Tag Archives: eu

Double standards for second-rate citizens

EU’s hypocrisy has come to the fore once more, what with the recent outcry from a number of Central and East European countries against the double standards in many products, and not just food products, that are being sold at one quality in West Europe, while its lesser quality versions are being dumped onto “second-hand”, “New” Europe for the same price or even more:

“Bulgaria and Romania have joined an outcry against multinational food companies, accused of selling lower quality products in Eastern Europe compared to those offered in the Western supermarkets.”
Source: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bulgaria-romania-join-outcry-against-varying-food-quality-in-the-eu-03-07-2017

In a nutshell, the same product, produced by the same company, advertised in the same way and supposedly being produced in the same manner with the same ingredients, has turned out to be quite different in, say, Germany, Austria and France on one side, and Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania on the other.

A large investigation spanning several countries has included dozens of products from 5 major groups, including foods and home items such as dish-washing and clothe-washing detergents, etc. The same product has been compared in the markets and shops at the two sides of the now supposedly removed Iron Curtain. The most prominent examples being chocolate, non-alcoholic beverages, meat, dairy products, fruit juices and children’s foods.

The comparative research has found out that identical products of the same brand have vast differences in their ingredients, their quality and even the terms of duration. As soon as they get labeled, the same product receives a different label, depending on their destination. The ministers of foods and agriculture of Romania, Bulgaria and a number of other East European countries are now planning to refer the matter to the EU commissioner for consumer rights. These governments have also called urgent meetings of their ministers to address the issue, so it’s not like this isn’t a biggie, and is just some sort of conspiracy theory being floated around the yellow press.

Central European governments have issued official protests, and are now calling for the EU to take action against these double standards:

Just a couple of examples. In Germany, a non-alcoholic beverage that contains sugar has been labeled accordingly, because it contains sugar. In Bulgaria, the very same product is made with fructose-glucose syrup instead. The “natural” juices in Germany contain 100% fruit, at this side of the divide, not so much. The same brand and same model of product has different contents. Some would say, “but it’s cheaper!” Well, guess what? It isn’t. Often, it’s even more expensive.

Children’s foods are another example of these discrepancies. A fruit mash contained 1.5% proteins per 100 g in Germany, and 1% per 100 g here. And this isn’t just about quality and ingredients, it’s about the prices too. The most striking discrepancy in the whole research came exactly from two types of children’s mashes, by the way. One was 90% more expensive than its West European counterpart (supposedly same ingredients and quality), the other by 107% (that one was established to be of lower quality). The same price gap is observed in the dairy products, between 20% and 70% more expensive in East Europe (supposedly lower living standard, so prices should be lower, not higher there, right?)

While these foods may not be harmful or poisonous (God forbid!), they’ve often been incorrectly labeled as identical everywhere, and these discrepancies are not just incidental, they’re endemic. So people have become very suspicious, and the question naturally arises, what gives!?

Mind you, even local products show such discrepancies, and these go way beyond the possible statistical error. The research included 6 types of local products, from hams to canned food to some sorts of sausages. There are uniform EU standards about these things, right? Or at least there are supposed to be. Well first, the experts investigated if we’re talking of the same type of meat. They established there were noticeable differences in the physical and chemical properties of the meat. They were examined for soy proteins, water concentration, proteins, fats, etc. Some sausages showed water contents that were by 3.2% and more higher than their German counterparts. We can’t be just talking of artificial pumping of water into the meat to make it heavier – not after the technological time for its maturing had passed.

Fat contents in the Bulgarian products was 1,2% lower on average. Salt, on the other hand, was way higher than in the EU product.

Noticeable differences were also observed in the same chocolate products (mostly in their outer looks), and also some sorts of cheese (including color, texture, etc).

The issue will be put for discussion at the upcoming meeting of the EU council of ministers on July 17/18. Officially, Slovakia will be the one to present the question, although it’ll be speaking on behalf of at least half a dozen countries. This is a major cause for concern, because it’s an issue that’s not just about the rules of the market, it’s also political. East Europe is feeling slighted, overlooked, bypassed, betrayed. It’s not helping the European cause, what with all the Euroskepticism that’s been on the rise, including in countries that have joined the union relatively recently (and where sentiments of regret for that decision have been rising lately).

In some countries like mine, there’s also been a wide-spread sentiment that joining the EU came at a huge cost: while we’re now being granted scraps in the form of EU funds, we’ve had to dismantle much of our agricultural, food and clothing industry in favor of our West European brethren, much of it supposedly privatized, then sold for coins like junk, never to be re-opened again. In its place, various imported goods have flooded our markets, of much lower quality (now proven), for higher prices, and not benefiting our economy or our labor market in any way whatsoever – save for lining the pockets of the big international trade chains who’ve pushed our local smaller producers into a corner, forcing them to sell their produce for a fraction of its real value, just barely allowing them to make ends meet.

This can’t continue much longer. The people are not that stupid. They’ve started to notice that they’re being played. And unless something is changed, sooner or later the critical point will come when they’ll have to say enough is enough. And then the EU would be in big trouble.


The balkanization of Europe

Exactly a quarter of a century ago, in a small Dutch town called Maastricht, the European community was renamed to the European Union. The beginning of this union became a tale that everyone kept telling their kids as an example of economic and political success. But the downsides of that success that few people used to talk about until recently, which remained largely ignored for the last quarter of a century, are now threatening the future of the union more and more.

In the first years after Maastricht, these flaws might have been too difficult to spot, granted. But they remained there to linger, never to be addressed, and it took a lot of time for them to come to the surface and start threatening the unity of the union in a noticeable way. That time has come now.

One of those flaws that were put in the very foundations of the EU from day one was its inability to adequately assess the crisis in Yugoslavia and prevent the escalation of the conflicts among the warring sides. It later transformed into an inability to pacify the region in a meaningful way.

Practically, Maastricht was Germany’s way of transferring its economic power onto a larger scale – but also one of its inherent flaws: the EU became just like West Germany at the time of the Cold War. An economic giant that was simultaneously a political dwarf. That dwarf has almost stopped growing for the last quarter of a century. All temporary therapies with growth hormones in the area of foreign policy and security policy have proven futile. No coherent foreign-policy strategy towards the West Balkans ever came to be for that long period. And the region has remained engulfed in political instability.

The EU has also proven incapable of achieving consensus on its foreign policy. The fact that Germany has shown stringent firmness towards the crisis-stricken economies from the southern periphery, while towards the refugees it showed an inexplicably lax generosity, could’ve been excused with some sort of humanitarian or financial logic. But both policies were poison to the EU’s unity. Furthermore, these decisions were pushed through with force, without consulting with the public or with the sides involved in the respective problems. As were a number of prior decisions before that. When Greece was getting ushered into the Euro zone, all Western EU members chose to turn the other way to the fact that Greece wasn’t ready. The same happened when Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia were getting accepted. The story repeated over and over.

The Dublin rules which says the refugees should remain or be returned to the country where they first entered the EU territory, serves Germany and the other wealthy North European countries well, but it puts a huge pressure on the Mediterranean countries. The stubborn neglect of the migration pressure coming like a wave from the south, has turned the Mediterranean Sea into a mass grave, and the Syrian tragedy, into an all-European drama.

America’s military logic, which has always served the EU’s interests, has brought a series of interventions in foreign lands. They’ve not only caused unimaginable destruction and the collapse of entire states, but it has eroded the solidarity between the EU members. Now there’s no trace left of the solidarity towards the weaker countries or migrants. Which is why the Brexit happened, why Kaczinski rules in Poland and Orban in Hungary, and why Le Pen and Wilders are charging for power in France and the Netherlands, respectively. As if the situation wasn’t already complicated enough, what with the growing assertiveness of the likes of Putin, Erdogan and now Trump.

The current situation in the EU is starting to resemble the pre-collapse era in Yugoslavia. The catastrophe in Tito’s former dreamland happened in result of an explosive mix of economic crisis and rapidly growing ethnic tensions. Thus, all political and economic cracks that had already been there, quickly became huge rifts, and grew into ethnic conflicts that saw the disintegration of that state.

In the eyes of the Western analysts, that sort of development looked like an outdated remnant of times long past at the time – more like a sad deviation from the general trend of unstoppable progress towards “the end of history” (as per Fukuyama). But now, 25 years later, unfortunately we’re compelled to realize that the collapse of Yugoslavia was just a minor precursor to what’s now starting to increasingly look like an inevitable end of an entire process that has passed through all stages of its life cycle.

Evidently, the neo-liberal elites in the Western societies have completely underestimated people’s fears. Which is why nationalism is rearing its head back again, and taking over the public discourse, including in the Western European countries which were supposed to be nearing the coveted stage of eternal and unshakable peace and prosperity. Austria almost elected an ultra-nationalist president, and what’s going to happen in France, no one can predict at this point.

So all that said, what can be done? As simple as it sounds, the way out of this predicament may not be that easy to implement: the EU has to behave as a team at the international scene, firmly united around a certain set of values. As for domestic policy, it has to really be a solidary society. Not just on paper and in words. It’s far better and cheaper to invest into early efforts than later do politically and economically expensive damage-control interventions after the fact.

Whether Europe would re-invent its failed idea for a European Constitution, or it’ll ultimately split into a “Europe of two speeds”, is of secondary importance in that respect. What’s of crucial importance is if the EU would work as a capable, solidary union internationally, a team that has a clear and solid strategy that it has discussed openly, understood completely, and decided to defend unfalteringly – or it’ll just keep floating along with the current, only to sink further down into irrelevance and obscurity. Time is running out. We must decide.

Time to stop the fussing

The waiting is over. Britain is now clearly formulating a road-map towards its divorce with Europe. And that is quite something. Because for a long time there was no clarity about the Brexit: how it would happen, when it would happen, and who would do it. And what the consequences would be. For too long, too many people were having false illusions that the Britons would somehow change their minds. Or that Britain would somehow manage to keep its place in the European market. Well, the EU’s response was No. Juncker had said even before the referendum that the UK would have to either take it all or leave it all. That was a warning and a treat: there would be no compromise, “deserting traitors” would not be welcome.

Now we can sense some Schadenfreude in the statements coming from Brussels. Whenever the plunging pound is mentioned, the general mood is that this is deserved punishment for Britain. Perhaps Brussels wants to discipline the other 27 members this way, but in fact it’s only giving ammo to more Euro-skepticism, and harming itself economically. For example, it is in the interest of the German exporters to have access to the British market without trade restrictions, because this is a very important market for them. 1/5 of all German cars go to Britain, after all.

Now the British are finding themselves compelled to look for other ways, and take on the offensive. They want to leave the European internal market and re-negotiate their relations with the EU, and hopefully achieve as close a trade partnership as possible. At least that is how we can read Mrs May’s speech from the other day, which by the way she gave with quite some sense of defiance and pride. Britain does not intend to beg Brussels for anything, you see. It wants to be open to the whole world. And this matches well with Trump’s plans to reach a bilateral agreement with the UK. Given the EU’s enormous difficulties in negotiating transnational trade agreements, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that other countries like China and Brazil could pursue separate agreements with Britain as well.

Of course, few Britons wanted things to come to this point. Those who voted for the Brexit mostly wanted better control on immigration. Contrary to the predominant impression in continental Europe, the Britons didn’t have such a problem with the current migrants of EU origin, but rather the future ones. There were frequent questions before the referendum how Cameron would stop the hundreds of thousands of migrants from arriving to Britain after getting EU citizenship (mostly German). He never had an adequate answer to this. And Merkel’s policy of uncontrolled migration at the time added new momentum to the pro-Brexit camp. We all know the result.

Whatever we say, the decision has been made. And Brussels and Berlin have to adjust their behaviour. Juncker’s warning/threat about the “deserting traitors” reveals a certain amount of bewilderment with the very possibility that someone, anyone, could even think of turning their back on the brave Brussels-led world. A world that was so complacent and self-assured in its own righteousness and correctness that it never saw the trouble coming. And now the Brexit is putting the entire EU as we know it in question. Which is not necessarily a dangerous or a bad thing – it could actually turn out to be a healthy catalyst for real change. Because, as great an idea as the European project may be, it cannot be sustained through pressure and threats of punishment. Its strength is when it is open and attractive, not intimidating.

How The EU Banned Orthodox Christianity… Except It Didn’t

We’ve all become perfectly aware by now that the EU has been under increasing pressure from hostile Russian propaganda, which threatens to undermine its relations with its partners, to block important decisions, and generally damage the credibility of the major European institutions by instilling fear and a sense of insecurity among the EU citizens. The purpose is to cause discord within the EU, and put its democratic values in question – and the means that the Russian government is using to achieve that are various, from think-tanks, to multilingual TV channels (RT), to pseudo information agencies and multimedia sources (Sputnik), trans-border social groups and religious organizations, to social media and internet trolls, and of course funding political parties (mostly Euroskeptic and right-wing) and populist movements.

That’s basically what the part about Russia in the EU’s recent report on Strategic Communication With A View To Counteracting Propaganda Against It By Third Countries says. This EU resolution only has an advisable character and doesn’t impose anything on anybody, instead it recommends urgent measures for countering hostile propaganda, without prescribing bans on free speech or any such thing. All it does is identify a problem, and propose possible solutions within the law.

And yet, the report has caused a hysterical reaction. Even from the highest ranks in the Kremlin, and of course the usual suspects among the Kremlin media puppets: “We are witnessing an obvious degradation in the notions of democracy of the Western society”. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the report “a disgusting paper, proving the EU’s information crimes”. Some of the above-mentioned Russian “media” called for all international organizations, media groups and unions, to show solidarity and oppose the “creeping discrimination and censorship”. And our very own former prime-minister from the Socialist Party, now turned chairman of the European Socialist Party, Sergei Stanishev expressed formal indignation at the “absurd placing of Russia alongside ISIS in the same document”. From his entire expose, it transpires that Russian propaganda doesn’t exist as a problem in his mind, and the very mention of Russia in some sort of negative context is akin to a crime against humanity.

But the very reactions that followed this resolution in themselves are evidence in support for the statements contained inside, and proof for its conclusions about the methods and tools of Russia’s propaganda war. Or “hybrid war” as we call it nowadays.

You want examples? Fine. Just days before the resolution was voted in Strasbourg, Russia Today cited “trusted sources” to spread the “news” that a sinister amendment had been added to the draft document, stating that “Orthodox Christianity is dangerous because it strives to spread its Christian values and expand its influence in the world”. The article also claimed that the EU was “starting a war against Orthodox Christian propaganda in Europe and around the world”. Then the “news” was instantaneously transmitted by various known and unknown “media” in East Europe, my country included, all of them raising a hue and cry that the European Parliament was planning to adopt a bill to authorize a war against ideological enemies from outside, its main target being Orthodox Christian propaganda. They also claimed that “even at the time of the Ottoman yoke, Orthodox Christianity had enjoyed a protected status and was preserved, while now the EU wants to destroy it and ban it”.

Then a chorus of “analysts” joined in, explaining how “the West always needs an external enemy”, and in order to counter Russia, it’s now planning to attack Orthodox Christianity “as the last paragon of freedom in the world” (which it most emphatically isn’t). Which, for countries defined by their Orthodox heritage (like my country) was “a sucker-punch on their primary historical, cultural and religious identity”. Meanwhile, the discussion was joined by the thousands of payroll trolls and useful idiots on the Internet, and amplified many-fold around various forums and media whose professional standards are somewhere around zero. It became the primary topic on our blogosphere for a few days, people sharing indignation against the “rotten West that is coming to take our values and freedoms”.

Meanwhile back in the real world, even a cursory check would’ve showed that nowhere in that resolution even a word had been mentioned about any such thing: there was nothing about a “dangerous” Orthodox Christianity, no “war on Orthodox Christian propaganda”, and neither even a hint of any “ban”. All in all, the document didn’t even speak of religious convictions, values or priorities. It only said that “the regime in Moscow attempts to present itself as the sole protector of traditional Christian values” – which is the truth, as we’ve mentioned here before.

Such examples (slightly adjusted to each country’s specifics, of course) can be seen all around the EU these days: from the “innocent” blurring of the line between real fact, arbitrary interpretation, and outright lie about the “banned Orthodox Christianity” and those evil Westerners’ plans to “take our dearest things away from us” (as if anyone in the West cares that much about our “things”, whatever those might be), to instilling distrust, insecurity, fear and hostility among ourselves. Granted, our society has always been split between Russophiles and Russophobes (which is a civilizational divide between East and West really), so we only need a little spark to ignite the whole keg over and over again.

In turn, this propaganda is just one among an array of tools in Moscow’s hybrid war against the West, now openly described by its key ideologists as “a strategy for influence, not brute force“, whose pupose is not to destroy the enemy but to “disrupt the inner coherence of its governance systems”.

Of course, EU’s problems and those of its separate members are not entirely and solely caused by the Russian hybrid war – it’s not central to them. They’re structural and societal, i.e. much deeper than that. But still, in pursuit of its own interests, Russia is actively working to deepen them by using all sorts of means to stimulate the disintegration processes in the EU, wherever they may occur. Russia is trying to stimulate and catalyze the undermining of its fundamental values and principles, and is playing a long game in that respect. Patiently and methodically. And we’re now seeing that Russia has become so bold in this, it’s already spreading its arms across the ocean, and actively influencing American politics as well – a process that is only bound to continue and deepen from here on, now that their Manchurian Candidate has successfully been installed in office.

Putin has become so bold that by asserting its “right” to spread lies and disinformation, Russia is cynically citing exactly one of the most important European values (which is not respected in Russia itself), the freedom of expression, of the media, and of speech, as an argument in its favor. For instance, this EU resolution was commented with the argument that “the most criminal way to counter an opponent is by banning something, which is a violation of the democratic norms” (Putin’s words); or “these methods are no different from the perceived threats that the report describes, and are thus in conflict with Europe’s democratic values” (our Socialist guy Stanishev, who curiously pretends to know a thing or two about democracy). These guys are speaking of “information crimes” and “stark discrimination and censorship”, while at the same time actively practicing them at home.

In fact, the measures proposed by the report are the exact opposite to all that. These include making people more informed and raising the information literacy of the EU citizens, reinforcing media pluralism, freedom of the press, and encouraging high-quality journalism, with an emphasis on investigative journalism. The EU MPs recommend to foster an understanding of the distinction between propaganda and criticism, and they remind that it’s counter-productive to try to counter someone else’s propaganda with propaganda of your own.

So the response they’re proposing to hostile propaganda is entirely consistent with the democratic values and principles. Still, two questions remain. First, would this response be productive and efficient enough, since it’s clear we’re not dealing with a normal, conventional “opponent”, and neither with normal “media”, or a constructive “alternative standpoint”, but a powerful disruptive machine instead, whose main output is blatant and indiscriminate disinformation? And secondly, isn’t that response coming a bit too late?