12th Apr 2024


Editor's weekly digest: civically responsible flame war

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Last week, I wrote about how the European Council was unable to make any hard decisions regarding a price cap for gas — and how that seems symptomatic for how the EU functions.

In response to that newsletter, my colleague Eszter Zalan sent a message that put my thinking into perspective. On our team Slack channel she wrote:

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"I know it's sometimes ridiculous that they can't come to an agreement, especially when there is a crisis, and it's frustrating and seems like non-efficient. I get that totally, I get frustrated too sometimes. But: this is how the EU works, and the achievement here is that they sit at one table and discuss as long as it takes for everybody not to feel totally left out. Nobody is happy, that's the point of the EU, but they do it together. Nowhere else in the world 27 governments, including the third largest economy in the globe sit down and try to hammer out a compromise. We shouldn't lose sight of that. Plus no agreement was expected at this particular meeting."

It's easy to bash the turbo-bureaucracy of the EU, but Eszter's point is undeniably correct. The EU, flawed as its decision-making may seem to a layperson like myself, is an institution that deserves respect.

Which is also why the people, groups and parties making decisions in for example the European Parliament deserve to have their positions and thoughts scrutinised more — especially relative to one-another.

So this week, we tried out a little experiment to find out what would happen if we published opposing opinions from two (very) different groups in the parliament.

At EUobserver, we welcome, select and publish op-eds from politicians, NGOs, academics and concerned citizens. We get dozens of them each week, and these mostly opinionated articles are some of the most read on our website.

With our op-ed editor Matthew Tempest on holiday, I was suddenly covered under the tsunami of incoming opinion, including a particularly inflammatory piece written by Slovenian European People's Party (EPP) MEP Romana Tomc.

Tomc argued that in public discourse, freedom of speech was more liberally applied to "leftist political forces":

"Our friends from other political parties and groups in the European Parliament are well too aware of their inconsistencies. Nonetheless, they have made it their mission to hide behind populism, newspaper headlines and easy political spins to shame us. They claim righteousness but are hypocritical."

It's a harsh piece, bordering on hostile, coming from a group that includes Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Greece's ruling New Democracy party, under which — and I'm quoting Wikipedia here to avoid colouring — "Greece has experienced a democratic backsliding and heightened corruption, with a drastic deterioration of freedom of the press, human rights violations, and was marred by the Novartis corruption scandal and the 2022 wiretapping scandal."

I sent the op-ed in full to the communication director of the The Left in the European Parliament, asking if they'd be willing to respond. And to my surprise, both co-presidents were on board to write a response.

My colleague Andrew Rettman characterised debates in the parliament as 'polite'. This exchange, while civil, could be more aptly described as 'fiery'.

Martin Schirdewan and Manon Aubry wrote that the EPP claims to represent the "people's priorities", but in the meanwhile is allying itself with neo-fascist and far-right national parties — going so far as describing the party as "unhinged" and their effort to suss critics "muscular".

"The concerted centre-right effort to frame criticism of their collaboration with the far-right as a "hysterical overreaction" has been muscular. Their ideological forbears would be turning in their graves."

As a publisher, I could not have asked for more. As a European citizen neither. Apart from policies, I want to see what and how the people behind the policies think.

I believe our role as a medium covering European affairs should also be to create a platform for debate, in which ideology, politics and disagreement can take center stage.

In 2024, Europe will be electing a new European Parliament, and at EUobserver, we will continue to provide citizens of Europe a window into the decisions, policies and regulations that affect us all. But we also want to be a place where people from civil society and political organisations, but also citizens, can talk to each other and questions each other's ideas.

Because as Eszter wrote, "the achievement here is that they sit at one table and discuss as long as it takes for everybody not to feel totally left out", which is exactly where I'd like our publication to play a part.

For now, this will be in the form of published debates, but we hope to launch a fully-fledged discussion platform sometime in the coming months. In the meanwhile, we're open for submission from anyone.

Onwards to the stories you should not have missed this week (we had so much good stuff this week, I could not limit it to just five or six pieces, sorry):

Will Europeans' support for Ukraine survive the winter?

Europeans probably like to think that the answer is a resounding and unanimous 'yes'. While for politicians dropping support might not be an option, the reality among the European public is it's not so clear — a fact opportunist politicians are exploiting to split electorates.

Read it.

Mysterious Atlantic cable cuts linked to Russian fishing vessels

This article by EUobserver founder (and still a good journalist) Lisbeth Kirk was picked up on Reddit and read over 100,000 times (and still going strong). It seems like Redditors just can't resist a good mystery. And neither should you.

Read it.

Italians employ ancient cooking contraption to deal with rising gas costs

Rome-based reporter Silvia Marchetti wrote a delightful story about how Italian home cooks have unearthed their grandparents' designs for 'cooking boxes'; crates lined with wool that retain heat, allowing food that's briefly heated on a stove to slow cook over a longer period of time. Editing this article made me very hungry.

Read it.

Radical energy market reforms need 'more support' from EU members

Another week, another disagreement. Energy ministers met this week to hammer out details on how to handle exorbitant gas prices, possibly by decoupling gas and electricity prices. Ministers unfortunately did not see eye to eye, with Czech industry minister Jozef Sikela concluding that "Everything is possible. It depends on the willingness of the countries. Maybe we'll meet again during Christmas."

Read it.

MEPs to discuss new building in Strasbourg, despite crisis

This shiny edifice is the Osmose building in Strasbourg, about which the French government is adamant it should be purchased by the European Parliament as its new office. The old one would be turned into a hotel for MEPs. The price tag on all this? Up to €1bn.

Read it.

Claiming righteousness but being a hypocrite will not convince voters

Part 1 of 2 in our online debate between EPP MEP Romana Tomc, and The Left co-presidents Martin Schirdewan and Manon Aubry. Grab some popcorn and enjoy a civically responsible flame war.

Read it.

European energy solidarity is both a necessity and an opportunity

In an article published earlier by the European Policy Centre think tank, their chief economist Fabian Zuleeg argues the EU should set up a solidarity mechanism to avoid "political backlash that could tear the EU apart." It's an engaging read, which is why we requested to republish it on our site.

Read it.

Thank you to all new subscribers to this newsletter, and as always, my various inboxes are open for feedback, suggestions, tips, leaks, ideas and gossip.

See you next week,


Okay, alright, AI might be useful after all

Large Language Models could give the powers trained data-journalists wield, to regular boring journalists like me — who don't know how to use Python. And that makes me tremendously excited, to be honest.

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