Eurovision 2012: Pro-democracy campaigners arrested in Baku as song contest begins

Eurovision 2012 kicks off in Baku, Azerbaijan today and the song contest’s glittering final will be held on Saturday night. With an anticipated audience of 300 million people, Azerbaijani authorities are working hard to promote a positive image of the country abroad as it hosts the contest for the first time.

Baku has seen some major re-development in recent years and boasts modern skyscrapers, a new Eurovision stadium and even a Debenhams, but sadly what it doesn’t have is democracy and press freedom.

In the run up to Eurovision, pro-democracy campaigners have gathered on the city’s streets to protest against a regime that is headed by President Ilham Aliyev – a man who  inherited his power from his father and has effectively made himself president for life.

Campaigners say they have been arrested and beaten by police for trying to stand up to the government. These claims can be backed by a report from Human Rights Watch who witnessed police violently disperse two peaceful protests yesterday. Eleven political prisoners, who were jailed after taking part in anti-government demonstrations last year, are on hunger strike until Eurovision is over. Furthermore, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claims that Azerbaijan is one of the top ten jailers of the press.

Eurovision is meant to be fun and sparkly but this year’s contest will undoubtedly be overshadowed by recent events. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the association of broadcasters that organises Eurovision, has not taken a strong public stance on Azerbaijan’s political situation and maintains the line that the song contest is apolitical.

However, it would be unfair to say that EBU has turned a completely blind eye to the situation. It held a general assembly in Baku in 2010 where it made a public commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media in all countries where its member broadcasters operate. That includes Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has nine TV stations but only one is independent and it is often subjected to censorship. Broadcast media is dominated by the state.

Last year Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 143rd out of the 183 countries it surveyed for it’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The report, which ranks countries according to how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be, gave Azerbaijan a score of just 2.4 out of 10 (0 means that a country is perceived to be highly corrupt).

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, it has signed the European Convention on Human Rights and is bound by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. It has also forged positive links with the EU and is a member of EU’s Eastern Partnership, a programme that promotes democracy and good governance, amongst other things. But despite all of this, it still has political prisoners and little freedom of expression.

Europe’s eyes will be on Baku on Saturday night and Azerbaijanis have had a rare opportunity to shine the spotlight on human rights abuses at home. Let’s hope the world’s media doesn’t forget as soon as the singing is over and that change is on its way.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 23 May 2012.

Young, gifted and unemployed in 2012

Liam Morriss is Jogging4Jobs

Young Europeans could be forgiven for feeling like they are part of a lost generation. Despite growing up on a continent where access to education is available like never before, an increasing number of young people are finding themselves unemployed.

The latest figures released by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, reveal that the unemployment rate in the EU rose again in January 2012 to 10.1%, up 0.6% from the previous January. Eurostat estimates that there are approximately 24.3 million unemployed men and women in the EU today.

The highest levels of unemployment were recorded in Spain (23.3%) and Greece (19.9%), where the lack of jobs has led to social unrest and emigration. The lowest unemployment figures were recorded in Austria (4.0%) and the Netherlands (5.0%).

Amongst these figures are an estimated 5.5 million people under age 25. That’s 22.4% of the youth workforce, an extra 269,000 unemployed young people compared to figures from January 2011. Figures for youth unemployment were highest in Spain (49.9%), Greece (48.1%) and Slovakia (36.0%).

Unemployment in Europe has increased at an alarming rate since 2008, when the youth unemployment still remained high at just over 15%.

Charles Simmonds, 24, from West Sussex, UK, has a degree in Business Management and some professional work experience. He lost his temporary job in the financial services sector last summer, and despite sending many different applications he has had just two interviews and remains unemployed.

Charles said: “I apply for at least four jobs each week and the response rate is slow. Less than 10 per cent of companies reply to tell me yes or no. Signing on is the most depressing 20 minutes each fortnight. At uni they said your degree is your passport to your future, the key to open doors.”

Other jobseekers have resorted to more innovative means to promote themselves and their skills. Liam Morriss, 24, from Kent, UK, has been unemployed for the last six weeks after his temporary contract in retail ended. A keen runner, Liam decided to promote his skills and job hunt by jogging 10 kilometres per day from his home in Dartford into London. He wears a t-shirt that tells passersby “I’m unemployed, I’m a graduate and I’m jogging for jobs.”

Liam said: “I was so tired of being sat in front of my computer screen every day, trawling the same jobsites and having no success. It was getting me really down. This is the first period in my life I have been unemployed and I really felt like I’d lost a sense of purpose. Now I’m doing this, although it’s not a job, it gives me an aim every day.”

Liam has a degree in Music Industry Management and has applied for over 30 jobs in the last month. He has had one interview, but was told he wasn’t experienced enough for the role.

He said: “I think it’s mad how I’ve graduated yet I’m considering starting an apprenticeship. One apprenticeship is as a trackman working for network rail. I’ve applied for a few secretarial and admin type roles, but everywhere seems to require previous experience.”

So just why are young people disproportionately affected by joblessness?

James Higgins, Employment and Social Affairs Policy Officer at the European Youth Forum explained that the reasons are complex.

He said: “The majority of young people who are unemployed find themselves in this position due to difficulties in making the transition from education to employment. Some do not have sufficient skills, some employment sectors are oversubscribed, and in general young people tend to fall victim to an increasingly volatile labour market.”

Additionally, because young people are frequently over-represented in temporary and unstable jobs, this also contributes to the rising rate of youth unemployment.

A 2011 study by EUROFOUND, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, found that young people are particularly vulnerable because they are often the first and last to enter the labour market, as they have to compete with more experienced job-seekers in a market with fewer jobs on offer.

Against this backdrop of disastrous statistics, what is the EU doing to tackle the soaring rate of youth unemployment?

Essentially, the EU has a number of different schemes which sit in the framework of its Europe 2020 strategy, a ten year plan to improve Europe’s economy. An Agenda for New Skills and Jobs is a European Commission policy initiative that aims to help the EU reach its employment target for 2020: 75% of 20-64 year olds in work. There’s also Youth on the Move, which aims to tackle youth unemployment by promoting opportunities for students and young professionals to live, study and work around the EU.

However well intended, there’s no disputing that two years into Europe 2020, youth unemployment is higher than ever and the future looks uncertain for many young jobseekers.

It is not surprising that the European Commission promotes mobility for young professionals as one way to help resolve the crisis, but if there are no jobs at home and no jobs abroad, what use is it moving? Young jobseekers need to work, or to be offered the opportunity to train or re-train, and sooner, rather than later.

This feature was published by The New Federalist on 19 March 2012.

ACTA ratification suspended as EU refers treaty to the ECJ

European flag outside the Commission

European Commission, Brussels

The EU has suspended ratification of ACTA and referred the treaty to the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The European Commission is to ask the ECJ if the treaty is compatible with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms – something that protesters and politicians have voiced concerns and misgivings over for months. It is hoped that an ECJ ruling will clear any fog or misinterpretation in the wording of the treaty.

In a press release on Tuesday, Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said that he shared people’s concerns over freedom of the internet and that he understood the present uncertainty on what ACTA will ultimately mean for the key issues (including internet freedom and the protection of Europe’s Intellectual Property).

The Commissioner also stressed that ACTA will not “change anything in the European Union, but will matter for the European Union.”

Whether or not that is true is now up to the ECJ to decide, but this latest development has certainly awarded a point to the anti-ACTA campaign.

ACTA and the EU: Dangerous bedfellows?

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Europe and beyond last weekend to protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).  Citizens in several cities including Vilnius, London, Sofia, Valetta and Tallinn rallied together and participated in an international day of action against the treaty.

Just a fortnight earlier, French MEP Kader Arif resigned his post as European Parliament rapporteur for ACTA, claiming that the treaty “goes too far” by restricting internet freedom and is a “masquerade.” M. Arif added that he believes that in its current form the treaty is ineffective and dangerous for civil liberties. So what is ACTA all about and should we be concerned?

ACTA is an international treaty designed to protect intellectual property rights (IPR) by standardising copyright protection measures. It was signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States in October 2011 and then by the EU in January 2012. The treaty won’t come into effect in the EU before it is ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament. So far, 22 member states are signatories.

ACTA’s chief aim is to curb the trade of counterfeited goods, including copyrighted material online. The penalty for individuals found guilty of breaching the terms of the agreement could be either a prison sentence or a fine. The maximum penalty isn’t specified in the treaty but will be “sufficiently high to provide a deterrent to future acts of infringement, consistently with the level of penalties applied for crimes of a corresponding gravity.”

The European Commission claims that ACTA will not target individuals and is necessary in order to effectively tackle large-scale IPR violations. It also claims that the treaty will not change EU law or restrict the use of the internet.

However, the treaty’s strongest critics argue that the ACTA’s wording is deliberately ambiguous, can be widely interpreted and will ultimately change the role of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who will effectively be responsible if their customers are pirating data. There are also fears that the treaty could result in a policed, censored internet where freedom of expression is restricted.

The European Parliament won’t debate ACTA until June, but the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Czech Republic have already announced they won’t ratify the treaty just yet. European Parliament President Martin Schulz also lent his voice to the anti-ACTA campaign this week when he stated on German TV that the balance between copyright protection and the rights of individual internet users “is only very inadequately anchored in this agreement.”

With an increasing number of angry street protests, strikes and now politicians wading in to the anti-ACTA row, the treaty tentatively appears to be unravelling in Europe. The June debate remains a few months away, but there is still plenty of time for civil society to continue to mobilise, lobby and campaign against what appears to be a potentially draconian piece of legislation which in its worst form could undermine the very principles of free speech and privacy that are so inherent to European culture.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 18 February 2012.

High hopes for the first European Citizens’ Initiative

Less than ten weeks remain before EU citizens will be able to register the very first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). From 1 April, citizens will be able to call on the European Commission  to propose legislation on any issue where it has the competence to legislate. That could be virtually anything from culture, education and the environment to consumer protection, equality or transport. Great! Fantastic! At last, an opportunity for ordinary people to gain access to the College of Commissioners and truly influence policy making and the legislative process in Europe. Well it is, but the procedures for proposing an initiative are neither quick, nor simple.

The ECI was born out the Lisbon Treaty and is part of a drive by the EU to improve transparency and democracy. Essentially, if an initiative receives one million signatures from citizens who come from at least seven of the EU’s member states then the European Commission will consider the proposal.

So how does it work? Well, before an ECI can be launched at least seven citizens from seven EU member states must form a “citizens’ committee” and officially register the ECI online. Then the committee can begin to collect signatures, and organisers have a year to do so. Any EU citizen can sign an initiative (so long as they are old enough to vote in European Parliament elections) and must complete a specific statement of support, either online or on paper. Once one million signatures have been collected, representatives from the Commission will meet with organisers and discuss the initiative in detail. There is also an opportunity for a public hearing at the European Parliament. The Commission will then adopt a formal response to the ECI’s proposals and set out its next course of action, if any.

This is a long process. Initially, the Commission has two months to register the proposed initiative. If you want to be able to collect electronic signatures for your ECI (and who wouldn’t in this digital age), then it takes a further month to build an online collection system that can handle the appropriate technical and security demands. This also has to be certified by a national authority in the member state where the data is going to be stored, before any signatures can be collected. Organisers have a year to collect signatures, and then a further three months are allowed for national authorities to verify the statements of support.Once organisers have received certificates verifying the signatures they submit these to the European Commission, who have a further three months to examine the initiative and prepare a response. Potentially, that’s 21 months of work from start to end, not to mention the work that goes in before an initiative is first launched.

Critics argue that the process is too complex, too long-winded and that ultimately, the European Commission is not legally bound to propose legislation as a result of an initiative. There are also fears that the ECI could be hijacked by civil society organisations pushing their own agendas. The Commission has tried to prepare for this by announcing that initiatives can’t be run by organisations. However, organisations are allowed to promote or support an ECI provided that they do so “with full transparency.”

On the plus side, this really is a rather revolutionary step for the EU and it has never consulted its citizens like this before. Last year the UK government introduced e-petitions, a similar measure for citizens to influence policy by way of a petition (only 100,000 signatures are needed for a subject to be raised in the House of Commons) and the website has been hugely popular. If the ECI receives the publicity it deserves on 1 April, it should get people talking and, hopefully, mobilised. One million signatures is a huge number to collect but in the digital age this might not be quite such a mammoth task. Time will tell and the first ECI is just around the corner.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 8 February 2012.