Monday, October 25, 2010

EU Foreign Policy Roundup

There's a lot of fresh news on the EU foreign policy front, so here's a roundup of salient headlines.

The European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's new diplomatic agency set to launch December 1st, saw two of its top posts publicly announced, confirming long-running (and accurate) rumors on the candidates. Pierre Vimont, a French national and eminence grise of the transatlantic diplomatic community, will act as executive secretary general. David O'Sullivan, a European Commission veteran from Ireland, is to serve as chief operating officer. 

Vimont is a former French ambassador to the United States and has also acted in diplomatic roles for the European Union. EUobserver reports that O'Sullivan "has previously run the European Commission's education and trade departments, was head of cabinet for former commission president Romano Prodi and was commission secretary general. 

On the transatlantic side, both Vimont and O'Sullivan should bring diplomatic heft to the EU's dealings with the U.S.. Both are battle-tested policy professionals. Both speak perfect English (Vimont distinguishes himself from ex- and current French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, neither of whom speaks English with much ease.) 

If early EEAS naysayers chastised its head, Lady Catherine Ashton, as a "compromise candidate," the one-two punch of appointing Vimont and O'Sullivan may turn around the glass-half-empty outlook upon which some observers have insisted.

A coalition of far-right parties from throughout Europe convened Saturday in Vienna to organize a popular opposition movement against Turkey's accession to the EU.  The collected groups will seek to launch a European Citizen's Initiative, a practice by which EU citizens can gather one million signatures in a petition to force the EU institutions to consider converting their demands into legislation. In a strange shift from the usually anti-EU-integration stance of Europe's far-right, some parties demanded that Turkey be barred because otherwise it would spell the "end of the European Union."

In what Europeans may see as a troubling sign of the times, Europe's high place in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is poised to slip. Following a 'historic' meeting Saturday in South Korea, European countries such as Belgium and Holland will be pressured to concede places to the "BRIC" countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and other emerging world economies. The IMF's managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had this to say about the Fund's changes and the greater symbolic paradigm shift:

"The ten biggest members of the Fund ... will be those who deserve to be the biggest members," he added, going on to describe how "the membership and quota of the membership are not really representing the importance and weight of the countries in the global economy." 
Serbia has cleared a significant roadblock in its push to join the EU. Following a softened position on Kosovo, the EU rewarded Belgrade with an agreement to begin looking at its accession dossier. Yet the EU stipulated that it wanted redoubled cooperation with the International Criminal Court, especially in pursuing justice for Serbian war criminals such as Ratko Mladic. 

"It's the start of the process," said Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency through December.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

EU Parliament Pushes Forward on EEAS Final Legislation

The European Parliament voted in a decisive show-of-hands vote today that it will move forward with the finalization of plans on the European External Action Service (EEAS). 

The vote was focused on relaxing staffing rules, following early demands by newer and less well-represented member states to enshrine into law measures gauranteeing geographical and gender balance in the EU's new diplomatic service, set to launch December 1st. 

The official vote will take place tomorrow in Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament. At the same time, representatives will also be voting to relax the EEAS' budget rules. 

Drafted by German MEP (Member of European Parliament) Bernhard Rapkay, the bill seeks ensure for the EEAS the “highest standard of ability, efficiency and integrity, recruited on the broadest possible geographical basis from among nationals of member states,” the European Voice reports

The service's staff should comprise an “appropriate and meaningful presence of nationals from all the member states." The rules also foresee the promotion of equal opportunities to ensure a better balance between men and women. 

Pan-EU balance remains a bone of contention among many of the EU's states, especially its new members which typically hail from Eastern and largely ex-Soviet republics such as Romania and Bulgaria. On gender, many leaders across Europe have demanded there be a set minimum for women in senior positions, a result of the generally progressive attitudes in Europe advocating women's professional equality

Promising geographical as well as gender balance is seen by these states as a way of securing a decent footing within the fledgling diplomatic corps.

Editorially speaking, the loosening-up of gender and geographical balance will surely allow the EEAS more of the room it needs to maneuver a successful start. Whether the lack of gaurantees for balance will rear its ugly head down the road, however, remains very much an open question.

Published on The Hill's CongressBlog

Check out my publication on Washington's view of the EEAS on the CongressBlog of the Washington newspaper The Hill. It's a better and shorter version of this post on EurAmerican from early October. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pension Reform Mobilizes French of All Ages

The crisis in France is coming to a boil as mass protests against retirement benefit reform throttle the country. The malaise is now spreading to all generations, as shown through the nascent student movement rising up in solidarity with those fighting to preserve their once and future pensions. (See video from Euronews here.)

The genesis of the demonstrating is President Nicolas Sarkozy's move to up the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, a result of aching public coffers that are weathering recovery from the global economic crisis only with extreme duress. The pension cuts have met ferocious resistance and has generated nearly a full week of open-ended general strikes. 

Multiple reports of car fires and clashes with police have ricocheted throughout Europe as troublemakers mix with demonstrators, some still in high school, to join the anti-reform groundswell. 

Young people expressed both anger over the reform, seen in much of the country as draconian, and fears over recession-time prospects in the transition from their status of student to job seeker.

In a separate but no less serious development, French oil refinery workers have jumped on the bandwagon for the resistance by refusing to work while motorists of all stripes panic over how their fuel is to last. The oil industry lobby estimates that shortages will be felt by mid-week if no major change takes place.    

... Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune counters, "this reform is a no-brainer. Come on, France, get real!"

UPDATE: "France, the Unions and Fiscal Reality," 10/19/10. 

Europe Under China: The EU's U.N. Tug-of-War

NYT/IHT journalist Judy Dempsey serves up some interesting perspective on Germany and Portugal's recent assession to nonpermanent seats to the UN Security Council. She uses China as an axis of comparison with western powers' UN moves, catering to the center of focus for the American majority of her piece's readers. 

By default, her article relegates Europe to the same observer status Germany and Portugal have just won. 

The following excerpts bring the China element to the fore:

"Europe’s decline is partly linked to China’s growing influence as an economic power, donor and lender. From Belarus to Iran, across Africa and Latin America, China is lending money, forging trade deals and building roads, airports and schools while tapping the natural resources of these countries.

And there are no strings attached. “China sets no conditions, unlike the E.U., which often sets them in an inconsistent way” [quoted from source]. Indeed, China’s way of doing things is seen as a direct challenge to Europe’s dominance in development aid and trade agreements."
"... With the radical shifts in global influence led by China, Europe’s influence is waning, and fast.
The E.U.’s hopes of supporting human rights and democracy around the world are at risk of being defeated by changes in the global balance of power,” said Anthony Dworkin, international law expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the United Nations, where the Union has suffered embarrassing defeats.
Last month, it failed to win expanded rights to the General Assembly, where it has observer status. A new status would have allowed Brussels the right to make proposals, circulate documents and address the Assembly.
To the dismay of  Catherine Ashton, the Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy [as implemented by the EEAS], some of Europe’s closest allies — Australia, Canada and New Zealand — abstained. Diplomats blamed the Union’s lack of strategy and consultation.
“The E.U.’s shambolic defeat was more than a humiliation,” said Paul Luif, Europe expert at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs in Vienna. “It showed the growing lack of support for an E.U. that seems more and more ineffective at the U.N.”

The article's title is "
For Europe, a Challenge to Make Its Voice Resonate." Sounds more than a bit like "Europeans Woo U.S., Promising Relevance," also from the New York Times. One of its most prominent columnists, Roger Cohen, has similarly declared that "Europe is history," a "strategic backwater."

If what is arguably America's most Europhile newspaper sees grim days ahead for Europe, it should be equally gloomy -- and disconcerting -- to ponder the EU's eclipse within the UN Security Council specifically.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Young Immigrants, Old Kurmudgeons: EU Demographics & Decline

Demographer Jean-Claude Barreau weighs in on Europe's immigration debate and population decline (which dovetails nicely with my last post on women's issues and fertility in France). Responding to a recently published demographic study by Eurostat, the European Commission's statistics bureau, Barreau puts forth several dubious conclusions, notably that

"The European Commission has proposed only one solution: immigration. This is a potential solution, but if it is the only one, immigration will result in the substitution of a Europe’s population. Without a sufficient number of indigenous children, we will be unable to integrate children that have arrived from elsewhere. When a schoolroom or a neighbourhood no longer has any indigenous children, integration becomes impossible."

Barreau's perspective is of an inherently French-republican sway. He also reveals himself a strongly anti-immigration advocate, making the arching assumption that readers agree on what an "indigenous" citizen is or should be.  His words belie an unspoken laziness that can sometimes characterize how Europeans approach their role in the integration process, insinuating that the onus is on migrants to make the effort -- often herculean, and unassisted -- for streamlining into their adopted societies.

Nor does Barreau grant credence to the pattern by which immigrant neighborhoods, even when overwelmingly composed of foreign-born residents, still usually manage to integrate. One needs only look at the byzantine ethnic quilt that is New York City: the Big Apple positively teems with immigrant children, who develop a culture that may not be recognizably American, but is certainly not of the old country, either. 

The rubbing-together of these neighborhoods provides the heat that brings the famous "melting pot" to simmer (which is real, even if it doesn't always work smoothly), infusing the common culture of the host land with that of the immigrants who come to populate it. 

Barreau's dreaded image of an all-immigrant classroom is precisely what one sees in many New York City schools. Yet those kids still learn English, still mix with the dominant culture and values, and still forge a way toward a national identity with vibrancy and perpetual innovation. So long as immigrant kids live in a host country and stay there, they'll form their own culture, which will belong in the place from which it sprung and might be furthermore celebrated as a cultural product of value. (Think Junot Diaz, Wyclef Jean, Zinedine Zidane and so many others.)

It may be that opinion leaders like Barreau chafe not at today's immigrant waves, and those sure to reach the shores of Europe in the future; perhaps what truly galls his camp is the inevitable change that will come when new migrants bring new vitality to a continent unwilling or uncompelled to reproduce... And what new dynamism will owe its birth to those unlike the aging experts, who can't see their likeness in Europe's crystal ball?

Friday, October 15, 2010

France, Its Women, Their Children: A Disjointed Paean from the NY Times

Several days ago the New York Times published a compelling article on the status of French women, especially as it concerns their child-raising practices. Its author, Katrin Bennhold, has written extensively on women's issues as part of a series published in partnership with the International Herald Tribune. Her piece is, predictably, of a staunch pro-feminist bent. It's also trenchant and largely well-done, yet Bennhold yields to the powers of cliché (or her editor) in profiling French women as the super-sexual beings they are assumed to be, both at home and abroad.

The piece begins with what would surely bewilder the sensibilities of the American heartland, and not a few courtesy-minded Europeans. The lead exhorts the reader to ask him or herself, "could anything be more French?" than the image that follows it, describing a state-subsidized post-birth program of "vaginal gymnastics," "electric stimulation devices" and "nimble squeezing," all for the purpose of "making love again soon and making more babies." 

An accompanying series of photographs shows a woman doctor, in a tight blouse and short skirt, sitting with crossed legs prominently displayed... with one hand between the legs of a patient on her back. The association of French femininity and overt sexuality -- and the casually provocative illustrations of her doctor's visits -- perpetuates just the kind of stereotypes that have badgered women in the feminist era, and does little to foster the respect for them that men are asked (or demanded) to concede. 

This certainly violates the all-important French civic ideal of "la discrétion," the rigorous protection of privacy that dictates many of the related codes and norms of France's art de vivre.

I'll break tone here and give a personal but no less valid case-in-point. In college, I became friends with a French female while she was studying abroad in the U.S. Less than a week after her arrival to a leafy, middle-American (and overwhelmingly conservative) college campus, she became the unwilling recipient of blatant appeals by male students asking for sex. Flabbergasted, she asked several of her would-be partners, 'Why are you asking me?' The single response was repeatedly given, "Well, I heard you were French..."

This anecdote reflects the greater cross-cultural fallout of French femininity as it's been projected in the mass media age. With no apparent sense of irony, Bennhold's article gives nods of feminist respekk to icons from Simone de Beauvoir to Brigitte Bardot. The latter is hardly a torch-bearer in the feminist march of progress; after all, she launched to fame playing the über-sultry lead in 1956's And God Created Woman, in which she spent a great deal of time semi- and fully nude, and completes the film in a ten-minute-plus tantric dance holding her skirt above her head.

-- But let's get back the article: We read on to learn about France's aggressive family-promotion programs and the playing-out of those programs in modern French family life. Bennhold praises the invaluable public service of the "école maternelle," a no-cost daycare scheme available everywhere. The schools allow women the logistical ability to work full-time. While the author praises the system's convenience, she nuances with an interviewee's quip that the schools are "called 'maternelle' for a reason," and that French women are compelled by tradition to juggle a double-load of home and work life. 

Another of Bennhold's interview subjects was Valérie Toranian, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine's French edition. Toranian had this to say about the harried pace many French women struggle with:
“French women are exhausted,” said Toranian. [...] “We have the right to do what men do — as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner and look immaculate. We have to be superwoman.”

This argument and others from the piece are legitimate. The author is not immune to over-reach, however, as evidenced by arching claims like "French women appear to worry about being feminine, not feminist, and French men often display a form of gallantry predating the 1789 revolution." She supports this thrust by quoting Bernard Henri-Lévy (known in Europe by the rockstar shorthand "BHL"), the pseudo-serious philosopher playboy who laid it on, like, real intellectual when he said, “France is an old Gallic macho country.” 

Grounding an argument on BHL's respectability is not the way to win over American readers, as media force Garrison Keillor has argued ascerbically and hilariously.

Let's circle back to the casually provocative tone of the article. What's prevalent is the careless reference to female anatomy, found at the piece's very beginning, which probably turned off more readers than just me. One wonders how many moderates reading the article browsed over the tangy lead, then didn't finish, assuming the rest would follow in the same spirit. What kind of feminism is to be promoted, if the rules for dialogue are not those that apply to men? What happens when men talk about their bodies -- or, come floods, women's bodies -- with an attitude that teeters on indecency? The answer, of course, is sexist and inconsiderate interaction between men and women -- and it goes both ways -- which I'm sure many women and quite a few men can relate to, either in the example of the French student above or in personal experience.

Transatlantically speaking, what happens when the notion of Bardot-like French-women-as-sexpot, or at least very-fertile in Bennhold's case, hits the public debate across the pond? Things like the caveman-esque pick-up line, and the conflicted mother-career woman. Or both. 

Maybe what we need is balance: women should be not be pressured to work, or stay at home; men could acquaint themselves with the carpool and dirty dishes. And common courtesy would go a long way to smoothing gender equality's progress in the meantime.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Roger Cohen, You're the Man

Solid insight in a broad sweep of the European political scene, from far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders to Belgian parliamentary breakdown to the haggard but still-beating hopes for a truly federalized EU. Here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On EU Foreign Corps, EU Officials Optimistic, Others Very Skeptical

           The locomotive of the European Union’s nascent diplomatic corps has been picking up speed, with a ribbon-cutting at the service’s new Washington site on Sep. 29th, and officials in Brussels promising it will be ready to roll before the planned start of December 1st. But critics on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed major doubts as to whether the world can expect an EU foreign agency that can chug its weight.

            Created after the landmark Treaty of Lisbon in December 2009, the European External Action Service (EEAS) will seek to unify the EU’s voice in world diplomatic affairs. Its chief architect, Lady Catherine Ashton, sits as the EU foreign affairs chief and one of several vice presidents of the European Commission. Another key figure is João Vale de Almeida, the EU ambassador to the United States, who has been promoting a strongly optimistic view on the EEAS starting off well this winter.

EU Officials: New Service? No Problem

            The EU’s new service will offer a “a more reliable, more credible, and a more results-oriented partner” to the United States, Almeida pledged in a September interview with Washington’s The Hill newspaper. A Portuguese national and longtime deputy to European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, Almeida arrived in Washington in July amid talk of a “wider mandate” for his ambassadorship.
            “My ambition is to move beyond what exists today, to build a stronger and even more positive EU-US agenda with solid bilateral and global pillars,” Almeida said in an August press release, before presenting his credentials at the White House. He promised “an agenda that unlocks the full potential of our economies, promotes joint action in foreign policy, and enhances our capacity as global partners."

            Almeida’s words obliquely addressed critics’ concerns about the EU’s readiness to operate a new diplomatic structure—and a big one at that. As a branch of the Brussels-based European Commission, the EEAS will comprise 8,000 officials, with 800 more EU diplomats dispersed among the agency’s 136 foreign embassies. On budget, the latest estimates from the Devex newswire put the EEAS’ funds at $620 million. (...)