Brussels Brief | 12th Edition

7–13 April 2017

🆕 Welcome to the 12th edition of Brussels Brief, the EU’s weekly digest delivered to the comfort of your inbox. Brussels Brief is an executive summary so that Eurocrats, policy wonks, trainees, and students alike can stay in the loop with the ins and outs of the international media regarding the EU. 🇪🇺

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The Editor ✉️

🔝 FRONT PAGE — Top News this Week

An enemy within?…He went for civil society and it caused a ruffle, he went for a university and it has caused a storm. The firebrand Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has faced a barrage of controversy and pressure due to the adoption of a law that will effectively shut down the renowned Central European University in Budapest. The backlash has seen thousands of protestors take to the streets in Budapest, in support of the billionaire George Soros backed university. The law has similarly seen condemnation from European Commissioner for Justice as well as a more lukewarm call for “political dialogue” with Hungary on human rights and democracy from Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans. Similarly, Hungary’s actions of late have brought some to question the role of such a government in shunning EU principles whereas defenders of the latest measure insist that financial irregularities of the university have more to do with it. In any case, in unrelated news the UN came out this week urging the EU not to send asylum seekers back to Hungary due to renewed human rights concerns. (New York Times, EU Observer, Reuters, The Guardian, The Budapest Beacon, Al-Jazeera)

…and an enemy without? Sunday 16 April will see a referendum vote in Turkey that will propose constitutional amendments that could transform the EU candidate country from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system. After a campaign which has seen the sponsor of such amendments, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a direct war of words with the governments of the Netherlands and Germany has now gone after the EU in general calling it a “sick man” that has “oppressed” and “ humiliated” Turks living in Europe. Erdogan has also threatened to reconsider reinstating the death penalty, thereby killing the chances of any future EU membership which is already according to some, at 0 percent chance of happening. The EU, meanwhile, is bracing itself for an array complex scenarios whatever the result in the referendum with worries in the rollback of democracy and the security at the forefront of concerns. For a complete lowdown on the referendum and the domestic politics involved, click here. (Euractiv, Politico Europe, Reuters, Quartz, The Guardian)

Summits, summits everywhere. Donald Trump’s rendez-vous with world leaders in Mar-a-Lago aren’t the only summits worth looking at. The leaders of Southern European countries, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and France, met in Madrid last weekend to discuss a wide range of issues affecting them and the world at large. The US strikes in Syria overshadowed the talks, where all leaders were supportive of the unilateral action from the US in response to a chemical attack allegedly unleashed by the Assad regime in the Syrian town of Idlib. Other matters on the table were Brexit, where the issue of the rights of EU citizens was central, and European Social Rights. Perhaps, the most distinctly ‘Southern’ of the resolutions were with regard to the refugees and migrant crisis, of which these countries bear most of the brunt, called for the North to pay the costs of such a burden. In another potentially more consequential summit, G7 countries discussed the sensitive issue of Russia and the potential for more punitive sanctions towards it. (Washington Post, Euractiv, Politico Europe, The Independent)

💸 IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID — Top Economic, Trade & Innovation News

Game of taxes. Ask any politician if companies should pay their taxes and you’ll get a resounding YES. But implementing new rules to stop companies from avoiding paying taxes have many smaller countries acting slowly at following up on their words. The European Commissioner for Tax, Pierre Moscovici is pushing EU members to implement measure to make the international companies pay their fair share. Having multinational companies paying low tax rates is only unfair, apparently, when your neighbour is the one hosting them. (Deutsche Welle, Reuters)

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. The words of House Martell of Dorne but also fitting for the Euro, which is expected to re-emerge stronger after the French Elections (if Macron wins that is). The Euro has been fluctuating along with French election polls, lately showing Marine Le Penn doing better, although, not winning in the second round of voting. Worries of a French Banking collapse in case of a Le Pen win have not subsumed, yet, even though the Front National has moderated some of its euro criticism recently. But reversing fears among investors will take time after years of calling the euro “a knife in the ribs of the French people”. (CNBC, Reuters, Forbes)

The Greek Investment Drachma. “Greek Tragedy” has been uttered so many times over the last eight years it has turned into a “Greek Farce”. But now another, more inspiring term, might emerge: “The Big Fat Greek Investment Plan”. Having been without financial means for many years Greece is in desperate need of investments to restart growth and thereby crawl out of the debt spiral in which it is currently stuck. EU partners might finally be coming to that conclusion as well, as the Austrian finance minister has proposed a 1 Billion Euro investment. A small amount for a country on a 86 Billion Euro loan program, but this might finally bring more investors to the table. They say fortune favours the bold. So too with good investments. (The Irish Times, Deutche Welle)

BONUS What is austerity? A unicorn with a bag of magic salt? Professor at Brown University Mark Blyth gives a quick explanation of austerity (video) and why it is not necessarily as “reasonable” as many people assume. If nothing else, enjoy it for the visuals and his wonderful Scottish accent. (Brown University)

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

73 ghosts. The fate of the seats of current British MEPs who will be out of a job in two years, 73 in total, has come under scrutiny by the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee this past Tuesday. Several ideas have been floated including a pan-European list supported by S&D President Gianni Pittella. Another solution would be to drop the 73 seats, the third largest delegation in the European Parliament. Representation and proportionality is an issue that future deliberations on the seats will inevitably take into account as some cities and countries have the same number of seats under the current system, despite sometimes grossly unequal populations. (Politico Europe, Evening Standard)

Courting Holyrood. Scotland is welcome in Europe. A group of 50 European politicians have co-signed a letter to Scotland’s government to that effect. The initiative led mostly by Green party, includes 26 MEPs and politicians from regional and national governments from all over Europe. This is the second boost for Scottish independence from the EU following last week’s assurance from the Spanish foreign minister that Spain would not automatically veto an independent Scotland’s bid for EU membership. The new vote for independence has been proposed by the Scottish First Minister, for late 2018 early 2019 when the terms of Brexit are known and has been so far rejected by British Prime Minister Theresa May. Who knows, it might end up joining Canada anyway. (The Scotsman, Euractiv, The Independent, BBC News)

What will it look like after Brexit. For Policy wonks, Brexit is more of an opportunity than a threat. According to a report from VoteWatch Europe, the departure of the UK would mean more regulation for businesses, harmonised intellectual property rights, increased budget contribution from member states, more harmonised tax policy and higher taxation of finance, less support for nuclear energy and shale gas, a push for a banking union, stronger possibility for defence union and stronger support for social policies. In essence, the effect of Brexit will be a liberalising one that, depending on your political affiliation, might give you a headache or make you jump for joy. (VoteWatch Europe)

BONUS If the EU were 100 people. 12 would be leaving due to Brexit. But as the EU stands now, 84 would have universal healthcare, 38 would be able converse in English and 68 would live a country that uses the Euro (video)….and, spoiler alert, the most unifying thing is that 70 would say Brexit is a bad thing for the EU. (Channel 4)

🏢 BRUXELLES MA BELLE — News about the city

The homeless of Brussels. As we dive into spring, it’s almost hard to remember the cold and wet winter that just was. That’s probably not the case for those who spent the last few months by sidewalks, outside cafes and warm office buildings. According to Morts de la Rue, a group that annually records the deaths rates of Brussels’ homeless, the last 12 years have only seen an increase. Last year the number rose from 55 to 72 deaths even though it is not always the harsh season that hurts the homeless most but a history of discomfort demonstrating itself in poor sleeping patterns, untreated illnesses or stress. (The Bulletin)

Recipe for success. Bart Somers has most recently won the ‘World Major Prize’ for placing the little city of Mechelen in the spotlight. Located on the Dijle River, between Brussels and Antwerp, this town of 86,000 inhabitants, was the only Belgian one to ask the federal government to send refugees to its premises. It was able to host 200 of them in an emergency-aid shelter for a period of 9 months. In their time there, the refugees took on a variety of activities, from Dutch language courses, to social skills training, to involvement in volunteer work. One might wonder where this spirit stems from but after all, Somers’ own grandfather was taken in in a refugee camp in the Netherlands during the First World War.” (The Bulletin)

Here comes the sun. The past Sunday, 9 April was the hottest day since 1901 when weather recordings first began. Over 150,000 beach lovers traveled north to the Belgian coast to enjoy the 22.8 Celsius degree weather. Dirk Marteel, from a tourism agency called Westtoer, claimed it was a great weekend, with over 80% occupancy rates for hotels in the area. With Easter around the corner, it seems like the summer season is coming in hot for the hospitality industry! (Le Soir, The Bulletin)

BONUS Ceci n’est pas Magritte! In honour of all that Magritte has done and given, Brussels has planned a year-long celebration for his 50th death anniversary. Starting with a mini map with a surrealist walking route to accompany you along the way, the year should be full of Magritte-filled events all around. In fact, while some of you may be familiar with the Magritte Museum in Central Brussels, the city actually holds a second one in the northwest borough of Jette. For those of you interested in visiting his favourite hang-out spots, the tour can take you to La Fleur en Papier Doré, a place of gatherings for surrealists, full of quirky decorations and messages left by its customers. (The Bulletin)

✂️ EXTRA — From the Cutting Room Floor

Maltese House of Cards. The smallest country in the EU and the current President of the Council of the EU, Malta is a microcosm of other member states. Intense polarisation, accusations of corruption and party ‘parish’ politics abound in the Mediterranean island that was a British colony until 1964. Current Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, touted by some to be the potential successor to Donald Tusk is not as popular among some factions at home who are not letting the EU limelight get in the way of internal politics. (EUObserver)

Attacks are the new normal. We would be amiss, if we had no mention of the attacks that rocked Sweden last Friday and the bomb attack on the Borussia Dortmund team bus on Tuesday have been linked to terrorist activities. The attack in Stockholm caps a gory trail of vehicle attacks in Europe recently, Including Nice, Berlin and London. Stay vigilant. (BBC News, Newsweek)

BONUS: In case you didn’t notice. It is April…all over Europe. (The Independent)

💡 OPINION — Top minds muse on the European project

Mediterranean without borders. The media might have lost interest in selling provocative images of refugees seeking security by attempting to cross the Mediterranean, but the reality is still such with 2016 proving to be the deadliest year yet. 2017 is rapidly worsening, with a 30% increase in the number of migrants reaching Italian shores from North Africa. Since 2011, when NATO-led bombing devastated Libya, the country has been struggling to find political stability causing it to become a main route of departure for migrants and refugees alike. Gaddafi said that Europe would face sheer consequences for “bombing a wall [Libya] which stood in the way of African migration to Europe and in the way of al-Qaeda terrorists.” So, perhaps it is not through convenient business deals that Europe will manage to bottle up the movement across the central Mediterranean route, which last year alone saw a total of 181,000 people making it across. (IOL News)

Save me Ms. Pacman. The rebirth of the European Project. No small words to use, least of all on digitalisation, but this is nonetheless what Lise Fuhr and Steven Tas argue on behalf of the European telecoms operators. The time is for bold action ensuring 5G high speed internet in all of Europe, promoting an entirely new economy by opening markets in digitalisation and communication technologies. Tepid, piecemeal and un-ambitious goals (the EU as usual) will drown the success before it takes off. Only by pushing forward can Europe be ensured a place amongst the leading economies in the 21st Century. Not bad for a few regulations on bytes, bits and Netflix access. (Euractiv)

Bonkers for Brexit. It is in the darkest hour of despair that one should keep on fighting. Or so is the sage counsel of John Jenkinson who implore Brexit remainers to take notice of how UKIP, Eurosceptics and Brexiteers now talk about the inevitability of Brexit. Once upon a time (before 2015) leaving the EU was considered a fringe, lunatic position but constant vigilance, momentum building and a little push from the outside gave an opportunity no one (well almost no one) thought possible. So too must EU friendly Britons learn and prepare for the day when the UK can rejoin the EU. At least Brexit has shown that anything is possible not just in war and love, but also EU politics. (The Independent)

PRESS PLAY — Media Corner

🔊 Podcast of the Week. Fintech and the role of policymakers and the challenges in its regulation and development in the European Union as told by the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS)

🎥 Video(s) of the Week. What has the EU done for you? , Two Finns play the Brexit board game and Berlusconi saves a lamb (or five). (World Economic Forum, Kioski, La Repubblica)

✏️ Cartoon(s) of the Week. Cut it Out, Not So Fast, Theresa, and Orban vs EU (Cagle.com)

📺 GIF of the Week