My Hong Kongese Dream

From Denmark to Estonia

Month: December 2017

The question of European identity:

What does it mean to be European?

The European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium

It seems to be a cliché to ask such question but there are at least dozens of different answers because there are 28 member states in the European Union. But if you consider European countries which are part of the European Economic Area without a EU membership, then there will be 32 approaches to define “Europeanness”; if you are generous enough to also take the potential candidates and  candidate countries into account, then there will be 39 different perspectives on the meaning of being a European. The list goes on if you also include the Council of Europe……

What makes the “European identity” an even more interesting topic is that it depends on the geopolitical integration, ethnic minorities, and, above all, identity politics.

First, the geographical proximity of European countries creates different categories for the public to generalise various characteristics of “Europe”. When people refer to the “West”, it often implies the UK, France, Germany, and the Benelux countries, i.e. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg; when there is a discussion on “Eastern Europe”, it somehow identifies post-Communist countries including the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia), the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), and the Balkans ( countries located within the Balkan Peninsula using the Danube-Sava-Soča border definition).

Wait! But how about the other Balkan countries which are excluded by the Danube-Sava definition? It seems like our romantic Italian friends and the Greek philosophers are missing! As Christmas is coming, we should also count in our Viking friends and Santa Claus in Lapland, isn’t it?

In truth, it’s problematic to draw a line between eastern and southern Europe because their histories are not mutually exclusive and one can’t simply say there is no tie between the two. Even for Scandinavia, one could put Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland into the same basket, but when you refer this definition to the Danes and Swedes, it often results in their dubious attitudes on whether the Finns are Scandinavians, or it might conclude with a broader term “Nordic“.

Second, the question of ethnic minorities in the Baltic states. Due to the Soviet legacies, there are about one-quarter of ethnic Russians born before/after the independence of the Baltic states respectively. Although there is only 8% of ethnic Russians living in Lithuania at the moment, there are almost two-thirds of Latvians with Russian backgrounds and around 330,000 ethnic Russians living in Estonia.

It raises a question on the dual identity of ethnic Russians who were born and raised in the Baltic states after the independence–they are localised but never fit in for neither “Russian” or “Estonian”/”Latvian”/”Lithuanian” categories. The locals don’t see them as part of the community, not would the Russians living in Russia consider them to be Russians because they often possess a strong accent associated with Estonian/Latvian/Lithuanian.

Third, identity politics, for far too often, denotes a “us” versus “them” scenario. People identify themselves in different ways because there is a significant “otherness” to compare with. In the case of identity politics, one’s identity is confirmed because there is an “enemy” who is against the whole group of people with the same characteristics. In the case of Europe, it’s ambiguous due to its universality of values and principles–Europe isn’t bounded by physical borders, but it encompasses imperial legacies, colonial past, and the civil wars that lingered for centuries.

In my case, I’m a Hongkonger identified as an ethnic Chinese with a British colonial past which nurtured me with European values. I feel European in some ways because I embrace European values but I was born and raised in an ethnic Chinese community and Cantonese is my native language, even though English is my working language. I’m also British by nationality but it doesn’t make me culturally British because my knowledge on English history is rather limited.

What’s your take on European identity?

The future of European Monetary & Finance Policies

The statue of Euro outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium

This is my first “digital diary” on being a student leader after the initiation of the EU-funded citizenship project Message to Europeans 3.0 in Warsaw. Enjoy!

10.12.17
Money talks.

During the EU Monetary Policies class last week, we had pitches and voting about our opinions on further centralization and efficiency of the economic governance by the EU, namely the establishment of a EU-wide corporate taxation, EU tax system, fiscal transfer system, doubling EU budget, membership of European Monetary Union, Banking Union, Asset Purchase Programme, Eurobonds, the establishment of Eurozone institutions and independent Fiscal Board.

Given that the majority of our classmates are Estonians, the class overwhelmingly voted for further centralization of monetary policies of the EU in order to create income equality through redistributing the capital among the EU countries. On the other hand, the class was split regarding the establishment of an efficient system for economic governance.

It often comes to the point of frustration when European youths talk about European politics from an institutionalized point of view since the functioning of the European Union as a whole is far too complex for ordinary citizens who are not well-informed about what really happens inside the European institutions in Brussels. Yet, the mandatory presentations in the class somehow reflected the opinions of a particular group of Estonian students who attended the class. Thus, this article aims at describing Estonian students’ attitudes towards further economic integration among the EU countries in terms of federalization, sovereignty, and democratic accountability.

Federalization
There was a general consensus that by setting up a EU-wide system on corporate taxation, the fairness of competition among EU countries will be ensured due to harmonization of corporate tax system. Business companies will not invest in EU countries with lower corporate tax because of the standardization. The shortcoming will be, though, that national governments will have less control over business activities since the competence will be given to the EU institutions and less developed economies with the EU won’t be able to catch up with the advanced economies in other EU countries since they will lose the advantage of low corporate tax in order to attract business activities in respective countries. The same logic goes with the establishment of a EU tax system.

Sovereignty
During the pitches, there were several presenters pinpointing the loss of sovereignty if all EU countries will eventually become part of the European Monetary Union (EMU) and Banking Union. It’s a hasty generalization to state that a country’s sovereignty will be lost if it joins the EMU which gives competence to the EU to administrate monetary policies and Banking Union which regulates European Banks. Currently, while Denmark and the UK have the opt-out from joining the EMU, all the EU countries have to join the Eurozone and EMU once they have fulfilled the Maastricht convergence criteria enshrined in the EU Treaties. For the membership of the Banking Union, 19 EU members from the Eurozone countries along with 5 non-Euro area countries are part of the Banking Union, meaning that there are only 3 EU member states which don’t belong to the Banking Union. The argument of “sovereignty” is a mere misconception which isn’t applicable to the current situation of the economic integration among EU countries.

Democratic accountability
It comes to a paradoxical situation which criticisms are surrounding the EU regarding democratic deficit in European economic governance but more than half of the class didn’t agree to set up a separate “Eurozone parliament” which can establish check-and-balance with the Eurogroup leaders who decide public spending cuts in particular EU members whose financial situations are at stake. The paradox is, though, if there is such EU institution within the Eurozone, the European citizens’ concerns will be brought to the Eurozone parliament which affects the unpopular decisions such as austerity measures; on the other hand, it could further confuse the European citizens who don’t understand the organizational structure of the EU, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the decision-making process.

To sum up, it’s never an easy job for us to promote the understanding economic policies of the EU since there are times when populist politicians misinform the public and point fingers at the EU when it comes to economic downturn, so that they can archive personal goals such as getting more seats in the local parliament with more votes from the public. For far too often, we’d forget about the fine balance between simplifying how the EU works exactly and detailing the operations of this European project because of the degree of technocracy which creates a distance between the European citizens and the Eurocrats in Brussels.