Friday, December 27, 2013

Europe, look to the East for inspiration!
Some astonishing events are taking place for the past month in Europe. And when I am talking about Europe, I am referring to the eastern part of the continent and the country of Ukraine.

While the Western part of Europe, especially the old EU member states are riddled with anti-EU sentiments, euro-skepticism, the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, a drift from the European dream and constant bickering between them, the East is reminding us where our priorities must lie.

Ever since the night of the 21st of November, when the Ukrainian leadership decided to suspend preparations to sign the Association and Free trade Agreement with the EU, the protests in Ukraine have been going from strength to strength. The likes of such protests Europe has not seen since the times of the Orange or the Rose Revolutions in its Eastern regions.

What is even more remarkable about this social phenomenon, is that it is the first of its kind for many reasons. Firstly because we see one of the biggest movement and protests by ordinary people, against the actions of their government and that is so important for democracy itself.

Secondly these protests are the only pro-EU and pro-European one that Europe has recently seen. Clearly the Ukrainians despite the block's problems, still believe in the values and political or social benefits that EU membership can offer, despite the dubious economic ones.

The European project is not just an economic one, or at least it should not limit itself to being one. That is something that we in the West have long forgotten and we act solely on national economic interests. In fact the old members of the EU are only contributing in the block's bad name and problems, with their nationalist agenda.

The Euromaidan protests, as they are named, remind us that Europe should be more about the citizens and their will. That the people should be free to chose their country's future and their wish should be listened by their elected leaders.

They are also reminding us that Europe is a continent of nations who chose to come closer for reasons other than economic, or at least that is how it should be. While we in the West argue on who is paying and who benefits more out of the EU funds, very few of us take the time to focus on the benefits of our country's EU membership and fight for them.

Of course above all, the Ukrainians are also teaching us how the civil society must get organized and be vigilant towards the decisions of the ruling elite, that are often against the interests or will of the citizens. How often do we see such passionate participation and a desire for real change in the Western nations?

It is not just Ukraine and its people who stand as a beacon for the rest of us. Most new EU member states, perhaps with the only exception being the Czech Republic, are much more enthusiastic about their EU membership and they are actively engaged in the European project.

Almost all are still eager to join the euro and their economies have high growth rates, while those of the Western member states are struggling to keep up. Poland is perhaps the greatest example of how a positive attitude towards Europe can benefit both national and regional interests.

It is one of the countries that has escaped the harsh economic crisis that other nations in EU are facing and it is becoming a regional power. Together with France it is pushing for the integration of European defense and they are actively and enthusiastically engaged in most EU projects and institutions.

Eastern European nations only need support and equal treatment from their Western partners and they could soon be the driving force of change in our continent, either it is political, social and economic. They have an incredible amount of resilience, passion for freedom, a drive to prove themselves and a pride, that many of the old EU nations have lost altogether.

They have also a vast amount of resources, culture and history that if we use them wisely, we could create a new European cultural and economic renaissance. It is time to start investing seriously in Eastern Europe as there may lie the lost inspiration that Europe so badly needs, to create a new vision for the continent as a whole.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The closing conference of the European Year of the Citizens 2013.

The year 2013 was proclaimed as the European Year of the Citizens by the European Commission. It is an initiative focusing on the rights that come with EU citizenship. 

Over this year, dialogue between all levels of government, civil society and business was encouraged at events and conferences around Europe. The purpose was to discuss those EU rights and build a vision of how the EU should be in 2020. (

The launching of this initiative took place in Dublin last January, as the country was holding the EU Council Presidency, but the closing conference took place in Vilnius Lithuania, as part of the Baltic country’s presidency, between the 12th and 13th of December 2013. 

Around 350 participants participated from various EU NGOs, governmental and European institutions. On Lithuania’s initiative, several representatives of the EU Eastern Partnership countries’ NGO sector also participated, as well as a number of bloggers. I was very honored to be one of those invited by the Lithuanian Presidency of the EU Council. (EU2013LT)

Lithuania has a historic tradition with its citizen journalism, today’s blogging, and the samizdats that were being published during the country’s struggles for independence from the Soviet Union. Like the "Sąjūdis News" (Lithuanian: Sąjūdžio žinios) written by a group of reformist, pro-democracy and independence activists. (Wikipedia)

It is heartening that a group of bloggers from across Europe were also invited and included in the conference, though I believe that such incidents should become more often from now on. Europe has a number of very competent bloggers that like the Sąjūdis can influence the European political reality, given the chance.

The main topics of discussion were how to rebuilt Europe “from the bottom up,” discussing the role and future of civil society organisations in building Europe’s future, focusing on the upcoming European elections in 2014 and how we can we boost citizen’s participation in them. But also fostering EU citizens’ rights and finding new ways for citizens to influence European policy makers.

There have been many key speakers in the conference, like the European Commission’s Vice-President Viviane Reding, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, Minister of Justice of Lithuania Juozas Bernatonis and Emily O’Reilly the European Ombudsman. 

From the start of the conference the discussions were focused on how to encourage us all to be active citizens, creating a “Union of the People”. Raising awareness on our EU citizens’ rights was one of the most discussed topics, as well as the effect that the economic crisis had on how citizens view the EU institutions and how we can restore faith to them.

“The attitudes of the people can change, if people feel that their concerns are heard,” stated Ylva Tiveus, Director “Citizens”, from the Directorate General for Communication of the EU Commission. 

Involvement of the citizens in the decision making process, especially that of the younger generation by teaching them about the functioning of EU institutions and reviewing the treaties was proposed by some participants. 

Europe should build a bridge between civil society and EU institutions. Especially since 50% of the citizens believe that they can make a change on EU level, if they are given the opportunity. The EU must come closer to its citizens and for this to happen, their voices must be heard in Brussels. 

Europe should focus on promoting its identity and promoting active citizenship in all local communities and the cooperation of various NGOs between EU states. It should secure the rights of citizens residing in another EU member state and those of minorities, eliminate poverty and give special care to the most vulnerable, in order to eliminate inequalities. 

European culture should be used as a way to unite people, while citizen mobility and engaging in volunteering will also contribute to the creation of a more active European citizenship.

Because of the crisis the European population does not feel ownership of the EU project. For this the lack of synchronization between national institutions and organizations is to blame and all states must cooperate intensively to solve such issues. 

Mr. Vytautas Landsbergis, former Head of State of Lithuania, mentioned that we should be concentrating on the significance of being in the EU, while understand what it means to be a citizen. Citizenship should not just be on our passports, but we should practice “responsible engagement”.

We should be proud of Europe plus its cultural richness and contribute to it. The Vice-President of the EU Commission Mrs Reding also supported this idea and proposed that every year from now on, should be dedicated on the citizens. 

Mrs Reding stated that the lack of information and complacency are the greatest challenges that Europe has to overcome, in order to achieve its goals. The European Year of Citizens changed the way politicians connect to citizens and for the first time in 2013, people had the chance to confront their politicians.

The European elections in 2014 will act as a “moment of truth” for the citizens’ participation in the continent's politics. In these elections, the citizens will be asked what kind of Europe they want and their answer will shape the EU. 

The European Ombudsman Mrs O’Reilly added to Mrs Reding’s comments by expressing that EU citizenship does not replace our national one. Active citizenship is in decline both on European and national level and that clearly states that the crisis in our continent is not just economic, but a social one as well. 

The EU Ombudsman receives many complaints from citizens on the lack of transparency in EU institutions. That reveals the extent of the damage of the image of EU in the citizens’ appreciation, but also their will to participate and get involved. 

“The EU is a work in progress, but its achievements must not be forgotten,” stated Mrs O’Reilly.
The civic society is very important in creating active citizenship and the internet is one of the tools for citizen expression between elections, engaging voters in debates on EU, European and national related issues. 

It is crucial to have the European civic society getting organized through the various portals on the internet, just as we are experiencing now days in the Ukrainian protests. In this way, we can counterweight the various businesses lobbyists that promote their interests in a European level.

The internet can help to organize and mobilize people, but it is only a first step towards a functioning new democratic model for Europe. We still need political parties and a government to achieve such goal.
Education programs in schools must also play a role in educating and informing our youths on their rights as citizens, but also focus on creating a European identity. 

The debates continued over the two days of the conference, giving an opportunity to every participant in expressing their views. Most of us bloggers admitted that such ideas were for long circulating in Europe’s social media and such ideas are not something new. 

The question is if this time the EU Commission and our governments will uphold their promises and materialize the plans that for years us bloggers, but also NGOs and European Think-Tanks were debating on. 

You may wish to read on the Launching of the European Year of the Citizens 2013 that took place in Dublin in January here.  There will be a follow up article on the OneEurope website, with further reports on the conference.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

“The idea that Ireland has restored its sovereignty is false,” believes Paul Murphy MEP.

Ireland returns to the bond markets by the end of this year, yet billions will be taken out of its economy under the recently announced Budget 2014. 

Paul Murphy MEP believes that the debt is becoming non-payable, so the solution is its repudiation. “If we refuse to pay then there is no deficit, but a slight surplus. The austerity is purely imposed to pay the bond holders,” claims Paul. 

This is the 7th austerity budget according to Paul and the government is hitting the most vulnerable again, young people in particular.  “You just can’t remove millions out of healthcare without having any account. They are trying to talk about recovery but there isn’t any,” Paul continues. 

The Irish Government claims a 4% growth of GDP but we have a 4.3% GMP decline and prior to that we had ¾ of GDP decline. “At best the economy is really sagging,” he states.

“They are trying to create this idea that by returning to the markets, we are a big success story. But it is very likely that we will take a precautionary credit line with the European Stability Mechanism, which is essentially a second bail out”.  

It will come with a conditionality, which means something like a memorandum of understanding, more austerity, supervision and visits by the ESM people, not the Troika. “A change of overseer but the facts do not change,” he states. 

“The most important question is if the € 200 billion national debt is payable,” Paul adds. Around € 65 billion comes directly from the banks. Another € 65 billion comes from deficits that have been built up over the period of the crisis. 

The debt is 125% of GDP and the projections of the EU Commission have it coming gradually down to 100% by 2020, but they’re based on growth rates of 3% over the next years. “The government is not going to meet these rates as we have extremely low rates of growth already this year”. 

“What we could do is a moratorium on debt repayments, a debt audit commission to investigate the debt,” Paul believes. Establish what is owed to private people, pension funds and pay them. “But we should not pay the debt which is owned to the ECB, big bond holders and the IMF”. 

“I am not trying to say that it is an easy solution; there are complications like engaging in a major struggle, particularly with the ECB,” says Paul. “In retaliation they will cut off funding from our banks”. 

“But I think the consequences of that are better, than paying the debt which is unsustainable and eventually we will not be able to pay,” he continues. The benefit that Ireland has is having a lot of ECB money now in its banks and they are state owned. “So we have a card that we can play,” Paul believes.
Paul also disagrees with the way Ireland handled its banks. The decision that was taken by the Irish government was to nationalize them, but they did not take public ownership of them. In other words according to Paul, Ireland continued to run its banks as profit making enterprises.

"We should have taken democratic control over it, nationalize them and refuse to pay the bond holders," says Paul. "This year, the bailed out banks will pay € 16 billion to the bond holders and the banks are fully funded to pay them. This money could be used to pay something else," he continues.
Paul thinks that Ireland should not pay some of the bond holders and use the control of the banks to write down people’s mortgages, so they can have money to spend. The lack of credit is a massive drain in the economy and so the country needs to enable people to get access to it.

 "The banks keep saying that they are open for business but it is not real. It is so irritating that we own the banks but we do not use them as a policy tool," states Paul. 
He also thinks that an action must be taken on  European level, as this crisis is a European wide phenomenon. Like the general strikes that were organized last November to some degree in Greece, Spain, Portugal Cyprus, Malta, and in Italy, with  more or less success in different countries.
What Paul and his party is putting forward, is the idea of a common industrial action initially across the countries of the European periphery and then across the continent. 
Paul also believes that the Seanad referendum in Ireland was lost because people distrust the political establishment in general and the government in particular. "People have a deep and correct sense that there is a power grab happening, that things are less and less democratic," he argues.   

And that is a phenomenon that happens across Europe. In Ireland this is obvious with the economic management council, which is the centralization of power. "That was the context of the Seanad referendum and in that context people saw the referendum as part of that power grab," Paul believes. 
"In my opinion it was a mistake, the referendum was about the government cynically trying to do something that would make things slightly more democratic. This actually contradicts them in policy, but people did not believe them and so they voted against the government's proposal," he describes.

We ended the interview with Paul on a lighter not, as I asked him to describe life in the European Parliament. "It is very different every day,"ha stated. "On the negative side there is a lot of travel, stress and pressure, but on the positive side there is this amount of interesting people that I meet," he said. 

"In one day I can meet Palestinian candidates, Bangladeshi campaigners, or many very interesting and impressive people in one day. The only problem is that there is not enough time in my day, to follow with all that is happening," Paul continued. 

"I have the privilege to be able to travel and meet people in Turkey, or in other important developments like during the Gaza flotilla raid protests. I am aware of that privilege and I want to make sure that people across Europe get as much benefit from it," he concludes.

This is the third and last part of an interview with Paul Murphy MEP, published exclusively in the Eblana European Democratic Movement blog and in the One Europe website.