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The file of the refugee crisis remains open

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The massive influx of migrants – Arab and African refugees to Europe – is unanimously considered to have triggered this summer the most serious refugee crisis after the Second World War.

However, its causes have not been profoundly analyzed or stated and admitted by the important European political decision-makers involved in this crisis. This is the reason why the public opinions and assessments on the real causes that took migration to this level are often opposed. Until now, the official statements, comments and analyses of the crisis have been very numerous, diverse, contradictory and often inflammatory, having increased tensions while the massive groups of migrants were moving towards the center of Europe.

Starting from the information and videos constantly presented by the international media, we can say that the peoples living on the European territory, which have already entered the era of knowledge with the 21st century – a century of information, are currently dealing with an extremely serious and unprecedented state of insecurity following the world wars. The opposing statements, the irrational augmentations of the armament race including the nuclear one and the threat of using these weapons, the great maneuvers USSR vs. US, the troops of the Warsaw Treaty vs. NATO and vice versa, the Soviet military invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) or the political-military tensions within the international relations have never created such chaos and decisional instability in Europe. As for the crisis in Yugoslavia, it is true that there have been serious military confrontations that caused numerous deaths, but at least they were somehow controlled, being kept within the geographic limits in which they appeared. At the end, due to NATO and the EU’s management, they did not induce a war psychosis that could extend to the entire continent.

At present, the level of the migration is extraordinary – Arab and African refugees form large groups of people including men and women of different ages, including old people and have a heterogeneous structure in ethnicity and in terms of the origin country, social class and profession, possibly even in terms of religion, other than the Islamic one.

The simultaneous and quite immediate mobilization of so many people and the creation of these groups, even the fact that they left their homes and their towns, cannot be considered as being spontaneous decisions. It is true that there has been bombing and war in their towns, as it happened in Syria and Libya, but that could have led to separation and not to the creation of groups. Therefore, their movement in groups of hundreds or thousands of people choosing various routes, optimal to get to the center of Europe, raises a lot of questions about the spontaneous character of this migration. There are currently discussions about the agencies of international tourism as being turned into real “business centers” that offered passports and money. Who is behind all of these and which was the purpose for giving them money? Who do they cooperate with in Europe and in the embarking locations? Conflicts between the rebels had started a long time ago in the migrants’ countries and the high level of insecurity generated this inherent and predictable migration. So the migration that Europe is dealing with at present is not a new phenomenon. It has been known for some time. And even so, it looks like there was nobody to study it in the most profound detail. The intelligence services and the embassies that remained in the region were not aware of how this migration began and developed? While travelling to their destinations, the migrants have had a violent and excessive behavior, especially at border crossings, being determined to achieve the goal they set when embarking in this great adventure. Therefore, there are sufficient reasons for some of them to be looked at with suspicion. In the context of a phenomenon amplified by migrants originating from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq etc, these suspicions indicate that there is a migration mafia operating at present and sending people towards the center of Europe. The assessment can definitely be proved and it is being led be certain hidden interests – geopolitical or demographic ones, including the need for cheap labor, and in my opinion, we cannot rule out the participation of Russia and Germany either from it.

Considering the reactions and administration of this migration by its possible future “hosts”, it seems that its development has surprised the entire Europe, causing chaos and panic in the European countries crossed by the migrants. Confusion existed also at the decisional level of the European countries involved and of the current EU management. It is obvious that the ingravescence of the migrants’ crisis has been accompanied by more intense manipulation, propaganda and informative intoxication. These are the manifestations specific to the informational war initiated by the Russian Federation. Tactically speaking, they were mainly focused on Ukraine and Syria during the last two years. Strategically, as Moscow declared openly and repeatedly they aim at destabilizing the EU and NATO. Within contexts completely different, they have been turned into main targets established in a short-term and medium-term strategy extended in the Eurasian perimeter. Now, the Syrian file, connected to the consequences of the Arab spring file distracts attention from the Russian war on the Ukrainian territory. I am under the impression that the West’s support for Ukraine could not only be “neglected”, but it has already become an important point on the agenda of negotiations with Russia on the fight against the Islamic State and settlement of the situation in Syria.

Premises of instability

All the above-mentioned certainly represent serious premises for instability and insecurity in Europe, favorable to Russia and skillfully used by Kremlin.

In view of the current international geopolitical context, and particularly the European one mentioned above, I am convinced that the current leadership in Kremlin has been constantly practicing an aggressive and blackmailing diplomacy with the US and Western Europe for a long time, using only provocative statements and threats of nuclear attacks on the NATO members as well as direct military operations or hybrid operations.

Correlating Russia’s favorable results in Ukraine, with immediate effects in the explosion of migration towards Europe this summer, we note that Moscow’s strategy has achieved its purpose – the destabilization of the EU. A serious and worrying reality has been created that could affect the future existence of the Union. If until this moment we were talking about it based on gaps in the functioning of the EU or on the unwanted support of skepticism, at present we notice that there is no longer solidarity between its members and the diplomatic and political-military relations have turned to be so tense and serious that even conflicts appeared at the border. The general situation of Europe at present is influenced by the flow of migration, premises have been created that define the maximum state of security threats for a country, which could be compared to what the history of art theory and military strategy calls imminent war.

The management of the migrants’ crisis vs. a new modus operandi

The problem that concerns and worries the entire population of the world refers to the causes that led to this situation of imminent war. In order to do this, I think we should have a clear picture of this phenomenon – the immense flow of migrants towards Europe. To this end, I consider that the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the Borders of the European Union Member States has done its job. Its report – Annual Analysis of Risk – 2015 published in FRONTEX in April 2015 presented centralized data and information about the migrants, information that came from the responsible institutions during the border control operations. At the same time, the report presents an estimation of how the migration could continue on its favorite routes, particularly the ones that converge towards Europe. Thus, there is a special EU structure for migration which presents annual reports on the development of migration in the neighboring regions of the continent with the potential of producing migrants. In this context, it is difficult to understand why the national powers and the high officials leading the EU did not take any preventive measures in order to reduce the tide of migrants to Europe since they had at hand all the necessary details in order to make efficient and appropriate decisions presented in an analysis of risk compared to the previous years.

According to the Report mentioned above, the illegal border-crossing at the EU’s external borders has reached a new record, being registered 280,000 people more than during the previous year. Most of the migrants originated from Syria and they later on asked for asylum in the EU. This significant increase was stimulated by the very high number of legal approvals for entrance in the EU, which led in fact to a new modus operandi. At the same time, the Report informs that since September 2014 the migrants have started to use cargo boats in order to get from Turkey to Italy, near Mersin. This is a multi-million business for the groups of organized crime and it extended in other countries as well. I consider that all this information was known by the intelligence services. An operational communication system might have not functioned between the countries passed through by the migrants’ groups which could have generated opportune and efficient actions for monitoring. However, when the media presented the increasing tendency of deliberate attempts to use commercial ships for the migrants, communication occurred and the International Maritime Organization got directly involved in the maritime transport industry in order to save migrants.

The report also mentions the fact that the record number of illegal migrants imposed the use of important resources for immediate assistance, superior to those used for registration and details regarding the migrants’ origin. Could this be an excuse for the confusion created at the frontiers? The Report also informs that after having been saved, the migrants continued their route to other member countries and “nobody knows where they are within the EU and that is a vulnerability of the EU domestic security”. In my opinion, this is due first of all to the lack of communication with the migrants, both at the borders and during their movement on the territory of the European Union, They should have been identified or their leaders should have been in constant communication with the people authorized to accompany them. The truth – as presented by the international media – indicates a lack of communication between the national structures of the transit countries, responsible and directly involved in the permanent monitoring of the migrant groups. If this communication existed at the lowest level possible, instead of cooperation there were provocations and violent confrontations that could have turned into much more than the so-called “regrettable incidents at the border” as it happened at the border between Hungary and Croatia. The lack of responsible communication appropriate to the modern society was one of the characteristics in the crisis management of the flow of migrants, starting from the location where the groups were created to the movement of the groups at the external border of the EU and on its territory.

Most of the migrants were discovered in the Central Mediterranean region, totaling 170,000 people. In the eastern Mediterranean region were found 50,800 people. It is important to note that the conclusion of the Report regarding the Hungarian leadership according to which at the end of 2014, the number of migrants increased suddenly at the terrestrial border between Hungary and Serbia, which makes the route West Balkan (with 43,357 illegal migrants) become the third most important route for illegal migration towards the EU. Budapest must have known about it at that time, but it did not tell its neighbors about the intention to build the long-disputed fence. Maybe it would have been a solution since the country was the most exposed country, but the situation could have been discussed in advance. The lack of communication cannot be an excuse for the unfriendly tension shown by certain Hungarian officials, going down to the lowest level of behavior and diplomatic decency in relation with the natural demands of the neighbors that expected explanations. Fear could appear in relation to Hungary as well, suspecting that it would deliberately create tense situations with the neighbors. Associated with the distances from the norms and standards of the EU, they must certainly be included in the country’s foreign policy objective of getting close to Moscow. This kind of fear was also induced in our country, emphasized by the famous American historian Larry Watts, who reveals in his works the manner in which the bilateral relations between Hungary and Romania have been established according to coordinates previously set by Moscow. The Russian leaders, regardless of their name and period, have always wanted that relations between our country and Hungary were tense and denigrated in the opinion the West, particularly in the view of Washington. This statement can no longer be argued as long as it is proven with documents, mostly from the archives of the CIA and of the US Department of State. Nevertheless, this is another story that needs to be discussed in detail on another occasion.

The clandestine mechanized migration mentioned in the report published in FRONTEX increased significantly from 599 in 2013 to 3,052 in 2014. Traffic at the Bulgarian border with Turkey increased ten times.                  

In 2014, approximately 9,400 attempts of illegal border-crossing were identified from countries neighboring the EU/Schengen zone. Inter-community movement within the EU indicates an increase from 7,867 in 2013 to 9,968 in 2014 (an increase of 27%). Therefore, for the first time, more illegal documents were discovered during the Schengen-EU travel than during the cross-border control of the people coming from third countries.

The easing of illegal migration remains a significant threat for the foreign borders of the EU. The number of people facilitating migration has increased from 7,252 in 2013 to 10,234 in 2014. The increase was mainly registered in Spain, Italy and Bulgaria. There were approximately 114,000 people banned to enter the EU, which represents an 11% drop as compared to 2013. The drop is a record consequence as compared to 2013, when an important number of Russian citizens were denied entrance because they did not possess a valid visa.  

In 2014 there were 441,780 people found living illegally in the EU, which represents an increase as compared to the previous year. Most of the increase was due to people from Syria and Eritrea which later asked for asylum. A total number of 252,003 people coming from other countries were asked to leave the EU based on an administrative or legal decision, representing a 12% increase as compared to 2013. In 2014 there were 161,309 people who returned to their countries after leaving the EU, a similar figure to 2013.

The perspective of the Report mentions the probability of a high number of illegal border-crossing in the EU as well as the possibility that a high number of immigrants need assistance for search and rescue (as well as international protection) particularly south of the Union’s border on the routes from the East and Central Mediterranean regions. There are also chances that numerous migrants cross the border legally, ask for asylum and be able to continue their travel in the European Union.

Most of the risks come from the use of false documents. The falsification and use of false documents undermines not only border security, but also the domestic security of the European Union.

These risks are common to almost all member countries because they are associated with the flow of people and controls at the border, requesting constantly higher performance in the specialized control expertize. Most of the criminality in this domain implies documents for entrance in the EU and there are indications of using less sophisticated documents such as identity documents or passes.

Generally, any kind of migration, especially the one that got out of control, can be used to organize espionage and terrorism. If we think about the spatial and temporal dimensions of the current flow of migrants towards the heart of Europe, it is clear that there are opportunities for such activities. The temptation is high and must be taken into consideration. If the Report mentions the terrorist threat that could be facilitated by the current migration, it means that the authors have information supporting the statement. The Report mentions the extremists in the Syrian conflict and the radicalization of young Islamists. At the same time, the serious and extended situation in Syria attracted many foreign fighters, including EU citizens that have double citizenship. The criminal actions of ISIL against humanity demand attention according to the level of this threat.

When choosing between xenophobia and humanity, solidarity loses

Europe’s very complex situation with influxes of migrants also evidenced the lack of human solidarity and political will as shown by the different views of the important EU leaders about the integration of the refugees and the inconsistent support of the declared policies. The opinions of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been the informal leader of the EU and initiated the economic exclusive austerity measures, were expected to top the smaller or bigger European opinions referring to the current refugee crisis. Recent history indicates that the personality of this important official did not impose in the decision-making process, as chancellor and leader of an alliance of parties that supports her, but the great German finance and economic interests. This is the only way in which we can explain its inconsistency in the policy for the refugees. Initially, the offer of receiving 800,000 refugees launched the idea that Germany relies on this work force to save its economy. Shortly afterwards, there was strong criticism to this concept and Germany changed its mind. I mention here the opinions of Horst Seehofer, Bavarian State Premier and leader of the Christian-Social Union (CSU). His opinion did not coincide with the position of the governing ally Angela Merkel because he considered this policy “an error”. After this statement, the German newspaper “Bild” said that the Bavarian officials are preparing to “shut down” the border with Austria, which the newspaper called “a significant change of the refugees’ policy”. Indeed, shortly afterwards trains were no longer allowed to travel from Austria to Germany. The German Minister of Internal Affairs, Maiziere, confirmed that Germany will temporarily introduce controls at the border with Austria due to the large number of refugees coming towards Germany.

The magnitude of the migrants’ flow and its unpredictable evolution has brought into discussion the process of assimilation in the European countries. Normally, this assimilation must be in accordance with the capacities of every European country, be it even a member of the European Union. Uncommon for the integrity of the European values that lay at the basis of the Union and later allowed its development was the violent characteristic of discussions which have put forward terms like national quotas, mandatory quotas and volunteer quotas. In my opinion, this view of the migrants annuls from the very start the principle of solidarity and once again negatively influences cohesion within the EU and even its existence. There were serious discussions at all levels and the public comments and statements of the member countries indicate that xenophobic attitudes have reappeared. The determination in accepting or rejecting these unfortunate quotas represents another dark page in Europe’s history, which we could easily call “the Mediterranean drama: assigning national quotas for immigrants”. It would be unwise and even dangerous to say that a European country is xenophobic, particularly in the current context. I will focus only on the quotas, asking one single question to the “inventor” of the operational methodology of this new “mechanism made in the EU” with the purpose of assigning refugees. Therefore, which are the criteria that set the mandatory national quota for every state? I believe it is based on arithmetic as long as the values are thousand or tens of thousand and end with smaller units like 4837. Arithmetical scrupulosity should not make politics look absurd or ridiculous. Even if the software of the computer, be it the most modern one, would round off the quota, our imposed example will be – 4840 (gain of humanism), but the imposed quotas associated with financial sanctions with values probably given by a smart software (values from 0-infinite) bring the whole process close to dictatorship. History proved that the absurd, the incredible and many others belong to dictatorship and not to democracy. Probably the German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel will also reveal the name of the inventor since we are told that “Europe fell into contemp” after the failure of the ministerial reunion in Brussels organized to set the quotas for the refugees in the EU.

Cui (quid) prodest?

After the serious controversies in the EU and following Germany’s decisional instability under the government of Angela Merkel, the other EU members did not hesitate to protect their interests, at any cost. After seeing that “institutional communication of every member country at a domestic level and within the community was locked in the boxes hidden behind armchairs existing at all levels of leadership, including the management of the EU” in the context of the management of the refugees’ crisis, we also note that “the European diplomacy has failed in front of a steel fence” with no exception.             

The unusual statements and the tense situations used by the European diplomacy in international relations setting its entrance into “the era of migration crisis” are arguments that account for my statements above.

According to “NapocaNews”, Laszlo Kover, President of the Hungarian Parliament announced that Hungary refused the request of the United States to accept immigrants in the EU, accusing Washington of being responsible for the conflicts that generated refugees and offered as an example the fence built by the United States at the border with Mexico. The Hungarian official does not understand that his statement according to which “the European crisis is going through a profound intellectual and moral crisis that generates a political crisis” rebounds upon himself after having initiated this uninspired diplomatic dialog with the US. We remind the Hungarian official that the US is a strategic partner for Europe’s security, despite the interests of some nostalgic Germans for the noisy marches on Berlin’s streets that existed in the past. In this context, it is a good idea to republish some information that appeared in “Romania Liberă” quoting AFP, according to which the mayor of Dachau, Florian Hartmann issued a press statement saying that “an add-on of the former Nazi camp in south Germany will be upgraded as shelter for homeless people, including refugees”. The future occupants were described by the mayor as “the weakest members of the society”. According to the Swiss publication “Tribune de Geneve”, “the Dachau project is not unique in Germany”. At the beginning of 2015, the local authorities started a project in order to transform the former add-ons of the camp from Buchenwald (built similarly to the Dachau camp) into shelters for the immigrants.

The “high-level” diplomatic dialogue between Austria – Hungary about the refugees must be mentioned again due to some statements made public by Reuters. In an interview for “Der Spiegel”, the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann criticized in very strong words the manner in which Hungary manages the crisis of the refugees, saying that “the measures adopted by Viktor Orban’s government remind of the Nazi period” and the packing of people in trains hoping that they would be taken someplace else “reminds of the darkest period from our continent”, referring to the Holocaust practiced by the Nazis during the Second World War. His Excellency Werner Faymann referred directly to his Hungarian counterpart and added that “The Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban acts irresponsibly by calling these refugees immigrants with economic motivation”.                         

In response, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Szijjarto, made some serious statements about the Austrian officials: “Austria has been carrying out a campaign of lies against Hungary for several weeks…The statements made by Mister Faymann are irresponsible, undignified for a political leader of the 21st century and they impede the identification of solutions to the refugee crisis”.        

Another “small diplomatic calumny” is the confrontation Budapest-Bucharest, generated by the same steel fence that Hungary announced as planned to be built at the Romanian border. The relations France-Hungary, Slovenia-Croatia, Hungary-Croatia, Hungary-Serbia have been characterized by the same violent dialog about the fence. The violent language and the wording used by the official opponents from all sides are much under the representation of their countries. I am one of those who consider that Hungary, like any other EU member country, has the right of establishing its own defensive measures since one of the important travelling routes for the refugees crosses its territory and, fortunately for us, not the Romanian territory. Moreover, I consider that under the strong pressure of the migrants, much more profound than in any other country, Hungary was forced to adopt these measures, since the management of the EU proved to be inexistent. However, the head of the Hungarian diplomacy should have understood that it was not the fence that disturbed, but the lack of communication on this theme with the neighbors of this country.

Diplomacy is an art and the practice of negotiations between the representatives of nations and groups. This definition does not annuls the fact that those involved in this art must be artisans of a quality directly proportionate to the power of the state being represented or compensating what it misses. Any storm in a glass turns into a tsunami. The attitudes and violent statements outside the traditional, common diplomatic framework lead to belligerent positions of the parties. Unfortunately, if it is being manifested in an institutionalized framework accepted by the parts, like the NATO or EU membership, and if it is based on a series of Euro-Atlantic and European values and principles, being often characterized by more or less serious arguments, it proves the deep misunderstanding of the world we are living in and an almost childish reason. The discussion could have another interpretation if the strategic objectives of a party’s foreign policy were directly or indirectly oriented towards another current geopolitical and geostrategic manifestation in Europe. In this context, as the American State Secretary John Kerry said about creating an alliance against ISIL, “Diplomacy becomes crucial”.

 

First published by the INGEPO Consulting’s Geostrategic Pulse    

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Council of Europe fights for your Right to Know, too

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Authors: Eugene Matos de Lara and Audrey Beaulieu

“People have the right to know what those in power are doing” -Dunja Mijatovic Council of Europe, Commissioner for Human Rights.

Access to information legislation was first seen in 1766 in Sweden, with parliamentary interest to access information held by the King. Finland in 1951, the United States in 1966, and Norwayin 1970 also adopted similar legislation. Today there are 98 states with access laws; of these, more than 50 incorporated in their constitution. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights 2006 and the European Court of Human Rights 2009 both ruled that access to information is a human right, confirmed in July 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a sine qua non of 21st-century democracy.

Global civil society movements have been promoting transparency, with activists and journalists reporting daily on successes in obtaining information and denouncing obstacles and frustrations in the implementation of this right. To this end, the Council of Europe was inspired by pluralistic and democratic ideals for greater European unity, adopted the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents recognising a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities. It brings a minimum standard for the fair processing of requests for access to official documents with the obligation for member states to secure independent review for restricted documents unless with held if the protection of the documents is considered legitimate.

The right to freedom of information

Access to information is a government scrutiny tool. Without it, human rights violations, corruption cases, and anti-democratic practices would never be uncovered. Besides exposing demerits, the policy is also known to improve the quality of public debates while increasing participation in the decision making process. Indeed, transparency of authorities should be regarded as a fundamental precondition for the enjoyment of fundamental rights, as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The policy equips citizens and NGOs with the necessary tool to counter refusal from authorities to provide information. The European Court of Human Rights recognized that withheld documents could be accessed in specific circumstances. In principle, all information should be available, and those upheld can also be accessed, particularly when access to that particular information is crucial for the individual or group to exercise their freedoms unless of course, the information is of national security or of private nature.

Access to information in times of crisis a first line weapon against fake news

The COVID pandemic has enabled us to test access policies and benchmark the effectiveness of the right to know during trivial times, as Dunja Mijatovic mentioned. In fact, having easy access to reliable information protects the population from being misled and misinformed, a first-line weapon dismantling popular fake news and conspiracies. Instead, during COVID, access to information has supported citizens in responding adequately to the crisis. Ultimately, transparency is also a trust-building exercise.

Corruption and environmental issues

Information is a weapon against corruption. The Council of Europe Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) is looking at the specific issue of access to official documents in the context of its Fifth Evaluation Round, which focuses on preventing corruption and promoting integrity in central governments and law enforcement agencies. In about a third of the reports published so far, GRECO has recommended the state to improve access to official documents. In regards to the environment, the United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention, expands the right of access to information on environmental matters thus complementing the Tromsø Convention. Declaring these policies as the primary tools that empower citizens and defenders to protect the environment we live in.

Good models exist

Most Council of Europe member states have adequate mechanisms regarding the right to information. For example, in Estonia, “the Public Information Act provides for broad disclosure of public information” states Mijatovic. Moreover, “in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and several other countries there is an independent oversight body – such as an Information Commissioner – responsible for monitoring and enforcing the right to information, while some other countries entrust Parliamentary Ombudsmen with supervision of the right of access to information”. Finally, “the constitutions of several European countries do indeed guarantee the fundamental right to information.” Nonetheless, there are still in consistent levels of transparency among state institutions or a failure to meet the requirement for proactive disclosure. The entry into force of the Tromso Convention willbe an opportunity to bring back to the table the importance of the right to information and to read just European States practices regarding the enhancement.

Barriers and Challenges

Digitization is still recent, and authorities are not accustomed to dealing openly. There is a sentiment of reservation and caution. Before the advent of the internet, governments enjoyed a level of political efficiency and practical obscurity. Viewing public records required the time and effort of a visit to the records’ physical location and prevented easy access to details of individual files. Openness has made the policy cycle longer, with a more thorough consultation process and debates. The availability of digital documents has caused an unavoidable conflict.

One of the conflicts is a privacy protection and policy safeguards invoked against freedom of information requests. Requirements to provide transparency of activities must be mitigated with national security, individuals’ safety, corporate interests, and citizens’ right to privacy. Finding the right balance is essential to understand how local governments manage the dichotomy between providing open access to their records by maintaining the public’s privacy rights.

Several governments think twice before pursuing transparency policies. Access to information hasn’t been a priority for some of the European States. Mijatovic reported that “filtering of information and delays in responses to freedom of information requests have been observed in several member states”. Although there is a growth in these laws’ popularity, we are always a step behind meeting the supply and demand of information objectives in an era of digitization.

Legal perspectives

Tromso Convention has only been ratified by eleven countries, which are mostly located in Scandinavia (Finland, Norway and Sweden) or in Eastern Europe (Bosnia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Moldavia and Ukraine). Reading this statement, three questions should come to our minds:

1.    Why not all European states have ratified Tromso Convention?

2.    Why do Scandinavian countries have chosen to ratify the Convention?

3.    Why are most of the Member States from Eastern Europe?

Regarding the first question, the answer resides in the fact that the ones who haven’t taken part in the Convention already have strong national laws protecting freedom of information and don’t need to bother with extra protection and external surveillance. For instance, Germany passed a law in 2005, promoting the unconditional right to access information. Many other European states such as Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France &Poland have similar national law.

Regarding the second question, considering that all Scandinavian countries already have national laws assessing freedom of information, the most likely reason behind their ratification would be symbolic support to the cause or because the Convention’s framework is less restrictive than their national laws.

Finally, concerning the last question, we could suppose that most Eastern countries have an interest in demonstrating themselves as more transparent, more following the rule of law. For example, if we examine Montenegro’s case, we could assume that taking part in the Tromso Convention is a step closer to their accession to the EU in 2025.

As for the reservations that have been made, only Finland, Norway and Sweden have made some noticeable. Regarding Norway, the country declared that “communication with the reigning Family and its Household” will remain private in accordance with Article 3,paragraph 1 of the Convention. This limitation covers something interesting, considering that, as mentioned earlier, access to the data type of legislation was first adopted in order to get access to information held by the King. In parallel, Finland declared that “the provisions of Article 8 of the Convention concerning the review procedure [will] not apply to a decision made by the President of the Republic in response to a request for access to a document. Article 8 provides protection against arbitrary decisions and allows members of the population to assert their right to information. Sweden has made a similarreservation on Article 8 paragraph 1 regarding “decisions taken by the Government, ministers and the Parliamentary Ombudsmen”.

Thoughts towards better implementation

For smoother data access implementation, governments can act on transparency without waiting for legislation through internal bureaucratic policy. These voluntary provisions for openness can be an exercise towards a more organic cultural transformation.

Lengthy debates on open access are entertained by exceptions to access. To be sure, governments have enough legal and political tools to withhold information, regardless of how exemptions have been drafted. Instead, a more productive and efficient process is possible if we concentrate on positive implementation and enforcement, including the procedures for challenges on legal exemptions.

The implementation phase of access laws is challenging due to a lack of leadership motivation, inadequate support for those implementing these requests, especially since they require a long term social and political commitment. To do so, an overall dedication and government bureaucratic cultural shift should take place. Although the implementation of access to information should be included internally in all departments, considering a standardized centralized approach to lead the new regime with authority could send an important message. Record keeping and archiving should be updated to respond to requests with improved information management systems. As such, the goal would be to make a plethora of information immediately and unconditionally available.

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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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Europe

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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