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There is no Europe without Russia

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“Leaders remain committed to the vision of a joint humanitarian and economic space from the Atlantic to the Pacific based upon full respect for international law and the OSCE principles.”

If one did not recognize it, this is a quote not from better times in East-West relations but from the Declaration of Minsk of February 12, 2015![1] This vision, to which I myself have been committed since the fall of the Iron Curtain and in particular during my work in the Council of Europe, is still alive[2]. Europe is a strange continent. Strictly speaking indeed, it is not a continent at all, but a mere peninsula tacked onto Asia. Looking at the map, Russia west of the Ural Mountains is either the base or the beginning of this peninsula. But – for its unmistakable cultural identity this peninsula has become an own continent, and Russia is without any doubt an indispensable part of it. Russia belongs to the family of the Slavic peoples which is one of the main linguistic groups in Europe and settling in the main areas of Central, South Eastern and Eastern Europe. Russian Orthodoxy forms an important part of European Christianity. Russian poets, composers, musicians, actors, painters, dancers have contributed to European arts and culture. And for example, St. Petersburg’sHermitage is one of the largest treasures of European arts.

But at the same time the main part of Russia belongs to Asia (although the vast majority of the population lives west of the Ural mountains), the whole territory of Russia is larger than the “rest” of Europe[3], and last but not least Russia is not only the legal successor of the Soviet Union but in many respects also the heir of its traditions including the one that in the times of the bi-polar world of the Cold War she was one of the two super powers. All this creates a special situation with regard to the process of European unification or cooperation.

Notwithstanding these aspects I would like to remind you that it was a Russian, of course at that time representing the Soviet Union who spoke in Strasbourg on July 6, 1989 to the Council of Europe the word of the “common home of Europe”, Mikhail Gorbatchev.[4] Russia made its strategic choice for Europe when applying for membership to the Council of Europe in 1992 and joining the oldest and most comprehensive European organisation in 1996. Only ten years later, from May to October 2006, Russia was leading the organisation by chairing its Committee of Ministers.[5]

Membership to the Council of Europe is not just a formality; it means commitment to the basic principles of the organisation, which transform Europe’s cultural identity to a political identity: pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The honouring of this strong commitment is monitored by the Council in several ways, by the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers, by special bodies like the European Anti-Torture Committee and above all by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The history of Russia and the Council of Europe is not without tensions and difficulties.

 

I know what I am speaking about. I was just elected President of the political group of the European People’s Party when the Parliamentary Assembly had to vote on the admission of Russia and the issue was very controversial in the group – the result of an indicative vote was just 50 – 50 and the second Chechen crisis or war started just after I took my office as Secretary General of the Council. During the first Chechen war the admission procedure for Russia was suspended and twice the voting rights of the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly were suspended, once because of the second Chechen crisis[6] and now again because of the Crimean crisis[7].

But there was also fruitful cooperation between Council of Europe and Russia, e.g. the setting-up of a human rights mission on the spot in Chechnya and my invitation to the hearing of the State Duma on Chechnya[8].

Russia has not yet finished its transition process which is not an easy task after 70 years of Communist dictatorship.There are still many features inherited from the past. There is an age-old mistrust of the State. The citizens feel suspicions for the State. And the state and its authorities in particular law enforcement agencies feel suspicious for the citizens and the civil society. This is the challenge of strengthening Russia as a modern State. This is also a question of the functioning of the Federation. The organisation of relations between the federal and regional levels of government is not an easy task in a state composed of 89 subjects. It has been an old saying that Russia is big and the Tsar is far away. Russia has to find its own way how to tackle all these challenges within the framework of democracy, rule of law and human rights. This is something which is not always understood in the so-called West including the European partners of Russia. But a strong civil society including vivid religious communities, an emerging middle class and modern grassroots’ political parties will help Russia to finally determine that way.

And there has been – long before the Ukrainian crisis – the question of the relationship of Russia and the European Union and in particular also with NATO. Turning (slowly) towards a political union, comprising 28 member states, already the majority of states in Europe with the majority of the population of the continent, the EU is tempted to consider itself as “Europe” and to act on behalf of Europe. But Europe is still larger, and notwithstanding the fact, that other countries too may join the Union, in particular the countries of South-East-Europe and also former Soviet republics like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are looking for EU-membership, Europe is still larger than the Union[9]. Also countries unwilling or unable to join the Union are part of Europe and have the right to be considered as equal partners in the European political concert. In particular regarding Russia the Union has to find the right policy. I would say it is high time after nearly a quarter of a century since the collapse of the Soviet Union[10]. In the 90ies, when Russia was in economic troubles, the Union had a tendency to patronize Russia, and some decision makers, old suspicions alive, where not unhappy with the situation. After the economic revival of Russia, in particular on the energy sector, old suspicions still alive, they have difficulties to tackle with the new reality. But despite diverging opinions on certain cases like Kosovo (between the majority of EU on one hand and Russia and the minority of EU members on the other!) there is no alternative to close cooperation between the European Union and Russia. I dare to say this being fully aware of the obstacles for closer cooperation because of the Ukrainian crisis.

In particular the Ukrainian crisis is proving the common responsibility of both for stability and peacein Europe. Responsible cooperation will strengthen the voice of Europe in a multi-polar world.

There is a lot of common interest. This is, e.g., the energy market. This is not only a matter of Russia as supplier and Western Europe as consumer. There should be the common interest of promoting renewable energy, climate protection and sustainable agriculture and forestry. In the globalization process, EU-Europe and Russia have quite similar interests towards the USA and the new economic powers as Brazil, China and India. And above all, after two terrible World Wars which devastated large parts of Europe including Western and Southern Russia there must be the common interest to preserve this continent for the future as an area of peace and democratic stability. Not only the Council of Europe to which Russia is a member-country but also the European Union, emerged from the Community for Coal and Steel, is first and foremost a peace project.[11] Russia should have an indispensable role in the peace project of Europe.

NATO, the trans-Atlantic military alliance, in Europe growing faster than the EU, is a more complicated case. NATO was the counterpart of the not any more existing Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. But NATO is not only still existing but expanding to the East including aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance. US’ “European Phased Adaptive Approach” or Missile Defense Umbrella with new missile bases and radar stations closer to the Russian borders creates suspicions on the Russian side and do not facilitate relaxed relations of Russia with NATO and had in my view a negative impact on “European-Russian” relations in general. It is too early to assess to what extend EPAA had an impact on the Russian position towards Ukraine after Maidan. Most of the member states of the European Union are members of NATO and regarding European security policy it is not easy to distinguish between the two communities. While one of the military alliances of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact, was dismissed, NATO still exists.[12]

European NATO members would therefore be well advised to give priority to genuine European interests including good relations with Russia without tensions.

In my opinion and that may sound today as a total unrealistic utopia, but it is my humble opinion, in the long run and of course after having found common ground and solutions of today’s crisis not even a membership of Russia to NATO should be excluded, turning the European part of NATO into a security system which guarantees peace and stability on the continent.

Currently we see of course a totally different but also ambivalent picture. The main players are sitting together in Minsk being fully aware of their responsibility and agree on a declaration from which I quoted at the beginning. But in Eastern Ukraine or as it is called by some people Novarossiya fighting and killing goes on. Each party is blaming the other not to stick to the Minsk agreement.

A few days ago the tragedy of the Maidan where more than 100 people, protesters as well as policemen, were killed was commemorated[13]. In my humble view no side at this time was without mistakes. The main mistake from the EU as well as from the Russian side was a misinterpretation of the Maidan. At the beginning Maidan was a civil society protest against corruption and mis-governance. The EU association agreement was not in the main focus of the mainly young people who made up the so-called Maidan. If the EU association agreement played a role it was the fact that in the eyes of the people the refusal of Yanukovich to sign the agreement which was adopted by the Verkovna Rada was just another evidence of his anti-democratic attitude. But Brussels made out of the Maidan the Euro-Maidan and Moscow a neo-fascist coup d’état.

What was totally ignored by the European Union in that moment was that Ukraine has not only one, but two big neighbors, EU in the West and Russia in the East, that Ukrainian economy needs good relations and good conditions with both neighbors and finally that Russia has understandable interests in Ukraine, regarding economic relations, the desire to protect the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine and last but not least strategic interests as the Russian Black Sea Fleet had no alternative to the naval base of Sebastopol.[14] And I do not ignore the religious or spiritual aspect as many Ukrainians obey to the Moscow patriarchate of the Orthodox Church.

What happened in Minsk in February 2015[15] therefore should have happened one year ago before. In my view a sincere tripartite dialogue – European Union, Ukraine and Russian Federation – could have avoided the deterioration which followed the Maidan events. Moves like the attempt of abolishing Russian as the second official language – although even many Ukrainians who do not consider themselves as ethnic Russians have Russian as their mother tongue – and even more serious to declare the agreement on Sebastopol as illegal in connection with open declared NATO aspirations raised the suspicion in Moscow that all this was part of an anti-Russian plot. Russia made mistakes too. To act as a kind of protector of the corrupt president of Ukraine, Yanukovich, was one, to declare the entire new leadership of Ukraine as neo-fascists and not to distinguish between the democratic majority and an extreme right minority was another one. The situation was serious enough to be dealt with at the highest level. It is certainly due to this lack of dialogue that escalation as well as an unwanted automatism took place. It is not the place to assess the events and developments which lead to the annexation of Crimea. That will be done in the future by historians.

But I dare to say as they did not talk to each other both sides have a joint responsibility for the events.

The Russian side justified the admission of Crimea among others with several violations of international law by the “Western” side and in particular with the case of Kosovo. But certainly a violation of international law cannot be healed by previous violations of international law in different cases. And the so-called referendum in Crimea was declared illegal by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to which Russia is a member, to the Commission and to the Council as well.[16] Now both sides have a big dilemma. The European Union cannot accept the violation of international law and the unilateral change of borders under military threat. For Russia it is a fait accompli, State Duma and President adopted the admission of Crimea to the Russian Federation and nobody expects a voluntary Russian withdrawal from the Black Sea peninsula.

It seems that both sides are trapped in the automatism of sanctions and countersanctions, in a kind of an economic war that nobody wants and which will not see a winner on the two sides. Sanctions are the result of an apparent lack of alternatives – as military intervention is of course excluded – but they do not solve the crisis, do not stop civil war in Eastern Ukraine, and do not bring Crimea back to Ukraine. And it is of course not in European interest to allow in Eastern Ukraine a kind of proxy war between “East and West”.

To avoid any kind of proxy war and to escape from the trap of escalation and automatism urgent – joint – steps for building confidence are necessary:

First step, both sides have to use their utmost influence on the parties in Eastern Ukraine to fully stick to the Minsk agreement, sending the message that there is no military solution, imposing an arms embargo on both sides.

Second step would be that EU and Russia agree on a list what has to be solvedthrough negotiations between the two parties, what must be solved inside Ukraine, that means between Kiev and the Donbass, and what must be solved between Ukraine and Russia including the Crimea case.

In a third step, Ukraine – knowing that the EU expects a peaceful solution with protection and promotion of minority rights and the local representatives of Donezk and Lugansk, knowing that Russia is neither supporting secession nor civil war, have to come together to find a sustainable compromise.

Russia and Ukraine should also take care of old and historic economic ties across the Eastern borders of Ukraine as in the times of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union they did not exist. There is a best practices example how to solve such problems arising from new borders. After World War I the Austrian county of Tyrol was divided between Austria and Italy. To foster the economic exchange of both parts of the divided country Austria and Italy agreed after WWII on the “Accordino”[17]. This “little treaty” allowed free exchange of many goods and also duty-free trade for many products in both directions.[18]  

I think that must be doable. It is a well-known saying that any crisis constitutes also a chance. EU and Russia can return not only to normality but to the implementation what I quoted at the beginning from the Minsk Declaration, the vision of a joint humanitarian and economic space from the Atlantic to the Pacific based uponfull respect for international law and the OSCE principles. And what was forgotten in Minsk, respect for the values of the Council of Europe, pluralist democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

Let me conclude. Europe and Russia – when did this story begin? In ancient times, when most of today’s peoples came through Russia to Europe? At the end of the Roman Empire when the migration of peoples started in Southern Russia? More than 1100 years ago when Christianity came to Russia? 300 years ago when Peter the Great declared St. Petersburg the new capital of Russia, allegedly as the “window to Europe”?

200 years ago at the Vienna Congress when the new order of Europe after Napoleon was set up by the main powers of Europe including Russia?

Russia was always a part of Europe and Europe’s historical and cultural identity would not be completewithout Russia’s contribution to it.

In the 21st century, after the tragic experiences of the 20th century, we have the chance for the first time to create a peaceful Europe without dividing lines. Regarding Russia, this is of course not a one way street. Both sides have to deliver.

But while Russia has to complete its transition to a member of the European family of democracies, the other part of Europe has to accept the new Russia as a partner with equal rights and equal opportunities.

One may ask whether this would also mean that Russia will become one day a member of the European Union. Who knows? Looking not only to the figures but also to political realities it is for the time being not likely. On the other hand, if Russia will fulfill the criteria and would apply, would “Europe” have the right to reject Russia?[19] In any way there is still a long way off.

However, it applies for the past, for today as well as for the future: There is no Europe without Russia, there is no Russia without Europe.

 


[1] Text of the Minsk declaration on http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2015/150212_Minsk-Declaration.html

[2] Walter Schwimmer, The European Dream, Continuum, London-New York, 2004

[3] Europe without Russia about 6,92 million sq. km, Russia 17,075 sq. km

[4] In his July 6, 1989 speech before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Gorbachev declared that the philosophy of the “Common European Home” concept rules out the probability of an armed clash.

[5] See Council of Europe – Activity Report 2006, Council of Europe Strasbourg 2007

[6] Report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the credentials of the delegation of the Russian Federation: http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-DocDetails-EN.asp?fileid=8839&lang=EN&search=KjoqfGNvcnB1c19uYW1lX2VuOiJPZmZpY2lhbCBkb2N1bWVudHMifHN1YmplY3Rfc3RyX2VuOiJjaGFsbGVuZ2Ugb2YgY3JlZGVudGlhbHMi

[7]Resolution 1990 (2014) Final version Reconsideration on substantive grounds of the previously ratified credentials of the Russian delegation http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-DocDetails-EN.asp?fileid=21538&lang=EN&search=KjoqfHR5cGVfc3RyX2VuOlJlc29sdXRpb258c3ViamVjdF9zdHJfZW46ImNoYWxsZW5nZSBvZiBjcmVkZW50aWFscyI=

[8]http://reliefweb.int/report/russian-federation/duma-discusses-chechen-situation-pace-lists-new-demands

[9]The government of Iceland just recently withdrew officially the application for EU membership, the people of Norway rejected by referendum membership in the Union and Switzerland refused by referendum even to join the European Economic Area. Armenia recently decided to join the Eurasian Union. Europe’s small countries, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican State, cannot afford the famous four freedoms, in particular not the freedom of movement.

[10] The European Neighborhood Policy, designed first in 2004, is proposed to the 16 of EU’s closest neighbors except Russia. EU-Russian relations are dealt with in the EU-Russia summit; the last European Union-Russia Summit took place in Brussels 28 January 2014.

[11]The first sentence of the preamble of the Statute of the Council of Europe declares that the members are convinced that the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilization; Article 3,1. of the Treaty of the European Union states: “The Union’s aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.”

[12] There is a NATO-Russia Council (NRC) as a mechanism for consultation, consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action. Because of the Ukrainian crisis NATO Foreign Ministers “have decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia…”, in a moment when cooperation and consensus-building would be more necessary and important than ever, see http://www.nato.int/nrc-website/en/articles/20140327-announcement/index.html

[13] There are still speculations about the responsibility for the killings on Maidan Square but no credible results of any investigation.

[14] On April 27, 2010, Russia and Ukraine ratified the Russian Ukrainian Naval Base for Gas treaty, extending the Russian Navy’s lease of Crimean facilities for 25 years after 2017 (through 2042) with an option to prolong the lease in 5-year extensions, but orally that was declared “illegal” by the new Ukrainian government after Maidan.

[15] The meeting of President Hollande of France, President Poroshenko of Ukraine, President Putin of Russia and Chancellor Merkel of Germany in Minsk on February 12, 2015.

[16]Venice Commission = European Commission on Democracy through Law. For the Opinion on the “All-Crimean Referendum” see http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD%282014%29002-e

[17] Italian, meaning „small treaty“ (accord = treaty).

[18] Through the Austrian accession to the European Union with its single market the Accordino became obsolete.

[19]Art.49 of the Treaty on European Union: Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union. The European Parliament and national Parliaments shall be notified of this application. The applicant State shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the assent of the European Parliament, which shall act by an absolute majority of its component members. The conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties on which the Union is founded, which such admission entails, shall be the subject of an agreement between the Member States and the applicant State. This agreement shall be submitted for ratification by all the contracting States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. The conditions of eligibility agreed upon by the European Council shall be taken into account.

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Exporting Religious Hatred to England

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A mob vandalised a Hindu temple in UK's Leicester. Twitter

Not a place hitting the main news channels often, Leicester is a small town of 250,000 inhabitants about a hundred miles north of London and 40 miles east of Birmingham the UK’s second largest city.

But an imported ideology is now the cause of religious violence that has profoundly affected Leicester’s ethnic community of South Asians.  This Hindutva ideology represents a belief in the transcendence of Hinduism and its culture.

Leicester prides itself as a city of tolerance and diversity where different religions and races all live together in relative harmony — a sort of ‘live and let live and mind your own business’ philosophy that had worked until recently.  But under the surface simmering tensions burst forth recently.  The trigger was a South Asia Cup cricket match between Indian and Pakistan held in Dubai and won by India.

Couple Hindutva with India’s win and groups of Hindu young men were keen to demonstrate their might, and did so on isolated young Muslims.  The latter then formed their own groups ready for revenge.

Where were the police one might ask.  Well, a couple of beaten up Asian teenagers did not register as exhibiting anything more than random teenage violence.  They were slow to react and did not discuss the ominous truth of religion as the prime mover behind the violence.

Civic leaders on both sides are now trying to quell the attacks.  But the damage has been done and the seeds of ill-feeling have been sown within the community meaning Hindus vis-a-vis Muslims and vice versa. 

India’s per capita GDP is higher than for Pakistan or Bangladesh, the two countries bordering it, which together constitute the subcontinent.  Thus the three countries are similar culturally.  The next question to ask is why then is India hugging the bottom on the 2020 World Happiness Report, next to ill-fated war-torn places like Yemen.  India is ranked 144 while its rival and neighbor Pakistan, although lower in per capita GDP, ranks a shocking (for India) 66.  Bangladesh also ranks much higher than India at 107, despite its devastating floods and typhoons.

Perhaps the answer lies in the pervasive hate that is the currency of the ruling BJP (Bharatia Janata Party), a currency spent liberally during general elections to the detriment of the Congress Party, which has stood for a secular India since independence.

But hate yields more votes as BJP leaders Norendra Modi and Amit Shah know well.  After all, they came to power via the destruction of the historic nearly five century old Babri Mosque, built on a Hindu holy site in an effort to ally Hindus by an astute Babur, the Mughal whose hold on India, just wrested from the Muslim Pathan kings, was still weak.  It worked for Babur then; its destruction worked for the BJP in the 21st century

Has India become more civilized since? 

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Giorgia Meloni: a return to Mussolini’s Italy?

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In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of far-right political parties across Europe. They have managed to use the widespread discontent from society with the values and functioning of democracy to establish strong footholds in many countries, including those that were thought to be immune to such radicalisation. The reach of the far right does not recognise boundaries, and it is not a new phenomenon either. It has had a considerable historical role in Latin America, in Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Myanmar, India, South Africa, Germany, Italy, the United States, and more recently in Turkey, Brazil and Hungary which have suffered serious damage to their democratic rules and institutions. It is in this context that the election of Giorgia Meloni in Italy as the possible next Prime Minister.

Italy has a long history with fascism and far-right extremism that has forever characterised Italian politics. Italy’s history after the WWII can largely be blamed for this slow but steady radicalisation of its political landscape. Unlike Germany that went through a serious process of denazification after allied victory, Italy was not cleared of vestiges of fascism. After 1945, and with the emergence of the USSR as a rival power, the allies focused their attention and efforts on fighting Communist USSR. Italy, surprisingly, had a considerable number of communist supporters, therefore fascism was seen as something positive in the fight of USSR ideology expansionism. Fascism was good to fight communism, and allies turned a blind eye to it, and the creation of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) in 1946 did not raise any red flags. The party managed to become the fourth largest in Italy in 20 years.

The woman who will become Italy’s next Prime Minister leads a conservative party that can be traced back to the MSI: The Brothers of Italy, whose logo revives the MSI emblem. Meloni´s victory should be read against the backdrop of recent triumphs for the far right elsewhere in Europe. In France, despite the loss of Le Pen in the presidential election, the share of popular vote shifted the French political centre to the right; in Sweden the Sweden Democrats are expected to play a major role in defining Swedish politics after having won the second largest share of seats at the general election earlier in September; the same in happening in Hungary and Poland.

This revival of far-right extremism is not new. The collapse of the USSR allowed formerly dormant far right movements to flourish. This resurgence should  also be understood as the inability of centre and centre-left parties to connect with voters, and to appear attractive. Italy’s recent economic crisis has made Italians particularly susceptible to anti-establishment ideas. Italy was one of the countries that suffered the most during the pandemic specially fairly early on: Lots of people died, a lot of businesses had to close down, Italy found it hard to get support from the rest of the European Union. Meloni and her coalition capitalised this discontent. Meloni has chosen to fight the same enemies as other populist leaders: the LGBTQ+ community; immigrants, the European Union, Muslims; former Italian leaders and multiculturalism. She echoes Mussolini’s natalist obsession; Volume Mussolini argued that the Western race was in danger of extinction by other races of colour, Meloni has focused on ethnic substitution, defined as the loss of Italian identity as a result of globalisation and uncontrolled mass immigration fostered by the European Union. This has translated into harsh xenophobic policies.

Meloni’s election ironically coincide with the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome in October 1922 that brought Mussolini to power. 100 years later Italians. May have elected its first woman to become a Prime Minister, while this represents a break with the past and it symbolises a good step forward in theory, she also represents one of Italy’s worst chapters in its past: Mussolini’s Fascism. Meloni was a former MSI activist, and she is likely to form a government deeply rooted in populism and fascism, are very dangerous combination for contemporary European politics. We should not also allow to be fooled by her election as a woman. She has followed a similar path to Marie Le Pen called gender washing. She has adopted unknown threatening image as a female politician to mask the force of her extremism. For someone who is not familiar with Italian politics, her victory could be read as the triumph of female empowerment and gender equality. Throughout her campaign, she posed as a defender of women, however, her party has rolled back on women’s rights, especially access to abortion.

Gender washing is particularly predominant among right wing parties, as they do a better job at promoting women. Women like Meloni and Le Pen Are protected by the elite, because they support, the very pillars of male power and privilege, these women very often behave in the same way as the men in power. Meloni’s slogan God, Fatherland, and Family echoes the man-dominated and conservative model dating back to the Italy of Mussolini in the 1920s. Meloni’s politics should become more important than her gender, especially as she does not advance women’s empowerment, on the contrary, her victory means a drawback for women’s rights in Italy. Meloni is simply one more far-right candidate that has made it to power.

This should be worrying for Europe as a whole. There has been a constant failure to address the growing threat of the far-right movement at national and on a European level. In recent years, we have seen a slow and steady shift of European politics to the right, and the normalisation of a less inclusive and more racist and discriminatory discourse. This shift to the right should be seen as a ticking time bomb for the pillars of democracy. The pandemic and the current war in Ukraine have not helped the case for democracy.

There are rising living costs in the continent that are undermining governments and European institutions, and making people feel less satisfied with the way their countries are handling these issues. Crises have always been excellent breeding grounds for extremism, whatever political ideology it is. People are more scared during a crisis, allowing the politics or fear to work, and swing voters towards far-right extremists in particular. People that are more likely to vote for far-right alternatives, favour certainty and stability amidst societal changes. Change is perceived as a threat to conservative voters. Under current conditions, there are enough real or perceived changes for extremist to put the blame on. This is one of the greatest paradoxes and dangers of populism and extremism: it often identifies real problems, but seeks to replace them with something worse, the slow and almost imperceptible destruction of democratic values, institutions, and liberties.

The irony behind this is that although populists are usually extremely bad at running a country, the blame will never be placed on them. Populist leaders consolidate support by creating enemies and dividing the population between “us” and “them”. Failure in public policies, inability to provide viable solutions to crises will never be attributed to their elected officials, but rather to the enemies they have decided to use as scapegoats. In this way, as populist governments are unlikely to solve crises, things will eventually worsen, and more crises are inevitable;  meaning more fear is  also unavoidable. This creates a vicious circle that provides populists and extremists with further opportunities for power.

If there is something to be learnt from the current shift in international politics to the right, is the fact that voting behaviour differs from country to country. All politics is local. Voters are influenced by charismatic leaders, local events, regional issues etc. However, when it comes to the rise of extremism, common ground can be found between countries: the existence of a political, economic, or social crisis. Some far-right narratives have been able to cross borders, namely, anti-immigration and white and male supremacism. The Europe of today may be very dissimilar to the Europe of the near future should far-right movement continue to attain power in most countries. Far-right populist parties are a pan-European concern that should be addressed if we want democracy to survive in the long run.

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What lies ahead for Meloni’s Italy

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Not many would have predicted that 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts marched on Rome, a leader claiming lineage from the same political ideology would ascend to power. Georgia Meloni is on her way to become the first woman Prime Minister of Italy, hailing from a party that emerged out of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). Her rise to power is as dramatic as that of the fascist dictator. Brothers of Italy, which Meloni founded in 2012, recorded a measly 4.3% of vote in the 2018 elections. In the four years since, the party has gained significant ground and is now set to win 26% of the vote in a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s  Forza Italia. With the right wing coalition coming to power, major shifts in Italy’s domestic and foreign policy are expected. But taking command at such a turbulent time will be a task easier said than done. Hence, it will be interesting to see what course Meloni’s coalition might take.

As things stand, Italy is edging towards a major economic crisis. The continued war in Ukraine has terribly affected Italy’s economic growth in the post-pandemic era. The rising prices of energy resources and supplies have held back household consumption, slowing the rate of recovery. The economic growth projection for 2022 stands at 2.5% while 2023 is estimated to see a further fall to a mere 1.2%. Italy’s debt crisis has also severely worsened with rising interest rates in the post-pandemic years. The national debt currently stands at about $2.9 trillion which is estimated to rise steadily, touching $3 trillion i.e. around 150% of the GDP by the end of 2023.

In her election campaign, Meloni has addressed these economic woes with a populist vigour. Meloni advocates for a protectionist stance. Her policies include a business-friendly dispensation, steep tax cuts for all, early retirement and amnesties to settle tax disputes. While the right-wing coalition manifesto pledges ambitious spending plans, Meloni has promised to keep the public finances in check. Key to keeping the economy afloat and achieving these targets will be the new government’s efforts to meet the reforms and targets agreed by the Draghi administration and the European Union to obtain the €750 billion Covid recovery and resilience fund. Meloni has already indicated that she will seek some changes to the agreed plans, making it a priority for her new coalition.

While Meloni will become Italy’s first woman Prime Minister, her case presents an example of weaponising women empowerment to further autocracy. Under her leadership, Brothers of Italy has rolled back women’s rights in the localities it governs. These rollbacks include making abortions harder to access. Her party’s slogan – “God, Fatherland, Family” – is reflective of their intentions of leading a patriarchal setup in the guise of a woman leader. With their coalition coming to power, it is likely that Meloni and her party will continue on the route of further cutting back on women’s rights and freedom.

The right-wing parties have stressed on the importance of Christian conservative familial values in their election campaign. This has resulted in vicious attacks on what Meloni calls “the LGBT lobbies” who have “harmed women and family by destroying gender identity.” Last year, Brothers of Italy and Lega blocked ratification of the Zan bill which sought to categorise violence against the LGBTQ+ community as a hate crime. The two parties opposed the bill, calling it unnecessary and against freedom of expression.

Another part of Meloni’s populist rhetoric are her claims of “ethnic substitution.” She has repeatedly claimed that Italian identity is being erased by the globalists and EU officials, who have “conspired” to unleash “uncontrolled mass immigration.” In the past, she has infamously proposed a naval blockade of the Mediterranean to stop migration to Italy. While the coalition has promised stricter border controls, blocking boat landings and establishing EU centres to evaluate asylum applications; they have also assured to regulate legal migration more smoothly, with initiatives to integrate recent immigrants.

Meloni’s stance on the European Union has been the highlight of her election campaign. While she no longer advocates for a complete withdrawal from the organisation, Meloni is vehemently against its current state of operations. “I want a Europe that does fewer things and does them better, with less centralism, more subsidiarity, less bureaucracy, and more politics,” she said. She has pushed for an ‘Italy first’ approach, countering the regional integration of the EU. Addressing a rally in Milan earlier this month, Meloni said, “In Europe they are a bit worried. The fun is over, Italy will start to defend its national interests, as others do.” Meloni has indicated her support for Poland and Hungary in their current ongoing dispute with the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. She has previously made her admiration of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban clear, calling him a ‘democratic leader’ in the face of stark EU criticism over authoritarian measures.

While Meloni and her coalition have been critical of the European Union, it is unlikely that it will lead to drastic changes in the Italian policy towards EU integration. The economic challenges that the new government finds itself in will largely affect its decision making. To obtain a much needed relief fund from the organisation, it is important for the coalition to agree to certain terms proposed by the EU. Hence, while they can be a bit more assertive in their approach, complete rejection of the EU is not on the cards.

However, Italy’s foreign policy is set to see new developments. Meloni has previously condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine, supporting sanctions against Russia and supplying weapons to Ukraine. “It is the tip of the iceberg,” she said, calling the conflict’s objective as “revision of world order.” Meloni has also been critical of China, condemning the country’s “economic expansion measures.” In 2019, Italy became the first major nation to participate in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a programme to expand Beijing’s economic outreach. Meloni has since criticised the pact as a “big mistake,” indicating that Italy will re-evaluate its stance on the pact under her administration. She has also been vocal about the Taiwan issue, calling it an issue of “essential concern for Italy.” She also described Chinese threats against the island “unacceptable,” calling Taiwan and Italy’s relationship a “sincere friendship.”

Giorgia Meloni is not so different from the Trumps and Bolsonaros of our world. She gained popular support on the back of economic failure under the previous administrations and emerged as the clear winner once Mario Draghi resigned following the economic and political turmoil. Meloni fills the void that the centre-left parties have failed to address so far. She has presented herself as a new alternative against an opposition that now seems much distant from the needs and aspirations of the people. Her populist rhetoric has only helped to further fuel her rise to power. Facing economic catastrophe for the longest time, the Italians now demand security and stability. However, her anti-immigration and anti-EU policies do not present an answer to the problems Italy faces. Her populist rhetoric is highly unfortunate and raises the threat for hate crimes in the future. Her authoritarian stance coupled with the ‘Italy first’ rhetoric will not fare well in the future. In deep economic stress, Italy needs to welcome immigrants who can actively contribute to their economy and stabilise the turbulent waters.

Furthermore, Meloni’s election presents a threat to the democratic system in Italy. The right-wing coalition is in a position to negotiate a constitutional amendment that approves the President to be elected directly by the people. Currently, the President is elected by an electoral college which was setup in 1948 as a measure to prevent the future possibility of a government takeover by the fascist forces. While the Presidency is a figurehead role in the country, Brothers of Italy have advocated for a more robust head of state with a popular mandate. This advocacy for “Presidentialism” may have grave repercussions for Italy’s democratic setup, making the President a politically motivated role which will severely affect the system of checks and balances in the present system.

It is difficult to say whether Meloni’s coalition will be able to weather the storm in the coming years but one thing that is certain is that this election is one for the history books where victors are set to write the fate of Italy, once again.

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