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Brussels Brief | 36th Edition

12–18 January 2018


It’s the 36th Edition of Brussels Brief* and we are back with a back to school edition in a brand spanking new year with one wish: that 2018 will be gentle with the EU and the global stability it represents. But wishes are only granted in fairy tales so here is our assessment of what is coming up in 2018, with a little help from our friends…

Enter our old friend ‘referenditis. There will be 10 presidential, parliamentary or general elections affecting the EU member states in 2018. Sweden will have an unusually controversial general election but the Italian general election in March is already showing signs of controversy and populists running amok.
Another old friend is the ‘enfant(s) terrible. 2018 is going to be when the ‘Visegrad Bad Boys’ (or at least ¾ of it) get up in arms or decide to keep it cool. So far there is no sign Hungary latter giving up on its anti-immigration and anti-Soros vibe and the EU is ‘not at war’ with Poland despite issuing an Article 7 measures in order to curb judicial ‘reforms’ made by the country’s distinctly right-wing government. The Czechs aren’t in great shape (see below) and the Slovakians…well they won’t be happy from losing out on hosting the European Medicines Agency.
Old friends make way for new friends. The emancipatory power of technology’ has seen a Black Mirror-esque turn in recent years, such as the spread of ‘fake news’ in social media leading to electoral earthquakes Europe-wide. The advent of a cryptocurrency frenzy and the threat of artificial intelligence overtaking everything is real… including jobs, politics, relationships and potentially humanity. Meanwhile, the EU is finally pushing through the web-era Digital Single Market to be finalised this year. Slow and steady wins the race as they say…
Don’t like our prospectus? Give these a go:
The Brussels Brief Team 👨‍👩‍👦 ✌️ 🇪🇺

*Collated and Curated over the warm vibes of ‘Møme live @ Tahiti for Cercle’ on YouTube and a cup of cha latte ☕ in Brussels Brief HQ.

“Our hearts are still open for you”
Donald Tusk, European Council President on the possibility of the UK changing its mind on Brexit. Incidentally, it is also a Bible verse
🔝 FRONT PAGE — Top News This Week

Information disorder. Is the name that academics prefer to use when describing what the media, Donald Trump and now the EU call ‘fake news’. The problem of misinformation and disinformation has been the staple of political rhetoric since time beginning of time. But the unprecedented mix of landmark general elections and referenda, alongside the widespread adoption of social media, saw the algorithmic peer-to-peer model of sharing information weaponised by everyone from Macedonian teens to make money and by world powers to achieve foreign policy goals. The Brexit referendum, the US, French, and German election and now, even the Catalan referendum have been suspected to be affected by active disinformation online. The EU and most notably, freshman Commissioner Mariya Gabriel latched on to the problem and and made it her priority which crystallised this week with an announcement that the European Commission will task a 29 member expert group that includes technology firms, academics, journalists, and others to propose EU-level measures before the summer to curb the phenomenon. This adds to measures already put in place last year to train EU diplomats against misinformation and follows French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent controversial move to make ‘fake news’ illegal in that country. Whether that is at all possible is a matter of debate. Meanwhile the technological solutions are also coming out with Facebook radically changing its algorithm against news content generally in order to tackle the problem. [Harvard PolicyCast, Wired, CNN International, The Daily Beast, EUobserver, The Atlantic, Project Syndicate, Eurotopics]
 Europe in turmoil. 2018 has been a rude awakening for many EU member state governments. The saga of coalition forming continues in Germany as talks between previous partners-in-government, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD) agree on little more than following Emmanuel Macron’s EU reform proposals. Merkel’s future is in question as the CDU would want to avoid a similar or lesser share of the votes should another election be held. Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, the presidential election held on 12–13 January resulted in a runoff for euroskeptic Milos Zeman and the recently elected government of his ally Prime Minister Andrej Babis collapsed yesterday after he suffered vote of no confidence in parliament. If things weren’t unstable enough, Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) forced out the Prime Minister on Tuesday and appointed the country’s first female Prime Minister Viorica Dancila. She become the third prime minister in seven months as the PSD continues to have commitment issues when it comes to a leader. In this scenario, the EU dares not to think about what is coming its way given the Italian elections in March. [The Economist, EUobserver, The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, BBC News, Eurotopics]

  💸 ITS THE ECONOMY, STUPID — Top Economic, Trade and Innovation News

2018: a digital Odyssey. 2018 is the year Europe enters the Digital Age in both big and small fashion. Starting off big, a 1€ billion project for building supercomputers. Europe has been lagging behind China, Japan and the US and in order to work and compete in highly demanding fields in the future, including medicine or industrial development, these large-scale projects are deemed crucial by Digital Single Market Commissioner Andrus Ansip. But on the small scale, European pockets will also feel the new digital winds blowing as a new EU law banning credit card surcharges sees the day. This should not only please consumers pockets but also make it easier to have multiple accounts across member states. In the UK, the Conservative government was quick to take credit (excuse the pun) for the new measure, as critics pointed out, and was swiftly mocked on social media for their hidden love of EU regulation.The example, however, showcases the discrepancy between EU and national politics and demonstrates why many Brits feel that the EU isn’t worthwhile their money. [Business Insider UK, Engadget, Deutsche Welle, Vox Political, The Independent]
 Bonus: While cousin Manu is getting impatient for a German government to take shape, a team of top French and German economists have jumped the gun and come up with a plan for how to reform the Eurozone. The idea is to meet halfway between the two stubborn countries’ orthodox views. This should, hopefully, be enough to make everyone happy (or not)t. Only time can tell but luckily we’ve got all year. [Politico Europe]

  🇬🇧 STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION — Brexit Stories

New year, second chance? After all is said and done, after all the tears the gaffes have been made and after all the consultancy fees have been received it seems that Brexit could turn out to be a bad dream after all. In a sensational scoop, Brexiteer-in-Chief and European Parliament swindler, Nigel Farage, conceded what many a Remainer has been wishing, that a second referendum could be held on Brexit. The reasoning however is consistent in that the former UKIP leader wants to put the final nail in the Remain camp with a final, definitive Leave decision from the British public. However a recent poll suggests that 57% of the British public would vote to remain in the EU if the hypothetical vote was to take place. The sentiments have not passed by EU ears with both Council President Donald Tusk and Jean Claude Juncker expressing publically in the EP Plenary this week, the latter highlighting Article 49 of the TFEU as the antidote to the poisoned chalice of Article 50. There is plenty pushback in the Westminster back benches to the idea, however, and realistically there is no political appetite from the UK government nor Jeremy Corbyn for that matter. Tired?…enjoy these Brexit ‘commemorative’ stamps. [Eurotopics, The Guardian, Euractiv, The Independent, Euronews, City AM, BBC News]

- Number of presidential, parliamentary and general elections in EU member states in 2018.
🏢 BRUXELLES MA BELLE — News about the city

Oriental woes. Adjacent to the EU headquarter stands Brussels’ Great Mosque. A religious landmark that can host up to 2,000 people and its service is live streamed nationally every Friday. And still, while for many it stands as a symbol of religious freedom and acceptance, some increasingly claiming it as a hub of extremism and thus, a threat to Belgium’s security. Part of this polarising fear emanating from some of Belgium’s politicians is due to the mosque being run by the Islamic and Cultural Centre of Belgium (CICB), which is funded predominantly by Saudi Arabia. The claim is that this breeds worshippers of Salafism, an extreme form of Islam that has been linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS. Still, CICB’s executive director, Tamer Abou El Saod, affirms the mosque is a place of community activity and belonging to the Muslims in Brussels. After all, he reminds that ‘evil [stands] with people, not with religion.” [iNews]
 Art all around.You’ve had a chance to overeat, oversleep, accumulate family time and now you’re back in the routine and all you think of is, ‘how many days left to the weekend?’ The up and coming art capital, aka Brussels, is kicking off the new year with several, original exhibitions to keep you looking forward to the week’s end. Bozar will keep you inspired courtesy of 20th-century Fernard Léger’, who is renowned for being inspired by architecture. If that’s not right up your alley then you’ve got Chinese comic strips on display at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. If you’re feeling underground, why don’t you head down to Brussels’ sewers (literally), where an expo is highlighting alternative artists and their graffiti. There’s a type for every art-lover, check out a full list of the exhibitions here. []
✂️ EXTRA — From The Cutting Room Floor

The cost of being a refugee. Since the refugee crisis saw its zenith in 2015 and after seeing a sudden influx of upwards of one million refugees in a single year, Germany has taken up an alternative approach encouraging refugees to leave the country through cash payments, a trick employed by many European countries these days. The policy has drawn both praise and heavy criticism, particularly for its potentially inhuman element. However, what remains for many refugees across Europe are ghastly conditions in refugee camps and frontier countries asking for help and the need for an EU policy to deal with a crisis that has now persisted for years. [Quartz, The Washington Post, Reuters]

  💡 OPINION — Top minds muse on the European project

Online recruitment for EU radicalisation. The Commission has been prioritising the prevention of radicalisation, working hard to ensure new and appealing initiatives as measures to fight off extremism. Author, Eli Hadzhieva, looks at one particular framework, the EU SAFFRON (Semantic Analysis against Foreign Fighters Recruitment Online Networks), which is being criticised for its confusing YouTube campaign. Many of the videos reach a fine line between relating to youth at risk of radicalisation and encouraging the possibility. The campaign’s hashtag is inspired by Joseph Conrad’s eponymous novel, #heartofdarkness. And if this were not already puzzling, one of the slogans used almost encourages picking this path: ‘once you choose violence, there is no turning back’. An ambiguous approach to a rather overwhelming issue in today’s Europe. [Euractiv]

  🎧 PRESS PLAY — Media Corner

🔊 Podcast of the Week. 2018 in the world. Mark Leonard and the good people at European Council of Foreign Relations go through the top 10 trends in foreign policy to look out for in the new year. [ECFR]
 🎥 Video(s) of the Week. Translator Struggles. The European Parliament is a translator’s bane. 24 working languages that need to be translated in real time can make for a stressful work environment. Now and again they deserve a milk chocolate, don’t they? [Georg Von Harrach]
 ✏️ Cartoon(s) of the Week. The Family, Nuclear Balloon, Merkel with SPD []
 📺 GIF of the Week

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