The year in pictures

The May Day holiday seemed more than usually loaded with significance this year: there is an ingrained notion that a prolonged cold snap ought to be followed by a flowering of ideas. May 1st, the pagan celebration of fecundity and the modern-day excuse for grassroots protest, was a neat turning point.

It reflects hopes that this summer will finally tip the European Union into crisis, in the positive sense. The word crisis after all contains the inference of  judging and deciding, and there hasn’t been much of that up to now. The past five years have instead been characterised by a kind of ‘turboparalysis’.

The term was coined by the author Michael Lind to describe a condition “of furious motion without movement in any particular direction, a situation in which the engine roars and the wheels spin but the vehicle refuses to move”.

This year’s big freeze only intensified that feeling. As winter did not turn to spring, the same old themes recurred – a member state in acute financial turmoil (Cyprus), rising populism (Italy), fantasies about the EU’s 2014 leadership change (Barroso III), a foreign policy in disarray (Mali) and trouble with minor international despots (North Korea).

Assad, Kim, Ahmadinejad

Assad, Kim, Ahmadinejad: Wack-a-mole of evil

The thaw has brought a perceptible change of mood. If winter felt like a mental grudge match with the elements – symbolised by The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan’s geopolitics rehash, and Jan Zielonka’s survey of the EU’s core and periphery, The New Political Geography of Europe – summer is softer.

Environmental determinism is out; Gaia is in. There is, for instance, talk of fostering a ‘European sense of place’, what the French call terroir: a process was kicked off 15 years ago to give citizens a physical sense of the EU, an entity otherwise defined by its shifting borders. It is now gearing up for the next phase.

Grillo, Monti, Merkel

The Italian elections: Grillo, Monti and Merkel

There have been allusions too to 1816, The Year Without Summer. That long winter famously spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a suitably bleak response to a famine-struck world. But the aftermath is associated with a thawing of political ideas that are said to have brought forth the modern liberal state.

The myth of a cultural flowering after a long winter therefore sits so deep that it may today be self-fulfilling, and there are indeed signs that the EU’s zombie politics are now giving way to something more vivid.

Last week, the Commission President tried to mobilise scientists, artists and intellectuals to deal with European issues. Predictably, his initiative suffers terribly from Commission speak – ‘A Narrative for Europe’, ‘version 2.0’, ‘an online portal for citizens’, ‘core cultural values’, ‘our image in third countries’. Still, it marks a shift.

Barroso I, II and III

Barroso I, II and III

Although there has always been talk of European integration as an “organic idea”, eurocrats have struggled to connect with Europe’s cultural life. Insofar as the creative arts featured on the Brussels radar, it was largely in terms of political marketing (see, for instance, the dismal Captain Euro).

A decade ago, there was a telling debate about what kind of capital city an entity like the EU needs. It pitted Umberto Eco against Rem Koolhaas, the Italian arguing for Brussels to become a space for cultural exchange, the Dutch architect advocating that the EU’s signature buildings simply be used to brand and market policies.

The recent reworking of the Commission logo shows which approach has prevailed until now, and the UK Independence Party, UKIP, may well have a point when it opposes European flags on public buildings on the grounds that they are not symbols but advertisements.

Even if Barroso’s initiative marks a refreshing change, though, it will do nothing to appease those who dislike thinkers and arty types. (Sensibly, the President’s cultural caravan will bypass the famously anti-intellectual UK and head to France, Germany and Warsaw).

Cameron, Merkel, Hollande: Monty Python's Three-Headed Knight

The EU in Mali: Monty Python’s Three-Headed Knight

Well, let them remain in the mud with their wheels spinning and engine fired up. The injection of culture into the EU’s technocracy might give it just the traction it needs, and not only because a pause for creative reflection would be conducive to judging and deciding.

The lack of effective European action reflected in Cyprus, Italy, Brussels, Mali and even North Korea highlights the dip in hegemony that comes from an absence of social cohesion at home. Culture, arts and ideas – the only things that really link Europeans – are just the tonic. There may be life in the EU yet.

 

ghosts_rescaled

Thatcher, Chavez, Anastasiades: Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future

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Grounds for a European global strategy

Barack Obama’s support for a transatlantic free-trade agreement (TAFTA to us, TTIP to them) was widely welcomed as a boost to the EU. Yet, some pro-Europeans have since been quick to play it down. This may seem like an odd reaction, but the raw sense of relief that met the President’s February speech has worried them.

The TAFTA initiative was instinctively greeted as a means to anchor the US to Europe, to improve the EU’s resilience to globalisation and to trounce the Chinese – as a silver bullet, in other words, for an EU that is struggling to sustain itself. Fans of the EU are concerned that the bloc’s standing is being undermined.

They counter that the US doesn’t need anchoring in Europe. Its refocus towards Asia is designed to be in the EU’s interest as well its own, and its predicted energy self-sufficiency doesn’t amount to energy independence, meaning Washington will remain involved in the EU’s unstable neighbourhood if only to influence energy prices.

They also suggest that TAFTA is not just a distant prospect but a tough one. Tariffs are already low, meaning that progress will require the tricky harmonisation of regulatory regimes. And, although this will bring an aggregate economic boost (especially to the US, according to the latest projections), few individual employers will actually feel the difference, except perhaps in the form of increased competition.

As for the Chinese – why seek to trounce them? By some measures China is already the EU’s major trading partner, and its burgeoning middle class consumes just the kinds of unnecessary goods and services Europeans now specialise in. China’s stagnation not its economic rise is the real threat.

Well maybe. But if TAFTA remains so appealing, it’s because nobody has actually shown that the EU could flourish without it. Playing down the potential benefits of the agreement or the severity of the international situation is not the same as demonstrating that the EU has a realistic global strategy of its own.

Confidence in the EU’s capacity to hold its own internationally was not always this low. The long period of navel-gazing from the Constitutional Treaty to the euro crisis appears to have obscured an important fact: that the very point of the EU is its ability to handle international change.

The EU was established to balance out shifts in big power relations. Its internal policies – the single market, passport-free travel area, currency cooperation – allowed mistrustful West European states to cohere around common values and goals in the face of the Soviet threat. And, following the collapse of the USSR and the replacement of bipolarity by unipolarity, it was again the EU that provided the means for Europeans to accommodate newly-independent eastern states in the form of enlargement and neighbourhood policy.

Enlargement and neighbourhood policies were an important prong in the EU’s efforts to manage the ensuing wave of globalisation too, bringing close competitors under the bloc’s ambit. As part of this effort, the EU also became the first mover on issues from data protection to social-security coordination, inspiring international standards; it concertedly supported global institutions as a way to bind others; and, through redistributive policies such as development aid or the Social Funds, it weakened resistance to globalism amongst its discontents.

More recently, the EU has stretched to meet the challenge to global rules posed by emerging powers. Today’s hegemons tend to be of the regional variety. That means that they can ignore global norms and dominate the countries around them but lack the reach to solve bigger international problems like trade or the environment. In regionalism, the EU provides a possible answer, binding such countries into a local cooperative regime and using region-to-region cooperation to solve the bigger issues.

Of course, these approaches badly need adapting to take into account the EU’s recent weight-loss, the anachronistic overrepresentation of its members in global institutions, and the fact that the Union is a mere regional organisation in a globalised world. TAFTA and a strengthened transatlantic relationship could help the EU carry out that shift.

To achieve this, the EU would have to work hard to ensure that TAFTA negotiations involve the WTO at an early stage, are open and transparent to other states, and at the same time provide something of a gold standard for other regional trade regimes. In its current mood, however, this seems unlikely.

Today, the EU risks using any transatlantic trade agreement to cling to an outdated vision of unipolarity, to avoid integrating new powers into the international order, and to cement regionalism as a form of protectionism rather than international cooperation. In other words, the time for a strategic conversation is ripe.

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Island fever

The Chinese are at it. The Japanese are at it. The Brits and the Argentines are at it – all squabbling over small islands. There is even speculation that the US and Canada will revive their long-running dispute over little Machias Seal Island.

When large states are feeling small, it seems, small islands loom large. This is true not just of tiny, uninhabited outcrops. Independent and semi-independent islands are in the limelight too.

One reason for this is clear. Entitled to many of the same rights as large states, but without the same responsibilities, these islands pose an outrageous challenge to the international order and need to be brought back under control.

It is not just their tax practices, although this is the issue that currently defines the EU’s agenda. By selling passports to anyone passing, islands help criminals change identities and travel the globe undetected. And by conferring diplomatic recognition upon renegade countries, islands endanger global security.

There is a second reason too: entitled to many of the same rights as larger states, but without the same responsibilities, small islands are an outrageous challenge to the international order, and are therefore extremely useful allies to big countries.

Thanks to the competition caused by their tax regimes, small islands can be helpful to large countries wishing to impose fiscal discipline upon their partners or just hoping to excuse their own tax practices. And by handing out passports to all-comers, islands can ‘liberate’ the business elites and political opposition of repressive regimes – saving big states the need to intervene.

Small islands are even credited with a diplomatic daring which larger countries cannot afford to practice. Fearful of encouraging secessionist tendencies at home or of antagonising their international partners, large states are often too nervous to recognise breakaway countries. Small islands go where large states fear to tread.

This ambiguous status in an international system made for big players gives islands a significance quite disproportionate to their size. Take for instance Nauru (population: 9,000; size: 21 square kilometres; distinguishing features: looks from above suspiciously like a treasure island).

For years, China and Taiwan were locked in competition for Nauru’s diplomatic loyalty, with Nauru reportedly allowing itself to be bought first by one side then the other. Indeed, in 2002, when the Taiwanese president rocked the world by supporting a referendum on independence, his move was viewed as a reaction to Nauru’s sudden switch of loyalties to the People’s Republic.

The case of Nauru also shows how quickly islands can go from international pariahs to valued partners, depending on large states’ whims. In 2003, the US appears to have decided that the Nauruans’ passport-for-sale scheme was not a danger to international security after all. Just the opposite in fact: it offered a means to smuggle nuclear scientists out of North Korea. If reports are true, Nauru, the one-time bandit, suddenly found itself made deputy sheriff.

This special attitude towards islands – an attitude which does not seem to pertain to other small states – reflects the strong hold they exercise over the popular imagination. Blame that Christmas favourite, Treasure Island. For people living a routine mainland life, islands signify pirates or palm trees: they are either dangerous or alluring.

At one extreme are the harmless bores who view islands as a serious threat to international security and stability, can recite by heart the guidelines on good governance produced with a cheerful lack of irony by the EU, OECD or G20, and show an unhealthy interest in all forms of small-island deviance.

At the other are the escapists who see islands as an alluring alternative to mainland life and who secretly dream of seizing a rocky outcrop and establishing a libertarian utopia of their own.

Islands are thus either ‘unviable’  -  incapable of sustaining themselves without cheating on big states, and ripe for depopulation  -  or an escape  -  ripe for repopulation by mainlanders. Acknowledging instead that islands are in fact entities in their own right, capable of responsible self-regulation – within the same context of global interdependence that affects all countries – might help avoid unfortunate situations like Nauru’s.

After all, if the reports about 2003’s ‘Operation Weasel’ are accurate, Nauru’s citizens had just succeeded in stopping their government from selling passports on grounds of good governance, only to see the US reintroduce the practice for them.

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What’s the big idea, Britain?

Philosophers identify two means of dealing with uncertainty: theoretische Freiheit and gelebte Freiheit. If ‘theoretical freedom’ means keeping one’s options open, ‘lived freedom’ means making commitments even at the cost of one’s room for manoeuvre.

Events a fortnight ago in Oxford show how these philosophical differences can split the EU. On 21st September, the Polish foreign minister delivered a speech calling for the UK to make a positive choice and commit to the EU instead of endlessly hedging her bets.

He picked up on three arguments. First, the British position on Europe mistakes room for manoeuvre for true freedom. By maintaining an arm’s-length distance to the EU, London is actually allowing decisions to be made for it elsewhere. By committing to the EU, by contrast, the UK could realise her priorities, becoming more powerful and thus freer in real terms.

Second, the UK’s pursuit of autonomy has moved from the pragmatic to the ideological. Put simply, the British are no longer sufficiently open-minded to keep their options open as regards European integration. Instead, they take ad-hoc decisions and dogmatically pursue those options that come without strings attached.

Third, Britain has failed to acknowledge the degree to which she has already bound herself to the EU. Thanks to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, the British are used to the idea that past decisions can be overturned at the drop of a hat. The EU works differently – votes in favour of further integration mean renouncing this kind of freedom.

So how did the British react to the Pole’s call for active commitment? The response can be summed up as a polite “no thanks, if it’s all the same to you”. Most Britons, it seems, would prefer to bet on the dissolution of the eurozone than to try actively to avert it.

Some of the responses, however, revealed precisely the little-England mentality which the speech had diagnosed. One rejoinder forgave Sikorski his ‘gross interference’ in the UK’s internal affairs, citing Britain’s famous tolerance, before embarking on an invective which put the lie to that particular national myth.

Was the minister, these commentators wondered, really trying to mobilise the British with a hard-hitting critique or was he in fact publicly blackballing the UK in an abject show of loyalty to other European governments – Germany perhaps?

And who was he to talk of commitment anyway? This was a man with an international background, indeed an English education, and a set of beliefs that have shifted markedly since an early flirtation with Euro-scepticism – clearly a slippery cosmopolitan binding his country before hotfooting it to some international sinecure.

But for the most part, the audience seems to have heard Sikorski’s rounded English vowels and congratulated themselves on the sustained power of Britishness. Here was a foreigner delivering a polemic in the spirit of an Oxbridge debating society – an affirmation of Britain’s perpetual rightness. How perfectly charming.

And this is the point: If British values are being picked up by Europeans like Sikorski, it is precisely because of the cosmopolitan effect of the EU and the fact that, in the context of close cooperation, the UK offers an appealing counterpoint to Germanness. Britishness has persisted because of, not despite, the EU. The British cannot have it both ways.

This chimes with what British analysts like Alan Milward have argued, namely that the European Union has been a means of sustaining the European nation-state in the modern world. EU membership may have entailed painful changes, but the process of adaptation would have been rather worse without.

If there is frustration in Poland, therefore, it is because London seems almost wilfully unaware of the EU’s usefulness in this regard. The UK tells herself that a world without the EU would be that cosy old place where she sails the seas and trades with the natives. In reality, if the EU is suffering, it is because the world has become yet more unforgiving towards flabby European states like Britain.

This may of course mean that the Union in its current form really is moribund. But that in turn only infers that European states need to come up with some other means of survival. In the past, British politicians and analysts were always at the forefront of thinking on the new global and regional architecture. The UK must commit to something.

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The Eurocrisis: a celebration of outsider thinking

A colourful bunch of political animals has emerged in the ruins of the EU’s single currency. Down in the political undergrowth, for instance, you’ll often find an Oborne, a large and irritable beast who doesn’t mind digging in the dirt. “Idiots!” he trumpets, as he tramples over meeker, non-native species.

Meanwhile, up in the trees you can hear the shrill cries of the Hannan. “It pains me to say I told you so,” he twitters, “but I really did tell you so”. And this prickly little creature is a Taleb. What’s he saying? Nobody knows, but doubtless he has just been proved right too.

Surprisingly, given that they seem to view our financial misery primarily as a source of personal vindication, these beasties are currently basking in public affection. The root of their popularity lies in the notion that they are far-sighted political outsiders who have been unfairly sidelined by The Establishment. If only someone had listened to them earlier!

This annoys the EU’s political insiders. They would argue that, if these individuals have been ignored over the years, it is for good reason: they almost certainly belong to one of those categories of public intellectual whom the world can readily do without.

Perhaps they are McCones, named after the hawkish head of the CIA in the 1960s. He happened to foresee the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his ideas about what caused it and how to resolve it were all wrong. The McCones’ problem is that, because they are right about one big thing, they think they are right about everything.

Perhaps they are Pauls, named after the perennial US presidential hopeful who has a habit of saying what everyone else already knows, but in a particularly outraged and obtuse manner. Their problem is they simply haven’t learnt the art of political compromise.

Or maybe they are Clarkes, named after the US official whose warnings about the 9/11 attacks went unheard. It may be because they fire off too many predictions at once, or because they have a penchant for cryptic neologisms, or just because they only have the strength of their convictions after their warnings actually came to pass. Whatever the reason, this group just doesn’t communicate properly at the right time.

Not so, say the outsiders: history has shown the McCones and Pauls and Clarkes of the past to be insightful individuals who just happened to be articulating a message which their governments didn’t want to hear. Such people, moreover, have a key role to play in any well-functioning political system. Their outsider knowledge is a useful counterpart to governments’ serial in-thinking.

Insider knowledge, the knowledge typical of government officials and ministers, is kennen, connaitre — being acquainted with and experiencing political realities first hand. Outsider knowledge, the knowledge typical of the academic or the backbench parliamentarian, is categorised as wissen, savoir — understanding politics from a critical distance.

Insiders see things in a compromised, practical way; outsiders, with greater theoretical clarity. In a well-functioning political system, both groups chat with one another. But if the dialogue between them dries up, insiders are left in their grey swamp of practicalities and compromises, and outsiders only have their black-and-white certainties.

So, is the euro-crisis the result of the way political insiders systematically sidelined critical outside-voices? Or is it down to the way that sceptical outsiders effectively disqualified themselves from the debate? Most likely, neither is the case: insiders and outsiders have an altogether more collusive relationship than either side likes to admit.

In reality, most political insiders love outside thinking. And they love it not because it is good—it seldom is—but because they are snobs. Years spent surrounded by official jobsworths mean they look down on the ideas produced by their administrative colleagues. To them, the outsider perspective seems exotic and untrammelled by practical concerns.

Outsiders find this flattering, and play along, generating ever more outlandish ideas. But don’t expect them to take responsibility when the shit hits the fan. Not our fault, they say, we were just brainstorming. And don’t expect the insiders to take responsibility either — after all, none of this was their idea.

In short: if we really do need these outsiders to get us out of our current political and financial mess, then it is only because they are precisely the kind of people who helped get us into it in the first place.

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Will the Poles smile for Mitt?

President Obama may be unpopular in Central and Eastern Europe, but only for speaking the truth about the inevitability of American disengagement. Mitt Romney cannot count on a warm welcome in Warsaw if he pretends this disengagement is reversible.

During his week away, of course, the US presidential hopeful will be mainly concerned to mobilise America’s overseas voters, lightening some wallets along the way. But he wants to do so against a backdrop of cheering foreigners.

That explains the choice of Poland for the grand finale of his tour. Whilst it may not be home to too many American citizens with full purses, Poland has certainly been marked down as a red state on the extended map of America.

Staunch allies of Washington during the run-up to the Iraq War, the Poles were famously annoyed by President Obama’s cancellation of the American missile-defence programme in Central and Eastern Europe and by the President’s recent, flat-footed comments on the Holocaust.

It sounds, then, like a sure thing for Mitt. Yet, Poland is unlikely to provide the pictures the campaign needs, and it’s not just because Warsaw is virtually empty of people during the holiday season.

For one thing, Poles are not currently minded to distinguish between different brands of American politician. If Governor Romney comes and bashes the incumbent’s record, he simply risks fuelling a blanket atlantiscepticism.

For another, Europeans have got wise to American electoral diplomacy. If a candidate makes a point of visiting a place during an election campaign, they know he expects this to be the highpoint of his popularity in the region. He will not be back any time soon.

Add to this the fact that Varsovians have an inkling of what is expected of them by the Romney team, and it jars with their own self-perception. They do not want to find themselves painted as the people of 20 years ago, hungry for American-style liberty and leadership.

There is, in short, an understanding that American disengagement from the region is irreversible rather than a question of political choice, and people here have no reason to prop up a fantasy. Times have moved on and so have the Poles.

This shift in thinking will be music to the ears of a government keenly trying to recalibrate its foreign policy. After the initial shock of the missile-defence cancellation, the government in Warsaw has accepted the idea of US disengagement first grudgingly and then with rather more enthusiasm.

Its recognition that Poland must stand on its own two feet has already paid off, allowing the government to develop a healthier and less deferential relationship with the US. This in turn has led to progress on thorny issues such as visa requirements for Poles visiting the States.

But it has also required of Poland a more significant investment in the shaky European Union. The logic is clear, if harder to sell: in an unforgiving international environment, the EU needs to be reformed and strengthened so that it is capable of providing security for its members.

With its economy growing, and defence spending fixed by law at 1.95% of GDP, Poland believes it can play a key role in that process. Yet, it also knows that its defence capabilities are rather small, and that its European partners are still more useful to it than it is to them.

Romney’s visit thus comes at an acutely sensitive moment. If he pretends that the US is still prepared to invest politically and militarily in the region, he could do lasting damage to Poland’s ambitions: he would raise popular doubts about the real necessity of investing in the EU, and he would give rise to suspicions about Poland’s commitment to the EU amongst its partners.

A weakened US badly needs a strong Poland in a strong EU. Will Governor Romney have the nerve to admit it?

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Why cutting immigrants’ rights is wrong

A decade ago, under pressure from heads of state and government, Europe’s interior ministries adopted rules to boost social rights for immigrants. But they did so unwillingly, viewing the EU directives on long-term residence status and family reunification as a dangerous intrusion into their discretion.

It should come as no surprise, then, that these two directives are today badly implemented, with states such as the Netherlands, Germany and Austria doing little to hide their dislike of them. And, although the EU now has robust powers to improve transposition, the Commission has hardly used them in this sensitive policy area.

Moreover, as the Sheffield-based academic Diego Acosta describes, national courts dealing with infringement cases are being outmanoeuvred by interior ministries: the ministries simply grant discretionary rights to the immigrant complainants, putting a speedy end to their cases and thus to the prospect of an improvement in national transposition.

Three reasons for restriction

Interior ministries dislike the EU directives for three reasons. First, they view them as detrimental to their capacity to select the foreigners who enter the EU and stay: rights of family reunification can prevent governments from choosing immigrants on the basis of their professional qualifications; rights of residence can prevent governments from imposing integration conditions on immigrants who want to settle.

Second, the directives may discourage immigrants from leaving the EU. Interior ministries have recently embraced the idea of “circular migration” in which immigrants are supposed to return home after a short time in the EU. In this, they have formed something of an unholy alliance with development ministries, who support temporary migration as boosting “brain gain” in sending countries.

Third, the directives may be abused by immigrants. Family reunification rights are seen as encouraging false marriages, with prospective immigrants getting hitched simply so they can enter the EU. Some member states also believe the reunification directive allows too much scope for forced marriages. For that reason, they would like to raise the age at which spouses may enter the EU.

Three false logics

Analysis suggests that the first logic is flawed: although restricting family reunification and residence rights may indeed allow governments to select the immigrants they want, this does not actually help the economy.

“Kinship migrants” joining their families in the EU can take advantage of social networks not available to the highly-qualified immigrants selected under European schemes. As a result, they show upward social mobility as they settle in, whilst highly-qualified migrants tend to go downhill. Families, it turns out, are simply better at screening for the long-term productivity of immigrants than are businesses or governments.

As for the development benefits of migration, anecdotal evidence suggests that these are actually best achieved by immigrants who have settled long-term in the EU rather than by temporary migrants.

After all, long-term immigrants with a secure status are permitted to spend extended periods away from the EU without losing residence rights there. This means they are better placed to invest in their countries of origin. Moreover, during their time in the EU they tend to accrue skill-sets beneficial to development and good governance—social science qualifications, for example—which are less prevalent in countries of origin.

Finally, the reality of forced marriage is more nuanced than interior ministries claim. Analysis suggests that the phenomenon is best dealt with by offering women an exit from the unwanted marriage and by reducing the broader social pressures on them by means of education and dialogue. A strict immigration regime, by contrast, can leave women trapped, especially if they are dependent upon their spouses for their residence rights.

Means before ends

The evidence thus suggests that many core goals of European immigration policy can be met by a relatively hands-off approach or by empowering immigrants through secure rights. By inference, it also suggests that interior ministries are more concerned about their discretion than about their stated policy goals.

A concern for the means rather than the ends of policy has been a consistent feature of EU immigration policy. The European Parliament, for instance, is often more focused on gaining competencies than on the content of policy. And NGOs fall into the trap, first highlighted by the thinker Jeremy Bentham, of focusing more on the question whether individuals’ rights are met, than whether this is actually beneficial to them.

Yet, if interior ministries focus on the question of discretion even at the expense of their own policy aims, it is probably because they have a higher goal in mind:  they wish to reassure the public that they have things under control. After all, analysis shows that citizens in countries with hands-on, selective immigration policies tend to be more relaxed about newcomers.

That’s all very well of course. But surely the best way to make citizens at ease with migration is to encourage them to be flexible, independent and entrepreneurial, rather than trying to remove these characteristics from immigrants by means of excessive control.

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What the Euro in your pocket means

Don’t look. Can you say what’s on the 5, the 10 or the 50 Euro banknotes? Thought not.

On each, a bridge-and-window motif mumbles “linking” and “openness”. The European stars edge apologetically off the page. The map of Europe, with its blurred east and its southern shadow, can’t quite muster the energy to be controversial.

The design on the Euro notes has gone down in history as a massive defeat for Brussels—the generic flavourlessness proof that the peoples of Europe really don’t have anything in common.

From today’s perspective, of course, this blandness looks like a happy accident: if the banknotes had featured, say, Beethoven or the Brandenburg Gate, even the impoverished people of Greece might be tempted to set a light to them, along with the German flag.

And yet, no matter how bland the result, design is design, not accident. The committee that gave the Euro its look made some very deliberate choices.

For example, the committee made the decision to eschew not only recognisable figures—Europe’s da Vincis, Cervantes and Beethovens—but all figures full-stop. There aren’t even little stick-people on the bridges or in the windows. This marked a break with the entire tradition of European banknote design.

Moreover, the generic architecture they eventually adopted was not the design that had resonated most with the public during preliminary polling—that honour went to altogether more abstract and colourful patterns. The committee was prepared to defy public opinion in its choice.

What were they up to? Analyst Jacques Hymans suggests that Brussels’s political weakness had made committee sensitive to a fact which still escapes most central bankers in the member states: in an age of individualism, citizens dislike official interference in their sense of identity. The committee realised that it had to be subtle.

The choice of generic European architecture followed a straightforward logic of course. The notes were supposed to portray “anywhere Europe”. Citizens would see local examples of the kinds of architecture depicted on the notes and make the connection. What the prized local landmark lost in uniqueness as a result, it would make up for by being part of a European whole.

But this was more than just an attempt to loosen citizens’ ties with their local environment. The absence of human figures on the notes meant that the citizen was effectively the only person involved in this process. Citizens were being invited to place themselves at the centre of the European landscape and to forge their own personal connection with it.

This invitation to create an individually tailored European identity, one that would be added to every time the citizen travelled to a different Euro-member country, is precisely the kind of clever-clever post-modern idea one does not expect from the Brussels bureaucracy. And yet, it chimes exactly with the contemporary Brussels lifestyle.

Unlike the federalists who flocked to the institutions in decades past, few of today’s EU administrators actively identify with the Union’s official symbols, its flag or hymn. Their identity is based rather on their own very individual experience of Europe. It is about their ease at passing from one country to the next, about dipping into local culture.

Many officials talk of practicing a kind of ‘variable nationality’: they disguise just enough of their national, and adopt just enough of the local identity necessary to access bits of European culture usually open only to natives.

The USA saw a similar phenomenon during its own political and social consolidation. The sociologist Richard Peterson has called it “cosmopolitan omnivorism”: the emergence of an identity based on openness, the acceptance of variety and above all upon individual pick-‘n’-mix.

The Americans had tried to base their identity on narrow collective characteristics just like other countries of course, but their society was simply too fluid and heterogeneous. As a result, identity and social status were accrued not through exclusion, chauvinism and snobbery but rather through individuals’ openness to new things and their sheer capacity to consume variety.

This phenomenon is increasingly reflected in the EU’s own political agenda. Policies such as the “connecting Europe facility”, designed to improve transport and internet links between member countries, or the reduction of roaming charges on mobile telephony, aim to facilitate the large-scale, individual consumption of European variety.

The Euro notes may be bland, then, but they do express a very distinct philosophy. It is about the sense of personal empowerment that comes from loosening one’s national attachment. It is about being free to choose one of an infinity of potential European identities.

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Will emigration replace immigration as Europe’s populist flashpoint?

Ten years ago, European immigration policy was run almost exclusively by interior ministers – shy nocturnal creatures who viewed mobility as something deeply threatening. If immigrants weren’t bogus asylum-seekers, they were almost certainly welfare-shoppers or, at the very least, irregular.

In the last few years, however, the EU’s economic, foreign and development ministries have encouraged their colleagues to think again: the immigrant masses may be huddled, it seems, but many of them are distinctly white-collared too.

This realisation that the skilled and wealthy also migrate has allowed the EU to begin recalibrating its relations with third countries, particularly in eastern Europe – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – and now in North Africa too – Tunisia and Morocco. Travel and migration between the EU and its neighbourhood is increasingly seen as a common good, leading to mutual exchange and prosperity.

There’s been a similar change of thinking regarding the migration of European citizens within the EU. Even at the last round of enlargement, northern member states waited with dread for the influx of poor immigrants from peripheral new members. But despite their lack of language skills and their distinctly foreign-looking qualifications, many of the immigrants who came turned out to be top notch.

Mobility is thus becoming something of a bedrock for the EU’s relations with its citizens as well as with the world beyond. This is not to say that European citizens exactly welcome these immigrants (as Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent statements and a potential revision of free-movement laws prove), but after the drastic drop-off in immigration rates to many EU states in 2009 there is a slightly pathetic sense of relief that well-qualified people still want to come.

There is, however, one small fly in the ointment: the well-qualified individuals who immigrate must also have emigrated from somewhere. This has political implications. Recent research draws attention to the phenomenon of ‘trapped populations’, a poor and immobile section of the global population abandoned to an uncertain future by their more mobile countrymen.

This research points out that the structural challenges facing countries worldwide – climate and demographic change, national debt, economic decline or inequality – are essentially territorial. The mobile rich can avoid them simply by moving to a different area. The immobile poor are the ones who will have to fix these problems where they fall.

Of course, the reality is a little more nuanced: much migration today is ‘circular’ – people return home after a period away. The mobile elites, it seems, don’t have the good sense simply to abandon their poor and immobile compatriots, but rather return home to help them out with new skills and capital.

Yet, such nuances will not prevent emigration becoming more politicised, even within the EU. Already citizens in southern and south-eastern member states fret about it. No wonder. If reports are to be believed, the brains in Spain fall mainly down the drain.

For the first time in ten years, more people are reported to have left Spain than immigrated. Romania’s population is said to have shrunk from 21.3m to 19m in the space of a decade. Population and migration statistics are notoriously unreliable of course but, for an excitable media, no figure is too unlikely. Has anyone seen the 1.21m Greeks widely reported to have abandoned ship in 2010?

As for northern Europe, it has withstood the financial crisis relatively well so far, and immigration rather than emigration remains firmly the issue. But there too a creeping concern about national decline is making people worry about brain drain.

In 2005, when Germany experienced net emigration for the first time in 40 years, the widespread soul-searching showed up national sensitivities. Denmark, France and the Netherlands have all seen a net loss of managers and scientists to other EU members. Woe betide the mobile elites when the economic crisis really hits.

The point, then, is this: much migration these days tends to be ‘circular’ and beneficial to all concerned; fears about mass emigration and brain drain are usually overblown. Yet, this will not prevent emigration emerging as a political cleavage, potentially as divisive as other emergent economic, generational and environmental cleavages which are essentially territorial in nature.

The EU, with its sudden clap-happy enthusiasm for mobility, has picked a deeply controversial issue upon which to base its relations with its citizens and the world beyond.

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EU counterterrorism policy: a case of casino technocracy

After years of self-denial, EU policymakers are outing themselves as technocrats. From now on decisions will be scientific and evidence-based. The years of European vanity projects, dogma and ideology are over.

Even our parliamentarians have given the idea of technocracy an enthusiastic I Like This. In a resolution on Wednesday, for example, the European Parliament called for an evidence-based assessment of the EU’s counterterrorist policies.

It all goes to show how much we want to believe that European decision-making is a logical and linear process – a process in which law-makers identify the problems that require EU-wide treatment, adopt the right solution and then tweak it in the unlikely eventuality that it does not work properly.

The trouble is that EU decision-making has its own very particular logic, and it doesn’t quite match the ideal.

Political players in Brussels usually start by drawing up a solution. Then they look for a problem to justify it. Then they try to identify a European dimension to that problem in order to justify action at the EU level.

Imagine a Las Vegas casino full of gamblers playing on fruit machines, and that is pretty much how law-making in Brussels works. The political players spend their time trying to line up their preferred solution with a favourable problem and political level.

Science and evidence do not prevent this kind of abuse; they only disguise it. After all, “objective evidence” can be found for just about anything, especially when the preferred answer is clear.

European counterterrorism policies such as the 2006 data-retention directive throw up many examples of this kind of casino technocracy.

In 2005 interior ministries cited the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London as evidence of the problem of unmonitored telecommunications traffic. They called for the EU to create an obligation for communications firms to store data on customers and to pass these data to security authorities if requested.

The need to act at an EU-level was clear, they said. Not only did the fight against terrorism require cross-border cooperation; any new rules on data retention would create costs for firms, potentially leading to a distortion of the EU’s internal market if adopted on an individual national basis.

Today, the arbitrariness of the directive is clear. For one thing, the directive is still a solution in search of a problem. The legislation does not actually set out the reasons for which the data are stored, and every member state uses the data for different purposes. In hindsight, the fight against terrorism does not seem to have been much of a priority for negotiators.

For another thing, the rationale for adopting an EU measure has proved rather hollow. The directive has actually distorted the internal market. Law-makers never clarified whether telecommunications firms should be compensated for storing data. As a result some firms are; others aren’t. Moreover, with less than 1% of successful data requests cross-national, it seems the directive was not tailored to cross-border cooperation either.

That doesn’t mean that telecommunications data might not play a useful role in combating terrorism, let alone that an EU-wide measure makes no sense. It merely suggests that policymakers had different priorities when drawing up the directive.

Whisper it: many interior ministries had been calling for more generous national powers to fight crime, but had found their plans blocked by courts, justice ministries and NGOs. These domestic opponents were not present in Brussels, so why not try for an EU measure?

Here, then, comes the €375,245-question: would an “evidence-based evaluation” of the directive at least help adapt this measure to its proper purposes?

We are about to find out. Earlier this year, the Commission reviewed the directive and will shortly present a proposal for its reform

The signs are not good though. Interior ministries have already signalled that they have little appetite to reopen the dossier. They suspect that the European Parliament has already decided what kind of reform it would like and is simply picking out the evidence to support its agenda.

The political window which made agreement on the directive possible has closed, and there will probably be little movement on the issue. This time there’ll be no luck with the fruit machine.

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