The Brussels press corps: Shaken, not sunken

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite the crisis in traditional media, the Brussels press corps continues to survive and thrive, but not without difficulties.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map. Image: europa.eu

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s radical new finance minister, addresses reporters in Brussels. The drama surrounding Greek austerity and the EU financial crisis have helped keep the Brussels press corps on the global map.
Image: europa.eu

Thursday 26 February 2015

Europe’s financial crisis and the Greek tragedy may not be good news for those affected by them, but for the Brussels press corps, these events have helped keep their stories on or near the front page for several years, according to Gareth Harding, managing director of Clear Europe, a media consultancy company, and co-curator of a new book, Mapping Foreign Correspondence in Europe.

The book charts the major changes and challenges foreign correspondents face across Europe in the context of new media trends, the shifting political landscape in the European Union and the broader impact of the economic crisis on the industry.

“Print is still the king,” according to the book’s editor Georgios Terzis of Vesalius College (VUB), but online and cross-platform reporting are growing outlets for the foreign correspondents surveyed. The economic pinch can be seen in other trends observed in the book. Greater emphasis on generalists, travel budget cuts, and limited resources also affect the type and depth of coverage.

“Journalists say they are more prone to follow the official line and use think tanks or NGOs to get the other side of the story,” noted Terzis at the book launch. They lack resources, time and sometimes access to primary sources to check the story out. The journalists feel “kidnapped” by official sources, he added.

The mapping took two-and-a-half years to realise and involved a survey of more than a thousand foreign correspondents, hundreds of interviews and contributions from authors Europe-wide.

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK has the biggest press corps in Europe with some 1,700 registered foreign correspondents, followed by France (945), Belgium (931), Germany (729) and Spain (258). The industry is still predominantly a “boys’ club”, according to one journalist, and there has been a shift towards more single bureau offices with one correspondent wearing multiple hats, supplying content for print, online and social media channels, which is leading to increased pressure and stress.

In Brussels, despite what was purported in The Economist in 2010 (‘The incredible shrinking EU press corps’), the number of foreign correspondents accredited by the European Commission has remained quite stable in the decade following a ‘big bang’ expansion when 10 new member states joined in 2004.

“The single biggest problem is clearly economic,” noted the columnist Charlemagne. “The industry that has fed and clothed me for 12 years –being a full-time foreign correspondent – is in desperate straits everywhere. The internet has broken the link between news and advertising, establishing the idea that news as a commodity should be available for free.”

But while the EU press corps is not in “free fall”, as The Economist put it, there is some substance in the claims that new forms of online reporting, but also Belgian tax complications and the disconnect between traditional advertising and news have all hit the Brussels news business particularly hard. As too the suggestion that many, mostly older, member states have grown weary or just plain bored of the EU story unless – it should be added – it involves some sort of pain or grief that audiences in the more euro-sceptic  countries can ‘relate to’.

But the withdrawal of old Europe from the Brussels reporting bubble has not reduced the overall interest in Europe, nor its status as the new king of news and reporting, spearheaded by such outlets as the Financial Times and Der Spiegel. Terzis and Harding suggested correspondents from the former eastern countries and other regions, including China, have made up the numbers in Brussels, and where full-time posts have become rarer, the army of freelancers, bloggers and other ‘new’ journalists fill the gap.

Harding commented on some of these trends, including the growing pressure to publish or Tweet first and check later, the blurring of the line between reporting and opinion, and the need for more innovation and mashups in the sector.

Buzzfeed in the EU would shake things up, he concluded.

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Romania’s myths, legends, warts and charms

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Romania defies many of the unflattering stereotypes associated with the country. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light.

Monday 17 November 2014

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

When I told people that I was going to Brașov and Bucharest, reactions varied from “be careful” and “nice girls” to “isn’t it just full of Gypsies?” and “where is that?” So I just said I’m visiting Dracula in Transylvania, and they just laughed. What did poor little Romania do to earn such scorn?

Don’t get me wrong, Bucharest and its environs have no shortage of forlorn grey buildings and decrepit streets that you would expect of the former Eastern bloc. But whereas East Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Riga, etc. have airbrushed out most remnants of that period with a post-EU makeover, Bucharest is still very much wrestling with its past.

A bit poorer than other former communist countries and with so much more ‘socialist development’ to undo – namely the widespread ‘systemisation’ of villages and towns across the country – much of Bucharest still evokes its communist past.

But that could be a blessing in disguise, if you think hard about it. Foreign investment and the rampant changes that big money brings to urban landscapes has been slower to arrive in Romania, and the complex legal wrangling over ownership of confiscated properties in what is left of the city’s old quarter has slowed the cancerous spread of cranes over Bucharest’s skyline.

Romania is also still not in the eurozone, and seems unlikely to be allowed to join for some time, despite promises to the contrary made in Brussels when the country joined the European Union in 2007.

For tourists this means two main things: Bucharest remains a relatively cheap European city trip, especially with low-cost airlines like Whizz and Ryanair now plying the route with some frequency; and it is a refreshingly authentic and richly diverse destination.

Why does authenticity matter? Well, if you travel often enough, you will know the answer to this question. European cities are all starting to look or feel a bit samey: the same chain coffee shops, strip malls lined with familiar clothes stores, the feeling that the medieval or Art Nouveau houses were finished by urban colourists.

So much slower to paint over its communist past, Bucharest is left with an opportunity to embrace the story, and what it means to modern Romania. It is a sensitive subject, no doubt, but hiding or glossing over the past is rarely a good recipe for thriving.

City planners could or perhaps should think about drawing a circle around that part of its recent history to mark the spot, as it were, where many memorable things happened. Yes, many bad things – deprivation, a systematic crushing of cultural identity and murderous actions – during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. But also ‘monumental’ things; legacies such as the building of the so-called ‘Popular House’ (more on that later) which dominates a massive swathe of the city centre, and the Parisian-styled boulevards the former dictator created may, after some decades of healing, become tourist beacons in the league of the Eiffel Tower, White House or Taj Mahal.

There are signs it may already be happening. I took an official tour of the Palace of Parliament – as it is now called after the Romanian government agonised as to what to do with this White Elephant following Ceaușescu’s downfall in a dramatic and bloody revolution in 1989 – and learned first-hand that embracing the past (it’s good and bad aspects) doesn’t come easy to some.

“It was cheaper to make it into the Parliament and use the building that so many Romanian craftsmen and women worked hard to build than pull it down,” the tour guide offered dryly in answer to the question of how Romanians now feel about this towering hulk of a building, knowing how it came into existence.

Touted as the second-biggest free-standing building in the world after the Pentagon, ‘Madman’s House’, as it is also referred to behind closed doors in Romania, covers a whole city block. Churches, hospitals and thousands of houses were demolished in the 1980s to make way for Ceaușescu’s monolithic ode to socialism, which to most who witnessed or ‘volunteered’ to build it spoke more to his and, perhaps more so, his wife’s megalomania.

In the nearly one-hour tour of the bowels of this 1,100-room monster, which only took in three of the reported 12 floors and just a small sample of the various halls, chambers and endless corridors, not once did the tour guide mention Ceaușescu’s name. Nor did she explain the backstory to the December 1989 uprising. This was an ‘official’ tour, and the guide was either careful not to discuss politics, as it were, in what is now the Houses of Parliament or she was just not very good at her job.

Intrigued by the probable side-stepping of the questions by our guide, it didn’t take much searching to learn that praising the crimes of “so-called totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims” is forbidden by law in Romania. So that would then apply to the Ceaușescu regime, I presume. Indeed, TV journalist Dinel Staicu reportedly received a hefty fine for praising Ceaușescu and airing pictures of the former leader.

Two sides

Not so careful was the guide on a private bus tour to Brașov in Romania’s central area, which is more famously known as Transylvania. The much younger, rather chirpy, guide (certainly for 7:45 am) breezily described the chain of events leading up to Ceaușescu’s ill-fated last speech on the Piata Victoriei, the ensuing riots, civilian deaths and eventual capture, two-hour trial and summary execution of Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989.

“That was Romania’s Christmas present that year,” said the guide. “Not many mourned the death of the second dictator, who made the first communist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej who died in 1965 seem like a nice guy!”

But Ceaușescu, who led Romania from 1967 to 1989, didn’t start out that bad, she went on to explain. He became increasingly erratic and distant from the people during his decades-long rule. Something many Romanians blamed on Elena and their lack of education.

The fact that they both came from very humble beginnings gave them a common touch to begin with but that changed as Ceaușescu’s personality cult grew. He gave himself such titles as ‘Conducător’ (Leader) and ‘Geniul din Carpați’ (The genius of the Carpathians), and by the time they returned from a visit to North Korea, witnessing the grandiose avenues of Pyongyang and the socialist-inspired urban landscapes, there was no stopping them … well, almost.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

The other figure in Romanian history with an equally complicated back-story is that of Vlad Țepeș (1431-1477), alias Vlad the Impaler and inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula. A story so convoluted by folktales, legend, stories of witchcraft, eerie castles, fictional characters and a grain of truth, Vlad Țepeș is a larger-than-life character in Romanian history. But with the benefit of romantic hindsight, and a growing understanding of the bankability of such stories, Romanians clearly more easily embrace some parts of history better than others.

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, is being celebrated this year as Romania’s great protector and unifier following his bloody campaign (neatly rounded to) 555 years  ago to rid Wallachia and surrounding territories of the Ottoman Turks. Vlad was born in Sighișoara, a city on the Târnava Mare River, and raised in Târgoviște in south-central Romania, together with his brother and father, Vlad II Dracul(ea), who was Voivode of Wallachia – now a province of Romania, with Bucharest at its centre.

Time to settle once and for all the confusion between Vlad the Impaler and Dracula: The castle that hordes of tourists see in Bran, just south of Brașov, is not Vlad’s castle. It may not have even been the castle Bram Stoker had in mind when he wrote Dracula in the 19th century, as the Irish author apparently never visited the area, but rather concocted his story from a heady blend of geographical facts, patronymic borrowings (his father was a member of the Order of Dragons, or ‘drac’ and ‘ulea’, meaning ‘son of’) and regional mythology.

“In Romania today, schoolbooks and historians extol [Vlad Țepeș] as a patriot and a champion of order in lawless times, while the outside world knows him as the vampire count of a thousand cinematic fantasies … a spoof figure or a ghoul,” write Rough Guide Romania’s authors. “Horrible though his deeds were, Vlad was not accused of vampirism during his lifetime. However, vampires were an integral part of folklore in Eastern and South-eastern Europe, known as vámpír in Hungarian and strigoi in Romanian.”

Some attribute the ‘vampire’ phenomenon to regional folklore concerning a ‘flying one’ or Zburator who enters people’s homes and tortures young women coming of age with bites, pinches, tickling and worse. There are also tales of vampire-like behaviour in battle, with a victor ‘tasting’ a victim’s blood to take in his power. “Even to this day, some villagers in Romania are known to encircle their houses in salt and put up garlic against evil spirits,” our guide offers with a wry smile.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 work, which taking bits and pieces of fact and fiction, managed to stoke (sorry about that!) the imagination of a growing reading population (this is before film and TV) who were gripped with excitement and fear over such real stories as Jack the Ripper in London. Anyway, it makes for a good story and even better source of business for a nascent tourism industry.

Gypsies and sleaze

I have yet to address the other two stereotypes thrown up at the mention of Romania. On the bus to Brașov, the guide asked the dozen or so travellers what their impressions of Romania were before coming to the country.

The Israelis sitting nearest the door said “attractive girls and casinos” without blushing in the slightest. Some Americans – no sorry, they said “we’re from San Francisco” like it was a country – said they had heard of Vlad and Transylvania with a hint of embarrassment. The Italians and Spanish said they connected Romania mostly with Gypsies. I said rather pompously, as a resident of Brussels, most of my impressions were about Romania’s entry into the European Union and the “Roma question”, thinking the politically correct term would be appreciated. Nope.

The tour guide nodded thoughtfully and quick as a whip said, “So, more Gypsy stereotypes!” She went on to explain where the Romani came from and touched on the complicated relationship Romania has with a community that numbers between 650,000 and 850,000 people, depending on who you consult. Faced with discrimination both at home and abroad, many Romani do not declare their ethnicity in the official census and often don’t carry or own identity cards or birth certificates.

Upon joining the EU, many hoped that the plight of this minority in Romania and elsewhere in the expanding EU would improve. Despite vast programmes, and funding for worthy projects aimed at education, skills and ‘inclusion’ – through the likes of the European Social Fund – evidence of continued high levels of discrimination remain. Progress in Romania itself seems to take the back-burner to wider efforts to spruce up the economy (and the streets of the capital, it has been suggested!).

The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that she regretted her country’s reputation is hurt by its association with the Romani, and the challenges they present to what is effectively a developing country in Europe’s midst.

Wisely, she made no mention of mass deportations, periods of slavery and other privations throughout the centuries that the Romani have lived in the land now called Romania. Alas, it was a trip to visit pretty towns and Dracula’s castle not a debate on the ‘Roma question’, but I was pleased to have gotten as much information as I did from such a trip.

Taxi drivers were more forthcoming about politics and sleaze – and for many a formative impression on the tourists by ripping them off during the trip from the airport to Bucharest. My driver when leaving the country – a friendly and open fellow, as almost all contacts in Romania had been – said he had been driving taxis for 16 years and despite clear improvements in everything from the roads to the ‘luxuries’ in the shops, he felt his chances of getting ahead were slim.

“It’s the rule of the first seven years,” he offered philosophically. “It gives all the chances later.” So, that’s the foundation for success in Romania, I paraphrased. “Yes, the foundations, as you say; the rich ones have the sports cars and think it is their right to be like they want to workers; they have power.”

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

I asked him, then, if he will be voting for the socialist candidate in the election the following week (15-16 November). “No, he will destroy us … like the first socialist we got after Ceaușescu!”

That was frank, I thought to myself. So it seems the economically liberal PNL party headed by an up-and-coming city mayor Klaus Iohannis of the Christian Liberal Alliance would be his preferred presidential candidate over current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who is leader of the Social Democratic Party.

“So, Iohannis is the better choice,” I offered. The driver looked in the rear-view mirror, raised his eyebrow and said, “Yes, better, not best … but I will vote for him.”

Go-go gone?

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

And as to the suggestion of cheap liaisons in smoky pubs and go-go clubs. Well, I admit I had imagined something like Prague or Budapest, but the historic quarter, which is the main tourist hub (the bit that was spared Ceaușescu’s socialist revisionism) had only a smattering of such joints. I was approached once on my second night by the stereotypical black-leather jacketed guy offering girls and more, but that was it. Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg … these are more sordid cities than Bucharest.

I never felt intimidated by anyone. The metro, though bleak, was by no means scary. The trains ran on time and the information boards were clear. Romanians respected your space but were happy to help when approached. They didn’t tout for business or force conversations on you. They were getting on with life, as it should be.

Altogether, Romania defied many if not all of the obvious stereotypes. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light. It is definitely a tourist destination on the up, and it deserves a ‘better’ rap, if the not the ‘best’ rap.

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De lijm die België bijeenhoudt

 
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By Khaled Diab

De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is. Ik gebruik mijn stem als lijm die kan helpen om België samen te houden.

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De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is.

Zondag 25 mei 2014

In de aanloop naar de Wereldbeker in Brazilië heeft de voetbalgekte België in haar greep, merkte ik onlangs tijdens een bezoek naar ons huis in Gent. De Rode Duivels, de beste ploeg sinds een generatie, lijken alomtegenwoordig: in de media, in uitverkochte stickeralbums en zelfs in een campagne van het Rode Kruis om bloedgevers te werven. In een land dat normaal een hekel heeft aan vlagvertoon is de nationale driekleur in haar voetbalversie overal te zien en worden zwart, geel en rood op wangen gesmeerd en in pruiken geverfd.

Maar achter die opwelling van nationale trots gaat een andere realiteit schuil: het lijkt meer dan waarschijnlijk dat de regionale, federale en Europese verkiezingen van 25 mei zullen tonen dat België in feite twee aparte staten is geworden.

Bedreigde Brusselaar
De verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen uiten zich in de politiek, de cultuur, de identiteit en het bewustzijn – of toch op het eerste gezicht. De peilingen voorspellen dat in Vlaanderen de neoliberale, separatistische N-VA een derde van de stemmen zal halen. Andersom zou in Wallonië de linkse PS een derde van de stemmen krijgen en de grootste partij zijn.

Los van de ogenschijnlijke rechts-linkse tegenstelling tussen het welvarende noorden en het arme zuiden, is er de taalkloof. België heeft al sinds tientallen jaren geen nationale partijen of nationale media. Ook het onderwijs is geregionaliseerd. Dat alles heeft de vervreemding en het wantrouwen tussen de gemeenschappen in de hand gewerkt.

Dit geleidelijke vervagen van ‘België’ wordt symbolisch belichaamd door de bedreigde status van de meest typische Belg: de tweetalige Brusselaar, met één voet aan elke kant van de taalgrens. Vandaag is Brussel nog altijd officieel tweetalig, maar spreekt bijna iedereen Frans en vormen de Nederlandstaligen een kleine minderheid. Buiten Brussel wordt het Engels een officieuze lingua franca voor zowel Vlamingen als Walen.

Als genaturaliseerde burger die al bijna tien jaar Belg is, vind ik die trage ontbinding jammer – voor een stuk omdat ik de excentrieke charme waardeer van een land dat ondanks zijn saaie reputatie op een subtiele manier cool is. Voor iemand als ik, die uit de immigratie komt, is het bovendien vaak gemakkelijker om je als Belg te identificeren, wat niet dezelfde etnische bagage heeft als ‘Vlaming’ of ‘Waal’. Tweederde van de Brusselse bevolking is trouwens van buitenlandse afkomst, zodat de etnische aanblik van de hoofdstad sterk is veranderd. Je ziet dat ook op het voetbalveld, met spelers als de Congolees-Belgische Vincent Kompany. Hij spreekt even vloeiend Nederlands als Frans, is aanvoerder van het nationale elftal en bovendien een figuur die de gemeenschappen samenbrengt.

Er wordt vaak gegrapt dat Belgen alleen in het buitenland een gezamenlijk nationaal gevoel hebben, als ambassadeurs van hun nationale tradities (meer bepaald bier en chocola, die tot de beste van de wereld behoren). En veel Belgen die ik ken, hebben zich verzoend met het vooruitzicht dat ze hun land zullen overleven, in de veronderstelling dat het zich in afzonderlijke soevereine staten zal splitsen. Anderzijds blijkt uit peilingen dat in de twee gemeenschappen een grote meerderheid België intact wil houden, ondanks het gekibbel tussen de politieke klassen van de gewesten.

Bovendien is de politieke kloof tussen Vlaanderen en Wallonië wel heel goed zichtbaar, maar bleek uit een recente peiling van de VRT dat de meeste Belgische kiezers min of meer dezelfde politieke standpunten en meningen delen. “Je hebt een vergrootglas nodig om de verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen te zien als het over de sociaaleconomische problematiek gaat, de ethische vraagstukken, de immigratie of het milieu”, zegt politiek wetenschapper en columnist Dave Sinardet. Dat zal geen verrassing zijn voor wie in de twee gemeenschappen heeft geleefd. Ik denk al lang dat de Vlamingen en de Walen meer met elkaar gemeen hebben dan met respectievelijk de Nederlanders en de Fransen, die met argwaan worden bekeken.

Stem als lijm
Een van de karaktertrekken die Vlamingen en Walen delen, is een zwak voor het ‘Belgisch compromis’, een ingewikkelde manier om problemen op te lossen waarbij alle partijen iets krijgen maar ook toegevingen doen, zodat er geen winnaar maar ook geen verliezer is. De jongste jaren heeft die politieke kunstvorm minder succes dan vroeger, maar ze heeft er wel voor gezorgd dat een conflict dat al meer dan een eeuw oud is nooit tot geweld heeft geleid.

Deze Belg zal dan ook op zondag zijn stem niet alleen gebruiken als een beetje lijm dat kan helpen om België samen te houden, maar ook als een blijk van vertrouwen in de multiculturele toekomst en de verdraagzaamheid van dit land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article appeared in De Morgen on 21 May 2014. It was originally published in the New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Glueing Belgium back together one vote at a time

 
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By Khaled Diab

With Belgium little more than a hollow shell, I’ll be using my vote as a squirt of glue to help hold the collapsing country together.

Friday 23 May 2014

Equipped with the best team in a generation, soccer mania has infected Belgium in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, as I witnessed during a recent visit home. The Red Devils, as the national side is known locally, seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sold-out sticker albums, and even a Red Cross blood donation campaign.

In a country where flag-waving is generally anathema, the soccer version of the national banner is everywhere and the national colours — black, yellow and red — are smeared on cheeks or dyed into wigs.

But the red devil, as always, is in the detail. Despite the apparent surge in national pride, the forthcoming regional, federal and EU elections, which will be held on 25 May, highlight the reality that Belgium has, in effect, become two separate states.

The divisions separating Dutch-speaking Flanders from Francophone Wallonia extend to politics, culture, identity and consciousness – at least at first sight.

In Dutch-speaking Flanders, which has long had a fractured political landscape, polls forecast that the neo-liberal, secessionist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) will top the ballot with a third of the vote. In contrast, in Francophone Wallonia, it is the leftist Parti Socialiste (PS) which is likely to walk away with a third of the vote, putting it in first place.

Over and above the apparent right-left split between the north and south, there is the perennial linguistic chasm, which is deepened by the parallel and separate socio-economic realities in which the regions exist.

In addition to the economic gap between the prosperous north and the struggling south, Belgium has not had national parties or national media for decades, while education too has been regionalised. This has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts, and a rise in relative ignorance, distrust and even demonisation.

This gradual fading of “Belgium” is perhaps most symbolically embodied in the endangered status of the quintessential Belgian, the bilingual Bruxellois/Brusselaar, who firmly had one foot on each side of the language frontier.

Today, though Brussels remains officially bilingual, its residents are mostly Francophone, with a minority of Dutch speakers. Beyond Brussels, English is increasingly becoming the second language of choice for Flemings and Walloons alike, making it an unofficial social and business lingua franca.

As a naturalized citizen who has been a Belgian for nearly a decade now, I find this slow disintegration to be a terrible shame. This is partly because I appreciate the eccentric and understated appeal of this country with a dull reputation but an understatedly cool reality.

Moreover, for people like me of immigrant background, it is often easier and less troublesome to identify as “Belgian” because it does not carry the same ethnic baggage that Flemish or Walloon does.

Like “British” is a more neutral label than English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, Belgian is better suited to minorities. In fact, with some two-thirds of the population of Brussels of foreign origin (including European), the ethnic complexion of the bilingual Brusselaar/Bruxellois — and, hence, quintessential, Belgian — has rapidly shifted.

This is exemplified on the soccer pitch, among other places. Take, for example,  Congolese-Belgian footballer Vincent Kompany, the captain of the national squad. Equally at home in both Dutch and French, he not only plays for the national side but acts as a unifying figure between the country’s bickering communities, both of whom are proud of the success he has found in England, including two English Premier League titles for Manchester City in 2013/14 and 2011/12.

Although many Belgians I know have reconciled themselves to the prospect that they will outlive their country, I don’t think we should condemn Belgium to the dustbin of future history just yet.

Wits have joked that Belgians only feel a sense of shared nationhood when abroad, where they become ambassadors or even missionaries for the finer aspects of the national lifestyle, from probably the world’s best beer and chocolate to the country’s fine cuisine and music.

In Jerusalem, where I am currently based, I have found that there is more than a grain of truth to this. Amongst the surprisingly large Belgian community here, there is a shared sense of kinship, camaraderie and solidarity between Walloons and Flemings – albeit a typically understated and pragmatic Belgian variety.

While this may have something to do with the more open-minded and inclusive nature of being an expat, it strikes me that many back home share similar sentiments. Surveys regularly show that clear majorities on both sides want Belgium to survive, despite the Byzantine bickering of the political class.

Moreover, despite the visible political divergence between Flanders and Wallonnia, a recent survey conducted by VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster, revealed that the majority of Belgian voters have similar political positions and views. “Whether it relates to socioeconomic, ethical, immigration or environmental issues, you need a magnifying glass to see the difference between Flemings and Walloons,” concluded the columnist and political scientist Dave Sinardet.

And this would come as no surprise for anyone who has actually lived among the two communities. Equipped with the perspective of the relative outsider, I have long held that Flemings and Walloons have more in common with one another than they do with the French or the Dutch, both of whom are viewed with suspicion due to their colonial history in Belgium.

One characteristics which both Flemings and Walloons share is their penchant to strike “Belgian compromises”, a form of settlement by which all sides concede something in return for something else, creating a complex web of gains and losses in which there is no victor or vanquished. Although this political art form has had a lower success rate in recent years, it has ensured that this conflict of more than a century has never erupted into violence, nor captured international headlines, except in the surreal.

Come election day, this Belgian, for one, will use his ballot not only as a small squirt of glue to help hold Belgium together, but also as a vote of confidence in its multicultural future and capacity for tolerance.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A condensed version of this article first appeared in The New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Nawal El Saadawi: “I am against stability. We need revolution.”

 
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By Nikolaj Nielsen

Renowned author and feminist Nawal El Saadawi believes that her fellow Egyptians “must pay the price for freedom”.

Thursday 11 July 2013

 

Imprisoned by former president Anwar Sadat, exiled by Hosni Mubarak, and hated by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, 81-year old dissident and feminist Nawal El Saadawi still sees hope for an Egypt free from the clutches of religious and military rule.

“We will never allow a military government rule or a religious Islamic rule, never,” she told me in Brussels on Wednesday (10 July).

Nawal El Saadawi in Brussels. Photo: ©Nikolaj Nielsen

An avid campaigner for women’s rights in a society deeply ingrained with patriarchal values, Saadawi was a director in the ministry of health in the 1960s working to stop female circumcision.

Her campaign for women’s rights continued, despite her being jailed in 1981 over her publications.

Released two months after the assassination of then-president Anwar Sadat, she fled Egypt in 1988 following numerous threats against her life.

“Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed,” she said.

The liberation of women from religious and patriarchal doctrines is a common theme in her numerous novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction books, some translated into 30 different languages.

Upon her return to Egypt in 2009 after a three-year exile for a play she wrote, Saadawi moved to set up the Egyptian Women’s Union, which she formed at Tahrir square in January 2011.

“I was trying all my life to organise women and so, two years ago, we started the Egyptian Women’s Union. Fifty percent of our members are young men who are progressive and non-patriarchal,” she noted.

Both the United States and Europe can keep their aid, she says, noting that their conditions have condemned Egypt to poverty, submission, and misery.

“The free market is not free, it is only free for the powerful to exploit the weak,” she noted.

Saadawi describes governments in the US and in Europe as capitalist, patriarchal and theocratic systems that promote class oppression.

The EU, for its part, handed over approximately €1 billion in aid to Egypt from 2007 onwards.

But a report published by the European Court of Auditors in June said corruption and lack of accountability squandered funds paid directly to the Egyptian authorities.

The court said women’s and minorities’ rights were not given sufficient attention despite the critical need for urgent action to counter the tide of growing intolerance.

“The whole philosophy of the world, capitalism, patriarchy, and religions – we are still living in the post-modern slave system,” she said.

As for the Americans, Saadawi says they buy influence over the Egyptian military elite, which is complicit in forging a false sense of stability for Israel’s benefit.

“Revolution came out in the streets because we are fed up with poverty. We are forced into poverty by US aid. US aid increased poverty in Egypt,” she noted.

On Thursday (11 July), the US approved the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt despite the political unrest in the country.

The planes are set for delivery in the next few weeks.

Not a military coup

Despite her criticism of US-Egyptian-military scheming, Saadawi describes the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood, their arrests, and forced isolation by the army as part of an ongoing revolution to establish a civil secular society based on social justice.

The deposition of Egypt’s fifth president Mohamed Morsi is not a military coup, she insists.

She said the army was initially reluctant to intervene, but armed Muslim brothers forced their hand in a revolution that has yet to see its final outcome.

“I heard women and children screaming because of the bullets and blood oozing on Tahrir square and people were saying where is the army?” she said.

With Morsi out, Saadawi says there is now a greater chance to put in place a secular constitution where everyone is equal, regardless of religion, gender or class.

“We must write this constitution before any election,” she said.

But the task ahead is fraught with difficulties.

On Wednesday, an arrest warrant was issued for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, for inciting violence in a speech that saw thousands take to the streets.

Nine other warrants on the leadership were also issued.

Critics say the arrests risk usurping the interim government’s plan for national unity.

Saadawi, for her part, dismisses the warning.

National unity, she says, will come from a fiercely independent and free-thinking younger generation.

“I am against stability. We need revolution. We need to move ahead and pay the price for freedom,” she said.

___

Follow Nikolaj Nielsen on Twitter.

This article first appeared on EUobserver.comIt is published here with the author’s consent.

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The human wrongs of the Holocaust

 
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By Khaled Diab

A new museum in Belgium seeks to make the Holocaust relevant for contemporary visitors by placing it in the wider context of human rights.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

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The original Kazerne Dossin. photo: ©Khaled Diab

Located half way between Belgium’s two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, prosperous Mechelen, which was once the capital of the Low Countries, has for centuries played a pivotal role in the economy and the arts.

During the Industrial Revolution, the first railway line in continental Europe connected Mechelen to nearby Brussels. Just over a century later, when the Industrial Revolution gave way to industrialised devolution in Europe, the extensive rail network running through Mechelen led the Nazis to choose it as the location for an infamous transit camp for Belgium and Northern France.

Between 1942 and 1944, the camp, which was located in Kazerne Dossin, a 17-century infantry barracks constructed during the Habsburg era, deported 25,500 Jews (as well as 352 Roma) to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of which only 5% survived the Nazi’s Final Solution.

In 1996, Belgium’s Jewish community set up the Jewish Museum of Resistance and Deportation (JMRD) on the ground floor of one wing of the Kazerne Dossin. Last month, a larger state-of-the-art museum and memorial opened its doors to the public.

The two generations of museums owe their existence to two men touched personally by the tragedy of deportation. One was Nathan Ramet, an Auschwitz survivor who reportedly refused to speak about his ordeal until he decided to establish the JMRD, who sadly died a few months before the new museum was opened. The other was the then Minister-President of Flanders Patrick Dewael whose grandfather, Arthur Vanderpoorten, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities.

The €25-million cubic complex is a sombre white mausoleum-like structure which its designer, the celebrated Flemish architect Bob Van Reeth, says was built with a brick for each person deported from the site, while the museums entire volume is equivalent to the freight cars in the 28 convoys which transported the victims to their eventual death in Poland.

Inside, echoing the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a wall rising the entire height of the building carries photos (or empty spaces where no pictures survive) for every single victim transported from Mechelen, in a bid to re-humanise them.

But with dozens of Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, including in nearby London and Paris, how does Kazerne Dossin intend to stand out?

“Naturally, we can’t tell the story of Auschwitz here. We focus ourselves on the Belgian story,” Sarah Verhaert, the Kazerne’s spokeswoman, told me.

And the Belgian story is retold through photographs, newspaper clippings and other material from the time, as well as interactive personal testimonies from a number of survivors.

Caricatures and newspaper clippings from the time illustrate clearly that Judeophobia was not just a German ill but infected significant strata of Belgian society, as it did much of the West, though there was also great opposition to it too.

With its own ready supply of home-grown antisemites, a natural question arises of whether or not any Belgians actively took part in the Nazi persecution. The issue of collaboration remains, in fact, a touchy one in Belgium, even today – but the museum does not shy away from addressing it.

The accepted narrative is that only a tiny minority aided and abetted the Nazis out of ideological conviction, while others, such as the civil servants who helped draw up Belgium’s first-ever register of Jews, did so because they had no other choice.

“We have to challenge the myth that the Nazi occupation left no room for manoeuvre,” explains the museum’s curator Herman Van Goethem, a prominent professor of history at Antwerp university. “In the hierarchal context of the time, Belgian civil servants had a margin for administrative resistance without putting their lives in danger.”

This margin for dissent could help explain why only roughly half of the 85,000 Jews in Belgium at the time (many of whom were refugees from further east) were registered and how deportation occurred more smoothly in some places and with difficulty in others, such as Brussels.

“This museum has had to deal with a lot of sensitive issues, such as the role of the palace,” notes Verhaert. “At a certain moment, the palace had turned its head and looked away from what was happening.”

The part played by the Belgian monarch at the time, Leopold III, is particularly controversial. Although he defied the German occupiers at times and was kept under house arrest and even deported, his sympathies seemed to lie more with the Nazis than the Allies, whose expected entry into Belgium to push out the Germans he regarded as an “occupation”.

That said the monarchy, as well as the Catholic Church, played a pivotal role in in extracting assurances from the Nazis that no Jews with Belgian citizenship would be deported, and Leopold’s mother, Queen Elisabeth, organised the rescue from deportation of hundreds of Jewish children.

But the most heroic, dangerous and defiant forms of resistance came from ordinary people, who harboured and hid Jews, at great personal risk. Some 1,500 of these everyday heroes are commemorated among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. These include Yvonne Nèvejean, who helped hide some 4,000 Jewish children.

Jews also played an active part in the resistance, with many joining the Belgian underground. Perhaps the most audacious (and simple) example of this underground resistance was the daring rescue of Transport XX, one of the convoys from Mechelen. A Jewish doctor, Youra Livchitz, and his two non-Jewish friends, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, managed, equipped with little more than a makeshift red lantern, to stop the train to Auschwitz long enough for 231 of those on board to escape, half of whom were recaptured or killed.

21st century relevance

In addition to shedding light on the Belgian page of this dark chapter of European history, the new museum approaches the Holocaust from what it describes as a unique perspective. “Kazerne Dossin is the first Holocaust museum that explicitly takes up human rights in its mission,” explains Herman Van Goethem, the museum’s curator.

Linking the Holocaust to the theme of human rights in general was chosen as a way of enabling modern audiences to better relate to this tragedy and to draw the necessary lessons from it.

The installations explore the dynamics of intolerance and exclusion, from bullying in the playground to discrimination against entire groups in society, and how this can escalate to mass violence. Segregation in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa are among the case studies highlighted.

“Visitors find the link that is made between the Second World War and human rights today to be very interesting,” observes Sara Verhaert.

But the connection has sparked some controversy. “The most common question that we get is, ‘Why haven’t you included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’?” admits Verhaert. “But that is such a sensitive issue to address, especially here, which is a memorial for so many Jewish people.”

Although the atrocities committed in King Leopold II’s “Congo Free State” get a passing mention, questions have also been raised about why Belgium’s colonial ghosts have not been given greater prominence at Kazerne Dossin. Moreover, Belgium has no museums dedicated to its dark history in Africa. Though she admits that this is an unfortunate oversight, Verhaert notes that: “No country likes to be confronted with its war history and its colonial legacy.”

And her observation rings true in many instances. For example, though Washington is home to a centrally located Holocaust museum, the nearby National Museum of the American Indian has been criticised for failing “to confront the clash between foreign colonists and the native people they found here”.

Moreover, echoing a debate that is familiar elsewhere in Europe, Israel and the United States,  the question of whether it is valid to compare the Holocaust to other atrocities also played out over the decade it took to plan and construct Kazerne Dossin, with some leading politicians insisting that  “the unique character of the Shoah” must be preserved.

Herman Van Goethem finds such objections to be both unfounded and potentially dangerous. “The exclusive focus on the uniqueness of the Shoah can lead to us isolating it, placing it completely outside ourselves, and viewing it as a completely incomprehensible event,” he argues.

And the greater the distance in time and social reality grows, the harder it becomes for people to get their heads around the sheer scale and inhumanity of the Nazi’s Final Solution. “The younger generation find it all very hard to imagine,” notes Verhaert. “I conducted a tour and the multiracial group of young people found it hard to believe that there were some things that people were not allowed to do, that Jews were not allowed on the tram, or in the park or the cinema.”

Verhaert sees this as a good sign, despite the growth of discrimination and intolerance in some quarters of Belgian society. Kazerne Dossin, she believes, can help make upcoming generational more appreciative of how special the multicultural reality they live in today is, and the need to be vigilant in order to preserve it.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 31 January 2013.

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A careless killer on the loose…

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gun and knife violence gets a lot of public attention but one killer prowling our streets goes largely unnoticed… apathy.

Thursday 24 January 2013

It was a case of senseless violence followed by a needless death. Peter Vercauteren, a 43-year-old Belgian artist and local community leader, was heading home late one night in the heart of Sint-Niklaas, not far from the picturesque market square, the largest in the country, for which this smallish town is best known.

Vercauteren, “Pee” to his friends, was followed by another punter with whom he’d allegedly had a bit of a shouting match in the pub, even though, by all accounts Vercauteren was a jovial man with a big heart and a booming laugh that could be heard long before its owner could be seen.

His assailant, Wesley L, head-butted Vercauteren so hard that he collapsed on a dark street and died… eventually.

Had this been the whole story then this tragedy would have remained a largely private one. But what happened next has had locals, who went on a silent march to express their outrage at his preventable death, searching for explanations.

While Vercauteren lay dying outside a kebab shop, under the apparently unwatchful eye of a police surveillance camera, a number of people walked past him without stopping to offer assistance, including his attacker who returned for a second look. An hour and a half later, someone finally put in a call to the emergency services, by which time it was too late.

This carries echoes of a similar tragedy, in 2006, when Joe Van Holsbeeck, 17, was not only stabbed for his mp3 player on a busy rush-hour train platform in Brussels, but no one came to his aid.

One explanation for why no one lifted a finger to assist Vercauteren, as one friend, Steven, put it to me, is that passers-by may have assumed he was just a drunk who had fallen into a booze-induced stupor.

While this could well be what (de)motivated some from rushing to the fallen man’s aid, I find this diagnoses the symptom more than the underlying condition. Even if Vercauteren was a passed-out drunk, surely this, in a cordial, educated society whose sense of solidarity is reflected in its high tax rates would prod people to act, despite knee-jerk snobbery towards “tramps”. After all, in addition to the danger of choking on vomit, an unconscious drunk also runs the risk in winter of developing hypothermia or freezing to death.

Another, more convincing reason is simple, instinctive, gut-wrenching fear. “The uncertainty in society has increased the level of fear, and this undoubtedly played a role,” says Roel Thierens (23), who volunteered in a youth centre, Kompas, where Vercauteren also worked.

And, indeed, though much of Europe is perhaps the safest it has ever been, a neurotic media and fear-mongering politicians induce in many people a sense of disproportionate fear and distrust of, not to mention alienation from, others, especially immigrants and minorities. But fear, especially in a situation as unthreatening as this, can be overcome.

At heart, what this could all boil down to is that the true accomplice in this crime was apathy and indifference. “Passers-by might well have thought that somebody else is bound to help him,” notes Wouter Thierens (26), Roel’s brother who also volunteers at Kompas.

Many social conservatives see such apparent apathy as a sign of the breakdown in traditions and family values. But what this overlooks is that, though families have become less central than they once were, they still play a pivotal and central role in the lives of most Belgians.

Additionally, in countries where family is still paramount and traditional community remains important, such wilfull blindness also occurs, as demonstrated by the recent outrage when passengers reportedly stood by as a young woman was gang raped and beaten to within an inch of her life on a Delhi bus. And similar incidents occur in the Middle East.

Moreover, in a modern, well-oiled, mechanical society, like that which is prevalent in northern Europe, it is not that people have abandoned their sense of community and solidarity, though some erosion has occurred thanks to the greater individual alienation witnessed in contemporary society, but that it has changed to become more impersonal and distant. Citizens, aka taxpayers, have grown to expect the ‘system’ to take care of everything and everyone: the destitute and the desperate, the weak and the sick, and the criminal and their victims.

However, important as such systemic solutions are, we still need a certain sense of personal social responsibility.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 21 January 2013.

 

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Basque Country: In the eye of the financial storm

 
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By Eric Bienefeld

Although many Europeans associate it with political turmoil, the Basque Country is the only Spanish region where the economic outlooks is mild.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

In the summer months, the beachside cafés in the Sagües quarter of San Sebastián (Basque Country, Spain) are bustling. The surfers take their morning session, while tourists, local youth and middle-aged clientele take their mid-afternoon cañas, or small beers. Walking through the parte vieja – old quarter of the city – a sign reads: “Tourists beware you are not in Spain, nor France, you are in the Basque Country”. Something seems very different here.

You get the impression that the financial crisis has not taken hold here. Nevertheless, the winter months are hard for the service sector. Juan Ramon, a local taxi driver, confirms the difficulties of keeping one’s head above water in the ‘off-season’. Elena, one of the owners of La Consentida, a pintxos bar along the normally thriving coastal avenue, La Zurriola, notes the effects of the now four-year crisis. “Every day we are worried about business, but winter is always especially difficult,” she says.

Although things may be bad in the Basque Country, the situation is worse in the rest of Spain, especially in the south where mass tourism plays a huge role. But the Basque Country has a different background. Its research centres and traditional industries are still fairing well in the financial storm.

Amid soaring unemployment and fears of a double-dip recession in Spain, the Basque Country offers a contrasting picture. The Spanish situation is grim, with 5.3 million unemployed at the end of 2011, the Bank of Spain predicts that the country’s economy will fall into another recession, contracting by 1.5% in 2012, which would exacerbate the 22.9% unemployment rate reported at the end of 2011, according to the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE).

Meanwhile, the Basque Country has the lowest unemployment rate of all the Spanish regions, known as Autonomous Communities, and has maintained comparatively lower levels for decades. With a population of 2.16 million, the Basque Country’s unemployed is 159,667. That’s just 7.4% unemployment, way below the Spanish average.

But why is the Basque country weathering the financial storm better than the rest of Spain? It goes back to basic economic drivers… industry and production. Iron mining and steel manufacturing helped build this region and, unlike the UK and other struggling European economies, the Basque Country is not letting go of them without a fight.

Heavy mining at the turn of the 19th and well into the 20th century gave the Basque region a solid economic base and provided steady employment for skilled and unskilled workers, including economic migrants. Today, the Basque Country’s level of industrialisation is greater than the EU average.

The Basques have also been able to reinvent themselves, with EU backing and opportunities. Through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the EU has €241 million in co-funding destined for the Basque Country under the Regional Competitiveness and Employment programme (2007-2013). The funds are devoted to areas that are already highly developed in the Basque Country, including science and technology, research and development, environment, energy resources, and transport.

The tiny Basque Country punches above its weight politically as well, offering its expertise to the EU in such fields as taxation policy, health, the environment, transportation, e-democracy, agriculture, language and culture, and even fishing policy. According to one MEP from the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), “The Basque Government is in continual contact with the European Commission in formal and informal settings.”

But does all this direct contact between the EU and the Basque region create greater tension with Madrid? Yes and no.

In considering the absence of a Spanish central state-sponsored representation mechanism, an official from the Spanish Permanent representation to the EU notes, “It is a weakness of the system that the Autonomous Communities do not have the capacity to be able to negotiate and be represented here in Brussels,” at least through the central state.

As an autonomous region you would expect some, well, ‘autonomy’ in its dealings with the EU, but Spain can’t help but be envious of the Basque Country’s clout and strong ties to the EU. For the Basques, though, it is pure logic: why wait for Madrid – or negotiate a shared position with the other Autonomous Communities – when you can act directly at the EU level?

This thinking applies on many levels, including how the Basques fund their research. Tortuero Martin, a government expert, explains that funding is arranged through an agreement between the management agency or authority and those in charge of employment policy in the Autonomous Communities. “There is regional source of funding, and it doesn’t come from the budget of the state in Spain,” he stresses.

Moreover, the Basques have the means and institutions in place to lobby the EU directly, which is arguably a more robust form of negotiating than the sclerotic traditional power structures. This nimble, somewhat informal, approach could well be the Basques regions secret weapon, helping it weather the financial storm and defy the dire predictions for the Spanish economy.

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Greece and the euro – a Trojan tragedy

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Greeks are putting a new spin on the legend of Troy by snubbing the fattest gift horse they’re likely to get from the weary euro club.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Violence continues to rock the streets of Athens, as anti-austerity protestors vent their anger at what unions see as meddling outsiders “covertly abolishing or eroding democracy and national sovereignty” in Greece.

Last week, the unions called a 48-hour strike – the latest in a series of anti-austerity actions which have taken place since the European Union and International Monetary Fund began bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 – and sporadic violence erupted as some 10,000 unionists rallied around Greece’s Parliament, where leaders are meeting to thrash out the terms of the next installments.

“The tombstone of Greek society” is how trade unionists in Greece describe the €3.2 billion in cuts needed this time to save the country from sliding into the Aegean.

For several weeks, the right-wing Laos party has been deliberately blocking the austerity package – a move many predict could see the country fail to secure the new €130 billion EU-IMF bailout needed to stave off imminent default on Greece’s sovereign debt. Then last week, Laos promptly quit the new coalition government altogether.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a technocrat recently chosen to lead Greece out of this mess, still has a majority in the Parliament. But as talks heated up in Brussels last week, euro-club finance ministers insisted all of the main parties – including Laos – will have to sign a pledge to respect the latest round of austerity measures after elections in April.

Greece’s position in the euro zone is very much under threat – rightly so, in my view. Yet despite his party’s clear distaste for outside intervention, Laos leader Georgios Karatzaferis said Greece should remain in the euro, like it was some kind of ancient privilege that does not involve duties too, but not “under the German boot”. “I am very disturbed not by the sacrifices we have to make, but from the humiliation of Greece. They have stolen our dignity,” he asserted.

So, while the rest of troubled euro zone countries tighten their belts, commit to work harder and dig ever-deeper into their pockets to pay for Greece’s profligacy, we should feel sorry for the Athenians who are feeling humiliated. That kind of farce is worthy of Greek tragedy, no doubt.

Just to put Greece’s waste, graft and work ethic into perspective, the latest figures fresh from the Greek finance ministry show that the government has managed to collect only 1% of the €8.6 billion in tax penalties issued over the past two years.  According to media reports, had the government managed to collect even a third of the fines, the new austerity package may not have been needed.

The European Commission is starting to talk tough, hinting in statements last week that it could absorb the impacts of a Greek default and departure from the euro zone. A Commission spokesman said on 10 February that the increased presence of EU and national experts in Greece leading up to the next possible tranche is part of the new bailout deal, helping the government do what the rest of Europe manages to do – collect taxes.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much money and concessions you throw Greece’s way. The ‘good money after bad’ adage keeps bubbling up. Only a few months ago, EU and IMF leaders put an astounding deal on the table for Greece. Under intense pressure from world leaders fearing that an imminent Greek debt default would sink the whole euro zone, member states and banks agreed to wipe 50% off current obligations.

That’s like borrowing a €100,000 to extend your house or expand you business, and then being told: “Don’t worry, you only have to pay half back!” What kind of message does that send to Greeks who already appear to have a distorted understanding of the connection between saving, spending, borrowing and other such financial fundamentals?

And what does it say to other EU members, many of them newly entering the euro zone and some struggling with their own debt demons? No doubt the Hungarians who are having to pay back huge loans taken out in Swiss francs when the euro was strong, would like a piece of that action. So, too, would the Slovaks who earn considerably less than the Greeks and had to make many concessions to enter the euro under what now seems like a fading hope that it would improve their lives.

So, are the Greeks delighted that the rest of Europe is chipping in to help them out? Apparently not. Their pride is hurt, and they don’t like what the gift horse comes saddled with … “austerity measures”, unpopular measures that many other Europeans are also having to endure, despite the social unrest and anger they unleash.

According to the UK’s Guardian, around the time of the last bail-out, some 60% of Greeks thought the European deal was bad for the country. “In most polls, voters have voiced their support for remaining part of the euro, but have increasingly vented their frustration at austerity measures,” the paper noted. “Cuts in the bloated public sector, reductions in pay and pensions, new taxes and privatisations of airports, state lotteries, the Greek water supply and the postal service are part of the deal agreed.”

Fat chance of that happening while Greece remains hooked up to life support. It’s time to switch off the machine. Let Greece regain its pride without the euro and all these Olympic coaches teaching it how to tread water.

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Social responsibility goes digital

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Information technology is being hailed as the new face of socially responsible business.

Friday 10 February 2012

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is getting a makeover thanks to the emergence of ultra-fast, ultra-smart, ubiquitous information and communications technologies (ICT). This match-up is the beginning of an unexpected but somehow quintessential relationship explored in a refreshing exhibition hosted this week in Brussels.

Companies are embracing cutting-edge technology to save on costs and deliver competitive advantage in these tough economic times. But what many may not appreciate is that this economically rational decision can have profound social benefits, too. ICTs can boost an organisation’s CSR activities, which has a cascading effect along whole value chains, from stakeholders and staff to suppliers and service providers.

The five dimensions of ICT4CSR

Political … giving people a voice

Geographical … bringing people together virtually

Economic … bringing markets closer to home

Societal … providing access to education, knowledge and opportunities

Environmental … green technology helping to tackle climate change

 

 The term ‘corporate social responsibility’ dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s but has entered more mainstream use since the publication of R Edward Freeman’s book, Strategic management: a stakeholder approach, in 1984. Through CSR activities – donations, community work, ‘green’ operations, etc. – organisations look beyond shareholder value alone in search of positive outcomes for all stakeholders (consumers, employees, communities, the environment).

Providing technology is only part of the contribution that ICT companies can make, experts suggest. The industry is uniquely placed to help local communities around the world, to nurture talented people, and to help developing countries find innovative solutions to the pressing challenges they face.

In 2010 alone, the ICT industry contributed betwen 30% and 40% to the economic growth of developed countries.

Hosted at the European Parliament from 6 to 9 February, the exhbition, entitled ‘ICT4CSR: Enriching life through communications’ tells a story of how ICT provides fertile ground for companies to nurture ideas, talents and people which eventually come to fruition in the form of better (digital) working conditions, safeguards for the environment, and myriad ways for enriching society.

Thus, in the right hands, CSR is much more than a company’s way of easing its conscience, the fair suggests. To organisations that embrace it fully, it becomes a way of life, a way of operating with integrity and a way to promote the harmonious and sustainable development of the economy, society, and environment.

Unusual digital dividend

Governments worldwide are investing in the huge potential of digital communications technology to connect people, transcending boundaries and bringing communities together to benefit one another. Europe is no exception.

“It’s my dream to get every European digital,” wrote Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, on her blog. “And that means everyone needs to be covered by fast broadband connections.”

The Digital Agenda for Europe focuses on ICTs’ capability to reduce energy consumption, support ageing citizens’ lives, revolutionise health services and deliver better public services. Its targets include broadband of at least 30Mbps for everyone by 2020 with half of European households subscribing to connections of 100Mbps or higher.

The widespread rollout of very fast, ‘always on’ internet provides solutions to a number of local, regional and global challenges. For instance, access to education in remote villages. With satellite broadband solutions and advances in e-learning, village children can benefit from home schooling using interactive, multimedia lesson plans.

“Having access to the internet and other ICTs will not just be the privilege of the few,” commented MEP Robert Sturdy during the opening of the exhibition. “I truly believe that smarter, greener, targeted ICT can change the way we work and live, for the better, no matter which corner of the world you are from.”

A 10% increase in broadband penetration will improve GDP by 1.3%. And high-speed internet also enables businesses, especially small ones, to remain competitive and allows consumers to take advantage of advanced online services that improve their quality of life, from e-commerce to e-government services.

 

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