The Importance of Being EU


Georgian Parliament

As I walk by Georgian Parliament on my way to the nearby café in the morning, I notice two flags always flying out front: The Georgian ride and white flag, and the European Union navy blue with yellow stars flag (Georgia is a part of the Council of Europe among other institutions).  When I discuss the position of Georgia in the world, although bordered by nations like Russia and Armenia (to name 2) it is widely proclaimed that Georgia is part of Europe.  Like numerous nations located even closer to the heart of the European Union, the goal here is very much to one day be part of the European Union. Why? Although I don’t usually get a specific answer, the implied answer is a sense of belonging. Perhaps also the goal of achieving the quality of life similar to that which it is thought members of the EU enjoy. Or to make it even more basic, one major reason is to further distance this place from Russia, a nation that is – to put it mildly- disliked.  As part of not liking Russia, there is the goal to make sure the world knows (as well as Russia itself) that Georgia is very much with those guys over there on the other side of the Black sea. No longer a victim of their occupation but standing on its own two feet with its European friends.


Now compare this sentiment with that in Southern Europe these days, where people are enraged and disillusioned; not exactly with the European Union, but with their own governments who of course are members of the EU and have presided over, if not played a role in, a massive economic collapse and policy failure.  While some nations in the EU curse their governments for not representing them in what is financially a very troubled union, here we find those outside wishing to get in. With what seems like very different goals, at least when it comes to the symbolic desire to be EU… maybe Georgians would find more happiness in being a member state, even if the economy looks pretty bad.

In the coming days here in Tbilisi, I’ll of course hear more about this bid to be part of the EU and the primary reasons for it. I’ll report back with what I learn.

ctrp370 Drugs and Treatment in Europe Today

The EMCDDA is the agency that monitors drugs and drug treatment on the European scale which happens to be based right here in Lisbon, Portugal.  Each year they gather information and statistics from all members states and advise the European Union about drug policy in terms of what works, what doesn’t and more.

While here in town I went over to their offices and sat down with Danilo Ballotta, Principal Policy Officer – Epidemiology, Crime, and Markets Unit, to ask him about what the agency does, what the biggest problem areas are for Europe, and what we know works when it comes to drug treatment.  We also get into Portugal and how this country has managed to become a world leader in the area of drug treatment.

Dangerous Lobbying

Lobbying is a strange practice when we’re talking about how a government works.  In theory, lobbying is what citizens can do to try and influence what their representatives do; write a letter, make a phone call, organize a meeting or rally… in some way, you’re lobbying your government.  But of course when you see the word lobby in the context of government these days, it means something else. It refers to these groups of professionals, using various tactics to get government officials to vote a certain way. These lobby groups usually have a funding source, and it is very much a full time job. Lets try the webster dictionary definition:

Main Entry: 2lobby
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): lob·bied; lob·by·ing
Date: 1837

intransitive verb : to conduct activities aimed at influencing public officials and especially members of a legislative body on legislation transitive verb 1 : to promote (as a project) or secure the passage of (as legislation) by influencing public officials
2 : to attempt to influence or sway (as a public official) toward a desired action

Whereas lobbying could be a legitimate and respected tool in different types of democracies, it can be, and has been, abused.  Abused when groups with large amounts of money, mount concentrated and constant campaigns to get a representative to act in favor of their goals. Commonly “their goals” are connected to the interests of a corporation or a group of corporations, like the telecommunications, banking, or arms manufacturing industries.  For such lobby groups the concern for the nation or society, is secondary to their business goals.

While this isn’t the only kind of lobbying that exists, it is certainly the type that has become must common and most well funded in capitals of nations around the world.

Unique from most other capitals in the world, Brussels is a city with a booming lobbyist population. The seat of the European Parliament and Commission, among other institutions, the decisions that come out of Brussels have impact in not just 1 nation, but in 27 member states. Yet while it has tremendous reach with its decision making, it is not as often or as closely scrutinized by its citizens the way their individual state governments are.  Thus making it all the more easy for powerful interests with deep funding sources to expand and entrench their lobbying activities with little notice and even less criticism.

According to the Corporate European Observatory and a recent article in the EU Observer, the situation described above is actually far worse.  Two years ago, in an attempt to get a handle on who is a lobby group and for whom,  the EU commission created a voluntary registry system.  Even after two years in existence, it seems more than 60% of Brussels based European Lobby Consultancies have not signed up.  Another blatant sign that the lobby machine at the European level has settled in and feels no need to be accountable or transparent to the EU government or its citizens.

Big Pharma Ads on Their Way

Anyone who has ever been to the United States, or watched commercials on American Television somehow, knows of the never-ending barrage of Pharmaceutical ads that have come to take over the gaps in between programming. They feature excessively clean and happy people walking through parks or high-fiving each other because some ailment they have has been cured by some brand name you should “ask your doctor about”. I can only imagine what its like to be a doctor in the United States today and have your patients coming up to you “asking about” a drug they saw on TV which they would like to have.

This has become the state of the American mediasphere, while over in the EU we still have in place relatively strong regulations preventing that kind of advertisement. Until now.

Ok perhaps the “until now” part makes things seem a little to dire, I would have done better to say that at this moment in time, the EU may relax its rules on Pharmaceutical and medical advertising.  Relaxing doesn’t mean we’ve got old people holding hands and discussing pills to lower their cholesterol on TV. But what we do have is a potential break from the clear policy of no medical advertising in the media.

The information is not easy to come by, perhaps due to its complexity or vagueness, so it is not exactly being discussed by the major news outlets.  What I’ve been able to gather at this point breaks down this way:

  • The change in policy would “allow pharmaceutical companies to provide information directly to consumers”
  • This was proposed in 2008, but put away soon thereafter due to strong criticism from member states.
  • The information they provide would have to be factual, objective, and not seek to advertise prescription drugs.
  • Any such information will go through a committee or a panel that will decide if it meets standards.

Of course many questions remain which I will now pose to various stakeholders and associations, regarding such a change.  Is this taking the EU down the same path as the United States, towards bombarding citizens with clever and appealing visuals regarding what they should choose for when it comes to health and medicine? Is there a push now within EU institutions to pursue this as early as this year? While I’m at it, just how powerful and influencial is the pharmaceutical lobby in Brussels?

Hopefully very soon Ill have some answers which you’ll be able to find right here in a future post.

On the EU Elections

I wrote a piece for the Guardian on the Dutch vote during last week’s European Parliamentary elections. Here’s an excerpt:

The headlines on Friday morning in Amsterdam looked not unlike those in the international press around the world: “Far right wins big in Holland”. This was followed by a few paragraphs of analysis, or at least background as to why a leader who says he won’t even show up for work if he is elected could progress in a party in a country that some people still consider as a beacon of open-mindedness.

Yet no matter how big the font or how many exclamation points they use, the power of the far-right voters in the Netherlands is not the only development in 2009. What failed to get much more than a two-line afterthought in all these reports over the weekend is that the Freedom party (PVV) was not the only party to have made gains for the Dutch. Among them, the D66, a progressive-liberal party that has historically championed issues like gay marriage, euthanasia, legalised prostitution and the decriminalisation of drugs, also gained seats. While the PVVContinue reading “On the EU Elections”

Municipal Waste in the EU

Wait don’t leave yet. I know the title doesn’t scream exciting, but if you’re like me, you want to know about how the city you live in handles waste disposal.? The EU’s statistics office, Eurstat, has released information for 2007 from throughout the EU27, about how municipalities handle waste, and I think it is very important to analyze these numbers and figure out what is good and what needs improvement as quickly as possible.? And if you don’t live in the EU, I still think it is of interest when it comes to learning what to and what NOT to do when it comes to handling a city’s garbage.

Lets start with the positive:Continue reading “Municipal Waste in the EU”