far right. This collective European shrug shows a certain degree of maturity and sophistication. Doesn’t it?

And if they are ignored, the far right will stop trying to be so obscenely poisonous about Islam and Muslims and go back to being obnoxious in other ways. Won’t they?

There’s no doubt that Europe’s Muslim bashers are become boringly repetitive. US President Donald Trump may have turned Muslim-baiting into a global sport, causing hysterical excitement and emulation among his European fans, but the novelty is wearing off.

Whisper it softly, but Trump and his wannabes in Europe have lost their lustre. After all, most Europeans, like most Americans, are not racists or Islam haters. Many are welcoming refugees into their homes, recruiting them into their companies, helping them integrate and become “good” citizens. Governments are working hard on revamping their migration policies. The refugees, meanwhile, are getting on with life. It’s getting better all the time.

If only it were that simple. The lack of public anger at the far right’s racist, xenophobic and inhumane rants is not a good thing. It betrays a tragic numbness in the face of repeated verbal aggression, an acceptance of the unacceptable.

In fact, the lack of reaction from other EU leaders when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban says all refugees seeking entry into Europe are “Muslim invaders” is disappointing.

It is sad that given his nasty views, Orban was invited to attend a meeting hosted by the German Christian Socialist Union (CSU), Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners. Orban also continues to be feted by the European Peoples Party, the leading conservative political group in the European Parliament.

And as for Austria, the country’s new Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz has been received and welcomed — and congratulated — for this “pro-European” views by top EU leaders, including European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker.

The Commission chief has remained silent on the fact that Kurtz’s government includes the far right Freedom Party whose interior minister Herbert Kickl has said he wants “basic services centres, suitable infrastructure that enables us to concentrate people in the asylum process in one place”.

The comments have provoked outrage, with Alexander Pollak, head of migrants charity SOS Mitmensch, calling it a “deliberate provocation” and left-wing essayist Robert Misik saying “a Rubicon has been crossed”.

The opposition Green Party warned against the “language of National Socialism creeping into our way of thinking and feeling”.

But the silence of others in Europe has been deafening.

There is some hope, however. Heads of states from seven of the EU’s southern members last week issued a joint declaration calling, among other points, for a more integrated migration policy and asylum system.

The leaders of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain met in Rome and released a statement, saying they were “firmly committed to a common European policy on migration”.

The “Southern Seven” are understandably angry at having to bear the brunt of the number of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores.

But Orban and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki have refused to take in migrants under an EU quota system. “In terms of migration and quotas that were to be imposed on [EU] member countries we strongly reject such an approach as it infringes on sovereign decisions of member states,” Morawiecki told a joint news conference after recent talks with Orban in Budapest.

Austria’s Freedom Party may be the only far-right party in government in Western Europe but similar groups are making inroads in other countries.

In neighbouring Germany, the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered parliament for the first time, winning 94 seats.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party came second in elections last March and in France Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) reached the run-off for the presidency but was defeated by the liberal Emmanuel Macron.

The initial buzz created by Europe’s far right may have died down but the parties themselves are alive and kicking — and waiting for the next election, possibly in March in Italy, to get back in the spotlight.

No, Europe’s far right is no yawning matter.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2018

VIEW FROM ABROAD: It’s been a difficult year, so why does Europe have a spring in its step?

ASK any European policymaker and she/he will tell you it’s been a difficult year, a rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs, moments of elation followed by periods of grim introspection.

And yet as 2017 draws to an end, the European Union appears to have a spring in its step. Part of it is mere relief at having made it through the last 12 months without a major catastrophe. The EU despite the doomsters and the pessimists has shown its resilience.

Better still, whether in the Netherlands, France or Germany, a majority of Europeans have shown their ability to resist the toxic and corrosive populist messages of division and confrontation.

There’s more. The European economy is doing better and jobless rates are down. The EU’s executive European Commission last month sharply lifted its growth predictions to a 2.2 per cent expansion in 2017, the fastest pace in a decade. Significantly, unemployment in the Eurozone fell to 8.8pc in October, its lowest level since January 2009.

And while it may seem bizarre to outsiders, Britain’s decision to leave the EU — and the angst and remorse this is causing among many British people — has highlighted the successes of the Union.

It’s not just the incompetence of the British Brexit negotiators or the deep divisions the EU divorce has triggered within British political parties. It’s that each time Britain seeks to disentangle itself from the Union, it highlights just how much it is going to lose in terms of its interests, clout and reputation.

Take trade. Brexiteers may dream of a “Global Britain” sweeping across the world, striking magnificent free trade agreements, but the reality is that no country has said it would rather strike a trade deal with Britain than with the EU.

Also of course, it is now becoming clear that Brexit Britain will be economically worse off outside the EU and that crashing out without a deal would see the economy take a £100 billion hit. Since the Brexit vote, UK’s economic growth has slowed considerably and the country has been overtaken by the eurozone.

Interestingly also, part of the new energy in Europe is due to US President Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The EU has condemned the American president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saying that status of Jerusalem should be determined by Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, has said she has promised the Palestinian Authority she will work towards the division of Jerusalem.

In recent days, with Britain now out of the picture, EU nations have also achieved a 70-year-old ambition to integrate their defences by launching a pact between 25 EU governments to fund, develop and deploy armed forces together.

In what European Council President Donald Tusk described as “bad news for our enemies”, the EU decided to stop wasting billions of euros on fragmented defence policies while also lowering Europe’s heavy reliance on the United States.

Denmark, which has an opt-out from EU defence matters, and Malta were the only EU countries not to sign up along with Brexiting Britain. The pact, called Permanent Structured Cooperation, or Pesco, is meant as a show of unity and a tangible step in EU integration.

Trump’s criticism of low European defence spending and his constant warnings that Europe could no longer rely on the US if countries did not pay up, have also played a role.

This brings us to France and its charismatic young president, Emmanuel Macron, who is now viewed as the de facto leader of Europe albeit in partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The latter, however, is a diminished figure after the recent elections as she struggles to form a government.

Last week, the French leader hosted the Paris climate summit with 50 heads of state and government and over 4,000 other participants. He then invited the five Sahel countries — Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — to coordinate the fight against terrorism in the region.

But when it comes to EU reform, Macron is well aware that he cannot implement his European political ideas without the German chancellor.

Also, for all their happy year-end smiles, EU leaders are deeply divided not only on Eurozone reform but also on how to deal with refugees and migrants, with most central and eastern European states deeply opposed to taking in any newcomers despite EU demands that they do so.

The New Year will certainly confront Europe with new and complex challenges. But there’s a sense of achievement in having got through a difficult year, relatively unscathed. For the moment.

— The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2017

Four men, four lasting legacies of a gentler, less troubled time

THEY had absolutely nothing in common, probably never met and possibly wouldn’t have liked each other even if they had. But in their very different ways, while they lived, all four made the world a better place.

The death of Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister of Thailand and secretary general of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean); Manuel Marin, a former Spanish minister and European Union Commissioner; Johnny Hallyday, France’s ageing rocker who was also known as the “French Elvis” and Shashi Kapoor, the dazzling Bollywood icon who mesmerized millions both in and outside South Asia, in recent weeks marks the end of a happier, gentler era.

For many, Surin was one of Asia’s most thoughtful and charismatic thinkers, whose absence will be sorely missed in a dynamic but troubled region. He burst on to the international stage in the late 1990s as one of the youngest and most brilliant foreign ministers in South-east Asia and then consolidated his reputation as one of Asia’s top minds during his five years at the helm of the Asean Secretariat from Jan 2008 to Dec 2012.

Born into a humble Muslim family in Buddhist-majority Thailand, Surin knew a thing or two about what it was like to be a member of a minority in Asia — and the complexities of Asian politics. He could have been the secretary general of the United Nations (instead of Kofi Annan) if Thai politicians had managed to set aside their rivalries to back his bid. His nomination to head Asean was equally complicated. But he got the job — and changed Asean forever.

And just as well. Surin led Asean with brilliance, often running into trouble with the region’s more conservative and publicity-shy governments who, while committed to regional cooperation, were reluctant to cede power and visibility to the Jakarta-based secretariat.

As a journalist and analyst, I admired and respected Surin for his intelligence, eloquence, passion and compassion. Equally at home in Asia and in Europe (and the US), he was always cheerful, respectful and generous with his time. One quote from him, and a story would almost write itself. Often at meetings, I would literally hound him for some insights. When he could, he obliged — with a smile.

Also, unlike many policymakers, Surin had a great respect for think tanks and was the star speaker at many conferences. He spoke about Asean but also liked to dwell on the travails of being a Muslim democrat, telling me at a conference in Tokyo last year that the space for freedom of expression was sadly shrinking in the Muslim world.

“Muslim intellectuals cannot pursue their examination of laws and principles at home… they have to do that outside the Muslim world,” he said. “Academics have to migrate in order to do their job. Muslim democrats feel the space for exercising their role is being limited… they cannot visualise their future.” Dr Surin’s loss has repercussions beyond Asean. In many ways, the Muslim world is also bereft.

Spain’s Manuel Marín, a long-time member of the European Commission who also died recently at the age of 68, has left a similarly lasting legacy for Europe, having set up the much-admired “Erasmus” programme of student exchanges across the EU.

As Spain’s secretary of state for relations with European communities in the 1980s, he led successful negotiations to enter the European Community (EC), the precursor to the EU. And once in the Commission between 1986 — the year Spain joined the bloc — and 1999, he had many jobs, including relations with Asia which he had managed with wit and aplomb. He is remembered in Europe as the “father” of the Erasmus student exchange programme which has allowed over nine million young people to study in universities in different parts of Europe, thereby creating unique bonds between young Europeans. The programme has now gone global, giving a hefty boost to Europe’s soft power.

Marin, described as a great “Europeanist” and a “gentleman of politics” harked back to a gentler era in Spanish politics. Today, the country appears irrevocably divided over Catalonia’s demands for independence. As a sign of even more trouble ahead, around 45,000 pro-Catalan independence protesters took to the streets outside EU institutions in Brussels last week in support of the separatist Spanish region’s cause.

French rock and roll star Johnny Hallyday, 74, who mesmerised France with his music and rebellious lifestyle for more than 50 years, also had the knack of bringing people together. “Everybody loved Johnny — my grandparents, parents and my generation,” a young colleague told me. In a country divided by politics — the far left and the far right loom large on the political landscape while French President Emmanuel Macron struggles to bring about much-needed economic reform — that was no mean feat.

“For more than 50 years, he was a vibrant icon,” read a statement by Macron, who this summer attended a concert Hallyday gave days after a dose of chemotherapy. The French leader added, “There is a little bit of Johnny in all of us.”

And then there was Shashi Kapoor whose death at 79 in India lead to an outpouring of grief and nostalgia, with people also pointing to the handsome star’s kindness, charm and modesty. While the BBC outrageously showed clips of his nephew Rishi and Amitabh Bachchan while announcing Kapoor’s death — leading to comments that the broadcaster could not tell the difference between brown men — the star captured attention at home and abroad with both his Bollywood blockbusters but also his collaboration with the Merchant Ivory production house, including in Shakespeare Wallah.

As we come to the close of another difficult year, it is important to remember people like Surin, Marin, Hallyday and Kapoor for who they were but also as symbols of a gentler, more tolerant and more courteous time. The world is a sadder place without them.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2017

For Pete’s sake, let’s stop squabbling and enjoy some Xmas cheer

Santa and I go back a long way. My mother has pictures of me as a little girl looking up adoringly at Santa Claus as he distributed presents and good cheer at a once-iconic hotel in Karachi. The love affair has endured. Recently, however, it’s turned one-sided.

Much to my regret, those who claim to “own” Santa/Father Christmas/St Nicholas want to keep him exclusively for themselves. No sharing allowed. Christmas fun and traditions are only for Christians, not the other riff raff that are part of multicultural Europe.

For proof, look no further than the recent furore in Britain over an “anti-Christian” advertisement by a British supermarket chain Tesco, showing a Muslim family sharing a Christmas meal with friends. In my experience it’s something many Muslims do, out of respect for their friends and because it’s fun. My multi-cultural family loves it.

Certainly ISIS and their hard-line friends and sponsors across the world frown at Santa and target Christians and other minorities – and Muslims – as they congregate for prayer. But they don’t represent the majority of Muslims. Christmas trees and lights are still to be found in Indonesia, Pakistan and some other Muslim majority countries.

So why all the angst, the angry denunciations and, in some cases, the violent confrontations?

For many, however, the Tesco advertisement was an outrage. Even as the supermarket stood firm on its inclusive ad – which also showed a black family, a same-sex couple and a single parent family enjoying supper ‒ the rants on social media were reminiscent of the way in which the now-discredited Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly once raged again the alleged “War on Christmas” being waged by Muslims.

And then there is the even more exclusive and fanatic fight in the Netherlands to cling on to Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, Sinter Klaas’s little “black” helper‒ traditionally played by a white person with a blackened face, red lips, golden loop earrings and a curly afro wig ‒ despite the discomfort and unease this portrayal causes the country’s black citizens.

So why all the angst, the angry denunciations and, in some cases, the violent confrontations?

The simple answer is that people don’t want to tamper with tradition or mess around with cultural identity. Europe is white and Christian – and should stay that way. If not, before you know it, it will be “Shariah for all”. Let’s call it the “Geert Wilders/Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban doctrine” of exclusion and discrimination.

So far, so simplistic. The only problem is that life in the 21st Century is a tad more complicated.  People don’t just see life in black and white. Identities are fluid and changing. Yes, Mr Orban, one can be black, secular, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and European.

Also, of course, change is complicated and can be difficult. Diversity is a fact of life but it does bring challenges of living and working together. “Unity in diversity” may be the EU motto but its translation into reality – especially when that reality includes other religions and “people of colour” – isn’t easy.

True, not everyone clinging to a white Christmas or Black Pete is a racist or an Islamophobe. Many are genuinely worried about seeing their old way of life fall by the way side. Many Dutch people tell me that they genuinely did not realise that “Black Pete” could be viewed as racist. Others, including the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, are angry over a United Nations recommendation that the Netherlands “actively promote the elimination” of the racist character and his inclusion in festivals.

Lost in the brouhaha is the fact that black and brown Dutch children are confronted with Black Pete insults, racist bullying and negative stereotypes. And that, as highlighted by a new report on immigrants and minorities by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (*), too many Europeans feel discriminated against because of their ethnic or immigrant background, with almost half of those interviewed saying that they believed that discrimination – when looking for work, housing, in shops or on public transport ‒ was due to their skin colour or physical appearance.

One powerful lesson from 2017 is that we can stand up to the racists and bigots

Far Right groups have jumped on Black Pete with glee. The Dutch Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders wants a bill that would enshrine Black Pete in law as a way to “protect” Dutch culture. And the Netherlands is not alone of course. The much-respected Professor Mary Beard says she faced a “torrent of insults” for pointing out that Britain under the Roman Empire was ethnically diverse. More recently, of course, Britain’s Prince Harry has had to put up with references to the “rich and exotic DNA” of his mixed-race fiancée Meghan Markle.

If this wasn’t depressing enough, US President Donald Trump has been retweeting anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the Far Right group Britain First, thereby joining a global network of anti-Muslim activists who are using Twitter bots, fake news and image manipulation to stir up anti-Islam hate.

The loony racists, however, can only succeed in stirring up hatred if we allow them to do so. One powerful lesson from 2017 is that we can stand up to the racists and bigots in our capacity as individuals, as communities and through joint actions. There are more people supporting an open and tolerant Europe through campaigns such as #StopFundingHate than there are those deliberately inciting hatred and the promotion of an inward and closed Europe.

As Freddie Mercury, the legendary superstar, sang all those years ago, “my friends, it’s been a long, hard year… but now it’s Christmas, thank God it’s Christmas”, a time for peace and love.

Christmas may still be some weeks away, but it really is time to stop squabbling and enjoy some good cheer instead.

*Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights will be released on December 6 at the “Reality Bites: Experiences of Immigrants and Minorities in the EU” launch conference at the EU Council (Justus Lipsius) Press Room 

VIEW FROM ABROAD: America, Asia and Europe: a tale of three continents

IT was a coincidence of course. But as US President Donald Trump was touring Asia last week, romancing the region’s strongmen, the European Union launched a “new era in defence cooperation”, with 23 countries agreeing to “a programme of joint military investment and project development”.

So is America still a major Asia power, ready and willing to counter a self -confident and assertive China? And as it watches the US president’s erratic global engagement and possibly declining commitment to Europe’s security, is the EU finally building an independent defence and security union?

Neither development should be taken at face value. Trump has hailed his Asia trip as an “epic” and a great success. But for many in Europe and Asia, the tour only helped to showcase an America that is retreating from the global stage.

And while EU efforts at building up defence cooperation have certainly picked up pace following Trump’s arrival in the White House — and the impending British departure from the EU — Europe’s focus is on defence coordination, efficiency and avoiding duplication rather than setting up a rival to Nato.

According to Trump, his Asian tour was a great success. “We made a lot of progress just in terms of relationship,” he said, adding: “China has been excellent. Japan and South Korea have been excellent…it was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received. And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country.”

The US president certainly cosied up to the region’s tough guys, including Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Officials said the president was concerned about the mass exodus and killings of Rohingya Muslims in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, but he did not focus on the issue.

There was a tough speech on North Korea but no mention of human rights in either China or the Philippines. Trade commitments under the TransPacific Partnership were torn up and while the term “Indo-Pacific” was used repeatedly, apparently signalling a new-ish US policy, towards the region, no attempt was made to articulate how it was going to be different from the old “Asian pivot”.

Most alarmingly for many, Trump accepted President Putin’s assurances that Russia had not meddled in the 2016 US presidential election — disregarding the conclusion of US intelligence agencies. And then he left the Philippines without attending the East Asia Summit, the region’s prime security forum which includes Asia’s leading powers.

While Trump is convinced he’s now loved and admired in Asia, analysts in the region — and outside it — are confused and disenchanted. The trip signalled the decline of US power in the region, according to some. German commentators called it America’s “farewell” to Asia.

Interestingly, while Trump toured the region, the EU Council President Donald Tusk made his debut at the East Asia Summit in Manila, marking a first for the bloc which has long aspired to join the prestigious forum.

The EU’s message to Asia was simple, said Tusk. “Europe needs Asia, and Asia needs Europe. Not only as trading partners, but as friends and allies in a world where the geo-political realities are changing fast, and where global threats and challenges endanger Asians and Europeans alike.”

This time, the EU representative could also talk proudly of Europe’s own efforts at building it’s security architecture following a decision by EU governments to launch a programme of joint military investment and project development aimed at helping the EU confront its security challenges.

Twenty-three of the EU’s 28 member nations have signed up to the process, known as permanent structured cooperation, or Pesco. Britain, which is leaving the EU in 2019, and Denmark with a defence opt-out are among those not taking part.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has described the decision as a “historic moment in European defence”, adding that “23 member states engaging booth on capabilities and on operational steps is something big”. Those who didn’t sign up can join later.

The EU move is no surprise — defence cooperation has been moving up the bloc’s agenda for some time now. But it’s no secret that geopolitical uncertainties triggered by Trump and new security challenges including tense relations with Russia have given a new urgency and sense of purpose to efforts to establish a European defence capability outside Nato.

Significantly, after years of working in parallel, the EU and Nato are beginning to work together at the political level — and in practice. Also, defence cooperation is part of the drive for revitalising EU cooperation.

So what happens next? I’m betting on closer Europe-Asia relations in the coming years, modest beginnings of Europe as a hard security power and an Asia that finally and painfully begins to cut itself loose from the US.

He’s right: President Trump is truly changing the world.

VIEW FROM ABROAD: Europe, Brussels and the Barcelona blues

EUROPEAN Union leaders were determined to stay out of the crisis in Catalonia, hoping against hope that the Spanish government and pro-independence Catalonia leaders would solve their dispute and start behaving like mature Democrats and savvy politicians.

Well, that was wishful thinking.

The Catalan crisis hurtles on at full speed, nobody’s talking to anyone anymore and while they are still trying their best to look away, EU leaders are being increasingly criticised for their hands-off and head-in-the-sand approach.

In the last few days, since the Spanish constitution rules out separation from an indivisible Spain, the country’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has dismissed Catalonia’s independence declaration as “null and void”; fired the Catalonia cabinet; dissolved Catalonia’s parliament and called new elections. The Spanish constitution rules out separation from an indivisible Spain.

Meanwhile, the sacked Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, has turned up in Brussels, after vanishing from Spain. “I am here in Brussels as the capital of Europe,” he told reporters last week, dismissing suggestions he wanted political asylum. “I am asking for Europe to react.”

But his appeal has been met with resounding silence in Brussels and other EU capitals. Only the Belgian government offered any response. “Mr Puigdemont is in Belgium, neither at the invitation or the initiative of the Belgian government,” said a statement from the prime minister’s office, calling for political dialogue in Spain.

The EU has so far maintained that the stand-off between Spain and Catalonia is an internal affair and has given its full backing to Madrid, supporting its rejection of Catalan independence claims. Madrid clearly has the law and the constitution on its side. Nobody in Europe wants to be seen — at least in public — as sympathetic to the Catalan cause.

European Council President Donald Tusk has spelled out the EU view, saying recently that “Spain remains our only interlocutor”. In the wake of recent violence in Catalonia, Tusk did issue a warning against a repeat of the scenes of police violence. “I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force,” he said.

EU policymakers argue rightly that they lack any legal mechanism to get involved. True, the European Commission has taken legal action against right-wing populist governments in Poland and Hungary over the rule of law. But Spain is a European success story, a country acclaimed for its transition from dictatorship to democracy and with an economy which has bounced back after a tough recession.

There is also concern of course that other pro-independence groups could be encouraged to follow Catalonia’s lead. “I do not want a situation where, tomorrow, the European Union is made up of 95 different states,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “We already have enough splits and fractures.”

So far, so legal. But what about empathy, advice and perhaps even some discreet mediation between the two sides?

As David Gardner wrote in Financial Times recently, “Statesmen not lawyers are needed to resolve the Catalan crisis.”

A letter to Juncker and Tusk, signed by over 100 academics and politics also points out that while issues of sovereignty are indeed a matter of domestic politics in liberal democracies, “the manner in which the Spanish authorities have been handling the claims to independence…constitutes a violation of the rule of law”.

The letter goes on to criticise Spain’s “repressive actions” against civil servants, MPs, mayors, media, companies and citizens. It denounces the “excessive use of force and violence against peaceful voters and demonstrators”.

“The violation of basic rights and freedoms protected by international and EU law cannot be an internal affair of any government …The silence of the EU and its rejection of inventive mediation is unjustifiable,” the academics insist, warning that without a serious effort of political mediation, the EU risks losing its citizens’ trust and commitment.

The warning is justified. The EU’s role as a passive bystander is looking increasingly ridiculous. And a Europe which is already grappling with the rise of far-right populism and Brexit, certainly cannot afford to lose even more credibility.

The problem is that attempts so far to get the two sides to speak to each other have failed. An attempt to mediate by Inigo Urkullu, the leader of the Basque autonomous government, has been rejected by Madrid. Other discreet efforts to mediate have also proved to be of no avail.

Far from extending an olive branch, the Spanish government is playing tougher and tougher. Spanish prosecutors are seeking a European arrest warrant for Catalans ousted president and has ordered eight members of the deposed government to be remanded in custody pending possible charges of sedition over the declaration of independence.

Europe’s Barcelona blues seem like they are here to stay.

Women grab the headlines — and reins of power

TALK about the “domino effect”. In an interconnected world, stories of women’s harassment — but also of their empowerment and constant combats — are grabbing the headlines.

So here I am in Tunisia, meeting the most amazing women from across the world, talking about the challenges of being a female politician in a political landscape where men call the shots. Sometimes literally.

Miles away in Brussels, the male-dominated European political landscape is being turned upside down by revelations that even though we never talk about it, the EU institutions — and especially the European Parliament — are rife with predatory male politicians who think it’s okay to stalk, abuse and harass women.

And of course across the Atlantic, there is US President Donald Trump whose contempt for women is setting new standards. And since the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit Hollywood, 1.7 million women and men worldwide have gone public with their own stories of sexual harassment or voiced support for victims under the hashtag #metoo, or the more forceful French version, #balancetonporc (dump your pig).

This is serious. In Tunisia, at the conference organised by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in cooperation with the Centre of International and Mediterranean Studies, women and men talk openly about their lives in a world where female politicians face an array of challenges, including physical, psychological and cultural violence, gender stereotyping and lack of access to financing.

Their stories are heartbreakingly similar, irrespective of where they are from. European and American women may think they have made progress in securing political rights but their struggle is in fact only slightly less difficult than that of women politicians in the Muslim world or in Africa and Latin America.

“We just do everything that men do, we just do it backwards in high heels,” says Virginia Garcia Beaudoux from Argentina, referring to Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire. Life is tough but women are tougher, everywhere.

Beaudoux’s research is worth reading. “The fight for emancipation is never over,” she told the meeting in Tunisia. In politics, in business, in the media, in sport and in family life, the fight goes on to prove that men and women are equal.

Yes, there are the much-cited “glass ceilings” that women in the West complain about, referring to the invisible barriers that keep them from achieving high office, but here at the conference, women speak of “cement walls and ceilings” that enclose them as well as “sticky floors” or cultural barriers that keep them bound to domestic life.

Put simply, it’s not a level playing field. Laws and constitutions may guarantee equal rights to men and women, but tradition, culture and religion put the brakes on their implementation and enforcement.

For confirmation, just read Hillary Clinton’s new book on her experience during her failed presidential campaign. “The only way we can get sexism out of politics is to get more women in office,” she says.

A very significant number of Republican men and 50 per cent of Republican women just don’t believe a woman can be president, says Clinton. I’m afraid, many Democrats still also feel that way.

Just getting on the list of a political party can be difficult for a woman. Gender quotas help but aren’t enough. Some countries run a system of financial sanctions or rewards for parties that do or don’t proactively recruit women.

In some ways, Africa is leading the way. Rwanda is the first country in the world to have a majority of women in the legislature. Female parliamentarians in the country have enacted major reforms in banking and property laws to end discrimination against women.

Women politicians from across party lines must work together to promote women in politics, say speakers. But they also admit ruefully that not all “sisters” show solidarity with the female cause.

There are references to the negative role played by media — which is still a male-dominated sector — which treats women politicians much more harshly than their male counterparts.

But in the end political and societal mindsets have to change. Women at the meeting in Tunisia point to the difficulty of living in “patriarchal” cultures which refuse to move with the times. Equality and parity begin at home, they say, pointing out that parents can help change tradition by treating their sons and daughters equally.

And the unequal treatment does not stop once women are elected. Female politicians are preyed on by their male colleagues and often given portfolios which are considered “soft” such as family affairs.

In Brussels, meanwhile, the talk is of a “culture of silence” surrounding sexual harassment in the European Parliament. The assembly is talking of tougher sanctions against perpetrators and stronger guarantees for victims.

The struggle for equality may be an ongoing one, but the women I meet in Tunisia are proof that they are on the winning team. Passion, perseverance and a thick skin are required to join the rough and tumble world of politics. Women have all three qualities in abundance. Here in Tunisia but also across the world.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2017

As Trump visits Asia, it’s Europe that’s really pivoting to Asia

Remember the excitement triggered by America’s much-publicised “pivot to Asia” almost six years ago? There was heady talk of Asia’s rise and the need for stronger US engagement with the region. Most Asians were reassured, China was irritated, knowing that the new policy was about its “containment”, and Europeans fretted that Washington was seeking out new friends while forgetting old ones.

Fast forward to 2017 and little remains of the US pivot or “rebalancing” as it was quickly rebranded. True, US President Donald Trump is preparing to embark on a long tour of the region, starting on November 5 with visits planned to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Washington’s message is clear: America still loves Asia. But Asians know better.

With his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, dire warnings of war against “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong-un of North Korea, retreat from the climate change accords and decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact on trade (TPP), the 45th US President is unpredictable, volatile and potentially dangerous. Little surprise then that Asia’s attention has turned more firmly on Europe – and not just as a trading partner.

After years of hesitation and much hand-wringing, ASEAN has finally invited the European Union to the 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila on November 13-14. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, will be attending this influential Asian security forum as a guest of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is current ASEAN chair. The US and Russia became EAS members in 2011, bringing the forum’s membership to eighteen and prompting the EU to demand similar treatment.

The EU is in the process of reviewing relations with several Asian nations

Many Asian countries are still reflecting on the EU’s request. Given the uncertain global climate and Europe’s commitment to a rules-based and open global order, ASEAN would be wise to make the invitation to the EU a permanent one. For its part, Europe should use the opportunity to further its increasingly strong case for an enhanced security conversation with Asia while also pursuing ongoing efforts to expand trade and political contacts, as well as discussions on an array of global challenges, including improved economic governance, climate change, illegal immigration, and implementing the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development goals.

The EU is in the process of reviewing relations with several Asian nations. Having spent millions of euros on Afghanistan’s development, the EU’s new strategy demands that Kabul shows tangible progress in areas of democracy, human rights and women’s empowerment. State-building is given priority, as is the importance of a more effective and responsive police force.

Sanctions against North Korea have been tightened by imposing a total ban on EU investments and the sale of refined petroleum products to the country. After an initial, disappointingly low-key, response to the brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military on the country’s Rohingya population, the EU has scaled back relations with the country’s military and insists that human rights violations must be thoroughly investigated.

Meanwhile, the recent EU-India summit sets relations with Delhi on a much-needed beyond-trade trajectory, with leaders from both sides agreeing on a long joint statement which promises cooperation on a vast panoply of sectors, including counter-terrorism.

Interestingly, a first-ever EU-Japan free trade agreement is expected to be ready for signature in the coming months and EU relations with South Korea are moving into exciting new areas, including security cooperation. Relations with ASEAN are on track despite difficulties in bilateral ties with the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar.

To complete the upbeat picture, the EU needs to step up its engagement with China. Much is being made of President Xi Jinping’s increased power, authority and status and his ambition to turn China into a leading global power by 2050. Xi’s three-hour speech last week to the 19th Party Congress outlined his vision of a country that would stand at the “centre of the world stage”, with a strong Communist Party and a military ready to take on any challenge. China, he said, had entered a “new era”.

Instead of watching from the sidelines, Europe must become a more active and engaged partner in Beijing’s game-changing Belt and Road Initiative

At a time of global anxieties and uncertainties provoked by Trump’s words and actions and when protectionism and inward looking policies are gaining momentum across the world, Xi’s commitment to staying open and engaged in a “shared world” should reassure Europe and inject new energy into an erratic and irritant-prone relationship.

Certainly, the Chinese leader will have to turn these public pronouncements into real action. His record on walking the talk – namely translating the pro-globalisation speech he made in Davos at the start of the year into market-opening measures – has not been impressive so far. European businesses continue to complain of market access and investment restrictions.

In the months ahead, both sides should try harder to make their relationship more robust, resilient and truly strategic. China needs to open up to European investments, technology, and know-how if it is to reach the economic heights Xi has outlined. In return, instead of watching from the sidelines, Europe must become a more active and engaged partner in Beijing’s game-changing Belt and Road Initiative. This means working together with EU member states but also better coordination among EU institutions.

America, with its military presence in the region, looms large over the Asian landscape. Trump can count on a warm welcome and full honours as he tours Asia early next month. But not everyone in the region is comfortable with the US leader’s politics of fear and confrontation, and see Europe as an increasingly attractive partner. The EU pivot to Asia must therefore be sustained, enhanced and reinforced.


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.