Forming a choir: making music with refugees in Athens

We no longer need English or French, because they are not our languages. We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.
The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

“When I make music, I forget everything, the dark thoughts go away,” says Ahmed.

It’s the December 11, 2017, and I am in the heart of Exarchia, an anarchist neighbourhood in Athens.

I’m staying at at the Orange House (“Zaatar”), an accommodation and cultural centre for refugees. At the moment I am running around Athens, struggling to find a guitar, and I’m becoming increasingly impatient. Tomorrow morning, I’m making music with the refugees.

My friend Marina, the Franco-Greek founder of The Orange House is currently on leave, hence I’m here to supervise the house.

The next day is a riotous affair. Twenty children, teenagers, adults and even old people show up. We don’t have enough instruments, but I expected this: the two guitars will go to the guitarists, and the others will sing. Those who can’t sing? They can keep the beat going.

Obviously, nothing goes as planned. When I ask an Afghan woman to sing the classical C-major scale, she sings the harmonic minor scale: the oriental scale. I audition the others, but she is the only one who can really sing. My dreams of a harmonious choir are short lived.

I improvise: the rhythm, that’s what we’ll focus on. But I can’t help lose hope – very few have a sense of rhythm, and those who do can’t help but speed up to a furious pace.

The first classes are tough. My choir keeps getting distracted, and after five minutes, they lose track. They get up, talk on the phone, and walk around the improvised classroom – all with good reason.

Ahmed has had nowhere to sleep for more than two weeks, and spends his nights in Victoria Square, the home of many refugees in Athens. As a 17-year-old Pakistani, his status as a “single man” does him no favours. No NGO can find him accommodation.

Fahed, a 19-year-old Syrian, is obsessed with Calais and England. He is desperate to join up with the English woman he married in a camp in Gaziantep during his journal, but his marriage is not recognised by the British government. To make matters worse, France has recently closed its relocation programme, deeming it to have fulfilled its goals.

Anousha is Iranian. She is 50 years old. Forced to marry a violent husband at the age of 15, she has born the brunt of insults, punches and humiliation that have marked her forever, decimating any self-confidence she might have had. Every five minutes she tells me she’ll never make it, that she’s not good at anything.

Anja, a 15-year-old Afghan girl, is extremely enthusiastic, despite not remembering anything I tell her.

Olivier never smiles. The 21-year-old from the Congo is always sad, and is not motivated enough to participate in the class. Despite that, he keeps coming back.

All of my students arrive looking tense. They are haunted by their past traumas: they mourn for their former countries and way of life, often succumbing to nostalgia. This feeling is compounded by the more concrete problems of finding accommodation, staving off inactivity, learning the new language and dealing with a painstakingly slow bureaucracy. Yet when smiles are drawn, the tenseness fades – we even laugh for a moment.

At the end of class, they leave whistling, and thank me: “the music is magic, it’s really good”.

“See you tomorrow, huh?” they insist. And the next day, they are there, at the ready – they even arrive early to make sure not to miss a session. Eventually the choir gets to know one another. I discover that some take a two-hour bus not to miss the six o’clock guitar lesson. The kids love to come and listen. I invite them to join in by clapping rhythm with their hands, but they opt for cooking utensils and standing on the tables. They’re not always in rhythm, but they laugh!

Olivier teaches Congolese rumba to Hassan, who spent a year in prison. Fahed starts again on a famous old American tune.

Anousha and Anja ask me to play the chords of a well-known Persian song by Salar Aghili – they sing it together.

We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.

We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from. They look at each other and the music takes shape, and the melodies blossom with rhythm. Bonds are formed, and I see real smiles.

Fahed insists that I teach him to play “happy birthday”. I don’t like the melody, but I try anyway. He doesn’t quite get it and I lose patience, so he films me playing it with his phone. He tells me he would have liked to play it himself – it’s a gift for his wife in England from Athens.

I’m embarrassed, what does it matter if “happy birthday” is not my favourite song, I could have made an effort.

Ironically this is what I am thanked for. By not treating them as if they were made of glass, as victims, but for seeing them as equals. By forgetting, for a moment, their status “refugee” – this word that sticks to their skin, and is so hard to remove.

~

Emmanuelle Stein

Guy Verhofstadt Exclusive Interview: ‘The European Union is not responsible for Brexit’

We spoke to Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit representative, to discuss Brexit, citizens’ rights and Phase Two of negotiations.

What’s the EP’s agenda regarding citizens’ rights in the second phase of the negotiations?

‘There are many outstanding issues that the European Parliament will continue to clarify, from the administrative procedures that will apply for EU citizens in the UK, to the free movement rights of UK citizens in the EU. We need the initial agreement on citizens’ rights to now be put into a legally cast iron treaty and presented for review by MEPs. We will insist that the implementation date of the withdrawal treaty starts at the end of any transition period requested by the British Government. Both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU need clarity as soon as possible and we are committed to ensuring the minimum disruption to people’s lives.

Is the coming negotiation on citizens’ rights going to be limited to the EU residents in the UK settled before Brexit or will it be extended to those applying for residency after Brexit? Same question about the British residents in the EU.

‘A number of outstanding issues remain for both groups of citizens, from free movement for UK citizens in the EU, to the governance of the rights of EU nationals in the UK.

Do you still support a version of the proposal for Associate Citizenship for UK citizens? What would this entail?

‘I will continue to push for recognition that millions of UK citizens are having their European rights taken away from them against their will. Europe should recognise this, in my opinion.’

Recent YouGov polls suggest a growing number of Brits have ‘buyers remorse’ about Brexit. What do you make of this? Do you think Brexit will actually happen?

‘The British Government, on behalf of the British people, has submitted its intentions to leave the European Union and of course we have to implement this, but we do not do so with glee. The British people must take responsibility for their own destiny.’

If Britain changed its mind, how likely would it be that the EU27 would rescind article 50 and welcome them back?     

‘President Juncker, Tusk and Macron have all said the door remains open, but this would require the agreement of all EU member states and the European Parliament.’

Some say the EU cannot officially negotiate with the UK on a trade deal as long as they are a member state. Britain would need to first revert to third country status under Article 218. Do you foresee any problems there?

‘The ongoing Brexit talks will aim to secure a political declaration outlining a possible future framework for trade negotiations, once Britain becomes a third country after “Brexit day”.’

Does anyone in Brussels regret Jean-Claude Juncker not giving concessions to David Cameron before he called the referendum?

‘The European Union offered David Cameron unprecedented concessions, including an opt-out of “ever closer union”. In the end, the renegotiation hardly featured in the referendum debate.’

What has the EU done to remedy the underlying issues that partly led to Brexit?

‘The European Union is not responsible for Brexit. Support for the European project has increased profoundly since the referendum. However, I agree the European Union needs to reform if it is to survive; fixing the eurozone, doing less but better, building a real defence union so people feel safe, securing Europe’s external borders and delivering fairer globalisation are our priorities. Too many communities have been “left behind”, but the reasons for this are complex, multi-faceted and in most cases the result of a lack of investment by national governments.’

Beyond the gates of Rome: why you should care about the Italian election

March 4th is coming. If this otherwise innocuous date doesn’t sound troubling to you, think again.


On that bright day of early spring, more than 51.000.000 Italians will be called to the urns to cast a vote that will determine the country’s political equilibrium for the next five years. And the consequence of their choice will certainly not stop at the Alps.

The election at a glance

The latest polls have seen the centre-right coalition leading with 36% of the vote. This numerous group is a melting pot of various parties, which includes Berlusconi’s apparently immortal Forza Italia (FI), Matteo Salvini’s freshly-repackaged Lega Nord (LN), the conservatives of Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Christian-democratic Noi con l’Italia (NCL).

In second place with 28% of the projected vote is the centre-left governing party, Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD), which features a number of smaller parties, ranging from greens to socialists and Emma Bonino’s brand new, pro-EU “+ Europa”.

In third place is the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), which now counts 88 MPs in the Italian lower chamber and 35 representatives in the Senate, and is currently projected to gain 27% of the vote.

Liberi e Uguali, freshly created by two prominent ex-members of the Democratic Party, currently stands at 6%.

The remaining 9% is contended by a number of predominantly extremist parties – including the growing neo-fascist movement Casa Pound, which derives its name from the poet Ezra Pound, paying tribute to his Cantons, in which the American poet harshly criticises both capitalism and Marxism.

So what does this all mean for the European Union?

While just 34% of Italians believe their country should leave the European union, up to 57% would support holding a national referendum on Italy’s membership.

Italy has been strongly tied to the EU since its foundation, and remains the third biggest economy of the eurozone, despite ongoing economic difficulties and slow growth.

On the other hand, discontent around the EU’s insufficient help with an unprecedented migration wave, coupled with ceaseless economic insecurity have taken a toll on Italian’s positions towards the Union.

In its post-Brexit report on member countries’ disposition towards the EU, Pew Research Center showed that, while just 34% of Italians believe their country should leave the European union, up to 57% would support holding a national referendum on Italy’s membership.

The prospect of an “Italeave” is unlikely, but where do the main parties that are fighting for a slice of sweet Parliamentary cake stand on Europe?  

A confused right-wing bloc

If the big FI-LN-FdI-NCL team might make sense on paper, it would be an understatement to say that the parties’ programs tend to clash in practise. And they definitely need to come up with a catchier name.

It’s no secret that the new Italian President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani – who has held increasingly prestigious positions in Brussels and Strasbourg in the past 10 years– has been a prominent member of Berlusconi’s party since its early years. But even though Berlusconi once threatened to exit the Eurozone, he never actually considered a divorce between Rome and Brussels, instead pointing out that diplomacy and moderation is the only way to have your voice heard within the rooms of the European institutions.

That’s more the case now than ever. Berlusconi, who ruled Italy for 20 years and actually served as European MP between 1999 and 2001, is working hard to rebrand himself as a moderate, centrist alternative to the populist M5S.

For Forza Italia, therefore, leaving the EU – or even the Eurozone – is out of the question. At most, an FI-lead government would work to safeguard Italian interests on a European level, fighting for less constraints on Italian businesses and “passing from the Europe of bureaucrats to the Europe of the peoples.

Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord (LN), on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Salvini has attempted to broaden his appeal by toning down his anti-European rhetoric.

Since becoming party leader in 2013, Salvini has worked hard to align himself to other right-wing European parties in harshly critiquing the European Union’s every step, in any possible field, and promising multiple times to do the best he could to get the country out of the Eurozone, if not of the Union entirely.

However, since allying with Berlusconi, LN has toned down its more Eurosceptic edges. That the majority of Salvini’s support base remains anti-European is not lost on him, but with the elections looming he has attempted to broaden his appeal by toning down his anti-European rhetoric, even publicly stating that returning to the previous currency is not a viable option.

A recent article published about Berlusconi’s recent visit to Brussels on Italian national newspaper Repubblica casts a dark shadow on the agreement. While LN explicitly aims to renegotiate the infamous deficit-to-GDP ratio of 3% (which hinders public investment), Repubblica stated that Berlusconi, visiting several European institutions,  assured that his government would respect the 3% limit.

The article also implies that Berlusconi might have struck a deal with the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, promising that – were his coalition to win – both Lega Nord and Movimento Cinque Stelle would not be awarded any relevant position in the future government. Salvini immediately called it fake news.

Fratelli d’Italia, led by self-proclaimed patriot Giorgia Meloni, is less extreme but still highly critical of the European project. “We believe in a Europe that works for its people, not for oligarchies and finance,” reads their program, which alludes to the scarce democracy behind European law and excessive German influence. Noi con l’Italia programme regarding the future of Italy’s role in the EU mostly mirrors that of Forza Italia.

The left asks for more Europe

Five gruelling years in power and three different prime ministers later, the Italian Democratic Party (PD) is probably going to be punished at the polls for its unbroken Europeism and for its consistent trust in the European system. Although the past 5 years have seen an improvement in the country’s economy and employment, many feel they have not benefited from such betterment and the refugee issue has slowly polarized the country’s public opinion.

PD knows this, and its answer is…more Europe. More Europe when it comes to the issue of immigration, as Italy is incapable of controlling its southern sea, fighting human trafficking and improving the reception and welcome system on its own. More Europe and more involvement in Africa as a strategic and long-term foreign policy focus. More Europe for a greater dialogue between institutions to develop a political project that sometimes seems to have been forgotten in favour of a merely financial one.

“More Europe” is actually the name of one of the parties in Renzi’s bloc. Both economically and socially liberal, it was created by Emma Bonino – best known as the leader of the Italian Radicals and former Minister of Foreign Affairs – to channel the voices of those who believe it’s time for the United States of Europe.

Its programme includes the creation of a European border police and a European army, as well as the direct election of the president of the European Commission. Some accuse Bonino’s party of bending too much to the EU, particularly because of its promises to continue austerity measures. Although an official government pact with the Democratic Party hasn’t been announced yet, Bonino herself called it “a civic duty” to fight together against the populist and racist front.

Movimento Cinque Stelle feeds on chaos

Debuting on the political scene in 2009, the self-proclaimed “rabid populist” Movimento Cinque Stelle – the lovechild of comedian Beppe Grillo and web businessman Gianroberto Casaleggio’s – has never been able, or willing, to formulate a coherent stance on foreign policy issues.

Between confusing appeals to an Italian referendum on EU membership to embarrassing videos on the necessity of leaving the Eurozone and last-minute denials, the movement just can’t keep a clear head on the matter.

Comedian turned politician Beppe Grillo

The fact that in 2014 M5S formed a parliamentary group alongside Ukip – the two parties share 27.1% of their political ideas, according to VoteWatch Europe – points to the fact that Grillo’s movement, that has now been handed down to young leader Luigi di Maio, is far from being pro-European.

Instead, its program calls for a retreat from the 2012 Fiscal Compact pact (and the aforementioned 3% rule), a referendum on the euro, and a warmer approach to Vladimir Putin – with the stated aim of lifting the sanctions on Russia.

Second in the polls even if running alone, Movimento 5 Stelle is beloved by its supporters for its strong and often controversial opinions. In the run-up to March 4th, its candidates have voiced several critical views of the EU, especially on the dangers of “EU anti-Russian propaganda” and the possibility of Italy soon becoming “Europe’s refugee camp”. On the possibility of a common defence policy, they warned against  such a project becoming “an instrument for military operations that only pursue the interests of some member states”.

The Italian menace

Since the Brexit referendum, national elections in major EU states have felt like a game of Russian roulette with the future of the Union. This time in Italy, it feels like the stakes are higher than ever. With a minority government in Spain struggling with the Catalan crisis, a fractious and uncertain coalition in Germany, and a new Austrian chancellor tempting the German minority in the Italian Sudtirol, it’s easy to see how different parliamentary majorities would transform the way in which the Italian government collaborates and communicates with the EU – and vice-versa.

Whatever the outcome of this election, growing Eurosceptic parties like Lega Nord and Movimento 5 Stelle are highly likely to play a more prominent role in the Italian parliament.

As is always the case with Italian elections, it feels like the right moment to dig out Dante’s good old VI canto, from the Purgatorio:

Ah, abject Italy, you inn of sorrows,

you ship without a helmsman in harsh seas,

no queen of provinces but of brothels!

~

By Viola Serena Stefanello

The case for ‘Lexit’

It is not just the populist right who clash ideologically with the European Union.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

In 2013, a senior Conservative politician was overheard referring to Eurosceptic activists as “swivel-eyed loons.” Intended as a disparaging remark, some traditionalists wore the label proudly. Michael Fabricant, the party’s former vice-chairman, uploaded a picture of the late bulbous-eyed comedian, Marty Feldman, as his Twitter avatar.

The comments came after 116 Tory MPs defied the ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron, by voting for an amendment to protest his lack commitment to a referendum on EU membership before 2015. Those on the right of the Conservative party were appalled by the delay.

Hard Brexiteers continue to be stereotyped as demented, frothy-mouthed, “swivel-eyed” monsters. Earlier this month, the Telegraph reported that climate change minister, Claire Perry, had used the term in a group WhatsApp conversation with other Tory MPs.

But often overlooked is euroscepticism on the left – with Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn providing an obvious starting point.

Corbyn voted to leave the EEC in the 1975 referendum and has railed against European institutions consistently since becoming an MP in 1983. In parliament, he voted against the 1993 Maastricht Treaty and the 2008 Lisbon Treaty.

During the run-up to the 2016 referendum, the Labour leader was lukewarm in his support of remain. In one chat-show appearance, Corbyn claimed to be “seven out of ten” on the EU, and was conspicuously absent throughout the Brexit campaigning period.

Corbyn is not isolated amongst left-wing intellectuals over the question of the Europe. The New Left Review, one of the most influential political science journals in the world, had been hankering for ‘Lexit’, a handy – if a little ungainly – neologism of ‘left wing’ and ‘Brexit’, for some time.

The journal’s former editor, Perry Anderson, argued that the EU was an authoritarian and neoliberal project, bent on “enforcing a bitter economic regime of privilege for the few and duress for the many.”

A right wing institution?

At the core of the European project is dogmatic commitment to the free-market. Since the 1970s, European markets have becoming increasingly integrated. The creation of a single currency, Masastricht and Lisbon Treaties, the Stability and Growth pact have driven this trend. Directives at the European Central Bank and the European Commission have now all but banned the Keynesian economic model – the very bedrock of social democracy.

With increased integration comes increased competition. EU states are now forced to compete for investment from multinationals more than ever before. In order to gain a competitive edge, states are forced to lower corporation tax, cut labour costs, weaken unions and compromise on environmental and social regulations. The result is spiralling inequality.

Some intellectual voices on the left, including Alan Johnson, have also argued that the failure of the EU to work democratically, in the interests of the majority, has created a “breeding ground for the far right.” In the US, many analysts have attributed the election of Donald Trump to anger at the unequal impact of globalization in some disaffected caucuses. The unequal spread of Economic integration benefits is perhaps a source of discontent here too.

Despite his long held opposition to the EU, Jeremy Corbyn is expected to announce a major policy shift next month. He is reported to be holding a meeting in early February with Labour bigwigs, in which he will discuss the prospect of remaining part of some sort of customs union.

For Corbyn this would draw clear battle lines to fight a Conservative party, currently floundering in chaos. It would appease pro-Europe sections of the Labour party. But such a policy shift would also represent a sacrifice of values for the Labour leader and some of his comrades.

~

By Sam Bradpiece

5 things to expect from the second phase of Brexit negotiations

Brexit negotiations are due to move onto ‘Phase 2’ in the next few weeks, after EU leaders finally signed off on a painful first round on the 15th December 2017. Here are five things we expect to see in the second round: 

*Ding ding ding.*

Obfuscation

“They say it takes two to tango,’ said British Chancellor Philip Hammond to the BBC in January. “Both sides need to be clear about what they want.”

Which is exactly what the other side is asking for (clarity, not doing the tango with Phil). “The first big step is for the U.K. to say very clearly what it wants in clear terms,” stated Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the EU summit in December. A sentiment echoed by Michel Barnier: “There must be a precise negotiating position of the U.K. government.”

Unfortunately, neither side is dancing in reality. During Phase One, the EU repeatedly told the U.K. to clarify its position on citizens’ rights, the divorce bill and the Northern Irish border. The bloc remained united, and eventually the U.K. yielded, agreeing to a bill of up to €39 billion, a fairly weak citizens’ rights agreement, and a seamless and frictionless” Irish border.

Now that those issues have (at least partly) been put to bed, the real misunderstandings can begin. The first round, as difficult as it was, was at least centred around three tangible issues. The second-round focuses on a much vaguer outcome: the framework of the future relationship.

All these factors are going to make Phase Two extremely difficult. In comparison, Phase One will look like negotiating the sale of a second-hand Volkswagen, or a timeshare in Skiathos.

Already disagreements have emerged over the wording: the EU wishes to focus on the ‘framework’ whereas the U.K. accentuates the ‘future relationship’.

It’s no secret that Theresa May wants a transition deal to be agreed quickly: uncertainty is bad for business. But Michel Barnier has set a deadline of October 2018 to negotiate a transition deal, which is far later than the U.K.’s preferred deadline of March 2018. This transition deal will require the approval of the European Parliament, which will have its own requirements for the second phase of talks.

Not only will they need to agree on a transitional deal, but also a framework for future EU-U.K. trade. Again, this will require approval from European leaders, who will each have differing opinions on how quickly to advance trade talks.

All these factors are going to make Phase Two extremely difficult. In comparison, Phase One will look like negotiating the sale of second-hand Volkswagen, or a timeshare in Skiathos. How do you negotiate a trade deal with someone you’re already trading with? Until 2019, the U.K. it is still a full member of the EU. Politico reported that a senior EU official stated: “We cannot officially negotiate with the U.K. on a trade deal as long as they are a member state.”

Essentially, the U.K invoked Article 50, and will returned to third-country status under Article 218, whilst trying to agree a deal on trade. Good thing Poland is busy logging away their forests – a lot of paperwork is going to be needed.

A lot of talk about trade

Trade is going to feature heavily in Phase Two, because both sides want to know how much cash is at stake.

Expect disagreements here too. Brussels has repeatedly stated that the trade deal will consist of two options: Norway-style, or a Canada-style. Conversely, the UK wants a tailored deal, which would include “ongoing access to the EU market, the freedom to diverge from the bloc on certain rules, and ongoing cooperation with some EU agencies, such as Europol.”

Talks will need to cover all the main sectors of trade: financial services, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, aerospace, agriculture… These industries are massive and complex, each with their own subset of legalities. To date, businesses have largely been left in the dark, with the various captains of industry becoming increasingly agitated. In a joint statement, leaders of five U.K business groups stated: “the transition period must now be agreed as soon as possible…further delays to discussions on an EU-UK trade deal could have damaging consequences for business investment and trade”.

Two fractured sides of the table

Brexit has created its own political dividing lines, and Left and Right continue to find themselves, perhaps unwittingly, on the same side.

…a far-right coalition in Austria, a leaderless Germany and a recalcitrant Hungary and Poland, one thing is for certain: realpolitik is alive and well in the minds of European leaders.

Resultantly, the UK government – in particular the cabinet – is anything but united. Tango Master/Chancellor Philip Hammond represents a faction fighting for a soft-Brexit, placing him in opposition to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who seems to want to bring back the 18th century swashbuckling Britannia of old. Throw some Tory rebels into the mix and you have yourself a collection of fiefdoms, in disagreement over everything from the length of the transition period to the retention of single market membership.

The disunity isn’t limited to the UK, mind you. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned against the EU 27 acting in their own interests in the next phase: “That’s what the prisoner’s dilemma is all about,’ he said. ‘Everyone can have an interest in negotiation on their own and think they can negotiate better than their neighbour.” These comments were echoed by Donald Tusk, who said he had “no doubt that the real test of our unity will be the second phase of the Brexit talks.”

With Norway threatening to rip up their current deal with the EU, a crisis in Catalonia, an election looming in Italy, a far-right coalition in Austria, a leaderless Germany and a recalcitrant Hungary and Poland, one thing is for certain: realpolitik is alive and well in the minds of European leaders.

Come back, wayward son

The European Union will continue to tell the UK it can re-join the club at any point before Brexit happens.  

Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker have both expressed their desire to retain Britain as a member of the EU. The former even said that Britain could reapply for EU membership post-Brexit, which will most likely turn British politics into one, never ending discussion about EU membership. Think M.C Escher.

A new government White Paper depicting the current state of negotiations.

The spectre of citizens’ rights

Lingering issues about citizens’ rights will crop up in the second round of negotiations. Several citizens’ rights groups – such as the 3million and Bremain in Spain – have made their dissatisfaction clear, and will continue to lobby against the loss of freedom of movement. Even small groups of expats have started to take legal action: British citizens living in Holland went to court earlier this year in a bid to retain freedom of movement.

We believe there are still a number of questions about citizens’ rights to which neither the EU Commission or UK parliament have provided a satisfactory answer. Certainly, trade will dominate the discussions, and it is vital that grass-roots movements and individuals maintain the pressure for greater clarity over citizens’ rights.

~

by Max Caskie

EU’s migration policy ‘hypocritical’ says Human Rights Watch

PARIS – Human Rights Watch called the European Union’s migration policy ‘hypocritical’ and raised concerns about France’s anti-terrorism laws on the launch day of its World Report 2018.

The European Commission in Brussels.

At the launch of the 28th edition of the charity’s global report, executive director Kenneth Roth said that by financing and training the Libyan coastguard, the EU was ‘directly or indirectly’ forcing people to stay in ‘hellish conditions.’

It would be wrong to suggest that there was ‘anything approaching a systematic improvement of conditions’ of migrants in Libya, he said.

‘Either they have the right to receive protection in Europe, or they are de facto sent back to their countries of origin,’ said director of advocacy Philippe Dam in a Facebook Live shortly after the press conference, ‘but pretending that training Libyan coast guards to send [migrants] back to Libya is the right thing to do is absolutely wrong.’

Roth said that the EU should ‘by all means’ endeavour to provide migrants with alternative ‘safe and legal avenues’ to Europe, but that authorities must still treat them humanely, using the correct asylum procedures for those arriving in Europe by boat.

In December, France took in a group of 25 migrants – from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia – who were rescued from Libya and flown from Niger to Paris, avoiding the treacherous Mediterranean crossing.

In a press release published on the same day as the report, Benjamin Ward, HRW’s deputy Europe and Central Asia director, said that too often in 2017 the EU had treated human rights as an ‘optional extra.’

The communiqué also said responses to migration and terrorism ‘should reflect’ the institution’s ‘core values.’

Macron must do more

On the day that Emmanuel Macron visited British Prime Minister Theresa May at Sandhurst military academy to discuss, amongst other things, counter-terrorism and migration policy, Roth described the French President’s record on human rights issues as ‘mixed.’

Roth described Macron’s recent diplomatic visit to China as a notable ‘low point,’ saying that he heard ‘barely a peep about human rights’ from the French leader.

Emmanuel Macron pictured with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

He also expressed concerns that France’s anti-terrorism laws, adopted late last year, could lead to ‘discriminatory abuse, particularly against the Muslim population,’ and added that Interior Minister Gérard Collomb ‘continues to be in denial’ about ‘police abuse’ of migrants.

Last year Human Rights Watch published reports documenting and denouncing the police’s ‘excessive force’ when dealing with both adult and child refugees in Calais.

Roth congratulated Macron, however, for firmly opposing such mistreatment on his recent visit to Calais, and praised him for ‘reinforcing rather than running away from democratic values’ during his presidential campaign.

He described Macron’s rejection of the authoritarian populist tendencies adopted by some other European leaders as a ‘turning point’ of 2017.

The bigger picture

In a wide-ranging press conference, Roth described the United States as ‘a wall when it comes to human rights,’ and said that Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi was ‘not the leader the world should look to for guidance’ on how to combat ‘the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.’

Asked about the UK, he said he was ‘concerned’ about the rhetoric of certain Brexiteers, and criticised those who wanted to leave the European Convention on Human Rights for their ‘very short-sighted approach.’

However, the World Report also noted that there were ‘hints’ that European leaders were ‘beginning to recognize’ that the future of the EU ‘depends on a willingness to stand up for human rights’. This was particularly observable in the bloc’s response to the ongoing threats to the rule of law in Poland.  

‘The lesson of the last year,’ said Roth, ‘is that resistance matters.’

~

by Frank Andrews

The Way Back Home: two accounts of life in Germany

Lavenir, a 27 year-old Cameroonian, has chosen a window seat on his flight from Germany to Cameroon. The world is small up here, and the towns, rivers and mountains pass by.

Dschang, Lavenir’s hometown.

Over the phone, Lavenir tells me that he is returning to Cameroon with mixed feelings: “I am happy to see all my friends, to eat my favourite dishes, to be back in my room where I was living throughout my boyhood.”

But there could have been a more joyful reason to take a flight to Central Africa. A couple of days ago his Aunt passed away. When Lavenir heard the news, he booked his flight within minutes, despite the cost. “She had raised me since I was ten years old. I was always close to her. She is also my mother. I could not stay in Germany in that sad moment. I wanted to be with my family back at home.”

Where do you belong when you have two homes? Lavenir has been asking himself this question for years. Since he arrived in the country of roast pork and Oktoberfest, his vow to return to Cameroon one day has never left his mind. “I will leave Germany after my studies,’ he says to himself, “I am sure about it!”

His family are waiting for him at the airport, and they welcome him with a bag full of fresh peanuts. They are curious: how is it, living in Europe?

His short stay in the grass fields of the Western highlands near the border of Nigeria is full of nostalgia. The air is pure, and the rainy season is about to end. Children play football at the end of the street, and young mothers hold their babies as they sell fresh fruit.  

But Lavenir must shortly return to Kaiserslautern, a modest, medium-sized town near the Vosges. “I am also happy to return to Kaiserslautern to have my normal life, my daily routine. Even though I miss my family and the delicious African food – that I still prefer.”

At the end of the week, his flight – via Addis Ababa – carries him back to his home away from home. It’s likely that he will experience the same journey in the coming years. At that point, though, there will be no going back.

Lavenir is one of numerous Africans who leave their country to study in Europe. In Cameroon alone, between one and  two thousand graduates apply each year to Germany, with only a few hundred eventually making the trip.

Germany enjoys a good reputation among young Cameroonians: at a time when millions of refugees are fleeing their homelands to come to Europe, the procedure to get formally accepted as a student  is complicated and selective. Alongside the requirement for a solid grasp of German and a letter of acceptance from a German university, applicants must also have a minimum bank balance of several thousand euros, as well as the contact information of people already living in Germany. In Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, it is not uncommon to wait up to 12 weeks to get an appointment at the German embassy.

“The question is to what extent young African students can give back to their home institutions,” says Dr. Cristina D’Alessandro, a senior fellow at the centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. “Policy investigations showed financial gaps for African countries caused by brain drain. These people leaving for Europe produce financial income but they pay taxes abroad.”  

Government revenue is not all that’s missing. “Professionals lack in certain disciplines like doctors. They are needed in their home countries.” But there are also those who prefer to return to their home countries after their studies, and Lavenir is one of them.

Unlike some of his fellow German students, Lavenir cannot benefit from a scholarship. Whereas other students will be busy partying, Lavenir spends his entire Saturday working in a factory

For now, Lavenir has settled down in Kaiserslautern. “On Mondays, I am doing some research about where I can work next,” he says. “I like to go my lectures at the university. But to be honest – my occasional jobs are even more important”, he says.

In contrast to many Cameroonians, he knows that life can be as challenging in Germany as in his home country. “I never had any too optimistic illusions about how life would be here,” he says.

Unlike some of his fellow German students, Lavenir cannot benefit from a scholarship. Whereas other students will be busy partying, Lavenir spends his entire Saturday working in a factory. The rest of his time he has to study, and so has little time with his friends. Though he never misses an opportunity to attend church on Sunday – a tradition that seems almost anachronistic in a mostly secularised western society.

His friends support him, and they are always ready to listen to his troubles: “It is not that easy to find jobs in this region. The neighbouring towns are small. Sometimes you only get temporary employment. With the money I earn I can’t help my Cameroonian family financially, as I thought in the beginning.”

Karim

Karim looks tired. He’s at a dead end. Unable to work in Germany, he now has no choice but to return to Benin. The 40-year-old has been living in a tiny town in the east of the Germany for almost 15 years, and hasn’t seen his children since he left Benin. His German is poor, and he spends the majority of time at home.

Karim’s asylum claim was rejected on the grounds that Benin has a stable government, and was therefore classified as an economic migrant: “Since 2004 I am living in Germany but I never got my permission to work. So I am just eating and sleeping. I really want to work.”

His children will soon be able to welcome their father back, as once Karim knew his decision to leave would be financed, it was clear there was no alternative.  “They (the German government) give me 2500 euros within the next months as soon as I’ll arrive in Benin. I take the money to start a motor taxi business. I want to help my family.”

In 2015, the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO) calculated that the total cost for the integration of refugees accepted into Germany was around €21 billion.

In Germany, social welfare organizations like Caritas are in charge of providing aid to individuals such as Karim, helping them return to their homeland. There are more than 150 such networks, all mandated by the International Organization of Migration. Though only one in seven returning refugees go to Africa or to the Middle East, while many relocate to Eastern Europe.

In 2016 the German state subsided both the Reintegration and Emigration Programmes for Asylum-Seekers in Germany (REAG) and Government Assisted Repatriation Programme (GARP) with €10 million – a fraction of what is spent by public and private institutions. In 2015, the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO) calculated that the total cost for the integration of refugees accepted into Germany was around €21 billion. In addition, the EU contributes to these programmes via its €3.1 billion Fund for Asylum, Migration and Integration (AMIF).

The way back

Individuals such as Lavenir who have been at least partly educated abroad have a strong chance of finding a job back home. For Dr. Cristina d’Alessandro, this is a reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future of Sub-Saharan Africa: “Cameroon universities are improving decisively; the question is raised how much they are capable to reabsorb the brain drain. But you have a variety of institutions that are more and more internationally competitive. As much as the political situation improves and also the quality of life, I am confident that the brain drain will come back to its country.”

Lavenir will most likely be a part of this group, but the time hasn’t come yet. “Five years after my graduation I would like to return to Cameroon. I think it would be good if I start working here a bit for a few years to acquire experience. But then I want to return. I want to start a project back in my home country.” Upon returning, he will belong to what he calls the “privileged ones”, those Cameroonians who have been fortunate enough to study abroad. In Cameroon, there is a belief that this privilege is followed by a duty to put into practice what you have learnt some thousand miles away.

Which was exactly what two other Cameroonians did after returning home. Morene and Chief Charles Morfaw concluded their studies in Germany in the 1990s, and when they returned home they started a business – the business of education. Their project, ‘Educate the Generation of Tomorrow’ began with a humble primary school, and later a secondary school. The institutions are based in Lavenir’s home town, Dschang, and are famous in the region for producing high-achieving students.  

Lavenir outside the Morfaw family’s house in Dschang.

In Dschang, everyone goes to Church on Sunday. The service can last up to four hours – life is different here.

Back in Germany, Lavenir turns on the television. He could not vote in the recent German elections, but he sensed a change: issues over immigration are causing tension and harsh divides in German society. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) party in Kaiserslautern won ten percent, which worried Lavenir, but not enough for him to return home prematurely.

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by Luis Nicolas Jachmann

Insufficient and ambiguous: The PanEuropean opinion on the citizens’ rights agreement

The Brexit deadlock was finally broken last Friday, when the EU agreed that ‘sufficient progress’ had been made on citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and the divorce settlement. But has the deal on citizens’ rights provided enough clarity to the millions of UK and EU immigrants affected by it?

David Davis and Michel Barnier

EU citizens in the UK

The main takeaway for both sides was that they would keep their current rights: EU citizens who have lawfully lived in the UK for a minimum of five years will be granted ‘settled status.’  The UK government has said this will be a straightforward process and cost no more than a British passport (£72.50). They will retain access to tax credits, universal credit, healthcare, pensions, etc., and can be away from the UK for up to 5 years and still retain this status. Children born in the UK to parents from an EU country will automatically become British citizens. Irish citizens will not have their rights affected by Brexit and will be able to work and travel in the UK without hindrance.

UK citizens in the EU

Likewise, UK nationals that are legally living in one of the 27 member states will be allowed to stay (though some countries will require an application process to secure this). If they have been living in the country for five years they will be entitled to ‘permanent residence’ or the chance to apply for it. Again, they can be away from the host country for 5 years and still retain permanent residence. If they have a pension, it will increase every year just as it would in the UK.

UK nationals will remain eligible for free healthcare in the EU under a continuation of the EHIC scheme, and if working in several European countries, they will maintain the right to work in all of them.

In addition, close family members (spouse/direct ascendants/direct descendants) will be able to join them if their rights are protected under the withdrawal agreement. Children of British nationals are also protected under the withdrawal agreement if the parents are protected or nationals of the host country.

What’s been left out

For those that have no desire to move and meet the requirements for settled status, this agreement is probably satisfactory.

But it is likely that the EU will adopt a constitutive system – meaning that British immigrants will have to apply for a new status (as EU citizens will be expected to do in the UK).

This process is unlikely to be uniform and each country will have slightly different requirements. Individuals will be asked to provide comprehensive documentation to prove they have lived in their respective host country for 5 years, and this may not be easy to find. Besides, bureaucracies can make mistakes, as the UK home office has proved.

Theresa May has made no illusions: the British PM seeks to create a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented people living in Britain illegally. We have already witnessed the consequences of this draconian policy on European citizens who have lived lawfully in the UK for over 15 years.

‘What will happen to EU nationals who move to Britain post-Brexit? Will they require work permits? How is the UK government planning to register 3 million EU nationals before Brexit?’

The fact that the continuation of free movement was not even discussed is a worrying sign. It may well come up during the next phase of negotiations, but there are no guarantees, thus it is imperative we pressure both British and European parliaments to make sure this issue is not sidelined. Freedom of movement is vital, whether we are officially part of the European Union or not. Associative European citizenship must be made available to those who either wish for or need it.

Furthermore, there are a number of grey areas within the agreement: what will happen to EU nationals who move to Britain post-Brexit? Will they require work permits? How is the UK government planning to register 3 million EU nationals before Brexit? After the UK has regained control of its laws, what safeguards are in place to protect EU citizens?

These questions will be an afterthought in the second round of negotiations, which will focus primarily on the future trading relationship between the two parties. Given that the UK and the EU already have differing interpretations of what that relationship should look like, it is unlikely that we will see further clarification on citizens’ rights in the foreseeable future.

Essentially, we feel that European and British nationals have been largely ignored. Though there have been some assurances made by European leaders, it seems citizens’ rights are more of a hindrance to the UK and the EU to negotiating more important aspects of the deal.

 

Interview: Charles Goerens on citizens’ rights and Brexit

The PanEuropean recently interviewed Charles Goerens, an MEP for Luxembourg and proponent of the Associative Citizenship proposal. We asked Mr. Goerens to explain the European Union’s stance on citizens’ rights, as well as why his Associative Citizenship proposal has been postponed.

Luxembourg MEP Charles Goerens

Where are we with Brexit and citizens’ rights?

It must be said that much progress has been made on citizens’ rights. The negotiations started from the British immigration law, and the British Government is now ready to concede a special settled status to EU nationals.

The European Parliament’s (EP) only weapon to fight for citizens’ rights is a means of pressure – namely to threaten with a negative vote on the final text of the withdrawal agreement. On the 8th of November, the Brexit Steering Group (BSG) issued a statement outlining its red lines on the latest UK citizens’ rights proposals.

“Parliament will not accept any weakening of existing rights that EU citizens currently enjoy with respect to family reunification, including both direct descendants and relatives of direct dependence in ascending line”

This week, a resolution supported by five political groups (EPP, S&D, ALDE, Greens and GUE) has been put to the EP’s vote on a plenary session. The resolution discussed the state of play of the negotiations.

However, major issues still need to be addressed to secure equal and fair treatment for EU citizens in the UK after Brexit. Our most important concern is the UK proposals for settled status for EU citizens in the UK, including the administrative procedures as set out in a technical note published by the UK Government on the 7th of November. It is our firm view that acquiring settled status:

  • Must be an automatic process in the form of a simple declaration, not an application which introduces any kind of conditionality (for example a pro-active ‘criminality check’).
  • Must enable families to make one joint declaration, not separate declarations for each individual family member.
  • Must place the burden of proof on the UK authorities to challenge the declaration and this only on a case-by-case basis and in line with EU law.
  • Must be cost-free.
  • Is a system that can only enter into force after any transition period, if requested and agreed, has concluded. Before that, the freedom of movement should apply.
  • On family reunification, Parliament will not accept any weakening of existing rights that EU citizens currently enjoy with respect to family reunification, including both direct descendants and relatives of direct dependence in ascending line.
  • We do not accept that there has to be any status difference between the members of a family born from different relationships or between those born before and those born after Brexit.
  • On the export of benefits, we insist that this cannot be limited to pensions only, but should include all benefits defined in the EU legislation.
  • Last but not least, we insist that UK citizens currently living in the European Union continue to benefit from the freedom of movement after Brexit. These are our red lines.

Will there be a difference of treatment between EU residents in the UK settled before Brexit and those applying for residency after Brexit?

It’s a key question. The status of future EU residents in the UK will be discussed in the second phase of the negotiations, once an agreement on Brexit has been concluded. The current negotiations are exclusively for the benefit of current EU residents in the UK.

Is your proposal on associated citizenship still on the agenda of the EP?

Unfortunately, I had to withdraw my proposal of an associated citizenship, which was fought harshly by those in favour of Brexit as well as by those in favour of strict reciprocity between the UK and the EU in the matter of citizen’s rights. My view as a Luxembourger is that reciprocity is not needed. I can tell you that the associated citizenship remains in the minds and hearts of most of the remainers. We will see in the next phase of the negotiations whether it is appropriate to revive this proposal, possibly on a reciprocal basis.

Opinion: is French about to regain dominance in Europe?

“C’est une tragédie.”  That’s how European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker referred to Brexit in a speech in May.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker.

Tragic or not, there is a silver lining for French speaking politicians like Juncker. “Slowly but surely,” he said, “English is losing importance in Europe.” Although there are currently 24 official languages in the EU, business in Brussels has mainly been conducted in English for more than a decade. To some on the continent, Brexit is an opportunity to change that.

How English usurped French 

From the 17th until the mid-20th century, French was the undisputed lingua franca of Europe. It was spoken by European diplomats and elites all over the world. That changed, however, after the United States successfully lobbied to elevate English to a position of diplomatic equality with French at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. By the time the United Nations was founded in 1945, English had definitively overtaken French as the language of diplomacy.

But the French resistance fought on. President Charles de Gaulle famously vetoed (twice) the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community, saying: “L’Angleterre, ce n’est plus grande chose” (“England is not much anymore”). Even when the UK finally did join the EU in 1973, the language of Shakespeare was reluctantly accepted.

Yet English quickly became the most common language of communication for non French-speaking civil servants. That process accelerated when thousands of Eastern European civil servants joined the ranks in Brussels in 2004, whose shared foreign language was often English. Much to the chagrin of French speaking eurocrats, the scales seemed once and for all tilted against them.

Profiting from another’s loss

Brexit, however, has opened a window of opportunity. After Britain exits the EU in 2019, English will be the official language of just two EU member states — Ireland and Malta. Their combined population constitutes less than 1 percent of the EU’s total population. In a ranking of the EU’s most widely spoken mother tongues, English would drop from its current 2nd place to a lowly 17th, coming in behind Finnish, Bulgarian and Slovak. For the pro-French camp, this is proof of the absurdity of conducting EU affairs in the language of a country that will soon turn its back on the bloc for good.

Regardless, re-establishing French as the EU’s lingua franca is easier said than done. Only the Council of the European Union is able to decide, by unanimity, to add or remove a language from the register of official working languages. Ireland, being a nation of native English speakers, would likely nominate English as an official language (alongside Gaelic) and veto the motion, as would Malta. And even if this legal obstacle were avoided, English will by far remain the most widely spoken foreign language in the European Union. With 95% of students in the EU currently studying English at secondary school, it is the language of the future. This will be true after Brexit, whatever language eurocrats in Brussels speak.

The push for greater use of French is acquiring new momentum. Those keen to banish English from Brussels seem willing to risk slowing down the efficiency of a political institution already marred by red tape. Much like the Brexiteers, the pro-French are motivated by national pride, not pragmatism. It is a rivalry not just between two languages but two world views — on the one hand, the Anglo-Saxon model of market-driven globalisation; on the other, the French instinct to preserve culture and tradition.

Granted, reduced British influence will strengthen France’s position on the continent in many ways, but language is unlikely to be one of them. Judging by the prevalence of English, both in Brussels and beyond, the French are facing an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try.

 

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This guest article was written by Kyrill Hartog. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.