European Affairs

Unsurprisingly, the Eurostat survey, which covered 271 regions across the EU, displayed the disparity in prosperity between the rich countries in western Europe’s “old EU” and the poorer new EU members of eastern Europe. The extremes ran from €89,300 ($113,900) per capita GDP in inner London to €2,600 ($3,300) in Severozapaden, Bulgaria.

Some regions, such as the northern Dutch province of Groningen, dislike the survey because they fear that their high ranking in prosperity could hinder their prospects for getting subsidies from the EU. Radio Netherlands branded the Eurostat survey “persistent nonsense.”

Of the forty-one regions comprising the “wealthiest” tier in the list (those with per-capita GDP more than 125 percent higher than the European average), all come from the “old EU” except for two in the new member states: Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and Bratislava in Slovakia. (These used to be the biggest cities in what was Czechoslovakia).

At the other end of the prosperity spectrum were 68 regions that rank below 75 percent of the European average. These are located in France’s overseas departments, major urban regions in the EU’s Mediterranean member states and across eastern Europe. The 20 lowest-ranked regions (some with less than a quarter of the European average for wealth) were located in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Eurostat Newsreel, February 19, 2009 EUobserver, February 20, 2009


WASHINGTON: EU and U.S. Lead in Conversion to Digital Broadcasting

The European Union and the United States are engaged simultaneously in major – and sometimes troubled – technological and commercial campaigns to convert their networks of analog television broadcasts to digital broadcasts. The goal is to improve picture quality and free up the broadcast spectrum for other commercial uses since digital broadcasts use band width more efficiently. By stimulating competition and innovation, the change-over is expected to create badly-needed jobs in the communications sector. For consumers, the only requirement is to buy digital converter boxes (at subsidized prices) for the old TV sets; new sets come already equipped for digital reception.

Both programs are hitting some snags – especially in the U.S., where an estimated 6.8 percent of households across the country remain unprepared for the conversion. As a pilot program, the State of Hawaii and the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, were fully switched in 2008, and the changeover worked smoothly, albeit with the help of call centers for technical support (and in some cases the intervention of friendly firemen to help set up the boxes). Nationally, however, the conversion was pursued unevenly by the Federal Communications Commission, so the target date had to be postponed at the last minute to June 2009.

In Europe, the European Commission is confident that a full digital conversion will be possible by its proposed deadline of 2012. Five countries have already made the switch: Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, Sweden and the Netherlands; another six are set to change by 2010. The only country currently lagging on the schedule is Poland: along with other new member states in Eastern Europe, it invested in digital broadcasting relatively late and may not be able to switch over fully until 2015.

By eliminating analog broadcasts, governments were able to auction off the previously occupied space in the broadcasting spectrum. In the United States, cell phone giants AT&T and Verizon paid a collective $16 billion to purchase the rights to use 90 percent of the unoccupied spectrum in order to launch new products using it. Innovation in the broadcasting spectrum has the potential of bringing high-speed Internet access to rural areas and creating new jobs. Another innovation – mobile TV – is expected to surge thanks to the “open” space and bandwidth to be freed up in the conversion.

The Washington Post, January 9, 2009


BRUSSELS: Fuming over Delays by Government, Cities Take Initiatives in Anti-Carbon Moves

An accelerating transatlantic trend involves local communities – cities or regions or U.S. States – setting their own emission standards that are more aggressive than levels mandated by national governments. On both sides of the Atlantic, the goal of these parallel local initiatives is both to improve air quality in the community and also to add momentum to broader action in combating global warming.

Sometimes moves of this type have triggered legal conflicts. When California adopted higher gas-mileage requirements, the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency refused to accept the California initiative. One of the first moves of the Obama administration was to reverse that stance – a sign that Washington is now positioned to start reducing friction with Europe over climate-change issues.

In Europe this January, 350 cities – including Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Budapest and Bucharest – announced agreement on a joint declaration to go beyond the European Union’s benchmark for emissions reduction. The signatories of the non-binding resolution pledged to surpass the EU goal of cutting carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

Dubbed the “Covenant of Mayors,” the pact was signed by municipalities from 23 of the 27 EU member states and by some neighboring non-EU countries. The cities agreed to take the initiative in drawing up “energy-efficiency action-plans with concrete measures and to check themselves that these plans were implemented accordingly.” The European Commission has promised to work with the European Investment Bank to facilitate loans to cities for such projects.

As explained by EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, “most of the energy produced in Europe is consumed in urban areas, so the battle against climate change will have to be fought and won in the cities.”

There has been a recent history of transatlantic friction on the climate-change issue because of alleged American passivity under the Bush administration. Europeans’ frustrations with Washington have been shared by the leaders in American cities and States, particularly in liberal areas on the East and West coasts, and communities there have been taking steps to mandate curbs on carbon emissions locally and to foster the development and adoption of alternative and renewable energy sources at a rate faster than Washington has sought.

Strategies employed by States have included the adoption of “caps” on CO2 emissions from power plants, “green” building standards and tougher restriction on vehicles’ carbon emissions.

These local initiatives are aimed at a snowball effect across the nation while the Obama administration settles on a new national agenda. For example, in the Maryland legislature, a push began in January for a state-wide reduction of carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels). This is an aggressive immediate goal compared to the 5.2 percent reduction (from 1990 levels) required in the Kyoto Protocol for all greenhouse gas emissions. In making the case for Maryland to move aggressively, a member of the State Senate in Maryland invoked the example set by California and Massachusetts, saying: “If Maryland joins with these five or six other states in setting fairly significant emission reduction of greenhouse gases by 25 percent... [then] 20 percent of the people in the country will be living under these mandates of significant reduction even though there is no Federal law.” Some States also have long-term goals in place to obtain 75-80 percent emissions reduction by 2050.

In addition, several U.S. States have already passed legislation focused on renewable and alternative energy sources, as recorded by The PEW Center on Global Climate Change. California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and Florida have all ordered their local utilities to get approximately one-fifth of their energy from renewable or alternative sources within a decade.

The U.S. Congress, with its new Democratic majority, is expecting a raft of new bills on global climate change, a change of pace from any previous Congress.

BBC News, February 10, 2009
WAMU Radio 88.5, February 11, 2009
PEW Center on Global Climate Change


PARIS: French Government Giving Away Newspapers to Save Industry

At a time when newspapers worldwide are feeling the crunch of the global financial crisis, in characteristic style, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed an initiative to save the ailing French daily newspaper-industry. It would give every 18-year-old a free subscription to the paper of his or her choice for a year. The plan would cost $800 million dollars with the aim of boosting readership by getting young people into the habit of reading the papers.

Not everyone thinks that the idea will work. Skeptics complain that the problem is the journalism in print media, which they say is often “out of touch with the public.” The biggest threat to Sarkozy’s plan, many say, is that once a French teenager turns 19, he or she may not renew the free subscription that now will cost 200 euros per year.

The French newspaper industry was already in dire straits even before the global financial crisis hit. It is one of the least profitable in Europe, with a readership base of only eight million people – roughly half the size of the daily paper audiences in Germany and Britain. While it receives $2 billion in annual government subsidies, the French industry suffers from expensive printing costs (sometimes estimated to be 60 percent higher than in neighboring countries), partly because of trade-union demands. Most French dailies are not delivered, but sold from news kiosques, and the number of these sale points is falling in French cities. Kiosque owners complain that their sales are hurt by free newspapers that are popular with the French public: one proprietor groused that “it is like having someone hand out free bread in front of a bakery.”

National Public Radio, February 13, 2009


PARIS: Rental Bikes in Paris Hi-Jacked by Pranksters and Vandals

A much-celebrated program in Paris to get Parisians out of their cars and onto bicycles has suffered a setback from an unexpectedly high rate of theft and vandalism. Less than two years after the start of the program of cheap rental bikes, all 20,000 bikes in the original fleet have had to be replaced or repaired.

The Paris authorities and the corporate sponsor, billboard-company JCDecaux, have vowed to pursue the initiative, called “Velib” (a contraction of the French for “freedom bike”). It provided a network of 20,000 bicycles available at automated bike racks all over Paris, which could be rented for a nominal fee and then ridden and returned to any other rack around the city – an option for cheap, “green” transport. The Paris mayor’s office has now agreed to pay 400 euros in repair costs per bike for damaged bikes – a subsidy that will apparently finance the continued expansion of Velib.

Championed by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, the bikes were part of an attempt to “green” the capital, while also reducing traffic congestion. The Mayor runs the municipal council with a “coalition” that includes both his own socialist party (Parti Socialiste) and the Greens party (Les Verts).

The program was funded by JCDecaux, a world leader in outdoor advertising. The company paid start-up costs equal to $115 million and employs about 285 people full-time to operate the system and repair the bikes for 10 years. In exchange, the company was awarded the right to use 1,600 billboards around Paris. The city government was expecting to receive the rental profits, but the company has now had to seek municipal help on the financial side.

Despite the numerous anti-theft measures incorporated in the bicycle rental system: a distinctive bulky design, a built-in lock and the requirement to buy a pass to rent the bikes, the ill-fated bikes have been found as far away as eastern Europe and Africa, and have been found torched, broken, hung from lamp posts, and even customized with fur covered tires.

“Parisians took to them enthusiastically. But the bikes have suffered more than anticipated,” said company officials. The bikes – all identical grey models – have spawned a youth craze known as “velib extreme,” where the bikes are ridden down the steep steps in Montmartre, into metro stations and on off-road circuits. These exploits are regularly taped for YouTube presentation.

Despite its problems in Paris, the initiative is set to be copied in London and San Francisco.

BBC News, February 10, 2009
Le Monde, February 13, 2009


DUBLIN: Ireland Solves Mystery of “Polish Serial Traffic Offender”

Ireland has been pursuing a serial offender of Irish traffic laws, one “Prawo Jazdy.” In nationwide police records, this name has accumulated more than 50 driving violations. How did the wily “Jazdy” get away with so much?

The elusive culprit’s identity was revealed by the Irish Times in an article explaining that “Prawo Jazdy” is actually Polish for “driver’s license.” The paper reported that this information came from a Garda traffic-division circular explaining that Polish driver’s licenses have these words in the upper right-hand corner. The driver’s name and address are printed below, but they were apparently ignored by many Irish arresting officers in writing up the offenders’ tickets. So, Poles cited for traffic violations in Ireland have been collectively misapprehended as “driver’s license.”

As membership in the European Union provides member states with the free movement of workers, tens of thousands of Poles have immigrated to Ireland in recent years for work.

But Prawo Jazdy’s days may be numbered as Irish cops have now been given a crash course about the layout of foreign driver’s licenses.

Irish Times, February 19, 2009


LAS PALMAS: Innovative Satellite System Will Try Spotting Illegal Immigrants While Still at Sea

A new EU-funded satellite system has been deployed in the campaign to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Africa to Europe, particularly to the coastal nations of Spain and Portugal. It will link authorities in a half-dozen EU and African countries to a high speed communications and data network. Named Sea Horse, the satellite network, which cost only $3.2 million, is designed to allow authorities to view and track the movements of vessels carrying illegal immigrants while they are still at sea.

A major flow of illegal immigrants runs north from the Atlantic coast of Africa (countries such as Senegal, Mauritania and Cape Verde) toward the Canary Islands of Spain and even the shores of mainland Spain and Portugal. Law enforcement authorities (of emigration and immigration) in all these countries have also agreed to use the satellite to communicate in a secure way. In the past, when they tried to coordinate efforts by phone, the conversations could be intercepted by organized crime gangs engaged in this human trafficking.

The hub of the satellite network is in Las Palmas, the Canary Islands capital. Economic opportunities entice tens of thousands of west and north Africans to try reaching Europe, often via a 1,000-mile sea journey in boats that are barely sea-worthy. If accosted, these boats sometimes push overboard their illegal human cargoes to drown. Thousands have died, as attested by hundreds of bodies that wash up every year on the Spanish coasts.

BBC News, January 25, 2009


WASHINGTON: Strangely Calm in Ukraine Amid an Existential Crisis

Ukraine will make it. This is the view of Anders Åslund, a long-time observer of this part of the world, who is now a senior fellow at the prestigious Washington-based Peterson Institute. IMF analysts handling the Ukraine account agree that the country seems to be poised for economic recovery.

Even with all the dire news and statistics pouring out through media about Ukraine, about its economic woes and about the power struggle between Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko, the country is defying expectations by not falling apart. In fact, an optimist can argue that the country has succeeded in bottoming out. The missing political piece, they say, is constitutional reform to introduce a more parliamentary government that would transcend the current political stand-off between “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” factions. If the change occurs, it would open the way to a flow of aid and investment, mainly from the European Union.

Åslund contends that this crucial change could be accomplished before the next national election, scheduled for 2010.

In his new book, How Ukraine Became a Market Economy and Democracy, Åslund lays out a decidedly upbeat case about why Ukraine is destined for success. Despite the very public internal power struggles and the new impact of the global economic crisis, Ukraine has clung to three pillars of Westernizing change: a market economy, a democratic system and other “European” values, Åslund says, arguing that this overall trend will enable Ukraine to rebound from the troubles that have beset it since the “Orange Revolution” in 2004. When asked in a public meeting at the Peterson Institute in February if Ukrainian democracy will be challenged in the next elections, Åslund said flatly “no.” He argued that “constitutional reform is backed by both camps led by the bitter rivals who are leading the nation: Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the likely candidate for 2010, Viktor Yanukovych. It is unlikely that current President Viktor Yushchenko will stay in power until the elections with only two percent popularity. [Yet] it is strangely calm in Ukraine. There are no massive, explosive protests like in Russia or other surrounding countries” [during the current economic crisis].

In his view, it is a critical juncture for Ukraine, which is widely seen as a major potential flashpoint in Western relations with Russia. To preserve the democratic process in a surprisingly favorable situation, Europe and the United States can make a crucial difference by directing financial help and political backing to Kiev – because, argues Åslund, the system is on the right track there.

Peterson Institute, March 6, 2009


WASHINGTON: Obama’s Election Highlights Exclusion of Ethnic and Racial Minorities in Europe

The electoral victory of Barack Obama has been interpreted as evidence that America has become a “post-racist society” – indeed, perhaps even a “post-racial” society. While that view may prove over-optimistic as the electoral euphoria fades, the undoubted racial breakthrough in U.S. politics has raised some new questions about race among Europeans. Most Europeans pride themselves on not being “racist,” but now they are being confronted with a new question: do these countries have a blind spot about large minority populations in their midst whose very existence, as a different community, is not recognized by the countries they live in? For many of these groups, Obama’s election is seen as a potential catalyst for change in awareness about their situations.

Now the global impact of Obama’s election may force a re-assessment by some European leaders – and is certainly galvanizing some minority leaders. A good look at the status quo and the new potential shocks to the system comes from a Europe-based reporter for National Public Radio, the U.S. radio network that is publicly funded but not state-controlled.

In a three-part series, Sylvia Poggioli, depicts some “minority realities” in three major European countries: Germany, Italy, and France. She concluded that, “the Obama victory has forced the continent to look into its own mirror and realize that it could take decades before a ‘European Obama’ emerges from its own growing minority populations.” Modern European history has been tragically stamped with the fate of the “Jewish minority” – and European nations have striven to overcome that legacy. But other minorities in Europe remain victims of often unconscious discrimination, Poggioli, reports. These groups, she says, see their “civil rights” battle taking a giant step forward now.

In Germany, the Turkish minority amounts to three million people in a population of 82 million (3.6 percent). (In comparison, out of 303.8 million US citizens, 40.7 million are African American totaling 13.3 percent). But, she found, the government and the population are “reluctant” to accept the idea that this Turkish minority are “Germans.” Caucasian Germans view Germany as “monoracial” – a reflex that is highly visible in German ads, which almost never feature Germans who are from the country’s biggest minority. Alongside the Turk minority (who rarely inter-marry with Germans outside their own ethnic group), there are “black Germans” – a mixed-race group of the sort formed by the children fathered by black American soldiers in relations with German women. For one “black German,” Caarl Camurea, son of a German mother and an Afro-American father, “White Germans do not perceive themselves as racist at all. The idea is there are no other races in Germany.” In his view, Obama’s election seems to be breaking down some stereotypes about Afro-Germans.

Italy, with an aging population and a lowering birth rate, depends on immigrant workers to maintain the country; minorities now total about seven percent of the population. “A majority [of the Italian population] believe immigrants have too many rights and that many of them should be deported, and that immigration has brought only crime.” Minorities in Italy, as in Germany, feel as if they are ghosts, or lesser humans, as discrimination continues. “The European Network Against Racism says Italian police are the second-largest group – after citizens – that commits racist crimes in Italy. And Amnesty International has accused Italian politicians of legitimizing the use of racist language,” she reports. Italian society, she concluded, will first have to go through a deep cultural transformation before it can come to grips with the political issues of representation for ethnic minorities.

The effect of Obama’s victory is already being felt in France. The newly appointed “diversity czar” and millionaire businessman Yazid Sabeg, the son of Algerian immigrants displays much optimism about the future of minorities in France, “What is happening in the States is a lesson for us. We have to start a process to transform French society and to admit that we have to correct the inequality.” Following Obama’s victory, Nicolas Sarkozy introduced new policies to increase diversity in the civil service, politics, and the media. Issues of racism and discrimination are finally entering the national debate.

In conclusion, she notes that European leaders, too, are looking again at U.S. programs that have emerged in the wake of the 1960s “civil rights movement” as American society has sought to integrate the African-American minority into the nation’s social and economic fabric. An example is “affirmative action,” a policy that reserves a quota of university places for minorities. The idea has never found favor in Europe (where it is sometimes labeled “reverse discrimination”), but it now seems to be undergoing re-examination in France and other EU nations.

National Public Radio, January 9, 2009


WASHINGTON: Clean Coal To Be Revived by Obama Administration?

The Bush administration started and then undermined a plan to pioneer clean coal-gasification with European partners, according to the new Committee on Science and Technology in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. Called “FutureGen,” it provided $1.3 billion for a prototype plant: the lack of better government follow-up is said to have set back clean-coal technology by a decade in the U.S. and helped the release of billions of tons of additional carbon emissions, according to a committee report that leaked to the Wall Street Journal newspaper.

There are expectations that the Obama administration will revive this project: current Energy Secretary Steven Chu supports it.

Under the project, called FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc., the U.S. government was to support the construction (alongside private partners, including some from China, Germany, Britain and Australia) of a plant turning coal into hydrogen-rich synthetic gas for generating electricity. Carbon dioxide released in the process would be pumped underground for permanent storage.

The proposed plant in Matoon, Illinois, was the target of recent partisan squabbling in the giant “economic recovery package” because $1 billion had been allocated to “fossil energy research” – anathema to the green wing of the Democrats. But that working language covered this environmentally friendly project, which the Bush administration dropped because of estimated cost overruns. That decision “ignored” the recommendations of career Energy Department staffers, the report says: they tried to justify the rise in cost from $1.3 billion to $1.8 billion on the grounds that innovative research often overruns initial budgets.

Currently, the U.S. gets more than half its electricity from coal-fired plants and its dependence has grown greater in recent years. Experts say there is no way the U.S. will be able to meet a targeted 80 percent reduction in CO2 levels below 1990 levels by 2050 unless it develops environmentally-benign ways to burn coal.

European countries, notably Germany and its neighbors in Eastern Europe, face similar problems because their electricity-generation relies heavily on coal. In the German region, Saxony, an experimental power station is under construction using carbon-capture-and-storage technology. A top U.S. official in the Department of Energy told a recent meeting at The European Institute that the Obama administration and the European Commission want to cooperate intensively on this and similar research projects designed to combat global warming and climate change.

The Wall Street Journal, March 11th, 2009


COPENHAGEN: Recycling Parallels between Europe and the United States

Denmark produces more household waste than any other country per capita per year, according to figures from Eurostat, the statistical agency of the European Commission.

But Denmark, like other big trash-generating countries in Europe such as Germany, Belgium and Sweden, also recycle conscientiously. The United States, perhaps surprisingly, recycles a larger share of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) – the trash – than Europe as a whole. Danes generate 801 kg (1,766 lbs) a year of waste – compared to roughly 770 kg (1,697 lbs) for the average American. In general, countries of Western Europe produce much more trash than consumers in Central and Eastern Europe – and recycle a larger share of what they throw out.

MSW is only half of the story. Recycling rates have been rising dramatically since the mid 1980s. In Europe, 41 percent of waste was simply put into landfills, 22 percent recycled, 20 percent incinerated and 17 percent composted. In the U.S., the comparable figures were 54 percent put into landfills, 25 percent recycled, 13 percent combusted for energy recovery and 8 percent composted.

US recycling graph Europe recycling graph
EUobserver, March 10, 2009
Environmental Protection Agency, 2007


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.