TIME europe

Only Gender Quotas Can Stop the E.U. from Being a Boys Club

Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Frederick Florin—AFP/Getty Images

The European Commission's president has asked that EU member states nominate female candidates. Here's why gender quotas are necessary

Gender anxiety is enveloping the top levels of the European Union. By the end of this month, each of the bloc’s 28 countries is expected to put forward their candidate to sit on the European Commission, the powerful body that drives policy-making and enforces E.U. law.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission’s new president, has instructed member states to send female candidates, saying he wants more women in the top jobs. A social media campaign – #10orMore – is also under way to boost female representation at the E.U. to a record high.

Unfortunately, governments are not playing ball: so far only five countries have nominated women. Nineteen other nations have nominated a man, with four countries still to announce their candidates.

The goal of getting more women into top decision-making posts is simply common sense given that they represent more than half of the E.U.’s 507 million citizens. Right now this is not reflected by their visibility in politics, business or the media, meaning their interests are often sidelined.

The drive to change the status quo at the top echelons of the E.U. has attracted skepticism. On the Facebook page of Neelie Kroes – one of the nine women in the outgoing Commission and a co-founder of the #10orMore campaign – critics question why gender would qualify a person for one of the 28 commissioner posts.

Such knee-jerk accusations of tokenism greet most attempts to introduce gender quotas in politics or the boardroom. But while so many barriers stand between women and senior positions – and these range from sexism in the workplace, high childcare costs and the unequal distribution of maternity and paternity leave – quotas are one of the few measures that actually have an impact.

In 1997 the British Labour party introduced all-women short lists for parliamentary candidates in some constituencies. Later that year, a record number of women were elected, and Labour still has the highest proportion of female MPs in Britain.

Britain’s Conservative party, which formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, does not support all-women short lists, and a U.N. survey of women in ministerial positions earlier this year shows Britain languishing at around the halfway point, below Morocco and Cote d’Ivoire, with women making up just 15% of the cabinet.

There are other poor performers in Europe, with Greece, Cyprus and Hungary faring even worse, reflecting the problems Juncker is having in rallying enough women for his Commission.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are Sweden and Finland, which are in the top three of the U.N. survey with over 50% female representation in their cabinets. France and Norway are close to reaching gender parity.

What the top performers have in common are long-term and often legislated programs to improve gender equality across society. In Sweden, political parties have since the early 1990s imposed voluntary quotas for election candidates. Norway was the first to introduce quotas for women on company boards, while France has legally-binding quotas for both politics and the boardroom. “Quotas are nobody’s first choice but where they are introduced they do improve representation, they do improve visibility of women,” says Clare McNeil, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, adding that they work best when coupled with penalties for non-compliance.

Given the pool of female talent in the E.U., having just a handful of women in the Commission would be a pitiful performance. It is crucial now that efforts to increase female representation go beyond headline-grabbing promises. Juncker and the European Parliament, which approves the Commission, must make good on threats to reject the line-up if it is too male-dominated.

Hopefully quotas will not need to be in place forever. But right now Europe is so far from being a level playing field that radical measures are needed to kick-start lasting change in society.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a writer and journalist based in Brussels.

TIME Belgium

World Leaders Gather in Liege to Commemorate World War I Centenary

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Britain's Prince William, his wife Catherine, French President Francois Hollande, Queen Mathilde of Belgium, her husband King Philippe and German President Joachim Gauck attend on August 4, 2014 in Liege, Belgium, commemorations marking 100 years since the invasion of Belgium by Germany at the start of World War I. JOHN THYS--AFP/Getty Images

Heads of state from around the globe gathered to mark the centenary of World War I in the Belgian city where fighting started a century ago

King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium hosted dozens of heads of state and other international delegates on Monday to mark the centenary of the start of World War I. The dignitaries gathered on a forested hill overlooking the city of Liege, just a few dozen kilometers from the border where German soldiers took their first fateful steps 100 years ago, triggering a war which would engulf the world like none other before it.

Among the guests were Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, King Felipe of Spain and US Secretary of the Army John McHugh. The speeches paid tribute to the fallen and included messages of reconciliation. But the remembrance was also tinged with anger that the world today is not quite as peaceful as many had hoped after the sacrifices of a century ago, and warnings that the ties that bind can so quickly be broken.

Speaking at the foot of Liege’s towering Allied Memorial, French President Francois Hollande spoke of the breach of Belgium’s neutrality a century ago, drawing parallels with the conflicts of today. “How can we stay neutral when people not far from Europe are fighting for their rights and territorial integrity?” he asked. “How to stay neutral when a civilian aircraft can be shot out of the sky in Ukraine? When there are civilian populations being massacred in Iraq, Syria, and Libya? When in Gaza a deadly conflict has been going on for over a month?”

German President, Joachim Gauck, also lamented that “millions of people are afflicted by violence and terror; millions have fled their homes.” He urged nations to remember the “terrible and bitter lessons” of a war which many once thought impossible.

The tumble into the Great War began with the bullet that assassinated Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th 1914, putting the empire and its ally Germany on a collision course with Serbia and Russia, eventually dragging in Britain and France. No amount of diplomacy or warnings of a coming catastrophe were able to prevent the spiral of nationalism and paranoia. On August 4th, 1914, German soldiers crossed into Belgium, hoping for a swift advance to Paris. This triggered a British pledge to protect the small nation’s neutrality, and by 11 pm that night Germany and Britain were at war. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” said the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, at the time. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

A day later, Liege would become the first battlefield of the first global conflict, which would eventually draw in 65 million combatants from 72 nations, with millions of them never making it home alive.

In 2014, the centenary’s resonance is keenly felt when conflict is blighting many corners of the world. Wartime leaders’ warnings of “monstrous slaughter” would not seem so distant to the Syrians today facing barrel bombs in a civil war that has now claimed more than 150,000 lives. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has its roots in the carve up of the Middle East after World War One, and the number of casualties are still rising by the day in Gaza.

Even the belief of lasting peace in Europe has been shaken by events in Ukraine, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and an increasingly bloody separatist insurgency which last month claimed nearly 300 lives – 211 of them, European – in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Belgium’s Prime Minister, Elio di Rupo, also used the occasion to warn about the rise of anti-Semitism and extremism in Europe after the bruising economic crisis. “It takes a great deal of time and effort to bring peoples together and unite them in a common destiny,” he said. “However, it often does not take much to shatter this solidarity and revive the worst tensions.”

But there were also celebrations of how a continent overcame differences that once seemed insurmountable, and a reminder that reconciliation is possible, no matter how deep the animosities, how cruel the conflict, how many dead.

Later in the evening British and German delegates will stand together at Saint Symphorien cemetery in Mons, where fallen soldiers from both nations lie side-by-side. “The fact that the presidents of Germany and Austria are here today, and that other nations—then enemies—are here too, bears testimony to the power of reconciliation,” said Britain’s Prince William. “We were enemies more than once in the last century, and today we are friends and allies. We salute those who died to give us our freedom. We will remember them.”

TIME brussels

EU Preparing Further Sanctions Against Russia After MH17 Crash

The Bodies Of The MH17 Plane Crash Are Repatriated From The Ukraine To The Netherlands
A numbered coffin carried by Dutch military personnel contains an unidentified body from the crash of MH17 on July 23, 2014 at Eindhoven airport, Netherlands. Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

But it's unclear how potent any sanctions will be

For a continent determined to present a united message of outrage and reprisals after the downing of Flight MH17 killed 211 of its citizens, the signals coming from the European Union this week have been contradictory.

While its foreign ministers emerged from a meeting Tuesday vowing strong and unified action, a cross-channel spat over the sale of French warships to Russia exposed the depths of the economic conflicts which have prevented the EU from hitting Moscow with the toughest tools in its arsenal.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “unthinkable” that the UK would continue with the $1.62 billion warship deal, as France has done, given the Kremlin’s alleged backing of the Ukrainian rebels believed to have shot down the plane. The leader of France’s ruling Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, hit back: “When you see how many oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard.”

For Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat who is now a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Europe policy center, the spat underscored a “lack of coherence” among the 28 member states, and one which is unlikely to be solved in the coming days or weeks, despite last Thursday’s tragedy.

“The shooting down of this airliner has of course increased urgency and support for doing something, but it has not changed anything fundamental,” he says. “There are still all the different interests of the member states.”

So for now, the EU has continued with its policy of inching forward with low-level sanctions while issuing more ultimatums, a cycle it has pursued since a political crisis in eastern Ukraine escalated into a full-scale insurgency earlier this year: First, add more names to a list of Russian and Ukrainian individuals and companies with their assets frozen and banned from entering the EU. Then threaten to move to the most damaging ‘Tier Three’ sanctions – which would hit whole sectors of the Russian economy like banking, arms and energy – unless the Kremlin moves to de-escalate a conflict which EU leaders say it is fuelling by supplying weapons and manpower.

Inevitably, Putin takes a few steps in the right direction, and EU leaders breathe a sigh of relief that they do not yet have to sacrifice their €400bn annual trade with Moscow. But slowly the Russian tanks return to the Ukrainian border, the ceasefires disintegrate, and more Russian-made tanks and weapons seep into the rebel strongholds — again and again the cycle has repeated itself.

Europe’s leaders profess that the plane crash has ended this cycle, and on Thursday it will become apparent exactly what has changed when the EU reveals who else is going to be added to a sanctions list first drafted in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

The list will go further than ever before, targeting people and companies providing material support to Putin. The EU will also review a set of proposals on potential Tier Three sanctions which could be implemented if Russia does not cooperate with an international investigation into the downing of MH17 and fails to halt the stream of weapons into the country.

Much of the discussion has focused on a potential arms embargo, but only for future sales. That would mean France could still sell Russia its two warships, while Russian money in Britain’s banks would be protected, German companies operating in Russia could continue their work relatively unimpeded, and eastern European nations which get 80% of their gas from Russia could be slightly more confident of the security of their winter gas supplies.

Carnegie Europe’s Lehne does not think the EU will move to any Tier Three sanctions on Thursday. Instead, he says it’s playing the long game. He believes that the gradual escalation of threats combined with an economic squeeze on key allies of Putin is having an impact on the Russian president’s decision-making.

Others think the time has come to get tougher. Elmar Brok, chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Tuesday that Putin left open no “possibility of finding a political solution” and the EU should proceed with stronger sanctions.

The Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, even made the comparison with appeasement in the Second World War. “In 1930s, Nazism wasn’t stopped, and now aggressive Russian chauvinism isn’t stopped and that resulted in the attack against a civilian plane,” she told a Lithuanian radio station.

Karel Lannoo, head of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, points out that Russia has more to lose than Europe from any restrictions on Russia’s energy sector, which accounts for 50 percent of Russia’s federal budget reserves.

“[The EU] can act in a coordinated way, just show they can have alternate sources of energy, that they are not too dependent on Russia,” he tells TIME. “It’s an oil and gas country, and the moment they don’t have these exports anymore, their economy will fall down.”

TIME Netherlands

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Families Left in Limbo

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From the harrowing eyewitness accounts emerging from the Ukrainian countryside where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down, it seems hard to imagine that victims’ relatives would find any comfort among the scattered belongings and ripped clothing of their loved ones.

But perhaps it is preferable to a life in stasis at a sterile business hotel on the fringes of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. It is here that many relatives of the 298 people who died when the jet was apparently shot out of the sky have gathered, waiting for scant detail to seep out of Ukraine.

It is difficult to gauge the wishes of the relatives themselves: police keep a strict security cordon around the hotel to shield their grieving from the world. “Nobody can imagine what it means to them,” says Malaysia Airlines executive Huib Gorter. Gorter is convinced, however, that getting the relatives closer to the scene of tragedy will help bring some closure.

“There is a strong need from the next of kin who want to be there, so we are working on that as we speak,” he tells reporters. He admits the logistical hurdles are enormous: the crash site is about 500 km from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and the journey by road is a long one over difficult terrain. Then there are the rebel checkpoints, and the lack of facilities in an area gripped by a separatist uprising.

For now, the Ukrainian government is not even giving the airline permission to bring the relatives to Kiev, though a spokesperson at the Malaysia Airlines media center in Kuala Lumpur said they were in talks with the authorities. But the Dutch government agrees with Ukraine’s cautious stance. “The Ministry of Foreign affairs advised against it because its simply too dangerous for people to go there,” says Edmond Messchaert, a Dutch Ministry of Justice press officer. “This will probably take place at some later stage.”

So the relatives remain in isolation at the airport hotel, having to bear the painstakingly slow progress as investigation teams try and establish who shot down the packed jet. What Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has promised them is justice. At least 189 of the victims were Dutch, a huge loss to a country of 16 million people. Flags flew at half-mast Friday as the nation tried to process the tragedy.

“Let me make one thing clear — we want to get to the bottom of this tragedy,” Rutte said. “And if it becomes clear that the aircraft was attacked, I will personally make every effort to ensure that the perpetrators are found and punished. We will not rest until this is done. We owe that to the innocent victims and their next of kin.”

Dutch politicians have insisted that their team must have full access to the crash site, and many demanded a thorough and independent investigation into the causes. A team from the Dutch Safety Board headed to Kiev on Friday along with forensic experts who will start the process of identifying the dead.

“The Dutch people need to know the truth, therefore we need to have these teams in place … as soon as we can,” said Messchaert.

Also on Friday evening, a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying Malaysian military officials and forensic experts is expected to arrive in Kiev, as a multinational investigation team begins to form and start its work. That plane will then carry on to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport with a group of volunteers.

That plane may eventually be allowed to return to Kiev carrying the relatives closer to their loved ones, but for now, some are seeking comfort elsewhere. Floral tributes have started to build up along the wall outside Schiphol’s departures hall. “The world is in shock. This should never have happened,” reads one notice tacked to a bouquet.

And that is what 50-year-old bus driver Sheoratan Pradiep is pondering as he glances down at the tributes: How can his sister-in-law’s nephew have been killed so suddenly by a missile fired from country he knew so little about?

“I didn’t realize that it was a big conflict over there, so when I heard about the plane crash and the cause of it, I was shocked,” he says, explaining that the young man was heading to Malaysia on honeymoon with his new wife. “It’s very terrible … I hear from the news that the plane was shot down, and the people blame each other, so I don’t know what is true.”

TIME The Netherlands

Anguish in Amsterdam as Families of Flight MH17 Passengers Arrive at Airport

Official says 154 people from the Netherlands were on board the flight bound for Kuala Lumpur

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Updated 4:55 a.m. ET Friday

The relatives started arriving at Schiphol Airport as the sun began to set on a warm Amsterdam evening. They gathered briefly, bewildered, at a bar area inside the departure hall before police ushered them onto airport shuttle buses to an undisclosed location in the airport, where they would start their anguished wait for news of family members they feared lost on Flight MH17.

Some of the men and women were tearful and clung to each other; most looked shell-shocked, staring blankly ahead as the buses pulled out, seemingly unable to process news of a tragedy apparently caused by a conflict so far away. Dutch reporters who arrived at the scene early said there were scenes of confusion when the first relatives arrived, unsure of where to go and asking passers-by for help.

Airport officials were also initially at a loss to direct the television crews and journalists who came from all over the world, with a press conference delayed by hours. When a Malaysia Airlines executive and an airport official finally appeared to talk to the media, they offered words of comfort for relatives, but little information about the cause of a crash deep in a conflict zone in Ukraine.

“Our main priority is to look after people who are suffering at the moment,” said Huib Gorter, senior vice president for Europe for Malaysia Airlines. “You cannot imagine what has happened to these people … All our manpower is dedicated to helping them.”

A full passenger list of the 298 people aboard the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was not released, but a gasp went up from the Dutch press when Gorter announced that 154 people from the Netherlands were on board. There were also 27 from Australia, 43 from Malaysia (including crew and two infants), 12 from Indonesia (including another infant) and others from Europe, the Philippines and Canada, according to a statement posted Thursday by Malaysia Airlines.

For those relatives who wish to travel closer to the site of the tragedy, a flight will be provided to Kiev, possibly departing tomorrow. But Gorter also spoke about the difficulty in reaching the crash site, which is about seven or eight hours by road from the Ukrainian capital. Asked if it was safe for the plane to be flying over a war zone, he said: “It is classified as a safe area to fly over, otherwise in our industry we would not be able to file a flight plan over an area that is dangerous.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a helpline for friends and relatives, while the Dutch airliner KLM – which was on a code-share agreement with the Kuala Lumpur–bound flights – announced they were suspending flights over Ukraine “as a precautionary measure.” Air France and Lufthansa have also both suspended flights through Ukrainian air space.

Joss Wibisono, an Indonesian journalist and author based in Amsterdam, says his aunt, Jane Adi Soetjipto, 73, was among the passengers who died aboard flight MH17. “Every year Aunt Jane visited the Netherlands to see her mom” and other family members, says Wibisono.

Wibisono and his extended family are Indonesian immigrants who have lived in the Netherlands for decades. On Wednesday morning, the family took Soetjipto and her friend to Schiphol Airport: “She flew back to her home country [Indonesia] with her close friend, Aunt Gerda Lahenda,” Wibisono says, adding his aunt’s seat was 14A and her friend’s 14C. Both women had been in the Netherlands since April.

In the late afternoon when Wibisono was preparing to watch Tour de France, he saw a news announcement on TV about the Malaysia Airlines plane that had been downed in eastern Ukraine. “I immediately knew it was Aunt Jane’s flight,” he tells TIME. He contacted her family in Jakarta and also called Soetjipto’s sister who lives in a small town in southeast Holland. “They didn’t know, and became hysterical,” Wibisono says. “I am very shocked. I couldn’t sleep.”

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, flew back from a European Union summit in Brussels, saying he was “deeply shocked by the dramatic reports on the crash.” His Justice and Security Minister, Ivo Opstelten, said there were “victims from many countries.” On Friday morning, Rutte called for an investigation into the crash that killed mostly Dutch passengers. “The next of kin of the 154 Dutch victims and all the other nationalities have the right to know what happened,” Rutte said, according to the Associated Press.

“The images that you and I have seen are of course terrible,” he was quoted as saying by Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. “I am aware that this investigation cannot go fast enough, but everyone at this time is doing everything possible to inform family and friends.”

Germany has called for an independent investigation into the cause of the crash. “The separatists must immediately grant emergency and security services access to the crash site and an independent, international investigation must commence immediately,” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. “I’m horrified … with hundreds of completely innocent people having died in this terrible way, words fail you.”

— With reporting by Yenni Kwok

TIME E.U.

Skepticism Prevails as Europe Prepares to Go to the Polls

FRANCE-EU-VOTE
Martin Schulz, left, President of the European Parliament Jean-Sebastien Evrard—AFP/Getty Images

An election that was supposed to get Europeans more excited about their continental government, which holds a round of voting to decide which lawmakers sit in European Parliament every five years, has fallen prey to familiar divisions

Before the leading candidates for the European Union’s most powerful position took to the stage for their first televised debate late last month, the moderator looked confidently into the camera and declared: “History is being made.” For the first time, the moderator assured viewers, “you have a say in choosing the European Commission President.”

That may yet prove to be wishful thinking. Until now, national leaders of the European member states would disappear behind closed doors to pick a suitable candidate to lead the main E.U. body, which proposes and upholds laws and guides the day-to-day administration of the 28-country bloc. Giving voters a say in who gets Europe’s top job is meant to make this process more transparent and enthuse the continent’s notoriously apathetic electorate. But the alliance is facing a familiar problem: Not all national governments think it’s a good idea, and a system aimed at boosting the E.U.’s democratic credentials threatens to do the exact opposite.

Here’s the background: Every five years, citizens across the E.U. are given a chance to elect lawmakers to sit in the European Parliament, with the next vote taking place May 22-25. This assembly works along with the 28 governments and the European Commission to formulate, debate and pass laws. Soon after parliamentary elections, the new Commission President is appointed, and becomes the public face of the E.U.

This year, for the first time, the various political groups in the European Parliament have been have been asked to put forward a candidate for the post. The idea is that having personalities fighting a U.S.-style campaign will reenergize voters and help boost turnout, which has dropped from 62% in the inaugural election of 1979, to 43% in 2009. Another motivating factor is dwindling trust in the E.U., with Pew last year finding that only 45% of respondents viewed the E.U. favorably, down from 60% in 2012. This is partly because of the devastating impact of the eurozone crisis, which has sent unemployment soaring and sparked austerity programs which will have an impact for years to come.

The habit of E.U. leaders making decisions behind closed doors with little public scrutiny has also dented the democratic credentials of the alliance. And so, the political group that wins most of the 751 seats in parliament this month will be asked to nominate the next European Commission President.

In theory, this is meant to make the process more transparent.

The European Parliament’s two largest political groups have embraced the plan, with Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, representing the center-right European People’s Party, which is currently forecast to win the most seats. Martin Schulz, the current European Parliament president, is leading the Socialists & Democrats. Both have embarked on E.U.-wide bus tours, also taking part in televised debates to convince voters that they are the best candidates for the top job.

But there is one key problem: The 28 national leaders in Europe have the option of simply ignoring candidate put forward by the largest political group in parliament. This is because the language in the E.U. treaty is unclear. The national leaders are free to put forward their own choice for Commission President, with the treaty only obliging them to take the election results “into account.” In other words, despite the push for more transparency, they could reject the nominee put forward by the political group that wins the upcoming election. Were such a scenario to unfold, IMF head Christine Lagarde, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny are all being touted as potential nominees.

Parliament would still have the option of refusing to approve a candidate selected by the heads of state—but that could lead to a prolonged political stand-off which would be disastrous for the bloc’s image. “If you do get to that situation it’s only going to taint the image of the EU – it’s another institutional argument that is arcane and just looks like its on another planet to what people really care about,” says Stephen Booth, Research Director at the Open Europe think tank in London.

The possibility that national leaders might chose their own candidate has already led to divisions between the seven different political groups in the European Parliament. Five are treating the election as a vote for the next Commission President. The remaining two groups want the 28 heads of state to decide who holds the top job, arguing that national leaders are elected with greater turnout and therefore have more democratic legitimacy. They also want the Commission President to remain politically neutral.

These divisions reflect soul-searching across the EU over the best way for the alliance to move forward after the battering of the eurozone crisis. Figures like Juncker and Schulz are enthusiastic cheerleaders for the single currency and a more unified Europe. For them, giving voters a say in the appointment of the next Commission President is a way of solidifying “project Europe.”

Increasing numbers of voters, however, are moving in the opposite direction. Anti-EU parties from the extreme left and right are expected to do well, reflecting dwindling trust in a more unified Europe after the economic crisis.

National leaders like David Cameron in Britain and Mark Rutte in The Netherlands are also advocating less power for the EU and returning more decision-making to national parliaments. They are both cautious about an elected European Commission President, as is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a powerful voice in the alliance.

Right now the best weapon for the sceptics is the lack of interest. Most of the 400 million eligible voters have probably never heard of Juncker and Schulz, and mainstream televisions stations have not been airing the debates. But Simon Hix, who is monitoring the polls for the London School of Economics, says interest is picking up in France and Germany. “It’s going to be very difficult for the governments to simply impose somebody,” he tells TIME. “If they do impose somebody, they are gong to have to launch a whole campaign to explain why this is justified.”

During April’s debate, the Liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt looked straight into the camera and said it would be “the end of the European democracy” if national leaders simply chose their own candidate for Commission President. Those politicians planning to close the doors on the public once again can can only hope that no one was watching.

TIME Ukraine

Not Even the Threat of War in Europe Can Unite the E.U.

An elderly woman wrapped with an European Union flag attends a pro-Ukraine rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on April 15, 2014.
An elderly woman wrapped with an European Union flag attends a pro-Ukraine rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on April 15, 2014. Dimitar Dilkoff—AFP/Getty Images

European countries with strong trade ties to Russia remain reluctant to impose stiffer sanctions even as the conflict in eastern Ukraine worsens

When it comes to assigning blame for the volatile situation in eastern Ukraine, European politicians are united: it is all Russia’s fault. That’s about where the unity ends, as became clear after a meeting of foreign ministers from European Union member states on Monday. When they shuffled out of their meeting, their joint communiqué was as familiar as it was inconclusive. A few Russian names would be added to a list of people with their assets frozen, ever so slightly expanding the mild sanctions that Russia has so far mocked and ignored. Then came more threats of deep economic sanctions at an unspecified time and with no clear trigger for such measures.

This may seem like a rather restrained response to the specter of a military Russian assault on Ukraine – German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said at an event in Berlin on Monday that Russia “was clearly prepared to allow tanks to roll across European borders” – but the E.U.’s 28 member nations are struggling to get past their widely differing political and economic concerns. Hitting the E.U.’s €400bn annual trade with Russia would require serious economic sacrifices at home, and the bloc has so far been hoping that its cocktail of threats, mild sanctions and a few diplomatic snubs would be enough to contain Russia’s possible territorial ambitions.

The problem, says Stefan Wolff, a professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not “reason and rationalize in the same way,” and has proved ready to jump on any public splits and timidity.

Ever since the E.U. provoked Moscow’s ire with plans to sign a trade pact with Ukraine in November, Russia has always seemed one step ahead. Putin persuaded then-President Viktor Yanukovich to jettison the deal; when Yanukovich was ousted by protests a few months later, Russia took advantage of the chaos and seized Crimea. Now Russia is accused of orchestrating the unrest in eastern Ukraine – claims Russian officials strongly deny.

The E.U.’s strongest reaction so far – visa-bans and asset-freezes on 33 Russian and Ukrainian individuals – came after the annexation of Crimea. Now the problem is getting the member states to agree at what stage the Kremlin’s alleged engineering of events in eastern Ukraine warrants the most serious sanctions against key economic sectors that include energy, arms and financial services.

Such sanctions would have a widely different impact across Europe. In the east, nations like Hungary and Bulgaria, which are heavily reliant on Russian oil and gas, would suffer if Moscow responded to any sanctions by halting supplies. Cyprus, Greece and Spain, still struggling from the euro zone crisis, have a lot of Russian money in their banks. German industry has firm business relations with Russian companies.

The result is a diverse bloc arguing for diplomacy to be given more time. The more bullish nations are also acting with a degree of self-interest: Estonia and Latvia share borders with Russia and fear designs on their own territory. The United Kingdom – leading the calls for more sanctions – has its reputation as a forceful world player to maintain.

Russia has shown a willingness to exploit these splits, last week sending a letter to 18 E.U. nations reliant on its energy and making veiled threats to the supplies. Officials in Washington have urged their partners in Europe to stay united and have pushed them toward imposing deeper sanctions. But the United States has both less to lose, and less sway.

“From an economic perspective the U.S. cannot impose strong sanctions on Russia,” says Georg Zachmann, a research fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, citing the U.S.’s modest trading relationship. In 2012, Russian exports to the U.S. totalled $13 billion. The same year Russia sent goods worth €213 billion ($294 billion) to the E.U. The sale of oil and gas accounts for 50% of Russia’s federal budget reserves, and most of that goes to Europe. So the E.U. does have a hefty weapon in its toolbox.

The next few days will be crucial. Ministers from Russia, the E.U., the U.S. and Ukraine will meet in Geneva on Thursday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that unless they get an acceptable response from Russia, the E.U. heads of state could call an emergency meeting in Brussels next week.

The threat of holding yet another meeting may seem a typical example of the E.U. meeting aggression with bureaucracy. But if they use that opportunity to make good on their threats and approve the next phase of sanctions, Russia finally might start paying attention.

TIME europe

E.U. to Debate Making Buying Sex Illegal

A prostitute waits for customers along a road of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris Aug. 28, 2013 Christian Hartmann / Reuters

This week, E.U. lawmakers will consider following the lead of some European nations and criminalizing the purchase of sex across the continent. But the critics of the proposals, including many sexworkers, are legion

Perched on high stools and tugging at tight uniforms of spandex, satin and lace, the women in the windows of Ghent’s red light district barely register the police patrolling outside. Bored eyes flicker up briefly before returning to the screens of mobile phones, the TV discreetly hidden in the corner, or the client trying to negotiate a knock-down price on the other side of the glass.

The Belgian police appear equally indifferent to the women sitting in the dim red glow of neon tubes, even if they are occasionally flouting a city rule specifying exactly how much skin can be on display from neck to navel. Of far more interest to the 40 officers fanning out across the area one windy Friday night are the license plates of cars crawling past the windows in the three streets that form the heart of Ghent’s regulated sex industry.

Nearby in France, buying sex usually means a hasty transaction on the street and the risk of a fine or public identification. So young men pack in their cars and drive 50km east for nights out that can turn rowdy. “There were complaints about criminality and disturbances in the neighborhood,” says Police Superintendent Johan Blom.

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Ghent police now hold monthly operations to stop and search French cars. If they find drugs or weapons, the men pay a fine and police motorcycles escort them to the highway and point them towards the border. It’s a nuisance for the police, but for campaigners pushing for a more unified approach to prostitution across Europe, that border is nothing short of a battle line in the fight for a woman’s rights over her own body.

The politicians and feminists who consider prostitution a crime against women are hoping the European Union‘s 28 member states will follow the lead of France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and criminalize the purchase of sex. A report recommending this approach is due before the European Parliament in the coming days.

On the other side of the debate are many social workers dealing directly with prostitutes, sex workers’ unions and at least seven European governments. They say any criminalization forces the trade underground, puts sex workers at greater risk and removes a woman’s right to choose a profession which some see as their route out of poverty. “It will exist somewhere in the dark, and then nobody is safe: not the client, and not the girl,” says Isabelle De Meyer, a social worker in Ghent.

In Belgium, the purchase and sale of sex is legal, but making a profit from prostitution is forbidden. Cities interpret the laws differently, and prostitutes in Ghent are officially hired as “servers” in “bars” – in reality a dimly-lit room with a bed behind the glass display window. The prostitutes must have a contract and social security number, meaning the city has a record of every woman working the sex industry, and social workers can make regular visits to check for abusive relationships or victims of human trafficking.

No one claims the system is perfect: police can only act if the women speak out about abuse or illegal pimps. But all the sex workers who agreed to speak to TIME said they felt safe in Ghent and opposed criminalization. “Once these kind of places exist, then everybody can relax and there is less violence than in the street,” says Gaby,a 25-year-old from Romania, who like other working women in Ghent’s red light district asked that TIME only use her first name to protect her identity.

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For every woman like Gaby, however, there is the scared young Eastern European girl repeating “everything is fine, everything is fine” while keeping a wary eye out the window. It is the women who may have been coerced or trafficked into the sex industry who worry Mary Honeyball, a Member of the European Parliament representing Britain’s Labour Party.

Honeyball has drafted a report recommending E.U. member states adopt a system known as the Nordic Model, which is currently in place in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The model criminalizes buying sex, but legalizes selling sex, in theory treating prostitutes as victims of a crime rather than perpetrators. “According to the information we have from Sweden it actually reduces demand for prostitution, and if you reduce demand the consequence is that you reduce human trafficking,” she says.

If the report passes, it would not be legally binding, but Honeyball hopes it would help steer the debate in member states. France’s Lower House adopted such laws in December, and politicians in Ireland and the United Kingdom have also raised it as a possible way forward.

To countries with more repressive laws on prostitution and large religious or socially conservative communities, it may be a politically palatable first step. But no European country which has introduced a regulated sex industry – including Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland – is seriously considering rolling back to the criminalization of the client, although they are looking at ways to improve the laws.

One country that may amend legislation is Norway, held up as an exemplar of the Nordic Model. The new Conservative-led government is waiting for the results of an independent review in June before deciding whether to repeal the 2009 law banning the purchase of sex.

While the number of women selling sex on the streets initially decreased, social workers say they did not simply disappear. Some traveled abroad, while others started selling their services over the Internet. Bjørg Norli, director of Pro Sentret, which works with prostitutes in Oslo, says street prostitution is re-emerging, and under the current laws women feel more vulnerable than ever. Clients rush transactions to avoid detection, meaning women have little time to assess whether the client poses a danger. If they do have problems, they are unlikely to go to police out of fear they will then be monitored by law enforcement looking to catch buyers.

Behind Ghent’s windows, the heaters are on full blast as the women in their skimpy outfits negotiate via hand gestures with men bundled up against the cold outside. The going rate is €50 for 15 minutes, but a client may want more time, a lower price, or a special service. If a woman has misgivings, she just leaves the door locked and turns away. Zorha, a former civil servant from the Netherlands, says in a good night she will have sex with 25 men. It is not a life she particularly enjoys – she wants to open a restaurant – but when she found herself in debt a few years ago she decided it was her best option. She and other established Ghent sex workers worry about the new influx of younger women from Eastern Europe, who they say work long hours for cut-down rates.

The link between a regulated sex industry and human trafficking is unclear. While the first E.U. report on human trafficking released last year shows a high number of victims detected in the Netherlands, countries like Italy and Romania, where prostitution is illegal, also fared badly. Belgium, meanwhile, reported relatively low levels. Norway – not in the E.U. but included in the study – shows barely any change in the year before and after the law banning the purchase of sex. Similarly conflicting statistics exist in Sweden.

With a lack of reliable data, the debate often focuses on the moral rights and wrongs of sex as a commodity, with Honeyball’s report equating prostitution with “sexual slavery.” For many women working in the industry, being labeled mute victims of male aggression simply means their voices are excluded.

“[Politicians] don’t inform us when they are seeking to make our lives more difficult and dangerous,” says Catherine Stephens, a British activist with the International Union of Sex Workers. “There is nothing feminist about the criminalization of our clients and disregarding our consent.”

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