Sunday, 29 March 2009

On the Eve of the G20

I'm heading back to London tomorrow, just in time for the kick-off of the G20 Summit. The meeting of world leaders is already being called the most important G20 ever held, and it isn't just world leaders that are anticipating the big event.

This weekend G20 protests raged across Europe. At least 35,000 people marched in London calling for drastic government action on jobs, welfare and climate change. Of course, protests and the G20 have gone hand in hand since the group's inception, but this year is different. The old protesting stalwarts, who have always opposed the global capitalist system, are now finding a more receptive audience standing at the side of the road watching them march. One large banner at today's protest in London read, "Capitalism isn't working - another world is possible." Four years ago such a banner at the G20 would have seemed silly and irrelevant. For a middle class that has watched the economy collapse around them, the argument may sound quite convincing these days.

Today's march to Hyde Park in London was largely peaceful - just one person was arrested all day, for being drunk and disorderly. But there is a risk that as the week goes on the protests - in London and elsewhere - could turn violent. People are anxious, and there is a palpable sense that this G20 summit may be a turning point in the way this crisis unfolds. Last week George Soros predicted that this G20 summit could be the last opportunity to avoid a world-wide depression.

Large protests have already taken place in Rome, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, Madrid and Barcelona, and many more are scheduled for later this week across Europe.

It will be an interesting week to be in London.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Czech Government Falls

They're falling like dominos in Eastern Europe. The government of the Czech Republic has become the latest to fall as a result of the financial crisis, following Hungary, Latvia and Iceland. The timing is not only scary for the struggling non-Eurozone EU member states, it's also potentially disastrous for the EU presidency, which the Czech Republic still holds until July.

The resignation of the country's center-right prime minister Mirek Topolanek has thrown the government into chaos. With the G20 talks coming up, and an EU-US summit in Prague on 5 April, it remains unclear who is going to be representing the Czech EU presidency, as this role would normally fall to the prime minister. Topolanek was supposed to represent the EU at the G20 talks in London next week. Now it could end up being an empty chair. Or perhaps even more worrying to Brussels, the EU could instead be represented by the controversial Eurosceptic Czech president Vaclav Klaus.

There were more than a few people in Brussels today pointing out that this very bad situation wouldn't be happening if the Lisbon Treaty had already been adopted, as it would end the rotating EU presidency and instead create a permanent president. But the Czech Republic still hasn't ratified the treaty, and the government's collapse will likely delay any ratification until Autumn at the earliest.

It's not a good situation for the EU.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Another Day, Another Protest in France

Street protests are obviously not an unusual occurrence in France. The country is known for its love of demonstrations, and anybody who's lived in Paris for even a bit knows how frequently a strike or a march can throw you off your daily commute. But recent demonstrations in France have been something different entirely, and they're making the government increasingly nervous.

First there was January's one-day strike protesting the economic crisis, and now today another nation-wide strike has gone ahead, with unions claiming that three million people have taken part. 200 towns across the country have seen demonstrations, in which all eight of the country's big unions are demanding more protections for workers in the recession. And as unemployment has risen to two million, they are demanding more is spent in any rescue package on more unemployment benefits.

Benoit Hamon, a leftist rising star in the Socialist party, has been at the forefront of the protests, saying French President Sarkozy has been aggravating the crisis my making the "wrong economic and social choices."

The huge numbers these two strikes have attracted are causing the French government increasing worry. Sarkozy's popularity is perilously low, and the number of French people supporting the strikers is increasing. 74 percent of the French said today they support this week's protests. according to BVA. That's up from 69 percent in January. There is increasing talk of violent revolts this spring. And as evidenced by Hamon's increasingly prominent role, the hard left is gaining power and influence. Olivier Besancenot, a postman and the leader of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, has also been gaining popularity. A recent poll put him as the candidate who could pose the most viable threat to President Sarkozy.

And this is all happening in France, which analysts will be the least affected by the crisis among major European countries. All of this is making leaders across Europe increasingly concerned about a "spring of discontent."

Friday, 13 March 2009

Could the Tories Bring the Euro to Britain?

Last night I attended a gathering of economists and politicians at The Center discussing the current situation vis-à-vis Britain and the Euro. Had such an event been held a year ago, you probably would have been lucky to get three people to show up. After all, the debate about Britain joining the Euro had been dead in the water for years. But things are looking very differently recently after the unprecedented collapse in the value of the pound, and the assembled speakers at the session had some surprising things to say about what may be around the corner for Britain.

The pound has lost 30 percent of its value since last summer, the most dramatic drop in the currency's history. It's fallen from $2.00 to one pound in July to $1.39 to one pound today. The pound fell to just €1.02 recently, when it was €1.33 at the beginning of last year. So the situation for the sterling is bleak.

So now a debate which was once thought to be done and dusted is beginning to resurface, although not yet out in the open in Britain. Speaking at the session, former British MEP John Stevens observed, "It's much easier to talk about Britain and the euro outside than inside." Indeed Stevens, who just wrote a report concluding that the best monetary option for Britain is to join the euro, said that his report has received much more attention in the rest of the world than it has in the UK. In Britain, the currency problem remains the issue that dare not speak its name. Opinion polls have consistently shown that a majority of the public opposes joining the euro, and no politician in today's Britain is willing to take a principled stand on an unpopular issue. Both Labour and the Conservatives know that reawakening the euro debate could easily have the effect of spooking British consumers even further. "If the public hears talk about joining the euro, there will be mass fear that Britain is really in trouble," Stevens said, perhaps only half joking. A country's currency has much to do with its national pride, and having to give up the pound would be a massive blow to Britain's self-esteem.

Yet the country may get to a point where it has few other options. Last night's panelists seemed to agree there is a good possibility the pound may have much further to fall, and a full-on run could cause it to be worth drastically less than the euro. Stevens noted that if the UK were to start negotiations for joining the currency now they would be coming from a position of strength. "We wouldn't be coming just as supplicants, we would be bringing something to the table," he noted. "Britain joining the euro would position it as the world currency." At the same time, it would demonstrate to currency speculators that the pound is a safe currecy. On the other hand, waiting until the bottom has truly fallen out from the pound to begin negotiations would be a very weak position indeed.

But how to sell the idea politically? A representative from the British Chambers of Commerce asked how the organisation could make small-and-medium-sized enterprises come around to the idea. Stevens pointed out that SMEs actually benefit disproportionately from a common currency. Large businesses have mechanisms to get around currency barriers which small businesses do not. Studies have shown that SMEs within the Eurozone have been some of the greatest beneficiaries of the common currency, Stevens said.

But does any political party in Britain have the political will to sell the public on an unpopular issue like this? Simon Titley, a consultant who also worked on the report, said the reticence to do so may be a result of the systemic over-dependence on polls in modern British politics. Public opinion polls may show that a majority of the British are opposed to joining the euro, he said, but those same polls also show that they also don't care very much about the issue either. It's what pollsters call a 'soft issue,' something which people are willing to express an opinion on but actually isn't very important to them. "It's not an issue that would decide an election," he said. "Politicians that are in favour of the euro need to come out of the closet and stop caring what Rupert Murdoch's newspapers will say about them."

So what's likely to happen? All the panelists seemed to think that the next government of the UK will likely be the Tories under David Cameron, who just this week has signaled his intention to leave the main centre-right Europarty in the European Parliament to form a fringe Eurosceptic party, a move many have seen as making the Tories into an isolationist party. However, Titley had an interesting prediction for what may be in store for the a Conservative government. "I think a likely scenario is that a UK Tory government will adopt the euro, under the whole 'Nixon going to China' idea," he said. "Sometimes an idea seems so far to the left that only a right-wing government could do it."

These certainly have been unpredictable times, so I would say even the conservatives bringing the UK into the Eurozone wouldn't surprise me these days!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

A busy week for eurosceptics

He may have promised to do it years ago, but it was only yesterday that UK opposition leader David Cameron officially started the process of taking the Tories out of the European Parliament's centre-right grouping, the European People's Party. And with that, the Tories' 'slow walk from Europe' has begun.

Cameron's intent, which he outlined in his 2005 campaign to become the Conservative Party's leader, is to form a new European party that would be more hostile to the federalist viewpoint. The EPP is the largest of seven Europarties in the parliament. It's the main centre-right party standing astride the Party of European Socialists, the main centre-left grouping. Both parties are more or less federalist in their platform.

Since he came to power Cameron has been attempting to take the conservatives in a strongly Eurosceptic direction, something fraught with danger since the party is split over the Europe issue. As time has gone on the inconsistencies between Cameron's platform in the UK and the EPP's platform has become politically awkward for him. For instance, the EPP was opposed to the UK having a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty while Cameron was loudly calling for one. The EPP also wants more common European policies on the economy, immigration, defence and foreign policy - while Cameron seems to be opposed to any expansion of the EU's remit.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The French Strawman

For decades, it's taken only one word to strike fear into the heart of Americans, and that word is France. Of course Americans aren't afraid of a new Napoleonic army invading the Western hemisphere, what they fear instead is the French economic model. In American political discourse, 'France' is often used not so much as a country but as an ideology; a boogey man representing a bloated welfare state with high taxation, widespread unemployment, overregulation and low productivity. It's a classic strawman argument.

Over the past two weeks, as debate has raged in the US over Barack Obama's revolutionary budget plan, the use of this anecdotal device has skyrocketed. Republicans are calling the proposed Budget the "final moves toward socialism," saying it will lead to the "Europeanization of America." Essentially, the proposed budget does three main things that have elicited this reaction:

-An introduction of higher taxes on the top 3% of income earners
-A funding mandate for definitive healthcare reform
-A massive expansion of the federal debt

David Leonhardt of The New York Times has called this budget, "nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters. ... More than anything else, the proposals seek to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years." This editorial in the Wall Street Journal this week does a great job of breaking down the tax aspect of it.

Considering the changes afoot, it was only a matter of time before the F word started getting tossed around. On the March 2nd edition of Meet the Press, former McCain advisor Mike Murphy managed to work 'France' into the discussion over this budget a total of five times, no small feat for a short segment. According to Murphy, Obama can "hardly wait to turn us into France," and he is squandering his political capital on a "failed ideology." That ideology, a democratic social welfare state, is not only reviled by American conservatives but has also been deeply unpopular with Americans for decades, particularly after the Reagan revolution. Socialism in most Americans' minds is inseparable from Communism, which any American fifth grader can tell you was a failed ideology which the US triumphantly defeated in the cold war. So for some time the logic has been that if you can associate a policy with 'socialism,' or even better, with 'France,' you're going to have a pretty easy time making the policy unpopular with the American public (one only needs to look at the so-called "Death Tax" debate).

But in invoking the old France cliches, are Republicans missing the way the winds are currently blowing? Isn't it a bit odd that, at the same time that Republicans are trying to scare the American population by saying Obama wants to turn them into France, across the Atlantic Sarkozy is proclaiming the death of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and the vindication of the European social model? If the French economic system translates to more regulation on banks and financial firms, more safety-net protections for people who lose their jobs, and more government action to protect the economy, what exactly is it in that image that would scare an American in 2009? Considering that the current crisis was largely the result of a lack of regulation in the US, 'Anglo-Saxon style capitalism run amok,' if you will, it seems almost absurd for Republicans in the US to still be using the French boogeyman tactic. They seem to be saying, "Look out America! Or else you could become like that country where everyone has healthcare, job security and pensions!" I'm oversimplifying of course, and I don't usually find myself in the position of being a strident defender of the French economic model, but it seems to me that Republicans don't have much of a leg to stand on here if they want to keep using the France-baiting.

I was curious to get the reaction of some of my French friends to this kind of talk. After all, they must have an opinion on the fact that their country still stands as the antithesis of America's self-image, the boogeyman in the closet children remain terrified of at bedtime. "I think it's funny," one French friend who works for the EC told me after seeing some of the comments being made in the US media. "In France we do the same thing with America if we want to scare people about Sarkozy. They say he is 'Sarko the American' and that he's trying to make France become America. That scares the French probably as much as Americans are scared to become France."

As we edge closer to a hammering out of the new "Bretton Woods 2" agreement that will reshape the world's economic structure, this France-America ideological labelling is likely to get even murkier. The ideal solution, as with most things, is probably a happy medium somewhere between the two.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The EU Comes Clinton-Approved

This afternoon's town hall meeting with Hillary Clinton at the European Parliament was quite interesting to watch. I think it's safe to say that no visiting diplomat from the US has delivered such high-profile, specific, and glowing praise of the EU institutions and the integration project. It was as if Clinton was giving the EU her "seal of approval," something which could prove to be important in Ireland, where Clinton remains popular because of the Clinton administration's Northern Ireland work.

Secretary Clinton opened with glowing praise of the EU project, calling it a "miracle" which could replicate the success of the United States by creating a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. She went on to reaffirm and underline that the Obama administration intends to improve the United State's relationship with Europe, and she acknowledged the damage that has been done by the last eight years. Indeed I was struck by the sometimes decidedly undiplomatic language used by both herself and European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering to describe the previous administration.

But more than anything I was struck by the fact that the audience seemed to be hanging on her every word. There was definitely a sense that having this "seal of approval" for the EU institutions from someone with Clinton's celebrity status was hugely important. Pottering was certainly not exaggerating at the end of the town hall when he said the questions could have continued for hours.

EuroParlTV has the video from the town hall, and Adriano from CafeBabel was liveblogging the speech as well. I would recommend taking a look at it, whether you're European or American. It was a really interesting discussion.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Reports of Their Death are Greatly Exagerated

Is the established media dead, or are they stronger than ever? This is the question we've been grappling with over the past two days here at the Digital News Affairs conference in Brussels. The conference is a yearly cross-media, cross-platform look at the technologies shaping the media industry, and I've been here covering the event for CafeBabel. As with most conferences focusing on the media these days, the conversation has tended to be dominated by the big question: what is going to happen to the 'established media' now that the Internet has completely changed the game?

Such conversations took place just about every day back in journalism school at Medill in Chicago, and the level of chatter hasn't abated. But something significant has changed since then, and that is that the vast majority of the established media has caught up to the technological advances, and where they've entered they've entered in a big way. But will this be enough to keep them relevant? Various panelists over the past two days have staked their position on either side of the debate, and I've noticed that their position tends to reflect which side of the aisle they're coming from, established or start-up.

The conference opened with a panel of a few start-ups taking a look at how the economic downturn combined with the current technological revolution has turned the traditional media business upside down. Unsurprisingly this panel, composed of representatives from Google, Rue 89 and Demotix, seemed to conclude that traditional media models were dinosaurs and would be quickly eclipsed by young start-ups. In short, the web 2.0 revolution has created an equal playing field where news can be provided by anyone, anywhere over the web. The brands of the established media would not, some panelists concluded, protect them from being eclipsed by younger, more flexible start-ups. Users don't care who's providing the news any more, they argued, they just care how quickly and creatively they get it.

Contrast that with the the afternoon panel, appropriately titled "The Established Media React." Chaired by Ben Hammersley of Wired magazine, the panel was composed of folks from Deutsche Welte, Sky News, De Standaard, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC, who all vociferously defended their position. I have to say, between the representatives of the "new media" and the representatives of the "old media," I've found the established players to be far more convincing. Peter Vandermeersch of Der Standaard, the largest daily paper in Flanders, pointed out that despite all the predictions of the death of the traditional media his paper has actually been doing increasingly well over the past several years. "Newspapers are alive and kicking," he insisted. "Are we good enough now? No. But who is best equipped to deliver content, three geeks in their garage with no brands, no funds, and no customers, or us, the established media?"

Just to show how much things have changed, the established media panel opened with this amusing video from a local San Francisco news broadcast in 1981.

Although it sounds quite funny to us now, this reporter definitely gets points for being prescient!

As each panelist spoke, their company's web site was displayed behind them. Two things particularly stood out about them: For one thing, as Livestation's Matteo Berlucchi pointed out, you couldn't tell from any of them whether they were coming from a broadcaster or a publisher, suggesting that to users the original function of the company is irrelevant. And two, they were all highly sophisticated and aesthetically impressive. As much as the established media are lambasted by the new media as being old dinosaurs that haven't caught up with modern ways of presenting information, a quick look at the main players' web sites shows that to not be the case. The New York Times, BBC, CNN, The Guardian; they all have an impressive and extensive web presence. So clearly the established media, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, has adapted and entered the new media space in a big way.

I spoke with Ben Hammersley after the panel, and he seemed to have reached much the same conclusion. While there is still a lot of cluelessness on the part of the established media, he said, the fact is that when they did set up an Internet presence they went all in. And with the extensive resources, audience and branding that they have, no-name start-ups can't hope to compete. Essentially, according to this line of thinking, what we've been looking at over the past five years was simply a lag. The established media is made up of big companies, and big companies move slow. But though giants may move slowly, when they make a move it has a big impact. And when an institution like the BBC masterfully sets up a great web site, 5 geeks in their garage aren't going to be able to touch them.

It was interesting timing for me to be hearing this line of argument, as earlier this week I learned that the start-up news web site I was contracting for in the fall has folded. I won't name the site but it was a user-generated news site, where anybody could post stories they had either observed themselves or read. The idea was that after witnessing news events first-hand, regular citizens could take photos and rush to this particular start-up web site to report what they had seen. When it did work, such as during the Mumbai terrorist attacks, it worked well and attracted a good deal of mainstream media attention. But the honest fact was that 95 percent of the time it didn't work. Most of the user-generated content was either crazy rambling or pure cut-and-paste jobs that added no unique content to a news story that was already out there. Trust me I know, my job was to read the posts as they came in all morning! The experience of contracting for them engendered in me a pretty strong scepticism about all this talk of an egalitarian Internet and valuable user-generated content. The fact is that most user-generated amateur news content is going to be just that: amateur.

I'm now listening to the final panel of the day, a question-and-answer session for people in the media business, and Michael Rosenblum is getting the crowd all fired-up with a rant about how all news outlets should fire half their staff and give everyone remaining a laptop and tell them to do everything on their own. I'm told he does this every year, and while he does have a point that the established media could stand to get rid of a lot of their infrastructure, I fundamentally disagree with his conclusion that newsrooms should get rid of edit bays, reporters, and any kind of specialized professional and instead pay people on an individual basis to produce content on their laptops. His implication, for broadcast at least, seems to be that producing good broadcast journalism is so easy a monkey could do it. Having worked as a broadcast journalist and as a video editor I can assert that this is absolute nonsense. Producing quality broadcast journalism (and in particular editing broadcast journalism) is a specific skill that not everyone can do well, and requires specific training.

So is the established media dying a slow death? Opinion at this conference seems to be divided on the subject. But I'm finding myself far more convinced by those that think that the extensive wealth, reputation and reach of the established players cannot be underestimated.

Hillary Fever: Catch It!

Hillary Clinton has touched down in Brussels, and already the city seems to be abuzz with excitement. I think I have a pretty good idea of where she's staying thanks to some pretty heavy security I noticed earlier tonight, but apparently journalists aren't supposed to talk about where she is, so I won't mention it! I was at a conference earlier today and all of the journalists were asking the same thing: Are you going to the big Hillary public debate at the European Parliament on Friday? I'm not, but I was speaking with a few people tonight who are and they're pretty excited. The debate is going to take place with European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering and apparently quite a motley crew has been invited to attend, including several young bloggers. It's a shame yours truly wasn't invited! But I did already get a chance to interview her back when I was working as a radio reporter in Washington.

Of course I wasn't here in Brussels for any previous US secretary of state visits but I doubt they generated the kind of buzz the Clinton visit is. It's all the rather strange byproduct of having a celebrity US Secretary of State, and it will be interesting to see how that dynamic affects US foreign policy. But it's safe to say few visitors to Brussels generate this level of buzz, and probably the only person who could match it would be President Obama himself.

So what's all the fuss about? Well this is Mrs. Clinton's first trip to Europe as Secretary of State, and it's a chance to lay down the ground rules for the Obama Administration's relationship with the EU. There was much speculation about who would be the first European leader to meet with President Obama, but that was fairly quickly answered. And really, was there ever any real doubt that it would be Gordon Brown? But as Brown meets with Obama in Washington, it's significant that Secretary Clinton's first visit to Europe in her new role is to Brussels to meet with EU institutions. It shows she intends to take the EU seriously as voice in foreign policy, something Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell never seemed to be too enthusiastic about.

The debate on Friday is going to be broadcast on the European Parliament's new video portal web site EuroParlTV, and the gossip going around today was that the whole debate is just a marketing ploy to get people to visit the new site. I have no idea if that's the case, but it seems to me fairly unlikely Hillary's handlers would donate her limited time to a promotional gimick. Then again if that was the intent it seems to have done it's job; everyone today was talking about this debate.

Of course the debate won't be on the forefront of the new secretary's mind. Top on the agenda for Clinton's meetings over the next two days are relations with Russia, European cooperation in Afghanistan and the US missile shield program in Eastern Europe. Tonight Clinton held "transatlantic dinner" with European leaders, and tomorrow she will attend a Nato ministerial meeting. It is expected that at this meeting Clinton will make a formal request for greater European participation in the Nato mission in Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see what sort of official response this receives. Increasing troop presence in Afghanistan is going to be a hard sell for the European public.

On Friday, Mrs. Clinton will meet with European Commission President Jose Manuel Borroso before taking place in the public debate at the European Parliament, and following that she will go to Geneva to meet with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Many in Europe are eager to see an easing in the Russia-US tensions that have built up over the past eight years, and this meeting in Geneva should give a pretty good first indication of whether that's a realistic expectation.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Brussels in Bulgaria

Much ink has been spilled over the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU in 2007, and there are still many questions floating around over the decision. Should they have been admitted, or has the EU bit off more than it can chew in taking on two such poor countries? How can the EU effectively deal with the high level of corruption in the Bulgarian and Romanian governments? And when should the new EU entrants be given the full rights and privileges enjoyed by other EU citizens?

After spending last week in Bulgaria I am perhaps not qualified to offer a solid answer to these questions, but I have come to understand the country much more. For one thing, all this talk about 'Romania and Bulgaria,' as if they were one geopolitical block, seems strange to Bulgarians. When interviewing politicians and NGOs, I would often ask them if the factors they were mentioning in Bulgarian society were present in Romania. They would always respond that they had no idea, and even seemed a bit confused by the question. Though the countries tend to be talked about together now because they entered the EU at the same time with the same set of restrictions, in terms of culture, language and government they're quite different. In fact the photographer in our group was from Romania, and she said she doesn't necessarily feel any kind of strong connection to the country.

The event on Saturday went quite well. In addition to being an EU Debate on the Ground, it was also the official launch of CafeBabel Sofia. The event was hosted by a well-known local radio personality and was in Bulgarian, but the non-Bulgarian journalists had a great simultaneous translator. We had three MEPs there and the Bulgarian Minister for European Affairs, Gergana Grancharova (pictured above left). Essentially it was a debate between EU government officials and the public, designed to foster greater interaction between the European public and Brussels. Coming from Western Europe, it actually seemed to me that Bulgaria has a shockingly high level of interest in EU affairs. The attendees at the event were quite well-informed. Most of the major Bulgarian television networks showed up to film, and it made the nightly news. As I wrote last week, I learned on this trip that three times as many Bulgarians have faith in EU institutions as have faith in the Bulgarian government. This isn't surprising considering the level of dysfunction in the Bulgarian government, but as the MEPs mentioned at the event, the expectations of the Bulgarian public for the EU may need to be ratcheted down quite a bit. After all, the EU can't solve all of Bulgaria's problems, nor is that its intention.

Speaking with the French ambassador to Bulgaria on Friday, I learned this is an increasing concern for Western European nations. The high level of enthusiasm for EU integration in Bulgaria may be flattering for Brussels, but it will liekly lead to inevitable disappointment when the EU is unable to deliver, particularly as the economic crisis hits Bulgaria especially hard. The increasing trend of Bulgarian NGOs and business interests going directly to Brussels to get problems solved, bypassing the national government, is actually a worrying trend, he said. It is the dysfunction of the Bulgarian government that needs to be solved, and if it isn't, it will strengthen the increasingly popular far left and far right. The nationalist, anti-Turkish party Ataka (pictured left), is getting particularly popular, and it's thought that they will gain seats in the June national election as people cast a protest vote against the government.

Having only spent time in Sofia, I can't say I'm qualified to concretely answer any of the questions I posed in the first paragraph after my trip. I can say that while it was a bit rough around the edges, the level of development in Sofia didn't even resemble the post-apocalyptic picture often painted by the British media. As the poorest country in the EU, clearly Bulgaria has a long way to go before it enjoys the same standards of living as its Western counterparts. But at the same time Sofia looked like any other Eastern European capital. We felt perfectly safe walking around on the street at any time of day or night, and the modern conveniences were the same as most other capitals of the East. I'm told that Sofia is extremely different from the rural areas of Bulgaria, but of course that's true for any country.

So all in all it was a very interesting and fun few days, I'm glad I participated in the project. If you're interested in finding out if an EU Debate is coming to your city any time soon, check out the schedule.