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.

Europe, Turkey and the importance of reputations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2017

Macron, Merkel and May: Europe is getting very complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shada Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2017