Tag Archives: European Union

Erasmus students in Oslo

What Hans Magnus Enzensberger does not get about Europe

Advised by my friend Luca Galli, I read Brussels, The Gentle Monster by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. A distinguished poet and author, Enzensberger takes an impassionate look at the historical anomaly of the European Union. The book has three things to offer:

  1. An unusually balanced account of the European project. Enzensberger is a critic, but that does not stop him pointing out the many good things about European institutions: the uncompromising renounce to violence and cohercion, the benevolent attitude, the altruism. Conversely, he has no trouble chastising Brussels for the many things that make it unpopular with some people.
  2. An interesting account of the early days, marked by Churchill and, especially, Jean Monnet. The latter is extremely interesting: a technocrat trying to build peace in postwar France, Monnet seems to have served as the template for the European civil servant, a sort of “Eurocrat Zero”.
  3. A theory that the European Union is fundamentally undemocratic. In a sense it may have to be, because “democracy just does not work at the supranational level”. Policy implication: the EU should “go on a diet”, restricting its sphere of influence as much as possible.

The first two contributions are valuable. However, I think the third – though it does offer an important intuition – is undefensible. Let me elaborate.

  1. States are platforms (unless you are a nationalist). What are states for? Most people do not really care about state institutions, like post offices, standard setting bodies or air traffic control authorities. We care about our loved ones, art, having fun, traveling, making money, whatever gets you and your fellow citizens excited. State institutions are platforms infrastructure. They enable us to live our lives more cheaply and easily. When they work well, they are invisible. Just like your phone’s operating system, you’ll only notice them when they break. Most people do not know or particularly care who runs infrastructure, as long as it works (many Italians think Brussels is better at running them than Rome). I wrote “most people”, because there are people that, on the contrary, deeply care about their states as good in and of themselves. These people are called nationalists. Nationalism does not have a good track record in Europe: more nationalism correlates almost without exception with more wars. You should be very cautious around nationalism. It kills people.
  2. Modern life requires larger platforms than European nation states. As a small (but global) entrepreneur in Europe, I am now struggling with the following problem. If a company in country A wants to hire an employee who resides in country B, it faces quite a lot of complexity, due to the fact that the employee’s salary is taxable in country B. I do not to want to go into the complexities here, but the important point is this: the specifics of doing this depend not on European regulation, but on the bilateral treaty between country A  and country B. This implies that, in a Europe with 28 members, there are are 784 (28 to the power of 2) different legal regimes. If you are trying to hire, or get hired, you see how a European platform would work much better than a plethora of national ones. Nation states are simply not large enough to be efficient – unless they are China, or India, or the US. The last two are federations anyway, so why not us?
  3. The European democratic deficit is caused by member states, not by Brussels. Enzensberger points out flaws in the democratic accountability of European institutions, and he is right. For example, it is illogical, even outrageous that the (elected) European Parliament cannot initiate lawmaking, whereas the Commission (designated by member states) can. So why do we not have more democracy? Why can’t we elect the President of the Commission, why can’t Parliament have a monopoly on lawmaking, enacting a true separation of powers? Because members states do not permit it. And why do they not permit it? Because European-scale full democracy would imply the hollowing out of the power base of national élites. If and when the EU completes its evolution from club of states to a confederal state in its own right, it will no longer need to fall back on member states for its legitimacy. In this sense, Enzensberger is right: where states are involved, no democracy is possible, because states are more interested in their self preservation than in their citizens being part of a fully realized democracy.
  4. Democracy is a failsafe, not a nirvana. I propose that many political thinkers have an idealized, unrealistic take on democracy. Like states, democracy is not good in itself. We need it, because the people running our platforms could grow power-crazy and drag us, through lies, into war, so it’s good to be able to oust them. But, let’s face it, democratic participation is difficult and costly, and often ineffective as a failsafe (Hitler came to power winning elections in 1933). As Enzensberger readily admits, the European Union is doing a very good job of “again and again valiantly taking action against cartels, oligopolies, protectionist dodges and banned subsidies” (many readers will remember Mario Monti’s giant fine to Microsoft for acting as a monopolist). If the EU is good at this, why not let it get on with it? Ideally, let us elect the president of the Commission, so we can oust her if we do not like the work she does. But otherwise, this stuff is not broken, so don’t fix it.
  5. Europe’s mission is not accomplished. According to Enzensberger, we do not need Europe to be more integrated than it already is. Why does he say that? Apparently, because he already knows many people in Europe (“divorced husbands, summer homes, business partners…”). I guess this is enough for him. I hope my example with the 784 different legal regimes for something as simple as hiring a person proves our current level of integration is not enough for everyone.

I may be wrong. But then again, I don’t think I am. In the final part chapter of the book, Enzensberger reports a conversation between himself and an anonymous Eurocrat. The latter can very easily deflect most of Enzensberger’s critiques :

Why on earth do you keep on about the European Union? Why do you avoid talking about Rome, Budapest or Dublin? These national governments are not one whit better! their bureaucracies leave a great deal to be desired. There is no lack of narrow-mindedness and incomprehensible hollow verbiage in one as the other. I won’t even mention the scheming and corruption I encounter every day. Lobbyists, if you’ll allow me to be frank, are like flies, no matter, in your country too [Germany]. Just take a closer look at your tax system, your irrational health and education reform. Everything of which you accuse us, you find again if you look in the 27 different national mirrors of this European Union.

That leaves the problem of the democratic deficit. But that’s fixable, if we accept a reduction of the power of states. Enzensberger’s unforgivable failure (and that of his generation) is that he does not consider this as a possible alternative: he does not even contemplate it. I think Jean Monnet’s culture is a much better ticket for a free, prosperous future.

Photo: Erasmus students in Oslo, by Jose Ramòn Alvarez Suarez

Gambling with our souls: why Brexit and the EU’s deal with Turkey are bad ideas.

In collaboration with Anthony Zacharzewski – Translated and reposted from CheFuturo

European leaders have a deal with the Turkish government. It works like this: Syrian refugees cannot go on from Greece into other EU countries. We are sending them back to Turkey instead. For each one we send back, we pick another from Turkish camps and admit her to Europe. Turkey gets a revamping of its EU accession talks, easier visas for Turks coming into Europe, and money. But what does Europe get in return?

Not much, it seems. Policy experts think the one-for-one scheme is unworkable. The Greek state, understaffed after years of austerity, does not have the capacity to deliver it. Aid agencies think it is “inhumane“. The UNHCR questions the credibility of the safeguards intended to protect vulnerable asylum seekers. European diplomats expect the deal to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Traffickers will likely see an increase in their grim business.

Chances are the scheme won’t work. And if it did, it might make things worse. Not just for those who crossed desert and sea to get stuck in Greece. For Europeans too. Economists have long done the maths and shown that migrants are net contributors to European welfare states (survey). Migrants are on average younger, more educated and more entrepreneurial than natives. For all their disadvantages, Syrians managed to start 415 companies in Turkey in the first two months of 2016. Without migrants, our aging population would soon be unable to support itself (source). Immigration is good for growth, which is why business leaders want more of it.

So, EU leaders have locked themselves in an unworkable deal and a humanitarian disaster. In so doing, they also crippled their own economies. What’s going on here?

The easy answer is: politics. With twenty years of steady growth suddenly brought to a stop and in many places put into reverse, Europe has spawned populist parties – often ethnic nationalists, always anti-government and anti-EU. They target the disgruntled, those who have lost out from the new high-education, high-skill jobs market. The populists draw on resentment, but offer no real change – just the simple, clear and wrong solution to each country’s problems: stop the migrants!

Economic crisis has brought these parties to prominence, but economic growth tomorrow would not cause them to wither, because they draw their real strength from a deeper problem: we have allowed ourselves to forget what Europe is about.

Europe was never about standards – though they support innovation and growth, and give consumers and business confidence. Standards are just a tool to develop the European single market. And the single market itself is just a machine designed to prevent war.

Europe is about peace. Peace initiatives have happened before, but the European Union is self-reinforcing. Over the decades, EU institutions have enabled, and we the people have built, a dense web of relationships. First it was international trade; then education (Erasmus, anyone?); then business partnerships; then thousands and thousands friendships and marriages. War has become unviable, unthinkable.

This was never meant to stop at our borders. Peace and prosperity through trade is also our foreign policy. Countries at our borders like that, so they want in. And we obliged, letting more and more countries in. We wisely invested in the less developed ones, using European funds to upgrade their infrastructure. They rewarded us by blooming into prosperous countries, with solid middle classes eager to buy German cars, Italian design, British financial services. Ireland, then Spain, then Estonia, then Romania.

The caravan still rolls on, beyond Europe’s present borders. The Balkans were at war only twenty years ago. Now they are at peace, and getting prosperous. They like us there, and we like them back. We are good neighbours. We fund highways, libraries and public buildings at a fraction of what a military presence would cost. We have prestige and influence. We can navigate the region speaking English, German, Italian. We can pay in euro everywhere. All countries are getting in the accession queue.

Everybody aspires to be us, because peace, upholding human rights and free trade work. Gun-toting nationalistic empires don’t. Ask the Ukrainians: they could be part of the last old school empire in Europe, Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. But they appear not to want to. When their president signed a treaty with Russia in 2014, they staged a revolution, kicked him out of the country and organised citizen militias to fight pro-Russia paramilitaries in the East.

It’s not just Serbians and Ukrainians. It’s Syrians, Tunisians, Eritreans. Whatever their countries do, people aspire to being a part of our project. This is what Europe is all about; this is our legacy. We are the only polity in the world to have renounced violence and uphold mutual understanding as the way forward. Even at these times of crisis, we are a beacon of hope for humanity.

And that brings us to Brexit. Those uncomfortable Europeans, the British, are going to be asked on 23 June whether they want to stay in the EU or not, and the answer is far from certain. As with those trade links, those Erasmus studies, those romances, Brexit reaches into every part of Europe – all the more effectively because it is taking place in Europe’s most-spoken language.

Much of the debate has been awful, from both sides. The supporters of Britain’s place in the EU seem to have no arguments beyond money, jobs and finance – important, but not enough to make the case for Europe’s wider ambitions and possibilities. Reassurances of the Remain campaign today close off any future development of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Their argument is “vote for Europe, because our Europe has no Schengen, lots of opt-outs, and absolutely no Euro”.

On the other side, the Eurosceptic press are dominated by anti-immigrant populism, and a desire to go back to some imagined time of national unity, monoculture and full employment. Mainstream politicians on the Leave side cannot acknowledge that medium sized nation states have no power in the modern world, so they have have had to construct unrealistic futures, where Britain prospers by slashing regulation, or by creating free trade deals with its former empire, or just by getting those Europeans to do what the Brits say.

This is an attempt – who knows how successful? – to rationalise around an emotional reaction – a love for Parliament, for British democracy, the ‘thousand years of British history’ which a former Labour leader thought the EEC would put to an end. Sovereignty, democracy and national power are slippery concepts. The dry world of European summits and compromises might be more effective power but it is not more romantic power.

The default of the Brussels bubble is to believe that Europe will get there in the end. In mid-euro-crisis, a European politician said “we all know what we have to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it”. As time has passed, that politician is President of the Commission, governments around the continent have changed – but the Euro remains. Maybe in five years the migration crisis and Brexit will be in the same place – not solved but not quite so present, a memory of a panic.

Maybe not. There is a saying that companies go bankrupt at first slowly, then all at once. Look around Europe and the signs are there that the structures are weakening, the institutions becoming hollowed out, as they are with national politics.

But in that romantic love of the Brexiters, there is an answer to the problem of European politics, and not just in Britain. We have to make Europe something that can be believed in again – not with an emotional allegiance, but as a shared project of construction, based on those principles of freedom, openness and democracy.

You can’t do that by decreeing a European nationalism, commanding a tear in the eye as Ode to Joy plays. Some people feel that now, more may feel it in the future, but it can’t be invented. Instead the connections and the networks of Europe should be celebrated as success not denigrated as failure.

If we fail to do that, what else can we Europeans do? Well, we could follow the lead of the Brexit camp, and focus on being just 28 more nation states. Doable, maybe. But we would be second-rate nation states. Too small. Too old. Too petty. Plagued by low growth, high debt, an ever more aging population, and populist, rancorous politics. A backwater in the coming Asian century.

A peaceful continent for us all to roam freely is our gift the world, what makes us unique. Politicians in the UK and elsewhere, when they talk of breaking this down, or restricting its scope, might gain some short-term consensus and media visibility. But they are gambling with our souls.

Photo: Malachy Browne: murales at The Jungle, a semi-official refugee camp in Calais (France)

Copyright in the EU and the Dark Side of online consultations

Imagine you are in Hamburg for 30C3, the thirtieth annual conference of the legendary Chaos Computer Club – the first and the largest association of hackers in Europe. Uncharacteristically, you are being engaged in politics: you take part in a meeting convened on the fly by Ásta Helgadóttir, a young activist of the Icelandic Pirate Party. The person speaking now is Amelia Andersdotter,  a 26-year old Swede, Member of the European Parliament, also a Pirate. She explains that the European Commission is considering a reform on copyright law, and that such reform is at risk of damaging the Internet’s freedom and wholeness. The Commission has recently launched an online public consultation, but taking part in it is so difficult and time-consuming that activists fear only the copyright industry’s professional lobbyists will end up participating in it.

Andersdotter and her staff, helped by many volunteers, have compiled a on online guide to the consultation available in 13 languages, but this is not good enough. For everyone to be able to participate, it is critical that participation is made much easier and more intuitive.The group decides to achieve this building a website that starts from the friction with copyright law experienced by citizens on the web every day encoded in user stories (for example: “I don’t dare to make a remix because of fear of repercussions”). From there, the website guides citizens to share their points of view on these small daily conflicts, and inserts their reflections in the questionnaire as appropriate. All is left to do is for the citizen to download the completed questionnaire and e-mail it to the Commission.

As the meeting ends, a task force of coders and designers fires up their laptops and goes to work. For starters, Stefan Wehrmeyer from Open Knowledge Foundation Germany writes the core code for the new website, and uploads it on a GitHub repository (a familiar collaboration platform for open source programmers) for everyone to be able to contribute. Next, Mathias Schindler from Wikimedia Germany rewrites the questionnaire’s questions in terms of situations that are easy to map onto normal experience of the web. Finally, Juliana Okropiridse, Bernhard Hayden, Christopher Clay and Peter Grassberger of the Austrian Pirate Party kickstart a hackathon to finish the website. Hosted by (Viennese hackerspace) Metalab’s assembly at 30C3, they code all night long. At 8 the next morning, copywrongs.eu is online. The date is December 30th, 2013.

All this has really happened.

How did we get there? How does a fairly technical legal issue like the reform of European copyright law get to be debated, and eventually acted (and hacked) upon, in a hacker conference? To understand this, we need to take a step back.

On December 5th 2013 the European Commission launched an online consultation on copyright law reform in Europe. In the digital age, copyright law has become a contentious issue: adapted to broadcast technologies (printing press, radio and television), it ended up clashing with the Internet’s technological and social infrastructure. Network technology allows to make fast, inexpensive and exact copies of any content (books, music, films, scholarly articles etc.) and to spread them across the planet at the speed of light. On top of that, it allows – and sometimes requires – to do things that have no exact equivalent in the pre-digital world, like linking, caching, or remixing them. Are these things legal? Under which conditions? Predictably, netizens ended up wondering why would these operations – useful, simple, cheap – not be allowed; and digital native teenagers across the globe engaged in them with gusto.

Copyright holders reacted aggressively to what they think is an infringement of their rights. They demanded and obtained from lawmakers harsher penalties for copyright infringement (especially in the USA), and consistently sued young people, even minors, for lots of money – probably trying to scare off other infringers by gunning for some. The debate heated up. Exactly a year ago, on January 11th 2013,  Reddit co-founder and hacktivist Aaron Swartz took his own life at 26 years of age. He was facing prosecution for copyright infringement – he had downloaded a large number of copyrighted scholarly journal articles, using his access as a MIT student). 

Copyright is important, and the opening of the European Commission’s consultation could be good news. But there is a problem. The consultation consists in a questionnaire to download, fill and email to the Commission. The questionnaire is available in English only; takes several hours to complete (it is 36 pages long and consists of 80 questions); is written in legalese; and the window for doing all this is only 60 days, including the festivities break [yielding to requests from citizens, the deadline has now been moved 28 days forward to March 30th].

What sort of citizen do the designers of this consultation have in mind? I can think of only one type of person that fits it: professional lobbyists working for the copyright industry – record labels, movie production companies etc.. Lobbyists are fluent in English; know well the regulation they are trying to influence; and have no problem finding the time to fill a 80-questions questionnaire, since they – unlike most of us – get paid for it.

There is nothing wrong with a lobbyist stating an opinion in the context of an online consultation. But it is wasteful: lobbyists already have their channels. They have Brussels offices, industry conferences, money to hire consultants and experts and deploy them towards their goals. A public consultation – especially one that uses a pervasive channel like the Internet – could and should go the extra mile to enrich the debate, involing a number as high as possible of ordinary citizens.

Why has this not happened? According to Andersdotter, the Directorate General for the Single Market (DG MARKT) keeps a low profile to eschew controversies and conflicts – but in vain, since these are inevitable. “European citizens are in constant tensions with copyright law – says Andersdotter – For example, it is common for teachers of foreign languages to play DVDs or music CDs as a way to make their teaching more engaging, even if they bought them privately [editor’s note: yes, it is illegal]. Or it may happen that a French citizen shares a music video on YouTube with a German friend, but the latter cannot view it because French right holders have a deal with YouTube and German ones don’t. Many Europeans, especially young, have problems like these.” And it’s not just teenagers: in May 2013 LIBER, the European association of research libraries, walked on DG MARKT’s stakeholder dialogue initiative, claiming that “the research and technology communities have been presented not with a stakeholder dialogue, but a process with an already predetermined outcome” (source). The office of the Single Market commissioner Michel Barnier has not replied to our request for comments.

What can we learn from this story? I think there are three important conclusions. 

The first one: online consultation risk playing an antidemocratic role. They can be presented as a gesture of openness and transparency (“it’s on the Internet! Anybody can join in!”) but in truth offer only a new participation channel for interests already represented – a sort of Dark Side of online participation. To prevent this, citizens would do well to demand from their institutions not just to be consulted, but that consultations are designed to maximize participant diversity.

The second one: citizens can play a role in making them better. In the case in point and in other similar ones (remember ACTA?) a smart, tech savvy civil society mobilized to protect a global common, the freedom and health of the Internet ecosystem. Such instant, liquid mobilization produced longer-lasting organizations like Wikimedia and Open Knowledge Foundation, and meeting places like 30C3. Online participation has its Dark Side, but it also has a few Jedi Knights.

The third one: the political space opened by these movements is natively international. Hackers, as no politically relevant group before them, collaborate across state frontiers in a natural, unassuming way. The project to democratize the European consultation on copyright involved people of many nationalities, without anyone ever feeling the need to refer to the positions of one country or another. Interestingly, leadership tends to be allocated to young women like Helgadóttir (23, deputy member of the Icelandic parliament) or Andersdotter herself.

I am fascinated by Andersotter’s trajectory. Elected when she was only 21, she proved incredibly determined, acquiring an impressive competence on international conventions and treaties regulating the Internet in Europe and becoming a reference point for the continent’s open source movement, as well as for the hacker scene in general. She has held her (well documented) ground in favor of Internet freedom, and has not shunned conflict when conflict was in order. She does her best to make the European Parliament more open and welcoming for hackers and activists – for example, she organized a screening of the film about Wikileaks We steal secrets and made it open to the public. Hackers and activists across Europe reciprocate with an almost palpable affection, as if she were – after Lady Ada Byron – a second Queen of the Machines. She could be the first of a new breed of digital native European leaders, grown up between hackathons and The Big bang Theory reruns.

The story I told at the beginning of this post looks more like a scene from Matrix than a story of European politics. And yet, when you think about it, this is exactly the European Union that the founding fathers dreamed of: hackers, designers, civil society activists, elected representatives collaborating across all countries  to broaden the channels of democratic participation on the Union’s policies. If I could offer a word of advice to the next Presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council I would tell them: fly close to the hackers, involve them, ask them to help you design the Union’s online consultations. They are building the European agora that you could not give us. And – frankly – their code is vastly better than yours.