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Archive for the tag “EU Affairs”

Becoming the Ulysses of Europe

languages_of_the_worldMulticulturalism makes us more human, and in turn more European. When we are receptive to external stimuli from different languages and cultures we ourselves become richer in every way. Coming from someone who speaks 32 languages, both active and ‘dead’, who has studied the history and origins of most known languages, and who has travelled the world in order to speak them, this statement carries considerable weight.

Ioannis Ikonomou is one of the hundreds of translators that work for the European Commission. What makes him stand out though is his thorough knowledge of dozens of languages and the enthusiasm with which he expresses his passion for learning languages.

‘I don’t learn languages to have them in dictionaries gathering dust’ he explains. Languages are learnt to be lived. And the best part of learning a language is that it enriches your life, it allows you to travel to different places and communicate with the locals in their own language, to delve into new cultures, new mentalities, and different ways of life.

Language learning should begin from a young age, from the moment the mind can start soaking up new words and new worlds and when the sound of different tongues serves as a stimulus for a life of globe-trotting. That is what happened with Ikonomou who says that it was the sounds made by foreign tourists on his home island of Crete that inspired him to start learning languages. Indeed, learning to communicate in the language of the ‘other’ opens up more doors than a ‘common’ language ever will. The late Nelson Mandela said, ‘if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’

Ikonomou tells me how his knowledge of languages has helped him read literature he would have never been able to discover had he not known the corresponding languages. He says that many Hungarian, Turkish, Polish, Romanian and other great writers have not even been translated into English. When you invest time to learn a language, you expect to reap the fruits of your labour – and just as money breeds greed, language learning breeds a burning desire for life experiences, memories, and friendships. This is what it really means to be European. Breaking monolingual language barriers and stepping into the realm of the ‘other’ – that’s what it’s all about. By learning languages you allow yourself to engage and interact with different cultures, values and traditions.

Every language is a different world, a different way of life, a unique mentality, and as such even the simplest of words (for example ‘bread’) will have different connotations in every language. Translators and interpreters have a difficult job. Ikonomou knows this well, having served as both. But at the same time he relishes the mental challenge offered by his job, because, as he says, leaping from language to language is a fantastic exercise. It is like balancing between worlds.

Having studied linguistics, Ikonomou knows that learning the history and origins of languages helps you to better understand your own. In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.’

Multiculturalism and multilingualism imply openness. They suggest that you are able to escape the introvert phobias that are prevailing in Europe with the rise of the far-right, and that you are able to live with and learn from the ‘other’. Ulysses was enriched by the cities he encountered and the people he met, says Ikonomou as he recites a lyric from Homer in ancient Greek. Ulysses was much more prosperous than his son Telemachos who stayed in Ithaca all his life, and as such Ikonomou declares, ‘I want to be Ulysses,’ living in an open society. He dreams of an open society receptive to stimuli and different people from around the world, because it is only when we embrace each other’s cultures and languages that we will truly be able to live harmoniously with one other.

Ikonomou says that he doesn’t want to live his life stuck in a daily routine.  What better way to break free from schedules than delving into a different world, culture and way of life? By truly learning what ‘united in diversity’ means, and by being able to acquire an insight into the customs and life of our European neighbours.

This article was published on cafebabel.com on 18 December 2013, under the title “I speak 32 languages”. It has since been translated into Spanish, Italian, French and Polish.

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Indebted to the future

DSC05826“We live in a Europe of mistrust”. This is what European Parliament (EP) President Martin Schulz stated yesterday Monday 4 November speaking at a very interesting conference in Athens. Organised by the EP Information Offices in Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain – the countries worst hit by the crisis and forced to implement austerity measures – the first of its kind international conference entitled “South for Growth” aims to address the challenges and prospects faced by the countries on the south of the European map in managing the crisis.

In a densely packed room at the Athens Concert Hall, keynote speaker Schulz uttered “it is time to come to an end with the rhetoric of crisis and start a new debate – the rhetoric of hope”. He outlined four proposals which he said are the key points in forging a strategy that will help the south exit the crisis.

Calling on personal experiences, Schulz stated that during the post-WWII period governments asked parents to make sacrifices, with the promise that this would bring a better future for their children.
“These promises were kept,” he said, noting that his generation lived a better life with unprecedented opportunities. “Europe was a promise”. But now, how can we ask parents to make all the more sacrifices, when their children are unemployed, desperate and have lost hope in their future? It is for this reason, Schulz said that youth unemployment must be the first step in promoting growth.

In a passionate and dynamic speech, the EP president stressed that it is unacceptable that the European Central Bank (ECB) maintains interest rates at such a low  figure (0.5%), but Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) do not have access to liquidity. This money is not injected into the real economy, he said, and for this we need a strategy to overcome the credit crunch and help realize the SMEs’ projects. This in turn, he added, will help with employment opportunities.

“We are not bold enough,” he stated. “Let’s dare more, be more imaginative, let’s seize the potential of the resources and geostrategy of the Mediterranean”. Greater economic cooperation in this region will lead to a stronger south and as a result to a more powerful Union.

But “for all these proposals to be realized we need to regain confidence between north and south, between citizens, politics and institutions”. Using the word “trust” over ten times, Schulz was striving to pass the message that without the trust of its people in the EU and the principles of the EU forefathers, the EU structure cannot move forward.

Himself a probable candidate for the post of European Commission President, Schulz delivered a speech that by far responded to the expectations of all those people from all over Europe, mainly young, who filled the room for this conference. It is unknown as to whether the EU officials’ persistence on immediate actions that deliver results is actually due to the campaigning that has already begun ahead of the 2014 EU elections. Because it is widely acknowledged that to stay on board, you need to have achievements to show in your favour.

“The trust of citizens cannot be gained by speeches. It can only be gained when we deliver solutions,” said Schulz with MEP Thodoros Skylakakis (ALDE) adding that “we are just talking heads…we do not realize the extent of the problems, and for that citizens don’t listen to us”.

We live in a Europe of mistrust and of debt. And as EP Vice President Anni Podimata said, “we are indebted”. Not only because of the money we owe, but because of the hope and future we promised to provide to the next generation.

 

Also part of NaBloPoMo (November 2013)

Living in a bubble

Photo 16-10-13 18 46 23The signs in Brussels Airport say “Welcome to Europe”; because let’s face it, you think of Brussels and European Union (EU) springs to mind.

I was over there for a two-and-a-half day workshop for young journalists, hosted by the European Parliament. It was stressful and hard work, but it was an amazing experience and the contacts and friendships made were more than worth it. To be honest the amount and quality of work we managed to produce in such a short time is indeed impressive. Especially given all the challenges we faced.

For starters there was the adventure of finding your way in Brussels and to the EU institutions. For first-timers it was no piece of cake. Three years after my first time in Brussels and there are still construction works going on all around the EU Quarter. Something which makes orientating yourself so much harder. And for people (like myself) who have a bit of trouble with orientation, it means getting lost countless of times. But hey, that’s how you learn a place better. At least that’s what they say. Because I’ve seen beautiful places that I have no idea how to get back to!

So, after walking in circles between the Schuman and Maelbeek metro stations, that is between the Commission, Council and Parliament buildings, there on one side of rue Belliard appears the impressive esplanade of the European Parliament (EP), with the fancy digital screen of the Parlamentarium inviting you in, and this period calling you to vote in the 2014 EU elections.

So all is well, and having already burnt the calories you had for breakfast, you’ve passed the security checks and you’re in! You’re in this huge (I mean really huge) building that hosts representatives from 28 European countries and serves (or at least claims to do so) as the ‘voice of EU citizens’. Being inside is impressive. But there are so many offices, rooms, floors, towers, buildings, that it is almost impossible not to get lost. Yet everyone who works there seems so comfortable in moving (actually rushing) around that it makes you wonder: do they have a secret map embedded in their brain that we do not know of? Personally, I had to ask for directions a handful of times while going around and up and down that building. It seems like a maze. And one person who kindly directed me to the right elevator (yes, I had trouble finding these too!) told me that ‘this building is so confusing it’s as if it is designed to trap people inside’. For example, did you know that there is an exit on the third floor?

Even finding the canteen required asking for directions. And then actually getting the food was itself a complex process, or so it seemed to us, because everyone else pretty much knew what they were doing and where to go. We were just in their way.

This EP mall, as it is called, is exactly that. Fully equipped with a sports centre, hairdresser’s, banks, cafés, restaurants, shops, florists, and I’m sure there is a ‘nap-pad’ hidden somewhere. It’s like the Google playground in The Internship, only for EU civil servants. And I’m sure the buildings of the other EU institutions are similar to this.

But seeing and experiencing all this from the inside, you are left to wonder: do these EU officials live in their own world? They don’t even need to go outside. Heck, by the time a visitor would manage to find the exit, it would be time to go back in again to resume their work! But it seems that after all, the EU does live in a bubble. Detached from reality, distant from what people’s lives are really like. They make decisions, reports and dossiers, all drowning in bureaucracy, but they seem to be unaware of how all these policies affect people’s lives in practice. Just ask any citizen of a Memorandum country and you’ll see the negative view that prevails of the EU, its officials and its policies.

If the confusion and disorder that reigns in the EU Quarter and is encountered by visitors is in any way symbolic of the ‘Europe’ that Brussels proclaims it represents, then it is no surprise why the EU is in such chaos and is constantly losing credibility and trust in the eyes of its citizens.

EU officials should exit their bubble once in a while and see for themselves how their decisions affect the people they claim to represent. After all, isn’t that their job? They’re supposed to be accessible and close to their constituents. Not locked in an office, a building or a mall. Particularly one in which you need a map, comfortable shoes, security badges, and a lot of patience, in order to find your way around.

Brussels is a beautiful city, but if you’re isolated inside what in essence can only be described as a ‘small state’, you don’t really get to experience it.  And if you’re in there too long, when you do get out in the real world, you should cover your ears at the deafening sound of your bubble bursting.

18 October 2013, Brussels

Jobless, Hopeless and Divided

Is European Labour Mobility dividing the EU?

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It’s a hard time to be young. It’s even worse if you come from the periphery of Europe. Unemployment has reached unprecedented levels, and youngsters are forced to migrate northbound for a better future. But how is this ‘great escape’ affecting the unity of the EU project?

On 9 May 1950, Robert Schuman said that Europe cannot be built in a day, but rather through events that require solidarity. Today’s European Union (EU) seems too distant from this vision. “We are doing everything in the wrong way,” says Portuguese MEP Inês Cristina Zuber (GUE/NGL), Vice President of the European Parliament’s (EP) Employment and Social Affairs Committee. She explained that the biggest problem qualified youth face today is that they are in jobs without quality contracts, no job security and no social benefits. They may even live precariously like this for years. In fact, youth unemployment has reached unprecedented levels, averaging 23% in the EU and reaching 63% in Greece, and with increasing long-term unemployment, the youth of today risk becoming the unemployable adults of tomorrow.

“We have to change these kind of labour relations,” stated Zuber, “we must create safer labour relations with guarantees and rights in order to keep people in their country. It is impossible to develop a country without these qualified people,” she said.

Her co-vice president for the EP Employment Committee, German MEP Thomas Mann (EPP), said that the EU’s Youth Employment Initiative is very important in this sense, and particularly the Youth Guarantee Scheme through which member states committed to ensure that within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving formal education all young people up to 25 years receive a high-quality offer for a job, an apprenticeship or traineeship. But can this really work?

EURES Adviser in Cyprus Antonis Kafouros appeared pessimistic. He said that even this is targeted to specific groups, as it cannot help everyone. “Such schemes often simply serve to keep unemployment figures at a steady level,” he explained. “There is no real investment in infrastructure or job creation. Demand levels do not increase. The programme is simply adding more qualified people into the supply end. If there are no jobs in which to use the skills/experience gained then it is futile”.

The EU has earmarked €6 billion for 2014-2016 for this scheme. But even though that sounds impressive, Joachim Weidemann, head of “Insight EU” at Deutsche Presse Agentur (dpa), calculated that this amounts to a mere €500 per unemployed person per year. “In order to have the minimum effect this programme would require €21 billion,” he noted.

Giving youngsters a chance

For Mann, however, this initiative is “a small drop on a hot stone”. It is a first step to give young people a chance to become integrated into the labour force, to gain experience and have the opportunity to seek a job. Such programmes are supported by the European Social Fund (ESF) which for the 2007-2013 period amounts to some €75 billion, more than €10 billion per year.  Mann believes this would help create the conditions for young people to stay in their countries. “The decision is taken at the EU level but the realization is in the hands of member states,” he said. He stressed that the ways for southern European countries to combat increased unemployment is by changing the conditions in these countries. “They should realize reforms and this takes hard work. Some are too lazy for these reforms.” But he insisted that the best way forward is to learn from each other: “we must ask why some countries are so successful while others are waiting for money from outside.”

Qualified individuals from the periphery of Europe face more than twice as high unemployment rates than in the north and core (17.1% compared to 7.1%). Many of these seek a better future abroad. But according to a 2011 Flash Eurobarometer, 44% of EU respondents do not want to leave their country. “They are forced to go,” says Zuber, pointing out that this is not true ‘mobility’ but immigration.

“The EU is marketing its idea of Social Europe to legitimse itself before public opinion,” continued Zuber. But how the EU is actually affecting the lives of its citizens is different. “We are now living worse than our parents,” she said, reverberating EP President Martin Schulz’s statement of a lost generation. “The EU’s programmes will help the youth find jobs and traineeships, but it is not solving the problem.” She argued that a positive discrimination is required to help countries in trouble recover and develop top-quality infrastructure. “More solidarity” is needed she said.

Zuber believes that the EU must invest in these countries, otherwise the gap in development will become even greater. “There will be the countries with the know-how and the technology and then the periphery (the countries now under a Memorandum of Understanding) with the cheap labour force to work in their industries. We will create a Europe even more divergent.”

The EU’s motto is in fact united in diversity. With all the challenges and opportunities this entails. But by failing to contain this ‘brain drain’ from the periphery to the core, the situation in immigrants’ home countries deteriorates further, accentuating the division of the EU into a prosperous north and a despaired south.

Written in Brussels on 15-17 October for the European Youth Media Days (EYMD) 2013 Orange Magazine.

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