Monday, 30 May 2016

Lectures on the United Kingdom and the European Union

The European Union and the United Kingdom share a special relationship. Sometimes isolationist, sometimes interventionist, the Brits have a very ambiguous stance on the European Union. Recently, the brexit and bremain views opposed each other in the referendum on the EU. Find out more about the relationship in these two lectures.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Referendums: a good idea?

Referendums, like the one in the United Kingdom on 23 June 2016 about EU membership. Some see it as a miracle solution to connect (or reconnect) citizens with politics. By having more to say, they'll be motivated again for the political game. Or so goes the argument.

For the European Union, this may be a strong argument to hold referendums. The EU is sometimes seen as very distant from its citizens. So here's your miracle cure for saving democracy. Or not. In referendums, you get the wrong answers to the wrong questions.

Take the Dutch referendum on the association treaty with Ukraine. As some opinion leaders claimed, most of the Dutch didn't even know where Ukraine is on a world map. Let alone they read the over 300 pages of the document. Why ask the Dutch in a referendum about a trade treaty with a country thousands of miles away?

Referenda: a good idea? ©
A quick look on the comments on a website explaining the treaty shows that many persons didn't bother to inform further. One person commented to vote against as long as the government couldn't explain the treaty. Actually, he/she could have found a clear explanation on the government's website.

So instead of judging the treaty on its merits or its shortcomings, the 61% who voted against didn't vote against the treaty. They voted against the establishment, the EU, the government, or maybe just because they had a bad mood. They also voted against the incapacity of politicians to judge whether there should be a referendum or not.

However, that does not apply to the UK referendum: there's a clear question and clear answers. Still, people might just vote against, just because they don't like the UK's government. Or because they don't like politicians.

Switzerland took another approach: in addition to voting for the Federal Assembly (that's the parliament), about 4 times a year, referenda are held. In these referenda, they receive an explanation of the law, a choice (yes or no) and an advice of the government. This way, citizens inform themselves before voting. There's even a possibility to block new laws by collecting 50 000 signatures, and holding a referendum on the new law. Isn't that a better way?

Friday, 20 May 2016

Brexit: stars back European Union membership

250 actors, musicians and other cultural leaders of the United Kingdom urged the Brits to vote for membership to the European Union in the upcoming referendum. In an open letter published on 20 May 2016, they argue it's better to stay in than out: 'let's not become an outsider shouting from the wings'.

My question is: maybe that's exactly what they want: to be an outsider shouting from the wings?

Visit Hadrian's wall protecting the Roman Empire ©
It's important to understand where the Euroscepticism comes from. Deeply rooted in history, the Brits have always been afraid of one big power on the European mainland. The Roman empire is just one of the examples in the UK's history, resulting in a wall quite high up north to protect the empire from invaders. Some remnants can still be visited.

More recently, Napoleon, Hitler and perhaps Stalin have tried to conquer Europe to install one powerful superstate. The Brits have fought Napoleon and Hitler (Boris Johnson?) and won, through hard times, endless battles and countless casualties. Since than, the UK's foreign policy alternated different views: either divide the states of Europe, or isolate itself from the mainland.

One can easily make the comparison. Today, the Brits are fighting the ever more powerful superstate. They couldn't divide it enough from within (support to Turkey's EU accession is just one of the methods) so now it's time to isolate itself from the EU.

So for the supporters of Britain in the EU, namely Britain Stronger in Europe, I'd argue it's better not to warn their compatriots that they'll be outsiders. That's exactly what they want.

I think it's better to point out the world's challenges: Russia's aggressive stance in Ukraine, Turkey's concentration of power, and all the turmoil in Northern Africa. These arguments may be more convincing.

More information: interesting article from the Guardian and an analysis of the pro-EU Economist.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The EU countries' economic health barometers

How do you know if a country of the European Union is doing well economically or not? While economists can debate this issue for hours and hours, there's a quite simple way to find out. Via the so-called 'long-term interest rates' of the European Central Bank.

That's quite a mouthful. The European Central Bank is a bank, in the hands of the government. It mangages the Euro, in just a few words. For example, it can allow Belgium to print some Euro's. The ECB's first goal is to make sure that prices for EU goods like spinach, cell phones and tables don't go up too quickly. And not down, otherwise no one would buy them anymore, expecting the prices to go even more down. Actually, the goal is close to 2 percent increase of the general prices per year. Read more about the ECB here.

As part of their duties, the ECB collects data. It does so for the long-term interest rates of government bonds. Lots of difficult words there. Government bonds are loans the government takes. Some of the bonds anyone can buy. Mostly it's big organisations like pension funds who want to buy these bonds. So they know or at least think their money is safe. In return, they receive the money they loaned plus some interest. And an interest rate, is the rate at which the money was loaned.

Let's illustrate it: Belgium wants to spend 100 Euro for buying some fighter planes. So, they check: who wants to give them a loan? I say: me, of course! I feel like Belgium always pays their debts. I conclude the deal, Belgium gets a 1-year loan and will pay me back 102 Euro in a year. So the bond is from Belgium, the interest rate is 2% and the interest is 2 Euro.

Well, that's a little simple, but it's basically it. Now, long-term interest rates are those for bonds of around 10 years. So those who loan money will wait for about 10 years to see their money back. Of course, they will only give their money to states that don't go bankrupt. And the more they think the country will go bankrupt, the higher the interest rate.

Let's take the fighter planes again: I (and many others) think Belgium won't be able to repay the 100 Euro, for a period of 10 years. If I think that Belgium will go bankrupt in 5 years, I can give them a loan with 25% interest rate. So after 5 years, I get 125 Euro back. That's 25 Euro interest every year, times 5, is 125.

Conclusion: the higher the interest rate, the worse the governments' ability to repay their debts. The ECB collects monthly interest rates. There, you can easily see in the figures in the table who can get cheaply loans, and who doesn't. So it's a way to tell if an EU country is doing well or not. Germany usually has the lowest rates.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

European Union Defense policy: state of play and future

(c) AdR
How did the European Union's defence policy evolve in the past 10 years? And how is it going to evolve? A difficult question the EU is facing nowadays, in times of turmoil in the Middle East and increasing tensions with Russia over Ukraine.

EU Defence expert Daniel Keohane answers these questions in this lecture.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Trusting the EU's financial markets and institutions

Recently, the EU was hit by a major financial crisis, which became an economic crisis and eventually a debt and a social crisis. 4 for the price of one, however as usual during crises not many people like the aspect of losing their investments, savings and jobs. And has anyone seen a banker thrown in jail for his/her part in the crisis?

Time to have a debate on how to restore trust in the EU's financial institutions - the ECB being the most important one. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some important people discussed this very topic earlier in 2016.

Some like to see Iceland as an example: unemployment is low, the debt to GDP ratio already started to fall in 2012, there's a very narrow budget deficit and a number of bankers put in jail. However, many hard-working Europeans never saw their savings back... Which was not the case for Greece. Making you wonder whether Iceland could have refused to pay the savings if it was in the EU.

European Union countries - list

Which countries are part of the European Union? Good question. If a country decides to become part of the European Union, it needs to have the agreement of the EU nowadays. Than, it becomes what they call a 'member state', which is the EU's difficult language for 'EU country'. So here's a map to see the expansion throughout time:

EC-EU-enlargement animation
This map is made by Kolja21 with this license.

Actually, European integration began before 1957. In 1951, the six 'founding members' started the European Coal and Steel Community. Basically, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg and Germany decided 'let's work together on coal and steel!'. The plan was to prevent Germany from arming itself again by creating a common market for coal and steel, which are necessary for producing weapons.

Fun fact: Algeria was part of the European club once, since it wasn't independent yet. You can see it's still part of France in 1957.

The first expansion occurred in 1973, when the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland joined. By then, the name had changed into European Communities. Greenland was still part of Denmark at that time, you can see it on the map. In 1981, Greece joined the club, but blocked the accession of Spain and Portugal until 1986.

In 1990 Germany became one, and the Eastern part of Germany got membership as an extra. Two years later, the name changed again in European Union, which Austria, Sweden and Finland joined in 1995. 9 years later, a very large number of new Member States at the East of the EU were welcomed: the Baltic states Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia; Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary. 2 islands were joined at the same time: Cyprus and Malta.

In 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined as well as Croatia in 2013. Which adds up to 28 Member States.

You may wonder: who's next? There's a few official candidates: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Bosnia-Herzegovina has applied, but is not an official candidate, meaning the procedure was started to become part of the EU. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are countries that do not want to be part of the EU. Read more about the candidates here.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

EU jobs - employment in the European Union

Fancy a career in the European Union's institutions? There's many advantages: rewarding environment, multicultural teams, interesting pay, important work among many others.

Why not start with a traineeship? Especially for the younger workers, it is a great way to get to know the environment of the European Union. Those traineeships are typically 5 months, and offer you many insights an outsider doesn't have. Furthermore, you get a salary, although not impressive, and it looks great on a cv. Make sure to ask for a cover letter at the end of the traineeship! Tip: check out the websites of the EU agencies to see if they have traineeships available. Some of them do. You can also contact individual Members of the European Parliament to ask for a traineeship in a domain you're interested in.

If you already have some work experience, it may be good to work as an interim. As of 2016, the Commission works with a few interim agencies. Another way to get work as an interim all around Europe is to call the interim agencies around the EU agencies to see if they have contracts available. They're usually not being advertised, so with a few phone calls you can find out easily.

Some specialised vacancies can be found here. For example for EU experts, Junior Professionals in Delegations and freelance linguists. It's important to check these vacancies regularly, because they change a lot.

The central point to apply for open competitions is EPSO. You'll find vacancies for permanent contracts which are very, very competitive. So it might be like winning the lottery to get through that application process. It's much easier if you have already some EU experience, as an interim or trainee. Also check out the job opportunities. These change as well a lot.

For many more jobs and other websites, check out Eurodatum. Euractiv and Eurobrussels (subscribe to the job mail) are references, but as with any reference, they're highly competitive.

European Union's threats: lecture by Prime Minister Gonzalez

What are the European Union's biggest security threats? Is it the radicalisation of young persons, led by hatred? Or is Russia's assertive behaviour in Ukraine the principal worry? Tough question. Another option is the instability in the Middle East.

An interesting lecture on this topic by Felipe Gonz├ílez, the longest-serving Prime Minister of Spain and chairman of the European Union’s independent Reflection Group, which was established to help the Union anticipate and meet long-term challenges.

Referenda in the EU: debate

Interesting lecture on referenda in the European Union. What do they change? And what's the Irish experience with their referenda, that the British could take in the upcoming referendum? These are some of the topics discussed in the lecture held at Queen's University in Belfast, presided by Lee McGowan.