Strexit

Strexit 2018: The British town that wants its own Brexit

The PanEuropean reports from Stratford-upon-Avon, where a breakaway movement wants its own, localised Brexit. Or as they’re calling it, Strexit.

Strexit
A campaign group in a British market town believes that Brexit does not go far enough. Or rather, come close enough. They want to implement Brexit locally, so that the townsfolk can enjoy the advantages in advance of the national negotiations, without being held back by delays or transition periods.

John King and Richard Vos, leaders of the new movement in the West Midlands town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, see no reason why the principles behind Brexit cannot be rolled out immediately to benefit everyone in the town. The group they have founded, dubbed STRIP (Stratford Independence for the People), has expanded from a founding nucleus of 6 to a present total of 28.

“We are hoping the public will not refer to us as strippers, like they call UKIP voters kippers”, says King. “So far this doesn’t seem to have happened; I think people recognise that we have a perfectly serious point to make, which deserves to be respected”.

The aim of the group is to let locals take back control of their own affairs, without interference from bureaucrats in London who do not understand the town’s history and special status.

“Stratford was a great place in Shakespeare’s day, and we want to make it great again”, explains Vos, “but we must cut the red tape that has tied our hands for so long. Give the town back to those who actually live here, not the ones who are just passing through, taking advantage of all our facilities”.

Strexit

Thousands of foreign tourists invade Stratford every year, who STRIP say traipse through Shakespeare’s birthplace, causing damage for which locals must foot the bill, not to mention the traffic congestion and additional road repairs needed. Some group member have suggested building a wall for security, following the example of York and other famous English towns and cities in the past. But King plays the idea down.

“Of course that is not practicable. We will settle for border points on the main roads, where documents can be checked. Anyone not from Warwickshire will be required to pay a small tariff, which will help the town’s finances enormously”.

“People from London will probably require a visa”, adds King.  “It’s not that we don’t like Londoners, but there’s plenty of room for them in the great metropolis”.

So how would Stratford look if the group achieves its aims?

“Shall I compare it to a summer’s day?” quips Sophie West, another founder member. “Seriously, those sunlit uplands the Government talks about would suit Stratford very well. I can’t think of a better place to showcase the new era that the country is looking forward to”.

But the group’s vision does not stop at Stratford-upon-Avon. There are hundreds of towns all over England which could be liberated to realise their true identities, claim the campaigners.

“If we can strike a blow for freedom here, there will be no stopping us,” says an ebullient West. “Strexit will serve as a model for the rest of the country. We’ve started something big and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can go whistle”.

Calais: understanding the ‘post-Jungle’ era

In October 2016, the refugee and migrant camp in Calais previously known as ‘the Jungle’ was destroyed and evacuated by French authorities. Despite being buried under layers of rubble, the Jungle has once again become a hotspot for people wanting to cross to the UK.

French riot police (CRS) look on as a tent burns in Calais, France.

Over the past year, trickles of refugees and migrants – primarily from Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea – have temporarily settled in and around Calais. As of today, there are roughly close to a thousand people in the area, and their situation has significantly worsened since the destruction of the camp.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s changed?

  1. There are now 5 different distribution points for refugees.

Five relatively small clusters of refugee and migrant populations have emerged around Calais, loosely divided by ethnicity. Volunteers have called these sites ‘Old Lidl’, ‘Covoit’, ‘Jungle’, ‘L’hôpital’, ‘Norveige’.  After the demolition of the Jungle, it was easier for migrants to scatter given the constant police evictions breaking them up.

  1. Volunteers now have to provide drinking water.

There used to be several water points for the Jungle’s population of 12,000. These also doubled up as a place to wash. These no longer exist. Volunteers drive around with a water truck, providing water for everyone at the five distribution points.

  1. CRS burn and slash tents on a regular basis.

Officially, no structures of any form are permitted in Calais anymore. This includes tents. The CRS (French riot police) often forcefully evict people if they see any tents pitched. According to Human Rights Watch, police slash and burn tents, rendering them unusable .

A former Calais CRS officer of fifteen years openly discussed the allegations with Help Refugees, stating “I have destroyed many encampments, I have emptied canisters of tear gas to contaminate people’s sleeping bags…I [have] colleagues who set tents on fire so badly that the fire brigade had to be called.”

However, according to Help Refugees, French President Emmanuel Macron is threatening to take charities to court for “defamation” of the police force. Macron attributed the claims of police brutality to the “lies and manipulations” of these charities, according to The Guardian.

  1. Pepper spray, tear gas and excessive violence often interrupt migrants sleeping rough.

This includes children. The idea is to ‘evict’ people by any means and drive them away from Calais. There are countless reports of physical abuse every single day. Talking to the New York Times Michael Bochenek of Human RIghts Watch reported that CRS routinely confiscate and pepper spray donations so they are unusable, as well as disrupting food distributions.

  1. Women are so scared of sexual assault that they no longer sleep in tents.

For many women in the makeshift encampments, going to the toilet at night is too frightening. This is why in Dunkirk – where one of the camps has formed to the east of Calais – volunteers hand out nappies so women  don’t have to leave their beds.

In Calais, there is no such provision. It is actually safer to sleep rough, as very few people have the luxury of sleeping in a tent. According to long-term volunteer Sarah, tents are obvious targets for abuse, and women feel even more vulnerable in them for fear of attracting other migrant men or CRS officers. Sarah estimated that there are only between 5-10 women in Calais. Unlike in Dunkirk – where there is a large Kurdish population of women who have travelled with their families – the women of Calais are alone. They are primarily from Eritrea and Ethiopia – none are from Afghanistan – and usually have male friends from home who will ‘protect’ them, often pretending to be their husbands.

  1. Volunteers can’t distribute tents unless there’s enough for everyone.

Due to constant shortages, there are two effective distribution methods which are used to fairly determine who receives a tent:

1.) Individually according to vulnerability: This involves going to each community asking if people need a tent. This method is difficult to get right, though, according to long-term volunteer Beth*, as “you never really know if someone truly needs one”. For a migrant, a spare tent could be sold for money, or swapped for other valuable provisions.

2.) En masse: This involves a large distribution from a set point at a set time with a van full of tents. But there is never enough for everybody, which causes problems between and within communities that are exacerbated by criminal gangs and smugglers. Recent clashes in Calais leaving 22 in hospital and 2 fighting for their lives is a prime example of this, supposedly instigated by smuggler gangs as suggested by the French Interior Minister. People queue for hours and walk away empty-handed. When this inevitably happens, they are reduced to stealing from other communities, causing violence and an ‘alpha-male’ hierarchy. Volunteers are blamed for withholding tents.

Unpredictable police evictions makes this harder. Tents are sometimes distributed only to be destroyed the next day. Volunteers speak to communities every day, who alert them if there has been an eviction. Stock of tents and sleeping bags are counted for each of the five communities. The Help Refugees/L’Auberge des Migrants warehouse has emergency tents packed in case of an eviction.

…and what hasn’t changed

  1. There is still no government aid.

Not one of the numerous organisations based in Calais during the Jungle period was government funded. Today, most NGOs are gone, leaving few charities such as Help Refugees, Utopia 56, Refugee Community Kitchen and L’Auberge des Migrants as the only aid in Calais. Britain has put £100 million into Channel border security; funding CRS, building a 1km wall to prevent migrants getting close to the motorways and extensive barbed wire and CCTV around the port.

The Jungle Books building functioned as a classroom and library during the Jungle.
  1. Charities are still arguing over the best distribution methods.

As ever, there are ongoing tensions between charities. A number of volunteers from Help Refugees consider Care4Calais’ distribution methods “undignified”; blowing a whistle and handing out donations from the back of a van on a first come first serve basis. Meetings to re-evaluate the effectiveness of these methods and how to adapt to volatile situations are ongoing, new rules and regulations are introduced every day. Volunteers, on call around the clock, are still burnt out.

  1. Donations still aren’t enough

The lack of stock has forced charities to come up with distribution methods aimed at not making people feel undignified. There are ticketing systems, which seems like the fairest option; people don’t have to queue for hours only to be disappointed due to the inevitable lack of stock, instead their name is called and they come up and collect their item. But still, because there isn’t enough, it promotes a hierarchy where the youngest and weakest often end up with nothing unless they have a deal with someone to ‘protect’ them.

      4. There is still no guarantee that vulnerable children will be safe at night.

In the Jungle, ‘Salaam’ was a (relatively) safe place where unaccompanied children could go to sleep at night. It was built to keep vulnerable migrants – primarily women and children – safe at night, doubling up as a place for migrants to shower and receive legal information. However, space was limited, so Salaam tended to prioritise younger, more vulnerable children aged 14 and under.

‘There is temporary accommodation which opens subject to weather conditions, where there is space for 60 kids. There are well over 100 in Calais.’

This meant that unaccompanied minors between the ages of 15 and 18 were sleeping alone. Not only is this still the case, but children even younger are being forced to sleep rough. There is temporary accommodation which opens subject to weather conditions, where there is space for 60 kids. There are well over 100 in Calais.

  1. People are still risking their lives to get across the border.

Five children with a legal right to be in the UK have died attempting to cross the border over the past two years. Since December 2017, two people have been put in intensive care after accidents trying to get to the UK. One, hit by a train, has lost his legs. Three more people have died, including a 15-year-old boy trying to reach his sister in the UK. His 13-year-old friend had to call for an ambulance.

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By Molly Whitmey

A new arrival on the podcast scene: The Europeans

The Europeans is a new arrival on the podcast scene, discussing politics, culture and any given topic in a both entertaining and well-informed manner. The weekly show is hosted by two friends: Katy Lee, a reporter in Paris, and Dominic Kraemer, an opera singer in Amsterdam. After the listener is greeted by catchy remix of the Anthem of Europe, Katy and Dominic take us on a tour of the recent events beyond breaking news and Brexit.

What makes their podcast special is that each feature includes an interview with someone on site: we listen to them converse with a Polish-Canadian journalist on Poland’s new Holocaust law, speak to an in-house IKEA designer on the legacy of the late IKEA founder Kamprad, or ask an Austrian dancing teacher about the Viennese ball season.

Those longing to hear some new voices should be excited for Tuesday, when their next episode will be released!

 

More information about Katy, Dominic and their podcast is available on their website.

 

 

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.

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By Sam Bradpiece

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

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.

 

Interview: Daniel Roeder on the future of Germany and Europe

The Pan European recently caught up with Daniel Roeder, a lawyer by trade and co-founder of the Pulse of Europe (PoE), a grassroots initiative started in Germany that aims to promote the European Union at a local level. From Albania to Sweden, the PoE has held rallies across the continent to speak out in favour of the European project.

Daniel Röder at a rally in Frankfurt, Germany.

As you might have heard, coalition talks to form a new German government have so far been unsuccessful. Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was not able to reach an agreement with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green Party over the refugee crisis and the environment. Daniel told us what the ramifications could be for Germany and Europe.

So, the liberal FDP recently pulled out of coalition talks in Germany. Were you surprised?

Absolutely, what happened was totally unexpected. We still don’t know the exact reasons: progress was made in certain areas, and I haven’t heard anything specific – just very broad, abstract phrases like ‘we were on the wrong path’. It remains to be seen what the real reason was.

What’s next for Merkel?

Well, it’s difficult to guess…there are two options. Either new elections, or she will try a minority government, which is a difficult thing and is probably very unstable. Maybe the Social democrats will change their minds…the situation is new: the parties need to accept their responsibilities, because I don’t think new elections will bring new results.

Which outcome is more likely?

It’s impossible to say right now, but the situation for Merkel is even more difficult than before.

What is the current mood on the ground?

People are shocked and surprised. No one knows why the talks failed – if there had been one topic during negotiations that the Liberals had said, ‘that’s a no-go topic for us and we won’t deal with it,’ it would have been understandable why they walked away. But they had made progress over the last two days – politicians were tweeting that progress had been made, and then the next day it was the opposite.

If a snap election is called, do you think the far-right AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) will gain an even bigger share of the vote?

Possibly. The CDU haven’t managed to form a government, so obviously that could provide potential support to the AfD. Similarly, if a snap election is called, the FDP may lose votes because they are apparently the ones to blame. However, I expect that the outcome would be similar, maybe a little shift here and there, but I doubt any party would gain significantly more votes than they had in September.

AfD voters are quite heterogeneous: they are not one-of-a-kind. There’s a certain percentage of former CDU voters who wanted to show their party that they are dissatisfied with the policies of the last few years, particularly in regards to the refugee crisis…the Christian Democrats haven’t done enough, simply.

This is why I believe that the parties must try and form a government now: they have to deal with the outcome of the elections. It’s a duty, in my opinion.

Do you feel that the parties have an obligation to making this coalition work?

Yes. To a certain extent I can understand the SPD reaction right after the elections, but there are two ways of looking at the results. Voters expressed that the Grand Coalition should not continue, but on the other hand they [the SPD] gained roughly 20% of the vote: they’re the second strongest party in parliament.

‘I think we’ve all underestimated the psychological effect of being in a communist system for over 40 years.’

All parties want to avoid losing voters, I understand that, but there’s something above party interests…a duty to the people, and that goes for any party. It’s a difficult situation for Germany and Europe.

Many of AfD’s voters come from East Germany. Why is that, and how can the government reconnect with those people?

It’s a very difficult question… it’s not only Eastern Germany, it’s a phenomenon that has in different degrees spread all over the country, but the AfD is particularly strong in East Germany. I think we’ve all underestimated the psychological effect of being in a communist system for over 40 years. This is true not only for Eastern Germany but the whole of Eastern Europe.  If you look at Poland or Hungary or other countries where populists and nationalists are regaining power, I think that they are looking for their Polish, Czech, Hungarian, etc. identity. Many countries were elated after the Iron Curtain fell, and they then tried to connect with the European Union, but perhaps it was too fast. I think it was still the right decision, but in a way they are still suffering from that experience…they seem to find an answer in nationalism.

A Pulse of Europe rally in Cologne, Germany.

What can the government in Germany and the EU do?

Well, they must re-engage with people, and listen more carefully to the problems that they are raising. A large part of this is addressing globalisation: people are overwhelmed by it, and a natural reaction is to withdraw to a smaller unit – the village, the neighbourhood, the nation. Germany and the EU need to provide solutions for creating a world in which globalisation doesn’t leave people feeling lost.

Obviously, Germany is not alone, and this ties into a larger movement of populism sweeping across Europe. Can grassroots organisations such as the Pulse of Europe tackle this?

I hope so, yes. When we started off at the end of last year, the mood was quite dark. Everybody thought that there was no real answer to Brexit, to Trump. But we proved that there are thousands of people who believe in a united Europe, in democracy and the rule of law. The problem now is that many people thought ‘job done’ after the French elections. Yet for me it’s now an even more critical situation – we need to create a new future and there needs to be a quick response to Macron’s suggestions.

I’m not saying Germany or other European countries should exclaim, ‘oh great, Macron, we agree to your catalogue of 40 plus topics.’ No!

The only thing he is saying is, ‘let’s have a serious discussion about Europe,’ yet so far there has been no response. That’s part of the problem with the coalition talks in Germany. There needs to be a quick response, otherwise Macron will have an internal problem in a couple of years.

Do you feel Macron is a lone figure in Europe?

Yes, that’s the problem. He has very much linked his personal success with the European project. Macron knows that he has to undergo a lot of social reforms within France, which is a difficult task. Certainly, he needs success within Europe – but obviously that requires assistance.

The Franco-German relationship is often seen as the heart of Europe. What effect do you think Macron has had on this relationship so far?

I think it’s been quite positive. The perception in Germany is also quite positive. But there are also some voices who raise doubts: the traditional German narrative is that we don’t want to pay for France. But that twists the story around…no one is saying we have to pay them, and if we want to improve and protect the European project, we need to invest money.

This narrative doesn’t consider the counterpoint: what would Germany have to pay if the European Union fails?

What’s on the agenda for the Pulse of Europe in 2018?

Many things. We still believe that Brexit can be avoided, but there needs to be some kind of push from the UK.  We would love to interlink with the anti-Brexit movements, but they need to take the first step.

‘We still believe that Brexit can be avoided…’

We are focusing also on Eastern Europe and civilian movements. Macron has said that there should be a civilian participation project in renewing Europe. We’ve made contact with him over that and have asked what exactly is his vision for the project. Maybe we will join in, provided we remain independent.

We also want to help other civilian movements in Eastern Europe to fight for democracy because it’s a serious situation there. I know from our people in Poland and Prague that it is already difficult to assemble demonstrations – freedom of speech is at stake, and that is obviously fundamental for democracy.

Also on the 6th May there will be a Pulse of Europe day in Frankfurt… the City granted us the Paulskirche, which is an honour. We will try to create a huge demonstration for all things Europe, and possibly issue a manifesto.

We will send a message to all European politicians that the European project is moving forward, through the people.

~

Max Caskie

Briefing: what bitcoin means for Europe

One bitcoin would have cost you less than 10 cents in 2008: today you’d have to fork out €5,500.

Bitcoin does not exist as physical currency.

Despite its murky reputation, the online currency bitcoin has a lot of perks. Like gold, its value is unaffected by war or inflation, and your payment information is (supposedly) completely safe. Even central governments can’t stop you from moving it around.

But bitcoin – a popular currency for criminals – is volatile in other ways. Plus, the comparisons to gold only stretch so far: bitcoin doesn’t exist in the physical realm.

So what does it mean for Europe?

Bitcoin (briefly) explained.

The identity of bitcoin’s inventor is a mystery. Known only as Satoshi Nakamoto, this individual (or individuals) launched bitcoin in 2009, only to vanish in 2011, just as the currency was starting to gain attention.

Countless journalists have tried to uncover the identity of Nakamoto, and many individuals have either claimed to be, or been accused of being, the elusive figure.

Alas, the mystery remains unsolved.

There is no confusion about what Nakamoto left behind, however. Bitcoin is attractive for both investors and individuals because transactions do not require a middleman, and its value is universal. But how does it work?

Bitcoin runs on what’s called blockchain technology. This — according to Marketplace — is ‘a database of sorts that allows bitcoin to function without having an authority, like the bank, controlling it. Instead of an accountant tracking your transactions, there’s blockchain, keeping an Excel-like spreadsheet of all the admin.’ Essentially, the blockchain functions as a public ledger that requires its participants to keep track of the system.

Source: Bitcoin.com

The EU stance on bitcoin.

The EU has been slow to respond to cryptocurrencies. This is largely because such currencies were relatively obscure before 2014, and there was little need for legislation.

That said, Brussel  has taken an increasing interest in blockchain over the past 18 months.There’s even a sense of impatience. After a text was leaked ahead of the European Summit last month, the EU Observer reported that European leaders wanted to be on top of ‘emerging trends’ such as blockchain technology, and had asked the European Commission (EC) to ‘put forward a European approach to artificial intelligence by January 2018.’

One such approach was discussed earlier this year, when the European Parliament (EP) voted in favour of establishing a taskforce that would monitor cryptocurrencies. The EP issued a press release stating that the taskforce needed to ‘build up’ expertise in virtual currencies, and potentially propose legislation that would help regulate blockchain.

Notably, the EP said it was important not to take a ‘heavy-handed approach’ to cryptocurrencies, as there are ‘significant opportunities for the consumer and economic development.’ To date, the taskforce has not been assembled.

The EP also commissioned a white paper into blockchain technology in February this year. According to Bruegel, the central analysis was that regulation was needed because the traditional ‘middlemen’ (i.e. banks) were being replaced. These new middlemen required a different set of ‘regulation levers’ to ensure that ‘parties could uphold the law.’

In addition, the report raised four possible options to respond to blockchain challenges, including more transparency from governments and providing (or denying) legitimacy to those using blockchain. But these are only suggestions: ‘for the time being there is little effort to intervene at the European level.’

Surely then, the EU’s meandering response to bitcoin  shows a lack of concern. Bitcoin trading volume currently stands at $748 million per day, with other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum trading at $115 million.

Those might seem like high figures, but as financial journalist Felix Salmon points out, ‘those kind of figures aren’t even a rounding error. The foreign exchange markets see volume of $4 trillion per day.’

It seems that bitcoin has yet to develop into a serious threat to the EU banking sector and authority.

A threat to Europe? The Cyprus case.

However, the crisis in Cyprus in 2013 serves as an illuminating example of bitcoin’s potential power. When the Cypriot government invoked capital controls on people’s savings –  essentially preventing individuals from accessing and moving their money – it demonstrated that central authority still resorts to extreme measures to protect its banks.

Salmon noted at the time that uninsured account holders with either one of Cyprus’s two largest banks stood to lose most of their money, which was a ‘stark reminder of the dangers associated with depositing money in a bank.’

The Cyprus Popular Bank was forced to close in 2013.

The response from a lot of people was to invest in bitcoin, because the government had no way of either confiscating it or preventing people from transporting it out of the country.

With this in mind, the EC is keeping an eye on the trajectory of cryptocurrencies.One of the big challenges is not how fast and how far to regulate,’ said a recent EP press release, ‘but how to correctly monitor this fast evolving technology.’

Then there’s the recommendations agreed after the Global Conference on Countering Money Laundering and Digital Currencies, which range from increasing information pooling between countries to taking action against cryptocurrencies.

The conference concluded that blockchain currencies catered to individuals who wanted to evade the law through anonymous transactions, and as such ‘the existence of such companies should not continue to be tolerated.’

Six of the world’s major banks are teaming up to start issuing their own form of blockchain transactions as of next year.

But there is also a movement to encourage blockchain incorporation into existing systems. Both Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England (BoE), and Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have urged the banking sector to embrace fintech, or financial technology.

Carney said cryptocurrencies were part of a ‘revolution in finance, and Lagarde warned against ‘dismissing virtual currencies,’ saying citizens may well soon prefer them.

The banking sector is listening. Six of the world’s major banks are teaming up to start issuing their own form of blockchain transactions as of next year.

Why bitcoin won’t overtake the Euro anytime soon.

Essentially, the collaboration between these six banks has an inherent stability and authority that unregulated cryptocurrencies do not have.

According to the FT, ‘at the heart of the issue (as always) is who dictates and enforces the rules of the system if and when things go wrong.’ Banks are subject to the authority of the state, but a currency with no affiliation to any nation carries inherent risks.

These became painfully apparent in November this year, when $280 million worth of Ethereum was lost after a user accidentally deleted the code needed to access digital wallets.

Such is the nature of today’s cryptocurrencies: many people use them because they mistrust the state (as in the case of Cyprus), but unwittingly place a huge amount of trust in third parties to look after their coins. The end result can be strikingly similar.

There are two more strong cases for why bitcoin does not pose an immediate threat to the EU. Firstly, the recent Segwit2x controversy proves that cryptocurrencies fall foul of the same ideological schisms as traditional currencies. Segwit2x is core piece of software that bitcoin runs on, and people are disagreeing over how to update it.

Those in favour of Segwit2x argue it will provide more space for transactions, those against say it is an attempt to centralise the currency. Although the argument has been resolved, with Segwit2x supporters promising to postpone their plan, it shows that blockchain currencies suffer from programming arguments that most people would have no knowledge about, undermining faith in them.

Secondly, and more importantly, bitcoin is a bubble. The majority of bitcoin’s investors are buying it simply to sell it later at a higher price. This is known as ‘Greater Fool Theory,’ where buyers have little interest in the commodity itself, and don’t care if it’s overvalued – they know that a bigger fool will buy it from them later on.

Indeed, the moment everyone tries to offload their bitcoins, its price will crash. Because every investor knows this is a possibility, says the Economist, ‘there is every incentive to sell first.’

For European banks and governments, bitcoin and other blockchain currencies are not an immediate threat. The private sector has responded by beginning to develop its own form of cryptocurrencies, and Brussels has concluded that bitcoin warrants investigation and observation, but not legislation.

The biggest threat to bitcoin is the currency itself: its value cannot rise indefinitely. The question is not if the crash will happen, but when.

~

Max Caskie

Paris: 2020 World Cycling Capital? ‘It Won’t Happen.’

Last month, a record-breaking 546 km of gridlocked cars were recorded in the Paris region by the real-time traffic tracking website Sytadin

Paris trails behind other capital cities when it comes to cycling.

And this was supposed to be the ‘Year of the Bike.’

We are now halfway through Anne Hidalgo’s ambitious ‘Bike Plan‘, yet the Paris Mayor’s vision for the capital to become the world’s most cycle-friendly city by 2020 is drastically behind schedule. According to the Bike Plan Observatory, run by cycling charity Paris en Selle, only 5% of the planned infrastructural changes have been made.

‘Paris being number one in 2020? It won’t happen,’ says Clotilde Imbert, head of the French branch of bicycle urbanism specialists Copenhagenize. ‘This year they have tried to build bicycle infrastructure, but not in a coherent way. It needs to be intuitive and comprehensive, with separate cycle tracks. They have to make it more complicated for drivers, and prioritise cyclists.’

Despite Hidalgo’s best efforts, Paris is a lowly 13th in the rankings of cycle-friendly cities, according to Copenhagenize.

Even the changes that have been made, such as the cycle-lane skirting the right side of the Seine that opened on September 30th, have not been well received. Both cyclists and drivers feel the ‘Bike Plan’ has been badly mismanaged.

While Paris en Selle are ‘completely behind’ the Plan, according to spokesperson Simon Labouret, he says that they have been disappointed by the lack of progress: ‘Cyclists still don’t feel safe on the streets of Paris,’ he adds, ‘the infrastructure is wholly deficient.’

The development of the new cycle routes ‘has been sudden, brutal, and anarchic,’ says Yves Carra, spokesperson at the Automobile Club Association. He uses a car, a moped, a kick scooter, public transport, and a bike, he says, ‘but deciding everyone has to go by bike is dictatorial.’

‘Instead of giving you a tap on the shoulder to say, “let’s make some room for the cyclists,” they punch you right in the gut,’ he adds, ‘the ‘autophobia’ is completely uncalled for.’

‘If car drivers complain a lot,’ Ms Imbert says, ‘it’s probably a good sign.’

‘When they see cyclists having a pleasant daily trip along the river they will maybe think about the fact that it’s stupid to be stuck in a car, they may even reconsider cycling as an option.’

France: Mélenchon compares Macron’s government to the Nazi regime

Jean-Luc Mélenchon comes under fire for comparing Macron’s government to the Nazi regime, writes Lauren Joffrin in Libération.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Mélenchon – who is now French President’s main opponent – spoke at a protest march against Emmanuel Macron’s new labour reforms last Saturday. He stated to the audience that ‘it was the streets that beat the Nazis.’

In the face of ensuing criticism, he has since justified his comments as a direct response to Macron’s statement on CNN International: ‘democracy doesn’t take place in the streets.’ Joffrin argues this is an ambiguous phrase: ‘the right to protest… against elected representatives… is a fundamental one. The government can heed this or not, but history shows that… this type of expression has an effect.’

‘The streets’ in French history

Mélenchon is right to remind us that public protest has often contested the arbitrary within politics, or been the first indicator of forthcoming change, says Joffrin.

It was ‘the streets’ that forced the Juppé government of 1995 to back down on proposed reforms, and likewise the Mitterand administration on educational reform in 1984. From the barricades of the Fronde during the 17th century French Civil War to the uprising of the 1848 Revolution, French history is a record of the power of the public voice. Though it is not always the progressive voice, as was clear from the anti-Semitic protests during the Dreyfus Affair, or the far-right anti-parliamentary riot of 1934.

A clumsy comment

Nonetheless, Joffrin considers Mélenchon’s comment somewhat misjudged. It was the allied forces, he asserts, and not the people, that drove back the Nazis. It was not a question of protest by the streets, but of bloody combat in the streets.

Joffrin adds that the march on the Champs-Elysées during the Liberation of Paris had little to do with the insurrection. In what he terms ‘a little extra irony’, the uprising was initiated not by the masses but by the local police. ‘So Mélenchon was more or less right,’ concludes Joffrin, ‘but he will doubtless choose his examples with more care next time.’