The European Magazine
Optimistic view of the stock market: Can the Stock Market Triple by 2026?
November 9th, 2017, 04:18 AM
Experts at the time had long maintained that equity markets were immune to the type of panic-driven selling witnessed in the late 1920s. The markets were broader, deeper and more sophisticated. There were more institutional investors in the market who were less susceptible to emotion-led reactions. Even retail investors, they claimed, were better informed and their broker/advisors more professional than in the 1920s. And the exchange itself was better structured, better capitalized and had better safeguards to prevent uncontrolled market routs. Corrections were still possible — and likely — but a market meltdown along the lines of Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929 when the Dow plunged 12%, couldn’t happen again. Yet it did.

Influenced by geopolitical tensions and a weakening world economy, global stock markets were jittery to begin with on that October day 30 years ago. Markets across the world had already declined significantly from all-time highs reached in July and August of that year. Oil prices were falling dramatically, straining the economies of the major oil producing nations and heightened political friction in the Middle East. Tensions in the Persian Gulf were especially acute and reached a boiling point when US and Iranian Naval warships exchanged gunfire on Friday, October 16.

This sword rattling helped set the stage for a market disaster. When markets opened on Monday, October 19, stocks across the globe began to fall quickly. The UK market was particularly hard hit. The London Stock Exchange had been closed the previous Friday because of a hurricane-force storm which ravaged the island and brought almost all of Great Britain to a halt. With sell orders dominating from the previous week, the FTSE 100 fell almost 10% during the first 30 minutes of trading. By the time the stock exchange opened in NY, markets across the globe were in free fall and the negative psychology quickly infected the US – already weakened by a 10% decline suffered during the previous week.

The jittery markets abroad and unchecked program trading in the US, pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Index over the edge. Pandemonium ruled the day as sellers far outweighed potential buyers and trading fell hopelessly behind which prompted even more selling as panic gripped the market. By the time the market closed, almost 600 million shares had exchanged hands – a record — and the Dow was down an unprecedented 23% having shed over 500 points to close at 1738 points.

It was a catastrophe.

Or was it?

Despite the severity of the decline and the siren-like call of many economists warning the drop would drive the US economy into recession as happened in 1929, the index quickly recovered and was back to pre-crash levels by early 1989. Indeed, investors who did not succumb to the panic and remained invested, enjoyed a significant expansion in the value of their equity holdings over the following years. In the ten years after the 1987 crash, the DJIA went from the 1738 close on Black Monday, to 8038 on October 3, 1997 – an increase of more than 450%. With the benefit of hindsight, the events of October 19, 1987 – as horrific as they seemed on the day – were nothing more than a small bump on the long-term road of equity investing. Yet that negative event is remembered with greater clarity and weight than the subsequent recovery – which remains vague and undefined in most people’s minds.

Are we more sophisticated and better informed today? I’m not sure. We often hear these days that stocks are overpriced and overdue for a correction. Even though the S&P 500 is hitting all-time highs after climbing 250% in eight years, it’s clear that the rally has not quite captured the heart of investors. Analysts were never truly convinced either and have issued similar warnings for years. Meanwhile, the bull market marches on.

Is it too late to join in? That is certainly a risk: it is a well-known fact that investors abandon caution at the worst possible times. But when the current rally is put in context with past performance, the case for extreme caution loses some of its potency. Stocks have been known to climb far more than the 250% registered since 2009, such as when they soared 1,000% between 1942-1966 and 1982-2000. Both rallies eventually died, of course, but false calls that the end was nigh were issued many times before the bull-slaying busts finally arrived.

Booms can be confoundingly persistent. The ten-fold rise from 1982 to 2000, for example, did not ebb gradually: instead, it sped up in the mid-1990s as investors became increasingly bullish and optimistic – despite the crash of 1987. Conversely, busts come along with violence, often just after people stop recognizing that markets can do just that. In the late 1990s, for example, most did not foresee the brutal 3-year bear market that started in March 2000.

Market crashes are a feature of how markets behave, and have always been around. The 2008-09 financial crisis or the 2000 dot-com crash, for example, were no more devastating than the Crash of 1929, or the long-forgotten Panic of 1873 that forced the first stock market closure. These booms and busts come in unpredictable cycles of different duration. Nobody has a way of forecasting market turns.

But about 90 years ago an intriguing pattern of market behaviour developed, and it has held remarkably well to this day. It goes like this: weak stock market returns in a 17-year period follow 17 years of very high returns, and vice versa. This might be nothing else than a coincidence, and we do not know whether it will hold in the future. But the cycle is quite clear.

In 1929, for example, stocks had returned a remarkable 13.4% average in the previous 17 years, the highest it had been up until that point, and investors were euphoric. But in the next 17 years stocks yielded a miserly 1.3% per year including dividends. Fast forward to 1942: stocks had returned less than 4% during the prior 17 years but went on to yield a stunning 18% annual average return during the next 17.

Since then, the market pendulum has swung between despair and euphoria, taking market returns from trough to peak. It seems that just when optimism reaches its highest point a new era begins, marked by low returns, and affirming the dictum that investor sentiment is best seen as a contrarian indicator.

Despite the market strength, conditions today can hardly be described as “euphoric”. Political dysfunction, nationalistic populism, global terrorism, rogue states and the rise of global protectionism are just some of the concerns discussed in today’s news. Sentiment is rather weak, illustrated by the prevalent idea that the stock market is too high and ripe for a fall. Yet the past 17-year average market return has been low by historical standards.
So, according to the despair-euphoria cycle just described, current conditions seem to be consistent with strong future returns. If so, what would it mean for market levels?

The most conservative way of measuring this is to start the calculation at the trough of 2009. To arrive thus to a 17-year average total return of, say, 15%, the S&P500 would have to be around 7000 sometime in 2026, assuming dividends of about 2% per year. A 16% average annual total return would take it closer to 8000, or well above three times its current level.
This may sound unreasonably high, but as observed earlier the stock market has gone up much more than that in the past, and tenfold twice. Going from 700 in 2009 to 7000 in 2026 would not lack precedent. And this pattern – while not going as far back as in the US — is also evident in many other markets.

Looking elsewhere for clues we note that the last 8 years saw weak economic growth, a condition proven to be cyclical; if so, we may be on the threshold of a new period of environmentally sustainable expansion aided by new technologies (think renewable energy and artificial intelligence). This could be a shot in the arm for the global economy.
To be sure; it is impossible to know whether this pendulum-like cycle will hold. The stock market moves in patterns that occasionally repeat themselves for a while and then vanish, a feature common to unpredictable systems.
Even if the pattern holds, there is nothing to prevent the market from tanking and then recover to produce a strong 17-year average return by 2026. The 20%-plus Crash of October 1987, for example, happened five years into the tenfold stock rise of 1982-2000.

The cycle described above does not say much about where the market may be this year or the next, but those who wonder about the long term may find the idea of being in the initial stages of a long rally quite exhilarating. Investing in stocks is certainly more attractive than investing in Government bonds which offer an interest rate of virtually nothing. Long-term equity investing has time and again offered attractive returns – even if the road can be bumpy at times. But if you keep your eyes on the road and make sure your shock absorbers are in good shape, the odds of suffering a fatal “crash” are quite low. And do not forget that the biggest risk investing in today’s zero interest environment is not to take risk at all. Keeping your money in a “safe” bank account which offers nothing but costs, is a very certain way to lose money. And the riskiest investment of all, the most certain way to lose capital, is to put your money in “risk free” Government bonds. With an interest rate of zero percent, even a modest increase in interest rates will result in a significant loss of capital. With that in mind, does investing in stocks seem as risky as you might at first think? I think not, but do you? Perhaps the following anecdote will provoke a rethink:

On October 19, 1987, Apple was only 6% the size of IBM, then the largest company in the world. Presently, Apple Inc.’s market capitalization is 6X (or 600%) that of IBM’s. While Apple was by far the better relative performer, having increased a staggering 11,000%, IBM’s performance wasn’t exactly a flop either, up more than 500 % since that fateful Black Monday. And US Government bonds? They’ve returned a modest 2.72% per year. Convinced now?

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Proportional Representation: a problem for Germany: What the German Voters did
October 5th, 2017, 04:18 AM

A majority government with a main opposition party seems to have become outmoded. Also ‘Reality TV’ style popularist politics, with its resulting hasty ‘knee jerk’ reactions to press and social media, has greyed the policy divisions between conservatives and socialists and allowed the extremists a much louder voice.

Members of parliament of minority political parties in Great Britain have always hankered after Proportional Representation to give them greater influence in the House of commons in the name of democracy. In the past The Liberal parties have won say 20 % of the vote, but had less than 20 representatives out of 600! This is clearly unfair, however the German elections have seen Proportional Representation deliver a result which would seem to impede effective government in Germany. My understanding is that the ‘Jamaica Coalition’ is primarily in place because the SPD want to launch a more effective opposition, but what strange bed-fellows this has created! Angela Merkel will be forced even more to the liberal left and what the hell are de Linke and AfD going to agree on in opposition!

The implications of Merkel’s refugee policy

I think Angela Merkel was uncharacteristically hasty with her refugee decision. Her response to the refugee crisis was from the heart and not one of her typical carefully measured decisions. It was not a practical decision in that it did not take into consideration the different political climates in all the other EC states. The migration issue is a very big one. Peoples’ fear of refugees threatening their jobs and putting a strain on social resources is very real. Logarithmic population growth and consequent mass migration is ultimately the world’s greatest challenge. Already the first world is feeling the massive impact of the sinister side of silicon valley facilitating the wholesale loss of many jobs and ultimately many peoples’ way of life!

It was a sound humanitarian act but it has political consequences far and beyond her reputation, Germany, Europe and the whole world. It certainly exacerbated the rise of the right in Germany and beyond, playing straight into their racist hands. Her reaction is also symbolic for me in the increasingly liberal direction of the CDU. I think she probably is keen on a 4th term to oversee the consequences of her refugee and European policy. I believe it’s in Europe’s interest for her to stay in power. She is required to adopt a stabilising role, not unlike the one Helmut Schmidt adopted so effectively in former times.

Ultimately her refugee decision may well precipitate the restructuring of the EC itself, although I don’t believe this was Merkel’s intention at the time. It certainly brought out all the major differences between European states and indirectly made a Brexit vote more likely and demonstrated the true political colours of countries like Hungary. The knock-on effect has already been enormous. An EC without the UK will throw Germany into the role of Europe’s leader and scapegoat. No one will any longer be able to blame the Brits! Germany will have to accept it’s military responsibilities including nuclear weapons and will no longer have a British buffer between itself and the French.

What the UK voters did and will BREXIT ever happen?

The fateful Brexit decision was made, I believe, not out of protest but simple disillusionment with politicians’ ability to listen to or care about the less privileged in society. Brexit was presented as a binary issue without consequences. As it happened before in Britain.

Britain is still very polarized and divided on the issue. Maybe some feel stupid. The ‘Brexiteers’ feel they might be betrayed. I believe it won’t happen in a pure form or it will have a drastically detrimental effect on both Britain and Europe. We need one another’s support and it will be impossible to unravel 30 plus years of existence and infrastructure, never mind the legal and practical consequences which are insurmountable. Where are the borders in the English Channel? Under water ! If not Ireland’s borders, trade barriers and other. In conclusion, the Brexit vote was influenced by the refugee crisis and its high media profile. The panic over immigration overshadowed all the real and practically impossible implications of the UK leaving the EU. It was almost certainly the key issue that swung the Brexit vote.

John Watts is the head of Fischer Z, worldwide known since 1979. Together with the band John brings his poetic and very political message to Germany in October 2017. The tour dates are:


Photo: © Fotolia
A carciogenic hazard to humans?: Glyphosat: the Commission, a mere sekretariat!
September 20th, 2017, 04:18 AM

It is worth recalling that before the Lisbon Treaty, Member States formally possessed the power of implementation (i.e. comitology), but delegated it in practice to the Commission. When the Commission did not have the support of the comitology committee (negative opinion or no opinion, depending on the case), the Council would take back the file and come to a decision by itself. This was the ‘call-back right’.

Under Article 291 of the Lisbon Treaty, Regulation 182/2011 gives the final responsibility to the Commission. Whenever the Appeal Committee fails to give a qualified majority for or against, it is up to the EU executive to take a decision. Or to be more precise: the Commission “may” decide. Thus, it can choose not to take a decision; but basically, the spirit of the text puts the Commission in the driving seat.

In the case of the glyphosate, it is the opposite, as the Commission protects itself using a two-fold strategy: first, amend Regulation 182/2011 to shift responsibility onto Member States, as President Juncker desires. But with the 182/2011 proposal not moving forward, Health Commissioner Andriukaitis has taken out a big umbrella, announcing that the Commission will not be authorising glyphosate without a qualified majority of Member States in favour. The Commission is just taking instructions from the European Council, as if it were a mere secretariat!

But what is the point of EFSA?

Like other health agencies around the world, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”. The Commission’s draft proposal to re-authorise glyphosate for 10 years does not contest this view (even though the usual period is 15 years), but it does not fully follow the logic of the opinion. By effectively leaving the final decision to Member States, the Commission is in practice undermining the scientific expertise of one of its main agencies.

EFSA has been criticised a lot in the past, although Ms Geslain-Lanéelle has restored credibility, with a budget of €80 million and a staff of 500 civil servants (not to mention external experts). If the Commission and Member States do not fully follow EFSA opinions without good reasons explained publicly, they cause unnecessary disorder and bad governance while wasting public money.

It’s the dose that makes the poison

On 15 September, the French newspaper Libération published a 4-page article with the title on the front page: “Glyphosate – The enemy of breakfast”. The sub-title, also on page one, says that “Traces of the herbicide, classed as carcinogenic, have been detected notably in cornflakes.” Around the same time, other parts of the media – some considered to be ‘objective’ – accuse EFSA experts of being biased in favour of Monsanto, even though the glyphosate substance has been in the public domain since 2000! There is so much bad faith, so much fake news being spread by zealous minorities who always forget that the dose makes the poison. With glyphosate, the dose is a thousand times below the threshold for toxicity.

Faced with these destabilising manoeuvres to influence opinion, nobody is responding: not the Commission, not EFSA, not the farmers affected by the issue, and not a pesticide industry more worried about the US and China than the European Union. Frankly, there are days when I have doubts not only about Europe but about my own profession. Industrial lobbying is coming more under attack, becoming more defensive; the exact opposite it how it should be.

For more information on this subject, please joint us at the free conference “Maize and Innovation: for better or for worse?” on 27 September 2017 (2-5pm) at the Berlaymont Hotel.

Photo: CC by sa OliBac
State of the union: Jean-Claude junckers address: We only have two choices
September 15th, 2017, 04:18 AM

Mr President, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

When I stood before you this time last year, I had a somewhat easier speech to give.

It was plain for all to see that our Union was not in a good state.

Europe was battered and bruised by a year that shook our very foundation.

We only had two choices. Either come together around a positive European agenda or each retreat into our own corners.

Faced with this choice, I argued for unity.

I proposed a positive agenda to help create – as I said last year – a Europe that protects, empowers and defends.

Over the past twelve months, the European Parliament has helped bring this agenda to life. We continue to make progress with each passing day. Just last night you worked to find agreement on trade defence instruments and on doubling our European investment capacity.

I also want to thank the 27 leaders of our Member States. Days after my speech last year, they welcomed my agenda at their summit in Bratislava. In doing so they chose unity. They chose to rally around our common ground.

Together, we showed that Europe can deliver for its citizens when and where it matters.

Ever since, we have been slowly but surely gathering momentum.

It helped that the economic outlook swung in our favour.

We are now in the fifth year of an economic recovery that finally reaches every single Member State.

Growth in the European Union has outstripped that of the United States over the last two years. It now stands above 2% for the Union as a whole and at 2.2% for the euro area.

Unemployment is at a nine year low. Almost 8 million jobs have been created during this mandate so far. With 235 million people at work, more people are in employment in the EU than ever before.

The European Commission cannot take the credit for this alone. Though I am sure that had 8 million jobs been lost, we would have taken the blame.

But Europe’s institutions played their part in helping the wind change.

We can take credit for our European Investment Plan which has triggered €225 billion worth of investment so far. It has granted loans to over 445,000 small firms and more than 270 infrastructure projects.

We can take credit for the fact that, thanks to determined action, European banks once again have the capital firepower to lend to companies so that they can grow and create jobs.

And we can take credit for having brought public deficits down from 6.6% to 1.6%. This is thanks to an intelligent application of the Stability and Growth Pact. We ask for fiscal discipline but are careful not to kill growth. This is in fact working very well across the Union – despite the criticism.

Ten years since crisis struck, Europe’s economy is finally bouncing back.

And with it, our confidence.

Our EU27 leaders, the Parliament and the Commission are putting the Europe back in our Union. Together we are putting the Union back in our Union.

In the last year, we saw all 27 leaders walk up the Capitoline Hill in Rome, one by one, to renew their vows to each other and to our Union.

All of this leads me to believe: the wind is back in Europe’s sails.

We now have a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever.

Let us make the most of the momentum, catch the wind in our sails.

For this we must do two things:

First, we should stay the course set out last year. We have still 16 months in which real progress can be made by Parliament, Council and Commission. We must use this time to finish what we started in Bratislava and deliver on our positive agenda.

Secondly, we should chart the direction for the future. As Mark Twain wrote, years from now we will be more disappointed by the things we did not do, than by the ones we did. Now is the time to build a more united, stronger and more democratic Europe for 2025.


Mr President, Honourable Members,

As we look to the future, we cannot let ourselves be blown off course.

We set out to complete an Energy Union, a Security Union, a Capital Markets Union, a Banking Union and a Digital Single Market. Together, we have already come a long way.

As the Parliament testified, 80% of the proposals promised at the start of the mandate have already been put forward by the Commission. We must now work together to turn proposals into law, and law into practice.

As ever, there will be a degree of give and take. The Commission’s proposals to reform our Common Asylum System and strengthen rules on the Posting of Workers have caused controversy. Achieving a good result will need all sides to move towards each other. I want to say today: as long as the outcome is the right one for our Union and is fair to all Member States, the Commission will be open to compromise

We are now ready to put the remaining 20% of initiatives on the table by May 2018.

This morning, I sent a Letter of Intent to European Parliament President Antonio Tajani and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas outlining the priorities for the year ahead.

I will not list all our proposals here, but let me mention five which are particularly important.

Firstly, I want us to strengthen our European trade agenda.

Yes, Europe is open for business. But there must be reciprocity. We have to get what we give.

Trade is not something abstract. Trade is about jobs, creating new opportunities for Europe’s businesses big and small. Every additional €1 billion in exports supports 14,000 extra jobs in Europe.

Trade is about exporting our standards, be they social or environmental standards, data protection or food safety requirements.

Europe has always been an attractive place to do business.

But over the last year, partners across the globe are lining up at our door to conclude trade agreements with us.

With the help of the European Parliament, we have just secured a trade agreement with Canada that will provisionally apply as of next week. We have a political agreement with Japan on a new economic partnership. By the end of the year, we have a good chance of doing the same with Mexico and South American countries.

And today, we are proposing to open trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand.

I want all of these agreements to be finalised by the end of this mandate. And I want them negotiated in the fullest transparency.

Open trade must go hand in hand with open policy making.

The European Parliament will have the final say on all trade agreements. So its Members, like members of national and regional parliaments, must be kept fully informed from day one of the negotiations. The Commission will make sure of this.

From now on, the Commission will publish in full all draft negotiating mandates we propose to the Council.

Citizens have the right to know what the Commission is proposing. Gone are the days of no transparency. Gone are the days of rumours, of incessantly questioning the Commission’s motives.

I call on the Council to do the same when it adopts the final negotiating mandates.

Let me say once and for all: we are not naïve free traders.

Europe must always defend its strategic interests.

This is why today we are proposing a new EU framework for investment screening. If a foreign, state-owned, company wants to purchase a European harbour, part of our energy infrastructure or a defence technology firm, this should only happen in transparency, with scrutiny and debate. It is a political responsibility to know what is going on in our own backyard so that we can protect our collective security if needed.

Secondly, I want to make our industry stronger and more competitive.

This is particularly true for our manufacturing base and the 32 million workers that form its backbone. They make the world-class products that give us our edge, like our cars.

I am proud of our car industry. But I am shocked when consumers are knowingly and deliberately misled. I call on the car industry to come clean and make it right. Instead of looking for loopholes, they should be investing in the clean cars of the future.

The new Industrial Policy Strategy we are presenting today will help our industries stay or become the world leader in innovation, digitisation and decarbonisation.

Third: I want Europe to be the leader when it comes to the fight against climate change.

Last year, we set the global rules of the game with the Paris Agreement ratified here, in this very House. Set against the collapse of ambition in the United States, Europe will ensure we make our planet great again. It is the shared heritage of all of humanity.

The Commission will shortly present proposals to reduce the carbon emissions of our transport sector.

Fourth priority for the year ahead: we need to better protect Europeans in the digital age.

In the past three years, we have made progress in keeping Europeans safe online. New rules, put forward by the Commission, will protect our intellectual property, our cultural diversity and our personal data. We have stepped up the fight against terrorist propaganda and radicalisation online. But Europe is still not well equipped when it comes to cyber-attacks.

Cyber-attacks can be more dangerous to the stability of democracies and economies than guns and tanks. Last year alone there were more than 4,000 ransomware attacks per day and 80% of European companies experienced at least one cyber-security incident.

Cyber-attacks know no borders and no one is immune. This is why, today, the Commission is proposing new tools, including a European Cybersecurity Agency, to help defend us against such attacks.

Fifth: migration will stay on our radar.

In spite of the debate and controversy around this topic, we have managed to make solid progress – though admittedly insufficient in many areas.

We are now protecting Europe’s external borders more effectively. Over 1,700 officers from the new European Border and Coast Guard are now helping Member States’ 100,000 national border guards patrol in places like Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain. We have common borders but Member States that by geography are the first in line cannot be left alone to protect them. Common borders and common protection must go hand in hand.

We have managed to stem irregular flows of migrants, which were a cause of great anxiety for many. We have reduced irregular arrivals in the Eastern Mediterranean by 97% thanks our agreement with Turkey. And this summer, we managed to get more control over the Central Mediterranean route with arrivals in August down by 81% compared to the same month last year.

In doing so, we have drastically reduced the loss of life in the Mediterranean. Tragically, nearly 2,500 died this year. I will never accept that people are left to die at sea.

I cannot talk about migration without paying strong tribute to Italy for their tireless and noble work. This summer, the Commission again worked closely together with Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and his government to improve the situation, notably by training the Libyan Coast Guard. We will continue to offer strong operational and financial support to Italy. Because Italy is saving Europe’s honour in the Mediterranean.

We must also urgently improve migrants’ living conditions in Libya. I am appalled by the inhumane conditions in detention or reception centres. Europe has a collective responsibility, and the Commission will work in concert with the United Nations to put an end to this scandalous situation that cannot be made to last.

Even if it saddens me to see that solidarity is not yet equally shared across all our Member States, Europe as a whole has continued to show solidarity. Last year alone, our Member States resettled or granted asylum to over 720,000 refugees – three times as much as the United States, Canada and Australia combined. Europe, contrary to what some say, is not a fortress and must never become one. Europe is and must remain the continent of solidarity where those fleeing persecution can find refuge.

I am particularly proud of the young Europeans volunteering to give language courses to Syrian refugees or the thousands more young people who are serving in our new European Solidarity Corps. They are bringing European solidarity to life.

We now need to redouble our efforts. Before the end of the month, the Commission will present a new set of proposals with an emphasis on returns, solidarity with Africa and opening legal pathways.

When it comes to returns: people who have no right to stay in Europe must be returned to their countries of origin. When only 36% of irregular migrants are returned, it is clear we need to significantly step up our work. This is the only way Europe will be able to show solidarity with refugees in real need of protection.

Solidarity cannot be exclusively intra-European. We must also showsolidarity withAfrica. Africa is a noble and young continent, the cradle of humanity. Our €2.7 billion EU-Africa Trust Fund is creating employment opportunities across the continent. The EU budget fronted the bulk of the money, but all our Member States combined have still only contributed €150 million. The Fund is currently reaching its limits. We know the dangers of a lack of funding – in 2015 many migrants headed towards Europe when the UN’s World Food Programme ran out of funds. I call on all Member States to now match their actions with their words and ensure the Africa Trust Fund does not meet the same fate.

We will also work on opening up legal pathways. Irregular migration will only stop if there is a real alternative to perilous journeys. We are close to having resettled 22,000 refugees from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and I support UN High Commissioner Grandi’s call to resettle a further 40,000 refugees from Libya and the surrounding countries.

At the same time, legal migration is a necessity for Europe as an ageing continent. This is why the Commission made proposals to make it easier for skilled migrants to reach Europe with a Blue Card. I would like to thank the Parliament for your support and I call for an ambitious and swift agreement on this important issue.


Mr President,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Honourable Members,

I have mentioned just a few of the initiatives we should deliver over the next 16 months. But this alone will not be enough to regain the hearts and minds of Europeans.

Now is the time to chart the direction for the future.

In March, the Commission presented our White Paper on the future of Europe, with five scenarios for what Europe could look like by 2025. These scenarios have been discussed, scrutinised and partly ripped apart. That is good – they were conceived for exactly this purpose. I wanted to launch a process in which Europeans determined their own path and their own future.

The future of Europe cannot be decided by decree. It has to be the result of democratic debate and, ultimately, broad consensus. This House contributed actively, through the three ambitious resolutions on Europe’s future and your participation in many of the more than 2,000 public events that the Commission organised since March.

Now is the time to draw first conclusions from this debate. Time to move from reflection to action. From debate to decision.

Today I would like to present you my view: my own ‘scenario six’, if you will.

This scenario is rooted in decades of first-hand experience. I have lived and worked for the European project my entire life. I have seen good times and bad.

I have sat on many different sides of the table: as a Minister, as Prime Minister, as President of the Eurogroup, and now as President of the Commission. I was there in Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon as our Union evolved and enlarged.

I have always fought for Europe. At times I have suffered with and because of Europe and even despaired for it.

Through thick and thin, I have never lost my love of Europe.

But there is rarely love without pain.

Love for Europe because Europe and the European Union have achieved something unique in this fraying world: peace within and outside of Europe. Prosperity for many if not yet for all.

This is something we have to remember during the European Year of Cultural Heritage. 2018 must be a celebration of cultural diversity.


Our values are our compass.

For me, Europe is more than just a single market. More than money, more than the euro. It was always about values.

In my scenario six, there are three principles that must always anchor our Union: freedom, equality and the rule of law.

Europe is first of all a Union of freedom. Freedom from the kind of oppression and dictatorship our continent knows all too well – sadly none more than central and Eastern Europe. Freedom to voice your opinion, as a citizen and as a journalist – a freedom we too often take for granted. It was on these freedoms that our Union was built. But freedom does not fall from the sky. It must be fought for. In Europe and throughout world.

Second, Europe must be a Union of equality.

Equality between its Members, big and small, East and West, North and South.

Make no mistake, Europe extends from Vigo to Varna. From Spain to Bulgaria.

East to West: Europe must breathe with both lungs. Otherwise our continent will struggle for air.

In a Union of equals, there can be no second class citizens. It is unacceptable that in 2017 there are still children dying of diseases that should long have been eradicated in Europe. Children in Romania or Italy must have the same access to measles vaccines as other children right across Europe. No ifs, no buts. This is why we are working with all Member States to support national vaccination efforts. Avoidable deaths must not occur in Europe.

In a Union of equals, there can be no second class workers. Workers should earn the same pay for the same work in the same place. This is why the Commission proposed new rules on posting of workers. We should make sure that all EU rules on labour mobility are enforced in a fair, simple and effective way by a new European inspection and enforcement body. It seems absurd to have a Banking Authority to police banking standards, but no common Labour Authority for ensuring fairness in our single market. We will create one.

In a Union of equals, there can be no second class consumers. I will not accept that in some parts of Europe,people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical. Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers. Hungarians less meat in their meals. Czechs less cacao in their chocolate. EU law outlaws such practices already. We must now equip national authorities with stronger powers to cut out any illegal practices wherever they exist.

Third, in Europe the strength of the law replaced the law of the strong.

The rule of law means that law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary.

Accepting and respecting a final judgement is what it means to be part of a Union based on the rule of law. Member States gave final jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice. The judgements of the Court have to be respected by all. To undermine them, or to undermine the independence of national courts, is to strip citizens of their fundamental rights.

The rule of law is not optional in the European Union. It is a must.

Our Union is not a State but it is a community of law.


Honourable Members,

These three principles must be the foundations on which we build a more united, stronger and more democratic Union.

When we talk about our future, experience tells me new Treaties and new institutions are not the answer people are looking for. They are merely a means to an end, nothing more, nothing less. They might mean something to us here in Strasbourg and in Brussels. But they do not mean a lot to anyone else.

I am only interested in institutional reforms if they lead to more efficiency in our Union.

Instead of hiding behind calls for Treaty change – which is in any case inevitable – we must first change the mind-set that for some to win others must lose.

Democracy is about compromise. And the right compromise makes winners out of everyone. A more united Union should see compromise, not as something negative, but as the art of bridging differences. Democracy cannot function without compromise. Europe cannot function without compromise. This is what the work between Parliament, Council and Commission should always be about.

A more united Union also needs to become more inclusive.

If we want to strengthen the protection of our external borders, then we need to open the Schengen area of free movement to Bulgaria and Romania immediately. We should also allow Croatia to become a full Schengen member once it meets all the criteria.

If we want the euro to unite rather than divide our continent, then it should be more than the currency of a select group of countries. The euro is meant to be the single currency of the European Union as a whole. All but two of our Member States are required and entitled to join the euro once they fulfil all conditions.

Member States that want to join the euro must be able to do so. This is why I am proposing to create a Euro-accession Instrument, offering technical and even financial assistance.

If we want banks to operate under the same rules and under the same supervision across our continent, then we should encourage all Member States to join the Banking Union. Completing the Banking Union is a matter of urgency. We need to reduce the remaining risks in the banking systems of some of our Member States. Banking Union can only function if risk-reduction and risk-sharing go hand in hand. As everyone well knows, this can only be achieved if the conditions, as proposed by the Commission in November 2015, are met. To get access to a common deposit insurance scheme you first need to do your homework.

If we want to avoid social fragmentation and social dumping in Europe, then Member States should agree on the European Pillar of Social Rights as soon as possible and at the latest at the Gothenburg summit in November. National social systems will still remain diverse and separate for a long time. But at the very least, we should work for a European Social Standards Union in which we have a common understanding of what is socially fair.

Europe cannot work if it shuns workers.

If we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.

It is clear that there will be no further enlargement during the mandate of this Commission and this Parliament. No candidate is ready yet. But thereafter the European Union will be greater than 27 in number. Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority.

This rules out EU membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future.

Turkey has been taking giant strides away from the European Union for some time.

Journalists belong in newsrooms not in prisons. They belong where freedom of expression reigns.

The call I make to those in power in Turkey is this: Let our journalists go. And not just them either. Stop insulting our Member States by comparing their leaders to fascists and Nazis. Europe is a continent of mature democracies. Insults create roadblocks. Sometimes I get the feeling Turkey is intentionally placing these roadblocks so that it can blame Europe for any breakdown in accession talks.

As for us, we will always keep our hands stretched out towards the great Turkish people and those who are ready to work with us on the basis of our values.


Honourable Members,

Our Union must also grow stronger.

I want a stronger single market.

When it comes to important single market questions, I want decisions in the Council to be taken more often and more easily by qualified majority – with the equal involvement of the European Parliament. We do not need to change the Treaties for this. There are so-called “passerelle clauses” in the current Treaties which allow us to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas – if all Heads of State or Government agree to do so.

I am also strongly in favour of moving to qualified majority voting for decisions on the common consolidated corporate tax base, on VAT, on fair taxes for the digital industry and on the financial transaction tax. Europe has to be able to act quicker and more decisively.

I want a stronger Economic and Monetary Union.

The euro area is more resilient now than in years past. We now have the European Stabilisation Mechanism (ESM). I believe the ESM should now progressively graduate into a European Monetary Fund and be firmly anchored in our Union. The Commission will make concrete proposals for this in December.

We need a European Minister of Economy and Finance: a European Minister that promotes and supports structural reforms in our Member States. He or she can build on the work the Commission has been doing since 2015 with our Structural Reform Support Service. The new Minister should coordinate all EU financial instruments that can be deployed when a Member State is in a recession or hit by a fundamental crisis.

I am not calling for a new position just for the sake of it. I am calling for efficiency. The Commissioner for economic and financial affairs – ideally also a Vice-President – should assume the role of Economy and Finance Minister. He or she should also preside the Eurogroup.

The European Economy and Finance Minister must be accountable to the European Parliament.

We do not need parallel structures. We do not need a budget for the Euro area but a strong Euro area budget line within the EU budget.

I am also not fond of the idea of having a separate euro area parliament.

The Parliament of the euro area is the European Parliament.

The European Union must also be stronger in fighting terrorism. In the past three years, we have made real progress. But we still lack the means to act quickly in case of cross-border terrorist threats.

This is why I call for a European intelligence unit that ensures data concerning terrorists and foreign fighters are automatically shared among intelligence services and with the police.

I also see a strong case for tasking the new European Public Prosecutor with prosecuting cross-border terrorist crimes.

I want our Union to become a stronger global actor. In order to have more weight in the world, we must be able to take foreign policy decisions quicker. This is why I want Member States to look at which foreign policy decisions could be moved from unanimity to qualified majority voting. The Treaty already provides for this, if all Member States agree to do it.

And I want us to dedicate further efforts to defence matters. A new European Defence Fund is in the offing. As is a Permanent Structured Cooperation in the area of defence. By 2025 we need a fully-fledged European Defence Union. We need it. And NATO wants it.

Last but not least, I want our Union to have a stronger focus on things that matter, building on the work this Commission has already undertaken. We should not meddle in the everyday lives of European citizens by regulating every aspect. We should be big on the big things. We should not march in with a stream of new initiatives or seek ever growing competences. We should give back competences to Member States where it makes sense.

This is why this Commission has been big on big issues and small on the small ones, putting forward less than 25 new initiatives a year where previous Commissions proposed over 100. We have handed back powers where it makes more sense for national governments to deal with things. Thanks to the good work of Commissioner Vestager, we have delegated 90% of state aid decisions to the regional or local level.

To finish the work we started, I am setting up a Subsidiarity and Proportionality Task Force as of this month to take a very critical look at all policy areas to make sure we are only acting where the EU adds value. First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who has a proven track record on better regulation, will head this Task Force. The Timmermans Task Force, which should include Members of this Parliament as well as Members of national Parliaments, should report back in a years’ time.


Honourable Members,

Mr President,

Our Union needs to take a democratic leap forward.

I would like to see European political parties start campaigning for the next elections much earlier than in the past. Too often Europe-wide elections have been reduced to nothing more than the sum of national campaigns. European democracy deserves better.

Today, the Commission is proposing new rules on the financing of political parties and foundations. We should not be filling the coffers of anti-European extremists. We should be giving European parties the means to better organise themselves.

I also have sympathy for the idea of having transnational lists – though I am aware this is an idea more than a few of you disagree with. Such lists would help make European Parliament elections more European and more democratic.

I also believe that, over the months to come, we should involve national Parliaments and civil society at national, regional and local level more in the work on the future of Europe. Over the last three years, Members of the Commission have visited national Parliaments more than 650 times. They also debated in more than 300 interactive Citizens’ Dialogues in more than 80 cities and towns across 27 Member States. But we can still do more. This is why I support President Macron’s idea of organising democratic conventions across Europe in 2018.

As the debate gathers pace, I will personally pay particular attention to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania in 2018. This is the year they will celebrate their 100th anniversary. Those who want to shape the future of our continent should well understand and honour our common history. This includes these four countries – Europe would not be whole without them.

The need to strengthen democracy also has implications for the European Commission. Today, I am sending the European Parliament a new Code of Conduct for Commissioners. The new Code first of all makes clear that Commissioners can be candidates in European Parliament elections under the same conditions as everyone else. The new Code will of course strengthen the integrity requirements for Commissioners both during and after their mandate.

If you want to strengthen European democracy, then you cannot reverse the democratic progress seen with the creation of lead candidates – ‘Spitzenkandidaten’.

I am convinced that any future President will benefit greatly from the unique experience of having campaigned in all quarters of our beautiful continent. To understand the challenges of his or her job and the diversity of our Member States, a future President should have met citizens in the townhalls of Helsinki as well as in the squares of Athens. In my personal experience of such a campaign, it makes you more humble, but also strengthens you during your mandate. And you can face the other leaders in the European Council with the confidence that you have been elected, just as they have. This is good for the balance of our Union.

More democracy means more efficiency. Europe would function better if we were to merge the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.

This is nothing against my good friend Donald, with whom I have worked seamlessly together for the past three years. This is nothing against Donald or against me.

Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship.

Having a single President would better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens.


Honourable members,

The vision of a more united, stronger and more democratic Europe I am outlining today combines elements from all of the scenarios I set out in March.

But our future cannot remain a scenario, a sketch, an idea amongst others.

We have to prepare the Union of tomorrow, today.

This morning I sent a Roadmap to President Tajani, President Tusk as well as to the holders of the rotating Presidencies of the Council between now and March 2019, outlining where we should go from here.

An important element will be the plans the Commission will present in May 2018 for how the future EU budget can match our ambition and make sure we can deliver on everything we promise.

On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. This will be a very sad and tragic moment. We will always regret it. But we have to respect the will of the British people.

On 30 March 2019, we will be a Union of 27. I suggest that we prepare for this moment well, amongst the 27 and within the EU institutions.

European Parliament elections will take place just a few weeks later, in May 2019. Europeans have a date with democracy. They need to go to the polls with a clear understanding of how the European Union will develop over the years to come.

This is why I call on President Tusk and Romania, the country holding the Presidency in the first half of 2019, to organise a Special Summit in Romania on 30 March 2019. My wish is that this summit be held in the beautiful ancient city of Sibiu, or Hermannstadt as I know it. It should be the moment we come together to take the decisions needed for a more united, stronger and democratic Europe.

My hope is that on 30 March 2019, Europeans will wake up to a Union where we all stand by our values. Where all Member States firmly respect the rule of law. Where being a full member of the euro area, the Banking Union and the Schengen area has become the norm for all EU Member States. Where we have shored up the foundations of our Economic and Monetary Union so that we can defend our single currency in good times and bad, without having to call on external help. Where our single market will be fairer towards workers from the East and from the West. Where we managed to agree on a strong pillar of social standards. Where profits will be taxed where they were made. Where terrorists have no loopholes to exploit. Where we have agreed on a proper European Defence Union. Where a single President leads the work of the Commission and the European Council, having been elected after a democratic Europe-wide election campaign.

If our citizens wake up to this Union on 30 March 2019, then they should be able vote in the European Parliament elections a few weeks later with the firm conviction that our Union is a place that works for them.


Honourable Members,

Europe was not made to stand still. It must never do so. Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors taught me that Europe only moves forward when it is bold. The single market, Schengen and the single currency were all written off as pipe dreams before they happened. And yet these three ambitious projects are now a reality.

I hear those who say we should not rock the boat now that things have started to get better. But now is not the time to err on the side of caution. We started to fix the roof. But we must complete the job now that the sun is shining and whilst it still is. Because when the next clouds appear on the horizon – and they will – it will be too late. So let’s throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the harbour and catch the trade winds in our sails.

Photo: © Fotolia / nmann77
War in Iraq and Syria: ISIL targeting civilians to 'avenge' loss of Tal Afar
September 3rd, 2017, 04:18 AM

Islamic State (ISIL), also known as IS, still doesn’t slow down in his deadly activities. ISIL-fighters are indiscriminately targeting civilians to avenge for their loss of Tal Afar, the top United Nations political representative in Iraqi today said, condemning the latest attack in Baghdad. “Da’esh terrorists have shown absolute disregard for human life,” said Ján Kubiš, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Iraq, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL. “However, the patience and resilience of the Iraqi people have defeated the terrorists’ aim in breaking their unity,” he added.

At least 125 civilians were killed and another 188 injured in terrorist related acts in Iraq during the month of August, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI). The casualty figures show that Baghdad was the worst affected area, and do not include casualty figures from ongoing fighting in Anbar province. The overall casualty figures are lower than in previous months, where violence spiked above 2,000 in October 2016.

In a separate statement, Mr. Kubiš said that “hopeful days lie ahead for Iraq,” noting military victories against terrorists, including in the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar which Iraqi forces yesterday declared liberated from ISIL. Mr. Kubiš said this Eid al-Adha, thoughts and prayers go to all the martyrs and fighters in the liberating forces, and to those who provide support and are affected – including the millions of displaced Iraqis. “On this Eid, the Feast of Sacrifice that Muslims celebrate worldwide, the Iraqi people who have sacrificed dearly deserve to live in peace, dignity and prosperity,” he said.
The senior UN official added that sustainable peace in the country can only be secured through inclusive solutions, addressing grievances, needs and aspirations of the Iraqi people.

Photo: © Unicef
Free world has to take care: Religious freedom is under attack
August 27th, 2017, 04:18 AM

Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.We cannot ignore these conditions. The Trump administration has committed to addressing these conditions in part by advancing international religious freedom around the world. The State Department will continue to advocate on behalf of those seeking to live their lives according to their faith.The release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report details the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories, and provides insights as to significant and growing challenges. Today I want to call out a few of the more egregious and troubling examples.

As we make progress in defeating ISIS and denying them their caliphate, their terrorist members have and continue to target multiple religions and ethnic groups for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and even death. To remove any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department, the crime of genocide requires three elements: specific acts with specific intent to destroy in whole or in part specific people, members of national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Specific act, specific intent, specific people.

Application of the law to the facts at hand leads to the conclusion ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled. ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities. More recently, ISIS has claimed responsibility for attacks on Christian pilgrims and churches in Egypt. The protection of these groups – and others subject to violent extremism – is a human rights priority for the Trump administration.We will continue working with our regional partners to protect religious minority communities from terrorist attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage.

As the 2016 report indicates, many governments around the world use discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief.

In Iran, Baha’is, Christians, and other minorities are persecuted for their faith. Iran continues to sentence individuals to death under vague apostasy laws – 20 individuals were executed in 2016 on charges that included, quote, “waging war against God.” Members of the Baha’i community are in prison today simply for abiding by their beliefs.

We remain concerned about the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. The government does not recognize the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in public and applied criminal penalties, including prison sentences, lashings, and fines, for apostasy, atheism, blasphemy, and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam. Of particular concern are attacks targeting Shia Muslims, and the continued pattern of social prejudice and discrimination against them. We urge Saudi Arabia to embrace greater degrees of religious freedom for all of its citizens.

In Turkey, authorities continued to limit the human rights of members of some religious minority groups, and some communities continue to experience protracted property disputes. Non-Sunni Muslims, such as Alevi Muslims, do not receive the same governmental protections as those enjoyed by recognized non-Muslim minorities and have faced discrimination and violence. Additionally, the United States continues to advocate for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey.

And in Bahrain, the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. Members of the Shia community there continue to report ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Bahrain must stop discriminating against the Shia communities.

In China, the government tortures, detains, and imprisons thousands for practicing their religious beliefs. Dozens of Falun Gong members have died in detention. Police – policies that restrict Uighur Muslims’ and Tibetan Buddhists’ religious expression and practice have increased.

Religious freedom is under attack in Pakistan, where more than two dozen are on death row or serving a life imprisonment for blasphemy. The government marginalizes Ahmadiyya Muslims, and refuses to recognize them as Muslim. It is my hope that the new prime minister and his government will promote interfaith harmony and protect the rights of religious minorities.

Finally, in Sudan the government arrests, detains, and intimidates clergy and church members. It denies permits for the construction of new churches and is closing or demolishing existing ones. We encourage the Government of Sudan to engage concretely on the religious freedom action plan provided by the department last year.

Unfortunately, the list goes on. No one should have to live in fear, worship in secret, or face discrimination because of his or her beliefs. As President Trump has said, we look forward to a day when, quote, “people of all faiths, Christians and Muslims and Jewish and Hindu, can follow their hearts and worship according to their conscience,” end quote. (…) We look forward to working with Congress, and the administration, to continue America’s indispensable role as a champion of religious freedom the world over.

Source: U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, August 15, 2017

Photo: © Getty Images
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan: There must be peace
August 16th, 2017, 04:18 AM

Mr Heydarov, thank you for your willingness to answer our questions today. You campaign in various ways for a peaceful settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Could you describe the origin of this conflict?

When the Soviet Union started to disintegrate in the late 1980s, and the world’s attention was focused on the terrible ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Armenia took the opportunity to invade Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other regions of Azerbaijan. This equates to approximately 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory, and resulted in 30,000 deaths and around one million Azerbaijanis becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. This represents one of the highest rates of displacement per capita in the world.

Between 1988 and 1994 the conflict escalated. What sparked the escalation and what were the consequences?

The Armenians decided from the outset that the best way of capturing as much territory as possible was to terrorise the inhabitants into fleeing. Incidents such as the 1992 massacre of civilians in Khojaly spread fear to other towns, and many residents fled before they were attacked. This vicious programme of ethnic cleansing created the conditions for a particularly brutal conflict.

You mentioned Khojaly – what happened there in 1992?

On the night of 25–26 February 1992, Armenia’s armed forces – backed by the rogue 366 Motor-Rifle Regiment of the Red Army – surrounded Khojaly and proceeded to bombard it with mortar and artillery fire. As the remaining terrified civilian residents fled, they were ambushed and slaughtered, with many of the bodies being mutilated. Altogether, 613 men, women, children and elderly people were killed that night – and many others were captured as hostages and tortured.

Since the ceasefire in 1994, the OSCE Minsk Group has been tasked with achieving a sustainable peace. What are the results of these negotiations so far?

Sadly, despite many hours of talks, there has been no progress for over 20 years. At one stage a compromise agreement drawn up by the OSCE Minsk Group – the Madrid Principles – was accepted by the Azerbaijani side. Amongst other clauses, this demanded the return of the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, and permitted a high degree of autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. However, this was was subsequently rejected by the Armenian side.

How are the conflict and its consequences regarded internationally?

Despite the passing of four UN Security Council resolutions in 1993 instructing Armenia to withdraw its armed forces from the illegally occupied territories, the international community has made no effort to enforce compliance.

Then, how is it possible that Armenia occupies almost 20 per cent of Azerbaijani state territory until today – in defiance of the four UN Security Council resolutions?

The international community lacks the will to enforce the UN Security Council resolutions. The OSCE Minsk Group, appointed to facilitate a resolution to the conflict, certainly refuses to grab that bull by the horns. The legal position is clear and recognised on paper by all international organisations. Azerbaijani lands are under illegal occupation. But the talk of the bureaucrats is of compromise and negotiation. Compromise and negotiate with a thief that has stolen Azerbaijani land, property and lives. They warn that there is no military solution to the problem. But how did the problem arise? Precisely by military attack and invasion. The Minsk Group has nothing to say about that. Indeed, Azerbaijan is called on to negotiate peacefully with one of the leading military figures in the forces that occupied, expelled and killed – Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan. Finally the Minsk Group consists of three people, one each from Russia, the USA and France. These are the countries with the three largest Armenian diasporas influencing their politicians.

The conflict is commonly called a ‘frozen conflict’. Is this an appropriate description of the status quo?

This is absolutely not the case. There are daily exchanges of sniper fire across the ‘contact line’ between Azerbaijan and the Armenian-occupied territories, and just last month Armenian forces targeted the civilian population of Alkhanly village, killing two-year-old Zahra Guliyeva and her grandmother

At first sight, the conflict appears far away, as a South Caucasus problem, therefore having little impact on us and our lives in Western Europe. Could you tell us the reasons why the conflict nevertheless possesses supra-regional significance?

The South Caucasus region lies at the crossroads between Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. A full-scale renewal of the conflict could have a deeply destabilising effect on all of those regions. Azerbaijan is blessed with hydrocarbons, and there are oil pipelines servicing a wide region that would be impacted. Furthermore, the Southern Gas Corridor – currently under construction – is destined to provide and diversify fuel supplies for many Eastern and Western European countries. This would be placed in serious jeopardy by any expansion of the conflict.

From your point of view – what must be done, so that the conflict can be solved after 25 years?

The international community needs to pressurise Armenia to obey international law, the UN Security Council resolutions and immediately withdraw its armed forces.

You are founder and Chairman of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS). What are the objectives of TEAS?

TEAS’s overriding purpose is to demonstrate the connections between Azerbaijani and Europe, and all that the country has to offer. We promote Azerbaijani culture and two-way trade and investment. We also highlight the plight of the one million refugees and IDPs who are its on-going victims and call for a just restoration of their right to live in peace in their own homes, land, property and state.

Photo: © Fotolia / saiko3p
2017 election campaign in Germany: Merkel or THE LEFT
August 16th, 2017, 04:18 AM

The Christian Democrats are promoting the slogan “A Germany we love to live in and enjoy". “We” can be translated as "nothing is given to those at the very bottom, we are not taking anything from those at the top. On the contrary: On the one hand, top earners still get what it takes, and the heirs of obscene assets are spared altogether. On the other hand, those people are not benefiting from tax breaks who are too poor to be taxed anyway, and citizens on social welfare, the so called “Hartz IV”, have other concerns than those of real estate financing.

The Christian Democrats fail to present a pension plan, old-age poverty remains a great concern for the future. In short: “We” starts with the Upper Middle Class, the gap between the rich and the poor will open up further. In all this, a “Germany first” attitude resonates as well. During the funeral ceremony for former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, the former Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe González, paid tribute to Kohl because he envisioned a united Germany, not a German Europe. The Christian Democrats are on the verge forfeiting Kohl’s legacy. Their program is neither Christian nor social. Merkel’s policies are “lacking direction”, Kohl had once remarked.

Election program equals the square of the circle

Finance proposals are hard to find. Both parties with the big “C” that stands for Christian in their titles are boasting to forego tax increases. CDU Vice-President Julia Klöckner emphasizes: “We do not rely on redistribution … but we want prosperity and security for all”. Thus the squaring of the circle becomes the program. The allegedly ambitious goal of halving unemployment by 2025 is a bluff package: many developments are pointing this way anyway. That is why Seehofer welcomes the “Skilled Employee Immigration Act” which is useful for the Bavarian economy.

On the other hand, so-called full employment does not help those who are in precarious employment and / or fixed-term contracts. The celebrated tale of declining unemployment is disguising the fact that millions of good, decently rewarded, and jobs that are subject to social insurance contributions, are missing. In many cases, the paper presented is aimed at correcting past errors and omissions. If the federal government and the states are to recruit 15,000 extra policemen, it is important to recall that in the Federal Republic of Germany some 17,000 police jobs have been removed since 1998. In housing construction, hard to afford promises are made. Approximately five million council estates are missing. Despite a rise in numbers of newly constructed buildings, more than 200,000 council estates have been dismantled in the past four years.

The Christian Democrats and the Constitution

The conduct of the chancellor and the Christian Democratic Union raises questions about their understanding of democracy. The program was created under the guidance of head of the chancellery Peter Altmaier, which is why it is also called the “government program”. The party base remained excluded.

Anyone who sees an alternative to democracy for Germany and finds it in nationalism, right wing populism and racism should not be a member of the German Parliament. All other prospective applicants appear to be in competition with who can sit as a future coalition partner on Merkel’s lap. With one exception: THE LEFT. Only we are ready to deal with the actual powerful in the country to achieve a redistribution of wealth in favor of social justice. In privatization we see an attack on social human rights and believe that profitability doesn’t go well with public health and affordable housing. We want to turn Germany into world champion of disarmament, make weapon exports into war zones illegal, and want to bring home our soldiers from foreign operations. Alas, on election night of September 24th you can either vote for THE LEFT or chose a center-right block. Chose between progress and more of the same.

Photo: © shutterstock, 360b, Bild ID: 674630317
Rock'n'Roll as a synonyme for freedom: Music Beyond Borders
August 14th, 2017, 04:18 AM

I was 15 when “the wall” came down and I couldn’t have been mentally more distant, looking at Berlin from my hometown in Western Germany. But Rock’n’Roll music, the number one cultural US-American import at the time, was as close to me, as Westphalian baked potatoes. Rock’n’Roll, to me, translated into rebellion and youth, future and freedom. It meant freedom from the “establishment”, the conservative parents, the partially reactionary West-German society of the 1980s.

In retrospect, it does not surprise me at all, that I spent twelve years of my life in New York City and that the US will always be more of a spiritual home to me than Germany ought to be – even after being raised here. Rock’n’Roll, the music of the (aging) rebels, requires an environment where it can evolve. And where it can’t, it will forge ahead anyway. The documentary FREE TO ROCK tells that story. It talks about that sensational feeling, which descends on you when you hear the riff of an electric guitar for the first time. The fast beats of a drum set, chiming in, the angry or defiant lyrics of an intense song, which inspires youth and often connects generations. Worldwide.

Rock’nRoll as a form of therapy. “Rocking out” “clearing your head”, resolving emotional blockages. All of these were positive side-effects of a culture that fostered personal freedom, sometimes promoted an alternative lifestyle, but also, as probably every trend, it standardized “cool”. Rock’n’Roll, by definition, used to be “somewhat left” to the baby boomer generation and somewhat progressive. This is no longer the case, necessarily. Those who joined this youth culture in the 60s, 70s and 80s brought forward, in the eyes of many, the then (Western) society. Those who didn’t join, missed out. The generation of their parents, on the other hand, watched the hustle and bustle of the “long-haired” at least suspiciously.

In spite of all this, as an international phenomenon, Rock’n’Roll often becomes the smallest common denominator between different cultures and ideally, entire nations. How the “Rock’n’Roll fever” caused young people behind the iron curtain sleepless nights, US-American director Jim Brown and the producers Doug Yeager, Nick Binkley and legendary Russian Rock musician Stas Namin have managed to captivate in their documentary.

Ten years of meticulous research, voice capturing and the collection of film material helped creating a document, that so impressively demonstrates, how little can be done to stop the exchange of cultures by man-made borders. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knew of that phenomenon and named it “cultural diplomacy”. The mediation of US values around the world became a successful and controversial instrument of US foreign policy. Also in the Soviet Union and the GDR.
On October 1, 1958 the first rock star of music history, Elvis Presley, landed in Friedberg, West-Germany. He had turned Rock’n’Roll ambassador, a style of music that was initially viewed critically also in the US. In particular by anxious (white) parents who feared the moral decay of their teenagers. So, they tried to ban Rock’n’Roll from radio stations. In addition, the new music had African-American roots and was thus automatically viewed negatively by many. This, of course, did not diminish popularity at all, because “forbidden fruit” and all of that.

How much the former East German ideologues feared the freedom of the rock culture and the loss of control over their youth, demonstrates the fact that since the mid-fifties Rock’n’Roll had been regarded as “soulless” music in East Germany, supposedly turning youth into “young degenerates”. The East German paper “Junge Welt” (Young World) describes Elvis Presley with the following words: “His singing was like his face: stupid, obtuse and brutal.” Of course, this assessment is not just as simplistic as it is hostile, but also for the fact that Presley had Native American roots, equally as racist. In this regard, the party functionaries behind the Iron Curtain did not differ significantly from the partially anxious, slightly reactionary, mostly white parents in the USA or West-Germany. Obviously, the parents in the West were not in a position to prohibit this culture by law, the same way the functionaries of the totalitarian German Democratic Republic were.

Finally, the one-party state declares Presley to be the “Number One Enemy of the State”. Rock’n’Roll becomes part of the cultural Cold War for the SED, the one and only East German party. Elvis Presley’s secretary at the time was the young Jewish woman Trudi Forsher, an escapee from National Socialist Vienna. Ultimately the East German government didn’t succeed to stop the influence of Western music shaping their youngsters. Rock music penetrates the wall through radio waves, spreading explosively. The sought-after songs are then secretly and illegally recorded on tape recorders via Western stations, such as Radio Luxemburg, AFN, RIAS or SFBeat and disseminated among like-minded rockers.

In the meantime, the SED party leadership determines in January of 1958, that 60 per cent of all publicly broadcast music must originate from East German composers, or composers living in “socialist countries abroad”. Beyond that, the government founds party-line rock bands, which exemplify a taste of youth-culture, that matches the East German government’s conformist vision.
The forced-upon communist tastes, the prevention of personal freedom, none of it stopped youth, either in East Germany or the Soviet Union, from trying to obtain the forbidden music. Whether by illegally procuring “records” with the music of the Beatles on actual X-rays, or by building electric guitars. By organizing illegal rock concerts, stitching together hastily hippy clothing at night, or performing the forbidden tunes.

Rock music even became a substitute for religion, as God was also illegal. “FREE TO ROCK” impressively portrays youth rebellion in Eastern Europe, initiated by a new musical genre that revolutionized thinking and provided self-confidence where state oppression was on the daily agenda. A role that culture and music still plays in the world. Whether we try to control it, or not.

The documentary “Free To Rock” will be on the German-French channel arte in November. The film was brought on an extensive tour to Germany, by the Schoepflin Stiftung in Loerrach, South Germany. The link to the trailer

Photo: © Lia Maiello
Europe and the Brexit: A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
April 11th, 2017, 04:18 AM

In the 70s there was still significant manufacturing and heavy industry including shipbuilding. The coal and steel industry was fundamental to the communities of Wales, Scotland and the North of England. The cafés were pretty empty during working hours, because most of those employed were in offices, factories and other places of work. The majority of British children had never shared a classroom with a black or a brown face and everyone at the doctor’s surgery spoke English. The big AND… There was no internet and the public got their news and information primarily from national newspapers and TV radio news.

In brief, I believe a ‘Hard Rain’ has fallen and continues to fall heavily on the have-nots in society. The majority of the world’s wealthier nations have sadly adopted the selfish society so encouraged by Thatcher and Reagan as the norm. In the UK most manufacturing and heavy industry has been completely lost, along with all the jobs and in many cases the loss of whole communities’ ways of life and hopes for the future. I find it very sad when value of life is defined purely in financial terms and people of all ages and demographics are obsessed by terms such as ‘austerity’ and ‘deficit’. In my view these words are mythical terms used in an attempt to disguise the exploitation of poorer people and rationalise their bad treatment.

Freedom to be second-class European citizens

I have witnessed another pertinent example of loss of hope and a way of life in parts of Eastern Germany. Communities ‘freed’ from the oppression of a communist regime experienced brief exploitative investment, which has since been withdrawn. Forty years of their lives were devalued in a gold rush fever for the DM and they have ultimately been devalued both financially and as human beings with second-class citizenship.

To conclude this attempt to put the referendum into context, I would like to say that at the beginning of my musical career I was a very strong advocate of European Unity and cooperation. I could identify with most of Europe’s issues and challenges and believed GB should be fundamentally involved in making the EC work. This conviction however was based on a smaller manageable sized Europe made up of old nations with common values and similar strength economies. I have become disillusioned by the sprawling sarcophagus that the EU has become. It is so broken that I believe things can only get better and ideally The UK should be involved in it’s reinvention, but it will happen anyway.

Brexit – No facts, no trust and no absolute truths

One of the big concerns for British people is handing over their destiny to an unelected legislature in Brussels. They want more democracy – more sovereignty. But when leave the EU the UK still has an unelected House of Lords and a parliament voted for by less than half the population! We are also run by civil servant bureaucrats, but at least there is some genuine political oversight. There are no black and white issues

The situation is so complicated. It’s not all good or all bad. Take immigration – After leaving the single market, it may well be a condition of a trade agreement with the EU that the UK have to allow the free movement of people. Without a seat at the EU table this will immediately be out of UK control. Then there’s the economy – It’s certainly riskier to leave than to stay but that’s not to say staying in is without economic risks, especially given the current state of the EC. Britain could end up being a more nimble economy unfettered by the EU or we could be left languishing on the sidelines licking our wounds after a bitter economic divorce! Divorce is always costly.

Arguably, the greatest achievement of the EU has been the creation of the Euro (Also its Achilles heal?) Over the last two years we’ve seen it to be an extremely hazardous undertaking. The Euro’s been in danger of collapsing, member states have been in danger of leaving and Europe as a whole has plunged into negative growth. Mass unemployment has been created in southern European countries resulting in migrants freely moving to Northern Europe where the jobs are. Is the European economy being run as a political project, not as an economy? The Euro is not about good economics but symbolically about creating a European state, arguably another project in progress. Consequences in short and possibly medium term are economically disastrous. So there are also enormous risks in being attached to this economy..

An Artist’s Opinions

Having discussed the Brexit issues as objectively as possible in the previous section of the piece, I will now switch into artist mode. I have often been asked why I don’t get actively involved in politics. The answer for me is quite a simple one. If you become part of the political process you are subject to the rules and restrictions that go with it. Also, party political systems inhibit uncensored political expression. I believe that as an artist I am in a stronger position to comment from outside the process and within the context of my art.

Integrity versus integration in the EC

Britain is a European country. I think Brexit is a manifestation of the need for the balance between integrity and integration common to all European countries. It could be said the European Community is in serious need of restructuring for all Europeans, irrespective of Britain’s role in or out of the equation or negotiations.

The principles of maintaining peace in Europe, removing obstacles to cooperation and trade between member states and providing a united economic front against the USA, Russia, China and the other emerging super economies of the 21st century are still valid. It seems to me that some European politicians’ dream of a centrally controlled federal Super State now sounds a lot like capitalist totalitarianism! The EC in its present form is not working and needs a total rethink for all concerned, irrespective of the UK’s involvement.

The UK referendum on June 23rd was less like a vote on Britain’s position in the world relative to its European neighbours and more like a vote on acceptable levels of xenophobia and a politicians’ leadership battle. Maybe I’m mistaken, but the same concerns are being asked right across Europe? The failing EU needs to be addressed. Aren’t a majority of Europeans concerned about being controlled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels?

Are politicians themselves losing hope and courage?

Especially in the era of ‘Reality TV’ style politics and the PC society, most politicians seem to be scared to express their real opinions and stand up for ideologies and they are also reluctant to address unpopular but real issues. There is a lack of vision, long-term planning and courage. The apathy often expressed by voters based on the idea that voting makes no difference, that all political parties are the same and that all politicians are in it for themselves implies a hopelessness which seems to have spread to political leaders! This is not surprising perhaps against the backdrop of a malfunctioning but all encompassing EC, a decimated Middle East, a gangster-controlled Russia and impending Trump in the USA. The rise of the right in politics throughout the world has been precipitated by contemporary PC politicians’ refusal to accept racism as a reality that needs dealing with, especially when heartless and elitist economic policy leads to a disenfranchised white working class. The USA’s failure to confront racism has paved the way to the possibility of a Trump presidency.

Merkel’s Legacy

Did Merkel have an attack of ‘the Kohls’? Reunification in Germany seemed to be ruled by a rush of blood to the head with no forethought or planning, possibly with personal glory in mind. From an outsider’s (Auslander’s!) point of view Merkel’s skill has always been to get a sense of the way the wind is blowing and go with it. Her invitation to refugees was completely out of character and has inadvertently punctured a hole in the EC super tanker that could prove as ‘Titanically’ significant as the hole cut in a Hungarian fence which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the unravelling of communist Europe!

In my opinion in the short term, with respect to Europe’s great refugee challenge, the only answer is tighter border controls and much more money spent on interviewing all the migrants, but this is a real case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Wider issues like the Middle Eastern Conflicts

It’s impossible to consider Europe’s enormous refugee challenge without examining the causes in the Middle East. Recent Syrian developments illustrate the area’s crisis significance to the whole world. Since the generation of politicians who experienced the true consequences of military action in war has inevitably retired from power, the world has seen a number of ludicrous military campaigns instigated by world leaders devoid of any military experience or competence. I come from a military family. Soldiers are very aware of the consequence in human casualties of any operation they undertake. The military require politicians to have an intelligent long-term strategy. The last 15 to 25 years have been a very sad indictment of these diminishing statesmanlike skills. Lack of military expertise has led to mammoth mistakes. My personal view is that the dishonest warfare instigated by Blair and Bush and Putin could well subject them to accusations of actual war crimes. The Middle East has been decimated by supposed removal of despots and waging war on terror. Pressure to act quickly and punitively to avenge terror at home or abroad without justification or consideration of long-term consequence and sufficient international concensus has shown up the woeful inadequacy of much of the world leadership.

A dream Middle East solution – A truly international liberation force

In an ideal world, re-building the Middle East should be the responsibility of the whole international community. There could be a deployment of an authentically international force including the Russians and the Chinese, rather than America plus their Western allies to the Middle East to confront the IS situation on the ground and create safe states for the long suffering indigenous populations.

I imagine it would require at least 300,000 ‘boots on the ground’ supported by air power but with no indiscriminate bombing. It would ideally be a large military presence comprising troops from The USA, China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, France, India, Japan – all nations in fact. What was the UN originally designed for?! Once stability has been re-established half the troops would remain as a peace-keeping military police force to supervise the rebuilding of the countries’ infrastructures financed by an enormous international fund. This would probably be a commitment of at least 15 years!

Unfortunately it’s not an ideal world and the recent foreign policy of the major powers has been so misguided that the fundamentalist genie is unlikely to return to the bottle. It should also be noted that no major power has ever defeated a guerilla army and as Nietzsche believed, when you fight monsters, you are in danger of becoming a monster yourself!

Poetic License – An artist concludes.

I originally believed a British exit from the EC would result in negative economic consequences for the Eurozone and that the British economy would be dragged down into the vortex. Having done extensive research I now realise not even the most eminent economists can make an accurate prediction of the economic consequences of a UK exit. The situation is very complex and it would have helped their credibility if the campaigners could have explained both the advantages and disadvantages of their viewpoint rather than present such a binary argument. Also the two major issues of economics and freedom of movement are not mutually exclusive.

A 2-Tier Euro and a fairly weighed European Parliament

For many years however I have advocated a flexible 2-tier Euro, a “deux vitesse” in Jacques Delors terms, which would enable the smaller nation economies to effectively devalue currency when necessary to avoid economic and national humiliation. This still seems like a practical idea. I also believe that representation in the European Parliament should be proportional to the population of the country, voted for by all Europeans not just there own countrymen and its to the EC budget. This will promote the election of worthy individual Les constrained by party politics.

Politics and prejudices

The UK referendum was a ludicrous exercise. Not even the top political analysts can accurately predict the effect of Britain leaving the EU. Cameron’s Tories led to a ‘trial by tabloid’. The British electorate are were frightened into voting for personalities and to express their prejudices without any facts. It should be remembered this was a referendum not an election. The rules of Reality TV and the culture of ‘trial by internet’ are dictating the tone of debate. This vote was a very big deal with major implications for the UK, the EC and beyond. Apparently some young Britons thought it was cool not to vote, such is the loss of interest in the political process. Blame my generation for having it so good Harold Macmillan style and taking it for granted for so long!

Photo: CC By seniorcoconut /
Former german Communists demand political change: Less free market, more political creation
April 11th, 2017, 04:18 AM

The reader is from the city Mülheim a.D. Ruhr. He criticized in full my party DIE LINKE for a “policy which focuses too strongly on the Eastern German states, ignoring the problems of our insolvent municipalities in the West.” Both of these standpoints, from Wittstock as well as Mülheim, are not individual opinions, but backed by a rather large group of people, here and there, both viewpoints have some truth to it.

For most West Germans the memory of the reunification of the country comes with few tangible, positive connotations. The solidarity supplement, West-Germans started to pay to East-Germans, was probably the gravest change. While East Germans attained undeniable advantages, such as a variety in products, flourishing cities, the freedom to travel, others rejoiced in the end. Cheap labor, weak trade unions, ample subsidies are dreamy conditions for the capitalists. But the job miracle never materialized. Many East Germans didn’t queue at the supermarkets anymore, but at the job centers.

Gold rush in the East

And the elites? In the East they were dismantled. For many from the old federal states the area between the rivers Oder and Elbe became their Wild West. Clerks climbed the career ladder, insurance companies made billions, 50 percent special amortization for property acquisitions caused real estate speculators to rejoice. “People from here, elites from over there,” said the FAZ, one of Germany`s largest daily papers.

All this is still not history! Officially, the average wages in the East are now 87 percent of their Western counterpart – the difference often constitutes more than 20 percent. In the West, 19 percent of the workforce is receiving low wages, in the East almost 35 percent. The commercial slogan, “Land of the early risers” has to be taken literally, because more than 400,000 East Germans still commute to the old states. The politically nonsensical sanctions against Moscow are detrimental to the East German economy. In 2016, the state of Saxony had to reduce its exports to Russia by almost 30 percent. In the East German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the exports shrank by 51 percent, the Western states of Hamburg and Bremen also suffered losses. Over all, Germany’s exports to Russia fell by only 0.3 percent.

No perspective

Three decades after the unification, East Germans are often still not coequal. There is a lack of prospects. A sad reality proving this is the East-West pension adjustment, now planned to come to fruition in the year of 2025. Because social standing impacts education and career opportunities in Germany, many East Germans are also still disadvantaged in that regard. When the Cologne Institute of Economy rejoiced at the beginning of 2017 that migration from the new to the old federal states was lower than ever, Iris Gleicke, the East Commissioner of the Federal Government, claimed laconically that in many East German regions there was simply no one else to emigrate anymore. That is a correct statement.

No blue print for dismantling the social welfare state

“Too much market, too little political creation”, that is how the Social Democrat and former West-German minister for education, Klaus von Dohnanyi, recently defined the current reunification policies. This definition is in dire need of reversal. On the one hand, because equivalent living conditions among German citizens are defined in the constitution, but still not realized. On the other hand, because faulty developments should not turn into a blueprint for the depletion of the welfare state. We need to stop this development – for the sake of a united Germany. The municipalities in North Rhine-Westphalia are currently facing the highest mountain of debt. Child poverty should not be accepted, neither in the state of Schleswig-Holstein or the state of Thuringia.

East Germany needs special attention beyond 2019

The East remains the largest collection of structurally weak regions nationwide. Social or regional origin ought not to restrict life opportunities. In 2019, the Solidarity Pact II is going to be phased out and funding by the European Union will be declining. The special attention of the federal policy for the East of Germany remains necessary. A “Ministry for the East”, focusing on problems and shortcomings in East Germany and progressive solutions thereof, would be one, vital opportunity to bridge the still existing gap between East and West Germany.

Photo: gettyimages
Elections in Germany, 2017: Knocking on chancellor’s door
March 12th, 2017, 04:18 AM

The first sentence can be found in the Eisenach program of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of 1869, and the second statement was part of the Christian Democratic campaign in 1982, running against the SPD-led federal government.

Today Martin Schulz claims that there is a deep rift dividing our society, and he would like for our country to be more just. I can only endorse it, when the designated party leader and top candidate of the Social Democrats takes up traditions, which – friendly speaking – were not always the focus of the SPD in recent years.

Too many claims remain vague

In case Martin Schulz feels committed to social justice and advocates peace, democracy and solidarity, he can count on the support of the Left. This is also the case, when he is promoting equal opportunities for careers and education, while taking into consideration the problems of Germany’s local communities.

Martin Schulz’s is still vague. How could wages and profits correlate appropriately? How could minimum wages and pensions develop to serve everyone in the country? What is the strategy for digitalization, crowding and cloud working? How can the welfare state be restored, the unemployed not degraded to solicitants and constantly threatened with new sanctions? When are we starting to redistribute wealth from top to bottom? And finally, what role is Germany going to play in the world? Should armament exports and overseas deployment continue? Will we continue to suppress Greece and sanction Russia? How can Germany and the EU prevent causes of flight? What is Germanys contribution to environment and climate?

The longest-serving newbie

The catalogue of needs is various, and could be even more detailed. And Schulz won’t be able to retain the ‘mystique of the new’ forever. Aside from the fact, that he is the longest-serving presidium member, Martin Schulz is now opposing a government, the SPD has been part of for the past 16 years. Hence, the Social Democrats are jointly responsible for the state of the Republic. Many of the issues he is raising now, could have already been voted on and passed in Parliament. For instance, ending unfounded fixed terms in labor law. Creating legal frameworks for people to marry whomever they love, as well as an immediate ban on small arms exports, or the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany. An actual reform of the inheritance tax could be a building block for a more just society.

Unfortunately these are all unutilized opportunities, given the current majorities in Parliament. But after the 2013 election, the SPD consciously decided against a possible center-left alliance. That is why I am interested in whether or not Schulz, after September 24, 2017, will exclude the continuation of a coalition between the Union and the SPD.

Agenda 2010 accepted without opposition

When Gerhard Schröder and Katrin Göring-Eckardt established the “Agenda 2010”, (a series of reforms planned and executed by the German government, a Social-Democrats/Greens coalition at that time, which aimed to reform the German welfare system and labour relations in the German Parliament in 2003), there was no opposition to the left of the SPD.

The CDU eventually adopted a neo-liberal program. Starting at that point in time, the conservatives talked ‘politics without alternatives’. The PDS, later THE LEFT, called the Hartz laws (a set of recommendations submitted by a commission on reforms to the German labour market in 2002), “poverty by law” and fought henceforth against precarious employment, low wages, pension reductions, study and practice fees, child poverty, exorbitant rents, homelessness and other social atrocities. To the annoyance of the SPD and most trade unions, THE LEFT demands a nationwide legal minimum wage. It took more than a decade till the Social Democrats adopted a minimum wage. The next step, in my opinion would be, to increase the minimum wage to 12 Euros in order to avoid old-age poverty.

A change in government

After the elections in 2017, it is also about a change of personnel in the Federal Cabinet. With Martin Schulz, once again, somebody is knocking on the door of the chancellor’s office. Above all, however, a policy change is on the agenda. This appears possible and THE LEFT will not disappoint. For this the party needs many votes. I advocate a change in policy – without compromise. Martin Schulz to this day remains opaque on policy – and that in a rather charming manner. It’s only that charm and magic rarely get you into the chancellor’s office.

Photo: © Stefan Müller /
The UK referendum and the state of the EU: No facts, no trust, no absolute truths
February 16th, 2017, 04:18 AM

In the 70s there was still significant manufacturing and heavy industry including shipbuilding in England. The coal and steel industry was fundamental to the communities of Wales, Scotland and the North of England. The majority of the world’s wealthier nations have sadly adopted the selfish society so encouraged by Thatcher and Reagan as the norm. In the UK most manufacturing and heavy industry has been completely lost, along with all the jobs and in many cases the loss of whole communities’ ways of life and hopes for the future. I find it very sad when value of life is defined purely in financial terms and people of all ages and demographics are obsessed by terms such as ‘austerity’ and ‘deficit’. In my view these words are mythical terms used in an attempt to disguise the exploitation of poorer people and rationalise their bad treatment.

I have witnessed another pertinent example of loss of hope and a way of life in parts of Eastern Germany. Communities ‘freed’ from the oppression of a communist regime experienced brief exploitative investment, which has since been withdrawn. Forty years of their lives were devalued in a gold rush fever for the DM and they have ultimately been devalued both financially and as human beings with second-class citizenship.

To conclude this attempt to put the upcoming referendum into context, I would like to say that at the beginning of my musical career I was a very strong advocate of European Unity and cooperation. I could identify with most of Europe’s issues and challenges and believed GB should be fundamentally involved in making the EC work. This conviction however was based on a smaller manageable sized Europe made up of old nations with common values and similar strength economies. I have become disillusioned by the sprawling sarcophagus that the EU has become. It is so broken that I believe things can only get better and ideally The UK should be involved in it’s reinvention, but it will happen anyway.

UK destiny

One of the big concerns for British people is handing over their destiny to an unelected legislature in Brussels. They want more democracy – more sovereignty. But if we leave the EU the UK still has an unelected House of Lords and a parliament voted for by less than half the population! We are also run by civil servant bureaucrats, but at least there is some genuine political oversight. There are no black and white issues

The situation is so complicated. It’s not all good or all bad. Take immigration – After leaving the single market, it may well be a condition of a trade agreement with the EU that the UK have to allow the free movement of people. Without a seat at the EU table this will immediately be out of UK control. Then there’s the economy – It’s certainly riskier to leave than to stay but that’s not to say staying in is without economic risks, especially given the current state of the EC. Britain could end up being a more nimble economy unfettered by the EU or we could be left languishing on the sidelines licking our wounds after a bitter economic divorce! Divorce is always costly.

Economic risks for the UK in or out of the EC

Experts seem to say that leaving would be damaging in the short term, but that doesn’t mean it will happen, it’s just a measure of chance! Risk in financial terms can be a good thing as high-risk options can reap good rewards. So, as a cautious UK voter, if you’re not willing to take the risk that things might get worse, you should vote to stay in Europe. If you’re prepared to accept things might get worse before they get better then you should probably vote out. Risk is not a bad thing in the true sense, it is simply a measure of variance. The future isn’t certain if we stay in either. At present the Eurozone is mired with troubles and the risk associated with this.

Will the UK vote to maintain the status quo in a binary vote?

There’s more stability in the status quo and so the financial markets therefore react unfavourably to Brexit popularity. They are predicting not only a short-term sharp shock of negativity, but also the real possibility of a medium to long-term economic downturn. This really scares ‘growth obsessed’ politicians the world over. Longer-term equilibrium could take many years after an economic restructuring of this magnitude. People are still smarting from the crash, which took place less than a decade ago. A Brexit vote is an uncertain vote. But clearly nobody really knows what could happen. Leaving or staying both have their advantages and disadvantages which is why the black/white campaigners have no voter credibility and the voting public don’t trust them. It’s a binary vote but it’s not a binary argument.

Could it be the Euro is not about good economics, but a slave to the creation of a fantasy European State?

Arguably, the greatest achievement of the EU has been the creation of the Euro (Also its Achilles heal?) Over the last two years we’ve seen it to be an extremely hazardous undertaking. The Euro’s been in danger of collapsing, member states have been in danger of leaving and Europe as a whole has plunged into negative growth. Mass unemployment has been created in southern European countries resulting in migrants freely moving to Northern Europe where the jobs are. Is the European economy being run as a political project, not as an economy? The Euro is not about good economics but symbolically about creating a European state, arguably another project in progress. Consequences in short and possibly medium term are economically disastrous. So there are also enormous risks in being attached to this economy; that is voting to stay in the EU.

Is the UK referendum an anti-political protest?

Human nature is to avoid change. Leaving is a calculated risk. Europe has no apparent manifesto or concrete plan comparable to one that a political party would present to an electorate. British people don’t seem to like political (or any) experts; especially those giving only black & white opinions and not reasoned arguments. The public are more likely to listen and trust if there is more give and take in the discussions. In most referendums there is a move to the status quo. (With the exception of the last one in Scotland). This referendum is taking place in a mood of anti-establishment, anti-mainstream and almost anti-political protest. Will it bounce back to status quo? No one knows. (One economist said you have to be 65% sure of Brexit to actually vote out!) Those pollsters, who already failed miserably in predicting the results of the last British general election, have no precedents upon which to predict the outcome of the vote on June 23rd.

An Artist’s Opinions

Artists and involvement in politics

Having discussed the Brexit issues as objectively as possible in the previous section of the piece, I will now switch into artist mode. I have often been asked why I don’t get actively involved in politics. The answer for me is quite a simple one. If you become part of the political process you are subject to the rules and restrictions that go with it. Also, party political systems inhibit uncensored political expression. I believe that as an artist I am in a stronger position to comment from outside the process and within the context of my art.

Integrity versus integration in the EC

Britain is a European country. I think Brexit is a manifestation of the need for the balance between integrity and integration common to all European countries. It could be said the European Community is in serious need of restructuring for all Europeans, irrespective of Britain’s role in or out of the equation or negotiations.

The principles of maintaining peace in Europe, removing obstacles to cooperation and trade between member states and providing a united economic front against the USA, Russia, China and the other emerging super economies of the 21st century are still valid. It seems to me that some European politicians’ dream of a centrally controlled federal Super State now sounds a lot like capitalist totalitarianism! The EC in its present form is not working and needs a total rethink for all concerned, irrespective of the UK’s involvement.

The UK referendum on June 23rd is looking less like a vote on Britain’s position in the world relative to its European neighbours and more like a vote on acceptable levels of xenophobia and a politicians’ leadership battle. Maybe I’m mistaken, but the same concerns are being asked right across Europe? The failing EU needs to be addressed. Aren’t a majority of Europeans concerned about being controlled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels?

Are politicians themselves losing hope and courage?

Especially in the era of ‘Reality TV’ style politics and the PC society, most politicians seem to be scared to express their real opinions and stand up for ideologies and they are also reluctant to address unpopular but real issues. There is a lack of vision, long-term planning and courage. The apathy often expressed by voters based on the idea that voting makes no difference, that all political parties are the same and that all politicians are in it for themselves implies a hopelessness which seems to have spread to political leaders! This is not surprising perhaps against the backdrop of a malfunctioning but all encompassing EC, a decimated Middle East, a gangster-controlled Russia and impending Trump in the USA. The rise of the right in politics throughout the world has been precipitated by contemporary PC politicians’ refusal to accept racism as a reality that needs dealing with, especially when heartless and elitist economic policy leads to a disenfranchised white working class. The USA’s failure to confront racism has paved the way to the possibility of a Trump presidency.

Merkel’s Legacy – One of the most naïve gaffs of modern politics, or the noble action of a humanitarian political leader?

Did Merkel have an attack of ‘the Kohls’? Reunification in Germany seemed to be ruled by a rush of blood to the head with no forethought or planning, possibly with personal glory in mind. From an outsider’s (Auslander’s!) point of view Merkel’s skill has always been to get a sense of the way the wind is blowing and go with it. Her invitation to refugees was completely out of character and has inadvertently punctured a hole in the EC super tanker that could prove as ‘Titanically’ significant as the hole cut in a Hungarian fence which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the unravelling of communist Europe!

In my opinion in the short term, with respect to Europe’s great refugee challenge, the only answer is tighter border controls and much more money spent on interviewing all the migrants, but this is a real case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Wider issues like the Middle Eastern Conflicts

Recent world leaders with no military understanding

It’s impossible to consider Europe’s enormous refugee challenge without examining the causes in the Middle East. Since the generation of politicians who experienced the true consequences of military action in war has inevitably retired from power, the world has seen a number of ludicrous military campaigns instigated by world leaders devoid of any military experience or competence. I come from a military family. Soldiers are very aware of the consequence in human casualties of any operation they undertake. The military require politicians to have an intelligent long-term strategy. The last 15 to 25 years have been a very sad indictment of these diminishing statesmanlike skills. Lack of military expertise has led to mammoth mistakes. My personal view is that the dishonest warfare instigated by Blair and Bush and Putin could well subject them to accusations of actual war crimes. The Middle East has been decimated by supposed removal of despots and waging war on terror. Pressure to act quickly and punitively to avenge terror at home or abroad without justification or consideration of long-term consequence and sufficient international concensus has shown up the woeful inadequacy of much of the world leadership.

A dream Middle East solution – A truly international liberation force

In an ideal world, re-building the Middle East should be the responsibility of the whole international community. There could be a deployment of an authentically international force rather than America plus their Western allies to the Middle East to confront the IS situation on the ground and create safe states for the long suffering indigenous populations.

I imagine it would require at least 300,000 ‘boots on the ground’ supported by air power but with no indiscriminate bombing. It would ideally be a large military presence comprising troops from The USA, China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, France, India, Japan – all nations in fact. What was the UN originally designed for?! Once stability has been re-established half the troops would remain as a peace-keeping military police force to supervise the rebuilding of the countries’ infrastructures financed by an enormous international fund. This would probably be a commitment of at least 15 years!

Unfortunately it’s not an ideal world and the recent foreign policy of the major powers has been so misguided that the fundamentalist genie is unlikely to return to the bottle. It should also be noted that no major power has ever defeated a guerilla army and as Nietzsche believed, when you fight monsters, you are in danger of becoming a monster yourself!

Poetic License – An artist concludes.

What will happen if the UK leaves the EC?

I originally believed a British exit from the EC would result in negative economic consequences for the Eurozone and that the British economy would be dragged down into the vortex. Having done extensive research I now realise not even the most eminent economists can make an accurate prediction of the economic consequences of a UK exit. The situation is very complex and it would have helped their credibility if the campaigners could have explained both the advantages and disadvantages of their viewpoint rather than present such a binary argument. Also the two major issues of economics and freedom of movement are not mutually exclusive.

A 2-Tier Euro and a fairly weighed European Parliament

For many years however I have advocated a flexible 2-tier Euro, which would enable the smaller nation economies to effectively devalue currency when necessary to avoid economic and national humiliation. This still seems like a practical idea.I also believe that representation in the European Parliament should be proportional to the population of the country and its contribution to the EC budget.

Politics and prejudices

The UK referendum is a ludicrous exercise. Not even the top political analysts can accurately predict the effect of Britain leaving the EU. The divided internal politics of Cameron’s Tories have led to this ‘trial by tabloid’. The British electorate are being frightened into voting for personalities and to express their prejudices. It should be remembered this is a referendum not an election. The rules of Reality TV and the culture of ‘trial by internet’ are dictating the tone of debate. This vote is a very big deal with major implications for the UK, the EC and beyond. Apparently the majority of young Britons think it’s cool not to vote, such is the loss of interest in the political process. Blame my generation for having it so good Harold Macmillan style and taking it for granted for so long!

Photo: © Fotolia / Andery Burmakin
Presidential election in Germany : We don’t need a monarch, but a thinker!
February 11th, 2017, 04:18 AM

Three decades after Reiser’s hit, a threatening reincarnation of Ronald Reagan governs the White House, refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and the German military is once again going to war. At least they spared us a king, we could not have found one like Rio anyway. The first man in the state – so far they have always been men – has only limited power. However, the head of state should have an impact.

Legitimate Back and Forth

There is vehement, as well as qualified opposition to the pros and cons of the office. Both sides have strong arguments. We don’t need a pseudo-monarch, or any other top symbolic figure. Our democratically founded country can do without a state-doorman, a leading notary, a main referee or chief travel agent. We have constitutional bodies which can adopt these duties and take them on at a low cost. One can praise or criticize them, without instantly drawing fury for supposedly damaging a noble office or their holder.

As a politician in office, however, I only know too well how strongly current problems and interests determine our daily activities. There are times we hardly have a clear mind for activities beyond the daily routine. And who is taking care of morality and values? Who ponders thoroughly about non-violence and justice, the environment and climate, food and water, equality and emancipation?

Necessary impulses

Of course this is not a plea for no-conscience-politics. But it can be helpful if one of high degree is looking back, looking forward, connecting past and future, initiating impact, and remains a calm anchor. Such impulses have served our country well.

I am of course thinking of President Richard von Weizsäcker’s memorable speech on May 8th of 1985, referring to that historical date of May 8th of 1945, as a “day of liberation” for the first time in German history. President Roman Herzog, the first German president travelling to Auschwitz, and President Johannes Rau, who asked for forgiveness in the Knesset for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. I have sincere respect for the courageous President Christian Wulff, stating that Islam belongs to Germany, as well as President Joachim Gauck, who spoke boldly about the genocide of the Armenians. When Gustav Heinemann was asked if he loved this state, he replied: “I don’t love states, I love my wife.” Humanity first!

Not the finest hour

Introducing the presidential candidate of the grand coalition, was one of Social Democrat’s Sigmar Gabriel’s last coups. It was not the finest hour of democracy, nor a contribution to the dignity of the high office. In my opinion, a future direct ballot of the Federal President should be considered. This could indeed be a national debate on the future viability of our society. In a country where a miserable car toll turns into a state project, whose government is dealing with despots, right-wing preachers of hate become a considerable alternative for voters, such a debate is more than necessary.

I am not expecting a great surprise at the Federal Assembly on February 12th. I respect Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Germany’s chief diplomat has often acted cautiously and redeeming, has warned against saber rattling and confronted Trump. But he is also a founding father of the unfortunate Agenda 2010 and has not opposed the war deployments of the German army. Steinmeier represents a social-democracy that has given up its best traditions. I will not give him my vote and I am glad that there is a choice.

Wealth does not fight poverty

DIE LINKE (The Left) proposes the renowned scientist Christoph Butterwegge. Among other things, he has dealt with right-wing extremism and racism, published on globalization, demography and the social state and, above all, is a well-known researcher on the subject of poverty. Butterwegge is skeptical about the thesis of a supposed economic recovery for all, and offers his concept of the “paternoster effect”: “Some are going up, and the others are going down, and that at the same time, because poor and rich are two sides of the same coin. Low wages mean high profits. So you can not fight poverty by promoting wealth, but you have to fight poverty by challenging wealth”. Professor Butterwegge has always interfered and stood up for his believes.

His eight year old daughter asked him, if she is going to live as a princess in Bellevue castle. He denied that. Because Germany won’t have a king and that is ok. We need impulses.

Photo: © gemeinfrei
South American populism: Lessons to Europe
January 12th, 2017, 04:18 AM

As a Brazilian myself, I grew up hearing that word through most of my life, citing either Brazil or virtually any country in South America. But what is populism, can we learn from the past and, more boldly, can we make a prediction of the future?

A quick search online and multiple news sources will identify populism in most of Western European countries: the French Front National in France; the 5Star Movement in Italy; the Freedom Party in Austria; Podemos in Spain; PVV in the Netherlands; True Finns in Finland; the People’s Party in Denmark; the Swedish Democrats in Sweden; the FpR in Norway; and, of course, Britain’s UKIP and Germany’s AfD. Other European countries were also identified with a rise in populist political parties. Outside of Europe the most notable populists are Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Lee Jae-Myung in South Korea and Donald Trump in the USA. Even Hillary Clinton was named a soft populist recently, but it is hard to explain populism without being too broad.

So what is populism after all?

Populism can be either conservative or liberal. In general, left populists will combine it with some form of socialism, while right populists do it with nationalism. The first is more prominent in Southern Europe while the latter in Northern.

It appears nowadays that any form of popular and charismatic leader is called a populist, regardless of its policies. “Populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”, writes Cas Mudde, a political scientist specialized in the subject and in political extremism in Europe. In his book ‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’, Mudde explains the rise of populism in Europe from both left and right-wing parties. He states that economic crises “led to an outpouring of new anti-EU sentiment among the moderate left, while the refugee crisis has had a similar effect among the moderate right.”

Trump promised to tackle the establishment and ‘drain the swamp’ in the White House, stating a clear distinction between him and his followers against the elite. Trump also focused on putting “America First” and most populists in Europe do the same, claiming the European Union failed its countries (left-wing) and that migration rules should be stricter and decided on a national level (right-wing).

Lessons from South America populism to Europe

It is tricky to write about populism in South America especially because the word is not used often. Of course there were/are populists in government position, but each country is unique even if the rhetoric by those in power is somewhat similar. The major difference between populism in these countries and the rise of populism in Europe nowadays is that all mentioned above were left-wing populism, while European countries are mainly shifting to right-wing populism with a few exceptions such as Greece and Spain.

For example, in Venezuela there was Chavism, from Hugo Chaves; in Argentina it was Kirchnerism from Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Kirchner; in Brazil it was Lulism from president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. In the XX. century there was also populism in Argentina with Juan Perón, in Chile with Carlos Ibanês del Campo and in Brazil with Getúlio Vargas, to name a few.

Populism in South America was responsible for some considerable improvement in the life of everyday citizens, such as the reform of labour laws, better income for the lower class and lesser people living in extreme poverty. Lula, in Brazil, managed to be the first left-wing president of the country in recent history. With social programs that would benefit the poorest with food, houses and education, under his leadership the country got out of poverty for the first time. Although being under investigation for the Petrobras state oil company scandal, polls put Lula as the next president of Brazil in 2018 elections, which probably indicates another wave of left-wing populism is about to happen in Brazil.

The problem with populism is its inflexibility and narrow minded vision. Either left or right-wing populism, it always ignores one or multiple groups, undermining and neglecting opponents’ views. In Brazil, Lula’s socialism gave voice and power to the poor in the north while neglecting the rich in the south. While his successor Dilma tried to follow a similar path, she encountered a strong resistance from the elite and was ousted last year.

Nevertheless populism has an important role historically and it often shifts the Overton Window – a range of ideas the public will accept and normalise. Brexit was considered unthinkable before. Trump was mocked for attempting to be president. After these two events became a reality it changed the Overton Window and a populist Europe is now a plausible reality.

The future for Europe

In many countries right-wing parties have taken the wheels of government. France and the Netherlands have elections this year and in both countries the front runners are simulating the same anger rhetoric against immigration. Also, Britain’s UKIP and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland are enjoying record popularity.

On December 4th Austrians voted against its populist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and gave a breath of fresh air to E.U. backers. Despite all its flaws, the European Union has accomplished its main goal: to prevent a war between members of the union. If anything, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe will be important to shift the Overton Window once more, this time focusing on a general and practical reform of the E.U.

What it cannot be predicted is how Europe is going to be if more right-wing populist parties win important elections, for example in France, the Netherlands and Germany. In different countries in South America, the populism in the 20th century was replaced by a military dictatorship, but those were left-wing populism. If right-wing populists in Europe win and try to dictate their agenda neglecting the other side, a violent outcome can be expected and the ‘political warfare’ among citizens will be the new ‘class warfare’ Marx predicted more than a century ago.

In 2016 the most anticipated election was in USA, this year all eyes will turn to Germany as the strongest beacon of hope for the E.U.

Photo: © LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images
Having a myriad of children is becoming a risk: Impoverished Living in a Wealthy Nation
January 9th, 2017, 04:18 AM

We owe Froebel the kindergarten. While we can possibly refrain from Froebels pathos, we can not ignore the encompassing concern of society for our offspring. A fifth of children and youth in Germany, below the age of 18, are currently at risk of impoverishment. In different German states, such as Bavaria or Baden-Wurttemberg the rate is below 12 %, in federal City States, East Germany and in parts of North Rhine-Westphalia above 25 %. Data of the European Office for Statistics show a steady increase.

In the year of 2006 one and a half million children in Germany below the age of 16 were affected by impoverishment. Their number rose to approximately 1,7 million within nine years. Child poverty exists particularly often within the single-mother community, within families that have many children and non-native German families. According to the German government about 29.000 children and youth are currently living without accommodation.

No tolerance for hardship!

The consequences of child poverty are devastating and their impact can last a lifetime. Poverty often creates conflicts, stress and anxiety. Those factors can influence the child’s health, as well as his/her personal development. Children from impoverished families have less of a chance for a good education or a well-paid job. Poverty is embarrassing at any age. Not only for the individuals affected, even more so for a society that tolerates child poverty. We cannot neglect the guiding principle that our children should have a better future!

Participation must replace despotism

Indeed, the current administration does not seem to share the strong apprehension I feel for our children in need. According to chancellor Angela Merkel, “Germans never had it as good as today.” The current coalition agreement, a volume of 134 pages, does not mention the term “child poverty”, once. In my opinion, political will is lacking, right there. The “education and participation package” is a bureaucratic monster, and often appears exclusive. Andrea Nahles, the German Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, finds child poverty to be a “depressing phenomenon”, but denies higher social security benefits simultaneously. Social policy experts are not enthused by the recent revaluation of social security standard rates, calling them ineffective.

No more excuses!

The “National Poverty Conference”, the German Child Protection Agency and other welfare organizations demand, “No more excuses! We need to fight child poverty.” These organizations expect to have an action plan implemented that mentions child poverty in the respective political platforms of the parties, in the coalition agreement, and in potential legislation, including a deadline for the eradication of child poverty on a national level. This action plan needs to be long-term, multi-dimensional, and financially viable. Short-term action is needed pretty much everywhere right now: child benefits should quickly rise to 328 Euros, that would match the tax relief, top earners already gain from child allowance. Urgently needed are basic security benefits for our children. Maintenance advance needs to be raised and prolonged. In addition to more qualified personnel in our state agencies. Those are investments into the future!

We can eradicate child poverty within five years

With my party, DIE LINKE, we are planning on establishing a five-year-plan to end child poverty in Germany. We find this to be an appropriate and manageable time frame for a worthwhile and absolutely vital goal. I initiated a network against child poverty within the faction, a coalition for the cause build with charitable organizations, scientists, practitioners, and public personas from arts and entertainment.

Politics can refrain from pathos, but simply do not work without the practice of empathy.

Photo: © Fotolia / chris74
Politics in Germany: We Can Not Afford More of The Same!
December 10th, 2016, 04:18 AM

In her novel “Unterleuten”, the German author Julie Zeh is describing a fictitious village in the East German state of Brandenburg, but it might as well be located in my home state Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in Alsace or in the US-American rust-belt. Nowadays, those winning political elections in these areas are populist representatives, such as AfD, Front National or Donald Trump. When that happens, the establishment is horrified. That is also true for DIE LINKE, the German party THE LEFT, by many already considered as part of the establishment, although I consider that to be untrue. Now the question occurs, what follows the shock? What happens in the aftermath?

It appears that those governing Germany prefer to ride it out, rather than bringing about real change. “More of the same,” seems to be their motto. They encourage the trade agreement CETA now more than ever and don’t prevent the export of arms into war zones. German officials attack Russian leader Vladimir Putin, while making overtures to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They also claim employment miracles, based on a culture of job insecurity that has been cultivated in Germany over recent decades. More money has been spent on arms, while citizens on social welfare experience a drastic care cut. Accompanied by the imminent danger of old-age poverty and an increasing rate of child poverty.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reminds us of values and tends to moralize, meanwhile the German Federal Intelligence Service and our once prestigious car company Volkswagen stand more and more for lies and deception. While the refugee crisis is still going on, human rights became negotiable. One governing party “rents out Sozis,” another one is issuing unconstitutional ultimatums.

There exists obscene wealth in the Federal Republic of Germany. Meanwhile, the most important issues that need to be addressed urgently, to turn our nation into a sustainable one, are being ignored: the redistribution of wealth for the benefit of social justice in our society. A grand tax reform and a real pension reform, as well as the revision of our welfare system, still remain on the agenda. The German government loses itself in small reforms, and abandons the responsibility to adjust life standards in East and West Germany on equal terms.

The problem DIE LINKE appears to have

DIE LINKE developed numerous concepts but appears to have a major problem: while our analyses are widely respected, very few believe in our abilities to solve these issues. Why? Perhaps we have missed out on expressing our willingness to lead, as of yet. Sometimes it is easier to draw stop lines than plans of action. Long debates over the eventuality of leading this country can discourage potential voters. Often we fail to communicate the “utility value”, we as a party ought to provide for our voters.

Growing fears are also impacting the middle class. The fears of losing employment and as a result not being able to pay the rent, sudden illness and the resulting dependency on family members. These citizens are not served well with complex attempts to explain the world. DIE LINKE shouldn’t only interpret, but bring about change. A socialist party must attempt to impact the relations of capital and labor.

Social justice, placidity and sustainability have to be in the center of left-wing politics today. In government, as well as in the opposition, the responsibility remains the same. Sometimes, in order to govern, preconditions need to be right, the mood has to be right. Often parliamentary majorities are not sufficient for a change. The current parliament shows that. The Social Democratic Party, SPD, is lowering the bar a bit, but is missing the courage to oppose the right-wing trend in German society by clearly defining left-wing political perspectives.

Social Democrats, The Green Party and DIE LINKE can create good conditions for a Mid-Left-Alliance. But we still have a lot of work to do to realize that plan. We recently started the process by meeting with our potential coalition partners for an exchange of ideas and sentiments. In 2017 DIE LINKE will compete as an independent, political force. We will be showing a clear profile and have answers ready for the most pressing matters of our time.

Photo: © Spencer Platt / Gettyimages
Thinking beyond impact investing: What's more?
October 30th, 2016, 04:18 AM

Companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return: the landscape is growing with new funds emerging. Impact investor networks such as The ImPact and Toniic attracting new members and of course new social entrepreneurs raising investment with their groundbreaking ideas. In the last couple of years I have led three parallel lives. As an activist, trying to increase transparency in the Greek parliament. As a philanthropist, funding organizations in the area of political activism, social entrepreneurship and refugee aid. And finally, as an impact investor through our family office in Munich.

Impact investing is a fascinating field and a great way to support commercial activities that tackle the social and environmental challenges of our time. Yet, my experience with political activism and philanthropy taught me that impact investing alone cannot achieve the breakthrough change we need. The big issues facing humanity, most importantly climate change and the growing divide between rich and poor, cannot be solved by impact investing alone. These issues call for cultural change regarding our values, frames and belief systems as well as changes to our political, economic and social institutions.

Achieving system change

For many social entrepreneurs the highest achievement actually is achieving systems and policy change. For example, social entrepreneurs might advocate for closing the gaps in the welfare system that made their own emergence necessary. Ashoka, one of the leading organizations supporting social entrepreneurs worldwide, also supports the idea that actual service provision is only one side of the social impact coin. Their four level impact model lists influencing systems and frameworks as the other – often neglected – side. I am therefore convinced that impact investing strategies need to be coupled with efforts at achieving change at the level of root causes and systems. Policy change is an important aspect of this. It can have the same, if not greater impact than impact investing.

Last year for example, I made a donation to a UK NGO called Share Action to support one of their campaigns for pension fund reform in the UK and Europe. As members of a broad alliance of European NGOs, Share Action lobbied the European Parliament to allow pension funds to become more responsible investors. The suggested changes in the EU legislation include an adaptation of the Shareholder Rights Directive which would give investors more power to hold companies to account with respect to their environmental performance and the use of pension fund assets. The European Council and the European Commission will hopefully reach a final agreement on this matter by the end of this year, which could have a tremendous impact.

European pension funds with combined assets of around three trillion Euro would then have to actively consider environmental, social and governance factors in their investment decisions. The project was supported chiefly by the Mava Foundation Pour La Nature and KR Foundations with an overall budget of just over 208.000 Euro. Although my own donation was below 15.000 Euro the effect it could contribute to is arguably massive, helping shift billions of Euros into more sustainable investing and changing the behavior of an entire sector!

Obamacare, for example

Another great example for the effects of advocacy funding are a donation of 27 Million US-Dollars that Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation created by Duty Free Shoppers Group co-founder Chuck Feeney, made to the Health Care for America Now coalition in 2007. The coalition eventually succeeded in lobbying congress to pass the Affordable Care Act also known as “Obamacare” that provided millions of people access to critical health services. According to the Huffington Post and other media, the legislation would most likely not have passed without this critical support by Atlantic Philanthropies.

Advocacy impact strategies are surely accompanied by high levels of risk. Outcomes are by no means guaranteed and your donation will be gone indefinitely irrespective of whether a change was achieved on the actual issue. However, if you are a risk-taker and care about achieving the maximum impact with your money, investing into political advocacy is very much worth looking into. Moreover, even failed campaigns can have their upside if alliances were built, knowledge was shared and organizational capacity was increased. These effects will outlast an individual campaign effort and can fuel future advocacy. In the case of the Share Action donation, the result was the formation of ERIN (European Responsible Investment Network), which brings together a wide-range of civil society organizations interested in improving public accountability and investment practices of Europe’s investment sector.

Another angle on advocacy funding is how ESG (ecological, social and governance) issues can have a financial impact for investors given a certain policy framework. For example, in a policy framework where the ‘polluter pays’ for damaging the environment, sustainable companies represent better investment choices. Creating such a framework, the state (and entities like the EU) could help create markets for responsible and sustainable products. Public policies can mobilize more resources than anyone else; they can create an environment where new solutions are allowed to scale; they can discipline offenders and encourage early adopters in ways that the market alone cannot do. One example in this context is how the European Investment Fund is helping to build the social investing space in Europe by investing more than 250 million Euro into private equity impact investing funds through its Social Impact Accelerator program. These funds allow social businesses around Europe to become investment-ready for larger follow-up investments.

The bottom line is that Impact Investment and policy work really should support and complement each other. Undoubtedly, there is no one solution to solving the world’s problems, as the world’s struggles are interconnected from democracy to climate change, from rising inequality to consumer protection. In the end achieving policy change and impact investing are part of the same coin, different strategies for achieving the same goal that is a peaceful and prosperous society.

Photo: © Human Rights Watch
Henry Elkus on the changing definitions of power: “The digital age has given young people unprecedented influence”
October 6th, 2016, 04:18 AM

Tell us: what is Helena?

Helena is an organization that convenes world leaders from different generations and fields, and implements some of the resulting ideas in an effort to create positive change in the world. Each year, Helena adds a class of 30 members. Half of these members are under 25 years old, half are over, and each is a leader from a separate field. The result is a close-knit community of leaders that might not have otherwise met. Their discussions reflect this, and produce a mixture of ideas that rarely converge. We’ve been fortunate enough to fill Helena with some amazing people: Fortune 500 executives, actors, technologists, explorers, geopoliticians, a Nobel Laureate, and more.

We don’t host conferences or public speeches. Instead, the members meet frequently, privately, and in small combinations. We work extremely hard to be not only a talking shop between our members, but to truly act on some of the ideas that are incubated inside the group. We are currently pursuing two significant projects.

Our first project is in partnership with KTK-BELT. We are helping to build “The Vertical University,” a carbon neutral, 160 mile and 27.000 vertical foot university in Eastern Nepal that will teach up to 6.000 students. An important feature of the University is connectivity: through “super-towers” set up across the campus, we plan to deliver internet to the region for the first time. Our second project is “The Helena Prize,” a search for the individual 30 years of age or younger with the most promising technology to reduce greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.

How did the idea for Helena come about?

We wanted to create a group that equally featured leaders from different generations, we wanted to create a group that combined leaders with expertise in different areas, and we wanted to create a group that didn’t force members to discuss one topic over another.

All of these ideas came from daily life, but I think the most important is the inclusion of the youth in global decision making. Being 21, I’ve simply grown up in a world where the scales of influence are tilting younger and younger, and including the leaders who are pioneering policy, technology, activism, and science at the table seemed obvious.

The digital age has allowed young people to gain unprecedented influence in our society, and in many fields. You are beginning to see 20-year-old leaders at the forefront of major global trends. The digital age has reduced the barriers of age to a leader’s ability to amass a following and alter behavior at a large scale; we are seeing 19 and 20 year old actors and entertainers deliver ideas to tens of millions of people with one keystroke. In science, you have people like Divya Nag playing a significant role in the development of pluripotent stem cell research, and women like Yeonmi Park and Alaa Murabit conducting international activism and influencing policy.

Usually networks are for, let’s say, the more matured, older generation. Helena on the contrary aims for the younger generation. What makes you believe, people under 25 are particularly good at coming up with solutions?

I think that because half of Helena’s members are under the age of 25, there is an immediate reaction that we are prioritizing younger leaders over older leaders. That’s not really the case.

Helena’s structure is simply a statement that better ideas and better solutions can result from the inclusion of multiple generations, since both the under-25 and over 25 generations hold significant influence in the world. It would be illogical not to include young leaders in the conversation, both because the under-25 demographic takes up nearly half the world population, and because leaders under 25 have independently established themselves.

With that said, I do think there are grounds to argue that younger leaders are able to contribute different types of solutions than their older counterparts, simply due to the environment they grew up in. While I think that terms like “digital natives” are becoming a bit overused, there is truth to the concept they describe: that young people are better positioned to leverage the digital age, because they were introduced to it as children. A great example is Timothy Hwang, who has applied artificial intelligence and natural language processing to government legislation with FiscalNote. 24 year olds don’t typically have an easy time forging influence in the public sector, but Tim has done that using technologies native to the younger generation.

European societies may not understand your approach as they are aging communities. Many of the current conflicts, such as the refugee crisis or Brexit, are by some interpreted as symptoms for this. Can Helena save us from the stubbornness of the old?

I think that all generations show stubbornness, especially toward each other. One of the simplest fixes is simply to create dialogue between young and old where the playing field is completely level. If that dialogue is not weighted to favor one generation over another, we [Helena] think that it can yield positive results.

At many institutions, however, there is an encouragement of one-sided mentorship – that unity comes from the older generation teaching the younger generation. But this in some ways can create more of a rift. Helena’s argument is that mentorship and the exchange of ideas should be mutual, since each generation has a contributions to make, because of their different perspectives and experiences.

But you do bring up Brexit, which is an important point to cover. Regardless of how you fall politically, there was a failure on the part of young people to educate themselves on the surrounding circumstances, and turn out to vote. In contrast, 90% of the 65 and over demographic voted in the referendum. The youth’s attitude towards the referendum vote was the kind of harmful stubbornness and inaction that I hope an organization like Helena could play even a small part in correcting. In this case it was the young, not the old, that failed to adequately have their say in an pivotal global event, and severely cost them.

Helena is an ancient deity, said to be the most beautiful amongst her peers. If you attracting influencers of today for tomorrow how do you work on diversity issues? How do you make sure to have the best female and male minds around?

I’ll be the first to tell you that we do not have the levels of diversity that we should, but we are proud of the first Helena class that we have put together. In drafting our current membership, we went for the best leaders we could find, and of course a significant portion of them happen to be women. I think it’s obvious why: women make up half of the globe, and are leaders in every vertical.

In order to incubate and implement the best ideas, you can’t just have a bunch of straight white guys sitting around the table. That just isn’t representative of the global population and society as a whole. The inclusion of different identities in a community means you are able to tap into the different experiences your members have as human beings, and that translates to improved ideas. So we see do see diversity as a central component of our group.

What are the topics that you want to tackle with the Helena network?

Even though we don’t limit the group to any topic, there are certain issues we have recently become involved in.

The intersection of education, environmentalism, and the Internet was a topic that the members have grappled with quite a lot, and that led to one of the biggest projects Helena is currently undertaking. Alongside an incredible organization called KTK-BELT, we are helping to build “The Vertical University,” which is a carbon-neutral, nearly 6,000 student University in Eastern Nepal. We are hoping that the project can be a case study in sustainable education, where we are able to provide the building blocks for a model that doesn’t exploit the local population and allows them to educate each other autonomously, while protecting their natural ecology and preventing deforestation.

Helena has also hosted of a multitude of discussions regarding the future of governance as it pertains to the rose of global decentralization. Governments have derived power from controlling physical assets for thousands of years (cars, houses, financial systems, communication systems, physical data), but these assets are now becoming decentralized, privatized and non-physical (Uber, Airbnb, Bitcoin, email, cloud computing).

How much you want to engage with the public? Similar endeavors like Helena often face criticism to be elitist adventures that work to say the least not in favor of those who would need it most.

I think it’s a fair point. Creating a group the size of ours (30 members in each class, rather than thousands) can invite the criticism of elitism. And creating an environment of privacy in our meetings, where our group’s discussions are not publically broadcast or heavily reported on the media, can invite criticism as well.

We’ve chosen to do both of these things for very different reasons, however.

There are two types of conversations that can happen during meetings, conferences, and summits. The first, usually delivered in the form of speeches, are conversations where individuals deliver an idea to the public in an effort to disseminate ideas, promote an interest, or recapitulate a story. There are many effective organizations that specialize in these types of conversations, and we are certainly fans of them.

Yet, in these conversations there is rarely rebuttal or engaged debate. And further, speakers are usually discouraged to be vulnerable, discuss projects they are currently working on, or flesh out ideas that they are unsure of. We want to focus on those types of conversations, because we believe they are the most raw, and the conversations that can lead to significant action and change. When an idea does result from one of Helena’s meetings, it often becomes a public project, such as The Helena Prize. But we don’t see a justification in inviting heavy scrutiny in the ideation phase. We want to encourage members to subject themselves to opposing views, to disagree with one another, and to build relationships with one another, without a third party being involved.

We have 30 members a year for a simple reason: we want the members to actually collaborate. To us there is little use in a network with thousands of participants, if the goal of the network is to build consistent relationships between all of its members.

When you talk about your belief in improving the world, claiming that all our problems are solvable, one may be reminded of Singularity, a technology-friendly, slightly utopian philosophical view, developed in Silicon Valley. Is this the school, the theory you subscribe to or how would you describe the school of thought Helena wants to develop and stand for?

I don’t know if all of our problems are solvable, or if Helena will be able to fundamentally solve global issues. But I do think that assembling leaders that could collectively affect change is a worthwhile pursuit.

In creating Helena, we didn’t subscribe to any philosophy or world-view. Instead, we began on the other end, thinking mechanically about how an organization should function in order to yield results. Our philosophy is that the creation and implementation of ideas can happen best in an environment that includes leaders from multiple viewpoints. That is quite complex as is, but there is also a larger point here. It may very well be that there is no school of thought that can be universally applied to global issues. It may be that there is a school of thought that can, but it hasn’t been created yet. If we were to “play God,” or promote a singular philosophy that distracts from the creative process of our members, it would be at odds with our core mission.

It’s not to say that we aren’t personally inspired by the work of technology entrepreneurs and the Silicon Valley community. Singularity University, and the larger philosophy that Peter and Ray have contributed to, is a brilliant one. The mindset that exists there has been one of the chief drivers for innovation in the 21st century. Helena has members that represent that community, but it has members from a host of other fields as well.

It’s been fascinating to see how they intersect. The practicality and procedural philosophies from the political and geopolitical segments of our group that have been heavily challenged by the “best-idea-wins” philosophy of the entrepreneurial members of Helena. But both sides have contributed ideas to each other that are rarely taken into account.

Is there a business model associated with your work or is it a purely philanthropic, non-profit?

Helena Group is a non-profit foundation, and we don’t monetize anything about our networking group. We, I think, go very far out of our way to do this, because we want to create an environment that is as pure as possible, where our members have as few barriers to entry as possible. We charge no initiation fees, we charge no membership dues, and we only partner with outside organizations that directly work with Helena on its projects and ideas.

There is an important point to make here, however. The private sector, and increasingly the for-profit private sector, is demonstrating a powerful ability to create positive change in the world. Impact investing across financial disciplines, B-Corporations, and other for-profit vehicles have done good for the world, and we recognize their importance. However, Helena’s core engine, which is simply an intimate networking group of leaders, doesn’t need a huge amount of capital to operate.

How you deal with criticism that aims at you personally, saying you were too young to succeed with such an ambitious idea?

It’s not something I really care about. Plenty of people younger than I have done far more ambitious things – we’re lucky enough to have several of them in Helena.

Where do you want to develop Helena to? Who are your competitors and what would you in five years time call a success with this thriving endeavor of you and your team?

I think that’s a great question, and a hard one to answer. When we continue to build classes of 30 members over a long period of time, the group is going to scale to quite a large level. Preserving the group’s agility and culture over time is the first priority, because that is the engine that leads to the creation of ideas, and the implementation of our ideas into the world. We’ll be very focused on maintaining an environment where third parties collaborate with us, but do not unduly influence our decision-making.

The ability to in five years to ten years, develop a solution through Helena that a significant portion of our members naturally put their weight behind: is certainly a dream of ours. How that would occur, by definition, is not something we can predict. But it is certainly something to work towards.

Photo: © A. Görlach
Philosophy and the Bildung: In Pursuit of the Beautiful Soul
October 5th, 2016, 04:18 AM

The meaning of beauty has fallen from a state of grace. No longer is it connected to goodness or truth, to the mind and the spirit. Instead, in today’s popular culture, beauty is overwhelmingly associated with the body. Corporeal beauty has become an emblem of a particular global value system, one that perpetuates an economy of desire focused on appearances, money, and fame, sought by most, but acquired by few. The quality of Beauty has been reduced to the shallow, the ephemeral, the transient. But it was not always that way.

During the Enlightenment, the concepts of Bildung, self-cultivation, and die Schöne Seele, the Beautiful Soul, blossomed in German philosophy. Bildung as a concept and a practice first emerged in 16th century theology, but was most rigorously developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Die Schöne Seele emerged from Bildung in the 18th century. Both concepts were inspired by Greek aesthetic philosophy, especially Platonic ideas of beauty and goodness and by the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus’s ideas on kalokagathia, a hybrid word synthesizing the quality of kalos (beautiful) with that of agathos (noble, good).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Bildung was defined as education, or, more precisely, the rigorous cultivation of one’s intellect and self. Education in this sense has a rich, holistic meaning: a poetic process of intellectual, spiritual, and cultural development that conjoins advancement of one’s own faculties with the objective of contributing to the commonweal. Bildung was ultimately an aesthetic ideal focused on developing human capacities, knowledge and culture. Similarly, the concept of die Schöne Seele, entailed a rigorous pursuit of personal cultivation to create a convergence of the individual aesthetic impulse with a collective, ethical ideal. The Beautiful Soul was a virtuous soul, one that possessed a sense of justice, pursued wisdom, and practiced benevolence through an aestheticized proclivity for the Good. Together they may be defined as the sensory-aesthetic cultivation of one’s intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties for the purpose of self-realization, cultural refinement and collective human flourishing.

Many of the most prominent intellectuals, including Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Christoph Martin Wieland, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, were deeply committed to advancing the concepts and practices of Bildung and die Schöne Seele. They devoted a substantial part of their intellectual careers to the definition and development of these concepts through philosophical tracts, essays, letters, literary works, and theatre. Their ideas were disseminated and proliferated throughout Europe, engaging overlapping circles of intellectuals, artists, educators, politicians, and a critically debating public for over two centuries.

At the core of Bildung and die Schöne Seele was the idea that the individual possessed an innate cognitive potential. When stimulated by the right environmental and educational conditions, personal desire, and self-directed action, this latent potentiality could be realized, much like a dormant seed induced to blossom. The realization of individual potential demanded engaged, rigorous, and sustained activity directed at a purposeful end that contributed to society. Such activity was a process, but also a disposition of the spirit that could be cultivated, stimulated by a genuine motivation to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for its contribution to humanity.

In viewing Bildung from a contemporary perspective, we might interpret it simply to mean education in an instrumental sense, but this does not capture the spirit of the word, Bildung was not a practical end per se, such as a student who sought university education to gain a prestigious job, or a painter who learned the techniques of his or her métier merely to sell work. Rather, Bildung was a deep commitment to knowledge itself, and, according to Schiller and Goethe this commitment, deserved to be honored as an exemplary human goal.

Likewise, the Beautiful Soul was the symbol of self-directed activity intended to release pure human potential without regard to a person’s ego. Some actions of a Beautiful Soul that were often cited in the 18th century were, for instance, a good deed that was performed without the public knowing of its existence and pursued for no other reason than to do good, or an instrument that was played without the intent to receive accolades from an audience, or a subject that was mastered without seeking adulation for one’s erudition. A Beautiful Soul was not seduced by fame, power, or recognition. Those who craved immediate gratification and social admiration were thought to lose the motivation and qualities necessary to perfect their soul.

By removing self-cultivation and the Beautiful Soul from external forms of validation, Goethe, Schiller, and Humboldt believed that the individual was freed to follow a true course necessary for his or her personal development and to overcome the superficiality of intellectual artifice and social façade. In so doing, one moved beyond evanescent pursuits derived from fashionable social preferences and transitory circumstances that had no reference to or significance for the ultimate ends of human existence. In practicing Bildung and die Schöne Seele one submitted to a rigorous set of values and conduct that were complete, all-encompassing and defined the worth, meaning, and purpose of Being. Like the Platonic forms, however, Bildung and die Schöne Seele, promoted abstract ends of beauty, truth, and goodness that could never fully be attained—to approach their realization and be guided by their principles was reward enough. The aspiration and actions directed towards these ends, not the ends themselves, validated the concepts and honored the life that was lived in their pursuit.

Despite these stringent demands, the pursuit of self-cultivation and the Beautiful Soul was not considered a burden to Goethe, Schiller, and Humboldt, but rather a joy and a privilege because they affirmed subjectivity, induced a profound sense of happiness, and promoted personal exploration, adventure, wanderlust, and curiosity, all of which were part of the process of becoming cultivated. The proponents of self-cultivation, most especially Humboldt, advocated for this enlightened understanding of the good life because they believed it ensured a more reflective and stable society. They advanced ideas of education and the state that afforded individuals the greatest opportunities to pursue these experiences and find fulfillment in the products of culture.

Similarly, the Beautiful Soul encouraged self-exploration and individual freedom to shape personal identity. Emphasis on the individual was not intended to remove him or her from the world but rather to integrate into the full human experience. Schiller believed that if persons pursued actions out of mechanical obedience to moral principles, they would only temporarily postpone an inevitable deviance from morality. But if they felt the freedom to choose and to pursue a Beautiful Soul and, in so doing, transform their minds, spirit, and actions, then they would reach a more perfect state of morality. The emphasis on disciplined, hard work in a search for truth and self-improvement, yet equally on pleasure and freedom to explore and learn from the world was liberating and affirmed both the immediate experience and future potential of the individual.

The principal attributes of the Beautiful Soul were goodness and justice. Coming closer to attaining the state of a Beautiful Soul required a human-centered approach that affirmed the fundamental goodness of humanity and demanded its concerted practice. The Good was considered a source of great meaning and absolute happiness while moral frailty and fallibility was seen as a deviation from natural law. The Beautiful Soul was, to Schiller, a representation of perfected morality, a state of ultimate virtue that overcame the unsavory human qualities of greed, envy, anger, and vanity in exchange for the values of kindness, courage, patience, honesty, loyalty, and nobility of spirit.

According to these concepts, the Good was attained through Beauty. The beautiful, in its relationship to Truth touched upon the form of the Good and the Good possessed the essential characteristics of Beauty. For Kant and Schiller, Bildung and die Schöne Seele attained the Good by cultivating the subjective, sensory experience of beauty which, by opening one’s horizons and developing the senses, strengthened faculties of empathy that led to a deeper compassion for others and attentiveness for the wellbeing of the social collective. The act of looking at a beautiful painting, for example, elevated a person beyond ego and self-absorption into a realm of universal concern and contemplation. Beautiful experiences offered an exquisite interlude from a quotidian world of blunted emotions, weakened morals, inexplicable forces, human shortcomings, and unlived possibilities that might otherwise degrade one’s spirit and relationships with others. They provided a lens through which to perceive the elegance of the universe, to revive the idealistic hope and curiosity of youth, and to illuminate from within the ultimate purpose of life.

Beauty also brought clarity to understanding the nature of Being and the value of human association in the collective pursuit of Truth. The sublime knowledge derived from the humbling experience of the Beautiful inspired the desire for the Good and awakened the sense of possibility necessary to live in its image. Beauty became not only an object of philosophical interest but also a mode of living, a way of looking at the world and existing within it. By self-cultivation in the name of the Good, one’s life literally became a beautiful art form, the individual parts elements of an integral composition. Goethe was particularly occupied with portraying life as a work of art that reflected ethical principles and he explored ideas for forming a more “beautiful humanity.” This artistic process of moral refinement gave grandeur and significance to that which might otherwise be taken for granted as mundane; it heightened sensitivity to every action that constituted reality.

The aestheticization of Bildung and die Schöne Seele had a moral urgency, for if every action painted the ultimate canvas of a person’s life, each stroke was critical to the value of the final composition. Creating and engaging with art became a logical path towards the social good and a metric for the Beautiful Soul. However, the good that music or the visual arts produced could never compare to that of the Beautiful Soul itself, for the latter was the ultimate art form, the amalgamation of all creative energies. Other arts were merely tools used to stimulate and pursue the Beautiful Soul. The obvious critique, therefore, that an evil person could produce something beautiful, like a symphony and that this disproved the connection between beauty and goodness did not hold. A person who created beauty did not necessarily possess a Beautiful Soul. Art and aesthetic experience were beneficial and enlightening for all and assisted in this process but they were not the ends; the art of thinking and living beautifully was the end.

Many people during the 18th century from the educated elite to the peasants, from intellectuals and politicians to artists, believed that life was a work of art, a moral poetics, and felt empowered to live it as such through the aestheticized practice of self-cultivation. Bildung did not define the person who should pursue it or demand that he or she excel in everything. Rather it advanced the notion that all people must choose a métier or life course that suits their own needs and nature and was useful in the world. In finding a relevant and meaningful path of cultivation, one’s activities became a symbol of human potential and elevated the individual as a contributor to a collective social good. Bildung was democratic because every person had a skill, passion, or talent that could be applied.

Like self-cultivation, the Beautiful Soul was a widespread and popular concept in elite, bourgeois and working class circles because it was meritocratic and offered the promise of happiness to all who pursued it. It did not depend upon social status, inheritance, or inherent states of being, but rather was formed through a strong work ethic, diligence, and personal commitment that resided in individual agency. Since even the act of thinking beautifully was considered a pathway towards self-cultivation, all could pursue it, even those who did not have the time or resources to engage with art. Its followers formed a new collective cultural lineage that was universal and inclusionary.
These characteristics of Bildung and die Schöne Seele promoted social harmony across divisions of class, status and gender.

In the concept of Bildung, harmony was a multidimensional process starting first with the individual developing a personal concordance of mind, body and spirit. Harmony existed both on the level of individual activity as well as in the totality of actions that came to define a person’s life. For example, the act of writing a poem engaged first with the body, the representation of an idea embodied in the act of writing, then with the mind, the process of thinking critically, the use of the imagination and sensory faculties, and finally with the spirit, the nourishment of the soul in the very goodness of the activity. Through the sustained practice of Bildung over the course of one’s life, the mind, body and spirit were integrated, not just in a singular, ephemeral moment but in a state of transcendence that harmonized the individual with the world and, indeed, the cosmos. Self-cultivation and the pursuit of a beautiful soul were portrayed, especially by Goethe, as a subjective undertaking that aligned with a larger cosmological ordering, an impulse grounded in the essential ontological categories and processes of nature.

This cosmological harmony had religious connotations, especially in the earlier history of the Bildung concept. To self-cultivate was a spiritual exercise, a technique for salvation that led not only to a harmony of the mind but also to harmony of the soul. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Bildung was considered harmonious on two levels: on the subjective level of the mind, body, spirit and soul of the individual, and on the objective level, integrating God, nature and the universe. One could make the analogy that pursuing self-cultivation was like praying in a secular sense. Self-cultivation had a ritualistic quality and daily significance, providing a framework for living and a coherent structure of action. But it was above all a symbol for a commitment to a greater Good. Its’ very utility rendered it transcendental.

That something as pragmatic as self-cultivation could enter the domain of the abstract, symbolic and metaphysical is significant. Bildung superseded mere pedagogical ends and became an entire belief system and philosophical doctrine in its own right. This was one of its great strengths and arguably the reason why it occupied the minds of so many important intellectuals. Both Bildung and die Schöne Seele as concepts remained dynamic, transformative ideals connected to an appreciation of culture and not a permanent system of fixed and inflexible rules of conduct that were impervious to change. They were specific enough to be binding and character building for individuals, but at the same time, abstract enough to reflect upon the human condition writ large, and thereby to remain relevant in an ever-evolving social milieu.

As the concept of Bildung evolved, so too did this transcendental end. By the mid to late 18th century, a third level of harmony in a societal sense was emphasized that provided a conceptual link between personal harmony and objective harmony in a time when humanistic ideas were quickly becoming a pervasive ideology. This gravitational pull towards the collective social good saved Bildung from remaining unserious, at least to philosophy, as a practical ideology and a form of pedagogy with no larger ambitions. Equally Bildung was rescued from its other extreme as an overly ambitious, unfounded utopian ideal without empirical validity. Bildung was able to engage larger ideals and remain socially relevant.

Because Bildung and die Schöne Seele espoused the good and unified the individual, society, and metaphysics in a way that was pragmatically appealing, spiritually convincing and had the potential for social effect, they ultimately became politicized. Bildung’s universality, its abstractness, its concern for the good life, its meta-reflections on the implication of our actions and its intention to engage higher values in everyday experience in a spirit of egalitarianism made it an emancipating philosophy ripe with political potential. Its particular strength during the Enlightenment was that it offered a counter-narrative to a rigid social and political order, providing a new conception of orienting individual action and human agency that embraced quickly changing views. Bildung and die Schöne Seele were seen as radical without inciting revolution. They were practicable concepts on a larger social scale and in the political realm precisely because of their abstract and aesthetic nature.

There were a number of thinkers, most especially Wilhelm von Humboldt, who developed pragmatic plans for Bildung’s implementation on a larger scale. Humboldt’s model of higher education advanced the principles of Bildung in the school system. It promoted accessibility to cultural goods, such as museums, concert halls, and libraries, for all of the German public no matter what their socio-economic position. It institutionalized the subjects and activities that Bildung espoused such as philosophy, literature, and the arts, and encouraged opportunities for personal exploration. Likewise, the Enlightenment salonnières, promoted Bildung by creating a space in their salons where a diverse public came together to self-cultivate by discussing ideas and experiencing culture in a spirit of egalitarianism. Humboldt’s visionary contributions to the educational system, the lineage and impact of which still exists today, and the Enlightenment salon are two of the strongest examples of Bildung’s potential to induce and direct socio-political change. Thus, Bildung and die Schöne Seele became a social and philosophical doctrine, a politicised ideal and a secular metaphysics of human goodness that aligned with the basic belief system of the Enlightenment.

In the 21st century Bildung and die Schöne Seele may appear to be antiquated concepts in a world dominated by instrumentality. But the essential elements of this philosophy are timeless; they have remained vital and relevant from Ancient Greece to Florentine Humanism to the German Enlightenment and continue to offer valuable insights into the human condition today. Reviving such a virtue ethics, and the institutions that promote it, may help us find purpose in our own lives, in our relationships with others, and in our responsibilities to the collective wellbeing. Perhaps now, more than ever before, in the face of an unsustainable and inequitable economy of desire, there is hope, meaning and poetry in the pursuit of the Beautiful Soul.

Photo: © Fotolia/nito
Donald Trump and Mexico: Trump’s visit to Mexico, the costs of stupidity.
September 13th, 2016, 04:18 AM

Which means the president will be there, too. Actually he will have to face the crowd: tradition requires him to stand in the presidential balcony and shout “Viva Mexico” to the jubilant masses who, under normal conditions, are expected to shout back.

This time, however, many will greet him with anti-Trump cries.

The protestors are not alone. Last week, Mexicans all over the world watched in dismay as their president met with the xenophobic Republican candidate Donald Trump. The hopeful few who gave some credit to the move thought the press conference could prove to be a good PR. Peña could tackle his unpopularity, which is at the highest for any sitting president in two decades, only if he managed to stand up to Trump.

He did not: instead, he stated that he was willing to work with whoever won the White House and went as far as suggesting that Trump’s remarks––about Mexicans being rapists, for example-–had been misinterpreted and should be met with an open mind. In a couple of minutes, the President of Mexico had legitimized him.

And Trump did not flinch. Later that day he delivered one of the most radical anti-immigration speeches in US history. But even after the speech, Peña was still adamant: he had stood up––albeit privately––for Mexican’s interests, he stated in national television. According to polls, 85% of Mexicans felt offended by the whole act.

Later that week Trump appeared to have gained ground in the electoral race. The outrage reached new heights. Newspaper columnist Silva Herzog called the meeting an act of treason. If Mexico had, in any way, helped the candidate get into the White House ––wrote prominent intellectual Enrique Krauze––then it was a historical mistake that no one would forget in the years to come.

During the whole affair Peña reiterated that it was a tradition to invite the US candidates for a one-on-one with the president. At the end of the day, he said, he had invited Hilary, too. But the little clout that this argument had disappeared earlier this week when Hillary Clinton declined Peña’s invitation, on the grounds that she already had the backing of the Hispanic voters.

Peña was left out cold.

Enter the witch hunt. This Wednesday, Peña called for a press conference to announce changes in his cabinet, for, earlier that morning, Secretary of Treasury Luis Videgarray, credited with the idea of the meeting with Trump, had resigned.

Analysts say that the move is projected towards the national elections of 2018. But what Mexicans can’t believe is that they still have to go through two more years of Peña, a president that has been repeatedly been accused of corruption, censorship and contempt for human rights.

But the biggest problem is not even that. The whole Trump affair shows that the president is just not that smart. Worse, he is stupid. And, according to Silva Herzog this is the worst trait for politicians to have. Unlike evil leaders, stupid politicians make harm not only to others, but also to themselves.

We are tired of these kamikaze types.

Photo: © Wikipedia/gemeinfrei
New culture of debates: A Renaissance of Salon Culture
August 28th, 2016, 04:18 AM

In the 17 and 18th centuries, a culture of salons flourished in Europe. Salons were social gatherings in which individuals engaged in the art of conversation in pursuit of knowledge and fellowship. They took place in the private homes of bourgeois women opened to a public, and occurred regularly, usually every week but sometimes every day, often over an extended meal for a group of approximately twenty to forty people. Salons typically had a dedicated core membership, but were always open to new participants and contributors. Ideas and works in various subjects from science, philosophy, and politics to literature, art, and morality were vigorously debated in the salon. Some salons were focused on specific philosophical, cultural and political themes, while others remained generic. These spaces for discourse created a culture of sociability in which the individual cultivated his or her rational, moral, and aesthetic faculties in a community committed to humanistic ideas and intellectual enlightenment. Salons were far more than pleasant social gatherings; they were serious spaces for intellectual projects and advanced ambitious utopian ideals. Perhaps most significantly, as Jürgen Habermas argues in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 18th century salons were critical to the emergence of a democratic, debate-driven public sphere in Europe. There were a number of cross-cultural features shared by many of the salons that help explain their nature, functioning, and contribution to a public sphere that I will elucidate here:

Proponents of the Enlightenment salon believed that every individual had a range of innate abilities and cognitive faculties that could be cultivated and should be developed beyond formal education for the entirety of one’s life. The salon provided the space for informal learning in which those who attended could improve their minds and acquire knowledge in a variety of subjects. The salon was highly interactive and depended on the intellectual contributions of each of its members such that everyone had the opportunity to engage with the subject matter and further his own potential. Those participating in a salon understood that they were entering a space in which typical forms of valorization such as wealth, social status, or family lineage were not prioritized, or to a far lesser extent than in other forms of social interaction. What mattered most were the ideas and knowledge that could be gained from contemplation that benefited the collective. Erudition, wit, inventiveness, the ability to poetically capture an idea or elegantly communicate a concept, these were the cardinal virtues of the salon. Equally, the manner in which ideas were pursued was of great importance. Self-love and arrogance were discouraged for they signaled the wrong motivation for participation.

The ideal salon participant was a person who was uniquely interesting and offered fresh ideas that were well communicated and advanced the conversation. He or she possessed an innate love of learning, exhibited a reflective intelligence, firmly held principled opinions but also demonstrated the utmost sensitivity and thoughtfulness towards others. To be a good listener was as important as being a good orator for it allowed more people to reach their own potential in engaged conversation. Of course, many individuals who entered the salon were not committed to these selfless ideals; their true motivation was self-promotion, as is often the case in any form of human association. But because they were required to adhere to a principle of sincerity to participate in this community, self-adulation was tempered and the space itself maintained an authenticity. The salon favored those individuals who were genuine in their effort to reach their own potential and help others do so in the process.

Unveiling and developing the best qualities of each participant in the salon was feasible because of its intimate scale. Everyone understood the core belief system and character of other participants, and thereby could overcome the constraints of superficial, idle conversation. The salonnière had the opportunity and responsibility to acutely analyze the strengths and weaknesses of her guests and reveal their intrinsic virtues while gracefully challenging their limitations through discourse. Guests had the opportunity to share their personal projects and ideas and receive feedback from the group. Often before a novel was published or a painting displayed, these works would be taken to the salon for assessment. This positive, critical response encouraged the sharing of projects and promoted a culture of creativity and collaboration. Since salons were enjoyable social gatherings that focused on the happiness and pleasure of their members, sharing was most often a positive and self-affirming experience that encouraged and facilitated self-development.

In this respect, the salon was a rehearsal for reality, a space in which participants could test creative projects and ideas in the process of self-cultivation. Equally in the context of the salon, salonnières could experiment in their utopian project of enlightenment, goodness, and human understanding, unrestricted by the conventional boundaries of society. The intimate, theatrical and imaginative space for discourse provided by the salon became a vital test bed for the values that the salonnières desired to promote in society as a whole. Most salons occurred regularly, usually at weekly intervals and even in some cases on a daily basis and their core membership offered continuity for the intellectual interactions. They therefore evolved quickly from a rehearsal for reality into a reality in themselves, forming a self-selecting community that became an important fixture of daily life and a vital organ for public discourse. Salonnières and their guests were expected to act as model citizens, exercising the virtue and compassion practiced in this space in all areas of their lives. Thus the salon’s value system became the larger normative framework of the Enlightenment.

Salonnières emphasized the meticulous refinement of the character and capabilities of each person in society because they believed that an enlightened public would more meaningfully contribute to the commonweal and the Good. The Good was the impetus for all salon activities and was reflected in its foundational ethos and structure. The exercise of human virtue, etiquette, sensitivity, and kindness to others were the paramount rules of salon interactions. The institution of the salon became a model for new forms of human association that produced distinct social benefits. The abstract, philosophical conceptions of the Good were examined in conversations on ethics, normativity and through epistemological inquiry that informed the utopian projects that took place in the salon to create a better and more just world through sustained discourse and social interaction.

In the salon, the good was in many ways achieved through art and aesthetic experience. The visual arts, music, poetry and literature were all important elements of this space. These aesthetic forms did not require extensive background knowledge in a specific intellectual tradition. They provided a shared experience and lexicon that facilitated communication and catalyzed meaningful conversation amongst a diverse public. In keeping with ideas of the time and the philosophy of Kant and Schiller, it was believed by most salonnières that art and aesthetic experience cultivated the senses, thereby making one more sensitive in social interactions. By refining the ability to differentiate color or composition in a painting, for example, a person exercised the acute perception necessary to interpret facial expressions or to consider the significance of word choice. Reading passages from a book that presented the compelling story of a protagonist induced empathy for the character and the author in a way that a non-aesthetic form could not. Aesthetic activity eschewed hierarchy, for everyone could share equally in its enjoyment.

Cultivation of taste and sensibilities meant cultivation of social perception and processes of communicative action. In light of the dominant belief that people were inclined towards goodness, this led to sympathy for others and to mutual understanding. Furthermore, by opening her home to a public and providing cultural experiences, the salonnière revealed her inner psychological state through aesthetic choices and made herself vulnerable to the world. This proffered intimacy opened guests to the possibility of representing themselves authentically, which contributed to the depth and meaning of conversations. The convivial act of sharing an aesthetic experience, in other words, created a foundational atmosphere of mutuality, collaboration and respect for others in a refined environment conducive to productive discourse and reciprocal exchange.
Accounts of the public sphere often present communicative action in abstracted, sterile terms shorn of its pleasurable context. But if non-obligatory forms of association are not enjoyable, then people do not have the incentive to participate. Simply, but perhaps most importantly, aesthetic experience made the salon an ultimately fulfilling and pleasurable institution that enhanced its popularity and contributed to its social impact. Fruit bowls on tables carefully composed as a mimetic representation of a still life, chamber music that filled the air perfumed by elaborate floral arrangements, paintings strategically hung on the walls to evoke admiration and contemplation, and verses elegantly spoken were just a few of the aesthetic details that composed this world, delighted guests and served as a respite from stark reality. The magical, aestheticized space of the salon sparked one’s imagination and excited the emotions. Intellectual exploration was enhanced by full engagement of the senses; social interactions were stimulated by the powerful experience of the beautiful.

For the salonnière of the Enlightenment salon, art and aesthetic experience were considered immediately beneficial and subjectively pleasurable. They were also pursued with the intention of serving the social good through the elevation of culture. Analogies drawn from cultural ends were often used to describe the salonnière. For example, she was compared to a conductor. She was sensitive to the character (instruments) of each of her salon participants (the musicians). Her responsibility was to conduct discourse (the music) in a way that encouraged the best performance and harmonized them in a cultural product that was both beautiful and good for society. Furthermore, the salonnière incorporated past cultural ideals into her philosophical framework and contributed to the creation of a future tradition. A whole genre of salon music, literature written expressly for the salon, and paintings created for display in the salon, as well as countless intellectual encounters that occurred in this space, would forever change the course of European culture. By emphasizing and contributing to cultural production the salon moved beyond its own parameters contributing not only to the lives of its participants but also to the rest of society as the salonnières had intended.

The extent to which the salon could contribute to a larger social good through the elevation of culture might be questionable had it not been grounded in principles of universality, openness and egalitarianism. At a time when social and class divisions were deeply entrenched, the salon was revolutionary in promoting an ethos of inclusiveness. Rights to entrance were based on merit and an inquisitive spirit, not solely on wealth or power. Often for the first time, people of different genders, socio-economic status, religious proclivities, and political orientations came together as presumptive intellectual equals. The women who ran the salons overcame the barriers they faced deriving from little or no formal education, legal rights, and a lack of intellectual, social or political influence in society. They self-educated in their salons, elevated their status from second-class citizens to venerated members of the public sphere and penetrated the male-dominated world of ideas by independently creating an institution that was at the heart of the intellectual and cultural projects of the time. In the German case, specifically, not only were the hosts of salons women, they were also Jewish at a time of significant anti-Semitism. By bringing Christians and Jews together for conversation, they promoted social cohesion in a way that had never before been attempted.

Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, egalitarianism was a goal that was not always achieved and most salon participants still came from relatively limited circles of the elite and bourgeoisie. Likewise, simply because people of different social status congregated in the same space did not mean there was total equality in their interactions. However the fact that openness and egalitarianism were even aspirational principles is in itself revolutionary. Likewise the fact that men submitted to the intellectual leadership of women salonnières and were willing to enter and be associated with a space of (relative) diversity is extraordinary for the time. There are also countless empirical examples to demonstrate that a spirit of equality was indeed accomplished in certain fundamental ways, which are recorded in much of the secondary literature on salons. Furthermore, the salonnières ideological concern for inclusiveness in culture and ideas contributed to a larger paradigm shift from rigid class and status hierarchies towards principles of equality, solidarity and fraternité. By creating an institution of their own that became indispensable to society, salonnières planted the seeds of a new, more progressive reality that is still in the process of becoming materialized.

Although the salon had a social and cultural force, it did not begin as a social movement or political revolution. Its original ambitions were modest, simply to bring people together for meaningful conversations. Salons did not dictate the ends of conversations, nor impose a political agenda or worldview, rather they embraced difference and contrasting ideologies. Their power, interest, vitality, and political efficacy depended upon this difference and diverse salon participants worked together to define its ends. The salon was a microcosm of life; the grief, the beauty, the intellectual thirst, the banality, the joy, the courage and weakness of humanity were all represented, but in a concentrated form that seemed to spontaneously induce personal revelation. False ideas and prejudices could not be left unexamined. Predominant belief systems were challenged and in being confronted with new perspectives and ways of seeing the world, society and politics had no other choice but to evolve accordingly.

Because salons were technically removed from politics by taking place in the private homes of women, they initially escaped censure. Salonnières worked to create an affirmative and trustworthy environment in which participants were able to express themselves in ways that they dared not risk in other social contexts. Countless important political discussions on the state of local and national politics and representation occurred weekly in salons focused specifically on the topic of politics. Salons on other subjects such as literature or philosophy also had a political cast by contributing to debates on political theory and practice. The free speech facilitated by the salon kindled radical political disagreements that often brought prejudice and deep-rooted social problems to light, which was the first step towards their resolution. The graceful touch of the salonnières’ moderation allowed for political discourse to become impassioned and controversial while still remaining civil. The aesthetic dimensions of the salons both facilitated and masked their underlying political potential so that, for a time, the salon was able to flourish relatively uncontested. This reflected Schiller’s sentiment that precisely that which is aesthetic and apolitical is best suited to become political. By the late 19th century, however, the popularity and radical potential of the salon became subsumed and coopted by power interests eventually leading to its demise.

Nevertheless, the history of salons attests to the fact that political influence does not always derive from exerting brute force and that political discourse is not always achieved in a sterile and uninspired environment. Political efficacy can take a more holistic approach incorporating aesthetic sensitivity that inspires the capabilities to listen, to learn, to understand, and to empathize with others. The process of enhancing and refining such human capabilities generates forms of association that contribute to individual flourishing, shared structures of sociality, and a deeper reflection on the purpose and significance of human existence.

Understanding and developing the important connection between communicative structures in physical space, community shaped through culture and ideas and continuous forms of social contact grounded in a spirit of egalitarianism, as represented in the history of salon culture, is, perhaps now more than ever before, critical to the progression of human sociability, discursive action, and participatory democracy. In the hyper-accelerated world in which we live the internet and social media “connect” people on an unprecedented scale, but can also isolate them in an endless chain of transient exchanges. It is increasingly clear that many members of the millennial generation crave vibrant face-to-face conversations in concrete space not only connections in ephemeral spheres of cyber-space. Young people want a connection to their friends deeper than a happy birthday note on their Facebook wall, a voice in politics greater than a “like” on a Facebook page, and a more in-depth development of ideas and belief systems than a 140 character tweet will allow. There is a palpable sense of fatigue with a society immersed in vacuous social media posts and narcissistic presentations of self. But few institutions exist that offer an alternative culture, form of community or voice in society and politics. Seeking deeper meaning and more profound connections with others, in an often self-absorbed society, is a daunting and at times disparaged pursuit.

Salons are one way of addressing this modern dilemma of isolation and malaise. They evidently do not replace the internet, social media, or other transformations in communication, which undoubtedly also have great benefits, but they offer an essential foundation for communication that has been corroded in the process of technological advancement, by creating communities around ideas in the real world where they matter most. One of the many problems that salon culture addresses is that unlike internet exchanges veiled in an anonymity which often fuels hatred, ignorance, and misunderstanding, in a salon, one must argue cogently for and publicly justify one’s ideas. Relatedly, since an ideal salon facilitates sustained contact with people from diverse backgrounds who think differently, there is a greater possibility to overcome false biases and wrong assumptions. It is easier to feel compassion for, understand, and responsibly act towards a person (and the groups that he represents) when you look him in the eye, interact with him on a regular basis, and have a more developed knowledge of his personal history, lifeworld, and underlying motivations. A salon offers people a positive and vital opportunity to engage with their fellow citizens through a subtle balance of sensitively structured interaction, self-development, empathy, and collective understanding, which is the basis for a more just, equitable, and secure society.

In a world divided, at a moment when political discourse has taken a decidedly negative turn, threatening social stability and international diplomacy, in a time when prejudice, racism, and intolerance are deeply entrenched, a renaissance of salon culture offers a vehicle for reviving principles of participatory democracy, the social and political emancipatory potential of which is limitless.

Photo: © Dragon30 /
Turkey turns into a dictatorship: When Religion is taken Hostage
August 1st, 2016, 04:18 AM

The situation in Turkey brings a question back to the center for consideration: are Islam and Liberal Democracy compatible? For those who answer yes, the country in Asia Minor has long been a shining example that both these schools of thought and ways of life can coexist. But such an answer was muddled when the Republic’s founder Atatürk had the intention to push Islam as far as possible out of the public sphere and individual private life. A more Westernized way of living and thinking corresponded less to an Arabic and thus to Islamic culture, thus for Ataturk reform was never about blending together the two traditions 50-50. No way.

The undertaking failed in Atatürk’s own lifetime: the call to prayer continued to be sung in Arabic and not, as he had arranged, in Turkish. Religion, he learned, was such an important constant for the people of Anatolia that he could not abolish it altogether. Learning through trial and error, he settled for the fact that religion should at least be modernized. The Faculty of Theology at the University of Ankara would train imams and religious scholars who accepted and taught a new, modern interpretation of the tradition and the holy texts.

A turn to the West, as Atatürk envisioned, was associated with a shift away from the ancestral lifestyle. Similar to Peter the Great’s Russia, where there cultural fights over long beards and traditional costumes, which were dismissed for being un-European, in Turkey old-fashioned Arab-Islamic braids were cut. That was what it meant to be “Western”: neither in Atatürk’s time nor Peter’s time had it anything to do with liberal Democracy. The allure of Europe in these times were tied to something artificial: for the lands on the borders of Europe, economic and military progress and success was connected to a certain cultural affect and fashion. This advertising is no stranger to Western Europe: in the second half of the Twentieth Century, British music, and above all American culture, shaped the lives of entire generations. These processes are never linear. One could call it a tug of war one both sides, between tradition and renewal. That is true in Europe to the present day, where in certain circles the US lifestyle is soundly rejected. That was and is true for Turkey, where Atatürk’s model of the secular republic was always met with criticism and opposition.

The two sides, the Kemalist and the religious circles, hate each other. If you were to meet for example today members of the Istanbul elite, you would hear that it would have been better if the Ottomans had taking up Christianity over Islam. Because, as they reason, the religion of Islam will forever be linked to the backwards culture of the Arab world: Atatürk rhetoric at its finest. Herein lies the difference between Turkey and the Russia of Peter the Great: the Turks are Muslims, the Russians Christians. It should in theory be irrelevant for a Liberal Democracy which religions are practiced in it. But it helps if you compare them to each other, when certain issues exhibit common identity features.

Couldn’t it then be said that, in general, Liberal Democracy and religious thought, regardless of its origin, do not go together? Yes, you could. But this animosity between the Islamic and the Western worlds reaches deeper as part of a conflict that goes back 200 years. At the beginning of the Modern Age in the Islamic world, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt has been enshrined in literature. Although the Emperor of France had no interest in proselytizing the Egyptians, this date of the conquest is considered negative by the Muslim world, and fateful. Everything that the West is, to put it briefly, is seen as foreign and imperialistic. The lifestyle of the West, its freedoms and personal mobility to chose to forge your own destiny, do what you wish with your own body, beyond family and religious customs is seen today throughout the Islamic world as an attack on their way of life and identity.

Regarding the current cultural conflict in Turkey it is no different: just like how Mr. Putin mourns the demise of the Soviet Union, so too does Erdogan cry over the end of the Ottoman Empire, whose land was carved up by the Europeans, and the rest is, sadly, history. Erdogan and his inner power circle have reintroduced the narrative of the Ottoman Empire and its Sultan into the Turkish consciousness. From the depths of history to the present day explains what is right now happening in Turkey: the Islamic World, indeed the whole world has lost its only example of how a Liberal Democracy and Islam can go together. Therein lies the whole tragedy: as of today, the Islamic world from Nigeria to Pakistan is in turmoil and war. In a nutshell it is the conflict between tradition and modernity, which in Europe has lost religion. At the moment it is a point of victory for the traditional powers, with the consequence of a caged and castrated youth in Iran and elsewhere. Turkey was a hope. This hope is dead.

The question of whether Islam and Liberal Democracy are compatible is one that’s poorly constructed: neither Islam nor Christianity in their pure doctrinal nature are compatible with Liberal Democracy. The crucial question is whether Liberal Democracy as a life model is more attractive than a religiously imagined world. That has been the case in the West for the past seventy years or so, but the future is from here uncertain. What right now is true is that in the Islamic world, liberal democratic life concept cannot flourish.

Photo: © Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: TTIP-toeing towards low life quality
July 29th, 2016, 04:18 AM

The future of Europe is in the hands of the EU Commission which is responsible for the negotiations about the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership. If signed, will be the biggest trade deal in history. It would cover trade between the European Union and United States economies – half the world’s gross domestic product and nearly a third of world trade flows. In a nutshell the main objective of the TTIP is to extinguish obstacles to trade between the EU and the US. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.

The secrecy of the entire agreement is the first warning signal. Only a handful of people have access to the negotiation documents, but only after entering a highly secured room in which they have to leave electronic gadgets out and are observed at all times. Both American government websites – The United States Mission To The European Union and The Office Of The United States Trade Representative – do not provide any updated information about the negotiation. It merely publishes public opening statements at press conferences – the latest one from the 12th round of talks in February this year, although another conference happened again in April.

Europeans protested against the TTIP, but little was known about what was being negotiated until May 2nd when Greenpeace (Netherlands) leaked ¾ of the existing consolidated texts as of April 2016. It shows what each part of the trading table wants in each segment. What most people feared was true.

The article x.3, for example, is about agriculture. The EU wants both parties to encourage research and innovation and share practices to secure viable food production at the same time ensure the sustainable management of natural resources. The US wants to promote a robust global market for food products; avoid “unwarranted trade measures that increase global food prices, in particular through avoiding the use of export taxes, export prohibitions or export restrictions on agricultural goods; develop innovative new agricultural products and strategies that address global challenges related to the production of abundant, safe and affordable food.”

It seems obvious that the United States wants its agricultural products to enter Europe without questions asked. If signed, the TTIP could open Europe’s door to genetically modified (GM) food and crops. According to Greenpeace, “under such a system, a pesticide that is scientifically linked to cancer could still be approved, unless there is a 100 per cent consensus on its harmful effects.” It is the American way of life versus the European. Quantity versus quality. To be fair some standards are higher in the US than in EU, such as laws for car pollution and toxic chemicals in toys. These standards would also have to be revised to meet European standards.

According to The Guardian, there are over 30.000 corporate lobbyists in Brussels where the EU Commission is based and 75 per cent of European legislation is influenced by these lobbyists. The Corporate Europe Observatory website explains 597 secret TTIP meetings occurred with the EU Commission from January 2012 to February 2014 and 528 of them were with business lobbyists. The same source released emails from seed industry, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Limagrain and other GM organizations, inviting EU delegation for a private meeting. In the meetings, the seed industry wanted to focus on three priorities for TTIP: “phytosanitary issues and the role of the bilateral plant health working group can play in this respect, new plant breeding techniques (both see no specific need for regulation) and the presence of GMOs in conventional seed”, The Guardian explained.

Perhaps the biggest threat from the TTIP agreement is the investor-state dispute settlement. The ISDS would allow corporations to sue national governments if they believe their investments are unfairly restricted by regulations. A newly created special court, composed mostly by private lawyers, would have ultimate saying on the subject enforcing a country to abide by its decision.Something similar has happened when the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States in 2015 in a NAFTA suit (the North American Free Trade Agreement between US, Mexico and Canada) claiming that a US law requiring labels on foreign meat was unfair and illegal trade practice, although national courts ruled in favor of the American law.

NAFTA was also signed under the idea of a free trade agreement, but a report by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch released in 2013 to display its impacts 20 years after showed disturbing numbers. “NAFTA created new privileges and protections for foreign investors that incentivized the offshoring of investment and jobs by eliminating many of the risks normally associated with moving production to low-wage countries”. The report also proved that United States had a 580-percent-increase in trade deficit. A similar effect is expected in Europe should the TTIP is signed.

And what about Jobs? The NAFTA caused the loss of one million US jobs since it was created, while politicians promised an increase of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Lower labor standards and trade union rights in the US might be the perfect ingredient to increase unemployment throughout Europe if the TTIP becomes a reality.

It seems this TTIP deal is bad for both parties – and it is – but a strong lobby force behind it is ensuring that talks are ongoing at full speed. President Barack Obama wants to sign the deal before he finishes his term. David Cameron, the UK soon-to-be-ex prime-minister is strongly in favor of the TTIP while Nigel Farage, the leader of the UKIP party which wanted Brits to leave the EU, is against the TTIP. Maybe, just maybe, the aversion to TTIP is the only good outcome for Brexit voters.

Photo: © Fotolia / Wjarek
Russia's strategic backyard: The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus
July 26th, 2016, 04:18 AM

The Damascene regime has recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. By the same token, yet markedly unnoticed by the international media, Islamic State’s Caucasus governorate, proclaimed in summer 2015, claimed a terror attack on Monday March 28 that killed a local Russian police officer and left several others wounded in the republic of Dagestan, located in the North Caucasus region. The timing of the two events was particularly delicate, highlighting the ramifications of Russia’s involvement ever since it openly embarked on its blitz campaign in September 2015 in an unprecedented effort to turn the tide in favor of the al-Assad loyalist camp.

First and foremost, it was the continuous raids by the Russian Air Force that ushered in the liberation of Palmyra, revealing the overrated significance of the reduction in the Russian military in Syria. Therefore, the Dagestan roadside bombing was likely a manifestation of Islamic State’s lethal inventory, still capable of sending a bold retaliatory message to Moscow, and heralding more attacks of its kind toward the end of 2016.

Russia’s strategic backyard

Within the broader picture, the incident also provides valuable insight into a less tangible strategic enterprise that Russia is currently pursuing. Russia fears a further disintegration and erosion of stability in the North Caucasus region, even a threat that is potent enough to menace the swath of former Soviet Central Asian republics. Hence, Moscow is availing itself of the Syrian conflict in order to restore a cordon sanitaire in the periphery along Russia’s volatile southern rim, the Caucasus. Russia’s interference in the Levant thus hardly results solely from the currently often alleged neo-Tsarist power ambitions. Rather, propping up al-Assad has a lot to do with Putin´s unyielding adherence to the concept of state sovereignty.

Since Russia has undisputedly reemerged to relevance as a key stakeholder in the fate of Syria, it must reckon with grave internal political repercussions from the scenario of eroding stability across the region. For the Kremlin, the prospect of what it considers a looming insurgency in its immediate southern vicinity serves as a wake-up call in view of its historical experience with armed Islamist groups in the North Caucasus striving for national autonomy. Foreign fighters of Chechen, Dagestani, and Ingush origin operating at the forefront of the remaining battlefields in Syria and Iraq continue to gain notoriety by fighting fiercely among the ranks of both Islamic State and the 2 Analysis: The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front.

The numerous reports accusing the Russian Air Force of predominantly targeting Islamist factions are therefore not necessarily surprising, as many battle-hardened North Caucasian fighters – who draw from significant experience gained in the past wars over Chechnya – operate in senior positions across Syria and Iraq. These countries, in Russia’s eyes, represent an interlinked issue of external and domestic security. While the Kremlin somewhat deceptively pacified its southern flank by slipping it under the firm control of its security apparatus at the end of the 1990s, it nonetheless fears the negative fallout of religious extremism in the form of erupting violence at home. In that regard, the heavy blood toll exacted by Chechen Islamist separatists in the Moscow theater hostage crisis of 2002 and the Caucasian Emirate-claimed Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011 still reverberate vividly in the nation’s psyche today.

Sensitive geopolitics

Russia’s concerns are particularly relevant to its dealings vis-à-vis its Caucasian territories of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The latter, for example, received extensive coverage in Russia’s news (though overlooked by Western media outlets) on November 22, 2015, as the Kremlin’s special units reportedly neutralized about a dozen Islamist militants in the mountains in close proximity to the Kabardino-Balkar city of Nalchik, militants who were allegedly planning terrorist activities in both Syria and the North Caucasus. Perhaps the most telling example is the conflict-prone area of Dagestan, whose economic trajectory is shaped by the significant dependence of the autonomous province’s fiscal stability on Russia’s federal budget and by the substantial pauperization of and subsequent unemployment in the easternmost parts of the country, not to mention the devastating destruction left behind in the wake of two insurgencies in Chechnya. These conditions, considered broadly, provide a breeding ground for the spread of illicit activities, further encouraged by their traditional roots in the Caucasus region.

The topical incident in Dagestan highlights the prominent role that Russia’s North Caucasian Federal District plays within its overall security architecture in the region. In geostrategic terms, this role is underpinned by the fact that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus has become the most exposed border region of the Russian Federation, rendering the exertion of the Kremlin’s grip there a challenging task. The land mass it is delicately located between the strategically important Caspian and Black Sea coasts, serving as a gatekeeper to both Sunni Turkish and Shi’ite Iranian spheres of influence.

Within close range of the adjacent post-Soviet space of the South Caucasus across the former republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, other external, opposing power projections can also be felt. The recent escalation over the disputed mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh between the Turkey backed Muslim-majority country of Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia will further require a nuanced diplomatic balancing act on the part of Moscow, as it maintains vital strategic and geoeconomic interests in both countries. In addition, secessionist tendencies, with perilous sectarian overtones, add to the overall picture of a troubled environment on both sides of the Caucasian mountain range.

Returning foreign fighters: Terrorists in waiting?

Nowhere did Russia’s expansion into this Muslim-majority region and its subjugation of the local Analysis: The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus 3 people face more sustained resistance and retribution than in the North Caucasus. After all, although the ethnic composition of the population across the Muslim southern periphery of Russia remains comparatively heterogeneous, and despite non-negligible intra-Muslim animosity, a large number of the region’s people adhere to customs whose roots lie in shared Islamic traditions.

As a result of the ongoing Russian emigration from the region, the share of the native Russian population – tellingly labeled “citizens living internally abroad” – is rather marginal, further fueling the polarity between the disproportionally impoverished local Muslim Russians and the “ethnic Russian” population that, regardless of its numerical minority, maintains its firm grip on the region’s economic powerhouses, the cities of Krasnodar and Stravropol. It is, therefore, in precisely this sensitive context that we should understand Russia’s embarking on an extraterritorial counterinsurgency campaign with the explicit goal of degrading the ranks of Russian jihadists in Syria.

Moscow fears the outlook of dealing with returnees harnessing jihadist militancy on Russian soil and aspiring to transition it into a terrorist hotbed. As Syria and Iraq continue to occupy center stage in the regional power struggle, still luring vast numbers of foreign combatants onto the battlefields, the Russian presence appears to be a double-edged sword: while Moscow achieved unprecedented momentum internationally by shaping the military dynamics –as a matter of fact partially aimed at degrading Islamic State – and stepping to the fore as an at the very least temporary ally to the increasingly regionally assertive role played by Tehran, its intervention will likely spur hostile action, further roiling the region as a whole.

The crash of a Russian airplane over the Sinai Peninsula, caused by an Islamic State–attributed bomb, and the described terror attack in Dagestan serve as the latest reminders of this danger. Quite paradoxically, when resurgent Russia justifies its meddling in Syria with, inter alia, the pretext of protecting religious minorities, its rhetoric places it on a dangerous path that carries an inherent, homegrown risk: the likelihood of exacerbating a widening societal rift, which may well resonate among its own disillusioned and socioeconomically struggling Muslim constituency in its volatile strategic backyard, the North Caucasus.

Photo: © U.S. air force, public domain, fhbn
Great Britain and the Brexit: Has UK Politics hit fast forward?
July 24th, 2016, 04:18 AM

When I was a kid, my cassette recorder got jammed on fast-forward, after I dropped it. That’s what British politics feels like since that Brexit vote. Resignations, recriminations, a Conservative leadership battle where the Brexiteers consumed each other, then imploded, a Labour opposition ripping itself apart. The fast-forwarding didn’t let up today – the day when power was actually handed over.

It was perhaps fitting that David Cameron’s last set-piece event, was Prime Minister’s Questions. He’s always been at his best at the despatch box – a sharp political mind, combined with quick humour and a brutal put-down. Jeremy Corbyn was again the butt of most of his jokes, as the Labour leader squirmed. I’ll come back to Labour later.

The tributes to the Prime Minister were many, warm and genuine. David Cameron machine-gunned the stats about saving the economy, about improving education, about jobs, about bringing in gay marriage. It would have been easier, perhaps, if he had worn an old fashioned sandwich board that screamed „My legacy is not just Brexit”.

Most brutal when you exit the place

A standing ovation from MPs, and then it was back to Downing Street for a last bit of packing. When I go on holiday, I throw everything I can into the biggest suitcase and then get my wife to sit on the lid, so I can zip it up. I’m sure it was a bit more dignified than that behind the door of Number 10 Downing Street, but probably not much.

British politics is at its most brutal when you exit that place. The Camerons had just two days to pack up their things and ship them out. For the civil servants it’s effectively „The King is dead, long live the King”, as they prepare immediately for the new incumbent. So, the last touches done – David Cameron left Downing Street. I remember seeing Margaret Thatcher wait till she got to the car before wiping a tear. I was there when Gordon Brown came out with his two sons.

Today, as I was reporting for BBC World News, David Cameron – not even 50 – left the place he’s occupied for six years. He said it had been a lovely home for his three children to grow up in and his wife had kept him ‘vaguely sane’. He couldn’t have dreamed it would end like this. He did well to disguise the disappointment, in his final comments. Dignified, another chance to set out his legacy – and then he was gone – the final journey to Buckingham Palace. And that was that.

With seamless choreography, Theresa May’s car swept her into the Palace not long after. The first chance for the Queen to welcome her 13th Prime Minister – the third who wasn’t even born when she came to the throne. The ‘kissing of hands’, although I’m not sure that actually gets done; a private conversation, the first picture. Then the journey back to Downing Street as the country’s new leader.

Talking about fast-forward

On Monday, Theresa May thought she had two months to sort out her plans, what her government might look, the direction. Two days later, we were streaming live on the BBC as she was there outside Number 10, telling the country how honoured she felt, how she would govern for everyone, the challenge of implementing Brexit. She describes herself as, „not showy”, someone who just gets on with the job. And boy, what a job she faces.

Once the welcomes were done – the work began – with her first Cabinet. Gone was the Chancellor, George Osborne, a serious break with the past. In came Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. David Davis, an ardent Eurosceptic was put in charge of the Brexit negotiations. One Conservative MP described the next 72 hours, as a period where you have to „endlessly congratulate others, while secretly thinking, it should have been me!”

The relationship with Europe is the issue that will dominate the next few years. Such is the speed of events, other governments wait to learn what the British position will be. Capitals like Delhi and Beijing will also watch with interest, to see if their relationship with Britain changes. Expanding trade in those markets will be critical, if there’s to be a counter-weight to the economic hit that’s expected with Europe.

Know what Brexit means

As Theresa May mapped out the direction of the Conservatives domestically, the Labour opposition is in total freefall. It is open warfare between most of the Labour MPs who think that Jeremy Corbyn is not up to it, and the leader, who says he has massive support from the grassroots.

A leadership battle has started and could end up splitting the party. Perhaps as voters have realigned over recent years, political parties are ultimately going to have to do the same. And so the day closes – with a new occupant in Number 10. And yet, with a parliamentary majority of just twelfe for Theresa May, there are huge difficulties ahead. Every relationship, both domestically and internationally, is going to have to be redefined.

As he delivered his final Prime Minister’s Question Time, David Cameron was teased about perhaps becoming the next England football manager or the next presenter of the TV programme Top Gear – but the veteran Conservative Ken Clarke made a more serious plea. He said, „no two people know what Brexit means” and he urged the former Prime Minister to continue to advise from the side lines.

Not sure what Theresa May made of that. But Mr. Cameron rehashed his famous putdown of Tony Blair, when he told him „you were the future once”. Today he wryly observed: „I was the future once”. For him, that’s how it ends. For Theresa May this is how it starts. As for my old cassette recorder, the fast forwarding did eventually stop. But it was never quite the same.

Photo: © Fotolia / chrisdorney
Consequences of Brexit: On Brexit, from the East
July 5th, 2016, 04:18 AM

In past decades, the UK has mostly been a hindrance of ever closer union and the federal development of the EU. Usually it has made life difficult for those working for stronger political powers for Brussels vis-à-vis nation states. It supported eastern enlargement – including that of Turkey – so that it could weaken the Franco-German center of gravity of Europe. Now we have a historical moment in which most major powers within the Union are again becoming interested in strengthened central coordination. Without such enhanced coordination powers, it is difficult to see how Europe can overcome the present crisis. With virtually no economic growth, enormous levels of unemployment across the Mediterranean, and sustained institutional uncertainties across the EU, enhanced coordination is more vital than ever. No national governments can do this job, as this is neither possible politically, nor institutionally, nor morally. The alternative of ever closer union is disintegration: either the center ejects the periphery by stopping financing it, or center countries eject themselves from a failing Union as the UK has just done. Europe cannot continue to form a non-optimal currency zone, kept together with institutionally unauthorized interventions by the ECB, with no hope of fixing up structural weaknesses. Without legally permitted, substantial fiscal transfers within the union and EU-wide rules actually enforced by the Commission, Europe will never work. This will create ever increasing political tensions both in the center and across the periphery, utilized by far more blatant enemies of liberal democracy than Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

This may be the moment of pushing for the formation of a European public; a public that has not existed before, leaving national governments the only major political players in Europe. Their handling of the crisis has proved insufficient to say the least, and it is difficult to foresee any major improvement under current conditions. We at the eastern fringes of the EU are deeply interested in finding workable solutions to this crisis and forming a European public that hold leaders accountable in case they failed to implement those solutions.

In past years in the East, we have mostly elected leaders who have been happy to form alliances with the UK so that Brussels cannot curb their provincial prerogatives. Now they have lost a major ally in their anti-EU “freedom fight”, which is of course only waged against EU political interference not against EU money. This is a welcome development and we pro- EU eastern citizens should now be able to push for an ever closer union more than before. This should mean less power for nation states and more power for the EU, and we need to persuade our fellow citizens that they would be better off if development funds were overseen by democratically accountable European political bodies instead of our clientalistic governments.

Strengthening central coordination and letting a transparent and democratically accountable EU solve the crisis is the only possible solution. Europe must live up to its moral, political and​ institutional standards, and failing to do so must be sanctioned both in the center and the periphery. This cannot happen without curtailing the prerogatives of nation states that are themselves unable to maintain competitiveness and liberal democracy at the same time in a globalized world, even if the majority of the UK electorate believed the other way.

Photo: © Getty Images
After the Brexit: “These Britons are crazy!”
June 28th, 2016, 04:18 AM

In their attempts to make sense of the outcome of the Brexit referendum, European analysts treat Britain as being fundamentally different from continental Europe. They present the tribes inhabiting the British Isles as the quintessential ‘other’. The boorish behavior of the two faces of the ‘Leave Campaign’, the buffoonish ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the seemingly permanently grinning leader of the nationalist UKIP party Nigel Farage, certainly makes it tempting to agree with both European commentators and with the Asterix quote.

However, the problem with this kind of analysis is that it views the referendum through a lens that only allows us to see the mud-slinging contest that has been dominating the Conservative Party and the UKIP Party in recent weeks. In doing so, European analysts have missed the target by a wide margin for two reasons.

Both the traditional and populist rightwing camps on their own would have been incapable of tearing Britain out of the EU. It was, in fact, the very significant Eurosceptic minority amongst the British Left that pushed the U.K. over the edge and thus out of the EU. Too many leftwing Eurosceptics either voted in favour of Brexit, or they simply stayed at home. What unites rightwing populism and the populism that, against all expectation, made Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the Labour Party is a deep-seated skepticism towards the EU.

It needs to be said that Corbyn and his supporters define themselves as being Europhile. Yet their vision of Europe is directed against a supposedly evil ‘neo-liberal‘ EU. It was thus no surprise that Corbyn’s speeches for the ‘Remain’ camp came over as just about as enthusiastic, authentic, and truthful as someone delivering a speech with a pistol held against his back would be.

The ‘Remain’ side also lost the referendum because a significant number of Scots failed to take the referendum sufficiently seriously, as evident in the comparatively smaller voter turnout in Scotland. As the overwhelming majority of Scots hold positive attitudes towards the EU, it was difficult for many Scots to imagine quite how different popular sentiment in England and Wales was. There was far too little effort in Scotland to get people out to vote. When I recently visited my German hometown of Breckerfeld, I saw exactly the same number of election billboards as I did in Aberdeen, where I now live and work: none. In vain did I try to find cars in the north-east of Scotland bearing ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ bumper stickers.

Yet there is an even more important reason, than the failure adequately to take into account leftwing and Scottish behaviour, why analyses of the Brexit referendum that treat Britain as the ‘other’ are flawed.
In fact, Britain will leave the European Union, not because Britons are different from continental Europeans, but because they are almost exactly the same. This is why it would be a big mistake for European leaders to try to prevent a contagion of the Brexit crisis by treating the British government in secession negotiations as harshly as possible.

According to a recent survey of the Pew Research Center carried out in ten EU member states, almost exactly the same share of the British, German, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish population harbor Eurosceptic views. People in France and Greece hold even more hostile views about the EU than the British do. Only nations to the East of the former ‘iron curtain’ still hold overwhelmingly positive views of the EU.

The outcome of the Brexit referendum is a symptom of two interlocking crises that hold all of Europe in a tight grip: a EU crisis created inadvertently by pro-EU elites and a crisis of globalization. Both crises have driven voters across Europe into the arms of populists.

For far too long, European elites have ignored the will of the people in a paternalistic fashion, believing that they know better what is best for the people than the people themselves do. When, for instance, electorates in France and the Netherlands voted down the European Constitution that had been drawn up in the early 2000s, EU elites faced a choice.

They could either accept the outcome of the French and Dutch referenda, or make their case more persuasively in the hope that that would convince the people of the need for more integration. In the event, they did neither. Instead European governments simply met up in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and drew up a treaty that repackaged the contents of the European Constitution that had just been voted down. In doing so, they sneaked the Constitution in through the backdoor. Behavior of this kind, driven by arrogance towards the people, has fuelled populism across the continent. And it has thus inadvertently fanned a process of European disintegration.

Euroscepticism and disintegration have been fuelled further by a feeling held by many in Europe that they are the losers of globalization. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are worse off than they were in the past. And they have lost hope that their children’s future will be brighter than their own. They are not just afraid of a loss of national sovereignty. They are just as worried about a loss of their own personal sovereignty. Their perception is that, in a globalised world, the EU does no longer allow them to determine their own lives and hence to be masters in their own house.

Perceptions like these are the perfect soil for populists on both sides of the political spectrum to flourish. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Beatrix von Storch on the political right, but also figures on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn or at least initially Alexis Tsipras are seen as their advocates and the defenders of their rights by those who feel betrayed by the political establishment and by globalization.

If the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the growth of political populism will be accepted as a wake-up call to stop doing ‘business as usual’, something positive may come out of the British referendum. Populism would lose the oxygen that sustains it, if the right political lessons are drawn from the referendum. This would particularly be the case if ‘the people’, particularly those on the losing side of society, will in the future be treated with more respect.

However, with every day that populists are provided with stages from which they can preach, the political foundations of our societies become more porous and political discourse becomes more polarized.
As the Brexit referendum and all the other recent European crises reveal, any consensus about the future of our continent has long evaporated.

For one, three fundamentally different approaches as to how Europe can best survive in a globalised world compete with each other. Some believe that small innovative units (in the form of nation states) can best respond to the challenges of the 21st century . This view competes with the belief that only networks of states will allow Europeans still to be masters in their own house in the future . Others argue that only the formation of the United States of Europe will allow Europeans to lead a self-determined life a globalised world

In addition, three starkly different visions about what makes a good society and political economy compete against each other all over the Western world: a leftwing vision that blames ‘neo-liberalism’ for all the ills of society, a liberal worldview, and a national-conservative set of values. Recent years have indeed witnessed a return of ‘history’, in other words a reemergence of ideological strife in the West.

Nevertheless, despite a lack of consensus about the future, there is unlikely to be immediate doom. In the days and weeks to come, European governments and EU institutions and domestic political actors are likely to make deals and find compromises in order to prevent an immediate collapse of the EU.

The main challenge of Britain and European is, however, not the prevention of a spectacular collapse. There has been far too much of a tendency among journalists and historians to look at ‘big bang’ events in order to make sense of the collapse of states and societies. Yet, in fact, states, institutions, and federations often do not disappear with a ‘big bang’ in revolutions and wars. Far more often, they slowly degenerate over time. This is where the real danger of the rise in political populism lies, for it is the rise of populism that destroys the ability of the societies in which we live to reform and to find lasting and genuine compromises.

If Europe will not take immediate steps to address this problem, the foundation of our common European house will soon be so porous that first its roofs and subsequently its walls will fall in. The EU will then look just like a ruined Scottish castle: picturesque but defenceless. A self-determined life will then no longer be possible for its inhabitants in the globalised world of the 21st century. Neither Britons, nor Europeans elsewhere will then still be masters in their own house. This is why we urgently need to build a new, a better, a stronger, and a different Europe.

Photo: © DavidQ /
Angela Merkel and the German soul: Kant and Merkel
June 24th, 2016, 04:18 AM

Angela Merkel has emerged the loser from the refugee crisis. And, alongside her, the Kantian imperative, a philosophy deeply entrenched in German culture, has lost as well. This is true despite 70 percent of Germans professing a moral obligation to help refugees and people in need. Derived from the Golden Rule, this obligation has even entered the German language in idiomatic form: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To Kant, for whom religion was mostly a reservoir for moral rules of action, it also suited the universal approach to ethics in the Enlightenment era. His moral imperative remains a cornerstone of German ethics. But despite the high approval ratings, this past year Germany has witnessed the rise of a massive right-wing populist movement strongly opposed to Kant’s dictum.

Citizens in other European countries express less of a moral obligation towards refugees. For example, the English have struggled to understand the actions of the German government: “The Germans have gone crazy,” they say. Or, in the English parliament: “Angela Merkel has become impertinent.” Something about the English has become clear: defined by David Hume’s utilitarianism, they could not be further from Kant, who looked at a thing by its very nature (“a thing in itself”) rather than at its overall usefulness.

This split in national philosophical tradition does not originate in the refugee crisis – indeed the philosophers have articulated a wide-ranging divergence in British-German thinking. For example, the two countries differ in their approaches to stem-cell and embryonic research: in Germany, where utilitarianism is insignificant compared to the greater cause, the purpose of the research does not justify the means. When a moral issue (i.e. euthanasia) is molded into German law, there is no party discipline in the Bundestag: an obligation to a party’s position does not apply. Rather, the Bundestag member is free to vote according to conscience.

The English are not alone in accusing the Germans of “moral imperialism,” and it is not entirely without reason: Germany has always understood Europe to be a project of values, not simply a common market as England would have it. However, responding to the refugee crisis, Merkel’s European partners did not follow the German commitment to morality, and so the Chancellor lost. She had hoped to lead other European countries by example to allow the distribution of refugees under the applicable provisons for the Member States of the EU. Gradually, however, countries along the Balkan route closed their borders, and an Islamophobic nationalism has reemerged in Hungary, Slovenia, and Poland. These parties are the ones leading by example: in Germany, an anti-Muslim right-wing party (Alternative for Germany) made it into three regional parliaments.

Angela Merkel’s project, and indeed the Kantian imperative, has failed. And with it, so has her vision of a Europe committed to the values Erasmus of Rotterdam long ago spelled out: Europeans united by the spirit of Christianity to fuel a new humanism. Only, back then, those values wilted in the face of the Reformation and its subsequent wars.

It’s argued that Merkel, a pastor’s daughter, has responded to the refugee crisis as a Christian would. She rejects this claim, completely á la Kant: the moral imperative is not to be applied ad libitum, but in all cases. Other European politicians, however—Helmut Kohl, Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet—derived their politics from Christianity’s moral sources. Their political Christianity and accompanying political theology have, since the late 19th century, stood related to and yet distinct from both social democracy and liberalism. Yet, today in Europe, all three political systems are under attack at what may not be the best time, testing the political cohesion of the Union. The Chancellor, head of a Christian party, once told those who feel threatened by Islam to read the Bible and go to church. Yet this may not be great advice: religion for many Europeans is a matter of cultural kinship, not spiritual belief. That is why religious Muslims frighten most Germans. So when Merkel said that another culture does not limit the extent of one’s own, the notion ran into the void – and has for some time all across the continent.

In 2011, a large survey tested the depths of xenophobia, islamophobia, and misogyny within eight European countries. With the notable exception of the Netherlands, these undemocratic attitudes had found purchase with at least a third of Germany, England, France, Italy, Portugal, Poland and Hungary. Mrs. Merkel was thus too optimistic: she overestimated the extent to which her constituents would appreciate a political realignment along Kant’s philosophy (not to mention how that approach would be received in the rest of Europe). Rising uncertainty, exacerbated by globalization and digitalization, strengthens the new right-wing parties from Denmark to Greece. Calls for a strong man are common. This is why the new right pays homage to Vladimir Putin.

The Germans appear to have long adopted a philosophical Sonderweg. Politically this has at least been true under Angela Merkel’s tenure: abandoning nuclear energy, dealing with the financial crisis, and responding to the refugee crisis, Germany has argued and acted confidently, yet differently than any other EU country and without consulting them beforehand. To what extent can we chalk up this difference to Kant? The German approaches to energy and finance are linked in a peculiar way to matters of principle and morality, but in the refugee crisis, there is a clear reason to act according to Immanuel Kant: real people are in a specific emergency.

Morally, Europe today is in ruins—much as it was during the time of Erasmus. For a brief moment, the Willkommenskultur and the Wir schaffen das mentality (recall the fall of 2015) seemed to be the realization of Erasmus’s dream. The continent, however, is falling back upon its nation-states, back to the Europe drawn by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which culminated, ultimately, in two devastating world wars. Some say Angela Merkel gambled (and now lost) the legacy of her great European predecessors. The opposite is true: Europe was either going to be a moral entity, or not be at all.

Photo: © Bundesregierung
Brexit: Britain’s big divorce?
June 22nd, 2016, 04:18 AM

Divorce is messy, and uniquely so. Nowhere else are we so regrettably obliged to extricate the threads of our legal, economic, and emotional wellbeing. Brexit might come close, though. Leaving the EU would be an emotional and expensive legal headache for both the UK and its bi-national couples, with Britain footing most of the bill.

It works like this. Research conducted by the Centre of Population Change at the University of Southampton and recently published by Population Europe concludes that EU citizens in the UK consist mostly of working-age individuals in work. They tend to be both better educated and more likely to be employed than their native-born counterparts. Not surprisingly, they overwhelmingly tend to be net contributors to the British welfare system.
But they would be inclined to emigrate again should the UK decide to abandon the EU. Voting to leave would be seen as an endorsement of the increasingly restrictive policies vis-à-vis EU immigrants being adopted by the government since 2014, and we know that countries with less discriminatory policies are better at attracting the talent their economy needs.

This complicates things for Britain’s bi-national couples. Marriage certainly shields EU citizens married to British citizens from some of Brexit’s promised legal uncertainty, but not all of it. It will not, for example, necessarily protect them from employers’ jitters about paying someone whose right to work may be in limbo. Access to social entitlements may also be at risk, or at least perceived to be.

This is to say nothing of the effect on their children, whose nationality and citizenship status may be left up in the air for all but the most adept bureaucracy navigators.

Couples’ response will likely be to seek citizenship for the non-British partner. Ironically, this will entitle them to even more social benefits than they would have had otherwise. One need look no farther than British citizens in other EU countries, who have already begun applying for non-UK citizenship. The difference is that as other net contributors leave the UK, it will come at a higher cost.

To be sure, even if Britain votes to stay, the referendum will already have begun to have a strong deterrent effect, particularly for the most talented, who tend to (understandably) want to go where they feel welcome and privileged.

But not everyone will stop coming. Population exchange has been a continuous phenomenon throughout human history. Walls, border patrols, and restrictive policies cannot stop it in the long run. They can be painful for our partners, though. And, even before the lawyers, they don’t come cheap.
Knowledge of these consequences will not likely persuade the most ardent Brexiteers, but policymakers and public opinion leaders should bear them in mind—perhaps as they recall why we were together in the first place.

Photo: © Lesley MARTIN / Getty Images