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Struggling to come to terms with the establishment

republicaTomorrow at re:publica, the annual tech and politics gathering in Berlin, Tobias Schwarz (from Fistful of Euros) and I will talk about 12 years of blogging about European Politics and the EU. Fistful has been around a little longer than my own blog; I’ve been writing here since July 2005.

The biggest thing I’ve ever done – the Atheist Bus Campaign – brought me to re:publica in the first place, in 2009 (pic is from my speech that day). The Atheist Bus Campaign worked because it had edge, and we did it at the peak of Facebook hype. Facebook was booming back then. Meanwhile much of the networking for the early stages of the campaign took place among independent bloggers in the summer of 2008. Bloggers without editorial teams or production budgets still had a role; they do not to the same extent now.

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Why Twitter works better than Facebook for discussions about the EU

timmermans

Following my earlier blog entry about Twitter chats I was confronted by a familiar charge – ah, Frans Timmermans is a Facebook guy. He doesn’t like Twitter. That’s the problem. There are probably some pretty good reasons he likes Facebook, and not Twitter, and I will come to those at the end of the post.

But, sorry Frans, but I don’t “Like” your page on Facebook, and I have some pretty good reasons for that.

The first, and most minor problem, is my issue with the word. To me “Like” implies endorsing something. Follow (on Twitter) does not. I in no way endorse Frans Timmermans. Oh, you’re exaggerating will come the riposte, yet when I “Liked” Guy Verhofstadt in his bid to become Commission President, friends of mine fired back the accusation that I was wrong to Like Verhofstadt as he’s a liberal and I am leftie. What you like on Facebook comes with a social norm attached. If I saw a journalist Liking politicians it would raise a question mark about their impartiality, and there are personal friends of mine who refuse to Like anything political on Facebook because they fear what work colleagues will make of it.

Second, Facebook is useless for thematic discussion. I might have some interest in what Timmermans does on Better Regulation in Brussels, but I also have interest in what a dozen other politicians might have to say about that. Putting it another way, I want to be able to consume content from people and to consume content by theme. Only by Liking the Facebook pages of a dozen politicians could I possibly follow a thematic debate, and even then it would be split up all over Facebook without any coherence. Hashtags on Twitter are what can hold a thematic discussion together – hashtags on Facebook have never proven to be nearly as effective.

Third, Facebook controls what I see, while on Twitter I am to a much greater extent in control of what I see (and my obsessive use of Twitter Lists and filters in Tweetbot helps further). The problem is Facebook’s News Feed, and its algorithm that will only show me – on average – 1 in 20 posts from a politician’s page, and then according to factors Facebook determines rather than ones I determine. That might be handy for information I was not looking for (it throws up significant developments in friends’ lives, for example) but it’s pretty horrid if I am trying to follow a debate.

Those then are the reasons Twitter works better for EU political debate than Facebook does in my view.

Then finally my feeling about why Facebook appeals to Frans Timmermans: because Facebook inspires a kind of fan-like fervent following for this most supremely confident and charming politician, who gives the impression that he is rather a fan of himself (perhaps with good reason). Frans seems to be more about Frans than he is about the issues – you Like Frans because he is Frans and worth following. That feels good for his ego. And that’s a perfect match on Facebook.


Commission Twitter-chats: interactivity-washing

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 14.40.50At 1600 CET today, First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans will do an online chat on Twitter and Facebook* – tag is #AskFrans. Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc will do the same on Monday 27th April at 1400 CET – tag there is #ITS2015chat.

Oooooh, look, little users of social media! Come and ‘chat’ to the Commissioners for an hour! Look at how interactive I am!

So the Commissioners can thereafter resort to form and then broadcast out pictures of them shaking hands with people, or retweet quotes of theirs spoken at events, for the rest of the time.

Put it another way: Twitter chats are convenient interactivity-washing – they demonstrate some engagement, but strictly on the Commissioner’s own terms, and at a time they themselves set. In the case of Bulc and Timmermans it therefore means that @-replying them at any other time is like tweeting into a black hole. Not only is next to impossible to get a reply from either of them, but it is also a perfectly reasonable assumption that none of the everyday tweets written first person in their name are actually written by them. If you doubt it, look for any sort of normal Twitter interaction here from Timmermans or here from Bulc – you won’t find any. Malmström and Georgieva are the exceptions in the Commission, not the rule.

That doesn’t mean these chats are useless – they are better than nothing. But they are far from being the solution for good online communications from Commissioners!

* – yes, I am aware that Timmermans is more of a Facebook fan than a Twitter person, but Twitter is the social network for EU policy discussion, and all Commissioners are present on it.


Beware the UIC Train to Paris – cross border rail for dignitaries only

4166912838_3c94ded9ea_oIn 2009 the United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Copenhagen. The UIC organised a special night train (pictured) for dignitaries to be able to get from Brussels to Copenhagen by rail – the Climate Express. By 2009 regular night trains to Brussels were already history, and in 2014 Deutsche Bahn axed its Copenhagen – Amsterdam / Basel / Prague service. I wrote about the hypocricy of this on my blog here.

So fast forward to 2015, and we are at it again. The latest round of COP (COP21) negotiations is in Paris 30th November – 11th December 2015, and the UIC is at it again – its public relations department is already going into overdrive, with a dedicated website and Twitter account about the train(s) they will run to get people to the conference.

The trains will run to Paris, the hub of SNCF that has abolished the vast majority of its national night trains, and cancelled all of them to Spain and Germany. The country that has such a lousy collaboration with its neighbour railways that its timetables are a mess at Irun-Hendaye and it doesn’t sell tickets at Genève or Ventimiglia even though it runs trains from both. Set this against the wider background of decreasing numbers of international connections across many borders in Europe as I have documented on this blog.

So here’s an idea, journalists and reporters – rather than swallowing this nice PR from UIC, ask why regular passengers do not have access to similar services as the dignitaries do. Ask the dignitaries and politicians what the last time was that they actually travelled on a long distance rail service, and ask what they are doing to save and improve cross border rail in the EU.

Yes, rail is a green way to travel. But organising cross border trains for publicity purposes is no good – it’s green washing!

[Update 20.4.15, 2230] – turns out there’s a Climate Express that’s activist run. That looks a whole lot better!


A letter to the Greek government from a concerned leftie

2800220446_69be093238_bDear Alexis, dear Yanis,

When Syriza emerged as the largest party at the election on 25th January I smiled. That’s the end of New Democracy and PASOK, a time to turn the page, for Greece to be able to make a new start, I thought. I bet a bunch of traditional social democrats in positions of power loathed your success, but I know a fair few folks across Europe who were ready to give you the benefit of the doubt. Appointing Yanis as finance minister seemed a clever move, while his mastery of Twitter, choosing to fly economy, and no-ties dress sense endeared him to many.

You had made the moral case – crushing austerity in Greece had to end. Thousands living without electricity, or needing citizen-run clinics and soup kitchens is unacceptable within the European Union. No-one can dispute this. The targets of your critique – the troika that had imposed swingeing cuts, and previous Greek governments that had allowed these to be borne by the poorest in the society – were understandable. Removing the metal barriers at Syntagma Square, and reinstating government cleaners were neat symbolic decisions at the start.

That you chose the Independent Greeks as your coalition partner raised some eyebrows. Yes, they oppose austerity, but they are close to the orthodox church and their leader Pannos Kammenos seems to be an anti-semite. Why you chose to work with them, rather than The River, seemed odd. That you needed to make a government quickly was understood in Brussels, so you were given the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps this choice was a sign of what was to come? Appointing an all-male cabinet was also not a smart move, not least considering how important gender balance is to your comrades in Spain.

What has happened since – seen from the outside anyway – looks like you are stumbling from one crisis to another. Considering that Syriza was in the lead in the opinion polls from the end of 2013, it should not have been a surprise that you managed to gain power. Yet it looks to the outside like you had scant little plan as to what to do with it once you got it.

Wolfgang Schäuble might be a bitter old man, but public spats with him are not handy, especially when the German press is dead set against you. Threatening to seize German assets in Greece is not helpful. Playing brinkmanship with the submission of reform lists is not going to win you friends. Mixed signals from within Syriza about what your demands are – with contradictory demands communicated – make it hard to know what you actually want. That it took you until the end of March to look like you were interested in dealing with tax evasion looks odd. Yanis might have survived the Stinkefinger episode (the video was faked), but the Paris Match photoshoot was not a good call.

The biggest error of all though has been the incessant talk about World War II reparations from Germany. This is an ‘open wound‘ according to Costas Isychos – yes, because Greece keeps on opening it! Even using civil service time to calculate a sum owed by Germany – a sum that conveniently happens to be just above the amount Greece owes its debtors – is a questionable use of public resources.

The phrase ‘don’t mention the war’ is sometimes said a little sarcastically in Brussels, but there is meaning to it – the European Union has allowed Europe to move on after World War II. Animosities are left to rest, and a spirit of cooperation has largely been fostered. Yes, Germany may have behaved wrongly towards Greece since 2008, but two wrongs do not make a right. To solve Greece’s economic woes while remaining in the Eurozone is going to need Germany on your side; talking about war reparations is going to have precisely the opposite effect.

As if that were not enough, Alexis goes off to meet Vladimir Putin. Yes, Putin might sound more generous than the EU, but his aim is to further split the EU, and he is a despot. One of Syriza’s key arguments is that the democratic will of the Greek people, expressed at the January elections, should be respected – how does it then look to be cosying up with anti-democrat Vladimir?

Both the reparations issue, and visiting Putin, make it look like Greece is externalising its problems. Blame history, and seek help from someone more friendly. The appeal of these routes might be strong, but they are no substitute for getting things right internally in Greece – stamping out corruption and tax evasion, reorientating the budget away to assist the poorest people, reducing Greece’s debt, and allowing the Greek economy to grow (there are some signs of life).

Put this another way, if Greece looks like it is serious about trying to sort its own problems, there might still be the good will within the European Union to assist. Point the finger and blame, or turn to Russia, and reserves of goodwill shall disappear ever quicker.

Hoping you can still make it,

Jon Worth

[UPDATE – 10.4.15, 0900]
It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter that it is not decisively known if the Stinkefinger video was faked or not. This SZ piece gives the case for and against, and The Local summarises it in English. This of course leaves open the question as to whether Jauch should have used the video in the first place… but that’s another issue.


Two very special #EUtweetup dates – 23rd April, Brussels and 29th April, Berlin

EUTweetupsKnollAndor

I am very happy to announce two further dates in the #EUTweetup series. For the next two tweetups we have some special guests!

On Thursday 23rd April, from 1600, in Brussels at Wild Geese (new location – Metro Maalbeek (map)) we will be joined by Jason L Knoll – follow him on Twitter @JasonLKnoll and his blog can be found here. My connection with Jason is one of those extraordinary things that can only happen on Twitter – he is a high school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, with a fascination for European politics, and I have even done a Skype call to his class to explain the European Parliament to them. Yet I have never met him in person – to be put right on 23rd April! Please note: due to Jason’s schedule he will be present from 1600 until approx 1800, and thereafter the tweetup will continue!

On Wednesday 29th April, from 1830, in Berlin Gorki Park (normal location – U8 Rosentaler Platz (map)) we welcome László Andor, former Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion in the Barroso II Commission. You can follow him on Twitter @LaszloAndorEU and his Wikipedia page is here. Andor was one of the most interesting Commissioners to follow on Twitter, known for his forthright comments to journalists, and his views about his country of origin. He is now a Fellow at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

Please note that the precise location of these Tweetups has not yet been confirmed, but put the dates in your diaries folks! I’ll add the venues here as soon as they are confirmed. For these tweetups the format is as it ever is – anyone is welcome, come along for a short while or stay the whole evening, and meet in real life the folks you argue with on Twitter. No need to register, and follow #EUtweetup for the latest information, or tweet that tag if you have questions or can’t find us on the night!


Polish MEPs and their personal job creation schemes – updated for 2015 and the new EP term

In January 2013 I stumbled upon Polish MEPs employing a lot of assistants. One employed 19 people, and two employed 17 each back then. The blog entry about that is here, and it was even covered by Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

Today the issue has been raised once more, as MEPs’ assistants have once more been a hot topic, and I have once more been quoted by Gazeta Wyborcza for the work 2 years ago. The new article even alleges that Kaczynski‘s hairdresser is being employed on the EP payroll.

Anyway, I decided to re-run my experiment from then for the new EP term. The results are actually worse:

  • Total numbers of assistants employed has risen by 60 from 461 to 521
  • Total numbers of local assistants (i.e. in Poland) has risen by 68 from 362 to 430
  • Once more 1 MEP employs 19 assistants (Czesław Adam SIEKIERSKI – EPP) and this time two employ 18 each (Ryszard CZARNECKI – ECR (up from 17 in 2013!) and Kosma ZŁOTOWSKI – ECR)

This is the summary of the results:

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 17.34.54

Numbers of assistants employed in Brussels / Strasbourg has decreased slightly, and the MEPs listed top in 2013 – Ryszard Legutko – has reduced his assistants to just 14 (from 19). The European Conservatives & Reformists Group (containing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS)) has the highest number of assistants per MEP.

The statistics have been compiled simply by going to the biography of each MEP on the European Parliament website, and totalling up the number of assistants listed. All data correct as of 17th March 2015, and entire Excel table, including the names of all the assistants employed, can be found here.

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: you are welcome to quote this piece, but if anything is unclear all you need to do is contact me or tweet me. Better that than assuming things!


The term “economic Schengen” needs to be banished before it gains any traction

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 15.09.29

Henrik Enderlein and Jean Pisani-Ferry started to talk of an “economic Schengen” in the autumn of 2014, and Enderlein and Germany’s economy minister Gabriel were at it again today at a conference in the BMWi in Berlin. This is a really bad idea for four reasons, each of which I will explain.

Communication
Schengen is actually a village in Luxembourg. It happens to be the place where an agreement on abolishment of border controls was signed in 1985. The name stuck. It is part of a trend where towns give their names to things the EU does, because the agreements were struck there (Treaty of Lisbon, Ioannina Compromise etc.) The thing is that the name bears no relationship to what the agreement actually is. So to then apply the term Schengen to something other that a borders issue doubles the absurdity.

Second, when you say Schengen, that either means an area that is damned hard to get into (if you are coming from outside the EU), or a borderless EU system that keeps on being challenged by its own politicians, and even if you believe in it, it does not work properly as I have documented many times on this blog. In short, if you even know what Schengen is, you are rather unlikely to have a positive view of it. A Schengen for the economy hence sounds like a pretty disastrous idea, even before you get to the detail.

This is how Enderlein explains the idea on Twitter:

If you have any idea what that means then you’re brighter than I am. Or you’re the sort of person that likes abstract concepts more than practical policy recommendations.

Legal
The Schengen Agreement was needed outside the EU Treaties in 1985 precisely because there was no way to do what the signatories wanted to do inside the EU Treaties. No legal basis existed. So the signatories started with a separate Treaty that was then eventually integrated within the European Union. This is not the case when it comes to economic policy – as Enderlein and Pisani-Ferry put it, their proposals are to boost economic growth, and to focus on energy and the digital Single Market. Competence to cope with both of these can already be found very easily within the Treaty of Lisbon.

Democracy
Anything concluded outside the EU Treaties will not make use of the EU’s institutions that, despite their many flaws, at least have some sort of functioning representative democracy through the presence of the European Parliament. There is also the Enhanced cooperation procedure in the Treaty of Lisbon that allows initatives among smaller groups of Member States, staying within the EU institutional framework. So anything agreed, Schengen-like, outside the EU Treaties is going to be intergovernmental and hence less accountable.

Policy outcomes
Enderlein and Pisani-Ferry point out that more action is needed on energy and the digital Single Market. Yet there is plenty of work already being done in these two areas – all of Cañete’s work on the EU Energy Union, and all of the work started by Kroes and continued by Ansip and Oettinger on changes to the digital Single Market, to foster cross border digital services, reform copyright and end roaming. Also in both areas the very countries that are supposed to be the motors of the economic Schengen, France and Germany, are actually brakes to progress rather than the courntries pushing for more speedy action. France worries about copyright reform, while Germany is more worried about how much money the state can rake in from Deutsche Telekom than it is about dealing with roaming or net neutrality. Differing views between France and Germany on renewables and nuclear are a further stumbling block. Further, when it comes to wider issues of economic growth, there is a broad consensus at EU level about what changes are needed to labour market law across the EU – that is what the European Semester reports are supposed to examine.

So, to conclude, an “economic Schengen” is a nightmare of communication, it is questionable as to whether it is legally necessary, it is unlikely to be democratic, and the countries that are supposed to back the core policies within it are the ones stalling the progress in the policy areas just now.

Bin this term!


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