Ever since the Peace of Westphalia, Europe maintained the inner balance of powers by keeping its core section soft. Peripheral powers like England, France, Denmark, (Sweden and Poland being later replaced by) Prussia, the Ottomans, Habsburgs and Russia have pressed and preserved the center of continental Europe as their own playground.
At the same time, they kept extending their possessions overseas or, like Russia and the Ottomans, over the land corridors deeper into Asian and MENA proper. Once Royal Italy and Imperial Germany had appeared, the geographic core ‘hardened’ and for the first time started to politico-militarily press onto peripheries, including the two European mega destructions, known as the two World Wars. Therefore, this new geopolitical reality caused a big security dilemma lasting from the 1814 Vienna congress up to Potsdam conference of 1945, being re-actualized again with the Berlin Wall destruction: How many Germanies and Italies should Europe have to preserve its inner balance and peace?
At the time of Vienna Congress, there were nearly a dozen of Italophone states and over three dozens of Germanophone entities – 34 western German states + 4 free cities (Kleinstaaterei), Austria and Prussia. The post-WWII Potsdam conference concludes with only three Germanophone (+ Lichtenstein + Switzerland) and two Italophone states (+ Vatican). Than, 25 years ago, we concluded that one of Germanies was far too much to carry to the future. Thus, it disappeared from the map overnight, and joined the NATO and EU – without any accession talks – instantly.
West of Berlin, the usual line of narrative claims that the European 9/11 was an event of the bad socio-economic model being taken over by the superior one – just an epilogue of pure ideological reckoning. Consequently – the narrative goes on – the west (German) taxpayers have taken the burden. East of Berlin, people will remind you clearly that the German reunification was actually a unilateral takeover, an Anschluss, which has been paid by the bloody dissolutions affecting in several waves two of the three demolished multinational Slavic state communities. A process of brutal erosions that still goes on, as we see it in Ukraine today.
Sacrificing the alternative society?
What are Berliners thinking about it?
The country lost overnight naturally triggers mixed feelings. In the case of DDR, the nostalgia turns into ostalgia (longing for the East). Prof. Brigitte Rauschenbach describes: “Ostalgia is more like unfocused melancholy.” Of the defeated one?! It is a “flight from reality for lack of an alternative, a combination of disappointment with the present and longing for the past”. The first German ever in the outer space, a DDR cosmonaut, Sigmund Jähn is very forthcoming: “People in the East threw everything away without thinking… All they wanted was to join West Germany, though they knew nothing about it beyond its ads on television. It was easier to escape the pressures of bureaucracy than it is now to avoid the pressures of money.” Indeed, at the time of Anschluss, DDR had 9.7 million jobs. 25 years later, they are still considerably below that number. Nowadays, it is a de-industrialized, demoralized and depopulated underworld of elderly.
If the equality of outcome (income) was a communist egalitarian dogma, is the belief in equality of opportunity a tangible reality offered the day after to Eastern Europe or just a deceiving utopia sold to the conquered, plundered, ridiculed and cannibalized countries in transition?
Wolfgang Herr, a journalist, claims: “The more you get to know capitalism the less inclined you are to wonder what was wrong with socialism.” Famously comparing the two systems 15 years later, one former East Berliner has said: “Telling jokes about Honecker (the long-serving DDR leader) could lead to problems, but calling your foreman at work a fool was OK. Nowadays anyone can call (Chancellor) Schröder names, but not their company’ supervisor, it brings your life into a serious trouble.” The western leftists involved in the student uprisings of the late 1960s were idealistically counting on the DDR. When the wall fell, they thought it marked the start of the revolution. After sudden and confusing ‘reunification’, they complained: ’But why did you sacrifice the alternative society?’
They were not the only one caught by surprise. In the March 1990 elections, the eastern branch of Kohl’s Christian Democrat party, passionately for ‘reunification’, won an easy majority, defeating the disorganized and dispersed civil rights activists who – in the absence of any other organized political form, since the Communist party was demonized and dismantled – advocated a separate, but democratic state on their own. The first post-‘reunification’, pan-German elections were held after 13 months of limbo, only in December 1990. “Our country no longer existed and nor did we,” Maxim Leo diagnosed. “The other peoples of Eastern Europe were able to keep their nation states, but not the East Germans. The DDR disappeared and advocates of Anschluss did their best to remove all trace of its existence”. Vincent Von Wroblewski, a philosopher, concludes on Anschluss: “By denying our past, they stole our dignity.”
Yet another alternative society, butchered
The collapse of the Soviet Union – which started in Berlin on 09th November 1989 – marked a loss of the historical empire for Russia, but also a loss of geopolitical importance of nonaligned, worldwide respected Yugoslavia, which shortly after burned itself in series of brutal genocidal, civil war-like ethnical cleansings. The idea of different nations living together and communicating in different languages in a (con-)federal structure was (though imperfect) a reality in Yugoslavia, but also a declared dream of the Maastricht Europe. In fact, federalism of Yugoslavia was one of the most original, advanced and sophisticated models as such worldwide. Moreover, this country was the only truly emancipated and independent political entity of Eastern Europe and one of the very few in a whole of the Old Continent.
Yugoslavia was by many facets a unique European country: No history of aggression towards its neighbors, with the high toleration of otherness, at home and abroad. Yugoslav peoples were one of the rare Europeans who resolutely stood up against fascism, fighting it in a full-scale combat and finally paying it with 12% of its population in the 4-years war – a heavy burden shouldered by the tiny nation to return irresponsible Europe to its balances. Apart from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia was the single European country that solely liberated itself from Nazism and fascism. (Relative to the 1939 size of state territory and incumbent population within, the top WWII fatalities were suffered by Poland – 18%, the Soviet Union – 15%, Yugoslavia 12%, III Reich/Germany – 10%. For the sake of comparison, the Atlantic rim suffered as follows: France – 1,3%, UK –0,9%, the US – 0,3%.)
Yugoslavs also firmly opposed Stalinism right after the WWII. Bismarck of southern Slavs – Tito imposed the so-called active peaceful coexistence after the 1955 Bandung south-south conference, and assembled the non-Aligned movement (NAM) in its founding, Belgrade conference of 1961. Steadily for decades, the NAM and Yugoslavia have been directly tranquilizing the mega confrontation of two superpowers and satellites grouped around them (and balancing their irresponsible calamities all over the globe). In Europe, the continent of the sharpest ideological divide, with practically two halves militarily confronting each other all over the core sectors of the continent (where Atlantic Europe was behind some of the gravest atrocities of the 20th century, from French Indochina, Indonesia, Congo, Rhodesia to Algeria and Suez), and with its southern flank of Portugal, Spain and Greece (and Turkey sporadically) run by the military Juntas, Yugoslavia was remarkably mild island of stability, moderation and wisdom.
Domestically, Yugoslavia had a unique constitutional setup of a strictly decentralized federation. Although being a formal democracy in its political life, many aspects of its social and economic practices as well as largely enjoyed personal freedoms and liberties featured the real democracy. The concept of self-management (along with the Self-managing Interest Community model) in economic, social, linguistic and cultural affairs gained a lot of external attention and admiration in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Still, there was neither enough sympathies, nor mercy towards-EU-heading Europe, to save either the Yugoslav people from an immense suffering or the symbol that this country represented domestically and internationally. Who needs alternative societies and alternative thinking?!
Despite the post-Cold War, often pre-paid, rhetoric that Eastern Europe rebelled against the Soviet domination in order to associate itself with the West, the reality was very different. Nagy’s Hungary of 1956, Dubček’s Czechoslovakia of 1968 and (pre-)Jeruzelski Poland of 1981 dreamt and fought to join a liberal Yugoslavia, and its world-wide recognized 3rd way!
By 1989-90, this country still represented a hope of full emancipation and real freedom for many in the East. How did the newly created EU (Atlantic-Central Europe axis) react? At least tolerating (if not eager to support), or actively eliminating the third way of Yugoslavia? It responded to the Soviet collapse in the best fashion of a classic, historical nation-state, with the cold calculi of geopolitical consideration deprived of any ideological constrains. It easily abandoned altruism of its own idea by withdrawing its support to the reformist government of Yugoslavia, and basically sealed-off its faith.
Intentionally or not, indecisive and contradictory political messages of the Maastricht-time EU – from the Genscher/Mock explicate encouragement of separatism, and then back to the full reconfirmation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Yugoslavia – were bringing this multinational Slavic state into a schizophrenic situation. Consequently, these mixed or burial European political voices – most observes would agree – directly fed and accelerated inner confrontations of the (elites claiming to represent) Yugoslav peoples.
Soon after, Atlantic-Central Europe axis contained the western Balkans, letting the slaughterhouse to last essentially unchecked for years. At the same time, it busily mobilized all resources needed to extend its own strategic depth eastwards (later formalized by the so-called enlargements of 1995, of 2004, of 2007 and finally of 2013).
The first ever fully televised war with its highly disturbing pictures of genocidal Armageddon came by early 1990s. It remained on TV sets for years all over Europe, especially to its East. Although the Atlantic-Central Europe axis kept repeating we do not know who is shooting whom in this powder keg and it is too early to judge, this –seemingly indecisive, wait-and-see, attitude– was in fact an undeniably clear message to everyone in Eastern Europe: No alternative way will be permitted. East was simply expected to bandwagon – to passively comply, not to actively engage itself.
This is the only answer how can genocide and the EU enlargement go hand in hand at the same time on such a small continent. At about same time, Umberto Eco talks about eternal yet reinvigorated Nazism. By 1995, he famously diagnosed: ‘Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak’.
No surprise that the East has soon after abandoned its identity quest, and capitulated. Its final civilizational defeat came along: the Eastern Europe’s Slavs have silently handed over their most important debates – that of Slavism, anti-fascism and of their own identity – solely to the (as we see nowadays) recuperating Russophone Europe.
Europe of Genocide and of Unification – Happily Ever after
As said, the latest loss of Russophone Europe in its geopolitical and ideological confrontation with the West meant colossal changes in Eastern Europe. One may look into geopolitical surrounding of at the-time largest eastern European state, Poland, as an illustration of how dramatic it was. All three land neighbors of Poland; Eastern Germany (as the only country to join the EU without any accession procedure, but by pure act of Anschluss), Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union have disappeared overnight. At present, Polish border-countries are a two-decade-old novelty on the European political map. Further on, if we wish to compare the number of dissolutions of states worldwide over the last 50 years, the Old continent suffered as many as all other continents combined: American continent – none, Asia – one (Indonesia/ East Timor), Africa – two (Sudan/South Sudan and Ethiopia/Eritrea), and Europe – three.
Underreported as it is, each and every dissolution in Europe was primarily related to Slavs (Slavic peoples) living in multiethnic and multi-linguistic (not in the Atlantic Europe’s conscripted pure single-nation) state. Additionally, all three European – meaning, every second dissolution in the world – were situated exclusively and only in Eastern Europe. That region has witnessed a total dissolution of Czechoslovakia (western Slavs) and Yugoslavia (southern Slavs, in 3 waves), while one state disappeared from Eastern Europe (DDR) as to strengthen and enlarge the front of Central Europe (Western Germany). Finally, countless centripetal turbulences severely affected Eastern Europe following the dissolution of the SU (eastern Slavs) on its frontiers.
Irredentism in the UK, Spain, Belgium, France and Italy, or Denmark (over Faroe Islands and Greenland) is far elder, stronger and deeper. However, the dissolutions in Eastern Europe took place irreversibly and overnight, while Atlantic Europe still remained intact, with Central Europe even enlarging territorially and expanding economically.
Ergo: Our last 25 years conclude that (self-)fragmented, deindustrialized, rapidly aged rarified and depopulated, (and de-Slavicized) Eastern Europe is probably the least influential region of the world – one of the very few underachievers. Obediently submissive and therefore, rigid in dynamic environment of the promising 21st century, Eastern Europeans are among the last, remaining passive downloaders and slow-receivers on the otherwise blossoming stage of the world’s creativity, politics and economy. It seems that Europe still despises its own victims.
Interestingly, the physical conquest of the European east, usually referred to as the EU eastern enlargement was deceivingly presented more as a high virtue than what that really was – a cold realpolitik instrument. Clearly, it was primarily the US-led NATO extension, and only then the EU (stalking) enterprise. Simply, not a single eastern European country entered the EU before joining the NATO at first. It was well understood on both sides of the Atlantic that the contracting power of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin Russia in the post-Cold War period would remain confused, disoriented, reactive and defensive. Therefore, the North Atlantic Military Alliance kept expanding despite the explicit assurances given to the Kremlin by the George H.W. Bush administration.
It is worth remembering that the NATO was and remains an instrument (institutionalized political justifier) of the US physical, military presence in Europe. Or, as Lord Ismay vocally defined it in1949: ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. The fact that the US remained in Western Germany, and that the Soviet Army pulled out from Eastern Germany did not mean ‘democratization’ or ‘transition’. It represented a direct military defeat of the Gorbachev Russia in the duel over the core sectors of Central and Eastern Europe. As direct spoils of war, DDR disappeared from the political map of Europe, being absorbed by Western Germany, while the American Army still resides in a unified Germany. In fact, more than half of the US 75 major overseas military bases are situated in Europe. Up to this day, Germany hosts 25 of them.
The letzte Mensch or Übermensch?
In the peak of Atlantic hype of early 1990s, Fukuyama euphorically claimed end of history. Just two decades later, twisting in the sobriety of the inevitable, he quietly moderated it with a future of history, desperately looking around and begging: ‘Where is a counter-narrative?” Was and will our history ever be on holiday?
One hundred years after the outbreak of the WWI and 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, young generations of Europeans are being taught in school about a singularity of an entity called the EU. However, as soon as serious external or inner security challenges emerge, the compounding parts of the true, historic Europe are resurface again. Formerly in Iraq (with the exception of France) and now with Libya, Mali, Syria and Ukraine; Central Europe is hesitant to act, Atlantic Europe is eager, Scandinavian Europe is absent, and while Eastern Europe is obediently bandwagoning, Russophone Europe is opposing. The 1986 Reagan-led Anglo-American bombing of Libya was a one-time, headhunting punitive action. This time, both Libya and Syria (Iraq, Mali, Ukraine, too) have been given a different attachment. The factors are multiple and interpolated. Let us start with a considerable presence of China in Africa. Then, there are successful pipeline deals between Russia and Germany which, while circumventing Eastern Europe, will deprive East from any transit-related bargaining premium, and will tacitly pose an effective joint Russo-German pressure on the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine. Finally, here is a relative decline of the US interests and capabilities, and to it related re-calibration of their European commitments, too. All of that combined, must have triggered alarm bells across, primarily Atlantic, Europe.
The insight here is that although seemingly unified, Europe is essentially composed of several segments, each of them with its own dynamics, legacies and its own political culture (considerations, priorities and anxieties). Atlantic and Central Europe are confident and secure on the one end, while (the EU and non-EU) Eastern Europe as well as Russia on the other end, insecure and neuralgic, therefore, in a permanent quest for additional security guaranties.
“America did not change on September 11. It only became more itself” – Robert Kagan famously claimed. Paraphrasing it, we may say: From 9/11 (09th November 1989 in Berlin) and shortly after, followed by the genocidal wars all over Yugoslavia, up to the Euro-zone drama, MENA or ongoing Ukrainian crisis, Europe didn’t change. It only became more itself – a conglomerate of five different Europes.
Therefore, 9/11 this year will be just another said reminder: How have the winners repeatedly missed to take our mankind into completely other direction; towards the non-confrontational, decarbonized, de-monetized/de-financialized and de-psychologized, the self-realizing and greener humankind. Where is the better life that all of us have craved and hoped for, that we all deserve?
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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