[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] G [/yt_dropcap]uy Verhofstadt, an insightful European liberal Parlamentarian and lawmaker, former Belgian premier and chief Brexit negotiator, has already sounded the alarm: World War III may already be in the making and the election of a Donald Trump portents it. He is convinced that a “ring of autocrats” is presently trying to wreck the EU and cites the presidents of Russia and Turkey and their counterpart Donald Trump who will soon be joining them.
He has also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “openly financing” populist and Eurosceptic parties while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan targets Turkish opposition members in Europe. He has also pointed out that Trump’s chief strategists Steve Bannon has hinted at plans to open new bureaus for his right-wing Breitbart News website in France and Germany in order to influence elections there. This may not yet constitute an international conspiracy to destroy EU values but the signs are surely there constituted by the three stooges, Putin, Erdogan, and Trump, who rather than constituting a ring of allies and friends of Europe cooperating with the EU (after all, two are in NATO, and one has applied for entry into the EU) are perhaps better characterized as a menacing ring of autocrats planning its demise.
Donald Trump, who soon will be the de facto “autocrat” (whether or not he thinks of himself as one such) of all the democratic forces of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) will soon have to face the dilemma of whether defending a Baltic NATO member against Vladimir Putin is worth sparking World War III, because that’s the choice that may eventually need to be confronted.
The war may be ignited in Latvia, or perhaps neighboring Estonia or Lithuania, the so called Baltic nations which, after Crimea, may well be next on the Russian bear’s hit list. They are former satellites of the Soviet Union, and are now NATO members. Under article five of the NATO alliance treaty all member nations are compelled to come to the rescue of a member threatened with invasion, no matter how small or insignificant that nation may or may not be on the world’s political stage. Such a stipulation, if adhered to, may well ignite World War III.
The omens are all there: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has claimed recently that he is proceeding with the mending of broken ties with Trump-led America, while he continues his firm support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And why shouldn’t he? After all, during the presidential campaign Trump expressed reservations about coming to rescue of any NATO allies citing financial problems. He also encouraged Russian hackers to delve in Clinton’s e-mails and reveal their content while keeping quite all along about the efforts of Putin to interfere and influence the US presidential election; something the strong-man of Russia has acknowledged and seems even to be proud of.
The question arises: will Putin invade any of the 3 tiny countries with conventional troops? Probably not, he doesn’t have to be that blatant. All he needs to do is incite civil unrest among ethnic Russians which are a sizeable part of the population (25% in Latvia alone). He may simply instigate a militarized crisis using deniable proxies. One way to do it is to have Russian-speaking Latvians or Estonians riot in the streets, protesting persecution, violation of their rights and demanding international protection.
Then a well-armed and well-trained ‘Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics’ will suddenly appear. Moreover, a few high-profile assassinations and bombings will ensue bringing the Baltics to the edge of a civil war or at least a low-grade insurgency. Then, voilà, Mr. Fix-all will enter the stage, first blocking an international peacekeeping force at the UN with his veto power, then intervening to settle the conflict in the interests of peace, of course! Have we not seen this movie before in Crimea? We know how it ends. Putin calls it “hybrid warfare.” It is an underhand technique which avoids conventional attacks and it involves militia not officially attached to a country’s force, ultimately justifying military intervention.
But, to return to the circle of autocrats, there is also China for the EU to worry about, for Turkey is actively looking into joining a Chinese-and Russian-led political, economic and military alliance known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as an alternative to joining the European Union, which has not been receptive to Turkey’s repeated bids for membership initiated way back in 1963.
France, Germany, and Belgium have long opposed Turkey’s accession into the EU. Erdogan’s reluctance to sign on to certain membership requirements, and his increasingly authoritarian leadership over Turkey, has also sparked concern among European leaders that he is not committed to a Western conception of human rights and civil liberties. The European Commission has warned Turkey that it is “backsliding in human rights and democracy” but Erdogan appears to merely scoff at the accusation with statements such as this: “From time to time, we see insults directed at myself, claims that there was no freedom of expression in Turkey, meanwhile, terrorists prance around in French, German and Belgian streets. This is what they understand of freedom.”
It is clear that Erdogan feels much more comfortable and at home among the authoritarian regimes of the SCO organization rather than facing the scrutiny and criticism of the EU. He knows full well that even just threatening to join the Shanghai bloc would rattle the West and “considerably broaden Turkey’s room to maneuver” as Erdogan himself has declared.
If Turkey were to actually join the SCO, it would be viewed as a rejection of the Western alliance, and make it incredibly difficult to include Turkey in any type of high-level strategic dialogue, given concerns about Russian expansionism. But it remains unclear, even to Erdogan, whether a closer alliance with Russia and China would benefit Turkey politically or economically. Erdogan has made those overtures toward Russia and China before but they failed to materialize. It may simply be a ploy to gain concessions and access to the EU which so far has been denied him. He wants the EU to be more forthcoming, especially since he has consented to help stem the flow of refugees trying to enter Europe. In some way Erdogan has already been successful. Over the summer, the EU agreed to pay Turkey €3 billion — and German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to speed up Turkey’s EU bid — if it pledged to harbor the vast amount of refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe.
Turkey’s possible entry into the SCO would also complicate its relationship with NATO. In theory, SCO membership would not require Turkey’s exit from NATO, but in practice, however, it would severely strain Turkey’s ties with other NATO members. Erdogan is reassuring in this respect. He told CBS that “Turkey is moving in the same direction with NATO that we have always done.” But at the same time Putin is making sure that the strains in the transatlantic alliance continue, for he knows that as a rogue and dysfunctional NATO ally, Turkey is a great advantage to Moscow’s devious policy of divide and conquer.
What his relationship to Trump and an America that is no longer seen as a stabilizer in NATO but a destabilizer, turns out to be, remains to be seen. The omens, however, are not good and the danger of a Third World War persist in a global atmosphere that has still to learn that a tone of cooperation is much more desirable than one of domination and competition; that social Darwinism will only insure that our planet becomes a social jungle with winners and losers. In the end, we all lose. We in the West ought to hope for the best but prepare for the worst that may be coming. Let those who have ears, let them hear.
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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