To Brexit or not to Brexit?

Also published on the Aspect Consulting blog here.

Evan O’Connell – Head of French Public Affairs and Media at Aspect Consulting, Paris.

Eliot Edwards – Director for Public Relations & Government Relations at Aspect Consulting, Brussels.

One week on from Britain’s momentous decision to leave the EU, things have moved faster than most could have anticipated. Markets have suffered- the UK has lost its AAA rating and more gloom is in store. The two favourites for Conservative Party leadership, Boris Johnson and George Osborne, do not want David Cameron’s job and Theresa May has emerged as the front-runner. The future of the UK – as a political unit as well as its membership of the EU – has never been more unclear. Or at least that threatened to be the case until France and Spain put paid to the idea of Scotland remaining in the EU and instead reprimanded Messrs. Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz for giving Nicola Sturgeon an airing in Brussels.

For the moment at least, we must assume the UK will leave the EU as electors demanded last week. Of course, many still hope there might be a way out of Brexit – that a combination of regret at a misguided decision, economic turmoil and tough negotiating will somehow reverse the result, and the UK will “remain” in the EU. Of course, if the new Conservative leader were to call a snap election, a Labour Party led by an actually electable leader – let us say David Miliband – campaigning on a Remain ticket could, if successful at the ballot box, simply refuse to ratify Brexit. Today, Theresa May might give assurances to her Base that there will be no election until 2020 if she is elected head of the Conservative Party, but who knows what tomorrow might bring?

So where do we stand today one week on from the referendum? Britain has a lame duck Prime Minister, Scotland is threatening to hold an independence referendum, Sinn Féin is calling for a referendum on a United Ireland, and there is a dearth of real political leadership on all sides of the political divide at Westminster. Neither is there clarity on when Article 50 will be invoked or who will be in the government presiding over negotiations. Across the Channel, no unanimity exists on exactly how conciliatory or tough on the UK the EU27 should be. At least one continental foreign ministry has today suggested to us that, even after invoking Article 50, the UK could change its mind up until the very last day.

On one side of the spectrum, in the run-up to a presidential election, François Hollande needs to show the French electorate that anyone who leaves the EU will pay a dear price in order to deter them from voting for the National Front. “Contagion” from Brexit must be avoided at all cost. Whilst in the run-up to a General Election in Germany, the Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, stresses the need to learn the lessons of Brexit and confidently asserts that “More Europe” is not the answer to every problem. Of course, Germany fears losing vital trade ties with one if its biggest markets.

Yet there is some agreement on the Continent: all agree that the UK cannot have full access to the Single Market without respecting the “four freedoms”, including freedom of movement. Or do they? Cracks are even appearing on that fundamental principle as Michel Sapin, the French Finance Minister, claimed that everything will be on the negotiating table.

The EU27, publicly, expect the UK to invoke Article 50 the day a new Prime Minister is sworn in – yet several candidates, including frontrunner Theresa May, have suggested the UK may wait until the end of the year before officially beginning negotiations. This delay might allow for some stability to return to the UK’s politics and take the emotional sting out of the debate but drawing out the process might further sour relations with the EU and, perhaps, prolong uncertainty on the markets.

How can businesses protect their interests in such uncertain times? For now, the priority has to be for companies to lobby those who will inform negotiating positions in UK, EU27 and Brussels to make them appreciate the damage hasty, ill thought-through negotiations could bring. They must push for calm, well thought-out negotiations that will lead to the least disruptive situation possible for trade and investment in the long term. A message must be sent to German, French and Italian officials, in particular, that the UK be treated fairly and a constructive approach taken. Companies from the outside Europe, the UK and the EU27 need to come together and collectively leverage political support on the ground in key EU Member States calling for a non-punitive approach to negotiations.

Business must focus on the post-Brexit reality as it stands today: the UK might have been the key opinion former inside the EU on technology, trade and single market issues, but it might be gone tomorrow. Therefore, they must look increasingly to themselves to defend their own interests. If Brexit indeed comes to pass, it will fundamentally change the EU’s internal dynamics. The EU’s biggest champion of free trade and market liberalisation will be gone and more protectionist tendencies remain unchecked. Sadly, unless everyone sees sense, there is a real danger of a “lose-lose” outcome that will only serve to undermine the standing and attractiveness of both the UK and EU27 economies.


55 députés votent leur allégeance à Vladimir Poutine

My recent piece in Libération (in French) can be found here.


“Le 28 avril 2016 restera longtemps dans les livres d’histoire. L’Assemblée nationale a choisi le camp de Vladimir Poutine plutôt que celui du droit international en votant une résolution pour la levée des sanctions européennes contre la Russie – sanctions imposées lors de l’annexion illégale de la Crimée ukrainienne en 2014, toujours occupée par Moscou deux ans plus tard […] la réalité est pourtant simple. La Crimée est toujours occupée et les droits de l’Homme s’y trouvent bafoués depuis l’invasion russe de ce territoire. La Russie est militairement présente dans l’Est de l’Ukraine et responsable de 9 000 morts dans le Donbass selon l’ONU – des morts dont M. Mariani évite soigneusement de parler. Vladimir Poutine n’est pas un partenaire fiable puisqu’il montre depuis des années qu’il n’a aucun égard pour le droit international. Lever les sanctions contre le régime russe reviendrait à pardonner M. Poutine pour ses abus et l’encourager à aller encore plus loin. La France doit rester ferme et déterminée et ne pas céder.”

Monsieur Porochenko, quelle justice pour les morts du Maïdan ?

Piece originally featured on Mediapart here, released on 22 April 2015.

Aujourd’hui,  Petro Porochenko, le président ukrainien, est en visite officielle en France. Anna Perehinec, porte-parole de la pétition Justice pour les manifestants ukrainiens, Alexis Prokopiev, président de l’association Russie-Libertés,  Pierre Tartakowsky, président de la Ligue des droits de l’Homme, Boris Najman, maître de conférences à l’Université Paris-est Créteil, Anna Garmash, militante ukrainienne, Igor Reshetnyak, militant ukrainien et Evan O’Connell, militant européen profitent de l’occasion pour l’interpeller sur l’enquête sur les morts du Maïdan.

Ce mercredi 22 avril le Président ukrainien Petro Porochenko sera à Paris pour une visite officielle. La rencontre entre les chefs d’Etat français et ukrainien a lieu dans un contexte international difficile et un cessez-le-feu fragile dans l’est de l’Ukraine. Il est évident que l’Ukraine ne pourra pas défendre l’intégrité de son territoire sans le soutien de ses alliés européens et que son destin sera déterminant pour l’avenir de l’Europe.

Alors que la paix reste toujours menacée, le Conseil de l’Europe publiait le 31 mars dernier unrapport du Comité consultatif en charge d’observer l’enquête sur les crimes commis il y a plus d’un an contre les manifestants ukrainiens sur la place Maïdan à Kyiv. Les conclusions du rapport sont très claires : seule une commission d’enquête internationale et indépendante permettra de faire la lumière sur ces événements tragiques. En novembre 2013, le peuple ukrainien s’était soulevé pour protester contre le régime corrompu du Président Ianoukovitch qui, contre toute attente, avait refusé de signer l’Accord d’association avec l’Union Européenne. Leur combat pour la liberté et la démocratie s’est heurté à une violence effroyable.

Un an après la tuerie de Maïdan, la question d’une justice impartiale est plus que jamais d’actualité. Il en va de la responsabilité du Président de l’Ukraine de montrer que les principes des droits humains, pour lesquels des  centaines de citoyens ukrainiens ont donné leur vie, sont les fondements mêmes de la nouvelle Ukraine démocratique qu’il souhaite bâtir. La communauté internationale se doit également de soutenir l’Ukraine dans le processus de mise en place de cette nécessaire enquête internationale et indépendante.

Monsieur le Président de l’Ukraine, près de 80.000 personnes se sont déjà mobilisées autour d’une pétition (« Justice pour les manifestants ukrainiens ») pour soutenir et défendre l’idée fondamentale que seule une justice impartiale permettra de rendre aux Ukrainiens leur dignité. Le nombre de signatures  ne cesse de croître jour après jour. Il en va de votre responsabilité de ne pas laisser les crimes commis contre les manifestants du Maïdan, contre le peuple ukrainien, impunis.

Does honesty matter? The example of Nigel Farage

Also posted on Labour International Paris’s blog, here.

“Cheeky chappy”.

“You’d have a pint with him.”

“The others ones are such odd twats.”

Every single reasonably aware British voter has heard these phrases – or similar versions thereof – with regards to Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, that seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut currently on 20-30% in most national polls for the upcoming European election in May, closely behind Labour. This improbable party leader, this Eurosceptic husband of a German wife, this former commodities trader now seen as a “man of the people” figure by many Britons, is such a Teflon politician that he even experienced a bump in popularity when it was revealed that he may well have been conducting an affair with his longstanding spokeswoman Annabelle Fuller (an affair that was an open secret for many UKIP members).

This comes despite much talk of expenses scandals, a lack of commitment to parliamentary duties, and the regular nomination of what more than one Tory has called “swivel eyed loons” as candidates for office at a European, national and local level. One look at current and recent Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is enough to see that apart from Mr. Farage himself, UKIP’s elected representatives in Brussels have made sexist comments and been accused of sexual assault, been convicted and jailed for expenses fraud, and in the case of Ashley Mote held onto an MEP position despite actually serving prison time while still in office.

One might think any mainstream political movement would have long disappeared if it had UKIP’s record and elected officials. Yet even in polling for the upcoming general election in 2015 – national elections being notoriously bad for third, fourth and fifth parties – UKIP is polling at 10-15%, often ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and certainly high enough that it is now systematically counted as a “big” national party and not a fringe movement. How is this possible?

Well, let’s call it the “Berlusconi factor” – or perhaps the “Rob Ford factor”, after the crack cocaine-smoking drunkard who is currently mayor of Toronto. This factor is one that I remember all too well from my teenage years (in the early 2000s) in Dublin, when the obviously corrupt and incompetent Bertie Ahern (who once, as I remember, declared that drink driving rules shouldn’t apply to him as he ‘could drive just fine after ten pints’) was Prime Minister (or Taoiseach, as the Irish would say). The general populace had little to no trust in Ahern, yet he was elected in 1997 and re-elected twice thererafter. One might also call it the “George W Bush factor”, after that famous teetotaler who was voted into office as the candidate that the electorate would like to have a beer with.

That factor decreases with time, as voters actually see what such obvious populists can and will do once they actually get into power. However, it’s a slow process – Berlusconi is only now being gradually pushed to the sidelines – and the damage in terms of the destruction of public trust in their elected officials as obviously bonkers politicians exercise public office in the meantime is potentially awful. Little to nothing suggests that UKIP’s popularity is waning even as light is shed on the inner workings of the party. When and where their progression will be stopped is not clear.

Putin’s ploy in Ukraine should be resisted at the ballot box

Also posted in EurActiv here. Co-written with Anna Garmash and Anna Jaillard Chesanovska.

Vladimir Putin’s ploy to show that he is not in control of the pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine is working well. The world now wonders if the Russian president is truly in control of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, write authors from the EuroMaidan France Collective, calling for Ukrainians to vote massively at the 25 May Presidential election.

The day after the pseudo-referendum organised by the pro-Russian separatists and characterised by massive fraud, Russia unsurprisingly called on all parties to “respect the will of the people of Eastern Ukraine”.

Last week, Vladimir Putin surprised the West by asking the separatists to push back the referendum and promised to withdraw his troops from the Ukrainian border, as well as expressing cautious approval of the 25 May presidential vote.

Vladimir Putin’s ploy to show that he is not in control of the pro-Russian insurgents is working well. The world now wonders if the Russian president is truly in control of the situation in Eastern Ukraine.

A week after his declaration that gave us some hope of an end to the crisis, we are now just as bitterly disappointed as ever: the Russian troops are still amassed at the border and the referendum – that Russia now demands be respected – did indeed take place on 11 May. Moreover, Ukrainian security services recently intercepted a significant money transfer from Moscow destined for the separatists who were preparing their “referendum” in Eastern Ukraine.

What motivates Vladimir Putin? The Russian president is one of the richest individuals in the world, has an unhealthily tight grasp on power and strongly disapproves of the creation of a free and democratic state on the other side of the Russian border. A united Ukraine free of the corruption that has kept it from developing for so many years is a direct threat not only for his power, but also his imperialistic ambitions – building a new Russian empire for which a strong Europe would be an obstacle.

In this worrying context, the 25 May is a decisive date for all of Europe. Presidential elections in Ukraine and European Parliament elections across the EU have only two possible outcomes: either contributing to building a stronger Europe or exposing us all to economic and geopolitical threats that will weaken Europe still further.

It is, therefore, our duty as Ukrainian and European citizens alike to go out, vote, and say no to the conservative, authoritarian Europe influenced by the Kremlin’s ideas and defended by Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Heinz-Christian Strache, Nigel Farage and so many other populists. We must support a strong, united and democratic Europe. We must support Ukraine.

Ukraine, Europe: le 25 mai, stoppons Poutine dans les urnes

Egalement publié dans EurActiv ici. Co-rédigé avec Anna Garmash et Anna Jaillard Chesanovska.

La tactique de Vladimir Poutine qui vise à démontrer son absence de contrôle sur les insurgés pro-russes semble bien fonctionner. Il appartient maintenant aux citoyens Ukrainiens et européens de stopper l’Europe de Poutine et des populistes lors des élections du 25 mai.

Le lendemain du pseudo-référendum organisé par les séparatistes pro-russes et entaché de fraudes massives, la Russie, sans grande surprise, appelle à « respecter la volonté des Ukrainiens de l’Est qui se sont exprimés ».

La semaine dernière Vladimir Poutine a surpris l’Occident en demandant aux séparatistes de reporter le référendum et en promettant de retirer ses troupes des frontières ukrainiennes, tout en approuvant à demi mot les élections présidentielles du 25 mai.

La tactique de Vladimir Poutine qui vise à démontrer son absence de contrôle sur les insurgés pro-russes semble bien fonctionner. Le monde s’interroge : le Président russe maîtrise-il vraiment la situation dans l’est de l’Ukraine ?

Une semaine après sa déclaration qui avait donné un semblant d’espoir pour une sortie de crise, le constat est amer : les troupes russes sont toujours massées aux frontières et le référendum – que la Russie demande désormais de respecter – a bien eu lieu le 11 mai dernier. Pire encore, les services ukrainiens ont intercepté le virement d’une importante somme d’argent provenant de Moscou pour le compte des séparatistes en plein préparatifs du « référendum » dans l’est de l’Ukraine.

Mais quel est le but de Vladimir Poutine ? Le Président russe est l’une des plus grosses fortunes du monde, il s’accroche frénétiquement au pouvoir  et voit d’un très mauvais œil la création d’un Etat libre et démocratique  à ses frontières. Une Ukraine unie et débarrassée de la corruption qui la ronge depuis tant d’années est une menace directe non seulement pour son pouvoir, mais aussi pour son projet aux ambitions impérialistes, celui de la construction d’un nouvel empire russe et pour lequel une Europe forte serait un obstacle.

Dans ce contexte tendu, la date du 25 mai est décisive pour l’avenir de l’Europe entière. Ce jour des élections présidentielles en Ukraine et des élections européennes aura deux issues possibles : ou bien il posera les nouvelles bases d’une Europe forte, ou  bien l’exposera à tous les dangers économiques et  géopolitiques qui l’affaibliront encore plus.

Il est par conséquent de notre devoir, à nous tous citoyens ukrainiens et européens, de dire “non” à l’Europe conservatrice, autoritaire et influencée par les idées du Kremlin que défendent Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Heinz-Christian Strache, Nigel Farage et bien d’autres populistes. Soutenons une Europe forte, unie et démocratique. Soutenons l’Ukraine.

Climate change and food security: The world is watching

Also posted in EurActiv here.

The European Union and its member states must act to provide its scientists with the tools they need to ensure and enhance food security at a time of massive global changes. This needs to happen today – not tomorrow – as the world is watching.

“The whole world is watching”. That was the cry of anti-war demonstrators in Chicago in 1968, imploring their leaders to act. Today, Europe’s leaders are at the same crossroads when it comes to climate change and food security. The Commission, national governments and policy-makers across the continent know all too well that they must act – and that their failure to do so could be fatal. Yet too many EU Member States still do not support vital research infrastructures like AnaEE (Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems) that provide the experimental tools, data, predictive models and mitigation and management strategies that will help us respond to climate change in a sustainable way, with a proper understanding of the impact of our actions on food production, health and biodiversity.

Climate change has already had a sizeable impact on crop growth and yields, as well as natural ecosystems. Coupled with continued population growth that will bring the world’s population to 9.6 billion people by 2050, as well as improvements in living standards in many emerging countries, this means that we must do far more to ensure we find and maintain that delicate balance between feeding the planet and reducing our environmental impact thereupon. The future is uncertain – and we do not currently have all the tools and models we need to anticipate what these changes will mean for food production and supply, as well as biodiversity and natural ecosystems.

Many believed until recently, despite climate change and increasing global population, that we had several decades of surplus ahead of us. However, it is clear that pressures on the food supply are growing. The sustainability of agricultural, forested and freshwater ecosystems is under threat due to climate change, loss of biodiversity, land use changes, and disturbance of biogeochemical cycles.

The problem is so acute that it is estimated that a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil faster than new soil is forming. (1) This particularly impacts the poorest regions of the world. Regions such as Southern Europe are particularly at risk of water shortages. (2) More extreme variations in temperature and precipitation are playing havoc with agricultural production and growth trends of yields of major crops – especially wheat – have declined over the past two decades. (3)

But the answer is not merely intensification. Land use change resulting from expansion of agricultural land is one of the main contributors to the growth of CO2 emissions (4) while also putting an ever greater strain on the water supply. Add to that the impact of the increasing frequency of extreme climatic events, like the summer heat wave of 2003 which led to €36 billion of economic losses for the agriculture sector in the EU and to large carbon losses from ecosystems, and it is clear that we need to find smarter and more sustainable ways to produce more food with fewer resources. This includes a complete understanding of the impact of the inputs used in farming and the impact of the outputs of human activity, such as pesticides, herbicides, NPK fertilisers, run-off and the like.

Our understanding of how precisely climatic changes and the impact of human activity affect ecosystems is still incomplete, however. That is why we must do more to support research initiatives in the area of agriculture, food and climate that will allow us to test and validate models showing how fluctuations in temperature, CO2, soil acidity, nutrients and other factors affect food production, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

International research programmes like the CGIAR research programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) have been initiated to address such questions for the developing world. Within Europe, 21 EU Member States came together in 2010 to launch the Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI), which aims to foster collaboration among national agencies and ministries to work toward alignment of research programming at the intersection of the areas of agriculture, food security and climate change.

However, while Europe’s research community knows that at a time of financial uncertainty it must try to do more with less, the sophisticated research infrastructures that will provide answers to these burning questions must be adequately funded and supported. One key example of this is AnaEE (Analysis and Experimentation on Ecosystems) – currently bringing together 13 research bodies from 10 countries.

Launched in November 2012, AnaEE aims to provide Europe’s researchers in agriculture and environmental science with a distributed, integrated network of platforms and central hubs that will help them find experimental solutions to key global challenges.

Aiming both to bring Europe’s scientists together under one roof and foster cooperation with other parts of the world, AnaEE has already built cooperation with similar networks in the USA (NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network) and Australia (TERN, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network), with a Memorandum of Understanding in process. As AnaEE realises that it cannot respond to climate change alone, it is also building links with existing European research infrastructures such as ICOS (carbon observation) and LifeWatch (e-infrastructure for biodiversity), including common sites and tools.

Yet while AnaEE has received initial funding for its preparatory phase, as well as funding from a handful of national governments, much more needs to be done: while support from governments like France, Italy, Belgium and the UK is strong, most others have yet to invest in this vital research infrastructure that will allow Europe’s scientists to conduct high-tech experiments that will provide real solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.

We also believe that private sector companies big and small, from sectors including food and drink, mining, paper and steel, as well as the pesticide and fertiliser industries who have a vested interest in understanding the impact of their products, have a role to play in helping scientists develop the kind of environmental management and mitigation strategies – as well as impact assessment – that will help them be more sustainable in future.

Europe must act to provide its scientists with the tools they need to ensure and enhance food security at a time of massive global changes. This needs to happen today – not tomorrow. We cannot afford to wait. The whole world is watching.

(1) Nkonya E, Gerber N, Baumgartner P et al. (2011) The Economics of Land Degradation Toward an Integrated Global Assessment. Development Economics and Policy. Volume 66, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien.

(2) Fereres E, Orgaz F, Gonzalez-Dugo V (2011) Reflections on food security under water scarcity. Journal of Experimental Botany, 62, 4079–4086.

(3) Olesen JE, Trnka M, Kersebaum KC et al. (2011) Impacts and adaptation of European crop production systems to climate change. European Journal of Agronomym, 34, 96–112.

(4) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) Climate change: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. In: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PJ, Hanson CE), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.