“I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism”–Edmund Husserl, University of Prague, 1935)
Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes.
After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity; consequently, at this critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is talk of a “democratic deficit,” that democracy that is integral part of Western Civilization.
We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. One such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.
A few background biographical details may be useful to better understand Lévinas. He was born in Lithuania in 1902. In 1923 he moves to Strasbourg to study under Husserl and writes a doctoral dissertation on his philosophy. There, he also comes in contact with Heidegger’s philosophy. The dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology gets published in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, Lévinas is beginning to take his distance from Heidegger. He enlisted in the French army, was captured in 1940 and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps.
Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. He became a teacher and administrator in an institute for Jewish education in Paris (l’alliance Uneversel Juif); there he begins to study traditional Jewish texts under the directorship of the Talmudic sage Mordechai Shoshani to whom the Nobel laureate for peace Elie Wiesel (who also studied with him) devotes a chapter in Legends of Our Time.
In 1961 Lévinas defends the first of his two major philosophical works (Totality and Infinity) before the philosophy faculty of the Sorbonne becoming a professor of philosophy. His second major work bears the title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.
Those are the basic events that dramatically change Lèvinas’ thinking. Prior to World War II he had merely criticized elements of 20th century Western thought; afterward he begins to attack the whole European philosophical tradition, especially its culmination in Heidegger’s thought, for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He begins to indict western philosophers in general for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts, such as Hegel’s “Spirit,” or Heidegger’s “Being,” which assimilate countless individuals to rational processes, thus negating their individuality.
To be sure Kierkegaard had also criticized this Hegelian tendency, countering it with his existentialist philosophy. Those who understood his critique only too well, promptly proceeded to relegate his thought to the theological within a false dichotomy (shown absurd by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 13th century) of philosophy/theology, thus insuring that Kierkegaard would never be as influential as a Hegel or a Heidegger.
In any case, Lévinas too argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers included—interact with persons different from ourselves. He argues that this “face-to-face” realm is not the same thing as the realm of abstract concepts. It possesses its own texture which is primarily an ethical one.
In this domain we are challenged by “the otherness of the other person.” It is this “otherness,” which is an integral characteristic of human life, but the Western philosophical tradition has overlooked and even negated it, thus contributing to the dehumanization of Man.
Lévinas’ life and thinking were deeply affected by the trauma of the Nazi genocide, better known as the Holocaust. But what is unique about his thinking is that it refuses to make those monstrous events its core subject matter. In other words, one cannot easily insert Levinas within the tradition of confessional writers. As Derrida, who admired Lévinas’ philosophy, aptly expressed it once: the danger of naming our monstrosities is that they become our pets. That is to say, Levinas refuses to name the monsters lest they become our familiar pets. Even words fail at times vis a vis unmentionable monstrosities.
Lévinas’ writings provide no extensive discussion of the Holocaust itself; therefore, the assumption, on the part of those who were thinking and writing on it, has often been that Lévinas could not be considered a valid source of philosophical insight into this dark period of human history. But that is an erroneous assumption, just as invalid as the assumption that he unreservedly admired Heidegger’s philosophy because he happened to have translated it into French. As a matter of fact, Lévinas’ thinking is a reaction to the Holocaust by the mere fact that it asks the crucial question: What does it mean to be a human being?
Were one to encapsulate the whole of Lévinas’ philosophy in two succinct words, they would be “being human.” This philosophy insists throughout that an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster.
A little personal anecdote may be illustrative here: many years ago I took a course on Heidegger with a professor who was a staunch admirer of his philosophy. The students were made to read Being and Time on which the professor in question would offer in class brilliant comments and interpretations. Not once during the entire duration of the course was it ever mentioned that Heidegger, for a short while, had joined the Nazi party and had heard echoes of “the voice of Being” in the speeches of Hitler; somehow that particular existential detail was not considered essential by the professor for any valid appraisal of the ponderous rational scheme of Being and Time.
I wrote a paper where this existential fact was mentioned and reflected upon. I received a C- for it. The comments of the professor chided me for straying from the concerns of Heidegger’s philosophy which had nothing to do with his private life and beliefs. In hindsight, that academic event of my life proved to be my first serious existential encounter with modern Western rationalism and its dichotomy intellect/life. It eventually led me to discover Vico and Lévinas.
Lévinas’ attack on what he considers negative elements of the Western philosophical tradition begins with analyses of the philosophical roots from which sprout the extreme individualism of modern times, and the reaction to it, extreme nationalism. Not unlike Vico in the 18th century, he individuates such a root in the Cartesian ego, an autonomous center of consciousness which in modern philosophy has assumed the function of a paradigm for thinking about human beings. Lévinas does not deny this world-constituting ego, rather he leads it to the discovery of an ethical core within itself; which is to say, he uncovers another root growing within the first root which he calls the “self.”
The conundrum seems to be this: if it is true that the ego does the conceptual work of philosophy by announcing what there really is in the world, how can this ego then acknowledge the essentially ethical “self” which lives within itself? Somehow a bridge has to be found between this limitless power and freedom of the independent intellect, and the particular concrete ethical obligations to another person. For, this ethical self, unlike the ego, finds itself caught up with the welfare of the other prior to a conscious, rational decision, in a recognition, even when unwilled, of his/her humanity.
Indeed this ethical capacity seems to come from another place than our rational powers of analysis evidenced within the Cartesian ego. Even if we grant that such an ego is adequate in identifying the truths of philosophy, it somehow remains unable to acknowledge a domain where there is no choosing of the connection with the other; in fact the other way around may apply: the other chooses me, one is “already responsible” for the other prior to any rational analysis.
And here is the philosophical paradox: Lévinas’ task becomes that of using rationality to take the Cartesian ego beyond rationality, somewhat similar to what Vico does with his concepts of fantasia, which for him precedes rational reason, and the concept of Providence who guides human events and is both immanent within history but also transcendent. Which is to say, the rational ego has to be brought to recognize a sort of enigmatic “ethical” truth which Lévinas calls “pre-originary,” i.e., arising outside, prior to the usual time-line of the reflective ego.
In attempting this operation, Lévinas will proffer statements such as: ethics is “older” than philosophy, it is “first philosophy,” on the scene before the arrival of rational philosophical thinking; something ingrained in being human. Within purely classical categories, that may be equivalent to the Socratic preoccupation with dying well by living a life of integrity and devotion to truth, as exemplified in Plato’s Apology. It is this ancient voice of goodness, which even Vico’s pre-historical “bestioni” possess to a degree, a voice often overlooked by rationalist philosophers, but powerfully present in Talmudic texts, that Lévinas finds strangely silent in the modern Western philosophical tradition.
In mytho-poetic language, it’s as if Lévinas were to come face-to-face with the goddess Europa, as she is being abducted by a black bull (Zeus in disguise), to journey to another shore, there to assume a different persona, and he were to ask her, “Europa quo vadis?” after warning her to remember her original identity: “nosce te ipsum”; which is to say, go back to the future and know yourself holistically: know your Greco-Roman origins, yes, but also the Biblical tradition (the foundation for Christianity), the Christian heritage, the Humanistic synthesis of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations, Celtic and Germanic cultures with their ideas of freedom, the universalizing Enlightenment rooted in the democratic-scientific tradition born in ancient Greece, the Islamic influences. Voltaire and Descartes yes, but Vico and Novalis too are part of your identity. Your unity will be a chimera if it is only a unity of a bank and neglects its spiritual elements.
Undoubtedly this hermeneutics, or re-interpretation of the Cartesian ego, placing at its core an non-refusable responsibility for the other without granting the ego any time to think it over and choose, so to speak, challenges some of the most basic assumptions of modern, and in some way classical, rationalistic philosophy. Not since the times of Mamonides in the 13th century had a Jew dared such a fundamental challenge from within the Western philosophical tradition. It is the challenge of Paul to Greek culture revisited. For indeed Lévinas is saying nothing short of this: the knowing ego does not exhaust what it means to be human. Some have called his philosophy one of “ethical subjectivity,” as a way of dismissing it as the raving of a lunatic, just as the ancient Greeks dismissed Paul in the agora. For the serious reader, however, it is rather a re-definition of subjectivity face to face with a totalizing kind of Cartesian reflection.
While Lévinas does not write directly about the Holocaust, other thinkers, who influenced Lévinas, were nevertheless reflecting upon the philosophical implications of this dark event of human history. One such was Berel Lang who wrote an essay titled “Genocide and Kant’s Enlightenment,” which appeared in his Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In this essay Lang uncovers certain lines of affinity between some classical aspects of Enlightenment thought, and the Nazi genocide. His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered “irrational.” Hence the racial laws and racial exclusion were expression of ingrained Enlightenment prejudices. Which is to say, the Enlightenment sheds light on everything except itself; it remains to be enlightened.
This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called “enlightened” era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?
This conjures up that terrible face to face encounter of Dante with the poet Bertrand Del Bornio in a cave in hell doing “light to himself” with its own decapitated head. There we have reason eating its own tail; internal logical thinking and assuming the grammar of lunacy. I dare say that such a question has not been satisfactorily answered yet. In that question lies the challenge of Lévinas’ philosophy: in its displacing of the centrality of Cartesian thinking within modernity, in order to re-center it around ethics: the face-to-face encounter with another human being which is always hopeful unless it occurs in hell.
Everything we have discussed above begs this particular question: is Lévinas’ challenge to the Western philosophical tradition philosophically tenable? To answer the question adequately we need to be first aware that Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig (the author of Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections in a Dark Time, 1988), are representative of learned European Jews with great familiarity with the texts of both the Jewish and the Western philosophical tradition. They challenge the latter exactly because they are so knowledgeable in both. Lévinas is fully capable of confronting the intellectual traps of those rationalists who would relegate him to the sphere of theology.
To the contrary, he insisted on writing in both spheres and claimed that Jewish religious textuality contains hitherto unexplored philosophical insights. For this is a tradition which puts great emphasis on interpersonal, social and familial relationships; phenomena not contemplated in traditional Western philosophy. Which is to say, the challenge is to Western philosophy’s totalizing pretense, beginning with Plato’s times, that it can gather everything up in one synchronic whole. It is that challenge that irritates control freaks, thought policemen, rationalists and mysologists galore. It goes a long way in explaining their attempt to relegate Lévinas’ philosophy to the sphere of the merely mystical.
Finally, let us briefly examine how Lévinas develops this fundamental challenge to Western rationalism. He names both the texts of Jewish tradition and philosophical discourse “the said,” while calling the living activity of interpretative struggle (its hermeneutics) with the texts, and the self which suffers for the other, “the saying.”
The said always tries to capture the saying, which may partly explain the ancient grudge of Plato towards poets (see Plato’s Republic, book X, on Homer). In any case, it is the saying which launches the said and puts it into circulation. The saying echoes outside of space and time destabilizing the comfortable, rationally secure positions rationalists take up in the said, in conceptual truths (thought to be universal and eternal), in a secure totalizing kind of knowledge.
Yet it is this very destabilizing process that injects the ethical outward-directness into the said. Lévinas will often contrasts the saying’s vulnerable openness to the other (which he calls “being ex-posed) with the said’s relative security (which he calls “exposition”). He asserts moreover, that there is a rich unexplored relationship between the way we are “ex-posed” in ethics, and the life “exposition” we use to analyze and order the world.
Indeed, this is a new, essentially Jewish, philosophical reflection which places into question the claim to totalizing completeness, by an appeal to the priority of ethics. It insists that any person that confronts me, needs to be placed outside the totalizing categories seeking to reduce her/him to an aspect of a rational system. Basically, what Lévinas is doing is relocating our dangerous ability to deny others their legitimate sphere of difference; an ability which is capable of destroying our own humanity.
This is nothing short than the core struggle for the achievement of moral humanity which was also the root ethical aim of Vico’s New Science. Like Vico, Lévinas shows us the way to keep the benefits of universal Enlightenment ethics while avoiding its perils. For, his ethics is not based on a totalizing sort of universalism, but on the particular concrete needs and demands of each unique individual, every “other’ that I meet within time and space. Every time I meet the other, she/he constitutes an ethical challenge to my self, a challenge as to who I am as a human being.
This kind of philosophy is a challenge to each one of us to go beyond nostalgic returns to Greek classicism, as important at that may be, in the understanding of Western Civilization; to establish intellectual-background-assumptions which are different from those of the Enlightenment; to search for urgently needed new cultural paradigms, new ways of thinking appealing to the priority of ethics and the importance of the particular as a category of thought, a place in thought wherein genocide and hatred of the other becomes inconceivable; in short to prepare new wineskins for the new wine which is a “Novantiqua Europa.”
P.S. This essay, in a slightly modified form has appeared in Ovi magazine some seven years ago and will be represented in an up-coming symposium meeting by the same.
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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