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An emerging new European political geometry

Attila Marjan

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A new political geometry is being established in the European Union which has global geopolitical relevance. The most important features of this development are the following:

          The pressing need to sustain Euro through deep economic reforms and political reforms has been and will play an important part in reshaping the institutional setup and the power distribution system in the EU;

          Germany has emerged as a new and less and less “reluctant” European hegemon;

          The United Kingdom has been and will be distancing itself from the EU. Moreover it will probably be faced with prolonged internal troubles (such as the issue of Scotland). These factors will result in loss of regional and international clout;

          France’s economic and political malaise is set to continue which will risk the country’s long established position as member of the Franco-German tandem without which no important EU-wide political reforms are possible;

          Poland, sensing the weakening of the UK and France has started to implement a new geopolitical agenda by presenting itself as a key European player both internally and externally and as an indispensable partner for Germany;

          In the second half of 2014, a new political cycle with new European Commission and European Parliament starts;

          An important new external factor is the re-emergence of an assertive Russia which will result in significant policy shifts in the EU (foreign and security policy, energy policy, and enlargement policy);

          A more clearly institutionalized two-speed Europe has become a realistic option for the Union, not at all a taboo any longer.

As a result, the EU member states (both the political class and the public) have to be prepared to accept these new political realities and also have to find institutional and political solutions to handle issues such as the future role of the UK in the European construct, the relations with Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, and to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the common European currency.

 

A radically different European political framework is appearing before our eyes. And in this new space the role of Europe’s major powers will change, and there will also be a shift in the relative weights of countries. Germany will be the greatest beneficiary of the rearrangement: it will clearly be the regional primate. Almost right across the spectrum, the German political elite supports closer integration, which will assist in mitigating fears of German hegemony, but the German-French tandem will no longer be regarded as a partnership of equals. History (and necessity) has made the economy – and the common currency – the driving force of federalism, rather than political institutional development or the construction of a European cultural identity, which would have favored the French.

 

The French wanted the euro – and the whole process of integration – as a means of keeping the Germans in check, but in reality the opposite happened. The principles of France’s European policy – the multiplication of French power and capacities at the European and global levels and categorical inter-governmentalism – have been sorely wounded. France’s elite must decide what to do with an EU in which Germany is once again powerful and where the supranational principle is coming more and more into view. Without the French, there is no Core Europe, but they too are aware that it will be called “Kerneuropa”.

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the German political elite supports closer integration, which will assist in mitigating fears of German hegemony, but the German-French tandem will no longer be regarded as a partnership of equals

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Germany (“being too big to hide, too suspicious to lead”) needs to redefine its European and global role. The two are obviously very much interlinked. It seems obvious that the low profile it has been performing in global and especially regional issues is no longer an option. During the Eurocrisis its pivotal role in the EU has become crystal clear. So has the weakness of France, who also needs to redefine its European role, which will probably mean the acceptance of the fact that not even pretending to be equal with Germany is credible. In any case Germany will need partners in the so-called European construction, since no one will tolerate any unilateralism and rightly so.

 

Germany has made efforts to keep the UK on board but it seems more and more improbable. In the new European space, the United Kingdom will probably be the biggest loser. In late 2011, British politicians accepted the multi-speed model, having excluded themselves from the first time by not signing the Stability Treaty that sets new rules for the economy. True, the British immediately began organizing a bloc of non-euro-zone members around themselves, but this will have no real significance in the future. It suffices to mention the failure of EFTA or to consider Poland’s ambition to join the euro zone. The British loss of weight in Europe will not be counterbalanced by their “special relationship” with the United States – which has anyway become rather empty, particularly under the Obama administration. Indeed, by turning their backs on Europe, they may even be risking an acceleration of Scotland’s journey to independence. The UK legally is inside the EU, but not psychologically. No matter if the vote on its EU-membership takes places or not in 2017, the question of UK’s place in Europe will not go away. Most probably the answer to this question will be a no.

 

So the UK is distancing itself from integration, thereby creating an environment to press on with establishing Core Europe inside the EU-28. For eurozone key countries surrendering more of their sovereignty will be far less painful than a euro meltdown. Chancellor Merkel seriously believes that the demise of the euro would be the downfall of the EU[1]

With the UK drifting apart and France being bogged down in its economic malaise that prevents it to focus on long-term European strategy, a new candidate has emerged to come to the rescue, namely: Poland. It is obvious that Poland is no match to the UK or France on any important counts (economy, diplomacy, military) and it is not even inside the elite club of the EU, the Eurozone, nevertheless, sensing the shifts in the political status quo inside the EU, their main thrust is to get as close to the key political decisions and to Germany as possible. This entails that, although Poland does not yet fulfil the Euro-entry criteria it pushes hard with the issue, and primarily not for economic but for political reasons. Not only because more and more issues are decided within the Eurozone leaving the non-euro countries out, but there is a good chance that a more pronounced and politically diverging two-speed system will emerge of which the natural (although not perfect) basis may be the currency union.

 

One has to be clear: it is extremely difficult to foresee future developments, especially the specific positions of the various member states if, or when, the quantum leap occurs. It is a fact, however, that barely a year ago no one could have imagined the member states taking action so soon to amend the Lisbon Treaty, the adoption of which had been associated with so much grief and pain. Yet this is what has happened. In the long term, however, tiny steps will not be enough to deal adequately with the challenges of an increasingly heterogeneous union operating in an environment of growing uncertainty.

 

The current 18-member euro zone itself is far from being a certainty in the long term, as economic weakness in Greece and a potential referendum in Ireland (if tax harmonization will be requested to reinforce economic policy co-operation among members of the currency union) will probably lead to the exit of those countries from the zone. For the latter, this will also amount to a failure of its efforts to secure independence from the UK. Other euro zone members (in the south and the east) may well find themselves in a similar situation if they are unable or unwilling to keep pace with what is required of them.

 

If economic and political developments in the long term so dictate, in theory, there is a possibility that the EU – having admitted to its inability to operate the monetary union properly and acknowledging the market and political risks – will withdraw the euro from the market intentionally, doing so with a professionalism to match that displayed at the time of the euro’s introduction ten years ago. But this is only a theoretical possibility; in practice, it is almost unimaginable. So the present generation of political leaders of Europe, the generation, which appears to have lost the globalization contest, will have no choice but to act, to escape forward towards a (multi-speed) political union. Of course, all of this is an extremely dubious project plagued by many uncertainties.

 

Economy and politics walk hand in hand in the process of European integration. This has been clearly seen during the years of the euro crisis. During the worst crisis ever experienced by the EU as from 2008, the euro was not seen as the solution, rather than the source of the problem. But in fact, the lesson from the recent malaise is that the policy system behind the common currency needs significant reinforcement.

The euro is one of the most sophisticated results of the process of modern European integration. It is also a symbol of peaceful collaboration between European countries, which has been accompanied by, or has resulted in, unprecedented levels of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe.

In order to restore confidence in the single currency zone, a high-level fiscal union must be created, which may require further measures of economic integration, such as the creation of a European finance minister, a far bigger EU budget, and an effective bank supervisory authority at euro-zone level. Not all members will be able or willing to go that far in the medium term. A two-speed Europe – as we saw it- has already come into existence in reality with the UK’s decision to stand aside.

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The European Union has tried to establish a monetary union without a political union, but it has become increasingly clear that both are needed – or neither

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Nevertheless, the dynamics of integration is uncertain. This is partly because the alliance between the 18 current members of the euro zone is not a stable formation per se; for many of them, the bar will be set too high, and they will not be able to accept the degree of harmonization needed. An additional factor is that integration is to proceed on an intergovernmental – rather than supranational – basis, and there will be a need to clarify the roles of the EU bodies, in particular that of the European Commission.

By creating the euro (which was in many – especially in economic – respects either an irresponsible enterprise or a visionary act, depending on one’s perspective), Europe crossed the Rubicon: it pushed integration to a point of no return where it either presses on with a fiscal and economic union or must bear the dire economic and social consequences of a break-up of the common currency. As Ottmar Issing puts it: Der Euro “is still an experiment whose outcome seems likely to remain uncertain for a considerable time to come.”[2]

 

Euro-related challenges are not only factors: Europe at the beginning of the 21st century is facing not only a financial crisis but also a political crisis (caused in part by the economic crisis). It is a political crisis in the sense that the political institutions established after World War II, including those of the EU, have lost the confidence of the electorate. Society and the economy are undergoing rapid change. For many, such change is an opportunity, but for even more people it is a threat. This undermines society’s confidence and leads to the chronic rejection of political institutions and a widening of the chasm between the elite and the man in the street. The welfare model that was designed to prevent a repetition of the disastrous social problems of the interwar period is now in a crisis, thereby jeopardizing the social peace that was based on keeping the middle-classes satisfied. This in turn has added to economic and social tensions caused by immigration and to a hysterical fear of globalization. In the view of many, globalization – or as the anti-globalists call it: the unbridled competition of dog-eat-dog capitalism – finds embodiment in the European Union. It is therefore not accidental that there is a growing rejection of European integration, accompanied by a general rejection of the political mainstream.

 

In the history of European integration, crises have acted as the triggers of major political and institutional changes. Europe and the EU face many external and internal challenges, the scale of which has grown in recent decades (greater international competition, a whole series of demographic, social and budgetary problems). Member states have often made feeble and belated responses to such challenges with delayed reforms and poor management of immigration and demographic trends. At the same time the European Union has not been more robust either (weak and eventually failed policy visions as the Lisbon program, diplomatic and geopolitical difficulties due to the lack of a common EU position, years of impasse after the failed European constitutional project, etc.)

 

Historically speaking, hostility, rivalries and war are the norm on the European continent; periods of peaceful co-existence are the exception. Also, in historical terms, modern European integration (voluntary cooperation between sovereign states, based on the respect for common laws, and which was launched after World War II with a strengthening of economic and commercial relations but with the primary purpose of pacifying Germany) is a vulnerable formation. As a consequence, peace and solidarity on the European continent may soon be replaced by growing hostility – if the economic situation deteriorates and becomes crisis-ridden in a geopolitical milieu that is increasingly unstable. The fate of the boldest achievement and symbol of EU integration – the common currency – is intertwined with the fate of integration as a whole: an anarchic collapse of the euro would be accompanied by the break-up of the EU and political paralysis in Europe.

 

The euro is fundamentally a political and symbolic creation; in its present form, it does not have firm economic foundations. In light of the above it is in the interest of the EU to save the euro by establishing a strong economic union. With its present architecture, rules and stakeholders (whether they are the EU-28, the EU-26[3] or the EU-18), the European Union is incapable of moving forward at the right speed and depth. In addition, European public opinion gives a cool reception to any initiative coming from above, from Brussels. The European Union – it seems – faces two possible scenarios in the long term. Under the first scenario, it passively allows the centrifugal forces (markets, member-state sabotage, public disinterest) to break it up or it ceases to exist in its present form, with the unplanned termination of the euro. All of this would be temporarily accompanied by an extremely grave crisis. Under the second scenario, in the extended lands of Charlemagne (Karolus Magnus) a new intergovernmental treaty may be adopted, resulting in strong economic policy integration and preserving the euro.

 

The second and third groups of countries could join later based on new conditions (which would be far stricter than they are today) if they wish so. The historical and European lesson is that regional integration projects are far from everlasting, and often the temporary break-up of a poorly designed form of integration is the key to a restructured formation that guarantees long-term survival. Historical experience shows that monetary unions are successful when they have among their members at least one economic power-house acting as the engine. Central institutions are also needed to control and enforce the rules.

The most successful ones are preceded by a political union, as in the case of the USA, the UK or Germany. Price and wage flexibility is a fundamental criterion, so that wages can be limited in poorly performing regions, just as inter-regional transfers can be useful. Fixing and applying criteria on economic convergence also prove to be necessary. In the Eurozone, we can hardly talk about real flexibility of labor markets, just as we cannot talk about a political union either. The EU budget is not designed for major income transfers either, as it only disposes of 1% of GDP. The Eurozone meets all of the remaining conditions. The US federal budget is around EUR 3.3 trillion, compared with the EU “federal” budget of roughly 120 billion euros, a good part of which is transferred to non-Eurozone countries. The difference between the internal transfer capabilities of the two monetary unions is obvious. In any case, the euro was created by politics. Politics must also help preserve it. As André Sapir and Jean Pisani-Ferry put it: the euro area needs fewer routine procedures and more ability to act in times of real crises[4].

The question is whether the present crisis, which threatens the existence of the most important achievement of European integration – the common currency – will lead to a “quantum leap” towards closer political integration and a multi-speed Europe. It may indeed result in any of the two.

 

In any case in the medium term, Europe must prepare itself for a decade of sluggish economic growth. The gap in economic, social and political development within the Eurozone will only widen unless there is a major change of direction in the integration process. In the long term, the European welfare state is unsustainable in its present form (cf. ageing and shrinking populations, budgetary over-extension, an increasing competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis Asia). For this reason alone, it would seem sensible to pool European resources and to aim for a common European political and geopolitical agenda. But that will be the result of economic necessity rather than rationality.

 

A lot of discussion is taking place about political union. But one thing has to be clear: not any form European political union should or could mean the formation of a regional world government or the elimination of Europe’s nation states. The nation state is a European invention, and Europe’s nations will never be dissolved into an all-embracing pan-European political unity – if for no other reason than because for Europeans a sense of European identity barely exists, and Europe does not have a common language like the United States does. Political union could mean closer political integration, a real common foreign policy, a real European (or Eurozone) president, real European parliamentary elections, a real (perhaps Eurozone) budget, and a truly common economic policy. It could also mean unified European representation (a single seat and a single voice) in international organizations as well as stronger pan-European symbolism in daily life. The euro would still not be backed by a real country, but there would be regional integration with a far stronger political profile.

Currently, the key question concerning the future of European integration is whether or not a currency without a country is viable. The European Union has tried to establish a monetary union without a political union, but it has become increasingly clear that both are needed – or neither. Some thought that this ambiguous situation would lead to a great crisis, forcing the EU to establish closer political integration. That is to say, what cannot be achieved through nice words, will happen under pressure – as has been the case so many times before. Angela Not only is the common currency without a country; it also has no backing in the form of political institutions or even the basic foundations of economic integration. The EU barely has a budget: in a modern market economy, the budget amounts to 40-50 percent of GDP, while the EU budget amounts to just one percent of European GDP. Moreover, money is not spent on things that a “normal” budget would target, but for very different purposes, such as farm subsidies – which still account for almost every second euro spent. These factors add up to a budget ill equipped to make significant transfers between Eurozone members at different levels of development and in different stages of the economic cycle. An even more important deficiency of the Eurozone is its lack of a common economic policy and the cumbersome decision-making with unanimity required, for instance, to adopt common fiscal rules.

 

A closer union in fiscal and economic policy terms – a European finance minister, Eurobonds, common financial supervision, a closely coordinated economic policy – seems inevitable, as does, in certain respects, a political union. All this will require a new treaty, an amended ECB statute, and above all political will. Closer integration may certainly be envisaged in the form of a multi-speed union.

 

Despite its undoubted successes, modern European integration is – in historical terms – a fragile construct. The main reason for this is the absence of a precise self-definition. Europe is still a nascent formation, consisting of political compromises, a common system of law, a common economic zone, and a collection of political and institutional responses to crises. Although the peoples of Europe have lived side by side for thousands of years, they do not share traditions, living myths, a common identity or language; nor do they project a single image towards the outside world. The political class and the intellectual elite are just as divided: some want more Europe, while others think that even the present level of cooperation is far greater than desirable. The underlying reason is that no one has a clear picture of the function, goal and future development of the EU; there is no agreed vision. Several political analysts and European politicians themselves are skeptical regarding the need for a declared political vision for the European integration. It seems that this view is less and less sustainable.

 

Member states and EU institutions will have to agree on how to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the common currency, and how take the European citizens on board for this especially because most of the steps need to be taken will have significant consequences on national sovereignty. This is in itself a colossal task: the result of the 2014 European elections clearly demonstrated the fatigue or even the enmity of the public vis-à-vis the European project. Nevertheless the grand design of an institutionalized two-speed Europe that makes room for the UK, and maybe Turkey and Ukraine will also have to be on the menu. During the political cycle that starts in the second half of 2014 in Brussels, the economic, political and geographical setup of the EU will be looked at and probably will be significantly rearranged.


References

          Issing, Ottmar: Europe: Common Money – Political Union? European Central Bank, 1999. Frankfurt

          Judt, Tony: Postwar – A History of Europe Since 1945. Pimlico, London, 2007.

          Khanna, Parag: The second world – empires and influence in the new global order. Random House, New York, 2008;

          Marján, Attila: Europe’s Destiny. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, USA;

          Marján, Attila: The Middle of the Map. John Harper Publishing, 2011, London

          McCormick, John: The European Superpower. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

          Mennon, Anand – Schain, Martin A. (ed.): Comparative Federalism – The European Union and the United States in Comparative Perspective. Oxford University Press, 2006.

          Moisi, Dominique: The Geopolitics of Emotion – How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation and Hope are Reshaping the World. The Bodley Head, London, 2009.

          Moravcsik, Andrew: Europe: Quietly Rising Superpower in a Bipolar World. Princeton University, 2009. www.princeton.edu/~amoravcs/papers.html

          Pisani-Ferry, Jean – Posen, Adam: The euro at 10: The Next Global Currency? Bruegel/Peterson Institute for International Economics, Brussels, 2009.

          Pisani-Ferry, Jean, et al.: Coming of Age: Report on the Euro Area, Bruegel Blueprint 4. p.4. 2008, Brussels

          Siedentop, Larry: Democracy in Europe. Columbia University Press, New York, 2001.

          Timo Baas and Herbert Brücker: EU Eastern Enlargement: The Benefits from Integration and Free Labour Movement;



http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/if-the-euro-fails-europe-fails-merkel-says-eu-must-be-bound-closer-together-a-784953.html

Ottmar Issing: Europe: Common Money – Political Union? p. 6. European Central Bank, 1999.

Note that the UK and the Czech Republic has not signed the Stability Treaty

Pisani-Ferry, Jean, et al.: Coming of Age: Report on the Euro Area, Bruegel Blueprint 4. p.4. 2008, Brussels

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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From Davos to Munich

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An overview of the views and attitudes of European officials during the Davos and Munich Conference and their comparison with each other suggests that the security, economic, and political concerns of European countries have not only not diminished but are increasing.

During the World Economic Summit in Davos, the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France both gave a significant warning about the return of nationalism and populism to Europe. This warning has been sent in a time when Far-Right movements in Europe have been able to gain unbelievable power and even seek to conquer a majority of parliaments and form governments.

In her speech, Angela Merkel emphasized that the twentieth century’s mistake shouldn’t be repeated. By this, the German Chancellor meant the tendency of European countries to nationalism. Although the German Chancellor warning was serious and necessary, the warning seems to be a little late. Perhaps it would have been better if the warning was forwarded after the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, and subsequently, more practical and deterrent measures were designed. However, Merkel and other European leaders ignored the representation of over a hundred right-wing extremist in the European Parliament in 2014 and merely saw it as a kind of social excitement.

This social excitement has now become a “political demand” in the West. The dissatisfaction of European citizens with their governments has caused them to explicitly demand the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe. The recent victories of right wing extremists in Austria, Germany and…, isn’t merely the result of the nationalist movement success in introducing its principles and manifestos. But it is also a result of the failure of the “European moderation” policy to resolve social, security and economic problems in the Eurozone and the European Union. In such a situation, European citizens find that the solutions offered by the moderate left parties didn’t work in removing the existing crises in Europe. Obviously, in this situation “crossing the traditional parties” would become a general demand in the West. Under such circumstances, Merkel’s and other European leaders’ warnings about the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe simply means the inability of the Eurozone authorities in preventing the Right-extremism in the West.

These concerns remain at the Munich Security Conference. As Reuters reported, The defense ministers of Germany and France pledged to redouble their military and foreign policy cooperation efforts on Friday, inviting other European countries to participate if they felt ready to do so.
In a speech to the Munich Security Conference, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said Europe’s countries would not be able to respond nimbly enough to global challenges if they were stymied by the need to decide joint foreign policy approaches unanimously.

“Europe has to up its pace in the face of global challenges from terrorism, poverty and climate change,” she said. “Those who want to must be able to advance without being blocked by individual countries.”

Her French counterpart Florence Parly said any such deepened cooperation would be complementary to the NATO alliance, which itself was based on the principle that members contributed differently depending on their capacities.

“The reality has always been that some countries are by choice more integrated and more able to act than others,” she said.

The push comes as Germany’s political class reluctantly concedes it must play a larger security role to match its economic pre-eminence in Europe, amid concerns that the European Union is unable to respond effectively to security concerns beyond its eastern and southern borders.

But in their deal for another four years of a “grand coalition” government, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats have agreed to boost spending on the armed forces after years of post-Cold War decline.

The deal, which must still be ratified by the Social Democrat membership, comes as Germany reluctantly takes on the role of the continent’s pre-eminent political power-broker, a role generations of post-war politicians have shied away from.

Days after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated President Donald Trump’s demand that European countries spend more on their militaries, Von der Leyen pledged to spend more on its military and the United Nations, but called in return for other countries not to turn away from mulitlateralism.

The pledges come as the EU seeks a new basis on which to cooperate with Britain, traditionally one of the continent’s leading security players, after its vote to leave the EU.

Earlier on Friday, the leaders of the three countries’ security services said close security cooperation in areas like terrorism, illegal migration, proliferation and cyber attacks, must continue after Britain’s departure.

“Cooperation between European intelligence agencies combined with the values of liberal democracy is indispensable, especially against a background of diverse foreign and security challenges,” they said.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect

Alina Toporas

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This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.

What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?   

An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.

In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.   

Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?  

Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.

Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.

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Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?

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Photo by Mateo Avila Chinchilla on Unsplash

In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.

According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”

It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.

Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.

Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.

The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.

To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.

The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.

This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”

Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.

Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?

Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.

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