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 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.

Lost in translation – the EU’s 24 official languages

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Can a sole EU official language end the translation chaos?

The EU’s 24 official languages make the legislation and administration in Brussels costly and slow, critics say. English or Esperanto as sole working language could be alternatives, but are feared to handicap non-native speakers.

This is a translation of my contribution for the 2013 Day of Multilingual blogging (see German version of this article).

The European Union’s language services translate EU regulations in all 24 official and working languages. MEPs can present their speeches in the European Parliament in any of these languages with simultaneous translation. Furthermore, citizens from all member states can contact EU institutions and receive an answer in these languages.

The huge amount of time and costs for translation has often been criticised as unproductive and unnecessary. Shada Islam from the think-tank Friends of Europe told PRI: “We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue.”

There are several alternative suggestions:

  • English as sole official language: This proposal seems to be a practical idea, but critics say that English-speaking nations would be favoured.
  • Several official languages: While this solution is widely considered fairer than English as sole official language, criticism from some EU member states would have to be expected. Moreover, the expenditure for administration and translation would be higher than with a single official language.
  • Esperanto as sole official language: The political movement Europe Democracy Esperanto campaigns for introducing the constructed international language Esperanto as sole EU working language. There are only few Esperanto speakers, with optimistic estimations speaking of two million people worldwide.

The key point of discussion is whether a single official language would infringe the EU motto “united in diversity”, which was created to ensure that the diversity of EU member states is thoroughly represented in the European Union.

Would the introduction of English as “lingua franca” end Europe’s cultural diversity? I am inclined to agree with Shada Islam:

„The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.”

The EU’s 24 official and working languages are: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.

Possibility of EU referendums arises in German coalition talks

Referendums reduce policies to "Yes or No" (CC Nils via Flickr)

Referendums reduce policies to “Yes or No”
(CC Nils via Flickr)

Negotiators in the German coalition talks have suggested to give German citizens the possibility to vote on major EU issues in referendums, a move aimed at restoring trust in the EU’s democratic legitimacy.

According to media reports, referendums could be hold when new countries join the EU, when Germany bails out other member states or powers are transferred from Berlin to the European Union.

Similar referendums exist in other EU member states, with Britons voting on transferring powers to the European authorities.

In contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy abolished the necessity of French citizens voting on new countries joining the EU.

Members from both negotiating parties seem to support the suggestion: Conservative interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU) and Thomas Oppermann from the Social Democrats (SPD) put forward a paper saying Germans “should be asked directly on European policy decisions of special importance”, the Financial Times reported.

But outside the coalition talks many members of chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU oppose referendums on EU issues. “The proposal won’t see the light of day. We would be reducing ourselves to the level of British policymakers”, MEP Elmar Brok from the CDU told Reuters.

Are EU referendums the way to go?

Many Europeans feel disconnected from the European institutions and complain about a lack of democracy.

Direct democracy would certainly give citizens of EU member states a say about key issues such as new countries joining the European Union or powers being transferred.

However, it cannot replace the mechanism of finding compromises in political institutions in my opinion. I doubt that complicated policies can often not be reduced to a simple “Yes or No” question, but referendums require such questions.

The perceived lack of democratic legitimacy has to be on the agenda of EU institutions, but referendums in single member states should not be the way to solve a European issue. Instead, the discussions should move towards making the existing EU authorities and mechanism more democratic.

Giving up data protection for free trade?

Containers on a ship

The EU hopes a trade deal would create thousands of jobs (CC Jean Pierre Martineau via Flickr)

The EU and US resumed talks on their planned free trade agreement today despite some European officials suggesting to suspend the negotiations.

Negotiators for both sides said the benefits of the proposed agreement were too great to be affected by allegations of NSA eavesdropping revealed in the last few weeks.

Right after the alleged hacking of German chancellor Angel Merkel’s and millions of Europeans’ phone by the US agency was made public, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, called for a stop of the talks, among other senior EU officials.

However, at a summit in October the heads of all 28 member states decided to go ahead with the negotiations.

Now that talks about the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) resumed economic arguments have again for the most part replaced the discussion about NSA activities.

Creating a single market could lower prices both for Europeans and Americans, experts say. A EU study suggests imported goods such as car currently cost 10 to 20 per cent more than they would without trade regulations and duties.

The European Union says a free trade agreement could bring more than 100bn euros of US investment into the EU member states each year and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

EU data protection could be undermined

Since the beginning of the talks experts identified data protection as one of the talks’ crucial points, with the US seeking much weaker regulations than the European Union.

On his Guardian blog, George Monbiot wrote about common regulations opening the door to companies to “sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens”.

According to Monbiot, companies could use a trade agreement to evade national protective regulations through a mechanism called investor-state dispute settlement.

“It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections. Yet the defenders of our sovereignty say nothing.”

It is not a myth that the proposed trade agreement could pose a danger to European citizens’ data protection.

Yes, European economies could benefit a great deal from a single market.

But my questions is: Can the economic benefits of free trade be great enough to give up data protection?

Same toilet flush across Europe – “money down the pan”?

Not even toilets are safe from EU standards

Not even toilets are safe from EU standards

A limit of five litres for a toilet flush will be introduced for the European Union’s Ecolabel next week. Half-flushes will be limited to three litres and urinals to one litre, according to a draft for the bog standard.

Toilets in EU member states must meet the criteria in order to be awarded the Ecolabel. The European Commission gives the label to a range of environmentally friendly products.

The Commission said that the label was no standardisation for toilet flushes, as it would not force anyone to limit the water used on the loo.

“Ecolabels are NOT compulsory. This is not a Regulation, nobody will be asked or forced to install new toilets. The eco-label is entirely voluntary”, Joe Hennon, European Commission Spokesperson for Environment said.

A 63-page EU report (PDF version) suggests that the new limits could help to save up to 50% of the water depending on the type of toilet.

“Ecolabel criteria are beneficial both for the environment and our wallets. Ecolabel toilets will bring about water efficiency, lower water pollution and eutrophication, as well as cost savings to businesses and consumers in the form of lower water bills”, Hennon said.

UKIP politician: "

UKIP politician: Bog report is “money down the pan”

Euro-sceptics criticised the report on Europe’s toilets, which reportedly cost €84.000 (£72,000). Paul Nuttall from UK Independence Party (UKIP), called the study a ‘preposterous waster of money’.

‘Surely what goes on behind the bathroom door should be left to the people who are behind it. It is money down the pan’, he told the Daily Mail.

According to the EU report, people in the UK (1,125 million cubic metres of water in home toilets in 2010), Italy (1,074 cubic metres) and Germany (1,021 cubic metres) use the most water for flushing the toilet.

The „euro-flush“ controversy comes one week after European Commission President José Manuel Barroso promised to cut back on red tape and to avoid excessive EU bureaucracy.

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