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European identity – once again

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Is there a European identity? No, there is no such thing. That would be a snappy answer, but it would not be completely true. It is instructive to analyze this question thoroughly: Why does a European identity not exist? Will there ever be one?

Despite the myriad of European models, common cultural traits and traditions, it is impossible to define Europe and ”Europeanness” with precision [1]. Similarly, it is impossible to tell where the boundaries of Europe lie or will lie. Beyond common fundamental values and cultural traditions (which are more or less obvious to most Europeans), everyone has a subjective, rather vague idea of what Europe is. It is due to this vagueness that European identity resists definition.

Let me first of all underline that whatever European identity is, it is a concept broader than European Union identity. This was vividly demonstrated by the statement of eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus in May 2009, when he claimed that the EU defeated Europe when the Czech Senate ratified the Lisbon Treaty. Undoubtedly, European identity is the privilege of national elites that have been pressing ahead with European integration for half a century. European identity has not become part of the thoughts, feelings and lives of average Europeans. Values that we hold to be European — such as liberty, equality before the law or the rule of law — are in fact the result of centuries of social development and do not undermine national identities. There are no truly pan-European values or pan-European reflexes perceptible in daily life. The feeling of belonging to a nation remains much more important than that of being European. The European Union is a community of nations and not a nation comprised of federal territorial units (states, with some exaggeration) like the United States of America. It is dubious whether it will ever become one. Most probably not.

Like any identity, a European identity can benefit immensely from negative self-definition: defining what we Europeans are not. The most critical distinction is with America, the other bastion of Western culture. Of course, that alone would be a very weak foundation for an identity. A professor of Johns Hopkins University, who knows Europe very well, put his finger on it when he said: “There is no such thing as a European identity. I have never met anyone who said I am a European American. I have only met Greek Americans, Polish Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, etc.”

Europe has been in search of a self-identity for a long time. The first natural self-definition was on the common basis of Christianity. European values, which set this continent and culture apart from others, began to take shape with the Enlightenment. In “The Spirit of the Laws”, Montesquieu analyses Europe as a unified community in detail, comparing it with Asia. He comes to the conclusion that the preconditions for liberty exist only in Europe but not in Asia. Bronislaw Geremek, an outstanding European humanist of the 20th century, believed that Europe was built on a dual identity. European identity is partly rooted in medieval Christianity as a unifying force. In the 13th century, a united European community formed around religion as the central organizing principle. It was created by Rome as the center of power. Universities mushroomed continent-wide, teaching the common culture in a common language (Latin) and thereby creating the first European elite. The Europe-wide network of churches and cathedrals shared a common architectural style, a uniform liturgy and a uniform calendar. Christianity was the first supranational, pan-European cross-border culture. Geremek suggests that the second European community — lasting from Erasmus of Rotterdam to the Enlightenment — was the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria) bonded together by knowledge rather than by faith. As modern languages gained ground and Latin lost its importance, the religious nature of culture was weakened. Observation, analysis and a belief in reason and science pushed religious faith to the background. European academics maintained extensive and lively relations with each other. Montesquieu famously said that Europe is a nation composed of many nations. The evolution of the European identity, or should we call it a supranational culture, has its roots partly in Christianity and partly in science.

Modern, post-war European integration is a political undertaking which in its origins was motivated chiefly by a desire to secure a stable and pacific Germany and developed as an elite project. As a result, the “mental unification” of European citizens has never materialized; a spontaneous common identity has never formed. Europe as a concept has never found its place in people’s daily lives, or their choices of values. Modern Europe was created to put an end to the eternal enmity between France and Germany. It was clear that the only way to prevent war between these two powers was to make it economically unprofitable. But guaranteeing peace on the continent will not make people feel European. European identity will not evolve by itself; every tradition must start somewhere but traditions only survive if the common experiences, principles and myths originate from the people. And for traditions to turn into an identity, a bottom-up approach is needed. Naturally, political leaders still have a huge role to play in paving the way for the evolution of a European identity. There are common Franco-German history books, common university departments, common European holidays, but that is only the start of the beginning.

Europe is an immensely heterogeneous continent and is growing ever more diverse with successive enlargements. Europe’s history is one of bloody wars and hostilities. Europe does not have a common language; the modern lingua franca is English, the language of global culture and of the steamroller empire, the USA. The evolution of a European identity will be a long process; there can be no doubt about it. There have been many attempts to unify Europe, largely through conquest and subjugation, but none of them tried to create a common European identity; forcing a central ideology on the continent was the closest they came. De Gaulle’s vision of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals was a political idea, which was essentially based on the 19th-century principles of cooperation between nation states. European peoples have been united temporarily within one empire, but sharp cultural borders never ceased to exist for a moment. Is there any way to change that?

A large-scale public opinion survey asked European citizens how their feeling of European citizenship could be reinforced some six years ago. Unsurprisingly, one third replied: by elevating the welfare state to the European level. A clear rift between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ member states is observable in this respect: in the poorer Eastern part of Europe (where accession to the Union is seen as justice having been served), more than half of the population considers European action in the area of social welfare essential, while in the richer west less than a third think so. About 27% of the survey’s respondents picked the European Constitution as their first choice and 16 ticked the box next to a directly elected European president. These latter two choices are conspicuously political and not related to people’s daily lives at all. Which only goes to show how distant Europe is from the man in the street; the EU is a political rather than a daily issue. Only one in twenty respondents thought it would be important to have a common European Olympic team.

Few Europeans are involved in “European activities”: only 43% maintain active links with citizens from another member state, although the differences are vast from one country to another. This ratio is three quarters in the Netherlands and one fifth in Hungary. Only every third European citizen traveled abroad in 2005, which may sound impossible, but by 2015 this figure increased primarily due to low-cost air tickets. More encouragingly, almost a quarter of respondents claimed to regularly read the press or books in a language other than their mother tongue. The Irish and the British were at the bottom of the list; English (or rather American) being the modern lingua franca as their native language means that they do not need to use a foreign language as much as non-English speakers. Young urban Internet-savvy graduates live the most European lives and are the most fervent supporters of European integration. The same enthusiasm for Europe is not present in society as a whole. While two thirds of citizens declare an interest in domestic politics, less than half are concerned about European politics and the level of knowledge about how the European Union functions is generally very low.

Symbols play a central role in building a European identity even though their impact is limited, except for the single currency. The European flag or anthem are not serious alternatives to and are unlikely to replace national symbols any time soon. It is a telling fact that the most tangible symbol of Europeanness — the euro — features unidentifiable bridges and buildings on the notes. Anywhere else in the world it would be unthinkable not to have a single famous building, monument, personality or typical animal on euro notes. It is easy to guess why it is so: Leonardo is considered Italian, Joyce Irish, Mozart Austrian and not European. Putting anyone famous on the back of a euro note would only lead to diplomatic wrangling between the member states, which is best avoided. Europe is not strong when it comes to symbols, maybe because it has too many: a dozen could be named for every one of its 27 member states. Politically motivated pan-European cultural projects such as the bilingual television channel ARTE do not really work. ARTE, the brainchild of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand, epitomizes the reality of European identity: cold, high quality, elitist programming, but not pan-European in nature, merely a mishmash of German and French programs.

Eurobarometer – a programme of opinion surveys taken on behalf of the European Commission – asked people to name the first adjective that came to their mind when they heard the words ”European Union”. Close to two thirds said democratic and modern, roughly half said protective, technocratic and inefficient. (Obviously one respondent could pick more than one adjective.) Polls reveal just how little people knew about the functioning of the European Union

A poll in 2008 showed that two fifths of the French felt they were truly European citizens. This figure has not changed for fifteen years. This poll of a thousand adults indicated that 54% of French people would feel more European if the President of the European Council (the European Council being constituted by the national heads of state and government) was elected directly, instead of being appointed by the heads of state and government behind closed doors. Attachment to the European idea has not changed in France since the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, when 37% of French people considered themselves European “often or very often”. Today this figure is 38%. Following the record low turnout in the elections to the European Parliament in 1999, when 53% of French voters stayed at home, the feeling of Europeanness was reinvigorated by the introduction of the euro and by the public debate preceding the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005. The rejection of the Constitution did not change the French electorate’s feelings about belonging to Europe. To 54% of French people, the single currency is what best symbolizes Europe. Only 12% picked the European Parliament and 9% the European Commission as Europe’s best symbol. The French see the common European economy (39%) and democracy (35%) as key values holding the continent together. The poll made it abundantly clear that the French (too) have only a rudimentary knowledge of how the European Union and its institutions work. Even though Members of the European Parliament have been elected directly since 1979, 36% of respondents thought they could not vote in elections to the Parliament, and 48% were unaware that foreign European nationals could vote in municipal elections in the country of their residence. Since then, mainly due to the stubborn economic slowdown and crisis, Euroskepticism is on the rise all across member states, which is obviously against the reinforcement of the sense of a common European identity.

Clearly, we cannot yet talk about a defined and generally accepted European identity, or a European public or a European state. Still, with only virtual borders left inside much of the European Union, economic and social ties the closest they have ever been and the EU becoming active in new areas, European citizens are bound over time to develop a feeling of Europeanness and some kind of a European identity. The concept of a European identity is difficult to define and more difficult to measure than, say, public support for European integration. As John Lukacs wrote:

“Nation and state – they are two different things. States are losing power and significance fast. Nations retain their essence. That is one of the — many — shortcomings of the European Union. We have a long way to go before we can talk about a united Europe; we are only at the very beginning of this arduous journey. European self-identity, the European spirit is but a faint glimmer.”

Europe has become more than just an economic community, but is far from being a country. European citizens are not strongly attached to the EU and there aren’t any European myths, dreams, visions, customs or languages which could constitute the bedrock of a pan-European identity. Towards the twilight of his life Jean Monnet, one of the Founding Fathers of the European Union, said to be lamenting: “If I could start again I would start with culture and not the economy”.

There is no denying that Europe’s peoples, nations and increasingly cosmopolitan new generations are drawing closer and closer, even if Euroskepticism is rising. Old enmities are fading, the old wounds have healed, which is quite an achievement in itself. This should be reinforced by education, started already at elementary level: explaining and thereby reinforcing the advantages of our community to school kids across the continent. The new Erasmus generation may bring about the change. They may see and support a European Union team at the Olympics in 2024 at least in curling.

 

[1] Emanuel L. Paparella for one refers to five different aspects or models of European identity (Revisiting Europe’s Cultural Identity, Moderndiplomacy.eu): 1. Historical-cultural identity — This model of European identity refers to a perceived common European past with cultural roots and common values. 2. Political-legal identity — In order to bypass the ethnic dimension in European identity, politicians favour a republican reading which is based upon citizenship, representation and participation. 3. Social identity — it focuses on the popular basis of politics: often referred to as a ‘people’s Europe’. 4. International identity — In terms of social collectiveness, this is probably the weakest interpretation of European identity which is typified by governance or regime approaches. 5. Post-identity commonness — this model strives to avoid the identity-trap by applying post-modernist and postnationalist theories.

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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France’s Controversial ‘Separatism’ Bill

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In his very first days at the Elysee Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to detail his views on secularism and Islam in a wide-ranging speech. It took more than three years for this to happen, with the much awaited speech actually taking place in October a week after a teacher was violently killed for revealing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) during a lecture on freedom of expression. Macron said during his speech that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, adding that there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”. Mr. Macron and his Parliament allies have described the bill as a reaction to the rise of Islamic separatism, which the President defines as a philosophy that seeks to create a parallel state in France where religious laws replace civil law.  Referring to the cartoons at a citizenship ceremony earlier and before the latest attacks, Macron defended the “right to blasphemy” as a fundamental freedom, even as he condemned “Islamic separatism.”

“To be French is to defend the right to make people laugh, to criticize, to mock, to caricature,” the president said. The proposed law allows religious associations and mosques to report more than €10,000 ($12,000) in international support and to sign a promise to uphold the French republican ideals in order to obtain state subsidies. The bill will also make it possible for the government to close down mosques, organizations and colleges that have been described as criticizing republican values.The controversial bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim people and enforcing limits on nearly every part of their lives. It allows government to oversee the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims. It also limits the schooling options of the Muslim community by prohibiting families from providing home education to children. The law also forbids people from selecting physicians on the grounds of gender for religious or other purposes and mandates a compulsory ‘secularism education’ on all elected officials. Physicians will either be charged or jailed under the law if they conduct a virginity test on girls. Critics argue the so-called “separatism law” is racist and threatens the 5.7 million-strong Muslim population in France, the highest in Europe. Its critics include the 100 imams, 50 teachers of Islamic sciences and 50 members of associations in France who signed an open letter against the “unacceptable” charter on 10 February.

A criminal act for online hate speech will make it easier to easily apprehend a person who shares sensitive information about public sector workers on social media with a view to hurting them and will be disciplined by up to three years in jail and a fine of EUR 45.000. The banning or deleting of pages spreading hate speech would now be made smoother and legal action accelerated. The bill expands what is known in France as the ‘neutrality clause,’ which forbids civil servants from displaying religious symbols such as the Muslim veil and holding political opinions, outside public sector workers to all commercial providers in public utilities, such as those working for transport firms.

French Members of Parliament held two weeks of heated debates in the National Assembly. People of Muslim faith interviewed outside the Paris Mosque and around Paris on the outdoor food market before the vote had hardly heard of the rule. “I don’t believe that the Muslims here in France are troublemakers or revolutionaries against France,” said Bahri Ayari, a taxi driver who spoke to AP after prayers inside Paris’ Grand Mosque. “I don’t understand, when one talks about radicalism, what does that mean — radicalism? It’s these people who go to jail, they find themselves with nothing to do, they discuss amongst themselves and they leave prison even more aggressive and then that gets put on the back of Islam. That’s not what a Muslim is,” he added.

Three bodies of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM) have unilaterally denounced the “charter of principles” of Islam, which reaffirms the continuity of religion with France. The three parties said that the Charter was accepted without the full consensus of the other integral components of the CFCM, including the provincial and departmental councils and the imams concerned. “We believe that certain passages and formulations of the submitted text are likely to weaken the bonds of trust between the Muslims of France and the nation. In addition, certain statements undermine the honor of Muslims, with an accusatory and marginalizing character,” the Milli Görüş Islamic Confederation (CMIG) and the Faith and Practice movement said in a joint statement. The bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim community and enforcing limits on nearly any part of their lives. It allows for interference in mosques and organizations responsible for the operation of mosques, as well as for the oversight of the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims.

It is a difficult time for the nation, which has also accused its protection bill of containing the press freedom. The law introduced aims at making it unlawful to post photographs of police officers in which it is identifiable by “malicious intent” However, law enforcement has criticized the government after the declaration by Macron of the development of an online forum to flag police brutality.

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Why Is Europe Hostile Towards Russia?

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In his seminal 1871 work Russia and Europe, the famous Russian intellectual and Slavophile Nikolay Danilevsky set forth his theory that “Europe recognizes Russia as something alien to itself, and not only alien, but also hostile,” and that Russia’s fundamental interests should act as a “counterweight to Europe.”

One hundred and fifty years have passed since that work was published. The world has changed. No matter what anti-globalists might say, the rapid development of modern technologies and their use in our everyday lives has forced us to re-evaluate many of our beliefs about relations between states and people. The exchange of information, scientific discoveries and knowledge, and the sharing of our cultural wealth bring countries closer together and open up opportunities for development that did not exist before. Artificial intelligence does not know any boundaries and does not differentiate users by gender or nationality. Along with these new opportunities, the world is also faced with new problems that are increasingly supranational in nature and which require our combined efforts to overcome. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest example of this.

It is against the background of these rapid changes, which for obvious reasons cannot unfold without certain consequences, that we can occasionally hear this very same theory that “Europe is hostile towards Russia.” Although the arguments put forward to support this claim today seem far less nuanced than those of Nikolay Danilevsky.

Even so, ignoring this issue is not an option, as doing so would make it extremely difficult to build a serious long-term foreign policy given the prominent role that Europe plays in global affairs.

Before we dive in, I would like to say a few words about the question at hand. Why should Europe love or loathe Russia? Do we have any reason to believe that Russia has any strong feelings, positive or negative, towards another country? These are the kind of words that are used to describe relations between states in the modern, interdependent world. But they are, for the most part, simply unacceptable. Russia’s foreign policy concepts invariably focus on ensuring the country’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity and creating favourable external conditions for its progressive development.

Russia and Europe have a long history that dates back centuries. And there have been wars and periods of mutually beneficial cooperation along the way. No matter what anyone says, Russia is an inseparable part of Europe, just as Europe cannot be considered “complete” without Russia.

Thus, it is essential to direct intellectual potential not towards destruction, but rather towards the formation of a new kind of relationship, one that reflects modern realities.

At the dawn of the 21st century, it was clear to everyone that, due to objective reasons, Russia would not be able to become a full-fledged member of the military, political and economic associations that existed in Europe at the time, meaning the European Union and NATO. That is why mechanisms were put in place to help the sides build relations and cooperate in various fields. Bilateral relations developed significantly in just a few years as a result. The European Union became Russia’s main foreign economic partner, and channels for mutually beneficial cooperation in many spheres were built.

However, EU-Russia relations have stalled in recent years. In fact, much of the progress that had been made is now being undone. And positive or negative feelings towards one another have nothing to do with it. This is happening because the parties have lost a strategic vision of the future of bilateral relations in a rapidly changing world.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin said that Russia is part of Europe, and that, culturally, Russia and Europe are one civilization. This is the basic premise—one that is not based on emotions—that should underlie Russia’s policy in its relations with Europe.

Russia and the European Union disagree on many things, but the only way to overcome misunderstandings and find opportunities to move forward is through dialogue. In this context, the recent visit of the EU High Representative to Moscow was a much-needed step in the right direction, despite the criticism that this move received from the European side. Nobody was expecting any “breakthroughs” from the visit, as the animosities and misunderstandings between the two sides cut too deep. Yet visits and contacts of this kind should become the norm, for without them we will never see any real progress in bilateral relations.

In addition to the issues that currently fill the agendas of the two sides, attention should be focused on developing a strategic vision of what EU-Russia relations should be in the future, as well as on areas of mutual interest. For example, it is high time that Europe and Russia broached the subject of the compatibility of their respective energy strategies, as well as the possible consequences of the introduction of “green energy” in Europe in terms of economic cooperation with Russia. Otherwise, it will be too late, and instead of a new area of mutually beneficial cooperation, we will have yet another irresolvable problem.

In his work Russia and Europe, Nikolay Danilevsky, while recognizing the good that Peter the Great had done for his country, reproached him for “wanting to make Russia Europe at all costs.” No one would make such accusations today. Russia is, was and always will be an independent actor on the international stage, with its own national interests and priorities. But the only way they can only be realized in full is if the country pursues an active foreign policy. And one of the priorities of that policy is relations with Europe.

From our partner RIAC

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Entry into force of the Tromso Convention: A unique opportunity

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Accessing quality information has never been so challenging, despite or maybe, because of our exposure to tremendous amount of information. The entry into force of the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on Access to Official Documents (Tromsø Convention) on 1 December 2020, in a context of concerning deficit of transparency in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, appears as an opportunity for governments to reinforce transparency culture and restore citizens trust and legitimacy in their institutions, in democracy.

Increasing recognition of the right of access to official documents

The Nordic European States pioneered the development of the right of access to official documents, with the world’s first law on access to information adopted by Sweden in 1766. It then spread progressively to many other West European countries, before reaching its peak in the 1990s with the creation of legal tools in the new democracies of Eastern and Central Europe. Today, various legal instruments (constitutions, national laws and jurisprudence) across Europe recognize the right of access to official documents. At the international level as well, this right has been increasingly recognized[1].

The CoE Convention on Access to Official Documents, signed on 18 June 2009 in Tromsø, Norway, is the first binding international legal instrument to recognize a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities. More than ten years later, on 1 December 2020, the Convention entered into force, following the ratification by Ukraine, tenth State to ratify it[2].

The Convention considers that all official documents are in principle public and provides a minimum legal framework for the prompt and fair processing of requests for access to official documents. Only the protection of other rights and legitimate interests can justify the rejection of requests. When requests are denied, it obliges the States to provide “access to a review procedure before a court or another independent and impartial body established by law” (Article 8).

This development could give a fresh impetus to European efforts towards greater transparency and reinforce democracy in general. It is particularly much welcome in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis and the “infodemic” accompanying the pandemic.  However, observers stress that much remains to be done to make this ambitious initiative a reality and to bring together all European countries to ratify it.

Making access to official documents a reality

In her comment on the Convention, CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović stresses the importance of access to official documents for “transparency, good governance and participatory democracy and a key means of facilitating the exercise of other human rights and fundamental freedoms” and calls on CoE member states and non-member states to ratify the Tromsø Convention as soon as possible. On the same note, Access Info Europe group called on 17 November all member states of the CoE to sign and ratify, with a special call on France, German, Italy and Great Britain, in order to ensure that Europe’s largest countries are taking part in this European effort towards greater transparency of public authorities.

Today, virtually all countries of the Council of Europe have freedom of information laws and some “good models” exist[3]. But the level of transparency varies between the countries and even across the institutions of each country. In some legal provision, the lack of clarity jeopardizes the enforcement.

In such context of profusion of legal provision, the Tromsø Convention could help build a stronger, harmonized and more comprehensive legal framework, create a common understanding of access to official documents and guarantee that all European citizens enjoy the same right to information and hold their authorities accountable.

In addition to ratification, promoting and disseminating the legal instruments must be a priority, as states Article 9 of the Convention: “Parties shall inform the public about its right of access to official documents”. Signatory states must promote this legal instrument and avoid that such a crucial initiative goes unnoticed. It would be paradoxical if such an ambitious initiative on transparency is not truly made public.

Transparency often denied when it is most needed

Access to information is even more vital in times of crisis. In the current Covid-19 pandemic, access to reliable information is not only a matter of public health but also of public trust in health management systems and authorities. Fighting misinformation should be part of the crisis management plans, to fight the “infodemic” parallel to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it is precisely in times of crisis that freedom of information is often denied, on the grounds of national security arguments. The secrecy around the EU vaccines contracts is a blatant illustration of such ambivalent attitude to transparency when it is most needed. On Friday 29 January, five months after the signature and after renewed requests from various European politicians and civil society groups, the European commission finally published the vaccine contract signed on 27 August 2020 with Astrazeneca.

Although the publication of such an important document could have been a great move for the Commission to regain legitimacy, the actual outcome, a redacted document with price and accountability terms kept secret, raises more questions than it answers, contributing to more mistrust. Why is the Commission holding such crucial public health information, denying citizens right to know on issues that directly affect them?


[1] Examples: United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters;Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents.

[2] after Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Moldova, Croatia, Montenegro, Hungary and Lithuania.  Eight additional countries have already signed the Convention: Armenia, Belgium, Georgia, Iceland, North Macedonia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia.

[3] In her call on CoE members states to ratify the Convention, DunjaMijatović names for example Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia which have an independent oversight body responsible for monitoring and enforcing the right to information.

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