It’s the 38th Edition of Brussels Brief* and we are back with a heavy breath, some Visegrad troublemakers and some leaky Remainers.
It takes a bike ride around any European city (Brussels especially) and you’ll soon realise that the air quality is like a thick backdrop to your life, much like euroscepticism.
Europe’s economy may be back on track, but the toll on the skies and lungs of Europe’s cities are feeling the effects. Every year over 400,000 Europeans die from the direct consequences of poor air quality. This hasn’t gone past the Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella, who this week summoned environment ministers of the many EU member states who don’t comply with EU rules on nitrogen dioxide and particulates that create the deadly smog.
Perhaps this is another case of not seeing the forest for the trees in addressing Europe’s addiction to fossil fuels, especially the ‘coal curtain’ in Eastern Europe. IfChina can do it, it is high time for European countries to begin to realise that there is an immediate price to pay in the “growth at any cost” model of burning fossil fuels and that climate change may be the least of our worries. Despite fantasies of Mars colonies, there is no ‘Planet B’ and it is up for all of us to start torealise this and shift behaviour to ‘Make Our Planet Breathable Again’.
🔝 FRONT PAGE — Top News This Week
#V4 (dis)Connects. The Visegrad Bad Boys (VBB) are back and up to some mischief. Firstly, in the latest of the insidiousness coming from the refugee crisis, the European Court of Justice ruled that psychological tests run by Hungarian officials on an asylum seeker seeking refuge from persecution was illegal. The case in question involved a Nigerian man seeking refuge in Hungary due to persecution suffered in his home country because of his homosexuality. Nigeria has criminalised same-sex relationships. Officials in the town of Szeged proceeded to give the man a series of psychological tests to verify his claim, something that the ECJ saw as undue interference into his private life. The ruling has not deterred Hungarian PM Viktor Orban from continuing his more general anti-migration campaign by trying to gain the sympathetic ear of the newly elected Austrian PM Sebastian Kurz. Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic another sympathetic ear, the incumbent president and the man known as the ‘Czech Donald Trump’ was reelected as president. Onto the Polish wing of the VBB, they were castigated this week by a vote in the European Parliament’s justice committee recommending that the ‘nuclear’ Article 7 be triggered against the country for ‘violating European values’. The love was not lost between the EU as all four of theVBB got together this weekto show a united front against what they see as Brussels overreach into their affairs. It is perhaps a sign of the crystallisation of a trend we have been observing at Brussels Brief for a while, a more structured intra EU deepening divide promising to threaten the EU more than Brexit ever will. [NPR, BBC News, Euractiv, Politico Europe, Eurotopics, Reuters]
Make my day, Donald. Donald Trump came swinging at the EU saying US trade withthe EU is “very unfair” and that the problem could “morph into something big”. That made the Commission’s chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas fire back that the EU was ready for any scenario and would react “swiftly and appropriately”, EU speak forbring it on! Schinas was, however, quick to follow up saying that the EU viewed trade as a win-win and hoped for a constructive relationship. Winning is what Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has on her mind in negotiations with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc. After 20 years of negotiations, she’s eager to wrap up before it is all ruined by some beef. [France 24, The Independent, Politico Europe]
Vaca Loca. South American cows won’t be the only ones complaining so too with European bovines. With the UK’s departure, the Commission is looking for ways to curb expenditure, especially ways to cut the €59 billion in annual subsidies European farmers receive from the EU budget. Surprisingly, Eastern European farmers are the ones raising complaints about the new proposal by Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. But the current support models likebuying up lakes of milk isn’t doing much good to stabilise markets or calm farmers. Add to that concerns from Poland about the new North Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and new areas of contention emerge in an already strained relation between European member states. Money doesn’t make you friends but having a little go around can’t hurt either. [Politico Europe, Bloomberg]
Bonus: A token gesture. Estonia was a pioneer in the digital world when it started issuing e-residency as a way to allow people and companies to register in the country for legal purposes. Now the country is venturing into finances with a new government-backed digital euro with the apt name “Estcoin” in an effort to make cryptocurrencies mainstream. [Arab News]
In transit. “No Cherry picking” was one of the main messages sent by the EU in Monday’s adoption of the EU Council mandate for the negotiation with the UK on the transitional arrangement on Brexit. In a vote that took just two minutes, the EU 27 showed their continued unity. They made it clear that in any transitional arrangement, the UK would be subject to all of the rules of the EU without any of the voting rights for a period of 21 months ending 31 December 2020 weaning the UK off the EU drug slowly but surely. The transition will form part of a withdrawal treaty due to be agreed and ratifiedby the end of this year. However, the journey will be a long and messy one with many issues to be ironed out (video) before the transition kicks in and the inevitable cliff edge post-2020 becomes a closer and more inevitable reality. [Reuters, EUobserver, Euronews, BBC Newsnight]
Leaky truths. In the leakocracy, the plumber is king. A UK government reportobtained by Buzzfeed has set alight what everyone knew but wasn’t willing to admit: Brexit=Bad for UK economy. The #DespiteBrexit camp will inevitably be disappointed by the projections in the report titled ‘EU Exit Analysis Cross Whitehall Briefing’. It cites losses to the economy anything from 2–8% over a 15-year period and every sector (except agriculture) would be significantly eroded especially financial services. The story is not new, the report echoes a pre-referendum economic impact report by the UK Treasury. Instead, the scoop is more about the struggle within the UK government with the executive branch struggling to present a united and controlled front on Brexit as the largely Remain-oriented British civil service continues to leak the truth. [Buzzfeed, Deutsche Welle, Politics.co.uk, Eurotopics]
🏢 BRUXELLES MA BELLE — News about the city
Art is loi. That’s right, Brussels’ world renown art show is on this week from 27 January to 4 February. BRAFA, which is also known as-as Brussels Art Fairto the ‘meconnaisseur’, claims the attention of over 60,000 visitors ranging from Belgian royalty to the industry’s greatest collectors and admirers. Part of its appeal is the varied and expansive artworks it holds: anything from the Bronze Age to contemporary paintings to antiques and furniture alike. [Architectural Digest]
Book babel. In this weather, all you need is a good book to shepherd you through Brussels winter weekends. If you’re looking to stick to your mother tongue, Passa Porta is the place to go. An international bookseller that has anything from English to Dutch to Spanish and Italian books. This place also arranges for authors to come and discuss their books. Sterling, on the other hand, is Brussels largest English bookseller with a total of 40,000 available titles. Situated in the capital’s downtown, it’s a good place to get lost amidst the tourist chaos. If you’d rather something cosy and intimate, Piola Libri in the European quarter makes for the ultimate combination: wine, dining and reading. Here is a complete list of places to head for a good read. [The Bulletin]
Independent filmgasm. After having gone idle for over five years, Brussels will be hosting a Short Film Festival come June. Screenings will take place across the Belgian capital, in some of the city’s most loved corners: Flagey and the Kunstberg to name a few. 60,000 people are expected to attend over the course of 10 days which should give undiscovered talent and renown expertise a chance to meet and mingle and some of you a chance to add to your hipster credentials. [Lonely Planet]
Societal amnesia. When discussing milk quotas, GDPR, or the latest Commission quarrel it is easy to lose focus of the big picture and forget why the European Union exists in the first place. Not only to prevent the horrors of war but likewise to recognise and prevent the atrocities they brought along. 27 January marked Holocaust Memorial Day in many countries and a timely remembrance not only of the victims but those who risked their own lives like Polish nurse Irena Sendler who saved 2.500 jewish children. Many countries have never come to terms with the past and their own role in the holocaustleading recent resurgence of nationalism many places shrouded under the guise of a glorious past. [The Independent, The New York Times]
Ain’t got no time for that. Lobbying plays a prominent role in Brussels and now the Finnish government is taking up the age old trade in trying to persuade other EU states to go along and revolutionise the concept of time itself. The proposal is to move away from daylight saving time, the twice yearly system of switching clocks back and forward an hour. The Finnish government will now take the issue up in the Council hoping to find political agreement on the time-space continuum. [Yle News]
Bonus: Wall-E(U) US President Donald Trump’s signature pledge, to build a wall along the US-Mexico border has been controversial pointedly going in the opposite direction Europe has taken in recent decades. This map illustrates the magnitude of his proposed project, from the Black Sea to Paris, and how far Europe has moved in a short span of time. [Big Think]
What is happening to Europe? Rapid integration. At least this is what Doug Saunders suggests in a provocative article that argues that politicians and citizens alike are missing the point. Europe is experiencing one of the fastest and arguably “most successful stories of cultural and economic integration.” And while right-wing and conservative political rhetoric is being supported by an incoming wave of refugees that are allegedly tainting the continent, the data begs to differ. A study led by OECD shows that the countries with the highest immigration populations reflect the highest rates of integration. For instance, only 3 percent of German and French Muslims identify with their country of origin putting to shame much of the identitarian’s arguments. [The Globe and Mail, Deutsche Welle]
Hating the haters. In a time of rising and threatening populism, French President Macron is proving his political influence. In a meaningful revision of the role of the welfare state, Macron has set the spotlight on ensuring the protection of the individualas opposed to jobs. In focusing on education and training, he claims he could ensure competitive workers in a global labour market. This, writes Jeremy Ghez, could allow France to defeat the populist movement and prove it to be nothing more than a “conservative force that wants to protect the unsustainable status quo”. [Politico Europe]
🔊 Podcast of the Week. Brexit unspun. Theresa May promised to put financial services at the heart of a trade deal with the EU, but her government has postponed a position paper on the topic indefinitely. [Financial Times]
🎥 Video(s) of the Week. Thankless tasks. Last year over 95,000 refugees were saved from the Mediterranean, but that didn’t prevent NGOs from getting into trouble over it. Check out the documentary by Deutsche Welle on their struggle to save lives. [Deutsche Welle]
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