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Fight against online extremism, where is the EU going?

Hate speech and hate crime incidents, including those committed online, are on the rise in Europe. This is why, in October last year, the European Commission announced the launch of a Forum to improve the cooperation between internet providers and law enforcement agencies to combat online extremism. There is a growing alarm in Europe, especially since the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, over the use of internet and social media as a powerful recruiting tool, notably by the Islamic State group. The Forum against online extremism is certainly a good initiative, but is it enough?

The Forum: a basis for better information sharing?

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said that “we need to counter this abuse of the internet and its growing role in radicalization with determination and a shared plan of action.”  Even though recent events have shown that a better cooperation and sharing of information between countries and different authorities are necessary, this does not seem to be the goal of the platform. It rather aims to instore a dialogue between the European institutions, law enforcement agencies and major IT companies in order to set out together approaches to address terrorist content online. The companies part of the new EU Internet Forum are multinationals including Ask.fm, Google/Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. It seems however unclear how individual companies can contribute to the reduction of hate speech online in the framework of the Forum.

How IT companies can contribute to the fight against online extremism

Current legislation does not cover the liability of operators for the publication of hate content users of social media sites. The liability of bloggers or users of websites is mostly regulated but it is often difficult to trace them back to individuals who can be brought to court. Regulating the liability of operators at the EU level would encourage them to better control the content of their websites. As such IT operators could take up the role of Internet intermediaries and be liable for illegal or unauthorized online content. But with an initiative like the Forum, the European Commission tries to encourage self-regulation by IT companies in general in blocking and reporting hate speech online to law enforcement authorities.

Other measures have been taken to reinforce the fight against online radicalization

After the recent attacks in France, Commissioner Avramopoulos stated he wanted to deepen the EU efforts against terrorism, but, before that, existing instruments needed to be strengthened. These instruments include the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) already active in this field, as well as its future Centre of Excellence which will reinforce the effectiveness of on-going projects and actions. In parallel, the Commission adopted new measures in January 2016 in order to improve the effectiveness of the Schengen Information System (SIS) for counter-terrorism purposes.

Next steps

Commissioner Avramopoulos announced the creation of an EU Internet Referral Unit within Europol. Its task will be mainly to facilitate the detection of terrorist material on the internet and ensure its swift removal. The Commission would also like to centralize all the information on online extremism from Member States through one single agency like Europol. However, a comprehensive European policy dealing with hate speech and hate crime defining concrete policy goals for Member States does not seem to be addressed at the moment.  Alternatively Member States could reinforce their efforts of monitoring the content of websites. But new policies, either at EU or national level, should ensure the respect of freedom of expression and data privacy.

Public consultation for a mandatory transparency register. New Commission, same game, new rules?

On 1 March, the European Commission launched a 12-week public consultation for a mandatory transparency register. The Commission is seeking the views of all interested parties on the performance of the current Transparency Register for lobbyists – or “interests representatives” – involved in EU policy-making and policy implementation and on its future evolution towards a mandatory scheme for the three institutions: European Parliament, Council of the EU and European Commission. The first open and structured dialogue between the Commission and special interest groups started in 1993 but the “Proposal for a new European Transparency Initiative” came only in 2006. In 2008, the first version of the Commission’s Register of Interest Representatives was launched by the Commission and three years later, it was also adopted by the European Parliament.  The consultation is based on the European Commission’s willingness to become more transparent. In line with the Transparency Initiative introduced in November 2014, the Commission now wants to make it mandatory and extend it to the Council. Responding to the need for change in Europe, does this move illustrate a new way of making policy?

Better regulation: less regulation, more consultation

The planned changes to the Transparency Register are part of a broader commitment to reforming EU policy making. It shows that the Commission is open to public participation in the process and, as Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said, “this Commission is changing the way we work by consulting stakeholders more and by being open about who we meet and why”. In its Better Regulation Agenda presented last year, the Commission committed to opening up its policy making process to further public scrutiny and input. New stakeholder feedback mechanisms have already been set up, so that views can be made known to the Commission from the very start of the preparation of an initiative based on roadmaps and inception impact assessments, as well as after a proposal is adopted by the Commission, in order to feed into the legislative process in the Parliament and Council.

Bringing more transparency

The public consultation is also a first step towards fulfilling the promise made by Juncker before he became Commission President, when he said that “we need to be more transparent. The transparency register should be mandatory and applied to all institutions”. A year after the last reform of the register, the Commission now wants to move to the next level with the consultation. Since the start of his mandate, Juncker has been working on the lack of transparency of and within the EU, especially after the “Dalli case” in the last Commission. As such, Juncker has imposed the rule that Commissioners should only meet with registered organisations, which has led to a significant increase in the number of registrations. Besides this, the Commission is not only trying to be more transparent regarding its meetings with lobbyists, but has also  started to slowly extend these efforts to some of its activities, notably trade, which have traditionally been quite opaque. The strong popular opposition towards Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) convinced the Commission that it was necessary to publish parts of the negotiation documents on its website.

Too early to see the results

In general, it is too early to assess whether the Juncker’s Commission and the new way of working will bring a better implementation of its policies in Europe, but we can see efforts being made to improve the European Commission’s efficiency and transparency as well as to take into account input from citizens and stakeholders. Concerning the transparency register, the Commission has made it a priority in its 2016 work programme to make it a mandatory system and to expand it to the Council of the EU. Member States welcome the idea of joining the lobbying disclosure registry, but not all of them favour a mandatory system and some would like to keep national permanent representations out of the agreement. Negotiations between the institutions will certainly not be easy.

The European Union: forging ever stronger economic relations

While internally the EU is entangled in various discussions on refugees, the euro and a possible Brexit, the EU is externally making headway in forging ever closer economic ties with important economic regions in order to boost the lagging European economy. What are the recent developments and are there any challenges looming?

Recent developments

Recently there has been some positive news for the EU. It is making progress after some serious delays negotiating free trade agreements (FTA) with various countries. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Canada’s Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement this week that the legal review of CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) between Canada and the European Union had been "completed" and that both Canada and the EU were "confident" the controversial free trade deal would be signed in 2016 and enter into force in 2017. Freeland called it a "landmark trade agreement." Canadian and European leaders formally concluded the deal in 2014, but implementation has been delayed due to last-minute objections in Europe over provisions to create an investment protection system that would help protect companies from government intervention. This system is key to a similar but far more ambitious agreement (the Transatlantic and Investment Partnership or TTIP) currently under negotiation between the EU and USA which has drawn fierce criticism in Europe. Opponents say the measure favours big business, enabling companies to fight national regulations that violate the trade deal and threaten their investments. The new deal with Canada includes important modifications to the contested investor protection system under which a permanent tribunal, staffed with independent, qualified adjudicators, would hear any complaints. Canada signing off on the changes is a significant victory for the European Commission, which is facing huge pressure to have the USA agree to the same offer. The TTIP negotiators are hopeful about reaching an agreement by the end of the year.

Only last week Mercosur, the South American customs union and trading bloc, offered to open up 93% of its trade to competition from the EU to seal a long-sought free-trade deal. Negotiations with Mercosur started in the 1990s. Another FTA in the making is a potential agreement with India. The negotiations for the free trade pact have been held up since May 2013 as both sides failed to bridge substantial gaps on crucial issues, including data security status for the IT sector. On January 18, however, chief negotiators of India and the EU took stock of outstanding issues to assess where both sides stand and how India and the EU should go forward with the proposed deal.

Challenges

The road to a final FTA, ready to be implemented, can be long indeed. And marred by unexpected challenges as well. On 27 February 2016, Morocco declared that it was suspending ties with the EU in response to a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that invalidated an EU-Morocco trade deal covering farming and fisheries. The court ruled that the deal should not cover Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony at the center of a decades-long dispute between Morocco and a separatist group, the Polisario Front, the political representative of the Saharawi people. The Front wants independence and called for the EU trade deal to be annulled, saying that it broke international law, to which the court agreed. Meanwhile, the EU has decided to appeal the ECJ decision. A spokesperson for the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, said the EU would provide “all the necessary information” to deal with Morocco’s concerns, “so that cooperation can be re-established as soon as possible.” After all, the EU needs to make progress on the FTA front to provide a sorely needed boost to the lagging European economy, but not without being sensitive to public opinion. 

2016: the year of Brexit?

At a time when the European Union (EU) is facing a series of challenges, from the refugee crisis to economic woes in Greece and elsewhere, Euroscepticism is clearly on the rise. This is most apparent in the UK where Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to renegotiate the country’s relationship with the EU and to hold a referendum by the end of 2017. On 2 February European Council president Donald Tusk released a draft proposal outlining a package of reforms to satisfy the British demands. Tough negotiations on the draft deal are now underway. But what could be the impact of a possible Brexit, for both the UK and the EU?

UK’s demands and the European Council’s proposal

The British leader has called for reform in four broad areas, to which Tusk has answered:

  • Economic governance – Eurozone integration must be fair to those inside and outside the single currency. The European Council proposes “mutual respect” between Member States which wish to pursue further deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union and those which do not.
  • Competitiveness – The EU must cut the total burden on business and boost jobs and growth.
  • Sovereignty – The EU must fully implement its commitment to subsidiarity and provide the UK with a formal, legally-binding guarantee that it is not obliged to work towards “ever closer union”.
  • Immigration – Cameron has proposed a so-called “emergency brake” which would allow the UK to limit the benefits paid to new EU migrants for up to four years before being able to access certain benefits or social housing.

Cameron is now trying his best to secure the agreement of his fellow European leaders before the next Council meeting of 17-18 February. This would pave the way for a referendum in the UK in June of this year, reported to be his preferred timeline. All will depend, however, on the pace of the negotiations.

 Consequences of Brexit: what is at stake?

The impact of Brexit on the UK economy, British businesses and wider British interests could be severe and felt across multiple  channels. How serious the impact would be depends on the possible new relationship that emerges between the UK and the EU. For the UK, trade and investment could be seriously affected. Over time, regulatory divergence could increase, affecting trade volumes and reducing the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for investment. Brexit could also have implications for the UK’s position on the global stage, particularly in terms of trade policy. While the UK would be free to strike new trade deals based on domestic priorities, it would face the considerable challenge of renegotiating existing deals that would become void after its withdrawal from the Union.

For the EU, the economic impacts of Brexit depend largely on how dynamic the European economy will be in the years to come. If it manages to overcome its current economic problems, and liberalises internal and external trade, then the cost of Brexit relative to remaining in the EU will be lower. Finally, Brexit could also impact EU integration since other Member States may be tempted to seek out the same special deals or exemptions as the UK. This could ultimately lead to less integration, and more differentiation, among the Member States.

In the UK citizens’ hands

A lack of clarity over what would replace EU membership means that the road to Brexit will be paved with uncertainty. Amidst the arguments for and against, we should not lose sight of the importance of public opinion considering that the British people themselves will have the final say. In December 2015, for instance, opinion polls indicated an almost even split between those in favour of and those against EU membership. The months ahead will thus be crucial for convincing the British whether or not remaining in the EU is truly in their best interests. They will likewise be decisive for the EU as a whole, as a Brexit would no doubt propel further the rising tide of Euroscepticism across the continent. 

The Dutch Presidency: how to boost the European economy in six months?

Starting on 1 January, the Netherlands has taken over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) for the next six months. It also marks the launch of a new Trio with Slovakia and Malta. The three countries have agreed on a joint presidency programme which will serve as a basis for the next year and a half.

The EU is at a turning point, facing crucial challenges with important dossiers coming up such as the Digital Single Market Strategy, the Circular Economy Package and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, to name just a few. One of the main challenges will be to sustain the current positive trend in Europe’s economic recovery. With five Council meetings of the Economic and Financial Ministers scheduled during the Presidency, it will definitely be high on the agenda. But what will the Presidency really be able to achieve?

Encouraging growth through the Capital Markets Union (CMU)

One of The Hague’s top priorities is to move forward on the remaining elements of the CMU, at the center of Juncker’s investment plan focused on making the financial system more resilient. The European Commission presented its Action Plan last year and important and difficult discussions with the European Parliament are foreseen during the Presidency. In addition to that, in order to boost the economy and job creation, there will be an emphasis on reforms as well as on the consolidation of the Internal Market.

Deepening the Internal Market

According to the Presidency programme, the EU “has lost sight of its role as an innovator and creator of jobs in Europe […]. Its key strength in that respect is the Single Market which […] unites Member States”. The Dutch particularly welcome the Single Market Strategy on goods and services presented in October last year. The Dutch will focus on making the best possible use of the current European Monetary Union framework with an emphasis on the Banking Union and national reforms to open up markets.

The Banking Union: more harmonization needed

The Netherlands want to ensure that the required measures to complete the Banking Union are developed. In this context, they will include the Commission’s proposal for a European Deposit Insurance Scheme on its agenda and will need to facilitate a common position within the Council. This is a first step towards the establishment of a European Deposit Guarantee Scheme, although it should be preceded by further harmonization of banking regulations.

The right tools in hand for significant dossiers

The Presidency seems to be heading in the right direction  with dossiers that will definitely impact  future European economic policy. In this context, we can point out that Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, currently Head of the Eurogroup, will chair the Economic and Financial Ministers Council meetings during the Presidency, which may help to push their priorities in the financial sector forward. But The Hague should make sure to take a holistic approach to EU policy-making so that legislation designed to bring back market and investors’ confidence in the short-term does not conflict with policy designed to restore long-term financial stability. All in all, more than six months will be necessary to clearly evaluate the results of this Presidency.

Environmental challenges for the Dutch Presidency – will progress be lost with ambition?

The Netherlands will hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) for six months as of January 2016 when the EU is facing crucial challenges including the refugee crisis, the terrorist threat, global warming, the rise of Euroscepticism, and the economic crisis. Last week, the Dutch released their work programme showing that they want to act as a mediator between the Member States and between the European institutions. European cooperation is very much needed on the “essentials”, starting with climate, which will be the main focus of discussions next week both at the global and EU level.

Environment and climate issues in the spotlight
Next week will see two milestones for environment and climate issues. The United Nations Climate Summit (COP21) – where the international community is committed to achieving a new climate agreement – will take place in Paris. In Brussels, the Circular Economy package is expected to be presented next week by Commission’s Vice President Frans Timmermans. In their programme, the Dutch announced that they want to make significant progress in these negotiations to ensure that a 40% reduction of Co2 in 2030 (compared to 1990) is implemented.

The circular economy package: lost ambitions
“It is much more fundamental than just doing the right thing for the environment. It is a choice for an economic model”, said Frans Timmermans.

Expectations from this package are high because investments in the circular economy can support the green development of European industry and, concurrently help to achieve the goals that will emerge from the COP21.

The Presidency’s challenge will be to get the package off to an ambitious start. It is not easy when the latest Commission draft is axed under Frans Timmermans’ drive for “better regulation” and gives weaker targets than the previous package. Although the Vice President had promised a more ambitious package, a leaked version this week stipulates   a recycling goal of 65% instead of 70% and a 10% landfill quota instead of bans.

But this is not all…
Other environmental dossiers will be crucial for the Presidency. The Commission published its proposal for the review of the Emission Trading System (ETS) in July. Negotiations in the Council are expected to be difficult as Member States have varying levels of dependence on fossil fuels and the ETS will affect them differently.

Also expected in 2016 are the Commission’s proposals for national Co2 reduction targets. The positions of many Member States differ and it remains to be seen whether a final compromise can be reached. At the very least, the Dutch will have to negotiate with each Member State individually to be able to make concrete progress on these issues in the Council meetings.

Challenges ahead
All these environmental dossiers will have considerable and different impacts on the Member States and businesses. This will lead to challenging negotiations for the Presidency as the positions of countries are far apart. At the same time, the risk of the Presidency is that, if it follows the – originally Dutch – “better regulation” path laid out by Frans Timmermans, it might lead to the over-simplification of laws and the reduction of targets. It is up to all those with an interest in the outcomes to think and act constructively to ensure that progress does not get lost with ambition.

This article was first published on Publicaffairsnetworking.com

Lobbying in the EU Bubble

Keeping clients in the loop

What I like about being as consultant is that we act as intermediary between the European institutions and our large range of clients, should they be an insurance company, a trade association or a human rights NGO. We provide them with all relevant pieces of legislation introduced at EU level as well as of what will be on the agenda in the coming months. Thanks to our expertise in EU affairs, we are able to translate policy issues and the EU technical jargon into a comprehensible language for clients. Finally, we predict the consequences of current and coming policies on a specific field and advice our clients on how to (re)act.

A valuable source of information for lawmakers

The other side of the coin. When I was working in the “inside”, in the European Parliament, I learnt that lobbyists are actually beneficial to the legislative process. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have a very busy schedule. Often, they are not expert in the dossiers they are following and some of them even have never worked on the issues in their portfolio before. Lobbyists can serve as a valuable source of information for lawmakers as they concretely explain what could be the consequences of a pending EU legislation on a specific sector, consequences that policy-makers should foresee when drafting or amending a legislation.

Knowing that more than 80% of legislation directly affecting European citizens and businesses comes from Brussels, being up-to-date on EU legislation and represented in the bubble can have a significant impact on an organization!

European Association Management: European politics at its best

Why influence European policy?

European policy makers aim to make policy that stimulates economic growth and jobs by opening up the European market to as many European entrepreneurs as possible. This means that European policy essentially aims at helping entrepreneurs with going cross-border and providing them with tools to enter these new markets as easily as possible. The only way in which the legislators can shape such policy effectively is by input from – you guessed it – entrepreneurs themselves. A policy maker who has never run a business before prefers to hear from the businessmen and –women out there how European policy can best help them expand their enterprise. But how to gather input and advice from people who already have a 60-hour work week crammed with executing market strategies, operations management, sales targets and financial planning? How to influence European politics as an entrepreneur?

An association as intermediary

Just like not every European individual gets on the soapbox themselves but rather is represented through a politician, not every business in Europe has to delve into the Brussels’ web of policy influence on its own. European associations gather the interests of European businesses from one particular sector, and through representatives in Brussels convey these interests to the policy makers. At Dr2 consultants we are for example experienced in association management for sectors like the e-commerce sector and the healthy lifestyle sector. Running an association successfully means maintaining a strong connection with the daily experiences of the businesses represented, translating these issues into policy challenges (which often means not having more legislation at all), and – by being a reliable partner and having thorough knowledge of the process – finding solutions to these challenges together with the European policy makers.

Business minds think alike

Perhaps the hardest part for many associations is to keep a strong connection with the businesses they represent. For anyone who has ever visited Brussels for a stakeholder meeting or policy conference, it should be clear that in the ‘Brussels bubble’ the questions discussed become so abstract and bogged down by the issues of the day that the connection with ‘real life’ is easily lost. One of the strengths of our consultancy in association management is that we are entrepreneurs ourselves. We run a growing business every day and are therefore well aware of the challenges entrepreneurs face – be it constraints in resources, or administrative burdens. We understand the need to run an organisation effectively and efficiently. Moreover, we are able to translate policy issues in a language we all speak. In this way we ensure the business voice is represented in EU politics – in a business way. 

Four more years

Vier jaar geleden was ik direct na Obama’s overwinning bij het Witte Huis. Ongeveer 1500 mensen bleken spontaan datzelfde idee te hebben toen. Vandaag was ik weer in Washington DC en wederom liep ik direct na de herverkiezing van de president naar Pennsylvania Avenue 1600. Dit keer was de gekte nog groter: ik schat dat er in totaal zo’n 4000 mensen compleet uit hun dak gingen voor het Witte Huis. Er werd geschreeuwd, gezongen, wildvreemden vielen elkaar in de armen, veel mensen hadden posters, kartonnen Obama, Biden en Clinton cut-outs, spandoeken en andere Obama prullaria bij zich. Tientallen mensen waren in bomen geklommen die pal voor de hekken van het Witte Huis stonden en overal waren camera’s van televisieploegen te zien, die net als het publiek vanuit de hele wereld naar deze symbolische plaats waren afgereisd.

Het was vanavond vele malen spannender dan 2008, maar uiteindelijk niet onverwacht. Nog tijdens de verkiezingscampagne van 2008 (!) was al duidelijk dat Romney het in 2012 zou gaan proberen. Toen gokte ik al dat hij de voorverkiezing bij de Republikeinen zou winnen en dan tegen Obama zou moeten strijden. Mijn inschatting toen was dat hij dat dan niet zou kunnen winnen, omdat hij een flip-flopper is en weinig uitstraling en eigen verhaal heeft. In de peilingen kreeg ik voortdurend gelijk, maar het was toch echt close, onder andere dankzij de enorme hoeveelheid geld die de Republikeinen op wisten te halen, de hekel die Republikeinen aan Obama hebben, het goede optreden van Romney bij het eerste debat en zijn geschuif richting midden bij eigenlijk alle drie de debatten. Dat, en meer.

De grote vraag die veel mensen nu hebben is: zetten de Republikeinen nu nog meer de hakken in het zand? De inschatting van de Democratische strategen die we deze week in DC gesproken hebben is: nee, ze zullen nu meer toenadering zoeken. Het is voor de Republikeinse top in het congres namelijk ook lastig om overal maar nee tegen te zeggen.

Ook leuk: Obama hoeft niet langer verwachtingen te temperen. Hij ging in zijn overwinningsspeech dan ook meteen los met een Kennedy-geinspireerde quote: ‘America is not about what can be done for us, but what can be done by us.’ Obama 2012-2016: here we go!