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The Role of Europe in the Balkan region’s geopolitical crossing

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] G [/yt_dropcap] eopolitics, the study of how spatial dimension impacts on and affects states’ politics, may offer an important contribution to analysing strategies suited to developing rail infrastructures beween Italy and the Balkans.

The Balkan idea sets and fixes the concepts and definitions between real and ideological, so as to generate a counterposition of geographical and geopolitical concepts.

While in some cases the term “Balkans” does refer to a mountainous system, in others the definition tends to stretch to indicate the peninsula, or an area of chronic instability, a Europe powder keg or Continent underbelly, to the point of being used to decline a value judgement (consider the expression “Balkanization”, a paradigm used in other geographical contexts characterised by political instability.)

The peculiarity of this space, which was for centuries a vehicle for great migrations, wars, traffic and cultural exchange, is provided by its physical form, which made it a fault, or point of contact, between different areas (Western and Eastern), religious and cultural models (Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and orthodoxy), as well as between two opposing economic models. The Balkans, observing a map, further present a triple “personality” in short distances: Mediterranean and maritime along the coast, Central-European in the Southern plains, Balkan in the continental mass. The ethnic mosaic, another concept linked to the Balkans, seems, then, to represent a sole aspect linked to a wider context, characterised by being complex and fragmentary.

The counterpositions and tensions distingishing this area, crossing and subject to external yearning, differently renewed each year till today, appeal to long-term factors in European history, but mainly to insular, peripheral peculiarities and peculiarities of the closed spaces characterising them. These conditions actually made it hard to create and develop a proto-national awareness based on territorial consciousness deriving from urban, borgeouis culture. In contrast, the varied stratification of urban cultures have given rise to various identifying paths, on which Balkan nationalisms, mainly characterised by elements such as ethnocentrism and xenophobia, were built. Affermation of new nations was actually based predominantly on the glue of purification from elements foreign to the natural Group. Such nationalist drives, on which foreign powers ambiguously weave cultural and geopolitical influence so as to erode definitively the authority of the Ottoman Empire and the institutional base it set up, will turn the Balkans into an area for European powers’ rivalries to clash (interposed). In the same way one may remember how the unification of the Balkans was only possible with intervention by the Sultan’s foreign power. One may indeed state the history of these territories, proceeding in the same direction as geography, characteised by complexity and diversity, reinforced certain peculiar traits such as diffidence towards the State, reinforced cultural identities and weak territorial attachment, mainly linked to the field of the small natural region.

Such phenomena reappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of great multinational entities (the dissolvement of the USSR and Yugoslavia), which led to new races to fill empty spaces, hence giving rise to Yugoslav secession wars, which were – not by chance – situated on the ridge of a great geopolitical transition.

Europe – in some way agent for intervention in the US area to follow its own strategic interests – failed to take concrete action, and this not only hindered the search for a solution, but also furthered the existing conflicts, until one may call the area a “geopolitical hotbed”.

All this went on while the Community in Europe was trying to find a common market and negotiate the Maastricht Treaty to create an Economic_Monetary Union. So this crisis created a threat for the European constituting order, and also represented a failed chance for Europe to show it exists and can act as a great power.

It is clear that if the policy of a dynamic era like this one can exploit the evolved communication system so as to spread or compromise spaces and adopt names, concepts and strategic doctrines that do not correspond to previous geography, it still cannot change geography itself, or what man accumulated on the land for millennia, from an urban, economic, infrastructure, ethnic and political point of view.

Indeed, each strategic representation cannot ignore the powerful bonds created by geography and history. In our age’s geo-history, the “Balkan hinge”, whose borders often divided historians, refers to an idea of a firmly delineated area rather than a great geographical region (is the natural border the Balkan chain or the Danube? Do Rumania or Slovenia belong? Turkey and Greece?) and occupies a European area represented by countries that entered the EU or are have been nominated to. For simplification, this area’s central core may be represented by the triangle of Belgrade-Thessaloníki-Sophia. Under the strictly geopolitical profile, one may state even today the Balkans do not constitute a unified system, but they are very fragmented in both North-South and East-West directions. With the exception of Slovenia, and partly Croatia – for historical reasons tighly linked to Central Europe – the region may be subdivided into Western, Southern and Eastern Balkans. The first area is geopolitically characterised by the contrast between Serbia and Croatia to spread its influence to Bosnia and Herzegovina; the second by the Albanese issue and influence from Greece; the third has special features and is formed of States bathed by the Black Sea.

Europe has, then, the duty to integrate this area by a development and regional interconnection strategy that focuses on a solid infrastructural transport network, a tool that is fundamentally important in that it is suited to facilitate and raise economic interexchange and the cultural “contaminations” necessary to yield that European spirit of belonging, useful to create consolidated continental awareness, embryo for true, structured political union. Trans-Balkan circulation (consider the Danube axis, or Via Egnatia, the Ljubljana-Belgrade axis, and Istanbul therefrom) historically represented an element able to unify the region’s various populations, in contrast to country and state atomising, favouring creation of an integrated whole, unifying the Balkans and linking them to the world. The circulation networks, then, represent a fundamental element, especially in this era of multi-pole geopolitical transition.

It is actually true that planning any infrastructural system can hardly ignore the global geopolitical and geoeconomic picture, even more so in the current context, where continental infrastructures constitute an essential moment for economic rebirth, able to affect both technology modernisation processes and foreign policy stability. In this regard it is important to refer to the fact that it is no accident the economic power developed recently by the Chinese colossus is supported by a series of strategic infrastructural projects useful for accompanying, protecting and raising the Country’s expansion capacity. This certainly involves the great “New Silk Way” project for land and sea, devised by Peking with the main aim of moving China close to the rest of the Euro-Asian continental mass and the Mediterranean, and also developing the inland zone, lagging behind the coastal strip.

But not only China, also other players like Russia, India, Iran and countries from Africa, ASEAN and Latin America are moving to create new communication paths.

So in the face of ths activism, experienced globally, it is good for the European front to also approach a development and regional interconnection strategy via a solid infrastructural transport network to involve all Europe and, most of all, the Balkan area. This could arise by simulating innovative initiatives to promote public – private partnership (obviously, no integration form may be painless, and to be held legitimate it must be based on consensus and acceptance by local governments).

This means the development of corridors becomes essential. For Italy in particular, corridors V and VII carry high strategic importance. Corridor V is especially important for Po Valley – Veneto outlets to the North-East. Primarily for the Trieste – Budapest route, which is central to the interests of Austria and Germany, which obviously have the understandable wish to keep intact all the Street and rail traffic using their networks, not least with regard to traffic from Southern France, the Iberian peninsula and Southern Switzerland. These flows would actually be interrupted by Corridor V, should it present better conditions than the current ones. It must also be added that improved transborder links with the Balkan area could also encouage concrete, real stabilisation and integration thereof with Europe’s Western part, freed from the (currently latent) danger of terrorism and crime. Continuing current instability would actually consolidate the proliferation of organised crime and terrorism, making the Balkan fault even more fragmented and unstable and creating an irreparable break with the sparkling Asian area which is living a period of unstoppable growth and expansion.

We must then focus on fully developing the concept of “network” to focus on creating full vertical and horizontal integration of the Europe system. This links could encourage mitigating this fragmentation which, as the opening foresaw, distinguished the history of this region, which could instead reproduce land for opportunity instead of conflict, representing at the same time an element to support Greater European integration.

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Europe

From Davos to Munich

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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

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Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect

Alina Toporas

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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.

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Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?

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Photo by Mateo Avila Chinchilla on Unsplash

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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