About Michael Ertl

I am a young German journalist. Currently, I am doing my M.A. in Multimedia Journalism at the University of Westminster (London). In Germany, I worked for several media outlets including Bayerischer Rundfunk, Focus Online and Radio M94.5 (Munich local radio). On my blog ‘Verging on Europe’ I write about news in the European Union and try to analyze it. Generally, I consider myself a Europhile. However, I want to critically rethink the EU as it is now. Follow me on Twitter, Flickr or Pinterest.

Alan Rusbridger awarded with European Press Prize

European Press Prize (Photo by Dora Panariti)

European Press Prize (Photo by Dora Panariti)

Guardian editor receives “Europe’s Pulitzer” for NSA revelations alongside award winners from across the continent.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, and Wolfgang Buchner of Der Spiegel have been honoured with “The Special Award” of the European Press Prize (EPP) for their teams’ articles about NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance programmes.

During the award ceremony in London, Justin Webb, presenter of the BBC’s Today programme, said: “One European paper, The Guardian, has played a leading role in the story. Its editor Alan Rusbridger has endured many months of difficulties at the hands of the government and its different agencies. He has fought to bring the facts to public attention and to do so in a way that is safe and decent, but also reveals the truth.”

In his acceptance speech for “Europe’s equivalent for the Pulitzers”, Rusbridger said The Guardian had to publish its articles from the US because of the UK government’s determination to suppress the story.

Apart from Rusbridger and Buchner, five other winners were selected from nearly 400 entries for the four main categories and the “Special Award”, each worth 10,000 euros.

Sir Harold Evans, the former editor of The Times and Sunday Times and chairman of the EPP panel of judges, said the prizes would help to refine the notions of good journalism:

“The conviction that for all the dizzingly different cultures, all the different forms of media today, all the varied patterns of ownership, there is a common instinctive appreciation in 40 countries across the continent of what’s bad journalism and what’s good journalism, what’s good practice and what’s bad practice.”

The Investigative Reporting Award

Three Reuters journalists, Steve Stecklow, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Yeganeh Torbati, were honoured for their investigation “Assets of the Ayatollah”, at the news agency’s headquarters in Canary Wharf.

The Reuters team unveiled how Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used a little-known organisation called Setad to confiscate properties belonging to ordinary Iranians.

In his acceptance speech, Stecklow said the idea for the investigation was based on rumours on the Internet about Khamenei’s wealth.

“The biggest challenge was that Reuters was kicked out of Iran two years ago, which made on-the-ground reporting impossible,” he added.

However, an analysis of statements by Setad officials and data from the Tehran Stock exchange and company websites allowed the journalists to estimate the corporation’s assets at about $95 billion.

The Distinguished Writing Award

Sergey Khazov was given “The Distinguished Writing Award” for his article series about minorities in Russia with a focus on Muslims and the LGBT-community.

In the opening speech of the ceremony, Sir Harold Evans pointed out that good journalism had a reverence for human rights and for the rights of minorities against powerful interests:

“The press does a great service when it confronts stereotypes with the stories of real people, and perpetrates evil when it stokes fear,” he said.

Asked about the future of free press in Russia, Khazov said many journalists were becoming PR experts, but he and The New Times magazine were not the only ones to report the reality.

The Commentator Award

The European Press Prize judges honoured “Vukovar: a Life-Size Monument to the Dead City” by the Croatian journalist Boris Dežulović with “The Commentator Award”.

Vukovar has been called Croatia’s Stalingrad due to heavy damage and its many casualties during the Yugoslav Wars. As the city has preserved some of its destroyed buildings as a testimony, Dežulović said the city was an example that “history in Croatia is always contemporary”.

On the day before the ceremony, Peter Preston, the former editor of the Guardian, wrote that if he had to salute one region beyond any other it would be the Balkans:

“We’re used to hearing dreadful wails from big-money newspaper groups in the west, particularly the US. They say that mounting investigations is too expensive these days. They should come over to Sarajevo or Bucharest and see what dedication plus gritty resilience – journalism’s gift to democracy – can achieve,” he wrote in The Observer.

The Innovation Award

The Norwegian journalists Espen Sandli and Linn Kongsli Hillestad received “The Innovation Award” for their data journalism project “Null CTRL”.

Sandli said their project, published by Dagbladet, was aimed at understanding how exposed Norwegians were online and what people without specialised computer skills could find out:

“We ourselves didn’t start as data experts. Our idea was: What can anyone find on the Internet?”

The Special Awards

In addition to Alan Rusbridger, the judges gave a “Special Award” to Yavuz Baydar, whose column in the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah was censored before he was fired from his job as independent ombudsman for the paper.

In his acceptance speech, Baydar voiced concern about the situation of the press in Turkey, saying more than 200 journalists had been sacked since June last year when the protests in Gezi Park started.

Why banning Swiss students from Erasmus is right

Erasmus students at the University of Porto

Erasmus students

The European Union has suspended Swiss students from the Erasmus exchange programme, starting September this year.

The EU also decided Switzerland could not apply for grants from the new programmes Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.

The decision comes after a referendum to re-introduce quotas for EU immigrants won the majority of votes in Switzerland.

After the referendum, the Swiss Ministry of Justice declared it could not sign a protocol granting Croatian citizens full freedom of movement in ten years’ time.

EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor said the EU decision was not a “punishment” or “sanction” but a logical consequence that had been well-known before.

“Nobody can pretend to be surprised here. Of course, nobody has an interest in breaking off dialogue, and we will continue to engage constructively in the hope that a solution can be found rapidly,” Mr Andor said (see full statement here).

Swiss students planning to go abroad in the coming academic year have received rejection letters from their prospect universities in the past days, Swiss media report.

Elizabeth Gehrke, vice-chairwoman of the European Students’ Union said: “Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world.”

Why excluding Switzerland was the only option

Ms Gehrke’s concern was echoed in the Swiss academic world after the ban from Erasmus was made public.

As an academic having myself benefited from Erasmus, I understand the academics’ outcry. However, the European Union was forced to act after the Swiss referendum restricted the freedom of movement, as Mr Andor points out:

“This core principle of the free movement of persons is a cornerstone of our relationship. It is a fundamental right. It is not simply “negotiable”, as some tend to believe.”

In my opinion, the EU has to insist on the freedom of movement being not negotiable. If Brussels were to make concessions to Switzerland, other countries would follow to seek special agreements with the EU. For instance, David Cameron has repeatedly stressed his plans to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership.

However, the EU should not stop to build on its relationship with Switzerland.

According to Mr Andor, the EU is open to negotiate, but thinks it is the Swiss’ turn to make proposals:

“The Commission stands ready to listen to the Swiss proposals which are now being considered and which we haven’t seen yet. The ball is in their court. Our marge de manoeuvre, however, is extremely limited,“ he said.

Britons should not turn their back on EU – Barroso

Jose Manuel Barroso (CC Guillaume Paumier via Flickr)

Jose Manuel Barroso (CC Guillaume Paumier via Flickr)

Jose Manuel Barroso told British students on Friday not to turn their back on the European Union.

In a speech at the London School of Economics Mr Barroso said: “The right thing to do is not to turn away but to engage and see what we together can do to make it better. If you don’t like Europe as it is, improve it.”

Mr Barroso’s visit came amid growing Euro-scepticism in Britain and ahead of the European elections in May, in which the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) could be the most successful party according to recent opinion polls.

In his speech Mr Barroso defended the freedom of movement within EU member states, after Prime Minister David Cameron announced to try to change the existing rules in order to keep immigrants from claiming welfare benefits in the UK.

“An internal market needs all these freedoms, if not we are shooting ourselves in our feet. “We cannot have a single market without the free movement of European citizens,” he said.

Mr Cameron has announced to hold a referendum about Britain’s membership in the EU if his Conservative Party wins the general elections in 2015.

When asked about the euro zone debt crisis, Mr Barroso said: “The existential crisis of the euro is over.”

He added that he was absolutely sure Germany would stand by the euro.

Find the full transcript of Mr Barroso’s speech here.

European migration statistics: Britons move to Spain, Romanians not to the UK

Bildschirmfoto 2014-02-10 um 17.01.27Only a comparatively small number of Romanians lived in the UK in 2011 when the Office of National Statistics last conducted a nation-wide migration census.

Find the interactive graphic here.

According to data from ten national statistics offices, only 80,000 had emigrated to the United Kingdom, compared to more than two million Romanians living in other EU member states.

Lifting all work restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians on 1 January 2014 has caused fears that citizens of these countries might move to the UK to claim benefits, with David Cameron calling for limits to the freedom of movement.

Britons themselves make widespread use of their right to live and work in EU countries: Spain’s Costa del Sol and the Balearics attract the biggest number of UK expatriates (400,000), followed by 150,000 living in France and 100,000 in Germany.

In the UK: Germans and French outnumbered by Poles

On the other hand, roughly the same number of German and French citizens leave their home countries to settle in the United Kingdom in company of more than 100,000 Italians and Portuguese.

However, those four nations’ emigrants combined are outnumbered by more than half a million Poles living in the UK.

The most recent ONS figures also show that in 2011, three years before the freedom of movement was extended, just below 50,000 Bulgarians and 80,000 Romanians were granted permission from the government to legally live in the UK.

A far greater number of citizens from these two countries moved to other European countries, with around one million Romanians choosing Italy and more than 800,000 emigrating to Spain.

Bulgarians’ most popular destinations were Spain, Germany and Greece – countries that had lifted restrictions on the freedom of movement, which has come under critic from David Cameron, earlier than the UK.

Europe needs a convention to prepare new EU constitution – Renate Künast

Renate Künast demands a convent to form a EU constitution (CC Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

Renate Künast demands a convention to form a EU constitution (CC Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

German top politician Renate Künast has demanded to form a convention to work on a new EU constitution.

Not only politicians but environmental activists, trade unionists and companies should take part in the talks, Künast, the chairwoman of the The Greens parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, said in a panel discussion at the London School of Economics and Politics.

“We can only take the next step, if everybody has a say”, Mrs Künast added.

The convention model was also used to produce a draft constitution for the European Union, which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. The convention’s members were drawn from the European Parliament, the European Commission, national parliament and governments, but did not include activists and trade unionists.

The SPD’s Dr Henning Meyer replied that at the moment not even treaty changes seem realistic, let alone a new constitution process.

European elections will not be social media elections

Europe House in London

Falling turnouts at European elections give reasons for concern

Policy makers in Brussels are searching for ways to promote next year’s European elections, with social media playing an essential role, but Europe is not ready for its first social media elections, experts say.

Next year’s European Parliament election (22-25 May) will clearly be different to previous elections in the EU. On the one hand, the electoral system has changed: The European parties nominate top candidates who will run for European Commission President, aiming to integrate European citizens as political actors (one of the goals of the Lisbon Treaty).

Without doubt there a better integration of the public is needed, with the turnouts at European elections dropping steadily from 62 per cent in 1979 to 43 per cent in 2009.

On the other hand, Europeans have fundamentally changed their online behaviour since going to the polls in 2009. Although the European Parliament (EP) started to be active on social media in 2008, it now uses those information channels as well as its website in a more sophisticated way.

Digital media elections?

“Will the EU therefore get a social media election in 2014?” was the starting point for a panel discussion at the Europe in House in London.

The European Parliament put a strong focus on social media in its campaign to “create engagement between the public and the MEPs”, Thibault Lesenecal, Head of the EP’s Web Communications, said, as “being on social media is nothing special in 2014”.

Richard Howitt, Labour MEP for Essex, argued that Twitter has become an important tool to tackle myths about the European Union, with more than half of the MEPs using the microblogging service.

“The challenge is to actually convince people. Low trust in politics is the enemy of democracy at the moment,” Mr Howitt said.

And if politicians manage to convince people, the different electoral systems do not always allow EU citizens to express their opinion at the ballot box, said Karen Melchior, a Danish candidate for the EP elections:

“Social media do not determine whether you as a single candidate will be elected,” she said.

Andy Williamson, an expert on digital democracy, contested the politicians’ positive image of the voters: “People don’t want to be more involved in democracy. Getting more of them involved in politics will cost money.”

Mr Williamson asked the golden question: “Are you willing to pay higher taxes for that?”

The panellists agreed social media have become an important instrument for politicians, but their influence should not be overestimated:

“We are talking about social media and the elections – that’s good”, Ben Fowkes from Delib. But the 2014 European Elections will surely not be the first social media elections.

European Parliament and hacking – a long history


The European Parliament is in a continuous struggle to protect MEPs' data (CC Dan Barpus via Flickr)

The European Parliament is in a continuous struggle to protect MEPs’ data (CC Dan Barpus via Flickr)

The hacking of at least 40.000 European Parliament (EP) emails does not appear to be a singular event, but the latest in a series of worrying IT security breaches.

On Thursday, the French website Mediapart reported that an anonymous hacker had accessed confidential emails of MEPs and other staff of the European Parliament (EP).

The attacker described the hacking as “child’s play” saying he only used “ridiculous” computer equipment.

The Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser received a list with metadata of 40.000 emails from different institutions, including the European Parliament and the German Bundestag. According to Ehrenhauser, a connection between the list and the cyber attack is very likely.

The hacking sparked a discussion about how vulnerable the European Parliament is to cyber attacks.

MEPs criticised that the EP was using out-of-date software and did not allow its staff to encrypt their communication.

Security concerns not taken seriously

It is not the first time the EU’s IT services face claims of not doing enough to protect confidential data and communication.

In April 2011, the Austrian MEP Hans-Peter Martin reported to Klaus Welle, the EP General Secretary, that his private emails were accessed from another office within the European parliament.

The European Parliament has not reacted to his report down to the present day, Martin says.

In another case, Heiko Frenzel, author of Sicherheit-Online (security online), wrote in October 2011 that he had contacted the European Commission (EC) to inform them about 40 security loopholes on EU servers.

“The first ten hints, which were sent over a period of time, were simply ignored, some of them deleted unread,” Frenzel said.

According to Frenzel, it took the European institution almost one year, until September 2012, to deal with the breaches.

European Parliament should improve its IT services

EU leaders are pushing forward new legislation to protect citizens’ data amid continuous revelations about the NSA’s spying activities in Europe.

If the EP wants to be taken as a serious negotiating party in cyber security issues, it should, first of all, aim at improving its own IT services and making it impossible for hackers to access confidential data with elementary computer equipment.

European Parliament hacked – attacker describes stealing 40.000 emails as “child’s play”

European Parliament in Strasbourg

Vulnerabilty of EP computers has been know for years, MEPs say (CC United Nations Photo)

A hacker has accessed 40.000 emails of MEPs and other staff of the European Parliament (EP), triggering a discussion about how vulnerable the parliament’s IT systems are to simple cyber attacks.

The hacker told the French website Mediapart yesterday that he succeeded in breaching the EP’s security using elementary computer equipment and “a few bits of knowledge that everyone is capable of finding on the Internet”.

He said his operation was aimed at raising awareness of how vulnerable the EP’s computer systems are to simple cyber attacks.

Today Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser received a USB key with metadata of 40.000 emails, including the subject line, date, sender, recipient and the file name of attachments, Spiegel Online reports.

According to the report, the list does not only contain emails from staff of the European Parliament, but also the European Commission, the German Bundestag, parties and lobby groups.

Although a connection between the file and the cyber attack has yet to be established, Ehrenhauser considers it very likely that the two events relate to one another.

Out-of-date software made communication vulnerable

The breach of the EP’s protection measures, which the hacker described as a “child’s play”, has started a discussion about the parliament’s IT security.

Dutch MEP Sophia in’t Veld said that problems with the EP’s computer systems had been known for years.

Marjory Van den Broeke, the head of the EP press unit, said the IT services were investigating how the attack could happen: “It’s a technical issue, depending on the outcome of the investigation, we’ll see if and what measures should be taken.

According to Spiegel Online, the IT systems in the European Parliament are using old software, with some of the computers running the 12-year old Windows XP.

Jan Phillip Albrecht, MEP and data protection expert, said the EP was using software without knowing if back doors were built in. “We have been campaigning to use open source software for ten years”, he said.

The EP’s IT services forbid MEPs to encrypt their emails, Spiegel Online reports.

While investigating NSA spying activities, the hacking attack shows how vulnerable the EP is not only to big intelligence services, but also to a single hacker sitting outside the parliament building in Strasbourg.

Why Malala Yousafzai deserves the Sakharov human rights prize

Malala survived a Taliban assault

Malala Yousafzai during her speech (CC European Parliament)

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban, is worthy of the Sakharov Prize for human rights she was awarded with today.

She did not only keep on fighting for equal education, but human rights in general with her criticism of US drone strikes.

Malala’s life took a dramatic turn when a Taliban gunman stormed on her school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and shot her in the head in October 2012.

The then 15-year old girl survived the assault, but had to spend several months in hospitals after being transferred to Britain where she now lives with her family.

Malala had campaigned for equal education for Pakistani girls by, for instance, writing a blog about her situation for the BBC.

Today she was awarded with the prestigious Sakharov Prize in a ceremony at the European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg.

“At only 16 years old, she is today the voice of millions of children and teens deprived from education”, said EP president Martin Schulz (full video of his speech).

Schulz said that since the assault one year ago Malala had become “a global icon” in her role as a campaigner and ambassador for equal education.

“I am hopeful the European Parliament will look beyond Europe to the suffering countries where people are still deprived of their basic rights, their freedom of thought is suppressed, freedom of speech is enchained,” Malala said at the Sakharov ceremony.

Malala’s full speech:

In my opinion she deserves the Sakharov Prize because she does not only fight for equal education, but human rights in general.

Although she told the BBC that she was enjoying her education in the UK, she did not shy away from criticising the Western powers because of their role in Pakistan: Most notably, she attacked US drone attacks on Pakistani soil in her book “I am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban”.

Since 1988, the Sakharov Prize is awarded each year to “exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression“ by the European Parliament. It is named after Russian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov.

Former winners of the Sakharov Prize include Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.