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Hard truths about Europe’s soft power

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In the run-up to last December’s EU summit on defence, Britain’s top general publicly warned that the UK risks being left with “hollowed out” armed forces. He said too little of the much-reduced British defence budget is being spent on personnel, too much on “exquisite” equipment bought for the wrong reasons. “We must be careful” he commented “that the defence budget is not disproportionately used to support the British defence industry.”

We in Britain have of course heard of that sort of thing happening on the Continent. Spanish and Italian defence programmes, for example, have long been significantly funded, and therefore shaped, by industry and technology ministries. But in the UK we have always prided ourselves on being rather more serious about defence, believing that every pound of our national defence budget is spent simply and solely to achieve maximum ‘bang for the buck’. So General Sir Nick Houghton’s ruminations were unsettling.

We Britons are also keen to dissociate ourselves from the prevalent European cast of mind that a U.S. Defense Secretary identified in 2010 as one of “demilitarisation”. But here again, General Houghton’s remarks were disquieting, as he mused about risk-aversion in wider society and how this could affect the British armed forces’ “courageous instinct”. It was certainly a shock when last summer the British Parliament voted against a government plan to bomb Syria. And though the UK cannot, given its euroscepticism, be expected to throw its troops into EU operations, it still felt a bit odd to watch the French sending military units first to Mali, and then the Central African Republic, whilst British soldiers sat at home. Can it be that the spores of German pacifism are floating across the North Sea, like so much Dutch Elm disease?

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We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight

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So Britain, it seems, is not that different from almost everyone else in Europe in having rather lost its way on defence. The transition from ‘keeping the Soviet Union at bay’ to ‘contributing to global security and tackling new threats at source’, as set out in the EU’s 2003 European Security Strategy, was easy enough. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the ‘liberal interventionism’ rationale for our armed forces no longer works. Russian re-armament (and Vladimir Putin’s belligerence) hardly provide a satisfying alternative narrative, given the continuing one-to-three disparity between Russian defence spending and that of the EU states taken together, and the derelict state into which Russia’s military has fallen over two decades of neglect. So just what, the question nags with increasing insistence, are European armed forces actually for?

Not that EU national leaders, tackling defence for the first time in five years at last December’s European Council meeting, betrayed much uncertainty. “Defence matters” they insisted in the opening lines of their Conclusions. But beyond pro forma references to the “security of European citizens” and the need for the EU and member states to “exercise greater responsibilities… if they want to contribute to maintaining peace and security”, no clues were offered as to why it matters.

This is not a trivial point, in light of all the evidence (unused battlegroups, under-staffed training missions, unaddressed capability gaps) that most of the EU’s member states really don’t much want to contribute to maintaining peace and security – or even to maintaining effective armed forces. Using the defence budget to support industrial or regional jobs, or straightforwardly political rather than military objectives seems increasingly to be the European norm.

The temptation to misapply defence budgets in these ways is understandable, especially in the midst of recession. But it cannot be healthy in democracies to assert one thing and practice another; and such oblique methods of funding economic objectives are unlikely to be the most efficient. Implicit in this behaviour, moreover, is a set of assumptions about the world around us, and our position in it, which when unpacked should give us pause. This general European lack of seriousness about defence pre-supposes that we can rest easy in the apparent absence of military threat for the foreseeable future. It further pre-supposes either that the notions of European ‘power and influence’ on the global stage are irrelevant/distasteful/outdated, or that in the modern age effective armed forces have no part to play in maintaining such power.

None of this looks safe. Time and again, as when we have found ourselves astonished by invasions of the Falkland Islands or Kuwait, or by the Arab Spring, we discover that the ‘foreseeable future’ can amount to as little as a few days. Worse, an attitude of ‘no threats, so no defence needed’ overlooks the vital deterrent purpose of armed forces. Threats are not like weather events – they are backed by human calculation (something we almost wilfully obscure by broadening our concept of ‘security’ to include pandemics and climate change). And human calculation is crucially affected by perceptions of the other party’s will to resist, or at any rate stand up to bullying. In short, an evident lack of seriousness about defence risks turning the potential threat into actuality.

As for European aspirations to be a ‘global player’, proactively promoting our interests and distinctive values, the economic crisis has inevitably done great damage. Witness the mercantilisation of our diplomacy, with Europe’s national leaders jostling in Beijing and the Gulf for investment and export orders. The U.S. ‘pivots to Asia’, but Europeans refuse to view the other side of the globe as more than an enormous market. Germany sells arms as though they were nothing but expensive machine tools; British Conservatives evoke Singapore as the model of their national ambition. Yet even ‘realists’ should reflect that simply ceding global leadership to hungrier and more determined new powers is no way, ultimately, to achieve even the most basic aim of enabling our children to make a living – that Europe’s continuing prosperity depends on a continuing ability to demand that trade be fair as well as free, to maintain access to raw materials, and to insist on minimum environmental and social standards in global economic activity.

So power and influence in the wider world are vital if we are adequately to protect our interests, never mind promoting our values, at a time when most of the rest of the world seems more interested in the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism than in any Western norms. The democracies amongst the new powers may be somewhat more concerned for human rights: but Brazil and India as much as China evince a ‘neo-Westphalian’ view of international affairs, focussing on national sovereignty and non-interference rather than on any ‘rules-based world’.

Which of course is a big part of why military power has an essential part to play if Europe is not to find itself shunted to the margins of global affairs. We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight. Across the Middle East, through Africa, to East and South-East Asia, national leaders are either military men, or at least preoccupied on a day-to-day basis with military issues which may well be matters of government or even state survival. They want arms, and they also want training, and advice, and intelligence, and the reassurance that can come from working with partners who understand military affairs, and who will from time to time demonstrate their military reach and presence.

This is not a matter of sending gun-boats, or subscribing to Frederick the Great’s dictum that ‘diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments’. It is a matter of understanding that effective armed forces can and should have a role to play, not just in ‘countering threats’ but as instruments of state-craft. European leaders have had their heads in the sand about this for too long, too ready to hide behind the 2003 Strategy – a triumph in its day, but now the product of a bygone era. It is high time for a first-principles European re-evaluation of how the world has changed, and will continue to change (demographic projections, for example, are both dependable and worrying for Europeans), and to flush out those old assumptions guiding Europe’s foreign policy which no longer hold true. A glance at Europe’s own neighbourhood is enough to explode the notion that ‘soft power’ is all it takes. And what policy should we now substitute for the happy but evaporated hope that new powers could be house-trained to become ‘responsible stakeholders’ in an international system designed by the West?

 

To the credit of the European Council’s president, Herman Van Rompuy, last December’s defence discussion opened the door to this sort of debate when national leaders agreed to ‘assess the impact of changes in the global environment’ and to consider ‘the challenges and opportunities arising for the Union’. It is to be hoped that later this year the successor to Catherine Ashton will choose to exploit this opening to the full. Without a fundamental rethink of Europe’s external strategy it will not just be Europe’s armed forces that can expect to be hollowed out, but Europe’s interests and values too.

 

First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission

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Europe

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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