The Making of the European Union

Question: Did the EU take a step backwards with the June elections?

Margot Wallström: It’s difficult to sort of summarize from that point of view. I think the disappointment was that we had an even lower voter turnout in these elections than last time. But it was a very uneven result, because in as much as eleven countries the voter turnout was higher, but in general it went down further, even if it was not as much as predicted.

I think what was positive was that in those countries and those parties where they tried to introduce a more Pan-European perspective, and debated while focused on substance issues, voters actually rewarded them for doing that. So this was a good element.

We also saw some really extremist and right-wing candidates being voted into the European parliament, and that is always sad. And I think that the whole picture, it will be more volatile, it will be more difficult to find. We have seen during the last mandate, sort of this Grand Coalition, big coalitions or big solutions between the political groups. So I think that it would be tougher five years to come for the commissioners to find the support and backing of different proposals.

Question: Why do extremist parties appeal to EU citizens?

Margot Wallström: I think when the established mainstream political parties do not integrate the European issues into their normal political debate, discussion, and discourse, or if people don’t see that they address the real problems, then there will always be room for the extremists or populists. I think that that this can be the result of a deep economic crisis. If people think that the politicians are not doing enough, they will be more inclined to listen to those that have a very, very clear or simplistic message, unfortunately. So I think there are many explanations to why this happens. But I think the lack of a truly European public space where you can discuss these issues, where it is a natural part of the political discussion. That is definitely one of the explanations.

Question: What is the importance of the Libson Treaty to EU politics?

Margot Wallström: Well the fact is that the Irish, who are yet to ratify the new treaty, have announced that they are willing to have another referendum, probably on the 2nd of October or beginning of October. It has been a long winding road to have a decision on the new treaty for the European Union. This is because it has to be ratified by all twenty-seven member states.

The background is that we could see that the rulebook, the existing treaties, are not designed to host 27 member states. They are not effective or democratic or well-designed enough to live up to the demands of the times we live in. We want to make sure that we can speak in one voice on the international scene, for example. We want to make sure that we can make decisions much more effectively. We want to make sure that we are more democratic, inviting citizens to take initiatives. And there are new provisions of that kind in the treaty, but we’ve had problems in a few countries where, through referenda, people have opposed it. It has not been very well communicated in those countries.

Question: What countries are on the radar for inclusion in the EU?

Margot Wallström: Well we already have an established negotiation cycle. Negotiations are going on already with a number of countries, Croatia being first on the list. With newcomers like Iceland, that has already been decided that they would apply for membership in the parliament. And of course, Turkey. For many, many years now that we are engaged in negotiation procedures with Turkey.

We hope that the countries in the Balkan area will become new members. It helps if we have a modern effective treaty on how to make decisions when we have so many member states, even though it is not an absolute sort of preconditioned or an obstacle to continue. But the rules are not clear about what will happen then.

Question: In regards to Turkey’s inclusion in the EU, is part of the debate the belief that it is not European enough?

Margot Wallström: I think it is part of debate where in some member states. The public opinion is very negative and for many different reasons. I think there’s a lot of ignorance on both sides. We are ignorant about exactly what modern Turkey looks like. I think in Turkey there is a lot of ignorance about what it would mean, and what happens, and how the debate goes in Europe. I think that there are a lot of prejudices on both sides, and clearly there are differences that have to be sorted out. There are provisions and conditions that they have to live up to before they can become members, and these are the same rules for any country. They have to live up to certain criteria about defending human rights, or the judicial system: how that works, etc., democratic rules. And still, they have quite some work to do.

But I am one among those who think that this is one of the most important decisions that we can make. And I’m all for it. I’m really hoping that we will be able to welcome Turkey as a new member of the European Union. From a geopolitical point of view, there is no more important decisions we can make in order to secure a secular democratic development in Turkey. It’s so important that we live up to our commitments, and that they also do the work they have to do in order to be ready.

Question: Ideally, where do you see the European Union in ten years?

Margot Wallström: I believe it is the European Union including the Balkan countries. And I’m hoping that Turkey will also be a member. I hope that it will be European Union that will have sustainable development as the overall target, and will be the showcase to the rest of the world that it is possible to combine economic growth with environmental protection, social justice, and social protection, as well for our citizens and to show that it is possible to create a smart green growth. And I hope that it will be a European Union that does the right things, makes the right decisions, but also does it right. That is, opens up for citizens and works on the democratic development in the different member states. And I think we have all the possibilities in the world to turn Europe into a place where sustainable development is top on the agenda.

Recorded on: July 10, 2009

 

European Commission Vice President Margot Wallström discusses the state of the EU, its political challenges, and the next countries that may join the union.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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