In covering these week’s events in Catalonia, Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls ‘comes to mind. Much like the setting of the novel, Spain finds itself in a deep division of historic proportions. Although a civil war comparison may be a bit much, the tensions that have ridden Catalonia and Spain the past few weeks and months are nothing short of unprecedented in Western Europe. Many will wonder what the hell happened and how it got to this point. Some think there is a degree of hypocrisy involved and others decry that the series of events leading up to and on 1 October were shameful, on all sides. Whatever one thinks, neither constitutional purism nor ideological fervour will fix the current impasse. The EU has an opportunity, not only to watch carefully what happens but to try and prevent a fissure that is, in essence, a microcosm of the atomised thinking that is plaguing Europe at the moment.
Its also worth mentioning, like we did tongue in cheek on Facebook, that Catalonia was not the only territory voting on its independence last week. Iraqi Kurdistan voted for their independence in a poll that has its own issues. We’ll let you dig into those yourselves.
Atenciosamente, (as our Portuguese friends would say)
The Brussels Brief Team 👨👩👦 ✌️
🔝 FRONT PAGE — Top News This Week
Catalunya. For whom the ballot tolls. In any case on Sunday 1 October, a series of events happened in the region that have been defined by some as a democratic referendum by the government of Catalonia or an illegal vote and coup d’etat by the Spanish state and courts. These events resulted in more than 2.2 million people voting (video) (out of 5.3 registered voters or approx. 42% of electorate) of which around 90% voted for independence according to the Catalan government. Between 92 and 319 of the 2,300 polling stations were shut down and 750,000 of votes cast were intercepted by over 10,000 spanish police that were deployed to the region prior to the poll. These police and the clashes that they had with voters resulted in over 840 people injured, of which around 30 were police officers. Many of the injuries were caused by the use of rubber bullets and batons. The aftermath of the vote has been marked by the perceived PR victory of the separatists and the immediate silence of the EU and its respective leaders with respect to the violence seen on the day. Since the vote, the EU has been unwillingly invoked by the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, who after claiming that Catalonia had ‘won the right to statehood’ asked the EU to step into the role of mediator in the conflict. The EU Commission has continued with its non interventionist line and MEPs debated the situation briefly on Wednesday (video) whose main theme was the call for dialogue between the parties. What remains is incognito, as Puigdemont threatens to declare independence unilaterally in a matter of days, the Spanish government threatens direct rule, the Catalan people protest and strike, and the EU soul searches in what is its biggest existential threat since Brexit. (BBC News, BBC Newsnight, The Nation, Reuters, The Independent, Politico Europe, The Guardian, EUobserver, Quartz, Deutsche Welle, Vice)
Macron’s Gettysburg Address. Seeing all that is going on lately, between natural disasters around the world and political disasters in Europe, you might be forgiven for missing out on a speech or two. The President of France and EU bull, Emmanuel Macron (Cousin Manu to us), laid out in a 100 minute thesis at the Sorbonne last week, his vision to change a Europe that is” too slow, too weak, too ineffective”. His ambition knew no bounds as he lay out plans for enhanced cooperation and harmonisation of the Eurozone, migration, defence, the environment, security and terrorism, tax and international development and energy. He also made a passionate plea against populism whose antidote, he claims, is deeper integration. The speech, however, has been largely emblematic for the array of reactions to it. From the lukewarm to the outright approval, and from skepticism to outright calling it authoritarian. At least it has impressed some across the pond, who don’t seem generally too easy to please these days. (New York Times, Euractiv, Carnegie Europe, Time, Euronews, The Guardian, EUobserver, The Telegraph, The Hill)
An end to the world’s longest sugar rush. The sweet times are over for European sugar farmers as the system for sugar quotas, in place since 1968, was finally abolished October 1. For some farmers times will be even sweeter with increased production and greater exports, while others will have to swallow the bitter pill of tougher competition and close shop. Unlike the untimely abolishment of the milk quota regime two years ago the Commission is confident that sugar farmers are ready for the transition this time around. However, one side-effect of this new regimen could be an increase in obesity as the white powder is let loose on consumers. Maybe go for a diet-soda? (Deutsche Welle, EUobserver, inews.co.uk)
Bigger-better-Brexit-budget. Mo’ money equals mo’ problems is an age old proverb, and and more problems might just be coming for the Brexit talks. The EU 7-year budget for 2014–2020 has an unexpected €239 billion unspent on delayed projects and the UK and EU now have to settle the UK’s share of these commitments that go beyond the current budget period. But take comfort that your money is in good hands, the EU Court of Auditors (the independent EU accountants) just came out with a positive note on their annual report of the EU’s spending habits (and when they don’t heads start rolling). Need a quick recap of the Multiannual Financial Framework? (EU speak for 7-year budget) Check out this quick video. (EUobserver, The New York Times, Euractiv, Wikipedia, Europarltv)
Take my money dammit! No giant escapes the mighty hammer of the European Commission these days. After Google and Apple, Amazon is the latest tech titan to find itself facing a huge fine, this time €250 million for illegal tax advantages in Luxembourg, which it now has to repay that country. However the crackdowns on tax dodgers are controversial and, in a rare case of turning down money, Ireland complained that Apple has to repay it €13 billion. This comes as the same time the Commission is proposing changes to VAT rules which have allowed companies to avoid taxation and new proposals to harmonise taxation of internet companies during the hyped digital summit in Estonia with different ideas between the young and oldergeneration of European leaders emerging. (CNBC, Financial Times, Euractiv, UK Reuters, Deutsche Welle, Politico Europe)
🇬🇧 STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION — Brexit Stories
Pas suffisant. This was the EU’s conclusion on the Brexit negotiations in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday. Ahead of the fifth round of negotiations between the EU and the UK next week, the Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of resolution that stated, in short, that not enough progress had been made so far in the three key areas (Northern Ireland, citizens rights and financial settlement). To warrant the negotiations going to phase two where the somewhat sexier issue of trade can be discussed. Notable amongst the plethora of speakers in the marathon session, was EPP Chairman Manfred Weber’s cheeky call for Theresa May to ‘sack’ rogue UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, was feeling the heat in the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday as she coughed and stumbled through her calamitous keynote speech. Many members of her party are growing increasingly wary that a trade deal might not be possible and are already making contingency plans towards a potential cold winter under WTO rules. (Washington Post, Reuters, The Guardian, The Independent, Bloomberg)
Olympic bid. That’s what the competition between cities to host the EU agencies currently hosted by the UK will look like. In an assessment published on Saturday, the European Commission set out the state of play of the current bids as they’ve been coming in. 19 cities in total have applied to take over either the European Medical Agency (EMA) or the European Banking Authority (EBA). It is proving to be a real race to the bottom with some cities even providing tax breaks and rent free headquarterswhilst presenting their respective assets in 100 page glossy brochures and videos. Staffers of the EMA have already expressed their preferences, but it’s ultimately up to the member states where these will end up. (European Commission, Reuters, The Irish Times, EUobserver)
Stresshouse Brussels. A tech startup called Zipjet conducted a recent study on the mental health of 150 cities, taking into consideration criteria like green spaces, unemployment, weather, pollution and other factors. Brussels, which was ranked 120, siding with cities like Rio de Janiero and Athens, scored well in race equality and physical health but was dragged down with its unemployment and pollution rates. Belgian city Antwerp saved the day (and Belgium’s rep) by coming in 69th, while the highest ranked were the German cities of Stuttgart, Hannover, and Munich. Douze points to Germany. (The Bulletin)
Driving is the new smoking. If you were thinking 2017 was the year to buy a new car, think again. Any heavy-polluting, diesel-running car you own may just cost you 350 euro for every ride. Why you ask? In an effort to reduce nitrogen oxide, black carbon, and other such toxic substances, Brussels has decided to implement a low-emission zone, and while there will be a nine-month transitional period for drivers to familiarise themselves with the new regulations, fines for those who don’t respect the law are costly. (Expatica)
Home is where the space is. The Brussels region wishes to allocate €500,000 to shelter the 300 refugees currently seeking shelter in Maximilian park, situated near the city’s Gare du Nord. Authorities have located a building which is currently in decent conditions that can be quickly operational as a shelter for these individuals. Several NGOs have also come forth with the idea of setting up a center near the park to assist with healthcare and legal advice. (The Bulletin)
An offer you can’t refuse? Among all of the European countries susceptible to suffer an attack by islamist terrorists, Italy would be a natural target. Not only is it the pathway for more than 80% of all illegal immigrants arriving to Europe, it is also the seat of the Catholic Church, an attractive target for fanatical proselytes. So what has spared Italy? A range of factors most surprisingly among them; the Mafia. It’s vast control in the south has deterred jihadists but more so the Italian state has long been fighting a covert enemy and has more experience in surveillance of criminal suspects than other nations. Maybe all Europeans have a Godfather in Italy they owe a favour to? (The Economist)
How about a holiday in prison? An ominous proposition in most cases but not so when talking about Ireland. The Emerald Isle, home to green fairies and unlimited amounts of Guinness, is now also the proud host of Europe’s most popular prison.. Having closed down in 2004 for penal correction, Spike Island reopened last year as a tourist attraction and museum. Where visitors of the island in earlier times could expect deportation to Australia, today’s guests will be ferried back to Cork after a hopefully pleasant visit. (Lonely Planet)
The Chinese are coming. This time for your policy. In April of this year China opened its first think-tank in Europe, China — CEE (China and Central Eastern Europe) in Budapest. This move was quickly interpreted to reflect China’s desire to increase and expand its intellectual capacity, and it is certainly not backing down. The country has a total of 435 think tanks, only second to the USA (1,835). Nine of these are ranked among the top 175 institutions. If the numbers aren’t convincing enough, it seems that the findings of these think tanks have also proven fruitful for helping to direct policy proposals and drafting. Where’s the catch? The system is set-up so that any information provided needs to be sent to a government ‘supervising’ agency’ who then decides what filters through to the top. It ain’t everything but it is a start. (Forbes)
Beating heart, or maybe not. Just a little over six months ago, people marched in the name of Europe, claiming unity in diversity. Fast forward to autumn, and here is Europe (and its spirit) flat-lining. Germany’s predictable, un-enticing elections brought just that: an un-enticing win with an un-enticing politician. Emmanuel Macron was expected to bring vibrant, young energy with a wave of good (and necessary reform). But is he? Spain’s constitutional crisis is provoking considerable tension and political uncertainty. Could it be that in times of European crisis, it is a spirit and a desire for a united Europe that will give us the strength to go on? Where is that pulse for a united, European future now? Perhaps, it will come around by next spring again. (Verfassungs Blog)
Colliding facts. To some EU states the refugee crisis is a humanitarian crisis, to others it is a problem jeopardising security, one that reflects how “politics has raped European law and values.” So claims Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s Foreign Affairs Minister, a politician who personifies one of the greatest challenges to ensuring a united European response to this emergency. Szijjarto focuses on the legality of the question at hand, reiterating the same rhetoric once more: illegal migration is bad and a threat to Europe’s future. Still, he, alongside other national politicians, claim that European values are shared and that Hungary has no intention of leaving the Union. (Al Jazeera)
The spectre of social-democracy. With the recent advent of the Alternative for Germany party, the circle is complete and Germany has now become a “normal country” in Europe with a far-right party of its own. But all across Europe the only real common denominator binding the anti-establishment parties is a resentment of the establishment and the status quo, writes Josef Joffe, Publisher-Editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit. In fact, the real story is the fall of the social democratic parties, once proud and dominant political forces across all European countries. These centre-left parties have fallen into the abyss of irrelevance unable to articulate a vision for the people left (excuse the pun) behind. Only a reinvention of what it means to be a social democrat for the 21st century can avoid a fatal ending for the party of the working man. (The Guardian)
🎥 Video(s) of the Week. You’re fired. A prankster handed a P45 form to UK Prime Minister Theresa May whilst she was giving her keynote speech at the Conservative party conference, ‘with compliments from Boris Johnson’. A P45 form is a very underhand British way of getting rid of someone in employment. (Guardian Wires)
📺 GIF of the Week
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