More and more frequently one reads articles analyzing the sad geo-political situation of the European Union and proclaiming its eventual dissolution. The argument usually goes something like this: the center of the union simply does not hold.
There are too many centrifugal forces at work. The idea of a United States of Europe is a preposterous chimera or utopia which will never come to pass. The nations comprising it are too culturally and politically disparate. A bureaucracy residing in Brussels is unwilling or unable to salvage the situation which becomes more and more anti-democratic, leaning to the right and toward a rabid kind of nationalism; which is to say, the good old days are on their way back and right in the middle of the citadel we have the Trojan Horse: the likes of the Europarlamentarian Le Pen (who supports the likes of Donald Trump) ready and willing to assume the helm of the crisis.
What makes possible the above apocalyptic scenario is the political paradigm underpinning it. It is usually comprised of mere economic criteria. While admitting that the Union originally brought about economic prosperity and well being, at least for the well do countries and individuals improving the general condition, they will refrain to ask the primary crucial question which ought to be asked and probed; namely this: if the polity was conceived as a union, what exactly is the cultural glue that ought to hold it together. Is one available or possible? In other words, what does it mean to be a European? Its’s a question of identity which is hardly ever debated.
The situation is similar to that of Italy in 1860 when finally the nation became a united nation from the Alps to Sicily. There was a patriot by the name of Massimo D’Azeglio who pointed out the Achilles’ heel of such success and it was not that it had taken too long (some 300 years) since Machiavelli advocated the unification of the country (misguidedly claiming the ancestry of the Romans, later also claimed by Mussolini), neither was that the methods to achieve it ought to have been less nationalistic and less Machiavellian, but that the Italians had constructed a polity without pondering what it was that would keep them together within it as Italians; which is to say, the cultural glue may not have been well thought out. So he coined a slogan, later adopted by the de facto prime minister of the new nation under a Constitutional Monarchy, Benso de Cavour, that “now that we have made Italy we need to make the Italians.”
The cart had effectively been placed before the horse and the not too surprising result was that you now had two Italies: North and South with a growing economic divergence pretending to be one united country, so that one million Italians (including my own grandfather) had to emigrate to the Americas or to Australia at the end of the 19th century. I dare say that this paradox of a united Italy divided in two economic spheres has never been sufficiently reflected upon. Similarly, the paradox of a united Europe divided in two economic spheres with little cultural glue and identifiable common values to keep the 26 member states together in harmony, is still waiting to be dealt with. Now that the first nation has left the Union and others are contemplating the same move, the question naturally arises: have we made Europe and neglected to make the Europeans, or at the very least pose the question of identity “what does it mean to be a European?”
To better understand the present crisis one needs to envision a Frankestein monster sick in bed with many health experts trying to revive it. Considering the monster that he is, that eventually he will turn on his own creators, one wonders if all those who are trying to revive are wise or foolish. Don’t the ones who advocate his demise look wise? Of course they do, unless, unless we change the underlying paradigm by which the union is usually explained.
Let me submit some sundry observations and reflections which may shed some light on the paradox of a union, or a Frankenstein monsters that foments divisions in the name of a union. Let us begin with a quote from the 2004 report in the European Policy Center in Brussels wherein Dr. Jocelyne Cesari, a senior research fellow at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) located in both Paris and Harvard University has this intriguing quote: “Europe is the only part of the world which has a general hostility toward religion. Europeans tend to explain every sign of backwardness in terms of religion…The European tendency to equate Muslim religion with fanaticism—already present in Voltaire’s “Mahomet, of Fanaticism (1745), still lives on.” She goes on to trace this tendency to the Enlightenment era, which leads one to wonder if the Enlightenment needs to still enlighten itself.
And yet, I dare say that religion may well be best overlooked remedy for the recovery within Western civilization of a lost cultural vibrancy and the sense of the transcendent. The symptoms of such a loss are the observable despair and cynicism, boredom, and a general despondent nihilistic attitude among the young generation; a generation which has all the technological gadgets imaginable to play with, but believes in precious few values. I’d like to suggest that the loss of humanistic modes of thought within Western civilization may well be due to the fact that we live and have our being in a wholly horizontal, immanent culture which misguidedly assumes that it is possible for Man to live by bread alone, and has considerable difficulty in imagining a social paradigm that goes beyond material prosperity, scientific formulas, manipulation of nature and society and a Machiavellian real politick paradigm.
The paradigm of heroic materialism which is so prominent in Marx’s ideology (and is often accompanied by state atheism) has turned out to be not so heroic after all; the emperor was in reality naked. Even a Putin would admit as much nowadays although he is cynically manipulating religion (Russian and Greek Orthodoxy) for his own political ends as a good Machiavellian and former KBG agent. He would probably acknowledge that the Marxist ideology did not create the famed “workers’ paradise on earth.” To the contrary it created untold misery, but now he wants to re-Christianize Europe under the hegemony of the Orthodox Church and save it from its secularism which forbids minarets and religious garb, promotes soccer games on Sunday and forbids the voice of religion in the public agora reducing it to a private affair. The People’s Republic of China is now embarked on the same materialistic experiment; it has joined the rat race with the West. Materialistically speaking it has been doing rather well. Déjà-vu?
It seems to me that the very first question that needs to be raised on the above mentioned issues is this: What is the cause for this reluctance within Western development thinking to bring in the same field of vision political and religio-cultural components? A preliminary consideration could be that the myopia in this regard is due to the fact that modern Western Civilization, beginning with Descartes’ rationalistic philosophy, and the subsequent advent of the industrial revolution, has opted for a system of cognition and a structure of knowledge which is partial and incomplete, clever by half so to speak, in as much as it privileges the socio-economic component at the expense of the spiritual.
The result of this reductionism leads development specialists to function as one-eyed giants, purveyors of science bereft of wisdom. They analyze, even prescribe and act, as if human destiny can be stripped down to mere material dimensions. Science is seen as what makes this paradigm possible. Trouble is that it truncates the holistic humanity of Man by failing to integrate its three realms: the spiritual, the intellectual, the material.
It may be appropriate here to pause for a reflection upon the high rate of suicide in developed countries. It is quite interesting that Finland, for example, has the highest rate in Europe for attempted suicides in 1989, as per the latest available statistic. World-wide, Finland had 37.2% of all attempted suicides in the world, which is to say 314 over 100,000 people per year. Those rates are much higher in Europe than in Asia. They suggest a nexus between suicide and hopelessness which has little to do with mere material prosperity. More specifically, they hint at four things:
1) that material abundance may be less essential than the presence of meaning in one’s life; that people lose even the willingness to survive once they have lost the meaning of their destiny (See Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl)
2) that ultimately, a meaningful existence is the most basic of human needs
3) that awe and mystery and a poetic vision are as integral to human existence as rationality and material comfort
4) that the future prospects of the human species depend upon internalizing an essentially religious perspective able to transform what is by now the dominant, materialistic, secular outlook.
It would be enough to read a book such as Jeff Haynes’ Religion in Third World Countries (1994) to become convinced that indeed most people in developing countries derive their primary source of meaning from religious beliefs, symbols, and mysteries. They sense that no Marxian ideology or promise of material paradise will ever abolish life’s tragic dimensions: suffering, death, wasted talents, hopelessness; that to insist that it can be accomplished with material prosperity alone in a valueless society, is to trivialize life itself.
Moreover, the sociologist Peter Berger in analyzing the link between modernity and secularization arrives at this conclusion in his book titled A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992): “there are vast regions today in which modernization has not only failed to result in secularity but has instead led to reaffirmations of religion … It may be true that the reason for the recurring human outreach toward transcendence is that reality indeed includes transcendence and that reality finally reasserts itself over secularity” (pp. 28-29). An intriguing question which cannot be settled by facile caricatures of religion (which begins with Voltaire) as the promoter of ignorance and obscurantism, not to speak of the proverbial “fear of the gods” of Lucretius.
A similar judgment is expressed by Ramgopal Agarwala, a World Bank officer, when he declares in an essay which appeared in Friday Morning Reflections on the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (1991) with the title “A Harmonist Manifesto. Hindu Philosophy in Action”, asserting that “A society based on harmonism will be more than just a ‘sustainable society.’ There have been many primitive societies which were sustainable. Instead, it will be a sustainable society, with a cutting hedge at spiritual advancement that will provide the excitement that has been so painfully lacking in recent years. Spiritual advancement is the antidote to the boredom that lies just below the surface of many of the ills of the modern world.” This echoes Dostoyevsky’s insight that if one places Man in a wholly deterministic universe, he will blow it up simply to prove that he is free.
So much for the theory; the more challenging task in a world with a pervasive secular outlook, is to promote development in practice, while respecting religious and indigenous values. The first pitfall that needs to be avoided is that of treating values in a purely instrumental fashion, as means to goals outside the value system in question. This is the equivalent of using religion to engineer popular compliance with a modernization program. A better stance is the non-instrumental one that begins with an abiding respect for the inner dynamism of traditional values serving as springboard for modes of development which are more humane then those derived from outside paradigms. This is more desirable because indigenous values are the matrix from which people derive meaning in their lives, a sense of identity and cultural integrity, not to speak of the experience of continuity with their environment and their past.
In this regard, let us take a close look at an appropriate example derived from the Islamic religious tradition. Because the Qur’an condemns interests as usury, Islamic banks neither pay interests to depositors nor charge it to borrowers. Since banks need to operate as viable economic enterprises in a modern world, one may wonder as to how they are able to solve this conundrum. They simply spread the risks flowing from their borrowing and lending. They receive a share of the profits earned by their borrowers and pro-rata shares of these profits are then distributed to depositors. This is a clear example of how a religious norm can alter a modern practice, instead of the other way around.
The next difficulty is the identification of those secular matters that already exist within religion as such. This is not an easy task, since the time of Marx’s stigmatization of religion as “the opium of the masses,” ushering in secular atheistic humanism. To be sure, an anti-religion stance was already in place within Western civilization with the advent of Cartesian rationalism and Voltaire’s idolization of reason ushering in rampant rationalism, but the anti-religion stance became more intransigent with Marx’s above statement; since then those who consider themselves “enlightened” tend to look upon religion as inimical to a secular humanism which claims to overcome man’s religious alienation. That is a caricature of religion in general and Christianity in particular but many have misguidedly thrown out the baby (religious faith) with the bath-water (religious corruption and fanaticism). They usually end up grinding an axe against religion making it the scapegoat for many of the failures of the post-modern rationalistic mind-set.
As is well known, Marx contended that it is such religious alienation that turns Man away from the building of history on earth and the acceptance of ‘inevitable progress’ as contemplated in Hegel’s philosophy of history. He denounced religion on the grounds that it abolishes history by making human destiny ultimately reside outside of history as a sort of pie in the sky. Another caricature if there ever was one. For him Christian humanism was nothing short of a fraud and an oxymoron. Perhaps the French surrealist poet Andre Breton expressed this philosophy best when he branded Jesus Christ as “that eternal thief of human energies,” not to speak of Nietzsche’s outlandish view of the same. In effect this is the challenge of secularism to religion, the hidden agenda of the eventual elimination of religion as such, often ambiguously disguised as “clear separation” of the secular from the sacred, or as “strict neutrality” on religious matters. More often it comes out of a biased slanderous caricature where the facts are cavalierly distorted and selected.
In facing this challenge religion needs to answer this crucial question: Can it supply men and women of today with a convincing rationale for building up historical tasks within a humanistic philosophy of history, while at the same time bear witness to transcendence? In order to answer this question one needs to analyze the secular commitments which all authentic religions already implicitly advocate. Teilhard de Chardin did that for Christianity in insisting that matter and history matter, that evolution does not contradict creation that building the earth is the responsibility of every human being. He once compared a contemporary pagan with what he called a “true Christian humanist.” The former, he said, loves the earth in order to enjoy it; the latter, loving it no less, does so to make it purer and draw from it the strength to escape from it. But the escape is not to be construed as an alienating flight from reality, but rather as the opening, or the issue which alone confers final meaning on the cosmos.
This is the basic difference between an Epicurus and a St. Francis of Assisi. They both loved the world but the first proposed a closed, deterministic immanent world or one based on an eternal return; the other proposes a world with windows to the transcendent tending toward what the ancient Greeks called a telos, or an ultimate purpose. That distinction is crucial. To discern it better, all one needs to do is look around at modern Europe to realize that indeed Epicureanism, since Lucretius, is alive and well in the West: there, soccer games are much more popular than Sunday worship. The rather convenient scapegoat for this phenomenon is usually to blame the “corrupting” pragmatism and materialism of American popular culture. Ironically, some 60% of people in the US worship on Sunday, compared for 25% in Western Europe, which is not to say that merely going to Church makes you a genuine Christian.
In any case, De Chardin insisted all his life that it was a Christian duty to build the earth and history, to contribute to the solution of pressing secular tasks dealing with justice, wisdom, creativity, human development, solidarity, peace, ecological balance, as penultimate responsibilities and goals to be achieved right here on earth. Another example of the commitment to secular values implied in Christianity is the concept of “liberation theology” which embraces the struggle for a more just world that better responds to human needs; fostering the building of history, in other words, without forgetting the witness to transcendence. A creative tension between the immanent and the transcendent needs to be kept together; not unlike the horizontal of a cross (the historical) intersecting the vertical (the transcendent).
What we have argued so far may intimate, at least to those with open minds, that it is an extraordinary mistake to assume with Marx that development is incompatible with religion, just as it is a great mistake to assume that democracy is incompatible with religion. This is especially so today, when most religious institutions allow for, even encourage, “religious freedom.” I suggest that if one manages to overcome those unfortunate, stereotypical modern notions originating in the so called “age of reason” which some secular humanists have reduced to caricatures parading as ideas, one may be surprised to discover that a respectful dialogue between religious values and social development plans, usually proves beneficial to both.
In the final analysis the greater challenge today is not that of secularism to religion to become more tolerant, but that of religion to secularism to become more holistic and humane, to open itself to a greater gamut of values, thus leaving history and human endeavors open to the transcendent. Without transcendence one remains stuck in the immanent and the material but the material is only one component of human nature, the intellectual and the spiritual ought to be accorded at least the same importance if the aim is to live according to one’s nature. Alas, unless that lesson is re-learned, all the so called technical progress of the modern West may turn out to be a pseudo kind of progress and a pseudo kind of democracy. Indeed, as long as we refuse to change our misguided assumptions and paradigms, the crisis of the EU will remain inevitable.
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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