Central and Eastern Europe, Public opinion, the Netherlands, Ukraine

Ukrainians trying (again) to argue against the Dutch ‘No’ while ratification remains uncertain

A guest post by Elitsa Kortenska:

Since 6 April 2016 when a consultative referendum in the Netherlands on the EU’s Association Agreement  with Ukraine resulted in 61 percent votes against it and 38 percent in favour, ratification is on hold. The Netherlands was the last member state whose ratification was needed for its entry into force. Since April, the government and the Prime Minister have postponed decision to withdraw Dutch support for the Agreement several times. In the last couple of months, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has intensified his efforts in Brussels and in the Netherlands to resolve the problem. He stated repeatedly that the failure to ratify the Agreement would be a ‘massive mistake’ for the Netherlands, as POLITICO reported.

In October Rutte attempted to persuade political parties (see his official letter sent to Parliament) to rally around  and ratify it despite the referendum results. The forthcoming elections are making this a politically risky proposition especially with the initiators of the referendum Baudet and Jan Roos both going into politics with political formations on the right, aiming seats in parliament. Meanwhile, in an interview for a Dutch radio, former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans urged political parties to give a green light to the Agreement and referred to the consultative nature of the referendum. Emphasizing the risk of instability in the region at the event of non-ratification, Timmermans said ‘we should not offer presents to Putin’. Yet the fate of Agreement remains uncertain due to the unwillingness of the Dutch second and first chamber to appear to dismiss the popular vote with national elections around the corner.

Earlier in October, Ukrainian officials, parliament members and civil society tried to argue the case for ratification and discussed the dynamics linked to it at a symposium, organized by the newly launched Netherlands-Ukraine Society. Speakers highlighted the paramount importance of the Treaty for the Ukraine domestic political and economic transformation. From the perspective of the seven Ukrainian students, who had led a six-day ‘For’ campaign just before the referendum date, the negative result meant a need  for more initiatives presenting a positive image of the ongoing transformation in ‘new’ Ukraine and AA-related reforms.

Ukrainian politicians and civil society members present at the event warned about the negative implications of failure of the Agreement. While Dutch citizens’ concerns and the ‘No’ vote must be taken seriously and addressed, according to Taras Kachka this could be achieved without renegotiating or changing the provisions of the Agreement. Since a number of the Treaty provisions have already been enforced, he hoped that that the Dutch ‘No’ would not ‘kill’ the Treaty. ‘The Agreement is not merely a technical tool for integration for Ukraine, but it symbolizes enormous changes in Ukrainian political culture and society’ he argued.

Enforcement of the treaty provisions has achieved progress in important areas of  reform: rule of law and market liberalization, but those have not reached a ‘point of no return’, civil society representatives argued. The Reanimation Reform Package (RRP) for Ukraine is a clear example of Ukrainian civil society engagement in the reform process. Olena Halushka, RRP representative, said: ‘the Maidan is the real evidence that signing the AA was not a political decision taken top-down’, but a result of citizens’ desire for transformation in Ukraine and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’.  Reforms and their enforcement are not irreversible, Halushka warned and emphasized that the political will for adopting and implementing reforms depends on full enforcement of AA provisions and the synergy between civil society and external EU pressure.

Parliamentarians Serhiy Kiral (Samopomich Union) and Vladyslav Golub (Petro Poroschenko Bloc) stressed political and financial support through the AA is key for maintaining political consensus on reforms domestically. Uncertainty over the Dutch decision has weakened the EU’s commitment to the Agreement, while the on-going Russian information war,  propaganda and aggression in Ukraine renders non-ratification extremely risky for domestic reform process, they argued.

While the Dutch ‘No’ cannot be simply disregarded, the implications of the failure of the Treaty could have more negative consequences for EU, the Netherlands and Ukraine than public is aware. According to the symposium speakers, one way to resolve the problem within the Netherlands is through broader public debate, information and communication on the economic benefits of the Treaty for the Netherlands It remains to be seen whether it is already too late for this, in terms of ratification. A decision from Dutch parliament is yet to come, but the delay already costs the EU some credibility, affects political commitment for reforms in Ukraine and potentially contributes to further political deadlock.

Central and Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

Can the CIS Survive the Ukraine Crisis?

A guest post by Rilka Dragneva

The death of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has been foretold many times during its history of (now) more than 20 years. Dissatisfaction with its weak and confusing institutional structure and a failure to promote effective regional integration has become an almost permanent background to its existence. Despite the remarkable resilience of the CIS, there are several signs suggesting that the current crisis is more fundamental and extreme than previous shake-ups.

Firstly, the present crisis focuses on a founding member of the CIS, Ukraine. It is important to remember that the very CIS formula came into being at the secret Belovezhskaia Pushcha meeting between Presidents Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich of 8 December 1991 in order to accommodate Ukraine’s refusal to participate in a reformed Union,[i] and was very much ‘thrust upon’ the other former Soviet republics. Arguably, Ukraine was instrumental in shaping the design and ultimately the limits of the CIS in its gradual institutionalisation in the early 1990s. It did not sign the Charter of the CIS in January 1993 but took an active role in its drafting and, as President Kravchuk stated, considered itself a ‘member of the CIS, actively participating in its improvement’.[ii]

In March 2014 the Ukrainian authorities announced the termination of their presidency of the CIS and their intention to leave the organization altogether. Indeed, a bill on the denunciation of the CIS Founding Agreement was introduced into the Rada by MP Boris Tarasyuk. Georgia had withdrawn from the CIS previously, in August 2008. In legal terms, both countries’ membership was of a peculiar nature, as neither had fully met the conditions of the Charter requiring 1) participation in the founding agreements of December 1991 (fulfilled by Ukraine but not by Georgia), and 2) ‘assuming the obligations under the Charter’ within a year of its adoption (fulfilled by Georgia but not by Ukraine). Nonetheless, the importance of the withdrawal of a founding member of the organization could not be overstated in the CIS world of ‘casual legality’ but high political symbolism.

Secondly, Ukraine’s pending withdrawal rests on a charge that the CIS and its institutions have failed to address the Crimean crisis, that, in other words, rather than exercising its most basic function of promoting dialogue, the peaceful resolution of disputes and cooperation, the CIS has turned into Russia’s puppet. In the beginning of March 2014, the Ukraine had called for an extraordinary meeting of the CIS Foreign Ministers Council in Kiev to discuss the crisis. The request was denied by the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which instead approved an alternative proposal for a meeting of deputy Foreign Ministers in Minsk. This was deemed as unacceptable by Ukraine, which challenged the de jure as well as de facto ability of the CIS to function.

Indeed, it is clear that the multilateral structures of the CIS have been marginalised and that the response to the crisis has been driven by one-to-one dialogue at the highest level. When the Foreign Ministers Council met in Moscow on 4 April, it dealt with the vacant presidency of the CIS, but did not engage in any formal Ukraine-related effort. In fact, the principal decision-making bodies of the CIS, the Councils of Heads of State and Government, have not held a formal meeting since 25 October 2013 and 20 November 2013 respectively.

According to the Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman, Ukraine’s March request was supported only by Kishinev; in a recent interview she noted that the situation called for a ‘very thorough analysis and evaluation of what has happened within the CIS’. Other leaders were predictably more restrained. The Belarusian President Lukashenka recently described the situation as ‘not very simple’, but proceeded to reject a break-up of the organization despite half-heartedly acknowledging problems. Meanwhile, as argued by Farkhad Tolipov, Russia’s disregard of multilateralism was not lost on the Central Asian countries.

President Putin held a meeting with the Presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgzstan, Russia and Tajikistan on 8 May 2014 – all of them members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Rather than a formal gathering of the organization, this was a ‘talking down to’ at Russia’s invitation, and Kazakhstan’s absence is yet to be deciphered. Nonetheless, the meeting betrayed the concerns of even loyal supporters of the Russian position – like Armenian President Sargsyan – about the need for more coordination and multilateralism in responding to foreign policy crises.

Thirdly, the Ukraine crisis challenges the very premises of the post-Soviet settlement: the principles of national sovereignty, independent statehood, and territorial integrity embodied in the CIS founding agreements. As Tolipov notes, unlike the Crimean case, the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008 did not lead to annexation by Russia. And while the fact of Crimea’s annexation has largely been accepted by the CIS member states, their reaction has not been as definite, unambiguous and resolute as Russia might have wanted. Certainly, for many of them – especially those with a sizeable Russian minority – the post-Soviet settlement is not a safe and secure option anymore.

Fourthly, Russia’s specific interest in the CIS is not easy to fathom. While Ukraine has certainly been very selective in its participation in the organisation,[iii] Russia has been discerning too: for example, it never ratified the 1994 and 1999 Free Trade Agreements concluded within the organisation. In March 2005, Putin stated that ‘the CIS never had any supertasks (sverkhzadach) of an economic nature, any integration tasks in the sphere of economics’. As Tolipov aptly points out, in his 18 March 2014 speech, Putin delegitimized the CIS even further: by arguing that Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union was illegal, he also challenged the very legality of the Commonwealth. Perhaps not incidentally, Putin’s latest address to the Federal Assembly, on 12 December 2013, mentioned the CIS only in relation to educational cooperation. Putin’s recent agenda has focused primarily on building a Eurasian (Economic) Union, implying the hollowing out of previously important organizations, such as EvrAzES. While some continuity will be provided within the Eurasian Economic Union, the future status of non-Customs Union members of EvrAzES remains unclear.

Yet, despite Russia’s fairly opaque position on the CIS, it has developed a key interest in the 2011 Free Trade agreement, and particularly in its perceived incompatibility with Ukraine’s signature of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. In a newly discovered concern for legality (and in contrast with previous casual attitudes to CIS agreements and, indeed, Putin’s above-mentioned statement on the organisation’s limited economic role), Ukraine was accused of violating Article 13 of the 2011 CIS FTA.

It is evident that despite Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assurances of ‘not keeping anyone in the CIS by force’, Ukraine’s possible exit from the organization needs to be viewed in the context of the ‘carrot and stick’ policy employed in securing Putin’s geopolitical vision. Given the ‘variable geometry’ principle in signing agreements in the CIS, a withdrawal from the 8 December 1991 Agreement would not automatically imply an exit from other arrangements. Indeed, the stated intention of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is to analyse individual agreements and determine ‘the feasibility of Ukraine’s further participation’ in them. Yet, this decision might require a more complex cost/benefit calculation. As Viktor Medvedchuk, a well-known protagonist of Russia’s interests in the country noted: ‘Ukraine’s withdrawal …will lead to a sharp decline in investments in the Ukrainian economy from CIS countries, primarily Russia. Ukraine’s withdrawal from the organization will also mean leaving the CIS free trade zone’. Thus, Ukraine’s approach of selective withdrawal from its CIS commitments might not work without advances in the geopolitical, EU-Russia stalemate resulting from the current crisis.

What does all this mean for the CIS? Is a regional crisis of this depth and magnitude likely to doom it as an organisation? This author’s bets – at this stage in the developments surrounding the Ukrainian conflict – are on its survival. Firstly, the resilience of the CIS is embedded in its extremely loose institutional framework and the ability of its members to define their membership as they see fit. In fact, in comparative terms, the CIS is the ultimate institutional chameleon. Secondly, in the two decades of post-Soviet regional integration, Russia has proved that it rarely ‘keeps all its eggs in one basket’. It has invested in a range of regional organizations, and despite the current salience of the Eurasian Economic Union, there is no reason to assume that other vehicles will not be assigned appropriate uses. Currently, the CIS is also the only Russia-centred grouping incorporating countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Thirdly, the long-term tendency of region-level post-Soviet institutional development has been one of strong continuity. Organisations are frequently and incrementally reformed or renamed, but rarely completely reinvented, as aptly demonstrated by the evolution of the Eurasian Customs Union’s institutional regime.[iv] Thus, it is unlikely that the CIS will disappear without a fundamental and deep reform of the underlying political, economic and socio-legal orders within the majority of its member states. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that recent events will significantly deepen the crisis of purpose and credibility the CIS had been experiencing beforehand.

This analysis has been first published here in the blog of the Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies of the University of Birmingham, on 12 May 2014

[i] E Walker, Dissolution: Sovereignty and the Break-Up of the Soviet Union (Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2003)

[ii] Diplomaticheskii Vestnik, 3-4 (1993): 42

[iii] R. Dragneva and A. Dimitrova, ‘Patterns of Integration and Regime Compatibility: Ukraine between the CIS and the EU’, in K. Malfliet, L. Verpoest & E. Vinokurov, eds., The CIS, the EU and Russia: Challenges of Integration (Palgrave/Macmillan), 171-201

[iv] R.Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, ‘Commitment, asymmetry and flexibility: making sense of Eurasian economic integration’, in R. Dragneva and K. Wolczuk, eds., Eurasian Economic Integration: Law, Policy and Politics (Edward Elgar 2013), 204-221

Central and Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

In playing geopolitics, don’t forget the people have been the real agents of the changes in Ukraine

Among the many negative consequences of Putin’s move in the Crimea, one has remained somehow under the radar: the shift from interactions in which the people – the activists of the maidan, the protesters – were active participants, to a game of high politics. To a certain extent and when we think of the much needed readjustment of perspective on Russia, this is welcome. As Techau noted in an insightful commentary, the EU noticed too late that it was in a geopolitics game and brought the low politics toolbox that it uses for Association agreement negotiations to a high politics construction site. After Putin brought Russia back into the picture with the help of the so-called volunteers and the actions of the Crimean parliament, the voice of the people is being drowned in the new propaganda war. The problem with this is not only that there has been so much disinformation around that we are really coming to a Cold War-like fog of confusion. The bigger problem, as far as I am concerned, is that the ethnic politics aspect of Ukrainian politics has come too much to the fore and obscures the drive of Ukrainian citizens of all ethnicities towards a less oligarchic, more transparent, more pluralistic and equal political regime. As Chrystia Freedland has written in an opinion piece in last Sunday’s NYT and as I have written in my commentary at Crooked Timber, the struggle of Ukrainians to depose President Yanukovich was not primarily an ethno-cultural fight, it was a political struggle against corruption and the fusion between oligarchic economic power and political power. In moving our attention to ethnicity, we – and those advising the new Ukrainian government – lose sight of the demands and energy of the people that kept the Ukrainian revolution going when everyone thought Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the Association agreement was the end of closer Ukrainian-European ties. The people were really the ones that disrupted the predetermined scenario last time and their desire for a more just democracy in which rule of law prevails should not be forgotten. I believe that what many Ukrainians liked about the EU agreement was not primarily the trade or the adoption of EU’s regulatory approach, but the EU’s insistence that formal rules and institutions be observed and enforced. The short term implications of my argument may not be great, except for the need to look more carefully at the appointment of business entrepreneurs as political appointees of the new government. In the long term, any support measures from the EU or the US should not target the economy without consulting and empowering those who started the changes and wanted a different kind of democracy in Ukraine.

Central and Eastern Europe, Enlargement, Uncategorized


Only last November, the most dramatic picture of the EU’s failure to bring its message to the Ukrainian leadership was a YouTube video showing Angela Merkel telling President Yanukovich in Vilnius, ‘We expected more’. A mild, civilized and diplomatic rebuke. After the failure to sign the long negotiated Association Agreement in Vilnius and a few more days of rescue attempts, Commissioner Füle was criticized for ‘losing his cool’ and being undiplomatic when he commented on twitter that the ‘words and deeds of Ukraine’s leadership were further and further apart’. Today, the internet and news agencies are alive with shocking images of violence from the centre of Kiev. In the last weeks the Ukrainian parliament passed, with lightning speed, legislation ‘stipulating jail terms for offenses such as driving in columns of more than 5 cars, people wearing hard hats and demonstrating in uniforms and ‘not complying with the demands of legal authorities’. In an even more bizarre Orwellian twist, those near the central square in Kiev were reported to have received an sms message ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’.

How could things go so wrong so rapidly: for Ukraine but also in terms of the ability of EU policy makers to influence events there? A small, rational part of the answer is that political regimes where the distance between informal rules and formal legislation is substantial are difficult to understand by studying only the formal legislative rules and the configuration of formal veto players. A gut feeling response suggests that the President and the opposition feel they have nothing to lose and therefore will not look for a compromise. Last but not least, the violence – which is, even in these curcumstances – not the wish of the majority of people protesting in the streets of Kiev these days – may be a sign that no one has any trust in President Yanukovich’s words any more. So Mr. Füle was right after all. One cannot help but wish that the realities of Ukraine’s political system of neopatrimonialism, a form of governance characterized by nearly complete state capture and power monopolies, (as defined by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy) had been understood and acknowledged earlier.

Academic research on the EU, Central and Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

Enlargement as a modernization or harmonization project?

On 30 May, we publicly opened a three year research project evaluating the lessons of the EU’s previous enlargements, especially the ‘big bang’ enlargement to the East as well as possibilities for integration in the future. The presentations at the opening conference, in Berlin, outline plans for research, but also, already sketched some interesting puzzles and questions. A key question which has occupied me – and other scholars – for many years, was raised by one of the European Commission speakers: in his view, fulfilling criteria for accession to the EU is not necessarily the same as becoming more developed economically. He suggested that pushing a development agenda through enlargement has its limits. It was stressed that the objective of pre-accession preparations is for candidates  to become as similar to the EU member states as possible – policy-wise, mostly – as it has always been in past enlargements – through adopting the acquis. From this perspective, economic development cannot be an accession criterion as such as it could delay accession forever. Neither was the EU’s political criterion from Copenhagen intended to be or equivalent to a fully fledged programme for democratization. In a way, the Eastern enlargement’s overall success and the success of the countries that participated in it to make huge progress in reform, can make us forget the limits of the EU’s mission and possibilities there.

While it is fully understandable that the European Commission and indeed, other EU institutions, need to define their mission in enlargement in terms of the EU’s overall strategy and in concrete terms based on pre-defined accession criteria, for most of the scholars dealing with the last enlargement, the modernization,  development  and democratization effects of the last enlargement appear unmistakable. There are, in fact, many scholars and commentators who see the completed Eastern enlargement primarily as a modernization project, whereby the term ‘Europeanization’ is used to denote structural reform, state building, restructuring, growth… Our project consortium colleague, Laszlo Bruszt, for example, has written about the state making effects of the EU’s big bang enlargement, which he sees as unintended consequences of the EU’s ‘demanding performance criteria’.

Similarly, among experts and policy makers engaged in this process from Central and Eastern Europe ‘Europeanization’  was used to denote their reform goals and equaled improvement of governance, economic development and administrative efficiency. I have talked to numerous civil servants and members of European integration working groups for whom joining the EU was the same thing as ‘Europeanization’ and ultimately equivalent to ‘becoming like…the Netherlands/Denmark/Germany…’

Remembering the start of post communist transformations, however, democratization and economic reform – uncertain as they were in some countries –  were domestically initiated and driven processes, which the EU was initially reluctant to commit to. Only after 1993 when the EU offered the so called accession perspective for Central and Eastern European states, did the Union provide a goal and a kind of reform template for the states that became serious candidates. So, as I have argued elsewhere, there are good  historical – and analytical reasons – to keep post communist transformations and pre-accession preparations separate. Yet there are also reasons to claim that the two processes reinforced each other and the one would not have succeeded without the other. This may be different for states that become candidates for accession at a different stage in their political and economic development. In other cases, as one of the conference papers noted (an earlier version of this argument has been developed here), the EU may act as stabilizer and not as ‘democratizer’. We should not forget that the provisions of the EU’s acquis (regulations and policies resulting from bargains between older member states), which candidates must adopt almost entirely before accession, may not be beneficial for all economies and in all institutional settings. In other words: despite more than a decade of scholarship, commentary and analysis, there may still be some major unanswered questions about the effects, processes and mechanisms underlying the EU’s enlargement: one of several themes which the MAXCAP project will research in the coming years. We will keep you posted.

Disclaimer: This post is written in personal capacity and does not represent the views of the MAXCAP partners, Leiden University or the European Commission, which funds this project under its Seventh Framework Programme.

This post was edited on 12 June 2013 to represent better some views expressed at the conference.

Academic research on the EU, Central and Eastern Europe, Europe in the news, the Netherlands, Uncategorized

Eastern Europeans in the Netherlands: A battle of the numbers or are journalists bad scientists?

RTL news  reported yesterday (link in Dutch) that the PVV, the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders, have received 40 000 complains on their controversial website asking people to report Central and Eastern European citizens causing ‘problems’ in the Netherlands. More than half of these were, according to the news item of 13 December about ‘drunkenness, noise and parking problems’. No detailed breakdown of issues or problems or even an overview of the 40 000 (complaints/messages? filled forms?wesbite hits?) has been made available yet and still a number of Dutch media dedicated quite some attention to the figure mentioned by the PVV. 40 000 sounds, after all, very impressive, even of a percentage of the messages left on the website may have been  from people who had a positive story or complained about the website itself.  More importantly,  the journalists asking questions about the ‘Central and Eastern European problem’ seemed unaware of a report presented this very same week, on 12 December, of a broad representative study by the Polish Institute of Public Affairs  showing that the majority of Dutch people have a positive or neutral impression of Polish people working here.

This provides some food for thought. First, it appears difficult for the media to distinguish representative, science based results from any other numbers that get used and abused in public debates. Secondly, there is clearly a selection bias on the PVV website, which could be understood better if we could see a breakdown of the type of issues and complaints. This was also stressed by the Polish embassy, whose spokesperson rightly remarked that the PVV reported numbers have no scientific value whatsoever.  This latter comment reached us through the SPITS newspaper (link in Dutch here) that managed, in its turn, to confuse the authors of the report on Polish perceptions in the Netherlands – the research was done by the Polish Institute for Public Affairs and GfK, but not Leiden university ( we co-hosted a presentation of the results in our Campus in the Hague). In the end, the only conclusion that can be drawn so far from the coverage of the  perceptions of Poles in the Netherlands report as opposed to the PVV complaint numbers announcement appears to be that some journalists do not pay much attention not only to science, but also to the basic facts.

For anyone who is interested in the actual data related to the perceptions of Poles in the Netherlands, a link to a summary of the findings and figures of the study can be found here. The full report is yet to be finalized and we look forward to examining the complete results.

Central and Eastern Europe, Enlargement, the Netherlands, Uncategorized

how much policy space do Schengen rules allow?

This coming Wednesday, the Bulgarian minister of the Interior Tsvetanov will be making a presentation and answering questions for the Standing Committee for Immigration, Integration and Asylum of the Dutch Parliament. It is a closed hearing, the main topic is, however, not difficult to guess when one reads that Tsvetanov’s visit is the result of request from the Bulgarian ambassador to the Netherlands. It is the thorny issue of Bulgaria’s (and Romania’s) membership in the Schengen area again and clearly the Bulgarian government feels it has a better chance of overcoming Dutch objections now that the cooperation with the PVV has come to an end. The Dutch (and possibly French) objections are almost the last obstacle to this membership, even if the Bulgarian and Romanian preparations have been overshadowed by problems with law enforcement and organized crime. Technically speaking, Bulgarian airports are ready for at least the first stage of joining Schengen and a lot of other costly preparations have been completed and may yet have a purpose, although if we see the Schengen issue as a result of mistrust from the old member states that reflects their own deep anxiety about the whole Schengen project, as in this very interesting blog post at LSE’s EUROPP blog suggests, it may still not work. As the author of the post Reuben Zaiotti, who also maintains a Schengen related blog,  has aptly put it, “Seen in this light, the Romania and Bulgaria affair is not just a cruel rite of passage, in which the two countries are enduring series of humiliating tests in order to become ‘proper’ members of the club, but also a sort of cathartic process in which current Schengen members, by vocally expressing their misgivings about the candidates, yet not rejecting their plight outright, assuage their fears and are persuaded to accept the new round of club’s expansion.”

In more practical policy terms, the question is, whether, the Bulgarian government is prepared, were it to succeed joining Schengen, for having an open border with Greece, where the crisis has brought additional challenges in terms of border control and asylum seekers. EU observer reports on the Commission’s first annual report on the Schengen area and the warnings from the EU’s border agency Frontex that the crisis makes it more difficult for Greece to cope with securing the land border with Turkey and to offer minimum conditions for asylum seekers that make it through. The Bulgarian government may find itself suddenly at the other side of the Schengen debate where member states look for means to re-introduce border checks in exceptional conditions. The Greek asylum policy will be evaluated by a Commission team in May, but we can already assume that even with the best will in the world, Greek administrative capacity cannot have increased with the crisis. Perhaps Bulgarian and Romanian policy makers should consider this prospect more carefully, although it is clear that there are no immediate remedies. This brings us to the larger debate whether the EU’s common policies leave the member states what Dani Rodrik calls sufficient domestic regulatory policy space to cope with the challenges of globalisation. Recent proposals to institutionalise temporary reimposition of border controls from Denmark, among others, may reflect such problems. The mixture between mistrust and anxiety on the part of the older member states, anti-immigrant sentiment from some and real policy problems in several parts of the Schengen area, however, makes it difficult to have a clear view of the problems and possible solutions.

Central and Eastern Europe, the Netherlands

Immigration and national politics

You have probably heard about the website set up by the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) to collect complaints against Eastern Europeans (Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians in particular). The website has been widely condemned by the international community (including the EU citizens rights commissioner Viviane Reding)  but has also received tens of thousands of reactions from Dutch citizens, according to the PVV leader Geert Wilders.

One of the latest responses comes from Polish MEP Marek Siwiec who encourages readers of his blog to share their positive experiences with the Netherlands and the Dutch in the comments to his blogplot. 

P.S. My own thoughts on immigration, morality, and politics can be found at my personal blog here.

Central and Eastern Europe

Neelie Kroes stands for media freedom in Hungary…but not Bulgaria… while Putin blogs in the FT

Last week, the Financial Times Brussels Blog  reported that Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes sent a letter to the Hungarian government reminding them that ‘ the respect of media freedom and media pluralism is not only about the technically correct application of EU and national law, but also and more importantly, about implementing and promoting these fundamental principles in practice’. This is  a quote from the letter that was curiously, initially available through the FT blog, only to have magically disappeared when I looked today (luckily I printed it). I collect such letters from the time when the European Commission used to send them to candidate states from Central and Eastern Europe when something was not going in the right direction in terms of democratic institutions and principles. Pre-accession to the EU, they used to be a part of the EU’s set of tools that are popularly referred to as the stick and carrot of conditionality. The expectation shared among these of us who studied the last enlargement has been that the EU would not have similar leverage when after accession. It is still not completely clear to me where this is true. Interestingly, the EU is now trying to use some of its tools and methods developed in the pre-accession period, to deal with the Orban government. As the FT’s Stanley Pignal notes, Orban’s strategy seems to be to go for minor adjustments in laws criticized by Brussels and go on much the same at home. Neelie Kroes’s letter seems to be part of the Commission’s response to that, as she notes that: ‘The Commission will remain particularly vigilant…’.

Pity, however, that the vigilance has not extended to Bulgaria, or not yet. Last month, Reporters without Borders placed media freedom in Bulgaria on the abominably low 80th place, 40 places behind Hungary. A Bulgarian MEP wrote an open letter to Bulgarian journalists about this, which was also sent to Ms Kroes (reported by Deutsche Welle, here, in Bulgarian). The dismal state of Bulgarian media is not a surprise for anyone who has ever tried to find a decent daily newspaper in many small towns in Bulgaria where the couple of serious newspapers of the Economedia group do not get ordered or delivered. Analysts point out that the ownership of media outlets, newspapers, but also TV is a big part of the problem, depriving individual journalists who have the ability and courage to deliver proper journalism, of outlets where they could do so. One can only dream, in this context, of the Hungarian Klubradio and similar outlets that take themselves the initiative to seek the support of EU institutions for free and independent journalism. And indeed, in recent years sharp investigative journalists in Bulgaria are found more often on the internet and Facebook, especially when they cover hot topics in a way that deviates from the bulk of the press. The problem seems to be that political and economic powers have tried to capture media the way they have tried to capture the state, to create a reality in which shady businessmen are ‘builders of capitalism’  as the newspaper Kapital calls them. Still, one hopes that the European Commission and these same independent journalists would not give up on media freedom in Bulgaria… after all, the whole public sphere and democracy itself suffer when no one delivers objective news any more. As journalist Tatiana Vaksberg notes in her Deutche Welle comment , Bulgarians themselves trust the media much easier than their politicians. Strange but true. Now there is an occasion when the well-known and all-pervasive Bulgarian skepticism should find a well-deserved outlet.

In other news from the world of media manipulation, Vladimir Putin apparently blogged with a guest blog in the Financial Times. Most instructive, especially if one has never read a press release from any of the congresses of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Of course, the text the FT published was an excerpt from an article (officially) by Putin published in Vedomosty (Russian version here), and it’s not really a blog. This is.

Central and Eastern Europe

Bulgaria, the country that people never bother checking their facts about

Update: In a new blog post, Georgi Ganev has provided a series of graphs illustrating the fact that Bulgaria is as close as it has ever been in fulfilling the criteria for Eurozone membership. As he points out for your amusement, the Eurozone does not fulfill them itself at the moment. The text is in Bulgarian, but the graphs are in English and speak for themselves!

Last night’s (16 January) main news at 20.00 on Dutch channel 1 (nos.nl) contained such a blatant misrepresentation of the facts that I cannot let it pass without making a new category for this blog: Bulgaria, they never checked the facts. I find that this happens more often than it should in different fora, from professional conferences to various Dutch news items, Bulgaria gets added to a group of countries based on people’s feeling where it belongs, with minimal research or reference to the facts. Even though I am often very critical of many aspects of governance in Bulgaria – most Bulgarians are – I find it useful to criticize the country for problems that it does have, instead of ones which it does not. Last night’s news item was a case in point. The journalist reported from Bucharest (not in Bulgaria, by the way) about problems with riots in Romania linked to reforms in the health care system and the crisis with public debt in Romania. Hungary was added as a country where things are getting worse wth debt and mortgages and then there was Bulgaria too, mentioned twice at the beginning and the end. At the end of the report, the journalist literally said that Bulgaria was for the moment free of protest and stable but with this crisis it was only a matter of time, because it has a huge external debt the IMF would be coming and making people’s lives harder and they would protest. In other words, it must be bad there. Now the facts: it takes about a minute to dig up most recent economic data on Bulgaria (here and here for example, via the World bank and Eurostat) and discover that it has been praised by the European Commission for being among the three countries in the EU with the lowest government debt to GDP ratio in 2011, as CNN reports:

The lowest government debt to GDP ratios were recorded in Estonia (6.6%), Bulgaria (16.2%) and Luxembourg (18.4%), according to the Eurostat report.

The IMF has of course been supporting Bulgaria for many years after the fall of communism and there have been so many reforms to deal with problems of the economy inherited from the last decade of communism ( for examples and comments on the most recent economic trends, see updates from prominent Bulgarian economist Georgi Ganev), that both the IMF and its budget advice seemed for a while a feature of the political landscape. Not, as it happens, at this very moment.  Standard and Poor’s rating for Bulgaria includes an outlook which is stable, which says something in these times.

The problem with such reporting as what we heard from the NOS last night is not only that it is crap journalism (compare with CNN above), but that it does confirm people’s prejudices instead of helping us understand what governments are really doing in Europe to cope with crisis and debt. Not that life for people in Bulgaria is less hard because the country has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios in Europe. It might be that the budget is in good shape but quality of life and social spending are too low. Bulgarians are (in)famous for their pessimism (see here an interesting take on why a better economy brings no happiness).  But why this is and what the implications are is for another debate, among people who have checked the basic facts first.