Politics & The World

          by Cristian Mihai Lazăr.

In the last year Romania has inarguably found itself in a most decisive period for its future as a state. The importance derives from the internal politics that are outlined especially after the last elections, the parliamentary elections on December 11. Roughly one year after the protests that followed the tragedy of the Colectiv club (which resulted in 64 deaths), the protests which swept down a political government and consequently led to the establishment of a technocratic government, both for the legislature and the executive, it was now imperative the regain the political and popular legitimacy. This could not have been achieved in any other way except through the prism of democratic elections.

The campaign for this year’s legislative election was dull, lifeless and did not generate any collective emotions. Of course, the candidates were mainly responsible for this situation, but also a new electoral law was among the reasons as well – a law that is very rigid regarding the operations and financial expenses that can be conducted during the campaign. In comparison, ‘on the other side of the coin’ are the campaigns that are conducted in the USA, which are characterized by huge campaign budgets and popular entertainment aspects. Besides the two traditional political parties PSD (Social Democratic Party) and PNL (National Liberal Party) in competition for the confidence of voters, not even the new political parties (most of them having old personalities) managed to attract a substantial number of Romanians to vote. Speaking about the categories of voters: on the 11th of December the young people, unlike in the presidential elections when there was a massive presence of the youth which made the difference in the final outcome, this time they remained indifferent and less willing to vote. With a lack of a collective emotion and surprises, the elections confirmed what was already outlined: a predictable victory for the left wing. Nevertheless, the proportions were surprising.

After the political left lost the power last year in consequence to the public revolt which swept down the social-democratic Prime Minister, the PSD and the left wing parties secured a crushing victory receiving 45.47% of the total votes. We can observe that the victory of the Romanian political left wing was in accordance with the trend that already had formed in the East and South of Romania (as well as in both the Republic of Moldavia and in Bulgaria the left wing parties have achieved victory in last month’s elections). We can speak about a remarkable comeback, after the consequences of last year’s protests when the confidence in the party has decreased incredibly and the former Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, became prosecuted for corruption (an accusation which he denied). Nonetheless, the withdrawal from the government a year ago and the appointment of a cabinet of technocrats were a political-saving solution. In this way, the PSD basically managed to be at the same time in opposition and in government, keeping the key positions in the state both at local and central levels. Permanently, the socialists showed themselves hostile to the technocratic government, blocking any measure or attempt to reform a politicized administration. The “triumphing march” of these elections was also assured by the demagogic voracity and populist irresponsibility seen in some parts of the promoted government program. In brief, if the PSD program becomes reality, Romania would witness salary and pension increases, the elimination of half of existing taxes, a gigantic hospital built in the capital of Romania, new regional hospitals and no less than five new highways (it was not said when will it happen though, we shall see).

Managing this election victory won´t be easy, especially because the problem of this party will be to nominate a Prime Minister who can carry out this political program. The first option seems to be the current leader of the party, Liviu Dragnea – who is now being sentenced to 2 years of suspended prison for electoral fraud. However, the Romanian law does not allow the appointment of a convicted person into the government. The most recent political movements are showing that Liviu Dragnea has succumbed to pressures of the law enforcement and Sevil Shhaideh will probably represent PSD`s nominee and thus the future Head of Romanian Government. About Sevil Shhaideh, it is known that she is one of the closes political friends of Liviu Dragnea. In any way, in confrontation between the popular will and the rule of law, Romania cannot afford another political crisis at this moment. In these outlined circumstances it remains to be seen how the political hegemony of the PSD will evolve.

At the opposite side of this triumph we can notice the great failure of the main opposition, the National Liberal Party. As a consequence to the election outcome, the president of the party resigned the day after the elections. The problems of the party were not acute, but rather chronic. The symptoms of the defeat were also visible at local elections, where the results were far below expectations. The failure was generated by a lack of vision, and the lack of vision was generated by a lack of leadership. It may even be said that the PNL has participated at these elections without leaders. The message they promoted lacked substance and was more focused on the possible damage of a PSD victory. However, there seemed to be a few positive signs as well as the party came up with new candidates, promoting many young people and a fresher elite in different policy areas. The reforming of the party is relevant not only for its own salvation as a political party but also to provide Romania with a powerful right-wing in its politics spectrum to assure a viable balance of the political powers. They need to get rid of the tired portraits and adopt a persuasive, combatant, and articulated speech. The National Liberal Party must become again liberal more than ever.

The astonishing item of the elections was the appointment in the Parliament of the USR (Save Romania Union) party with a redoubtable score of 8.87% of the votes for a party which is less than one year old. This party managed to win the confidence of Romanians that are unsatisfied with the “system” and with the current political class. Lacking experience and based on criticism so far, this young political party emerged as the third force in the new Parliament, despite limited resources and logistics. More than ever, they will need an offensive energy, strength, and most of all in order to assure their existence in politics, they must find an ideological identity.

The former president of Romania, Trăian Băsescu, has claimed himself to be the main opposition for the future left wing Cabinet along with the Popular Movement Party whose leader he is. This is a new party, participating in its first parliamentary elections and becoming part of the new legislature by passing the electoral threshold.  In order to ensure a sustainable coalition, PSD will also be supported by ALDE, a party which is led by the former liberal Prime Minister C. P. Tariceanu. The Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, a party of minorities, is the other party that managed to be appointed in the Parliament and it has great chances to form too a coalition with PSD and be in government together. As a positive item, unlike in many European cases, fortunately the current nationalist-xenophobic voices did not win the confidence of voters and failed to be appointed into Parliament these elections.

In the 11th of December the voters have expressed themselves in a categorical way. As in any democracy, the majority speaks and the manifested option cannot be contested. Its implications will be major. During this mandate, in 2019, Romania will be one of the countries to hold the presidency of the EU Council. Thus, another reason why the votes of Romanians given on the 11th of December will weigh a lot more, influencing both the national and European political spectrum.

Image by Janrito Karamazov, taken from photopin

Politics & The World

On June 23rd, the UK will decide whether to stay in the European Union. From a European perspective, what is frightening about this debate is not the xenophobic and often racist rhetoric used by parts of the anti-EU camp, but the nerveless arguments put forward by the EU-supporters.

There is a very simple and often entertaining way to get a glimpse of what many Brits have to deal with in the current Brexit debate. One merely has to go to a supermarket or local newspaper kiosk and read the headlines of The Daily Mail or the Sunday Express. With one hundred percent certainty (!) one will find the word “migrant” on the first page. Begging, stealing and raping their way through the island, Brits have to be careful because wherever they go, there will be a sneaky Syrian behind the next corner, ready to take their job and infect their children with what-have-you.

While this might seem quite irritating, strangely familiar to some extent and possibly ridiculous, what is actually scary from a European perspective is not the overt racism of the far-right but the ambitionless, unemotional conduct of the supporters of Britain in Europe.

The main part of the Brexit debate in the UK centres on the economic costs or benefits of staying in or leaving. While the Vote Leave campaign claims that the UK pays about £350 million to the EU each week – a number that ignores the vast economic benefits and subsidies the UK gets in return – the pro-EU camp spends a lot of effort refusing these claims and pointing to the economic benefits of staying. As a result, their arguments have pejoratively been labelled ‘Project Fear’. Boris Johnson and his fellows make repeated emotional appeals to British citizens that hardly contain any argumentative power. Comparing the European Union to Hitler was but the last expression of this trend.

Emotional arguments are often used in political debates and not necessarily condemnable. They can help creating a feeling of collectivity and shared interests as opposed to the political antagonist. As such they are essential for democratic discussion. It is therefore all the more frustrating to see the pro-EU side’s reluctance to appeal to emotions and ideals. The project of European integration is a great ideal and an emotional issue. Bringing 28 member states together in shared supranational institutions is a difficult task that cannot solely be dealt with in a technical manner. Mutual understanding of the historic importance of this unique enterprise is necessary as well as a shared vision for future development. The lack of emotional support that is currently spreading all over the Union and normally inherent to Euro-sceptics, seems to also have befallen the British Europhiles.

Tony Blair in March has criticised the EU supporters for not showing enough passion. He noticed a lack of enthusiasm among those campaigning to remain, and he is right. The Brexit debate is too self-centred on the advantages and disadvantages that the decision taken on June 23rd would have for the UK. When asked at a Brexit debate at the London School of Economics and Political Science why the pro-side so significantly lacked passion and an emotional appeal, the author and journalist Hugo Dixon said that Brits simply were “pragmatic” and that the debate should therefore focus on “practical things” rather than “ideals”.

Leaving the rhetoric power of emotional appeals entirely to the anti-EU side is a problematic and possibly dangerous endeavour. What is at stake is not just “a matter of economic realism”, to use Tony Blair’s words again, but also “a matter of political idealism”. The EU supporters should finally appeal to the great narrative of a united Europe that is crucial for maintaining peace and allowing its members a strong, united voice in the international sphere, rather than allow their opponents to nail them down on the economic, self-interested narrative.


Image by Gwydlon M. Williams.

Lifestyle & InnovationPolitics & The World

Precarity, insecurity and informality are just three of the prevailing terms used to describe the neoliberal climate through which many of us are trying to carve a path. Recently graduated with arms full of confidence to progress, our generation is shaped by the notion that ‘we are the drivers of our own destiny’. It is we who have the power to succeed or fail, or it is we who possess the unabated freedom to choose.

The transition from divine to popular right following the American and the French revolutions placed responsibility from the shoulders of kings onto that of the populace. Citizens found themselves in a condition of unlimited responsibility to be shared and divided between all. However, three centuries and 30 years of neoliberalism later, that same responsibility has been individualised within much of the global North, which many suggest has had an un-abetting impact on our material and psychological well being. The relentless pressure to achieve has been normalised and meritocracy commonplace.

How will we fare in a world of privatised responsibility?

Well, alas, the answer is a bleak one. With inequality rife, unstable job markets and unpaid internships plaguing the European sphere it appears to many that neoliberal policy is having a severe impact on labour relations and security. Some have even envisaged a new class of vulnerable people collectively referred to as ‘the precariat’. Plagued by the meritocratic ethos that success is dependent on individual efforts and talents, members of the heterogeneous precariat class are said to compete with one another for status and position in order to secure their own well being. Highlighting a situation to which many of us can accord towards,

Arguably, it is precarity that now reigns in the position of former kings.

Now I can’t help but think that competition within the job market is nothing new, the caressing classical hand of Smith outstretched from this very principle. So why all the fuss now? Most notably, because the competition driving much of the economy has been monopolised and redefined by multinationals clambering to secure the top position. Most notable of those are tech giants such as Google, who alone has secured a 92% share of the EU’s search engine enclave. If companies so large operate in a sea of their own, is it inaccurate for us to say that competitors are in the same boat, rocked by the same hand? Further, market forces now perverse into all corners of our everyday life, encouraging a climate of consumerism to dictate previously independent choices. The same market that set out to emancipate us has imprisoned us in atomisation and loneliness. Three decades since its precipitous birth, neoliberalism is taking its toll.

It is precarity that contradicts the ways of life that must be regenerated in order for a democratic form of government to sustain itself over time. Individualism has replaced the collectivism and solidarity essential for the success of democracy. The self-management of our own space stands in direct contrast to the rhetoric of collective consensus that so often spawns from the lips of politicians, fruitlessly trying to promote a shared solidarity to a nation of individuals.

But are we a nation of individuals, or do we have the power to muster collective action for the betterment of all? The success of collaborative ventures, such as Wikipedia and Kickstarter, certainly indicate a route beyond the recognised market system. But are we ready to venture on such a path and bid our precarity farewell?

Further reading: Paul Mason “Post Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future”

Picture by Lee Thatcher (Flickr)

Politics & The World

Rudolf Diesel would be turning in his grave if he read the newspaper articles published in the wake of what (social) media simply termed the #Dieselgate. The manipulation of emission data by Volkswagen run counter to the very core beliefs of the man, whose technology allowed the company to become one of the biggest automobile producers in the world.

Even in Diesel’s native country Germany, only few people have ever heard about his book ‘Solidarismus: Natürliche wirtschaftliche Erlösung des Menschen’ (Solidarism: Natural Economic Salvation of Mankind) published in 1903. Solidarismus, for Diesel, signifies complete congruency of the interest of the individual with the interests of society as a whole. It is fair to assert that this worldview does not allow for the intentional deception of society by single companies.

Now of course Rudolf Diesel never worried about pollution and he most certainly never heard about global warming. In fact, it took us decades to acknowledge the negative effects of pollution on both the environment and human health and it took us even longer to react on it. What the Volkswagen scandal showed is that our current regulatory mechanisms, being in place precisely to curb the effects of pollution, do not work.

The actions of Volkswagen are not justifiable, yet it is worthwhile putting them into perspective. #Dieselgate is not only the failure of individual managers currently portrayed as scapegoats, but it also reveals deficiencies in the underlying regulatory system.

Already before the Volkswagen scandal erupted, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found massive deviations when testing for vehicle emissions under more realistic conditions than currently applied in the EU. On average, the tested vehicles reached emission levels seven times higher than allowed. The difference between the emissions measured in laboratory and those under real driving conditions clearly reveals that what we deal with today is a systemic crisis.

The European Commission is expected to initiate new legislation on CO2 standards beyond 2020 by the end of this year. In light of the upcoming UN Climate Conference in Paris, EU policy-makers are keen to further reduce transport emissions to contribute to the achievement of the Union’s overall reduction targets.

The Volkswagen scandal will certainly reinforce this trend towards stricter regulation. However, policy-makers should not be ignorant of market development and technological requirements. When new CO2 standards below 95 g/km will be determined, decision-makers have to bear in mind that car makers cannot meet those standards simply by improving the efficiency of conventional engines.

Due to technological constraints, they will necessarily have to turn to alternative driving systems in order to cope with the regulatory requirements. A reasonable policy, thus, does not only force manufacturers to change their product structures but also supports the industry in bringing about a technological shift.

Although E-mobility only unleashes its full potential if the electricity used to power the car is generated through renewables, there is still common agreement that alternative driving systems such as the electric car represent the future of emission-free driving. But what has been done so far to support the development of E-mobility in Europe?

Today, the European infrastructure for electric cars is both underdeveloped, when compared to the US or Japan, and un-harmonised among Member States. When it comes to re-charging infrastructure and the production of cells and batteries we see US-Japanese leadership.

Already today, European automotive producers partially depend on the supply of batteries from Japan and the US. This dependency will most likely increase in the future as we see no comparable projects planned in Europe today.

Additionally, the charging infrastructure for electric cars varies considerably amongst European countries. While we see a dense network of charging stations in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, other countries like Germany struggle considerably in building up a public infrastructure that allows for market development.

One year ago, the EU adopted Directive 2014/94/EU, requiring Member States to build up an ‘appropriate’ number of charging stations for electric cars. The Directive, however, does not impose a binding target, leaving it up to the discretion of Member States to decide on the number of charging points. Clearly, the Directive cannot be conceived as a game changer as it does not incentivise any substantial investment in infrastructure.

Moreover, the EU does not make a deliberate choice for E-mobility. Following the mantra of technology neutrality, the EU requests Member States to develop a charging infrastructure not only for electric vehicles but also for liquid natural gas, compressed natural gas and hydrogen. Thus, Member States are effectively splitting up resources which could be used more efficiently if we made a deliberate choice for E-mobility.

Finally, coming back to the Volkswagen scandal, I believe that there are two essential conditions for a successful handling of the crisis:

  • First, we need a combined effort of industry and politics. Violations of the law have to be punished accordingly, but one should not fall into the trap of blaming and fighting each other like it has been done in the past.
  • Second, both car makers and policy-makers should be ready to embrace alternative driving systems and should not be afraid of taking a risk by investing in better infrastructure. In contrast, by investing in the future today we can turn the crisis into a new start for automotive Europe.

Image by Automobile Italia, taken from flickr

Campus Europe Goes Balkans

by Marko Kebe

You could tell a lot of Slovenia just by looking at its position on the map of Europe. By saying this I am not refering only on geographical features but moreover on its political and cultural characteristics. Slovenia is indeed a unique case of a country that combines various different landscapes and natural beauties within only 20,273 km2.

Slovenia as a heart of Europe where “the Alps meet the Mediterranean and the Pannonian Plain meets the Karst” is something you would normally read in a tourist catalogue about Slovenia. It is maybe a bit pretentious calling ourselves “the heart of Europe” but from where I am standing we can allow ourselves this little mischief since we are indeed very much proud of our unique blend of various natural, cultural and architectural features.

Pretentious as it might be, Slovenians are generally considered to be rather humble and obedient when it comes to the relations with other countries. Throughout its history up until its independence in 1991 Slovenia has always been subjected to the authority of different royal houses and supranational entities from the rule of Habsburgs to the more recent one of Yugoslavia (let’s leave EU alone for a while).

When discussing my country and its role in international affairs with the students from abroad I frequently like to mention our anthem Zdravljica (The Toast) by France Prešeren which is one of the most pacifist and enlightened anthems I’ve ever came across:

“God’s blessing on all nations,

Who long and work for that bright day,

When o’er earth’s habitations

No war, no strife shall hold its sway;

Who long to see

That all men free

No more shall foes, but neighbours be! “

The seventh stanza of Zdravljica – The National Anthem of Slovenia

So, where does this inability to fulfill its interests as an independent actor stem from? And why have Slovenians decided that it is time for a more modern approach when dealing with other nation states? Well, first of all, Slovenia is a relatively small country when it comes to the population with its 2 million inhabitants. It’s economy is – as you can imagine – comparatively small with approximately EUR 45bn EUR of GDP in 2014. Putting its smallness aside Slovenia always had a very healthy balance of trade in merchandise where exports always exceeded its imports. Slovenia’s merchandise exports in 2014 rose by 6.9% to EUR 23.04bn, an all-time high, while imports grew by 2.4% to EUR 22.65bn (Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia). Trends seem to be improving and hopefully our generation will once be able to escape these shackles of crisis and depression we have constantly been reminded of throughout our youth and studies.

Oh yes, as small as Slovenia is, the tentacles of the globalized economy haven’t spared her, quite the opposite, Slovenian economy has been badly hurt by the financial meltdown. Large cuts in public spending have been necessary to avoid international bailout not to mention the ongoing plans for privatization – the topic where a lot of blood is spilled when it comes to political rivalry. Slovenian reputation in international affairs has indeed fallen quite significantly from a model transition state to a near financial fiasco.

While the economy was booming everything was safe and sound but the flaws of inadequate regulation in economic affairs became much more obvious and painful once the crisis hit the small but beautiful Slovenian shore (figuratively speaking of course). It has become apparent that the bad management of some state owned companies can be ascribed to the clientelism which was inherited from the ex-Yugoslav regime where the line between business and politics was very much blurred. Slovenia has therefore been regularly pointed out as being on top in Europe regarding corruption in it’s business practices (Watch Ernst & Young’s: Europe, Middle East, India and Africa Fraud Survey 2015) – definitely not something we can be proud of.

I would have to confess that there really exists a certain ambiguity when it comes to Slovenia(ns), which brings me back to the idea I have pointed out in the beginning. As much as Slovenia is divided in its natural diversity so it is divided in its political and cultural sense. As I have mentioned in the previous paragraph, we face quite some difficulties regarding transparency and meritocracy. We really are somehow divided between the German way of keeping things in order and more of a hang loose approach which is prevailing on the Balkans. Translated into the language of politics, we are strongly trying to give an impression of a westernized state with strong economical and political discipline, whereas our actions and customs aren’t really speaking in favor of it.

Cultural divergence is on the other hand something we have to cherish and respect: you wouldn’t believe how many different dialects we have in such a small area; practically every micro region has an accent and a culture of its own. Although a lot of young people are searching for opportunities in bigger cities such as Ljubljana or Maribor, a normal Slovenian will always stay somehow attached to where he/she comes from (if not in any other way, than by his accent).

This of course brings us to the question what does it actually mean to be a Slovenian? Or “what are Slovenian stereotypes”, which is something I get frequently asked? These are the questions I was never able to answer fully and probably never will. This of course doesn’t mean that we are a nation without a significant character or purpose, rather contrary, I think our struggle and ability to reach independence gives us enough leverage to be proud on our small but beautiful Slovenia.