my take on

Europe and the World • by Ralf Grabuschnig

Europe’s long forgotten frontier

Georgia likes to portray itself as a modern, western-style country. Reality often does not uphold this image.

How Georgia likes to see itself. The seaside resort of Batumi.

Today I come to you from beautiful Georgia (not the US-state). I want to take that chance to draw this little country into the spotlight but also apart from that, there are quite some good reasons to talk about this place on the edges of Europe a bit.

Earlier this month, Georgia had its parliamentary elections and the question of EU-visa liberalisation for the country’s citizens has entered its final stage in Brussels. But what else is there to say about it?

Georgia: a pro-Western democracy (?)

This would be the optimist’s description of Georgia. And on the surface this mainly holds true. The country is indeed amongst the most pro-Western states in Europe’s surrounding. In fact, in the Caucasus region it is by now the only country seriously on its way towards EU and NATO membership at all, a course backed by all major parties in parliament.

While this is of course still a distant option, the idea has strong backing in Georgia’s population. For a large part, this strong pro-Western leaning is also due to a heavily burdened relationship with Russia. Only eight years ago, Georgia went to war with its powerful neighbour (you can imagine how that went) and, as a result, has now all but lost its two breakaway regions Abkhazia and South-Ossetia.

But how about the “democracy” part of the statement above? I mentioned, Georgia had its parliamentary elections this month so they obviously do have free(ish) and fair(ish) elections. However, after the governing party “Georgian Dream” has won in a landslide with likely around 50% of the vote (there are no final results yet), the opposition was quick to call the election rigged. Also concerning independent media, Freedom House only ranked Georgia as “partly free” recently.

Nonetheless, ever since the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, that ousted then autocratic leader Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia has had a tradition of accepting changes of power and reforms concerning corruption and media plurality are at least underway.

Europe should not give away its chance

All in all, Europe should not give away its chance to embrace this strong pro-EU sentiment on its edges. With Armenia leaning ever more strongly towards Russia, and Turkey moving away from Europe by the day, Georgia is one of the few states in the region still on a Euro-Atlantic course. I have said many times that this soft power to influence countries is the EU’s single most powerful tool. We’d better use it and offer a credible European option.

To be clear, Georgia is still miles away from achieving the democratic, economic and social standards to join the EU. There is widespread corruption and strong homophobic sentiments in the population, to name only a few issues. However, the country is increasingly opening up and EU-Visa liberalisation is an important step in the right direction.

Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood is an unsafe place with an ever more aggressive Russia, an ascending Sultan Erdoğan, not to even mention neighbouring Syria. The EU should embrace every hint of progress it can get. Georgia is a damn good place to start.

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It’s now hard Brexit or no Brexit for Theresa May

Hard Brexit: Nicola Sturgeon answers with a new independence bill for Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon announcing a new independence referendum bill. Picture: SNP (

“Britain’s only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit”. These were the words used by EU-Council President Donald Tusk last week. And most recent developments show that PM Theresa May is now well on her way towards the first alternative. A “hard Brexit” seems increasingly inevitable.

May shifting to the right, or is she?

Last week, Theresa May gave a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, where she for the first time outlined the Brexit process and named March 2017 as a date to trigger Article 50. What she said was not really unexpected, yet it took many by surprise. She confirmed once more that Brexit means Brexit and made clear that immigration is going to be her major concern. Many (in my opinion rightfully) saw that as a choice for a “hard Brexit”. But why are they surprised?

It was clear that immigration was a hugely influential motive in the referendum, which is May’s job to implement, so it is only consequent that she now tackles it. Also – as many people seem to have forgotten – as Home Secretary May already had a record for her tough stance on migration. That such a stance will not prove very reconcilable with the EU’s free movement of people is equally evident.

The largely pro-European Tory MPs will have no choice but to accept this. The conservatives are now the Brexit party – and the hard-Brexit party for that.

Things are heating up for May

After that speech, pressure on the Prime Minister rose almost instantly. Her own backbenchers start to cause her some serious headache, the 168-year (!) low of the British Pound definitely should as well and now, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon re-enters the stage.

At the Scottish National Party’s conference this week, Sturgeon strongly criticised May and her path towards a hard Brexit and announced a new referendum bill for Scottish independence to be held before the UK leaves the EU. The fact that May now did not even include the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Irish) secretaries of state in her “Brexit committee” certainly won’t help to ease this pressure.

Honeymoon is definitely over for Mrs. May.

Some good news for Europhiles (outside Britain…)

While all that sounds pretty nasty, there are some positive things to note here.

  • First of all, May’s approach is consistent. What the PM delivers now is what the people (at least in England and Wales) voted for. Any watered down strategy vis-à-vis the EU would have been construed as her ignoring the “will of the people”. Her current approach leaves no room for doubt.
  • A hard Brexit, and one that is not pushed for by the EU but by Britain itself, might be good news for Europe. Boris Johnson (of all people) already said that Brexit is great for Europe and he might just be right. Such a strong precedent combined with the end of British privilege within the EU might just strengthen the Union in the long run.
  • And finally, a new Scottish independence referendum is a chance for the EU as well. If things continue the way they do and Edinburgh holds and wins a referendum before March 2019, when the UK will leave the EU, things will look very different to their last referendum in 2014 and the EU needs to be prepared to take the opportunity.

A hard Brexit is unpleasant – but there are upsides

No one in their right mind wanted a Brexit, however, there are also chances in all of this. Europe might grow stronger in the long run without British blockade and a Brexit deal could end up being harsh for the UK without being punitive from the EU’s side. A powerful precedent.

Even more importantly, for Scotland, a smooth transition is now conceivable and even realistic.  The EU wasn’t able to give real support to Scotland re-joining the Union in 2014 due to Britain still being a member but that would be quite different this time around.

As I have said before, a 62% approval rating for the EU is rare, even in core member states. To have Scotland in would be a godsend for the EU and send a powerful message. This option must be realistically prepared for.

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Conspiracy theorists in power: the case of Poland

Poland's crazy conspiracy theory about Lech Kaczyński's death

Not quite Lech Kaczyński’s plane but you know: copyright

When I talked about conspiracy theories taking over politics recently, I was mainly discussing right-wing populist parties, catering to conspiracy theorists all over Western Europe. However, there is a whole different level to this phenomenon that I haven’t discussed. In Poland, a conspiracy theorist is basically running the country.

In the article linked to above, I was discussing some popular right-wing theories like the “lying press”, the “system against the people” and so on. While these are generally ill-informed and paranoid fears, the case of Poland and Jarosław Kaczyński is on a completely different scale!

The Smolensk conspiracy

Kaczyński, head of the ruling PiS party and man behind the scenes in Poland, actually believes that the plane crash that killed his twin brother Lech – then President of Poland – was an inside job.

As a reminder, in April 2010, the Polish President’s airplane crash landed in Russian Smolensk, killing all passengers, including Lech Kaczyński. There have been intensive investigations in the months that followed and both Polish and Russian investigators came to conclusion that it was human error that caused the accident. The inexperienced crew tried to land the machine in heavy fog and failed.

There is no serious doubt regarding these results and yet, Jarosław Kaczyński never let go. By now, the crash of Smolensk has become something of a founding myth amongst his party’s supporters. Many of them believe that it was the Polish government – then under Donald Tusk – that orchestrated Lech Kaczyński’s assassination in collaboration with Vladimir Putin. Now that’s what I call batsh** crazy!

Investigations are reopened

After Kaczyński’s candidate Andrzej Duda won last year’s presidential elections, he immediately reopened investigations into the crash. Six years after the event, bodies may now be exhumed to finally “prove” what Kaczyński has been certain about all along. That this must have been an inside job.

This week, Kaczyński further announced that the Polish government will likely not support Donald Tusk in securing a second term as President of the EU Council. He even hinted that the new investigations are likely going to result in a charge against Tusk!

So how is this guy running Poland again?

A scary lot of Kaczyński’s actions can be explained by his believe in this conspiracy theory. But (unfortunately) this is only one facet of the troubled man, Jarosław Kaczyński really is.

To quote Wikipedia here, “he lived with his ailing mother until her hospitalization” and said “his only sleeping partner was Alik, his cat.” He is also a fervent nationalist, to the point that – even though he was serving as Poland’s Prime Minister in 2006/2007 – he has only left the country once in his entire life and that was back in the 1960s!

But the craziest story is probably this: after his brother died, Kaczyński actually tried to hide the fact from his ill mother by printing fake newspapers, stating that Lech was stuck in the US due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano! So how is this guy the most powerful man in Polish politics again?

Conspiracy theories can be powerful

While a lot of this can be attributed to Kaczyński’s questionable mental state, this man also embodies the power of conspiracy theories in today’s world. We have seen how right-wing populist parties and movements like Pegida exploit them everywhere in Europe but in Poland, the whole government is obsessed with one!

How else can you explain that now – six years after the incident – investigations into a plane crash are reopened and a former Prime Minister might be prosecuted and blocked from seeking a second term as EU Council President. Damn it, they might even exhume bodies to prove that!

Facts are increasingly unimportant in politics. We see that with Donald Trump and the failed fact-checking attempts in the US presidential debate, we see it with Brexit, with right-wing parties in Western Europe and we see it – very clearly –  in Poland.

Oh and by the way: if you need some more reasons to dislike Kaczyński, have a look at my open letter from earlier this year!

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Hungary on migration: a response to András Gyürk

Fences against migrants in Hungary. Defended by András Gyürk

Fences against migrants: Hungary’s approach to the refugee crisis for the last year

Today, Hungarians are called to the polls for a controversial referendum on whether the country should accept refugees as part of the (non-functional) EU relocation scheme. Earlier this week, András Gyürk, one of FIDESZ’ MEPs, wrote an op-ed for Politico, defending this referendum and Viktor Orbáns refugee policy in general.

Contrary to what I normally do on this blog, I today want to look at the arguments put forth there and answer Mr. Gyürk on his – mostly nonsensical – article. You can find the original article here.

What did Mr. Gyürk say?

In said article, András Gyürk defends Viktor Orbán’s refugee policy and calls for a new European approach to migration. His proposed “solution” is basically twofold:

  1. Give more autonomy to nation states to decide on migration policy
  2. Install common European migration controls outside of Europe (i.e. the “Australian model”)

In only 700 words, Mr. Gyürk then managed to completely entangle himself in these issues, without giving any reasonable answer to the refugee crisis. Neither on the national, nor the European level.

What are his “solutions”?

Mr. Gyürk calls for more national autonomy regarding migration, saying that member states should be able to decide “who has the right to live in one’s country”. He also strongly criticises last year’s attempts to relocate refugees across Europe for the same reason. Instead, he calls for a way to “process asylum claims outside the EU”.

Now, leaving the question whether that is feasible, legal or moral aside, Mr. Gyürk completely fails to provide an answer on what to do with migrants, once they are accepted in such centres. Will Hungary take its fair share of accepted refugees then? Following Mr. Gyürk’s argumentation, I highly doubt it.

In fact, his case against taking in refugees does not relate to their legal status at all. They follow a very different line: the “will of the people”. Hungary won’t accept any migrants simply because (as Gyürk claims) people are against it. And proving this is the one and only point of today’s referendum.

I can only conclude from this that even if migrants were to be registered outside the EU, Hungary would therefore not be willing to take in any of them. “Budapest is listening to its people” after all.

What about the refugee convention?

According to Mr. Gyürk, Hungary therefore simply cannot accept migrants because people in Hungary are against it and “other European countries should do the same”. His proposed registration centres outside the EU would therefore only serve one purpose: to keep asylum seekers out for a bit longer.

This seems tragically at odds with the 1951 refugee convention, which obliges all EU countries to accept refugees from war torn regions. So Mr. Gyürk’s solution is basically this: keep migrants out until their claim is processed and then send them to Germany or another country that doesn’t violate the refugee convention. Anywhere but Hungary.

Keep your cheap arguments to yourself please

So please, Mr. Gyürk, keep your so-called “solutions” to yourself. Your and Mr. Orbán’s ideas do nothing to solve Europe`s migrant crisis. Simply keeping refugees out of Europe, without even thinking about a solution once their claim is processed, is nothing but cheap propaganda. And so is your referendum.

And please don’t try to justify your populist moves by resorting to the right-wing threat and saying things like that Europe must stop “ignoring the will of citizens” and end “illegal migration before radical parties take the upper hand”.

If anything, experience tells us that it is politicians like you and your party’s leader that are strengthening the radicals by copying their demands. If “there should be no questioning whether Hungary belongs in Europe” – as you say – I truly have to question the state of Europe.

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What happened to the European experience?

Interrail European experience

Interrail – the first real European experience for many

Every now and then, I believe a blog on Europe like this one should go beyond day-to-day politics and also ask itself: what really is Europe? What makes the European concept graspable in everyday life? Where do the promises of Europe – democracy, freedom, prosperity and unity – really come to the fore, if they do at all. In short: what is the European experience?

Needless to say, there have been better times on that front. I have talked about the loss of this European experience before, when parts of Europe started to suspend Schengen almost exactly one year ago, and already back then, I have argued that the real-life experience of crossing borders without noticing them is a fundamental part of the European experience that needs to be protected. That argument still holds today. Borders, however, are still not open.

There is some movement

While I am still hopeful that the reintroduction of Schengen will make people aware once more, how important this great European achievement really is, this hope is growing thinner every day.

However, there is some movement concerning the European experience elsewhere, for example the imminent abolishment mobile roaming costs. From next June on, all roaming fees for Europe wide calls, texts and data were supposed to be abolished – or so we thought until this week.

Instead of doing the European thing and abolishing all roaming costs out of a basic understanding that other EU states should not be perceived as “abroad” by European citizens, the European Commission now gave in to lobbying demands by telecom companies. In their most recent plan, roaming would be abolished but only for travellers, by limiting the number of days of free roaming per year. After a serious media backlash, they started to backpedal and decided to consider other forms of “abuse protection” for the telecom companies.

This is how far we moved from the idea of a truly united Europe. Using your phone free of charge in another EU country is now considered abuse.

The old EU deadlock

Once again, as it is so often the case on the EU level, it was the European Parliament that first fought for the end of roaming. Now, in the implementation phase, it is the Commission that gave in to lobbyists and member states and watered down the proposal.

This is yet another symptom of the misconception national governments, the EU Council and (partly) the Commission repeatedly fall for. They still believe they can regain popular support for the European idea by copying the demands of right-wing parties. They say they want a smaller, but more effective Europe, without realising the inherent contradictions and they believe giving power back to member states will improve the EU’s standing in the eyes of its citizens.

What they don’t understand is that the EU will never be able to regain the peoples’ support if it gives back all responsibility to member states and lets them continue blaming the EU for all mistakes in return. The only way to really regain this support is by making Europe perceptible again – to fill the European experience with life on an everyday basis. Mobile roaming is one such experience but the EU seems incapable of providing a European solution even in this smallest of areas.

There is some hope

One lesson we can take from all this, is that the European Parliament is still the most reliable partner for anyone believing in a strong and united Europe. They were the ones to propose an end to roaming in the first place and they were the ones that protested most loudly, when state after state abolished Schengen last year. In the face of the blindness of so many high representatives in the Commission and Council, the Parliament is now the only credible European force out there.

Just this week in fact, they proved this again when Manfred Weber, an MEP from the parliament’s conservative group and from the Bavarian CSU of all things, proposed giving every European citizen a free interrail pass for their 18th birthday. It’s a small thing, but these are the ideas we really need to talk about, to get Europe back on track and make people experience the advantages of being in this club once again.

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Good times for being a conspiracy theorist

Conspiracy theorist wearing tin foil

Conspiracy theorists rejoice over the Austrian presidential drama

Here we go again. My home country of Austria, a western liberal democracy – I thought – indeed seems unable to hold orderly elections. While my worries about our democratic system dominated at first, the issue by now turned into little more than a bad joke for me. And think about it: the fact that our whole electoral system is breaking down all because of non-sticking glue is pretty hilarious, isn’t it?

So Austria is right now in its sixth month of presidential elections with no end in sight. We had the first round in April and the run-off in May, which was then ruled invalid by the country’s constitutional court and had to be repeated. Now, the new date in October was postponed to December, because the glue on postal votes did not stick. Pure tragicomedy, really.

What is behind these defects?

First of all, this is devastating for Austria’s reputation abroad. Even if Austrian politicians constantly tried to play this down in recent months, I personally cannot think of a single occasion, when a presidential election had to be repeated in any other developed country. So there is really no point playing it down: this is an unparalleled embarrassment! The fact that even the new date did not hold only exacerbates this fact.

While this is all truly embarrassing and – at least for Austrian citizens – also a bit annoying, there is a much more significant problem involved though. The events in Austria just seem to confirm so many of the crazy conspiracy theories out there so neatly.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice

Conspiracy theorists and, more importantly, the right-wing populists that have started to cater their needs all around the world, have long claimed that elections are rigged and that the ordinary people are being deceived by the government. While of course no sane person could claim that the issues in Austria can be attributed to the government – at least not in a deceitful manner – all this clearly strengthens the populists’ argument.

After all, now it is very easy for them to claim they have been right all along. Voting is indeed a fraud, elections are indeed pre-arranged and the media is indeed lying to the people. And even worse than confirming the ill-conceived fears of conspiracy theorists, the populists of the FPÖ can now even claim that it was them to have finally uncovered this scandal and given the power back to the “decent people”. Yeah… great.

This is more than just bad PR

While in reality, the faux-pas around the Austrian presidential elections is of course just that, a faux-pas and a PR-disaster, the state of society in most western countries turns it into something much more significant.

The unfortunate marriage between right-wing populism and conspiracy theorists has opened up the gap between reality and individual perception all around the world.  This has reached the point where large parts of the population actually believe, the whole system – the government, the press and everything – is one big conspiracy and they are the chosen ones, the ones that realise.

Even if this tin foil hat brigade is still just a small part of the right-wing electorate, it does seem increasingly influential. Under these circumstances, the last thing we need is a mistake like that in Austria. It might not be much more than bad PR to us but I’m damn sure future elections will once more show that it is much more to many, many others.

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Political turmoil in the Balkans

Croatia - Balkans elections

Early elections amidst political turmoil in Croatia. Is it going uphill from here?

Ah the Balkans. It has been a while since I last talked about this little part of Europe that is so dear to me. This is rather odd once I think about it, because it really gave me a lot of material recently. As of today, the political systems in not just one, but three Balkan states show serious cracks as they move towards early elections and a highly controversial referendum in the remaining months of this year. Let me take you on a little tour.

Croatian parliamentary re-elections

In case you haven’t heard of it yet, Croatia holds its parliamentary elections today, the country’s second general election in less than a year. Last November’s round proved indecisive, when the national-conservative HDZ party won a majority but couldn’t find a coalition partner. In the end, a technocratic government was formed, with the independent Tihomir Orešković becoming Prime Minister, leading an uneasy coalition of HDZ and the MOST list of independents.

In June, Tomislav Karamarko, the leader of the HDZ, pushed a vote of no confidence against his own government, believing he could form a new majority himself. As this did not happen, he withdrew from the party leadership and the president had to call new elections.

However, today’s elections are unlikely to bring any clear results either. While the left-liberal group around the Social Democrats is predicted to win, they will probably only do so by a tiny margin. Similarly to HDZ last year, the forming of a coalition will be incredibly hard, as MOST is now even less willing to join government than they were last year. A grand coalition on the other hand, would be a first-time experience for Croatia and is highly unlikely.

We might just end up with another technocrat government and/or another round of elections soon, in a deadlock that already now resembles that of Spain quite a bit.

Chaos in Macedonia

Yet, what is going on in Croatia is mild compared to the absolute chaos in Macedonia. There, long-time Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was forced to resign earlier this year after a massive corruption scandal. Tapes of secret meetings released by the opposition brought to light some of the shady practices of his national-conservative government and sparked countrywide protests. After Macedonia’s president later planned to grant amnesty to a number of politicians and officials under investigation for corruption, the protests exploded.

An EU-led dialogue finally brought Gruevski’s resignation and new elections were scheduled for April. These were subsequently postponed to June and now again to December. If they should be held then (which now seems somewhat likely at least), this would still only be a first step towards normalisation in the country. You can read more about the general situation in Macedonia in one of my older blog posts.

Unease in Bosnia

Macedonia, even 25 years after its independence, is therefore still in a highly unstable situation, with widespread corruption, public distrust towards its political class and not to forget, ongoing ethnic tensions putting a heavy burden on the country’s development. While these are major defects in Macedonian democracy, they are pretty much everything ever known in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The country that has been put together in an unstable institutional framework by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, has since then never found a real balance to function on. Bosnia consists of two entities, the largely Muslim and Croatian Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (or “Federacija“) and the largely Serbian Republika Srpska (RS). The latter now seems to be moving towards secession, sending shockwaves around the country and beyond.

The RS’s leader Milorad Dodik has for long threatened with a possible referendum on secession but has this far been held in check by Bosnia’s UN-imposed High Representative. Now, a referendum will be held, though on a – at least on the surface – very different topic. In two weeks, the RS is scheduled to ask its citizens whether to keep on celebrating its national holiday on January 9, the day of the RS’s establishment in 1992. This has been deemed discriminatory against non-Serbs by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court and this open defiance of a binding federal court ruling is widely considered a test-run for an independence campaign, that Dodik has repeatedly called for by 2018.

The Balkans and the European Option

While many of these issues can be explained with the respective countries’ difficult histories, it is important not to forget the EU’s role in all of this. The fact that such widespread turmoil is taking place right now is directly linked to a weakened EU-perspective for these countries, which has long provided an overarching goal for these societies. As a result of the recent European crises and mistakes in earlier enlargements, appetite for accepting new members however grew very thin around Europe. This is felt on the Balkans!

With EU-membership nothing but a distant “maybe”, governments like Gruevski’s have little reason to comply with corruption rules and truly reform their country, Dodik and others are far less contained in their actions, with Bosnia’s EU-future more distant and EU influence in the country weaker than ever and while Croatia’s problems might stem from internal issues, they are nonetheless part of the problem, as Croatian opposition to Serbian EU-membership is a major reason for the EU’s weakening soft power in the region.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the prospect of EU-accession is Europe’s only trump card when dealing with the Balkans and other Eastern neighbours. We are fools to throw it away and we already start to feel the consequences.

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The EU’s problem with corporate taxes


The economy is boring. Rarely do economic news raise our attention, let alone our emotions, but when they do, this emotion is more often than not outrage. This week’s ruling against Apple by the EU-Commission to pay back 13 billion Euros (!) in taxes was different. In this case, the overwhelming feeling to me was not outrage but satisfaction. It just seemed to inherently right. But first a bit of background.

On Tuesday, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager presented the tech giant Apple with a 13 billion Euro bill for unpaid taxes in Ireland. Vestager calculated that Apple has in recent years paid an average corporate tax rate of only 0.005% on its European profits. It did so by setting up its European headquarter in Ireland and shifting profits back and forth to achieve the lowest rate possible, a common tactic amongst multinationals. But if you think the Irish authorities were happy to take that money you would be wrong.

Ireland plans to appeal the decision

Now this is where the story becomes really interesting. Instead of happily taking the money – 13 billion Euros equal Ireland’s entire health care budget of 2016 by the way – the Irish government decided to appeal the EU-decision. And this actually opens an important question: can and should the EU Commission interfere with tax policies in member states?

This is not as obvious as it seems. Even in the US, a supposedly more unified country than the EU, states have a lot of freedom regarding tax collection and openly compete against each other for the lowest taxes. On the other hand, Vestager’s argument of illegal state aid is also valid, as Apple clearly did not even pay the low 12.5% Irish corporate tax.

While Ireland should in general have the right to set its own tax rate, the massive influence of companies like Apple to impact a government to give more and more tax exemptions and now even appeal the EU’s decision are a real problem. This is why we need a European solution.

Multinationals – the old foe

This is actually a problem, people on the left have predicted for a while already. While many leftist intellectuals have turned globalisation into more of a monster than it really is, the Apple case really does seem to prove some of their points.

What we see in Ireland, is a tax system designed for multinationals, in particular US-American companies. Its sole purpose is to attract those companies to English-speaking Ireland by offering them access to the single market and help them save money in the process.

The Apple ruling now clearly shows the dark sides of this practice. The Irish political class seems so dependent in these companies now that they turn down 13 billion Euros just to not anger them! This is a truly questionable business model and highly problematic for the EU as a whole.  A US-style tax race to the bottom between EU members really serves nobody.

Capitalism versus democracy?

So is this global capitalism versus democracy? Well… yes and no. The Irish approach towards Apple and others is in a way antidemocratic. It is antidemocratic because the Irish tax payers – its citizens – don’t have a real say in corporate policies and while the average person has to pay close to 50% tax on their income, companies pay 12.5% or in many cases much less. The 6.000-odd jobs created by Apple in Ireland can in no way justify this.

But it doesn’t have to be this way and Vestager’s approach is therefore an important step. The European common market is important to the likes of Apple. There are after all close to 500 million consumers in this market. The EU therefore can afford to raise serious and fair taxes and also force countries to fall in line.

Apple, Google and Co. are not going to leave the EU-market – they can’t! Until now, they could however leave Ireland for, say, Luxembourg if Irish tax policies were to worsen for them. This is what Vestager wants to change and she is absolutely right to do so.

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Some thoughts on the burkini issue


In my very first blog post on here, I talked about the Paris attacks. I said something back then that I had to repeat quite a bit over the last couple of months: that Europe and France in particular can only face increasing terrorism with more openness and democracy and not by closing down. Well, at least now I know decision makers don’t read my blog.

The whole discussion around the so-called “burkini” this last week have impressively shown that, when the French government gave its municipalities the right to ban face coverings, leading to this bizarre scene on a beach in Nice. Since then, the country’s Supreme Court has ruled these practices unconstitutional. Well… surprise, surprise.

Why the burkini is no problem whatsoever

It is hard to believe that such a non-issue drew this much attention. No free and liberal society can tell anyone what to wear and what not to wear. This is banal and should be unworthy a discussion! And while every state should be careful and investigate cases of religious extremism thoroughly, everyday symbols of religiosity that hurt absolutely nobody really should not be a point of contention. Not in France and not in 2016.

The argumentation used by those calling for such bans is equally nonsensical. In order to cover up their own narrow-mindedness they – once confronted – try to justify themselves by claiming they fight for the rights of these women. This begs the question: who are you to judge?

Are Muslim women that are wearing burkas, hijabs or burkinis also often oppressed? Yes they clearly are, at least for our standards. Are we the ones to liberate them? Well, to put it like this: men have rarely liberated women and Europeans have rarely liberated other cultures. Pretending to act in their interest on issues that are not violating our laws or civil liberties will be of no help to anyone. Instead, we are making a problem out of clothing. Clothing!

Why people think the burkini is a problem

So if burkinis so obviously are not a problem, why do people make them one? The answer takes us full circle and is really quite simple. In the end it is nothing but increasingly open racism within certain right-wing pressure groups, more widespread fear of the unknown in the general population and a political class not learning from its mistakes. Again, a social democratic government chose to try and appease the right by adopting its policies and again it failed.

All this is once again playing into the hands of the right-wing populists of Marine Le Pen and severely damages France’s reputation along the way. If politicians don’t start to stand up to ill-guided fears and blatant racism and provide real solutions, we are really heading for trouble. The burkini issue might be banal but it might also just be the beginning.

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You want to secede? How mainstream!

Secession Scotland Sturgeon

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after the EU Referendum. Picture: Scottish Government

In my studies, I have dealt with political theory a lot and for us students, one specific question was particularly frustrating: the discrepancy between the right to self determination and the right to territorial integrity.

In short, this conflict revolves around the contradiction that while nations (whatever that is) have a right to self determination under international law, the territorial integrity of existing states shall not be violated. Secession – as I have learned it – is therefore undesirable. But is it still?

How secession has become normal

When thinking back to the last couple of years, we have all grown accustomed to politicians in certain European regions talking openly about secession. The referendum in Scotland was merely the peak of this development.

What we forget is how extraordinary a referendum on such an issue really is! In fact, the mere idea of secession in a non-colonial context goes against everything that has guided international law since World War II!

And yet, we see an impressive number of secessionist movements all over Europe today. Catalonia seems well on its way to a referendum (if ever allowed by Madrid), Scotland might hold a second one, Northern Ireland‘s situation in the post-Brexit world is less than certain and even Gibraltar raised the question of its allegiance to the UK after the EU Referendum.

Encouraged by these movements, many others in Europe have called for independence, Northern Italy, Flanders, the Basque country and South Tyrol just being the more prominent examples. Immediately after the Brexit vote, there were even (if not too serious) talks about a London Exit or “Lexit”, London joining an independent EU-Scotland (“Scotlond”) or the entire Glastonbury festival seceding from the UK (“Glexit”).

In fact, the first reaction of many remainers was considering their regions’ chances of seceding from the UK. It is just remarkable how normal the thought of secession really has become!

The common denominator: Europe

One thing all the independence movements mentioned above have in common is their reliance on the EU. In the case of the Brexit-inspired calls for independence, this is all too obvious. However, also in all other cases, the plan is to “break free” from an unwanted nation state (that is an EU member) to rejoin the EU as a newly independent country.

The problem is: the EU does not support this, which is understandable. After all, the EU council represents national interests and you can hardly expect Spain to offer Catalonia EU membership on a silver platter in case they want to secede. But there are reasons for the EU to rethink this stance.

It is rare to see pro-EU sentiment these days and regions with strong secessionist movements are currently the places, where this sentiment is strongest. Think about it: 62% for continued EU-membership in Scotland. Would your country achieve such a rate? In times of rising Euroscepticism all around, the EU should acknowledge this fact just a bit more.

Of course, this is not going to happen as long as national governments have this much influence on the EU level. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had to learn this the hard way when visiting Brussels after the Brexit vote.

A chance lost for Europe? What do you think? Leave me a comment or send me a tweet!

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