Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania
Comment: Nutella Wars - The ingredients are key
Have you ever gone abroad in Europe, bit into a foodstuff you're rather fond of at home and could swear it tastes nothing like what you're used to? Well, if you have, it turns out you may well be right. A story which at first glance appears funny (until you reach its not so chewy centre) (re)surfaced recently. EuraActiv reports (Gotev, 2017) that Hungary's food safety authority have discovered that 24 tested food products sold on the Hungarian market by international companies allegedly have lower quality than they do in neighboring Austria. This has been found to relate to properties of products such as the crunchiness of wafers and (from whence the title of this post), the mellowness of Nutella. Starting an international incident of any magnitude over how mellow one's Nutella is in the morning cannot fail to cause some chuckles.However, the Hungarians are not joking, nor are they alone in their complaints. Moreover, their point is backed up by studies and raises a larger issue. The same EurActiv article also mentions that Slovakia's food quality body has also observed that certain food products have worse properties in terms of 'taste, look and composition' when compared to the same products being sold in Germany and Austria.
The Czech Republic has also recently complained about this issue and has decided to take action - its agriculture minister, Marian Jurecka, has stated that the country will argue for an EU wide ban on international companies selling poorer quality food in Eastern Europe while using the same brand name as products of higher quality sold in Western Europe. To quote Mr Jurecka, the Czech Republic feels it is treated as 'Europe's garbage can' when it comes to some products (Muller, 2017). This issue is not new either. Consumer groups have argued that this is the case for years, but have had little success since under EU law what is relevant is whether the ingredients are accurately listed and whether the product is safe (rather than the same). In 2011, the Slovak Association of Consumer conducted a study, testing certain brands of food in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. It was found that quality indeed varied, with one brand tested (Milka chocolate) retaining the same quality throughout. This issue also attracted a spirited response from the Bulgarian agriculture minister Miroslav Naydenov, who labeled varying food standards as abnormal (EurActiv, 2011). The response from the European Commission, in the face of then Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli (or at least his spokesperson), was underwhelming, with his spokesperson rejecting the issue out of hand and maintaining that companies are not obliged to sell identical products even if they use the same brand (EurActiv, 2011). Manufacturers (such as Ferrero who produce Nutella) dispute these assertions (Gotev, 2017). Nevertheless, there appear to be consistent findings and Eastern European states are clearly unsatisfied with the response from Brussels thus far. The Czech Republic will be carrying out a study, expected to finish in June 2017. It's data will be combined with other similar studies in order to push for change at the European level (Muller, 2017). UEF will be following any developments with interest..
This recurring issues arguably raises some serious questions however. For instance, while companies can to a certain extent be expected to adopt such strategies as cost saving measures (with prices on the Eastern European market being lower than in Western Europe), what does it say about the European Union and the European Commission specifically that all it could muster over the last 5 years of being aware of the issue is the tepid response from Commissioner Dalli? Safety aside, is it therefore reasonable in the eyes of the commission that consumer in Eastern Europe are provided with poorer quality foodstuffs than those in Western Europe? If they don't feel this is the case, does it not at least merit investigation? If the Commission does not view this as a problem, then what does that say about how it views citizens in Eastern Europe? UEF believes that it is important for the Commission to distance itself from former Commissioner Dalli's approach to the issue and actively take on board the upcoming complaints from Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. This issue is actually no laughing matter when we get to its core and the Commission's approach will be telling.
Georgi Gotev, 'Lower quality of same food brands in Eastern Europe raises eyebrows' (2017) February 17, EurActiv, http://www.euractiv.com/section/health-consumers/news/lower-quality-of-same-food-brands-in-eastern-europe-raises-eyebrows/ [last accessed 22 February 2017].
Robert Muller, 'Czechs, tired of being 'Europe's garbage can', will push for better food' (2017) February 21, Reuters, http://in.reuters.com/article/czech-food-idINKBN1600XL [last accessed 22 February 2017].
EurActiv, 'Accusations of ‘lower quality’ food in Eastern Europe fall flat' (2011) June 6, EurActive, https://www.euractiv.com/section/health-consumers/news/accusations-of-lower-quality-food-in-eastern-europe-fall-flat/ [last accessed 22 February 2017].
Comment: The Dangers for Eastern democracies
Professor Jan Kubik of the University College London (UCL) recently published a thoughtful piece in the Guardian newspaper entitled: "Brexit can wait. Europe’s pressing worry is its fracturing eastern democracies". In this article Professor Kubik notes that what is perhaps a bigger problem for the EU than Brexit is the pressure being applied on democratic institutions/value in certain Central and Eastern European Member States, most notably Poland, Hungary and Romania. The article also considers why that is. In Professor Kubik's views, the relative demise of left wing political projects post-communism, when coupled with a relative lack in pro-democratic traditions and instincts in these countries, has combined to create a dangerous situation for the liberal-democratic order in those states. The feelings of rapid change, moving away from tradition and perhaps economic problems, provide a great environment for demagogues to thrive. However, as Professor Kubik himself notes, demagoguery has enjoyed a possibly even greater renaissance in the West, most notably in the face of Trump and Brexit, but of course there is also Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent (although not necessarily less dangerous) Grillo in Italy.
If the sudden success of populists was only related to weaker pro-democratic traditions in the East, then it is hard to explain the explosion of populism in countries with very solid pro-democratic foundations. It is hard to escape the fact that in the UK for example, the Brexit debate was framed very much in economic terms - for instance, in the guise of the infamously misleading battle bus of the Leave Campaign which implied that £350 million per week would be injected into the NHS if the UK leaves the EU - a claim, always removed from reality, which has now been predictably dropped. This should not be surprising. Financial pressure is likely to create a much more habitable environment for a political culture of "othering". In the context of at least some Eastern European Member States, which are the least economically developed in the EU (this does not, however, apply to Poland), economic factors are likely to play a role in any discrediting of the Western/EU model which may happening. Of course, the political culture has a vital role to play here. Improving the economic fortunes of a country is hard to do if the political class in that country is ill equipped for the task and is either actually or widely perceived by the populace to be, corrupt. This is arguably one reason why the Romanian public reacted so vigorously to recent attempts by their government to water down anti-corruption laws - because they understand that very well. It is not surprising if in such situations voters turn to charismatic outsiders offering to "drain the swamp" as President Trump put it. As professor Kubik notes, one of he biggest problems with the current crop of populists (and indeed populists and demagogues generally) is that they offer no solutions, but instead twist the narrative in order to make people believe that complicated problems have simple solutions. This is most visible within the Leave campaign in the UK, which has vastly underplayed the complexity of Brexit, although it is starting to look as if this was because they themselves do not fully understand the issues in some cases.
It follows that an easy fix is not on the cards for what is a complicated problems rooted in economic, cultural, historical and political factors. It is important to begin to address these one by one however. A recurring theme in the research and writings at UEF will be to look at to what degree EU membership is being harnessed economically by newer Member States and how much of any benefit is being felt by citizens. Arguably the best way to rob populists of their oxygen is to increase prosperity - it is notable that such people do not on the whole thrive in a time of plenty. Persistent economic problems are mainly an issue for national governments. However, it is also clear that citizens across the EU and not only in its Eastern parts, have been railing against austerity and neo-liberal policy at least since initial responses to the crisis. Still, politicians in many EU capitals and in Brussels remain remarkably resistant to changing course in any meaningful way. Arguably, this is something which contributes to the sense which people have of being ignored both by their national politicians and by Brussels - in many ways, they are right at least on that issue. Is it so surprising therefore that they turn out for politicians who do, at least, seem to be listening? Citizens have been feeling the brunt of austerity across the Union, but this is likely to be exacerbated in Member States which are already poorer. There is, in UEF's view, a very real danger than a failure to either change course or at least actually engage with anti-austerity arguments on the part of the EU will only strengthen anti-EU sentiment and populist anger. Something which we believe must be well understood in the Commission and leading EU capitals is that it will not do to look at economic indicators in abstract or to pursue an economic dogma as the EU has since the crisis. What is necessary is to bring the recovery to the doorstep of every citizen or to at least make (and be seen to make) a conscious effort to that effect. The populists and demagogues understand this - why can't we?
Professor Jan Kubik, 'Brexit can wait. Europe’s pressing worry is its fracturing eastern democracies' (2017) February 12, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/12/europe-fragile-democracies-real-danger-of-populist-politics [last accessed 13 February 2017]..
Comment: Walloon PM believes Eastern European members states will/should leave the EU
In a recent interview with the L'Echo newspaper (Rohart, 2017 (in French)), which has been covered by several outlets (see: Flanders News, 2017; Romania Insider, 2017 and Novinite.com, 2017) The Minister President of the Walloon regional government in Belgium has reportedly expressed a belief that certain Central and Eastern European Member States (specifically Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) will leave the EU and that this would be desirable. Mr Magnette is not overwhelmingly clear about his reasoning but his opinions merit some unpicking and raise relevant questions.
Firstly, Mr Magnette appears to take a dim view of the future of the EU, seeing the block as being to some degree in a process of disintegration. It seems, however, that in some ways Mr Magnette welcomes this disintegration, especially where this involves departing Eastern European Member States. His position as a regional politician is understandably grounded in local concerns, so what comes through is a focus on influx of workers from Eastern Europe and a concern for the effect this has on social security systems of Western European Member States. So far, that sounds like standard Eurosceptic fare. These types of concerns have a remarkable ability to survive being confronted with factual analysis, such as the detailed research undertaken by academics at the University College London, which showed that as far as the UK economy in the period 1995-2011 was concerned, immigrants (in particular EEA immigrants) had a net positive fiscal contribution, unlike natives (Dustmann and Frattini, 2014).While this research was well publicised in the UK, it did not seem to make an impact on the political narrative. With respect, Mr Magnette appears to be labouring under similar misapprehensions. While Mr Magnette also relates his opinions to Denmark and Sweden, the main focus as far as breaking up of the Union goes appears to be on singling out Eastern European Member States.
This is a good example of the attitudes which UEF aims to address, both in terms of a negative approach to dissolving the Union and also in terms of singling out and perpetuating negative perceptions of Eastern European Member States. While admittedly, this is not a government level opinion, it is nevertheless a good example. At the same time, it is not fully useful to dismiss Mr Magnette's views as simply biased or misinformed. In fact, Mr Magnette makes good points about the negative impacts of joining the EU on Eastern European Member States, including large scale hemorrhaging of young and qualified workers. In this too, Mr Magnette's otherwise unfortunate interview provides a good example of issues of concern to UEF. Specifically, the negative impacts of EU membership on smaller and newer Member States are something which we aim to explore, albeit with the view towards promoting a remedy rather than further division, as Mr Magnette seems to be..
Frederic Rohart, 'Paul Magnette: "L'Europe est en train de se désintégrer"' (2017) February 3, L'Echo, http://www.lecho.be/dossier/maastricht/Paul_Magnette_L_Europe_est_en_train_de_se_desintegrer.9859074-8732.art [last accessed 10 February 2017[.
Flanders News, 'Walloon PM: "Europe is falling apart"' (2017) February 6, FlandersNews.be, http://deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws.english/News/1.2885048 [last accessed 10 February 2017]..
Romania Insider, 'Walloon PM wants Romania, Poland out of the EU' (2017) February 7, romania-insider.com, http://www.romania-insider.com/walloon-pm-wants-romania-poland-eu/ [last accessed 10 February 2017].
Novinite.com, 'Walloon PM Says Bulgaria Should Quit EU' (2017) February 6, Novinite.com, http://www.novinite.com/articles/178749/Walloon+PM+Says+Bulgaria+Should+Quit+EU [last accessed 10 February 2017.].
Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini, 'The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK' (2014) The Economic Journal, http://www.cream-migration.org/files/FiscalEJ.pdf [last accesed 10 February 2017].