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Britain teeters closer to the brink of Brexit

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No one can foresee the political developments in the UK that will determine whether it stays in the EU or leaves. Anthony Giddens assesses the factors in play.

A flurry of articles and books suggest that Britain is on course to go it alone and desert the European Union – Brexit. Yet matters are nowhere near as clear-cut. ‘Brexit’ is a clumsy neologism, and it leads me to coin an equally awkward one of my own – ‘Bremain’, in which the UK stays in the EU and even contributes positively towards its evolution.

No one can say which of these is the more likely, as the backdrop in the UK, the EU and indeed the wider world is too volatile. The UK is heading towards a May 7 general election that is the least predictable in recent history. Neither the Tories nor the Labour Party has the support of more than a third or so of voters, while the country is itself in the throes of an identity crisis. Last September’s Scottish referendum on independence was supposed to settle the question of separation ‘for a generation’, but has instead stirred greater nationalist passions. Members of the Scottish National Party (SNP) could be in the UK’s House of Commons in substantial numbers after May, and may even hold the balance of power. All this has resulted in the emergence of identity politics elsewhere, with regional devolution rising on the agenda along with renewed stirrings of English nationalism.

“The eurosceptics are very clear about what they oppose, but not what they want instead. They must be pressed in debate to make explicit what they are for and what kind of Britain they envisage”

If Labour come to be in government, it would almost certainly be in a coalition. The party has ruled out a referendum on EU membership unless treaty change is involved, and its likely main coalition partners – the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – would doubtless endorse this. There is talk of a ‘progressive coalition’ between these parties, of which an important plank would be active support for EU membership. Labour’s backing for the European project has, in recent months, become much more open and positive.

It is equally possible that May’s election result is so inconclusive that any government formed will lack legitimacy and be short-lived. That might provoke even more rhetoric around Britain’s membership of the EU, but no in-out referendum could be introduced until after fresh elections. If the governability issue became unmanageable, there is an outside chance of a grand coalition between the Tories and Labour, such as in some continental countries. In that case, a referendum would be very unlikely.

There remains a possibility that the Tories are re-elected, probably needing support once again from one or more of the smaller parties. David Cameron would remain Prime Minister, but dependent perhaps on the support of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). That would mean great pressure for an early referendum. Yet UKIP’s own support is highly dependent on the appeal of its leader, Nigel Farage, so it is intrinsically fragile and might very well drain away come election time. It is just conceivable that in spite of all the political vagaries, the status quo is maintained with the Tories back in power in coalition with their current partners, the Liberal Democrats. In that case, an EU referendum would certainly become problematic as the Liberal Democrats are strongly pro-European.

“The eurosceptics have been far more assertive in putting their case forward than have supporters of Britain’s continued membership, and it’s a bias that has to be corrected”

Most discussions of Brexit start from the point in which the Tories are back in power, with a clear mandate for a referendum. Although this may very well happen, it is far from a foregone conclusion. But if it turns out to be the case, what is likely to ensue? David Cameron’s commitment to an EU referendum doesn’t seem in the least bit driven by conviction. It is, on the contrary, almost wholly pragmatic. He came to power in 2010 determined to stop the Tories from, as he put it, ‘banging on about Europe’. He was unsuccessful, in part because once the euro crisis took hold he found himself subject to increasing pressure from the eurosceptics in his party.

In January 2013, he was driven by the need to appease them, and in effect offered a deal embracing his Tory eurosceptics on the one hand, and his European partners on the other. To appease the former, he held out the prospect of a referendum by 2017 and, although vague on the details, coupled this to reforms in the EU. To try and get other European leaders on board, he promised to campaign for continued British membership, but in return demanded that they would accept at least part of his reform agenda.

“There is much talk in UK media and elsewhere of ‘whether we should stay in the EU’, but it’s not clear who ‘we’ is. Euroscepticism is more an English phenomenon than a British one, and varies regionally within England”

He succeeded in neither. Rather than gaining support from the rest of Europe, he took an assertive, bullying approach that had the opposite effect. Although he hedged his ‘deal’ with reservations and qualifications, it was still too pro-European for his party’s right-wingers, whose anti-EU agitation if anything increased.

For all these reasons, Cameron’s position shifted once again for political considerations rather than anything to do with principle. Driven by the increasing success of UKIP and coupled with growing disquiet among some sectors of the public, immigration rose sharply up the UK’s political agenda. So much so that it became almost the sole basis of Cameron’s attempts at renegotiation with EU partners.

That’s where matters now stand, with no clear resolution in sight. Other European leaders have made it clear that the principle of freedom of movement for EU citizens is inviolable. And there are unlikely to be any concessions that would demand treaty changes, so if there were to be a deal it would have to be limited in scope, and perhaps even confined to welfare benefits, not least because most aspects of welfare in fact remain in the hands of the member states. What David Cameron has not made clear, meanwhile, is whether in the event that he doesn’t get what he saw as a satisfactory offer he would actively campaign for leaving the EU.

“The outcome of a referendum would plainly be affected by events in the UK and beyond. Perhaps crucially, what happens in the rest of Europe could have a major impact”

Should there be a referendum, the outcome is as difficult to call as the results of May’s general election. Most observers see it depending mainly on the deal he and his fellow European heads of government might come up with. But I myself don’t think so. Matters are likely to be far more complex than that because of the diversity of the factors in play. Cameron is likely to remain caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whatever deal is reached it will not be enough to assuage the passions of Tory eurosceptics; he has to be seen to ‘talk tough’ to his European partners, yet progress with those partners depends on conciliation and dialogue.

There is much talk in UK media and elsewhere of ‘whether we should stay in the EU’, but it’s not clear who ‘we’ is. Euroscepticism is more an English phenomenon than a British one, and varies regionally within England – it is not the majority view in London, where most surveys place Britain’s relationship with the EU quite low down among voters’ concerns, even if a majority also believe that a referendum on membership would be desirable at some point.

The outcome of a referendum would plainly be affected by events in the UK and beyond. Perhaps crucially, what happens in the rest of Europe could have a major impact. The UK has returned to growth, even if its rewards are hardly being equally shared and no one can say whether it will last. Elsewhere in the EU, a few states are performing well, but overall the risk of stagnation looms large. Will the interventionist policies now being put in place bear fruit? A return to a healthier overall economic environment across Europe would almost certainly have a positive impact on an unfolding referendum debate in Britain, but the reverse also applies.

Referendums are, on the face of it, among the most effective forms of democratic decision-making. In some senses that’s true, yet experience from around the world also shows they are far from free of problems and uncertainties. The outcome of a referendum can be strongly influenced by transient events of the moment, while much depends on the precise wording of the question being asked.

The Scottish referendum result seemed all the closer because the question was ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ rather than ‘Should Scotland remain part of the UK?’ Those who favoured change somewhat perversely became the ‘Yes’ campaign, which normally carries an advantage because of its positive overtones. There was little debate in Scotland about the issue of wording, but that’s highly unlikely to be the case with an in-out EU referendum. There could be an almighty battle about the wording, and also about whether a minimum turnout should be set for the result to stand. It seems unlikely that turnout will get anywhere near the stratospheric 80%-plus in Scotland. There is also the question of who would get to vote; UKIP has said that only British citizens should take part.

I am myself a pro-European. I want Britain to remain in the EU and to play a positive part in shaping its future. That’s the outcome that is plainly in the interests of the Union as a whole. Britain may have long been among the more awkward so far as the rest of the EU is concerned, but if it were to leave that would greatly diminish the Union’s standing economically and geopolitically.

Let us suppose that there’s going to be an in-out referendum in the UK. How, in that case, should pro-Europeans seek to influence the debate? The implications of leaving the EU must be brought home to the public. Brexit would be a huge leap into the unknown, very different from the eurosceptics’ rosy portrayal of a nation set free. Britain would be out of the EU, but still within its orbit. Its destiny will remain irretrievably European, the same being true of Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. Most of Britain’s trade would continue to be with the EU, but not under conditions that it could directly influence. The notion that the UK could turn to the Commonwealth, or suddenly spread its trading net far and wide, is a whimsical fantasy. There are, after all, no real barriers to doing so at the moment, and it has not happened. Germany now has a proportionately higher level of trade with India than does Britain.

A Britain outside the EU would not magically regain its sovereignty, for the term is meaningless if it can’t be defined as a nation’s real control over its own affairs, not simply paper rights. In today’s increasingly interdependent world, Britain has more influence as a member of the EU than it would otherwise, even when in some cases it is acting alone. The United States would clearly start to bypass Britain if it were outside the EU, and so too would other major states around the world.

To prosper, the country would have to be almost the diametric opposite of the image portrayed by UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage – a nation turning back to the 1950s. It would have to be more outward-looking and cosmopolitan, and of course be more open to immigration. The possibility that it is Scottish and Welsh votes that might keep Britain in the EU if there is a referendum is very real. If, though, Britain as a whole voted to quit, the Scots would this time probably decide to break away and seek to join up with the European Union.

Eurosceptics make a great play of the “burden” of bureaucracy imposed by EU membership. Yet viewed dispassionately, membership almost certainly reduces rules and regulations rather than multiplying them. And from trade right across to security, a country outside the Union would have to negotiate separate deals with countries inside and outside Europe, as well as with Brussels. Switzerland and Norway are in precisely this situation, and whatever advantages they might get, freedom from bureaucratic entanglement is not one of them.

If it turns out there is a UK referendum, there’s a range of possible Brexit and Bremain scenarios. First, there’s the ‘sleepwalking scenario’. Either because it is a rushed affair, or because the public remains largely indifferent, Britain leaves the EU without most citizens having understood what is at stake. Then there is the ‘wide awake’ scenario in which after a full and informed debate with a high turnout, the country nevertheless exits the EU. Scenarios for remaining in the Union range from ‘somnolent acceptance’ in which the majority of voters remain largely disengaged, but nevertheless vote to stay in, to the ‘positive endorsement’ one that sees a full and informed public debate, a high turnout and a clear vote to stay in. The last is obviously the best-case Bremain scenario in which citizens are more fully informed than before and are persuaded of the positive benefits of EU membership.

Some of the more vocal eurosceptics might be happy with the sleepwalking scenario, but by any token it is contrary to the public interest. It could only be justified by minimising the level of risk and readjustment that Brexit would involve, and by ignoring acceptable democratic process. Pro-Europeans might be satisfied with the ‘somnolent acceptance’ scenario, but again that would hardly be in the country’s best interests. Should the ‘wide awake’ scenario unfold, pro-Europeans obviously could not contest it, even though – because of the Scotland factor – the country that leaves may no longer be the UK. The key question for those who want Britain to stay in the EU is, therefore, if and how something close to the ‘positive endorsement’ scenario can be achieved.

“There are a good many pro-European groups across the country. They should suspend their differences and get together to shape the membership debate”

Right now, nobody can say whether Britain will stay in the EU; there are too many contingencies in play. What pro-Europeans can and should do is start preparing now for a possible referendum. To do so, a lot of innovations are needed. There are a good many pro-European groups across the country, of various persuasions in terms of what they see as the best models for the future evolution of the EU. They should suspend their differences and get together to shape the membership debate. The eurosceptics have been far more assertive in putting their case forward than have supporters of Britain’s continued membership, and it’s a bias that has to be corrected. Also, many of Britain’s leading europhiles are ageing, so up and coming younger figures must be found who can command attention in the public debate – and as far as possible they should span the political spectrum.

The eurosceptics are very clear about what they oppose, but not what they want instead. They must be pressed in debate to make explicit what they are for, what kind of Britain they envisage and how the country would, on its own, resolve the cluster of problems it would face. Exactly the same applies to pro-Europeans, as the Bremain campaign would have to be about far more than just a vote to stay in. It would have to be coupled to positive ideas about reform of the EU and Britain’s contribution to shaping those reforms. The question of British exceptionalism would also have to be faced up to, since unlike almost all other EU states the UK is not even formally on track to join the eurozone.

In pre-referendum campaigns, the role of the BBC would be crucial in promoting a full and fair debate. It is likely to come under enormous pressure from all sides, and if a referendum were to be held early on in the life of the next government, it could coincide with the renewal of the BBC’s Charter, itself a highly contentious and partisan issue. Strong leadership would then be needed from within the broadcasting organisation to ensure its impartiality. Britain is unlikely to be polarised in the way Scotland was during its referendum struggle, but there are nevertheless quite fundamental differences of outlook in play. It would certainly be far removed from the muted, low-key affair of the 1975 referendum that confirmed Britain’s membership. If it takes place, it will play out against a backdrop of increasingly fractious divisions within the EU, and of the national and regional fractures that now mark the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

 

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Europe’s World. Reposted per author’s permission.

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Taking For Granted … Be Wary

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The title of these comments is inspired by my personal experience in important areas of public policy both as a politician beginning in the 1970s and more recently as Secretary General of the OECD from 1996 until 2006. That was a very important decade as it ushered in the period which some day we thought would be known as the beginning of globalization on a grand scale.

When I took up my responsibilities in Paris at the end of May 1996 it was a time brimming with  optimism about the great future ahead for our children and generations to follow! We were about to say goodbye to one of the most brutal and bloody centuries in human history. Physical human suffering was compounded by poverty and misery of hundreds of millions, especially in the developing world.

Many of us involved at the international level in public policy saw major opportunities to address challenges which had eluded us in the past. Indeed we took a great deal for granted and I must confess that I certainly did. Why? Here are a few examples and the reasons for taking so much for granted.

  1. We had just witnessed major geopolitical restructuring in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union had collapsed and we assumed that the threat of nuclear war had disappeared with it;
  2. With the replacement of the GATT the ( WTO) we took for granted the exciting prospect of global free trade and investment, which would bring economic growth and rising prosperity everywhere, but especially to the developing world. We expected “trade” not “aid” to be the route out of third world poverty;
  3.  The expansion of the proven Marshall Plan formula to regions fractured by division and conflict. We took for granted that such approaches could bring peace to the war torn Balkans and perhaps even to the Middle East and  the Arab World;
  4. We took for granted that with the publication  of the Brundtland Report “ Our Common Future” on Sustainable Development  followed by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, followed by the commitments in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the decades long stalemate of slowing green house gas emissions (GHGs) (and therefore global warming) had been broken  and that multilateral international commitments would ensure the protection of the biosphere and its natural capital;
  5. We took for granted that improvements to the stunning success of healthy capitalism through universal principles of good corporate governance, supported by an Anti Bribery Convention, would control the greed inherent in the undue exploitation of unfettered capitalism.  We took for granted that the wealth and wage disparities would narrow, especially in the United States;
  6. We witnessed the remarkable rise of the European Union (EU) uniting former enemies. We took its expansion and global role for granted. Regarding the EU,  I often quote a paragraph from the preface of A History of Europe by H. A. L Fisher, a warden at Oxford University in the 1930s. He wrote: “[No] question [would be] more pertinent to the future welfare of the world than how the nations of Europe … may best be combined into some stable organization for the pursuit of their common interests and the avoidance of strife“;
  7. We also took for granted the gradual spread of democracy and democratic institutions into the former countries of the Soviet Union and elsewhere in central Europe, South America and Asia;
  8. Early misgivings about the ideological bent of  Recep Erdogan as the Prime Minister, and then President of Turkey, were dispelled as he initially seemed supportive of good governance, freedom of the fourth estate, free speech  and democratic principles. We believed him and took for granted that the remarkable reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, would ensure the survival of a secular democratic Turkey;
  9. We took for granted the United States as a lone global superpower, magnanimous and fair, the first true united nation with people drawn from all corners of the planet to its robust democracy and unlimited opportunities.

As we look back over the past 25 years it is obvious that much too much was taken for granted. Given that so few of the opportunities we assumed would bring the world to a much better place were seized by my generation, what do you perceive as a better way forward? When we open that discussion in a few minutes, I hope I have convinced you to take little for granted. Be wary, if not skeptical, about those who foresee only a prosperous and peaceful future for this wonderful planet.

We need to remind ourselves of the following and address the questions I raise in our general discussion.

1. We failed to engage Russia with the West and as a result are now strengthening NATO in an effort to contain Putin’s aggressive behaviour. History may show this to be the most egregious of all Western public policy failures in the post-Soviet Union period because of its impact on other areas of global concern where Russia should have been a partner. Is it too late to recover from a failure to engage Russia despite the Russian adventures in Crimea and the Ukraine?

2. The EU is increasingly fragile, with concern about the future of the euro common currency and the EU’s capacity to deal with massive immigration from the war-torn areas of the Middle East. Do the weaknesses of the EU reflect a too rapid expansion without strengthening institutions which would move it toward a more federalist structure promoted by the Spinelli group?

3. Tensions have grown between China and its neighbours over territorial disputes, convincing the United States to pivot from its European focus and increase its military presence in Asia. Does this refocussing plus a strengthening alliance between China and Russia herald the reigniting of another Cold War like the one my generation grew up with?

4.Now many more nations( and possibly terrorist groups) have access to nuclear weapons. Does that greatly increase the possibility of a 21st century nuclear war?

5.The global free trade agenda is in the doldrums with the failure of the Doha Round and the concomitant rise of protectionist rhetoric, especially in the United States ,at the highest political levels. Does this mean that global free trade is now beyond reach?

 6. Is the prospect of eliminating poverty in the developing world through trade and investment  dying?

7.Reductions in GHG emissions, especially CO2, but also methane, continueto elude us after decades of effort, showing how ineffectual the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process has been and will be. The widely heralded but unenforceable Paris Agreement in the context of a history of failures is even dangerous because much of the public thinks our leaders have come to grips with this challenge (as we all did after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997). Do they do not realize that even if the agreed upon targets are achieved they are not sufficient to keep global temperatures below the level that the scientific community tells us is necessary to prevent dramatic and irreversible climate change?Is there resistance to developing a Plan B as a last resort to prevent unacceptable global warming? Solar radiation management , a form of geo engineering, seems to be broadly under consideration. Is that good or of concern? As areas of the world may become uninhabitable, will there be mass migration from areas of the developing word to more temperate climates?

8. For those who believe in democracy and perceived it as beginning to take root after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union do subsequent developments undermine the confidence that many democratic governments may be in retreat?  In some countries, such as Thailand, there has been a return to a military dictatorship. In others, such as Russia and other countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, there is only a pretense of democracy with rigged elections, as in Belarus. There also appears to be backsliding in Turkey, a very important global player and a bridge between Asia and its historic Western allies. The situation in Turkey, which held such promise only a decade ago, is very worrisome. President Erdogan seems increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism and dissent. Failure of this democracy could be a sad, even tragic, development. Turkey is a major regional and global power, and through the influence of Atatürk it became an emerging secular democracy with a majority Sunni population straddling Europe and Asia. Atatürk showed the world what individual leadership supported by ethical standards could accomplish in a short period of time.

9. Is the world faced with a growing number of autocratic strongmen who would prefer to destroy the important international infrastructure if it constrains their personal ambitions? It would appear that when one combines the far east, parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand etc, more than 50% of humanity is or will soon be governed by “strong men“. With few exceptions such as Ataturk, history shows that such people have only one interest “me”.

President Trump gives every indication that he is anxious to join the ranks of these strongmen, initially by withdrawing the United States from the central role it had played through visionary leadership by building and helping to maintain the post war international and institutional architecture. His slogan “America First” should be interpreted for what it really is, namely, “Donald Trump First”.

There is a disquieting commentary in the New York Times of 16 December 2016 entitled “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy” by Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University. Here is an excerpt:

“Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? … Past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival … Our research points to several warning signs.

The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. Drawing on a close study of democracy’s demise in 1930s Europe, the eminent political scientist Juan J. Linz designed a “litmus test” to identify anti-democratic politicians. His indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments. “

Mr. Trump tests positive on all counts. In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters and pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton;

He haspage213image41232512page213image41225792page213image41222912threatened legal action against unfriendly media, and continues to suggest that he might not accept the election results saying the election will be rigged. If he loses will he in some way resist leaving office?

Since his 2016 election he has not changed his attitude on any of these issues.

David Frum, a Conservative and traditional Republican and a senior editor at the Atlantic published a book two years ago “Trumpocacy- The Corruption of the American Republic”. It has recently been released in paperback with a new preface by Frum which reviews the appalling record of this individual to whom Americans have entrusted the leadership of the most powerful nation in history.

In a concluding paragraph of the book he writes….” President Trump is cruel, vengeful, ignorant, lazy, avaricious and treacherous…”

Later he adds: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can be your finest hour as a citizen and as an American”

Today I cast Frum’s challenge to each of you in a global perspective rather than just American.

Yes, democracy can be fragile everywhere.

 We who live in well-established democracies must never be complacent or smug about the success of our societies. The comments of the Harvard professors above echo that concern.

Our democratic societies and their political systems must adapt to a rapidly evolving world. We are increasingly in that global village through forces of globalization amplified by communication and transportation technologies.

In line with the work of Charles Darwin, it has been said that “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The same could be said of democratic governments and even empires.

What happens next to global free government is up to your generation of leadership. It is a humungous challenge, especially in countries where the seeds of democracy have never been planted or where they have enjoyed short life spans, Thailand and especially Turkey come to mind.

The future of democracy across the globe could be destroyed if the autocratic motives and moves of Donald Trump succeed, as they well might if I read the current political climate in the United States correctly. Despite shortcomings which need correction such as the unfortunate influence on elections through Super Pacs, the United States has been perceived for years as a remarkable democracy which others attempt to emulate. This may be about to change as it is increasingly viewed as government by the rich, of the rich and for the rich, and Trump does not appear to feel constrained by the institutional checks and balances of the constitution. He could put American democracy on the terrible path to an autocratic state which he seems to admire, especially in the Russia and Turkey of today.

In summary, what looked to be a promising future in all the major areas of concern in the 1990s has evolved into what could best be described as an economic, social, and geopolitical mess. But as bad as that story is, we have succeeded in making the future even more problematic with the arrival of global terrorism.

My generation must recognize the extraordinary failures of the past decades. Your generation must do better.

It seems that efforts to create consensus on major issues amongst many sovereign nations does not work. Is there not a better way forward in global governance? This is the last question I leave you with.

Have 190 counties not offered proof  of the impossibility of finalizing an international and binding free trade agreement known as the Doha Round, or as almost 200 countries have done in their efforts to find consensus on concrete solutions to address the challenges of climate change. Neither set of efforts, the first initiated through the WTO process and the second through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, has delivered the results sought and it is unlikely they ever will.

Is starting small and gradually broadening an international consensus a better option? The EU successfully evolved from a small base but has it expanded too rapidly to consolidate and build upon its remarkable and successful beginnings? Even the G20 may be ineffectual because of size and economic and social diversity.

Does the difficulty of building broad consensus on these issues suggests that a structure more resembling the UN Security Council would be more effective? Could the Security Council itself with a limited membership of powerful countries become a global steering group and replace the G-7 process?

Whether we like it or not, each major power has spheres of influence over smaller regional powers through shared history, culture (sometimes language), and trade and investment.

When we compare human and societal evolution to a relay race one generation must pass the baton on to the next. In a small way that is what I am saying to you today. I hope our discussion will touch upon a number of these important and often controversial issues.

We have fallen behind in many respects in the early years of this 21st century, perhaps even forfeiting many of the hard-earned benefits of good capitalism and democracy to an ever increasing number of corrupt strong men and autocratic regimes.

Is that the future?

Remember the words Shakespeare attributed to Brutus:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

I am persuaded that the latter may be our fate. We did not take the flood of opportunities at hand in the 1990s. Is it too late to recover through hard work, sacrifice and creativity in restructuring global governance for a better world.

What should we do? What can you do?

It will depend to a large extent on your personal values which I hope have not been irreversibly warped by admiration for the material success of greed and visible wealth of the famous 1% who dominate power and politics in the USA and increasingly elsewhere.

I have described the state of the world today as analogous to the fireplace at my country home. It is usually fully loaded with tinder, kindling and dry wood. All it awaits is a match. Unfortunately, in the world today there are many matches waiting to be lit and spread their deadly destruction to regions, if not the planet as a whole.

*This text is exclusively made as supplementary for a university lecture held on 28 OCT 2020. It is a part of the so-called ‘Geneva Lecture Series – Contemporary World of Geo-economics’, concepted and considered by prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic for the Swiss University in Geneva.

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Economic situation is EU citizens’ top concern in light of the coronavirus pandemic

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In a troubled period marked by the coronavirus pandemic, trust in the EU remains stable and Europeans trust the EU to make the right decisions in response to the pandemic in the future. In the new Standard Eurobarometer survey released today, European citizens identify the economic situation, the state of Member States’ public finances and immigration as the three top concerns at EU level. The economic situation is also the main concern at national level, followed by health and unemployment.

In the new Eurobarometer conducted in July and August, concern about the economic situation is reflected in the perception of the current state of the economy. 64% of Europeans think that the situation is ‘bad’ and 42% of Europeans think that their country’s economy will recover from the adverse effects of the coronavirus outbreak ‘in 2023 or later’.

Europeans are divided (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’) regarding the measures taken by the EU to fight the pandemic. However, 62% say they trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future, and 60% remain optimistic about the future of the EU.

Trust and image of the EU

Trust in the European Union has remained stable since autumn 2019 at 43%, despite variations of public perceptions during the pandemic. Trust in national governments and parliaments has increased (40%, +6 percentage points and 36%, +2 respectively).

In 15 Member States, a majority of respondents says they trust the EU, with the highest levels observed in Ireland (73%), Denmark (63%) and Lithuania (59%). The lowest levels of trust in the EU are observed in Italy (28%), France (30%) and Greece (32%).

The proportion of respondents with a positive image of the EU is the same as that with a neutral image (40%). 19% of respondents have a negative image of the EU (-1 percentage points).

In 13 EU Member States, a majority of respondents has a positive image of the EU, with the highest proportions observed in Ireland (71%), Poland and Portugal (both 55%). In 13 other Member States, the EU conjures up a predominantly neutral image for respondents, with the highest proportions observed in Malta (56%), Spain, Latvia and Slovenia (all 48%).

Main concerns at EU and national level

Citizens mentioned the economic situation as the most pressing issue facing the EU – over one-third (35%) of all respondents, a strong increase of 16 percentage points since autumn 2019, and rise from third to first concern. Concern about the economic situation has not been this high since spring 2014.

Europeans are also increasingly concerned about the state of Member States’ public finances (23%, +6 percentage points, the highest level since spring 2015), which moves from fifth to second place on a par with immigration (23%, -13 percentage points), the latter now being at the lowest level since autumn 2014.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, health (22%, new item) is the  fourth most mentioned concern at EU level. The issue of the environment and climate change has lost ground, down 8 percentage points to 20%, followed by unemployment (17%, +5 percentage points).

Similarly, the economic situation (33%, +17 percentage points) has overtaken health as the most important issue at national level, rising from seventh to first position. Although in second position, health has had a notable increase in mentions since autumn 2019 (31%, +9 percentage points), taking it to its highest ever level over the past six years.

Unemployment has also increased considerably in importance (28%, +8 percentage points), followed by rising prices/inflation/cost of living (18%, -2 percentage points), the environment and climate change (14%, -6 percentage points) and government debt (12%, +4 percentage points). Mentions of immigration (11%, -5 percentage points), are at their lowest level for the past six years.

The current economic situation

Since autumn 2019, the proportion of Europeans who think that the current situation of their national economy is ‘good’ (34%, -13 percentage points) has declined considerably, while the proportion of respondents who judge this situation to be ‘bad’ has increased sharply (64%, +14 percentage points).

At national level, a majority of respondents in 10 countries says that the national economic situation is good (down from 15 in autumn 2019). The proportion of respondents who say the situation of their national economy is good ranges from 83% in Luxembourg to 9% in Greece.

The coronavirus pandemic and public opinion in the EU

Europeans are divided on the measures taken by the EU institutions to fight the coronavirus outbreak (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’). However, a majority of respondents in 19 Member States is satisfied with the measures taken by the European Union institutions to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The highest positive figures are found in Ireland (71%); Hungary, Romania and Poland (all 60%). In seven countries, a majority of respondents is ‘not satisfied’, especially in Luxembourg (63%), Italy (58%), Greece and Czechia (both 55%) and Spain (52%). In Austria, equal proportions of respondents are satisfied, and not satisfied (both 47%).

However, more than six Europeans in ten trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future (62%). The most frequently mentioned priorities for the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are: establish a strategy for facing a similar crisis in the future and develop financial means to find a treatment or vaccine (each 37%). 30% think that developing a European health policy should be a priority.

Europeans’ personal experiences of confinement measures were very diverse. Overall, close to three Europeans in ten say that it was fairly easy to cope with (31%), while a quarter say it was fairly difficult to cope with (25%). Finally, 30% say that it was ‘both easy and difficult to cope with’.

Key policy areas

Asked about the objectives of the European Green Deal, Europeans continue identifying ‘developing renewable energy‘ and ‘fighting against plastic waste and leading on the issue of single-use of plastic’ as the top priorities. More than one third think the top priority should be supporting EU farmers (38%) or promoting the circular economy (36%). Just over three in ten think reducing energy consumption (31%) should be the top priority.

Support for the Economic and Monetary Union and for the euro remains high, with 75% of respondents in the Euro area in favour of the EU’s single currency. In the EU27 as a whole, support for the euro has increased to 67% (+5).

 EU citizenship and European democracy

A majority of people in 26 EU Member States (except Italy) and 70% across the EU feel that they are citizens of the EU. At a national level the highest scores are observed in Ireland and Luxembourg (both 89%), Poland (83%), Slovakia and Germany (both 82%), Lithuania (81%), Hungary, Portugal and Denmark (all 80%).

A majority of Europeans (53%) say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU. The proportion of respondents who are ‘not satisfied’ has increased, by 3 percentage points since autumn 2019 to 43%.

 Optimism for the future of the EU

Finally, in this troubled period, 60% of Europeans say they are optimistic about the future of the EU. The highest scores for optimism are observed in Ireland (81%), Lithuania and Poland (both 75%) and Croatia (74%). The lowest levels of optimism are seen in Greece (44%) and Italy (49%), where pessimism outweighs optimism, and France, where opinion is evenly divided (49% vs 49%).

Background

The ‘Summer 2020 – Standard Eurobarometer’ (EB 93) was conducted face-to-face and exceptionally completed with online interviews between 9 July and 26 August 2020, across the 27 EU Member States, in the United Kingdom and in the candidate countries 26,681 interviews were conducted in the 27 Member States.

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Could the EU Make its ASEAN Breakthrough with the Emerging Indo-Pacific Strategy?

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The Indo-Pacific policy guidelines that was announced by the German Federal Foreign Office last week, is a clear signal from Berlin in becoming a shaper for the international order in the volatile region. Entitled “Germany-Europe-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”, the policy guidelines is the second of such document in the European Union (EU) after the Macron administration released its own Indo-Pacific strategy back in August 2019. But considering that Germany is the current president of the EU Council, this policy guidelines has been ever more significant. For one, Berlin has made clear its intention to lead Europe into this new Indo-Pacific charge as the ‘third power’ after the US-led coalition and China ⸺ an aim that is highlighted not just by this German government’s policy guidelines but also, incisively described by the French as the ‘mediating power’.

The release of such document, of course, reverberates different responses from political observers outside of Europe. For instance, Sebastian Strangio sees the German latest move as part of Europe’s reassessment of its approach to China and boldly predicts that other EU nations are to follow suit with their new stand on China. Prominent Filipino expert, Richard Javad Heydarian, meanwhile, is of the view that Germany’s pursuit as the shaper of international order is deliberately focused on the key regions which bear strategic importance to Europe overall. On the other hand, Xin Hua, adopts a pessimistic view on the ability of Europe to influence the Indo-Pacific region. With Berlin’s policy guidelines, the Chinese scholar sees Europe’s reliance on soft power (such as norms diffusion)to influence the Indo-Pacific region, in contrast to the US that projects its hard power in the region through military prowess in the region, will make it less than what it aimed as the shaper of international order.

Be it applause or skepticism, the observers are in the same view that Berlin’s latest move is a drastic shift from its previous ambiguous position on the Indo-Pacific region which has become the hotbed for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision pushed by the US and its military allies such as Japan and Australia. With this policy guidelines in place, it signals the seriousness of the German government in joining the Indo-Pacific region with the rest of the EU, as a third power that is independent from the US camp and China. What is left is the forming of a full European-level Indo-Pacific strategy and its implementation in the years ahead.

The ASEAN Context

In the ASEAN context, Germany’s move has created two questions that are worthy to ponder. First, how will this emerging Indo-Pacific strategy be different to Europe’s current cooperation policy toward ASEAN as a whole? This is the foremost question to ask among ASEAN member states as the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy  guidelines singled out the Southeast Asian bloc as the country’s focused cooperation partner in different areas of cooperation: climate change, marine pollution, rule of law and human rights, culture, education, science, trade and technology. That said, this is not the first time ASEAN appeared as the important partner for the EU.As a matter of fact, two-way cooperation has been ongoing since the establishment of dialogue relations in 1977.

As of 2020, two EU-ASEAN Action Plans have been agreed upon, implemented and in the middle of enforcement. Within the Action Plan (2018-2022) that runs through the year 2022, a myriad of cooperation areas has been outlined, spanning across political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars. In particular, those areas of cooperation identified in Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines are within the trans-regional plan as well. What is new is that Berlin has set security policy as a special focus area for Indo-Pacific cooperation ⸺ a point that is emphasized by the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas in his press release following the announcement of the country’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines. In line with such niche orientation, Germany can readily lead the European initiative to assist ASEAN in the two sub-areas of non-traditional security that do not have substantial cooperation but chiefly important in the coming months and years: cybersecurity and public health security. These two sub-areas will be the best start for the EU’s Indo-Pacific push in the ASEAN region.

Second, how will the EU’s Indo-Pacific approach be different from its current dogmatic approach in its cooperation with ASEAN? By all means, it is no secret that dogmatic adherence to rules and norms remained to be the greatest obstacle for the EU’s full amelioration of ties with ASEAN in the past years. As of today, the EU’s ban of Indonesian and Malaysian imports as well as its unease on Filipino President Duterte and Burmese junta’s human rights records, are the contentious issues that prevented the European bloc to go past its finishing line in negotiating a full free trade pact with ASEAN. From such case alone, it is clear that the European bloc’s normative stance predicated upon Brussels’ strictly defined rules, norms and values on climate change and human rights issues, is in play when comes to international cooperation with ASEAN.

Having said that, Germany’s latest Indo-Pacific policy guidelines do not precisely highlight of its normative stance apart from maintaining the international rules-based order in the volatile region. But on the other hand, Germany’s aim for the EU to become the shaper of such order also sparks an open-ended question of whether its strict adherence to rules, norms and values (as in the present) will continue to be the defining feature of its cooperation with ASEAN. From the Indo-Pacific policy guidelines, this question is yet to be answered by the German government and perhaps, this dilemma is to betackled in the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy. Should a pragmatic approach is adopted by the EU ⸺ as has been recently demonstrated by the conclusion and enforcement of the EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement despite human rights concern in the ASEAN member state ⸺ it will definitely clear the normative obstacle for the eventual conclusion of a free trade pact with the Southeast Asian bloc. More than that, it stands to facilitate greater cooperation in all areas of partnership between the two regions.

All in all, the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy should need to address these two questions that have surfaced fromthe former’s past and current experiences with ASEAN. While the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines have set new tone to Europe’s engagement with the volatile region, such document has yet to tackle these two difficult questions. Only by tacklingthese two questions will the EU be able to make its much-needed ASEAN breakthroughwith the emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.

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