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Pope Francis Timely Moral Challenge to the European Union

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On Saturday April 16, 2016 Pope Francis journeyed to the Greek island of Moria to visit a refugee camp where 3,060 men women and children had been detained as soon as they made landfall from across the sea and are due to be deported back to the instability and violence they left behind, thus shattering their dream of a permanent home in a safe EU country.

The Pope crossed the barbed-wire threshold that wall the refugees and joined them for lunch. The visit lasted only five hours. In addition to eating lunch with the migrants at Moria, Francis is expected to lead a public prayer in the island’s main harbor, and to publicly thank Lesbos residents for their hospitality. He and his fellow religious leaders dropped laurel wreathes in the sea as a memorial to those who have died making the perilous crossing. He also took back to the Vatican three refugee families, thus morally rebuking the new ungenerous policy of the EU toward refugees.

European leaders, satisfied by the falling arrival numbers that their policy has generated, have not responded well to the pope’s attempts at suasion, but his arrival has presented them with an unmistakable moral challenge. Their displeasure at such a challenge is beginning to look more and more like hypocrites.

By visiting Moria, and by breaking bread with the people Europe is threatening to deport, the leader of the Catholic Church has made his strongest statement yet on migrant rights, an issue he has made one of the biggest focuses of his revolutionary tenure. In many respects, the Lesbos trip is part of a legacy in the making, further evidence that the pontiff is seeking to define his papacy on the issues of inequality, mercy and migrant rights.

In his first official trip as pontiff, in 2013, Francis highlighted the plight of refugees by hopping on a flight to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Back then, at the early stages of the migrant crisis, Italy was the primary entry point for migrants funneling into Europe. Shortly before his trip, a horrific shipwreck off the Libyan coast had left hundreds dead.

Last year, as the crisis escalated and the entry point shifted from Italy to Greece, Francis issued dramatic appeals to Europe’s Catholics, asking every parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to take in one refugee family. His call came as some of the region’s leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, were warning that “waves of mostly Muslim refugees would change the face of ‘Christian’ Europe.” Orban seemed to be advocating a new iron curtain, the building of fortress Europe, of walls rather than bridges. Here, shamelessly, for the world to see, is the universal Christian Gospel message of offering shelter to refugees and strangers in need as a distinct Christian duty, turned up-side-down and made a mockery of by turning into a rationalization for ethnic and nationalistic chauvinism of the worst kind.

To the contrary, in official visits, from Mexico to southern Italy, Francis has championed immigrants and migrants, calling the need to aid them, no matter their faith, a duty of all Christians. As recently as last month, even as Europe was closing its door, he seemed to make a political statement by washing the feet of migrants during Holy Week celebrations.

On Saturday April 16, the pope spoke out against Europe’s policies from the very harbor where people are being deported. He did so even as an epic debate continues throughout the whole of Europe: What do you do about an historic number of people displaced by conflict, more than a million of whom sought sanctuary in Europe last year? Two months ago, Europe abruptly shut down the pipeline, announcing that not only would people be barred from traveling onward from Greece, but all new arrivals would also be shipped back to Turkey. It made good on its threat, sending 325 people back across the sea — despite protestations from human rights groups, and from Pope Francis. And here verbatim is the Pope exhortation: “Facing the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees — fleeing death by war and famine and journeying towards the hope of life — the Gospel calls, asking of us to be close to the smallest and forsaken, to give them a concrete hope.”

But Europe’s leaders have shown little interest in reversing course. European Council President Donald Tusk acknowledged this week that he had “doubts of an ethical nature” about the deportation plan but defended it as necessary “to prevent a political catastrophe,” never mind the moral catastrophe. He pointed out that in January there had been 70,000 new arrivals — a pace that has dropped precipitously since Europe began to block the path.

But rights advocates say it is disgraceful that Europe is turning away people in obvious need of protection, and they hope Francis’s visit can begin a reconsideration, to share the responsibility as a confederation that it claims to be, instead of leaving Greece to handle it on its own. Island residents have been consistently welcoming even when the arrivals surpassed the island’s population.

The Pope’s visit was a chance for the EU to remember the values on which its founding fathers built the union, predominantly Christian values. At a time when xenophobia is on the rise and the call for a renewal of the ancient original European values is on the ascendancy, it is time that the EU remind itself that it was built on human rights, tolerance diversity, and the concept of multi-culturalism. Christianity had much to do with fomenting those values. Most of the EU founding fathers were in fact practicing Christians, not spiritualists or cafeteria style Christians who choose their ethics depending on the day of the week.

When queried on the motivation of their compassion residents of the island of Lesbos reply that their compassion and empathy comes naturally — many are descended from people who fled Turkey in the 1920s. This is exactly the Bible’s message: “show mercy and remember that you too were once refugees in the land of Egypt.”

And this is another secondary initiative of Pope Francis. Most island residents are Orthodox, not Catholic; there is only 300 Catholics who have generously opened their hearts to the refugees with their fellow Orthodox Christians. As a sign of reconciliation within the Christian faith — the pope was accompanied by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, as well as by Greek Archbishop Ieronymos. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also took part.

No doubt about it, the pope’s Lesbos visit will offer a clear message to Europe and its leaders, one they may not welcome but with which they’ll have to deal in the future one way or the other. We can expect the usual protestations and blusters from the religiously challenged and biased, about the pope being naive and how each country has to decide what’s in its best interest, never mind the confederacy called the EU, but admitting that I do not have statistics handy, I dare say, nevertheless, that the vast majority of people around the world will know he’s right and that Europeans will in the future look back on this episode with deep shame and regret. We didn’t take the Jews in 1930s, and that includes the US which turned back a whole ship of thousand of Jewish refugees that had entered a Florida port, because they were too many and too different and had no legal papers for entry; now we in the West refuse to take Muslims for the same reason. Perhaps it would be less hypocritical to stop claiming Christian values and a Christian Europe or a Christian West, and go back to the good old pagan ways of the empire building warrior class. The Romans had a saying that applies perfectly to this sad situation: “corruptio optima pessima” which translates as “the corruption of the best is always the worst kind.”

Author’s note: This article, in a slightly modified form has already appeared in Ovi magazine a few weeks ago.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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What to Do with Extraterritorial Sanctions? EU Responses

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One of the important decisions of the new US administration was its revision of the sanctions policy inherited from President Donald Trump. The “toxic” assets of the departed team include deterioriated relations with the European Union. The divisions between Washington and Brussels have existed since long before Trump’s arrival in the White House. The EU categorically does not accept US extraterritorial sanctions. Back in 1996, the EU Council approved the so-called “Blocking Statute”, designed to protect European businesses from restrictive US measures targeting Cuba, Iran and Libya. For a long time, Washington avoided aggravating relations with the EU, although European companies were subject to hefty fines for violating US sanctions regimes.

The situation deteriorated significantly during the Trump presidency. At least three events served as a cold shower for the EU with respect to the bloc’s relationship with the US. The first was the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA—the “Iranian nuclear deal”. Trump renewed American restrictions on Iran in full, and then significantly expanded them. His demarche forced dozens of large companies from the EU to leave Iran; they were threated by the American authorities with fines and other coercive measures. Brussels was powerless to convince Washington to return to the JCPOA. The EU authorities were also unable to offer their businesses guarantees of reliable protection against punitive measures being taken by the US Treasury and other departments. The second event was Washington’s powerful attack on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Trump has openly opposed the pipeline, although the Obama administration was also against the pipeline. Congress has passed two sanctions laws targeting Russian pipeline projects. The US Congress and the State Department directly warned European business about the threat of sanctions for participating in the project. In addition to Iran and Russia, concern in the EU was also caused by the aggravation of US-Chinese tensions. Brussels distanced itself from Trump’s cavalry attack on China. So far, US restrictions against “Chinese communist military companies”, telecoms and officials have minimally affected the EU. However, Washington aggressively pushed its allies to oust Chinese technology companies. It cannot be ruled out that in the future, US foreign policy towards China will become a problem for Brussels.

For the EU, all these events have become a reason to think about protection from extraterritorial US sanctions. The work on them was carried out by both European expert centres and the European Commission. Currently, we can talk about the formation of a number of strategic goals, the achievement of which should allow the European Union to increase its stability in relation to extraterritorial sanctions of the United States and other countries.

Such goals include the following:

Strengthening the role of the euro in international settlements. Already today, the euro ranks second after the dollar in international payments and reserves. However, unlike the United States, the EU does not use this advantage for political purposes. Many transactions between European businesses and their foreign partners are carried out in US dollars, which makes them more vulnerable to subsequent coercive measures. Calculations in euros could reduce the risk of transactions with those partners against whom the sanctions of the United States or other countries are in effect, but the sanctions of the UN Security Council or the EU itself do not apply. Here the EU authorities have laid serious groundwork and have a good chance of achieving their goal.

1.Creation of payment mechanisms, which cannot be stopped from the outside. INSTEX, a payment channel for humanitarian deals with Iran, is often cited as an example of such mechanisms. In 2020, the first transactions were made. However, success in this area raises questions. INSTEX has been widely advertised by EU politicians, but initial expectations were too high. The mechanism has not yet justified itself, even for humanitarian purposes. The Treasury Department can impose blocking sanctions against INSTEX at any time if it considers that the mechanism is being used to deliberately circumvent US restrictions against Iran. Switzerland’s SHTA mechanism, which is used for humanitarian deals with Iran, looks much better. It was created jointly with the Americans and it should not have any problems with functionality. However, regarding payment mechanisms in the EU, there are not only humanitarian transactions. There’s also the matter of plans to create secure transaction mechanisms in the trade of energy or raw materials; the question of what prospects these have for implementation remains.

2.Ensuring the possibility of unhindered settlements and access to other services for individuals and legal entities in the EU that have come under extraterritorial sanctions. In other words, we are talking about the fact that a citizen or a company from the EU, which fell, for example, under the blocking sanctions of the US Treasury, could make payments within the EU. Now European banks will simply refuse such transactions, and the courts are likely to side with them. In fact, the European Union wants to create infrastructure that has already been created, for example, in Russia. Moscow was considering the establishment of a national payment system even before the large-scale sanctions of 2014. Despite the limited weight of Russia in the global financial system, the country has its own sovereign payment system, which allows its own citizens to carry out transactions on its own territory.

3.Updating the 1996 Blocking Statute. In particular, we are talking about the development of an instrument of compensation for companies that have suffered from extraterritorial sanctions.

4.Creation of information databases in the interests of European companies under the risks of extraterritorial sanctions, as well as the provision of systematic legal assistance to companies that have come under foreign restrictions. In particular, we are talking about assisting European companies and citizens of the EU countries in defending their interests in US courts, as well as using other legal mechanisms, for example, within the WTO.

If necessary—balancing the extraterritorial measures of the United States or other countries with restrictive counter-measures.

However, the EU sanctions agenda is far from limited to the threat of extraterritorial sanctions. Ultimately, the United States is an ally and partner of the EU, which means that the opportunities for smoothing out crisis situations remain broad. Collaboration at the agency level is also highlighted as a recommendation. Moreover, after Trump’s departure, the United States may be more attentive to the concerns of the European Union.

The main priority remains the development of the EU’s own sanctions policy. Here many problems and tasks arise. The main ones include the low speed of decision-making and poor coordination in the implementation of sanctions. The centralisation of sanctions mechanisms in the hands of Brussels is becoming an important task for the European Commission.

The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).

From our partner RIAC

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Trinity for Scrutiny: Council of Europe, Human Rights instruments and Citizens

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Building on the tasteful piece written recently by Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, this article will endeavour to explore further why the Tromsø Convention(Norwegian International Convention on Access to Official Documents)[1], although adopted more than a decade ago, is in fact deserving of much more credit and fuss than it appears to have mustered so far.

To briefly catch everyone up, the Council of Europe (CoE) adopted in 2009 a Convention on Access to Official Documents foreseeing a general and minimal right for all to access public authorities’ official documents. Having entered into force last December, this convention pioneers a uniformed standardised right to obtain official documents and thereby information from official sources.  Evidently, the treaty draws on the pillar values of any and all healthy democracies that are transparency, pluralism and self-development of the individuals making up our civil societies.

Freedom of information, within which the right to access official documents is encompassed, is indeed crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is essential from a somewhat ‘hostile perspective’ in order to oversee public bodies’ conducts and uncover behaviours who clash with Human Rights and might otherwise be sanitized precisely when these call for remediation, sanction and reparation. Secondly, in a ‘friendlier’ outlook, it is indispensable for the purpose of feeding the public debate and thus, allowing for militant democracies, but also to strengthen legitimacy, foster public trust and endorsement of their elected government.

Lastly but perhaps most importantly, it should be pointed out that in a similar manner as the right to life, the freedom of information is in fact a key that opens, if not all, many doors embodied by other ECHR rights such as the freedom of expression and that of thought, procedural guarantees or even the freedom of assembly and association. In effect, without being adequately informed, how could one be aware of their rights and exercise them diligently? Without receiving quality information, how could one forge their convictions and gather with others to share affiliations and work towards a common goal? And without access to verified information, could one really form an educated opinion meant to be expressed freely subsequently?

In addition to being a prerequisite to the proper exercise and enjoyment of other fundamental rights, it also echoes directly with the first article of the ECHR providing for the Contracting Parties’ duty to respect Human Rights – and in reality, render them available to all persons under their jurisdiction. In that sense, the CETS 205 can and should be looked at as a practical example of States fulfilling Human Rights and hence as falling squarely within the same scheme.

Another link certainly worthy of some emphasis is the one that can be made between the advent of such a Treaty and the recent recognition and growing establishment of the right to truth. The right to truth, as devised by Special Rapporteur Louis Joinet in 1996, is made up of several dimensions amongst which there is the right to know. The latter, in turn, involves a right to access archives and historical official documents in order to shed light on past events – and ultimately heal a society. Thus, just like we – the civil society – have a right to know our past so as to reconcile and repair wrongdoings, we also have a right to get acquainted with our present and perhaps prevent wrongdoings at all. Both instruments’ emergence form part of a single reactive movement: the reinforcement and extension of human dignity and a renewed appreciation of individuals through greater access and involvement.

Whilst keeping these elements in mind, let us say a few words about the Convention’s content and characteristics. The project is said to have been guided by the concern of identifying and generalising a core of basic compulsory provisions in a way that will “encourage the Parties to equip themselves with, maintain and reinforce domestic provisions that allow a more extensive right of access, provided that the minimum core is nonetheless implemented.” Hence, this instrument does not purport to be a binding ‘best practice’ guide, but is rather the fruits of a (well-known) compromise resulting in the establishment of a minimum threshold likely to be accepted by the largest majority.

Say we embrace the path taken by the consultative committees and concede that realistic (aka lower) standards will amass more signatures and spread wider its application, what then of an equally realistic rapid examination of the outcome? Indeed, since its adoption in 2009, only ten countries have ratified the Convention whilst the instrument is said to merely reassert what already exists in most internal frameworks of the CoE countries.

The puzzlement does not end there: when looking closer at the contracting parties, one cannot help but notice that the ‘star students’ are MIA. European countries that ranked in 2018 in the top 10 of the world-wide Human Freedom Index[2] such as Switzerland (2nd), Germany (9th), Denmark (4th), or Ireland (7th) are nowhere to be found on the ratification addendum of the Convention. It is hard to imagine why such States that are already doing so well in that area would not want to lead the example and reaffirm principles that match their internal policies.

Commissioner Dunja, for her part, had highlighted that although the majority of CoE’s members have already adopted freedom of information laws on the domestic level, some definite issues remain with regard to their practical enforcement. This referred to disparities in degrees of transparency depending on the public body as well as failures to meet requirements set for proactive disclosure. We may then wonder, provided those trends are correct, if – ironically – there could exist a lack of transparency on those regulations. In other words, if national laws on freedom of information already exist almost everywhere in Europe but they do not satisfy the thresholds put forward by the Convention in practice, civil society should know about it to remedy the situation.

Still, you may wonder: why is it so important that we enquire about, and ensure that, a smooth implementation is possible on the domestic or – if need be – regional level? Because although this article has managed to avoid bringing up COVID-19 so far, the current pandemic only enhances the stakes surrounding an effective freedom of information. As we all know by now, in times of emergency, rapid and impactful decisions have to be taken. These decisions are then in that sense less prone to gather strong consensus and yet more likely to concern the public given the serious nature of the decisions’ object.

The year 2020 has shown that misinformation and somewhat tendentious media coverage of the pandemic’s evolution was damaging enough in terms of civil discontentment and eroding our trust in the Government. But adding to that the withholding of some facts and a lack of transparency on the part of public officials is simply a recipe for disaster.

This can perhaps be better grasped when looking at the cases of France versus Sweden. Civil unrest and vocal dissents have been taking place last year against the French government, said to be lacking transparency on several issues such as shortages of equipment, rationale for measures chosen, allocation of vaccines or even the number of vaccinations. In the fall of last year, a local survey recorded that two-third of the French citizens did not trust their leaders to fight COVID efficiently. The handling of the crisis tainted with obscurity and ambiguities resulted in an unfortunate loss of popularity for President Macron and civil disobedience.

In contrast, the Sweden government remained consistent with its strong stand on, and reputation for, transparency towards its population taking roots notably in a national law favouring public scrutiny adopted in 1766. Their tradition of ‘ultra-transparency’ as is sometimes called is closely related to the country’s culture of shared responsibility and mutual respect between State and citizens. With the national Agency for Public Health taking the lead on the crisis management by remaining very open on the data available and reasons for pursuing collective immunity survey showed in Spring 2020 that nearly 80% of the population entrusted both their health system and the national Agency. Moreover, this ought to be placed against a backdrop where even the King of Sweden did publicly air his reservations regarding the confinement-sceptic management.

Now whatever anyone thinks of the Swedish strategy a posteriori, it must be acknowledged that not only did their information and transparency handling maintain its citizens, numbers show it even did as much as increase the legitimacy of their prime minister. To top it off, Sweden is one of the first to have ratified the CETS 205.

To put it plainly: some countries’ tendencies to filter information, strive to maintain composure and showcase confidence in uncertain times simply proves to be more detrimental than an approach where full transparency and efficient dissemination of available information is endorsed at the risk of revealing some inconsistencies or displaying dubiety in the process.

It is hoped that this can serve as a support for reflection around the understatement of international agreements we may take for granted such as the one 2009 Convention on Access to Official Information and the realisation that in our case, having ratified such a document could be a real game-changer in the second phase of our pandemic and rehabilitate good governance where it has been shattered.


[1]hereinafter referred to in the text as ‘CETS 205’.

[2]Which, for the record, encompasses personal, civil and economic freedoms, and is based on indicators in various areas such as the rule of law, the freedom of expression and information, that of association and assembly as well as civil society.

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Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now

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Laura Codruta Kövesi © CC-BY Flickr/usembassyromania

EU chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, rejected almost all of the Bulgarian candidates nominated by Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to serve in the new EU prosecutor office. Most of the proposed candidates have no experience as prosecutors, no experience in pleading, no experience in criminal investigations, and no experience in investigating EU funds. Laura Kovesi is reportedly irritated, and here in Bulgaria we certainly share her frustration with Ivan Geshev, as I have also previously argued for EurActivEuronews and LSE.

The new EU chief prosecutor office is tasked with the very narrow mandate of going after EU funds theft or mismanagement. It has to stick to EU funds related cases only; it does not cover all legal issues as an overarching EU prosecutor service which could potentially correct mistakes at the national level — much to the dissatisfaction of local groups. We’d really much rather have the option to turn to an EU prosecutor for many other cases but the EU system is a la cart, not a free choice menu. That’s why, in her very narrowly defined legal mandate, particular EU-funds experience is key to the new posts that Kovesi is trying to fill.

This is Kovesi’s first blow against the Bulgarian chief prosecutor who was convinced that the Bulgarian institutions are sending their best and brightest to the new high profile EU office. Unfortunately, most of the candidates turned out to be highly inadequate for the very specialized job at hand. Reportedly, no other country had its candidates rejected.

The question — as with any international nominations — persists: couldn’t they really find candidates who will be able to hit the ground running, ready to aggressively suck their teeth in EU funds crimes, which let’s face it, Bulgaria has a lot of? Surely, there must be Bulgarian prosecutors who have criminal, funds-related cases under their belt. Aren’t there any Bulgarian prosecutors who have successfully closed with convictions EU-funds theft, embezzlement, fraud, waste, and mismanagement cases in the Bulgarian system? Surely, these seem like the top candidates and most obvious choices for the Bulgarian chief prosecutor. People like that are the ones that know the nuts and bolts, and the legal tricks in the Bulgarian system. They would be Kovesi’s fiercest hounds in Bulgaria and that would be a good thing, right? Seasoned, fierce hounds ready to turn everything upside down: these are the kinds of people that Ivan Geshev wants as European prosecutors, right? 

But something tells me that these candidates were the first to be struck down by Geshev. Bulgaria is demonstrating from the outset, before the work has even began, that addressing EU funds crimes is the last thing on this Administration’s mind. And the upcoming elections in April will not change that because the Bulgarian chief prosecutor has a mandate of 7 years, and he is the one that decides who gets an EU prosecutor nomination.

As we await the second batch of candidates after this political blow, the message has been sent. Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now but please be assured that your call is very important to us. We will return your call as soon as we can.

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