Thursday, 24 March 2016

Would an EU Intelligence Service fix weak links like Belgium?

Europeans have lost confidence in the ability of Belgium’s fractured government to deal with jihadists exporting terror to neighboring states.

For reporters trying to cover the Brussels terrorist attacks this week, it has been a frustrating few days. As in any unfolding crisis, incorrect information been quick to spread. But in Belgium, the amount of conflicting information has had a surreal quality. 

Information about whether suspects have been apprehended, or who blew themselves up where, has all depended on which Belgian authority you talk to. And in usual Belgian fashion, the authorities are not communicating with one another. 

Yesterday the Turkish President said his country had arrested one of the suicide bombers last year and deported him, telling the Belgian embassy that he was a foreign terrorist fighter. The Belgian justice minister’s response today? “It’s only normal that a justice minister doesn’t know what happens in embassies. We could not know this.”

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

International targets

The locations of today's bomb blasts in Brussels were more international in nature than in November's Paris attacks. Was that the intention?

Across Belgium, people are extremely shaken up by the gruesome terrorist attacks today which took the lives of at least 34 people. But perhaps none more so than the people in Brussels' expat community.

The two targets in today's attacks are extremely public spaces - an airport departures hall and a metro station. But these two particular spots are ones that are visited over and over by the people working in and around the institutions of the European Union.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The culture of volume

German expectations of respectfulness and order can make dining out a strangely quiet affair. 

I’m back in cold, cold Berlin after being away in Latin America for the winter and, funnily enough, it isn’t the weather that has required the biggest adjustment. It’s the volume. 

Last night I was out to dinner with a friend in Prinzlauerberg, and despite being in a fairly crowded restaurant, it was almost silent. Everyone was whispering. I had to lean in to hear what my German friend was saying. After spending the past weeks in Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil and Argentina, I’ve found the low volume in Germany to produce a ringing in my ears.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Is the EU archaic, or dynamic?

Boris Johnson's description of the EU as an "anachronism" is rich coming from a monarchy with no written constitution.

Wild-maned London mayor Boris Johnson delivered a much-anticipated speech today explaining why he has become the most prominent proponent of the UK leaving the European Union. I suffered through it so you don't have to.

It is striking how similar BoJo's speeches sound to those delivered by Donald Trump across the pond. Demonstrating a willful disregard for the facts (more on that later), BoJo paints a picture of a glorious future - making Britain great again. Things are terrible now because the UK is in the EU, and as soon as it leaves things will be great again. But his explanations as to why they will be better are at best vague, at worst fanciful. When asked today what the risks were of a brexit, BoJo claimed he "honestly can't think of any".

The overall message is that the UK needs to "burst out of the shackles of Brussels" because the EU is "an anachronism", and the UK on its own would by much more dynamic and modern. "This thing's 50 years old," he scoffed, as if that harkened back to the Middle Ages.

It's not the first time I've heard this characterisation in the Brexit debate. UK Education Secretary Michael Gove, another prominent Brexit proponent, said the same in in his statement backing Brexit. "The EU is an institution rooted in the past and is proving incapable of reforming to meet the big technological, demographic and economic challenges of our time," he wrote. "It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and like other institutions which seemed modern then, from tower blocks to telexes, it is now hopelessly out of date...it is an analogue union in a digital age."

Friday, 4 March 2016

Good at the big things, bad at the small things

Eurosceptics are wrong when they say the UK has no influence in the EU, but they are right that Britain is outgunned and outmanoeuvred in Brussels lawmaking. What they don't tell you is that this is self-inflicted impotence.

When the new European Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker took office in 2014, they promised to counteract increasing euroscepticism by being "big on the big things and small on the small things". In other words, no more 'Brussels meddling' in small issues that should be left to national governments. 

Of course, they had a British audience and an upcoming Brexit referendum chiefly in mind. Years of media reports on bendy bananas and 'Anglo-French Friendship ponds' have led to an impression, generally accepted as gospel in the UK, that eurocrats like legislating for legislating's sake. The Commission's 'better regulation' drive is meant to counter this impression, whether or not it's an accurate one.

As I've written before, these UK media outrages over small regulations are not really about the laws themselves, but about who has the right to make them. The regulations being complained about in the British media, when they are actually a real thing (which is maybe 40% of the time), would attract no attention at all if they were made at Westminster.