Monday, January 17, 2011

About the President of the European Council, and the High Representative of EU Foreign Affairs.

After the Lisbon Treaty referendum was passed in Ireland, the green light was given to implement the Treaty and two new positions were created in the European political scene. That of the President of the European Council, and of the High Representative of EU Foreign Affairs. Who are they, what are their roles and what does their appointment mean to each one of us?

The first and most important position was filled by the Belgian politician Mr Herman Van Rompuy, while the position of the “Minister” of Foreign Affairs by a British Baroness, Lady Catherine Ashton. Their appointment was of course with no lack of intrigues and controversy like anything else in EU and Europe.

While many supported for the position of the “EU President” (including me) the Luxembourgian PM Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, the heavyweights of EU France, Germany and Britain found him “too federalist” so the position was given to Mr Van Rompuy who was favored by all. Mrs Ashton appointment was much criticized by Spain and other EU states because as they claimed, this position should be given to a national of a country that is fully committed to EU, has adopted the Euro and belongs to the Schengen Agreement.

Since their appointment, what has changed in the EU? I would say not much. We just have two new well paid politicians. But how often we actually see their activities in our everyday life, or when was the last time that we have read about their work and their vision for Europe? None of them has ever given any inspirational speeches, addressing the people.

If we compare them to their USA counterparts and their influence or importance in their country and the world, the European ones seem rather unimportant. I am not criticizing them in person or their work, rather the political situation in Europe that is becoming increasingly a farce.

When I heard about those two positions, I imagined that eventually Europe will grow up and start speaking with one voice. That eventually we will promote Europe’s interests on the world stage and show a Europe United. Especially the President of EU, as many call him, will become a symbol of the future political union of the European states.

Instead of that we still see the big powers of EU pulling the strings, while in most EU summits with other countries or regions/blocks of the world, it is the head of the EU Commission Mr. Manuel J. Barroso that is always present, representing the EU.

Not to mention that it was another Commissioner that was sent to Haiti to see and evaluate the situation, the Bulgarian Commissioner Mrs Kristalina Georgieva, not Baroness Ashton. Many criticize her for the lack of competence or knowledge, others because of her inability to speak any other European languages notably German or French.

So if she is really not the right person for the job, why she was offered it and by whom? All important positions in EU are filled by people favored by our Governments and many in many cases they are not the best choice. Our governments want still to pull all strings in European politics, so they place people in certain positions after and agreement or political compromise. 

Many demand for the position of the "EU President" to be filled after the direct vote by the citizens of Europe. In other words, it is the people who must vote directly their President that represents them. Sadly I do not see that happening anytime soon with the stance our national Governments have towards the EU. And in many countries like Greece, the people do not elect their President directly. It is just a different political system.

In Greece people vote for their Parliament and a new Government. It is up to the Parliament then to choose the President of the country. In this system, it is not necessary the direct election of the President by the people. But in the EU’s case we have three Presidents, but only one elected in this way: The President of the European Parliament.

In other words we do not have one "EU President," that can be elected by us and represent us. That is why, Mr. Van Rompuy is officially called the President of the European Council and not what it was mentioned in the Lisbon Treaty. He speaks for and represents our governments, not the citizens. But then why do we need a person for this position and what do we gain from it, as citizens of Europe?

Shouldn't we just have one President speaking for the EU and for the citizens? It seems that we are not ready for democracy on a European level yet. I was very supportive in the beginning of those two new positions, but I haven’t seen any real leadership so far from their behalf. The blame does not lie with them, they have their hands tight.

Nothing is done in Europe without the full approval by our national Governments, especially of the powerful ones. But if we pay for a “President” and a “Minister of Foreign Affairs” shouldn’t we be treated to influential ones, exactly as our American cousins have Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton? Two politicians with real influence in the world stage.

I am not sure I want to have another two overpaid politicians that not only do so little, they do not speak for me, but also they have no real credibility in the world stage. What does Europe is actually showing to the rest of the world and how do we want them to take us seriously? We are still divided over important policies and we send puppet politicians to speak for our Governments. At least we are showing the real face of Europe this way.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Our National Governments..How "National" are they really?

Most people that have any objections to giving full power to EU and the European Parliament, are doing so because they trust more their National Governments and they do not want to lose their national sovereignty.

They believe that the people who run "Brussels" are a group of corrupt elite that want to take over their countries, in a authoritarian dictatorship. Or they simply do not like centralization, they believe that they will lose control over the issues that concern them and won't have direct say in the decisions that will affect their lives.

Though the issue of centralization is a valid one, many European nations are actually a federation and they deal with this issue effectively. It is actually nation states that lack behind like Greece, when all power and money is gathered in the capital. In the UK, Germany and Switzerland for example, they gave more power to the regional capitals and that is the way forward.

In a globalized world, no nation or government is actually independent or sovereign. All countries must follow the developments or suggestions of the Markets if they want to achieve prosperity. No country can exploit their natural resources without allowing the investors that follow the Markets' ratings to invest in the state! So how independent are we really?

I will remind you that Europe after two World Wars was totally destroyed, its economy was in tatters and it needed cash to kick-start production again. That money come from the Marshal Plan that was set up by USA! Millions of dollars were poured into the European economy and while it helped the Continent's recovery, it also made Europe attached to America until now. But as many of the plan's critics have said, it promoted corruption in the Governments that received lump sums of cash.

Did you think that Europe would receive that money for nothing? The Marshal Plan helped to transform Europe and its policies in almost everything, but it started the "Americanization" of the continent and most of the nations that got involved. Colonization ended because of American intervention and European economies became more open and globalized because it was a requirement in order for a country to be part of the plan.

That is why the Americans were keen to give as much money to as many countries in Europe, even to the eastern block and Asia. South Korea, Japan, Pakistan were also receivers of American money. No wonder they are to this day close allies of USA. The eastern European block rejected the Plan so they remained controlled by the Soviets.

So for all of you who believe that your government is ruling your country, have you ever wondered how can you change your country? Perhaps if you voted for the right politicians or political party in power, then change would come. But as we observe in some nations, governments come and go without bringing any change. Why is that?

Perhaps because these nations are “corrupt” and lack of any good politicians with a vision for their country. But everybody wants a prosperous country and a state that will provide. Everybody wants a secure future for him and his family; so why some states fail to do that?

Understandably different regions of the world have different values and culture. Their perceptions of the economy, trade, wealth and happiness are varied. There are different values for examples in Islamic countries than those in the West. But we see a variety of economic policies in the Western developed world too. 

Why some countries are doing better than others? The obvious reason would be because they follow different policies. The thing that I do not understand is why then the nations that lag behind, especially those in a multinational organization like the EU, do not take a page or two from each others books. 

Why the poorer weaker states do not copy some of the policies that made others so rich or successful? What politician would not want to make history and his government the one who changed a nation’s fate? 

We can say that the same rules can not be applied or be as successful everywhere. But certain policies could work everywhere. So why not adopt them and implement them? The problem is that change might be desired by many or needed, but unfortunately it brings loses for some people who will lose out of the established status quo. 

So while it would make sense to promote change in all levels in a society according to each state’s capabilities to become better and richer, our politicians fail us to deliver them. Politics sadly rely on lobbying. For each politician to find funds to support his or her political campaign, he or she must rely on “donations” from supporters. 

And that is where the problem starts. Elites exist within every nation that want to keep things as such. So they contribute to our political elite campaigns in order to gain favors and influence the policies that the future government is going to pursue. If these new "savior" policies that other countries have implemented are against the established elites' interests, then we see why they never get to become law.

As globalization is spreading and nations become ever interconnected, the elites of all nations become interconnected. Politics do not remain within the borders of one country. If any multinational corporation or bank can buy into another nation, then they can certainly influence the country’s politics.

They can come into an agreement with the local elites so that it will be beneficial for both of them: not necessarily for the people of that nation. So who is really governing our nations: us, our “national politicians,” or the foreign investors? 

Why are we so fiercely protecting our "national" governments, since they are not that national anymore. Once they have to implement policies that will please international investors, once they sign international treaties as part of the nation's membership in a international organization like the EU they are anything but.

Can we do anything about it? Well yes if you want to go back and stop Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus from discovering the Americas then I guess you could. Globalization and global trade started then and it can not be retracted. What we should be demanding though, if we have to give in to our governing elites' demands, is a globalization with our own terms and conditions. 

We should be forcing our governments to be more accountable, we should be demanding more transparency in our national politics and the European ones. We should become more active, vigilant and engaged citizens. If our national politicians are not that "national" anymore, as they are not the ones who truly or exclusively rule our countries, they should nevertheless represent our best interests to the ones who they deal and do business with. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Harmonization of Salaries and Pensions in the Eurozone!

I originally come from one country of the Euro-zone and I am living in another! My family still lives in Greece, while I am making my living in Ireland. Every time I visit home, we discuss with my friends and family how each of us we make ends meet financially.

One thing that I realize is how most things cost about the same in the Euro-zone. Of course you will say, that is one of the main reasons we do have the euro and one of its benefits. Yes, but then why our salaries are so different?

While Greece's minimum wage before the crisis reached about 700 € and now it got to just under the 600 €, Ireland's minimum wage still hovers around 1200 €. But if you go to any supermarket or a department store, the prices of the goods do not differ much.

A few differences exist of course: to rent or buy a property in Ireland costs up to three or more times the cost of one apartment in Greece (in the Irish case it was the property boom that led to those prices, and we all now realize that economies like these are not worth having; few people benefit, most lose and end up paying for the winners), transportation and tobacco prices are also considerably higher.

How can people in Greece have a decent living if you think about it, when they earn less than half of what their Irish fellow Europeans earn, but the prices of food, clothing and other necessary goods are the same?

The difference in the rents can not justify such unequal reality. If a Greek family earns between the two parents around 1500 € on average, they will have to spend at least 500€ for their rent. While in Ireland a family will earn on average around 3000€ between the two parents while the rent will cost them around half of that. In other words a family in Ireland has at least 500€ more to spend on the basic goods, with only the price of tobacco, petrol and transportation being more expensive.

And this is not just between Greece and Ireland. I have traveled in many European countries, mainly in the Euro-zone and the prices do not differ much; the wages though do. How can anyone justify that Europeans must be paid differently for doing exactly the same job? The labor of one EU citizen is valued half of what another EU citizen is earning!

Why should an Irish person that works in a check out in a super market earn more than a Greek, and a Greek more than a Romanian? Since we have the same currency and a common market, common prices for most goods why do we still have unequal wages? And not just the wages but our pensions too! An Irish pensioner is earning more than 800 € per month, while a pensioner in Greece about 400 € on average.

Different economies you will say of course, make a necessity such inequality. Each country controls its taxes, fiscal policies, wages etc. But what if we had one common European economy? Besides isn't the differences in our economies that make the existence of the Euro more complicated? We see that it creates problems that when manipulated by some groups of organizations, can create situations like the crisis we are now dealing with.

Europe has one currency, one market perhaps we should start thinking about harmonization of our salaries as well. Why create such inequality in our working force? Imagine if Poland had the Euro and the Polish workers earned as much in Poland as in Ireland, why would they migrate en-mass?

Immigration within the EU would be for reasons like learning another language, acquiring new skills, studying, experiencing a new lifestyle and widening your horizons, or simply just for fun!

But perhaps our business and political elites need those inequalities so they can always find a cheap labor force. If an Irish man won't do the job for less, perhaps a Polish or a Romanian will! We are segregating Europe in a two-tier continent with half of it being rich while the other half poor.

The needs of the rich part would be always fulfilled by the cheaper labor of the poorer. Is that the "united" Europe that we want to create? With the expansion of the Euro-zone perhaps we should be putting the bases for salary and pension harmonization that will eventually take place in all Euro-zone members.

The people would welcome such move. The goods that we need are getting more and more expensive with the Euro anyway, how come we can share a currency with Germany but not the German wages? How come we can pay the same for a bottle of milk but not earn the same?

We have a common and free market but some nations are being forced into having less to spend, while others are given more. If Greece has lower wages shouldn't the Greeks pay lower prices as well? Then the German tourists would really find things cheaper in their holidays, but to their surprise Greece is a very expensive country.

In that way the Greeks are losing out twice: not just by not earning the same as the Germans and not having the same to spend and travel as much as them, but losing out in tourism as well as the Germans prefer to go to Tunisia or other cheaper holiday destinations. So why is Greece in the Euro-zone in the first place?

If we make the sacrifice of not being able to devalue our currency and attract tourism, then shouldn't we be given equal wages with other Europeans and similar economies to them? Industrialization and technology, invest in research in fields like green energy and agriculture is what we need and would help us achieve this goal. Why are we given half the benefits of EU and Euro membership?

If you think that is fair to be paid half of a person in a nearby country for doing the same job, and while belonging to the same "European family", same market and using the same currency then perhaps we should stick with this situation.

But imagine if everyone in Europe had the same opportunity in prosperity, progress and development, same salaries and money to spent, was paying the same prices for the same goods; wouldn't that mean equality and all the things that EU is boasting for? I personally do not want to be a second class EU citizen.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Hungarian restriction of the Media and the role of EU.

During the Hungarian EU Presidency, the news that come out of the country are not the most flattering. There are talks about media censorship in an EU country.The very word "media censorship" is a much feared and detested in Europe, but perhaps we do not grasp what is really happening in the country just yet.

"Hungary will change its much-criticized media law if the European Union wants," Prime Minister Viktor Orban said today.However, Mr Orban delivered a vigorous defense of the legislation, arguing that there was nothing in it that was not in other EU countries' laws.

Mr Orban has been roundly criticized by EU states such as France, Britain and Germany because of concerns about restrictions on media freedom, saying it was long overdue and democratic.
But he acknowledged the criticism leveled at his government and said that if the European Commission, which is studying the text, sought alterations, they would be made.

"We are part of the EU, there are rules of the game," Mr Orban told foreign reporters invited to Hungary as the country assumes the rotating presidency of the EU for the next six months. "Any procedure that the EU starts and initiates, Hungary will accept it. If we are not right, and it becomes a fact, we will agree and we will correct it," he said.

Hungary says the media law had to be changed because the old legislation was ineffective, with increasingly virulent tabloid TV channels and newspapers acting with impunity.

Andras Koltay, a professor of media freedom who helped draft the law, used the examples of a newspaper that ran front page pictures of a Hungarian footballer shortly before he died during a game, and a TV reality show that questioned a girl about her sex life until she broke down. "They were violations of human dignity, and that is what this new law aims to protect," he said. (From the Irish Times paper, 06.01.2011)

It is baffling what was the EU negotiating with the country's leadership before Hungary joined the block. Why any agreement to join the block, does not come with a commitment to always uphold its values? Hungary though declared that it will co-operate with EU if those laws are found to be breaking EU laws, as the above article clearly states. So why all this outrage?

The situation is in no way any better in other EU states. The Greek media for example, especially the television channels, are totally unregulated. Each of them can broadcast any rubbish reality program and numerous silly gossip talk shows. So is media regulation always a bad thing and where do we draw the line on our media freedom?

Why can't there be some constructive restrictions,  in an effort to provide quality programs that will educate and inform the public? We allow this mass "moronization" of the public with low quality American style reality shows and gossip/lifestyle programs. What is more important to have "freedom" of the media or keep a level of decency and quality?

Freedom of speech of the media, that is to report or criticize any person or development from the country's political or social life, has nothing to do with the quality of the programs that are being broadcasted. Or about the quality of the news and how they are being presented.

The EU does not criticize Italy and the fact that one man owns the majority of the media there. Hungary and other new states though, must be stigmatized and be told what to do, while things are not as rosy in the old members of EU. That is not the way to built a union.

We need quality media platforms that have a constructive impact in our lives, not fill our heads with rubbish and focusing our attention to things that are not important, rather helping us focus on things that are.Some standards must not be lowered, though media censorship is a sensitive issue that must be handled with a great caution. 

Perhaps Hungary is being stigmatized or "framed" for being the only nation in EU and Europe to dare to do such a thing. Oppose the will of the European elite that want totally unregulated media so they can brainwash the public.

They try to make us all in Europe compulsive buyers, supporting so the capitalist system. Our media are getting more and more dominated with reality shows and programs, that do not inform or offer anything constructive, helping any critical thinking.

It might just be that the cultured Hungarians felt disgusted by what their media were promoting to their population and wanted to put some control over broadcasting, so they won't become like Britain that is full of cheap realities.

Speaking about Britain and other countries, do you think that if a young pro-European aspiring journalist like myself, tried to write anything that was not compatible with the country's Euro-skeptic tradition, would any newspaper or media hired him or publish his work? It is doubtful.

In other words if you think about it, we do not have freedom of speech in our countries, when it challenges the establishment. Hungary is not the only country that should be scrutinized by the EU, but it is the only one who dared to control the quality of what is being broadcasted. And for that it is being grilled by the European officials.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How much do you know about, or have interest in EU?

One of the most common arguments of the Euro-skeptics is that the EU is undemocratic, a corrupt block that wants to take a grip of every nation and squeeze out all resources, dragging its people into poverty. That is the New Soviet Union, an authoritarian regime that cares not for the people.

They are gaining the public's votes and support by using populism, a very simple and one-sided way of explaining European politics. The reality is that many of the things that the EU offer us as citizens we take for granted. For example the freedom to move, study and work in any country in Europe you wish.

There are also many programs that the EU is running for the betterment of its citizens' lives. Any citizen can receive grants to open a small business from scrap and farmers to grow their business. The EU is also promoting of the equal rights of women, of the various minorities and also offers grants to develop the poorer regions of the region.

How many of us actually know our rights as EU citizens, what is being discussed in the European Parliament (EP) and who our MEPs are? There is a lot of information in the various EU portals, but our Governments and their civil servants avoid encouraging people to look for those details and information.

We usually hear about what is happening in EU only when there is a referendum or a major crisis. We are left to believe that certain decisions are taken by some "foreigners" in a far away country called Belgium. There is indeed a democratic deficit in EU, but it is only because our Governments do not want to lose control of the decisions that are being taken by EU.

The Euro-skeptics on the other hand, are conservative folk and do not want to give more power to the EP, thus making EU a real federation and not the confederation that it is now. In a confederation, people have less direct say in the political system's affairs, as exactly happens in EU today. So in fact the Euro-skeptics are blocking any democratic development in the institution, by opposing giving more authority to the EP, the only way to make EU more democratic.

The EP has to co-decide all future policies with the EU Council. The Council is comprised by all our Governments together. When the Council meets to decide for future policies on Agriculture for example, the ministers of Agriculture of each EU state meet with their counterparts. In other words, our Governments have about half of the responsibility over the future EU legislation, so to say that EU is imposing anything on us is simply absurd.

The Commission, the third legislative body of the EU, is formed by chosen representatives of the elected Governments of each state. There have been many controversies regarding the Commission, the most recent was about the appointment of the Bulgarian Commissioner and the re-election of Mr Barroso. We need to have a say on who our Governments sent to work in the Commission, as it has so much power and influence.

In a real federation the people vote for and thus control directly, both the national/local Government and the Federal one, having a direct say in them,like for example in Germany. But that requires a fully functioning parliament, with all the powers and authority that it needs to pass legislation, something that we lack at the moment in Europe.

Many fear centralization in Brussels and it is a very valid argument. Greece is a terrible example of a centralized government. Athens takes control of all decisions and most of the wealth and development ends us there, while if it reformed itself in a more Swiss or German model there would be less corruption, inequality, red tape and more efficiency. Switzerland on the other hand, is a Confederation only in name and it has been transformed over the centuries to a true Federation.

A centralized government in Brussels is something to avoid at all costs. The EU is not and should not be transformed into a nation or a single state as soon as possible. But since it is here to stay, we better form it according our interests. The only way to make it work for the citizens and not the lobbyists, is for us to have a strong and direct voice in it by empowering the EP.

If you ignore the European Elections, you are indifferent for any democratic legitimacy in EU and then you not only lose the right to vote but your right to Democracy. The EEC was formed with a vision. Over the decades and after the economic success that followed, everybody is taking its existence for granted and is indifferent to it.

Many others are turning skeptical of the institution and it is no wonder, with so many negative press it is receiving. If we take into consideration the indifference of our Governments, to explain to their citizens what the country gains from EU membership, then we can see why there is a lot of skepticism.

The problem is that our Governments do not want to hand over too much power to the organization they have created and supported for decades. They objected for the first EU President to be Mr Juncker, Luxembourg's current PM, because he is too federalist for their interests. They prefer someone that will keep EU as it is right now.

A tool of Europe's governments pushing for the reforms that they want, while keeping the balance between the conservatives and the liberals in place. But under the current intergovernmental, lobbyist and elitist  model of governance of the EU, it is us the citizens that are left out and being misinformed.

If you have any questions or queries on the EU itself, do not rely on our governments and its civil servants to explain things to you. Often there is lack of coordination between them and information is not being passed on to their departments, or ultimately to the citizens.

It will be best to do some research yourself or contact the EU and get active, don't take anything that is written in the press as being accurate. The media always have their own agenda. You can find answers yourself in , or alternatively you may also contact you local MEP.

There are various other organizations that could help you in your research, like the European Movement and many others, active both in EU and non-EU states. If you want the EU to work for your interests, you must first understand how it works and secondly you need to get active and participate. When you are indifferent about the political situation in our continent, then you have absolutely no right to complain about whatever happens to your civil rights. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

The future of religion in Europe.

Recently there has been a stir up in some EU states about a ban on either the crucifix in Italian schools, or the ban of the burka in France and other European countries. With constant debates and clashes of different religious groups in Europe, what does the future hold for religion?

Religion exists in the human psyche since the dawn of any human civilization. In fact it was one of the driving forces of it. It always has been the temples to our Gods that we have dedicated most of our attention and creativity.

In Europe our cathedrals are our pride and joy, a huge part of our heritage. But now Europe is changing and Christianity is not the only religion. Europeans are becoming more and more agnostic or atheists, while the new comers are still attached to their religion and their heritage. What will be the impact of these changes?

Let us have a look at how Christianity spread in Europe, which was not always in a peaceful way. In Greece it was the reason for the destruction of the ancient Greek culture and heritage. In Byzantium Greek Pagans were despised and considered as ethnics, so the Byzantine empire did whatever it could to weaken them and convert them to Christianity.

They were forcing Greeks to populate Asia Minor and Christians of what is today Turkey to move in Greek lands, in order to weaken the Greek Pagan resistance and make all the citizens to follow one religion. Christianity expanded in the rest of Europe in similar ways. Not always by voluntary conversion. Europe was in fact the first "victim" of this new religion but not the last one. Latin and North America, Australia and Africa were soon to follow after.

Ever since the Church took hold of the European continent it suppressed every freedom of expression, passion, any female or gay people's freedoms. It abused children and took over land and property, accumulating huge amounts of wealth to be able to perpetuate its dominance.

It totally destroyed the culture of ancient nations and tribes of the continents, notably the Greek which it loathed because of its man-centered ideology. For ancient Greeks, even the Gods were imperfect and had many human traits. They were in other words made on the image of humans and not the other way around, as the Christian doctrine tells us. For Christians their God could not be imperfect, envious, vengeful and with any sexual desires.

Though I accept Christianity as part of European heritage and culture, I am more than happy to see it weakened. Both the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox Church have committed crimes on their subjects in Europe and elsewhere. It is about time for the Church to stop meddling with politics, the social life and morality of the population.

They should focus in what the Church was created for: serve the people and promote kindness in the world! Be here to answer the questions of the people about anything divine (if any) and promote peaceful and loving existence between fellow humans. I would appreciate if the Vatican stopped telling us what is right and what is wrong, especially when sexuality is concerned. They are not the best of advisers anyway after the scandals they have created.

On the new religions that are entering Europe through immigration, the majority of the problems occur with the Muslim minorities. I personally oppose any radical Islamic doctrine in Europe. It took us centuries to weaken the Catholic grip on the continent, I do not want to have the spread of another religion that wants to control the minds, life and emotions of the people in similar way.

Religion is the best propaganda ever created, the best tool of manipulation and mass "moronisation" of the public. Our ancestors worshiped nature, its forces and circles together with the human nature. It took us centuries to weaken the negative influence of the Church, why allow Radical Islam to spread in Europe? A European version of Islam is more appropriate for our continent.

The future of religion in Europe is definitely a strong secular establishment, rid of any ultra religious views either Christian or Muslim or else. Though I will always support and favor Christianity in Europe as part of our heritage and culture as it is, but I think that religion should take the place that it is ought to have: strictly humanitarian and philosophical.

The ban of the burka in France seems logical, though I would prefer if education was used to change the mentality among the Muslim population. A ban can have opposite effects. Europe is a free continent and its women should not be subjected to this form of uniform, or have any different treatment than men. A simple head scarf is adequate to express your religious beliefs and I am not against it.

As for the crucifix in schools though I am not against their removal as they are a thing of the past, I will accept the decision of a nation or community to keep them in schools as part of their heritage. Lets leave it to the discretion of each community.

The teaching of any religious subject in schools should either be removed, or have the form of an open discussion between the children and the teachers, not be something that the kids must learn and follow in a young age.

No need to segregate our youths in different religious schools, either Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Why separate children from a young age and how do we expect the communities to integrate in the future, if we segregate our kids in their education? We need free thinking Europeans, creative and secular. Not obedient, uneducated and ignorant.

The human resources of a country or a region, is the most valuable and irreplaceable. So an educated, creative and secular workforce can be a great asset, better than any oppressed, dependent and narrow-minded one.

European and Russian relations must change.

Since the Cold War we have learned to see our big neighbor as a threat, as the constant bogeyman that is out there to take over Europe, and the reason why we desperately need USA's "protection".

While most Eastern European states will agree, since they had the misfortune of being under the Soviet rule for five decades, let us re-examine our relationship with Russia as many things have changed and continue to do so in our continent.

We can all accept that the Soviet regime was a cruel one and brought a lot of oppression to the countries it occupied. Yet we as Europeans have forgiven many of our member states like Germany and Italy, for the havoc they’ve created in our continent and beyond with fascism.

Not to mention, of course, the colonial powers and their treatment of their overseas territories, were not always much different, in fact a lot worse, than how the Soviets treated our Eastern European states.

Besides, Europe is not the same region anymore. It is uniting and integrating itself and if this trend continues and occurs correctly, we won't technically need America's "protection," or be afraid of Russia. We are more numerous and prosperous than them, while our unity gives us strength and advantage towards them.

In addition, Europe has formed its own military defense and while it is on an infantile phase at the moment, it will mean that our continent will be able to control its defense and foreign policies.

One big thorn in the European-Russian relations is, of course, Ukraine and the overall Eastern Partnership trade agreements, which Russia sees as an infringement by Europe in its own former territories.

It may look like a tug-of-war between the two blocks but in reality, these regions can act as a bridge between the EU and Russia, instead of an impediment. If Ukraine is allowed in the EU and treats its Russian minorities as equal citizens, Russia will have a large number of its ethnic minority in Ukraine as EU citizens.

If this minority manages to have elected representatives in the European Parliament and become fully engaged EU citizens, Russia will be able to have a voice directly in the EU, thus influencing Europe from within. The problem is naturally, the insistence of NATO to add all new EU member states as its own members two, thus allowing this alliance to establish missiles directly pointing at Russia.

If you were Russia, wouldn’t you have a problem with that too? Of course, the invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia, was a huge mistake, creating a never-ending conflict that has and will cost many lives. Destabilizing the region can never be a good thing for either side, financially, socially or politically. But Russia’s problem is not solely with Europe, rather America and our willingness to accommodate them no matter what.

We’ve got to realize that either we like it or not, we are heavily dependent on Russia for our oil and gas. We share common borders and so we should try to establish better relations with them. Europe is also co-operating with Russia already in many fields; the European Space Agency is closely working with its Russian counterpart on current and future space missions.
Why can’t this co-operation be expanded to other spheres?

One may question if the Russians can be trusted, since their political system is perceived by many European nations as utterly corrupt. But haven’t we our own very serious problems with corruption? Italy, for example, has chronic problems in its southern regions with Mafia, while Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Romania and many other old and new EU members still haven’t managed to rid off corruption, even years after being EU member states.

Their records on human rights, especially for LGBT individuals are also very poor according to many westerners, while freedom of speech is also an issue, together with Russia’s love for authoritarianism.

We should not try to bring the country to our own standards by force though, or constant criticism. Besides, we have our own very conservative nations or regions. In Ireland and Poland, abortions are still forbidden, while Greece still remains a very religious country, with the Greek Orthodox Church heavily influencing the country’s society. Hungary and Poland have turned too authoritarian, so much that one could question their compatibility with the rest of Europe’s values.

If we look closely, all that we accuse Russia of, already exist to a certain degree in our societies too. That, of course, is not a reason to abandon applying pressure on them to reform or join us in the effort to better humanity, by playing a more positive and progressive role in the globe.

But we are doing it the wrong way. By cutting them off, applying constant sanctions towards them, or ridicule their ways as a society, we are only hardening their resistance towards reforms and modernization. Even if President Putin is indeed an obstacle or a problem, judging a whole country for his policies, only makes Russian people stand even more firmly behind him. They see him as a national hero this way.

Russia as a country, just like all of Europe’s countries, has its own unique history that has shaped its mentality and society. Yes, they may be more conservative overall, but they are also very diverse as a society.

The country is huge and is being consisted of numerous ethnic or religious groups, which are so diverse as its landmass and landscape. Instead of criticizing them, we should try and understand them. And if we really want to change them, the solution is not to cut them out, rather invite them in.

If we end this ridiculous visa restriction between the two regions, young Russians will be able to travel and study anywhere in Europe. And once they come in contact with our way of thinking, it is inevitable that they will push for more changes, when they move back to their country. That will help to bring the two communities together and close the mentality gap far better, than any sanctions have ever achieved.

They are after all largely European, and have contributed a lot to the European culture and heritage. From artists like Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky to their participation in both big wars of the continent, the unpleasant Soviet regime that spread in eastern Europe, their participation in the Greek struggle for liberation against the Turks, their meddling in the Balkans. Their involvement was not always pleasant or fair, but was Britain's, Germany's or even America's? 

Of course, one main obstacle for Europe changing attitudes towards Russia and vice versa, is our close alliance with America. They won’t like the drifting of Europe closer to Russia, or a greater Russian influence within Europe.

Yet we have to realize that we should establish our own independent foreign policy and why can’t this be friendly towards both Russia and the USA. In fact in the future, we will have a more multi-polar world and Europe should reach out to all other regions, establishing close relations with.

We may have our differences with China for example, but that does not stop European companies from investing in the country and moving thousands of jobs over there. Do we force all other regions of the world to abide by our own values in order to do business with them or form relations?

To conclude, I am not going to go as far and say as Mr Berlusconi did, that Russia should become an EU member. But if the Russians are willing to work with Europe in humanity’s overall progress, then their contribution should be welcomed.

Together, we can work on eradicating many problems that plague the world; like poverty and inequality, or battling diseases for example. With a bit of healthy competition, we can push humanity’s achievements in all spheres further, rather keep engaging in a ridiculous never-ending power game.

Having Russia on our side could mean a more positive and constructive Russian involvement in European affairs, keep alienating them and we should be thinking to find alternative oil and gas resources as soon as possible. Besides, shouldn’t the Cold War be over already?