In the light of the frequent disagreements witnessed nowadays in the transatlantic Western community as concerns the NATO Alliance and its relevancy, especially as it concerns Russia’s intentions toward the Baltic countries, the question arises: does the idea of the West include a community of values and if so which are they?
Could it be that the disagreements arise out of ignorance as to what those common values might be? One of them is undoubtedly the idea of democracy which goes back to the ancient Greeks. Why then the vehement disagreements and misunderstandings? Let us briefly explore the issue searching for historical data, theory and practice.
Geographically speaking it cannot be asserted that Europe as a whole has always been or is now a community of values. During the Cold War any nation in Europe East of the Iron Curtain was designated at East. Those included nations who formerly were historically part of the West; countries such as the three Baltic states, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary. After the Cold War seven of the eight Eastern European countries would join the EU. Those on the West side of the Iron Curtain were designated as the West. But some, such as Turkey and Greece were not part of the historical West which in Medieval times comprised the land of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. Most of them were democratic and were members of the Atlantic Alliance named NATO. So, at first glance it would appear that democracy was the common glue or the common value. But things are not that simple.
What comprises the historical West? It was the part of Europe that throughout the Middle Ages looked to Rome as its spiritual center. That is to say, the old West was the part of Europe that belonged to the Western church. Only that part of Europe, knew of pre-modern forms of power separation, that is to say, the separation of spiritual and temporal power. That part of Europe also experienced, the late medieval and early modern emancipatory movements dubbed the Renaissance and the Reformation, humanism and the Enlightenment. The domain of the Eastern church, that of Byzantium and, later, of Moscow, followed a very different trajectory. It experienced the subordination of spiritual to temporal power and did not know the system of reciprocal fealty between lords and vassals known as European feudalism. It knew nothing of the Investiture Controversy, of the revolution of of Gregory VII as the first European revolugion resulting eventually in the victory of the temporal over the spiritual power which took place in Western Europe. This dualism of temporal and spiritual power may be considered the beginning of the West’s spirt of individualism, it planted the seeds of freedom which may be considered the West’s distinguishing characteristic. That distinction, to be sure, is already in nuce in Christ’s reply to the Pharisees: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” That, if anything is, is a rejection of theocracy and the announcement of secularization, or the refusal to concede to religious authority secular powers, considered autonomous. Neverthless, a secular brotherhood without any kind of fatherhood is also incongruous. So, it appears that religion, or more specifically Christianity who posits a God who is our father, is also a glue needed to give substance to the concepts of brotherhood, liberty, and equality. That glue needs to be analyzed, independent of one’s religious beliefs.
Montesquieu, a French Enlightenment thinker, argued that moderate government was far more compatible with Christianity, while a despotic government was more compatible with Islam. “It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror,” affirmed Montesquieu. Like Christ Montesquieu appeals to the original separation between the spheres of God and the emperor: “We ought not to decide by divine laws what should be decided by human laws; nor determine by human what should be determined by divine laws.” Leaders must be measured by such a yardstick.
The modern separation of legislature, executive, and judicial powers developed by Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws continued the process that began with the pre-modern separation of spiritual and temporal, and princely and estate powers. Montesquieu was in fact the first classical thinker to grant the judicial branch the status of an autonomous “third” power. He did not live to see the birth of the country in which his views on the separation of powers would appear: the United States of America. In the Federalist Papers, a series of articles by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison drafted at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, Montesquieu was by far the most cited author. To be sure Montesquieu himself had drawn from the ancient Greek historian Polybius, of the second century- B.C. who had promoted the concept of a mixed constitution. Polybius saw in the Roman Republic an ideal combination of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic virtues—a combination, so he believed, that shielded Rome from the dangers inherent in the pure forms of monarchy as well as pure forms of aristocracy or democracy. This idea would be called in the US “checks and balances,” as first mentioned by John Adams in 1787 in the preface to his A Defense of the Contitutions of Government of the United States; that is to say, all parts of the government would keep an eye on each other to prevent abuses and corruption.
The Constitution was followed by the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, which appeared in 1791. Hence the claim of the United States that it is the birth nation of individual rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights from June 12, 1776, began its catalogue of basic rights, the first comprehensive catalogue of its kind, with these words: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Three weeks later, on July 4, 1776, the delegates of the Constitutional Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.
The declaration combines a concept of human rights with a consequent principle of popular sovereignty to form a single but momentous sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain un-alienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” With this sentence, the Declaration of Independence brought together millennia worth of experience and insights, making self-evident truths into a project to change the
world and the American Revolution into history’s first modern revolution. Like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many of the other signers, Jefferson drew on an intellectual tradition shared by natural rights philosophers since the Stoics, by the teachings of more recent thinkers such as Locke and Montesquieu, and by the general Americans’ ideas about the necessity of religious and political tolerance. But the question persists: why had the idea of inalienable rights arisen in America at the level of constitutional articles? Could religious freedom as a human inalienable right be the roots of the idea rather than the French Revolution? Here too things are not so simple as invoking the French Revolution as the beginning of individual rights.
To be sure, most of the fathers of the US Declaration of Independence were not pious observing Christians like the Puritans but they believed in the likelihood of a God, or some higher being, capable of reward and punishment, though not all of them believed in the divinity of Jesus or in the Trinity. Properly speaking they were deists and not opposed in principle to the ideas of the champions of religious freedom such Roger Williams and William Penn. What obtained in America was something unique: a sort of marriage between the secular Enlightenment and extensive reading of the classics on constitutional law and religious freedom. This was indeed uniquely American, not French, not European. Consequently the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that inalienable rights are bestowed on individuals “by their Creator,” thus expressing more than a mere credo that enlightened deists and devout Christians could agree on. For indeed the very idea of an individual dignity common to all originates from the Judeo-Christian belief in one God who created human beings in His image and who loves all as his children.
Historically, therefore, the declaration of the equality of all individuals before the law presupposes the equality of all individuals before God. There is indeed an historical link between Christian religion and the Western idea of freedom which could develop because there existed in the historical West a tradition separating spiritual and worldly temporal power looking askance at state religions. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote in his 1952 The Irony of American History that the two major religious and moral traditions that shaped early American life—the Calvinism of New England (Puritanism) and the deism of Virginia—arrived at conspicuously similar conclusions about the meaning of America’s national character and the intended purpose of the United States: “Whether our nation interprets its spiritual heritage through Massachusetts or Virginia we came into existence with the sense of being a ‘separated’ nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind.” A new beginning for mankind, indeed it must felt that way in the Athens of four centuries BC.
This identification of the roots of the rights of individual citizens in Puritanism and Deism contradicted of course France’s assertion that it alone was the original pioneer of individual rights. Indeed, it is historically undeniable that the American declarations of rights passed by Virginia and other former British colonies in North America had done much to shape the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted by the National Constituent Assembly on August 26, 1789 during the French Revolution. The idea of passing such a declaration before writing a constitution was first proposed on August 11 by Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought for the American revolution, with the active assistance of Thomas Jefferson who was at the time US ambassador to France.
During his trip to America at the beginning of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to observe that in the United States two otherwise sharply opposed elements had interpenetrated and connected with one another in a marvelous way: the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. Even today, parts of American society tend to derive political freedom from religion, underestimating the contributions of the Enlightenment to human rights, the constitutional state, and democracy. In Europe, by contrast, there is a tendency to neglect the fact that Western values and Enlightenment ideas are embedded in their own tradition, one depending just as much on Jewish and Christian values as on ancient ones. Both views are one-sided and require correction: they must recall what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. This may go a long way in explaining the current misunderstandings mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Knowledge of the historical record may go a long way in correcting those biases.
After the Declaration of Independence, over four decades elapsed before the United States as a whole became comfortable with the concept of democracy, no longer perceiving it to contradict their deliberately chosen representative system. Political progress seemed assured but slavery, for its part, existed for nine decades of US history and its eradication in the south required nothing less than a bloody civil war in 1860. It took another hundred years before an energetic and successful movement (The Civil Rights movement) arose against the racial discrimination of the slaves’ descendents.
As mentioned, Europe tends to neglect that Western ideas depend on Jewish and Christian values. There is an unfortunate tendency to forget what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. The Declarations of the Rights of Man of the late 18th century were the result of transatlantic collaboration. Together, both sides laid the groundwork for the political project of the West. To forget that fact is to end up in anti-Americanism which is usually a caricature of that the US is all about, or anti-Europeanism, disparagingly dubbed “Old Europe” at times.
The American revolution was modern history’s first revolution but it was not connected to the defeat of any particular class and so there were never any antidemocratic sentiments after independence. The revolution was never against the principles of traditional English constitutional law, but rather it was a protest against their infringement by England. That was not the case with the French Revolution which because of the excesses of the Jacobins produced an anti-revolutionary right-wing. In Great Britain, it took 30 years for a parliamentary monarchy to establish itself after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In Germany it took Nazi dictatorship, and Germany’s second defeat on the 20th-century global stage to undercut the antidemocratic biases still harbored by elites and large portions of the general population. Moreover, when the opportunity to learn from the failed Weimar Republic and to create a functional parliamentary democracy finally came after 1945, not all Germans were able to take advantage of it—just those who lived in the western occupation zones, the future Federal Republic of Germany. The other Germans belonged to the East or the Soviet dominated part of Europe, hardly democratic.
When Germany was finally reunifies it promptly joined the Atlantic alliance. Moreover, eight East European states, which had been under Communist rule, joined the European Union. In some way the reunification of the West was accomplished. All the countries that had belonged to the West were back in the West after 1989. As Willy Brandt put it a day after the fall of the Berlin Wall: “now what belonged together could finally grow together.” Indeed, with the reunification, what “belonged together” could finally “grow together” but as mentioned above this was not a mere European political phenomenon, it was based on common values which were transatlantic and even global.
After World War I, democracy was not able to take firm root in most countries of Eastern Europe, including Germany. In West Germany, it took four decades after the end of World War II before a public figure like the philosopher Jürgen Habermas could declare that “The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the major intellectual accomplishment of the postwar era, of which my generation in particular can be proud.”
It was this “unreserved opening to the political culture of the West” that would become the criterion used by the European Union to measure both its members and those nations that wanted to become members. For a country to open itself to the political culture of the West, it does not need to be a part of the historical political West. This was the case neither with Greece, which joined the European Union in 1981, nor with Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007). But values and political cultures have their history; those who profess the Western values embodied by the 1993 Copenhagen criteria for EU membership must know that history and accept its legitimacy. The political culture of the West is pluralistic, which means that it must tolerate and foster a culture of debate and free speech. A pluralistic democracy depends, practically in its very existence, on political differences being dealt with peacefully. In that sense an authoritarian country like Russia which partly European geographically speaking, is hardly Western. In fact what Putin emphasized in his search for the lost greater Russia is that Russian civilization is different from decadent Western civilization, and it is in fact superior to it.
A pluralistic democracy thus requires both: on the one hand, a non-controversial sector of state and society, a “codex of values generally accepted as valid,” on the other, a controversial sector that needs regular deliberation and approval. The question we asked at the outset of this analysis returns: can the West be considered a community of values, but one in which the political consequences of those values remain—indeed, must remain—in dispute? After all, it can hardly be denied, unless one is hopelessly afflicted by historical amnesia that Western values are the product of a transatlantic experience and viewpoints that are subject to change.
The common grounds of the West become especially noticeable in comparison with other societies and cultures. The European Union and the United States do not need to invent a common foe to remain together. It would be enough to know the history of democracy and the history of its religious tenets. And then all that would remain to be done is to defend the values and institutions of the West against all threats and attacks; even promote them around the globe. But there is a caveat here: a policy that aims to spread Western values and forms of life by force and coercion or by CIA covert operations is doomed to fail. The United States, Great Britain, and France were successful in helping West Germany rebuild a democracy because they were able to tap into the free, constitutional, and democratic traditions that German history had already brought forth. On the other hand a country like Iraq simply lacks the historical experience necessary to become a Jeffersonian democracy while one like Turkey, on the other hand, may possess enough of it to be able to perfect it.
What we need to keep in mind is that democracy is much more than majority rule. A Western- type democracy is predicated on a pluralistic civil society that agrees to adhere to inalienable human rights and the rule of law. The laws referred to are both written and unwritten and include the the nomoi ágraphoi of the ancient Greeks and the norms of Christian and Enlightenment natural rights. Sadly, what we have today in the EU Parliament are parliamentarians on the extreme right who have been elected democratically but basically envision a non democratic future. That is an abuse of democracy and free speech. Indeed, time and again, the West has blatantly violated the very values it claims to profess. The West cannot afford to not forget its history of racism, colonialism, and imperialism, and the sad consequences of that history—not if it wants to stand by its professed values with any kind of credibility. Some US founding fathers, by retaining slaves, did not help their democratic cause. To profess ideals and values only in theory and not in practice is to run the risk of being branded a hypocrite.
Today Western achievements like the constitutional state, the separation of powers, and democracy have already been adopted by many non-Western societies. At this point in history the West no longer dominates the world. It merely represents one form of life and political culture among many. However, the claim of inalienable human rights remains a universal value. Since it would be contradiction to implement those rights by force, the West can do nothing better than adhere to its own values, promote them, and, where possible, to oppose their most crass violations with all means, including humanitarian intervention and perhaps even military intervention. Consequently, the West must strongly support the reform of the United Nations and the reworking of its charter. Yet, as mentioned above, the West is far from having sufficient unity and insight into the importance and cohesive power of non-material interests to take decisive action. If NATO is there merely to defend economic interests it would indeed be an irrelevant institutions. The West can certainly learn from its own history; perhaps the non-Western parts of the world can also learn from that history. But the project of the West on human rights remains incomplete; it can be perfected and advanced not by empty slogans but by building a community of values which are taken seriously and are not a cover-up for crass political-economic agendas. Those values are not geographical; they are not valid because they are European, or American, or Australian, or Canadian, but because they are universal. They can historically be characterized as Western but doing so only increases the responsibility of Western countries to lend them validity by their loyalty to them.
From Davos to Munich
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
Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect
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.
Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?
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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