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The Immigrant “Other” in US and EU Politico-Religious Experiences: A Comparative Perspective

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Can the EU welcome and integrate the immigrant “other”?

Nowadays this urgent question is often asked by historians, sociologists, and political scientists. It has given rise to a plethora of books and academic conferences on the subject (see below for a sample). In the light of the events of the recent “refugee European crisis” the conclusions and prognosis are, more often than not, rather inconclusive and ineffective. In the short analysis that follows I’d like to examine the reasons for the deficiency, namely that the philosophy of religion is often ignored, if not downright excluded from the diagnosis, thus ending up with the wrong prognosis.

Another aspect of the wrong diagnosis is the lack of comparative perspective on the issue. By that I mean a hard look at the immigrant experiences of both the American and European continents, preferably by scholars who have lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, it was European societies that were the primary immigrant-sending regions to America, South Africa, Oceania and Australia and just about every corner of the globe during the colonial industrialization phase of their history (1700-1920); we are talking about some 85 million Europeans; some 60% of which emigrated to the Americas (some 50 millions).

The present paradox is that the flow has now reversed and several Western European societies have now in turn become centers of global immigration. A comparison is logical and in order. There may be hard lessons to be learned from it. There is now a ratio of approximately 10% immigrants living in several European countries (UK, France, Holland, West Germany, Italy). However, they still have difficulty viewing themselves as permanent immigrant societies, the way the US viewed and continues to view itself; or for that matter of viewing the native second generations as nationals irrespective of the legal status of their citizenship. A de facto, second rate citizenship seems to be in place. The question arises: Why is that?

This question can only be answered by analyzing how these Western European countries have tried to accommodate immigrant religions, particularly Islam. Although European laws and regulations are now in place, each nation, deals with immigrant religions in markedly different institutional and legal structures on how the immigrants may publicly express religious beliefs and practices. Here a thorough knowledge of modern Western European history vis a vis religion can be useful in assessing the different reactions of various EU nations.

The French model of laicitè (or secularism) is primary in this respect. In practice secularism means a strict privatization of religion, its elimination from the public forum, while pressuring religious groups to organize themselves into a single centralized churchlike structure and serve as intermediary between it and the state, so as to better regulate and manipulate it. The model is in part the concordat with the Catholic Church established in Italy in 1929. Religion is tolerated but it is a private matter even when its symbols are pervasive in the country’s traditional culture. A great wall of separation between Church and State exists, as indeed is also the case in the US whose founding fathers well remembered the disastrous European wars of religions of the 17th century.

Great Britain, by contrast, while maintaining the established Church of England, allows greater freedom to religious associations, who deal directly with local authorities and school boards to press for changes in religious education, diet, etc., with little direct appeal to the central government. Germany, following the multi-establishment model, has tried to organize a quasi-official Islamic institution, at times in conjunction with parallel strivings on the part of the Turkish state to regulate its diaspora. But the internal divisions among immigrants from Turkey, as well as the public expression and mobilization of competing identities (secular and Muslim, Alevi and Kurd) in the German democratic context, have undermined any project of institutionalization from above. Holland, following its traditional pattern of pillarization, seemed, at least until very recently, bent on establishing a separate state-regulated but self-organized Muslim pillar. Lately, however, even traditionally liberal and tolerant Holland is expressing second thoughts, and seems ready to pass more restrictive legislation setting clear limits to the kinds of un-European, un-modern norms and habits it is prepared to tolerate.

But let us now look more closely at the comparison between the EU and the US. If one looks at the European Union as a whole, there are two fundamental differences with the situation in the United States. In Europe, first of all, immigration and Islam are almost synonymous. The overwhelming majority of immigrants in most European countries, the UK being the main exception, are Muslims, and the overwhelming majority of Western European Muslims are immigrants. This identification appears even more pronounced in those cases where the majority of Muslim immigrants tend to come predominantly from a single region, e.g., Turkey in the case of Germany, the Ma’ghreb in the case of France. This entails a superimposition of different dimensions of “otherness” that exacerbates issues of boundaries, accommodation and incorporation. The immigrant, the religious, the racial, and the socio-economic de-privileged “other” all tend to coincide.

In the United States, on the other hand, Muslims constitute at most 10 percent of all new immigrants. it is estimated that from 30 to 42 percent of all Muslims in the United States are African-American converts to Islam, making the characterization of Islam as a foreign, un-American religion even more difficult. The dynamics of interaction with other Muslim immigrants, with African-American Muslims, with non-Muslim immigrants from the same regions of origin, and with their immediate American hosts are, depending on socio-economic characteristics and residential patterns, much more complex and diverse than anything one finds in Europe. A nuance this which escapes the simple-minded approach of a Donald Trump and his cohorts.

The second main difference has to do with the role of religion and religious group identities in public life and in the organization of civil society. Western European societies are deeply secular societies, shaped by the hegemonic knowledge regime of secularism. As liberal democratic societies, they tolerate and respect individual religious freedom. But due to the increasing pressure towards the privatization of religion, which among European societies is now taken for granted as a characteristic of the self-definition of modern secular society, those societies have much greater difficulty in offering a legitimate role for religion in public life, and in the organization and mobilization of collective group identities. Muslim organized collective identities and their public representations become a source of anxiety, not only because of their religious otherness as a non-Christian and non-European religion, but, even more significantly, because of their religiousness itself as the “other” of European secularity. Presently, a post-secular Europe as envisioned by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is not on the horizon yet, if anything, things are going from bad to worse with the advent of right-wing ultra-nationalistic parties resurgent all over Europe and threatening the democratic system buttressed by Christian principles as envisioned by the EU founding fathers, the likes of Aedenauer, Schuman, Monet, De Gasperi, etc.

In this context, the temptation to identify Islam and fundamentalism becomes all the more pronounced. Islam, by definition, becomes the other of Western secular modernity allegedly rooted in a universal European enlightenment. Therefore, the problems posed by the incorporation of Muslim immigrants become consciously or unconsciously associated with seemingly related and vexatious issues concerning the role of religion in the public sphere, which is a question European societies assumed they had already solved according to the liberal secular norm of the privatization of religion. The assumption has resulted premature.

Americans, by contrast, are demonstrably more religious than Europeans. Therefore there is a certain pressure for immigrants to conform to American religious norms. It is generally the case that immigrants in America tend to be more religious than they were in their home countries. I can confirm this on a personal level: I do not remember my parents attending Church on a regular basis on Sunday in Italy while they did so once they emigrated to America. I am quite sure such was the case for my grandfather once he emigrated to New York when my father was born in 1912.

But even more significantly, today as in the past, religion and public religious denominational identities play an important role in the process of incorporating new immigrants. The thesis of Will Herberg concerning the old European immigrant, that “not only was he expected to retain his old religion, as he was not expected to retain his old language or nationality, but such was the shape of America that it was largely in and through religion that he, or rather his children and grandchildren, found an identifiable place in American life,” is still operative with the new immigrants. The thesis implies that collective religious identities have been one of the primary ways of structuring internal societal pluralism in American history.

Due to the corrosive logic of racialization, so pervasive in American society, the dynamics of religious identity formation assume a double positive form in the process of immigrant incorporation. Given the institutionalized acceptance of religious pluralism, the affirmation of religious identities is enhanced among the new immigrants. This positive affirmation is reinforced, moreover, by what appears to be a common defensive reaction by most immigrant groups against ascribed racialization, particularly against the stigma of racial darkness. In this respect, religious and racial self-identifications and ascriptions represent alternative ways of organizing American multiculturalism. One of the obvious advantages of religious pluralism over racial pluralism is that, under proper constitutional institutionalization, it is more reconcilable with principled equality and non-hierarchic diversity, and therefore with genuine multiculturalism.

American society is indeed entering a new phase. The traditional model of assimilation, turning European nationals into American “ethnics,” can no longer serve as a model of assimilation now that immigration is literally worldwide. America is bound to become “the first new global society” made up of all world religions and civilizations, at a time when religious civilizational identities are regaining prominence at the global level. At the very same moment that political scientists like Samuel Huntington are announcing the impending clash of civilizations in global politics, a new experiment in intercivilizational encounters and accommodation between all the world religions is taking place at home. American religious pluralism is expanding and incorporating all the world religions in the same way as it previously incorporated the religions of the old immigrants. A complex process of mutual accommodation is taking place. Like Catholicism and Judaism before, other world religions, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism are being “Americanized” and in the process they are transforming American religion, while, much as American Catholicism had an impact upon the transformation of world Catholicism and American Judaism has transformed world Judaism, the religious diasporas in America are serving as catalysts for the transformation of the old religions in their civilizational homes.

This process of institutionalization of expanding religious pluralism is facilitated by the dual clause of the First Amendment which guarantees “no establishment” of religion at the state level, and therefore the strict separation of church and state and the genuine neutrality of the secular state, as well as the “free exercise” of religion in civil society. The latter includes strict restrictions on state intervention and on the administrative regulation of the religious field. It is this combination of a rigidly secular state and the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion in society that distinguishes the American institutional context from the European one. In Europe one finds, on the one extreme, the case of France, where a secularist state not only restricts and regulates the exercise of religion in society but actually imposes its republican ideology of laïcité on society, and, on the other, the case of England, where an established state church is compatible with wide toleration of religious minorities and the relatively unregulated free exercise of religion.

As liberal democratic systems, all European societies respect the private exercise of religion, including Islam, as an individual human right. It is the public and collective free exercise of Islam as an immigrant religion that most European societies find difficult to tolerate, precisely on the grounds that Islam is perceived as an “un-European” religion. The stated rationales for considering Islam “un-European” vary significantly across Europe, and among social and political groups. For the anti-immigrant, xenophobic, nationalist Right, represented by Le Pen’s discourse in France and Jörg Haider’s in Austria, the message is straightforward: Islam is unwelcome and un-assimilable, simply because it is a “foreign” immigrant religion. Such a nativist and usually racist attitude can be differentiated clearly from the conservative “Catholic” position, paradigmatically expressed by the Cardinal of Bologna when he declared that Italy should welcome immigrants of all races and regions of the world, but should particularly select Catholic immigrants in order to preserve the country’s Catholic identity.

Sad to say, when it comes to Islam, secular Europeans usually liberal in their views on religion in general, tend to reveal the limits and prejudices of modern secularist toleration. The politically correct formulation tends to run along such lines as “we welcome each and all immigrants irrespective of race or religion as long as they are willing to respect and accept our modern liberal secular European norms.” Revealingly enough, some time ago Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in his address to the French legislature defending the banning of ostensibly religious symbols in public schools, made reference in the same breath to France as “the old land of Christianity” and to the inviolable principle of laïcité, exhorting Islam to adapt itself to the principle of secularism as all other religions of France have done before. “For the most recently arrived, I’m speaking here of Islam, secularism is a chance, the chance to be a religion of France.” The Islamic veil and other religious signs are justifiably banned from public schools, he added, because “they are taking on a political meaning,” while according to the secularist principle of privatization of religion, “religion cannot be a political project.” Time will tell whether the restrictive legislation will have the intended effect of stopping the spread of “radical Islam,” or whether it is likely to bring forth the opposite result of further radicalizing an already alienated and maladjusted immigrant community.

The positive rationale one hears among liberals in support of such illiberal restrictions on the free exercise of religion is usually put in terms of the desirable enforced emancipation of young girls, against their expressed will if necessary, from gender discrimination and patriarchal control. This was the discourse on which the assassinated liberal politician Pim Fortuyn built his electorally successful anti-immigrant platform in liberal Holland, a campaign that is now bearing fruit in new restrictive legislation. While conservative religious persons are expected to tolerate behavior they may consider morally abhorrent such as homosexuality, liberal secular Europeans are openly stating that European societies ought not to tolerate religious behavior or cultural customs that are morally abhorrent, insofar as they are contrary to modern liberal secular European norms. What makes the intolerant tyranny of the secular liberal majority justifiable in principle is not just the democratic principle of majority rule, but the secularist teleological assumption, built into theories of modernization, that one set of norms is reactionary, fundamentalist and anti-modern, while the other is progressive, liberal and modern.

In conclusion, from the above considerations and reflections, we can safely assume that sociological-historical considerations, while helpful for the analysis of the issue of religion vis a vis the secular “enlightened” state, are not sufficient by themselves to arrive at a proper diagnosis and prognosis of the problem. What is also needed, and is solely missing in the ongoing dialogue, is an analysis that takes seriously and incorporates the philosophy of religion. Without a philosophy of religion the analysis and consequently the prognosis will continue to remain incomplete and ineffective. But let the dialogue continue among people of good will, be they believers or non-believers.

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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EU to mount decisive summit on Kosovo

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The European Union is planning to hold an important summit on Kosovo in October this year with a view to get Belgrade and Pristina to normalize bilateral relations. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will pose as guarantors of the deal. Reports say a senior US official may take part in the Paris summit as well. The participation of the American side was strongly advocated by the authorities in Kosovo, headed by President Hashim Thachi.

If this scenario goes ahead, Serbia may face pressure from both the USA and the EU. The West plans to require Belgrade to not only de facto recognize Kosovo but to confirm the course for European integration – which, according to Brussels, means departure from a comprehensive partnership with Russia and from the signing of a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) scheduled for the end of October.

Given the situation, Serbian leaders are set on consolidating Belgrade’s position in the forthcoming talks by reducing international support for Pristina. To this end, Belgrade is trying to persuade countries that previously recognized Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence to reconsider their positions and withdraw their statements. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has already announced in wake of consultations on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that the number of countries that recognize Kosovo’s independence will dwindle by the end of this year. According to Dacic, such countries will make up less than half of the world community.

According to the Serbian Foreign Minister, the Serbian delegation led by President Aleksandar Vucic succeeded in holding talks in New York with representatives of about a hundred states on withdrawing recognition of Kosovo’s independence. “The President spoke with representatives of some states about strategic issues, about a dialogue with Pristina, but there were also many meetings dedicated specifically to the status of Kosovo and Metohija. As the president announced, our citizens can be sure that in the near future the number of countries that will withdraw or “freeze” their recognition of Kosovo will increase,”- Ivica Dacic said.

In recent years, the number of countries that recognize Kosovo’s independence has decreased, though so far mainly due to small American and African states. Among them are the Comoros, Dominica, Suriname, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, Grenada.

The persistency with which the US and the EU is trying to “press” for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina and force Serbia to cut down on its active cooperation with Russia has yet again pushed the Serbs into streamlining their national foreign policy priorities. According to available data, Brussels is ready to slap more conditions on Belgrade, including the most painful of the Balkan issues, not only on Kosovo, but also on Bosnia and Herzegovina. For one, as Serbian Minister of Technological Development and Innovation Nenad Popovic said,  one of the conditions for Serbia becoming a member of the EU could be recognition of the “genocide” in Srebrenica.

This is confirmed by Zoran Milosevic, an expert at the Institute for Political Studies in Belgrade, who sees the new condition as nothing unexpected, since some EU member states, and also Switzerland, have passed a law that envisages criminal liability for the denial of the so-called “genocide in Srebrenica.” Some  European countries are already following suit having drafted the relevant bills to be submitted to parliament. “Something of this kind was proposed by the High Representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko. What is the point of adopting laws in defense of this counterfeit on the genocide in Srebrenica if they do not make a condition for Serbia’s membership in the EU?” – Zoran Milosevic points out. The mere word “condition”, he says, signifies that Serbia “is treated as a minor who needs to grow to perfection and fight tooth and claw to enter the EU”. Serbia “accepted this burden of its own free will” the day its parliament passed a resolution according to which the country’s strategic goal is European integration, ” – said the Serbian expert.

He also made it clear that it was by no means accidental that Brussels never announced the full list of conditions for Serbia’s membership in the European Union: “If they did, it would tie the hands of pro-Western Serbian politicians. So they release more and more conditions gradually, one after another. First, it was about recognizing Kosovo – whether this is a condition for EU membership or not. It turned out that it is. Now it is about the recognition of “genocide” in Srebrenica. It is said that Serbia’s entry into NATO will also be a condition for joining the European Union. And, as in the previous cases, we are wondering if such a condition exists or not. As a result, it will turn out that there is. ”

Where Brussels’ pressure on Belgrade is particularly noticeable at present is Serbia’s intention to sign a free trade agreement with the EAEU at the end of October. According to the Minister of Trade of Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) Veronika Nikishina, negotiations between the EAEU and Serbia on the creation of a free trade zone are over with the parties involved preparing to sign the agreement on October 25. Nikishina says the document will be signed in Moscow by the prime ministers of the five member states of the EAEU, the Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabic and the Chairman of the EEC Board Tigran Sargsyan. Even though Serbia has agreements on a free trade zone with three of the five EAEU members – Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, the transition to a common free trade regime has several advantages, emphasizes Veronika Nikishina: “Three bilateral deals that were signed earlier and were not fully identical are being harmonized, giving Armenia and Kyrgyzstan the opportunity of preferences in preferential trade. ”

Also, a trade agreement provides access of the EAEU members to the Serbian market: “For example, it concerns certain kinds of cheeses, some strong alcoholic drinks, and cigarettes from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which could not enter the Serbian market under the free trade regime. And it also spreads on various types of engineering products that have also been removed from bilateral agreements.” “In other words, we give a fully-fledged free trade status to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia and improve the existing bilateral free trade arrangements for Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia,”  – the Minister for Trade of the EEC emphasizes.

According to Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications Rasim Lyayic, an agreement with the EAEU may allow the country to increase its export volumes by nearly 1.5 times. According to the minister, in 2018 Serbia’s trade turnover with the EAEU countries amounted to about 3.4 billion dollars, of which 1.1 billion accounted for exports, mainly to Russia. Exports into the EAEU will increase to $ 1.5 billion within a few years after the agreement comes into force, the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister predicts.

According to the Bruegel International Analytical Center, in 2016, 62% of all Serbian imports came from EU countries, 8.3% from China, 7.9% from Russia. 64% of the republic’s exports go to the EU, 17.8% to other Balkan countries, 5.3% to Russia.

Naturally, the EU is more than concerned about Serbia’s trade and economic policy following a different direction. Brussels has already warned the Serbian government that a free trade agreement with the EAEU could harm integration with the EU. “You can’t follow several directions at once,” – said Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, thereby warning Belgrade and expressing the position of his counterparts in the European Union: “If you are serious about Europe, you must make decisions that bring you closer to it, but this move is totally out of line. ”  

Meanwhile, Serbia maintains composure and has no intention of giving up on the plans. Explaining his country’s decision to conclude an agreement with the EAEU, Rasim Lyayic said that it follows economic agenda alone: “It is not about politics, but about trade.”

According to the minister, a refusal to sign an agreement with the EAEU would call into question a free trade agreement with Russia.

The EAEU is calm about warnings addressed to Serbia, – Veronika Nikishina says: “Until Serbia becomes a full-fledged member of the European Union, it has full autonomy in its trade policy. “In our agreement there are no obligations on the formation of a trade regime between Serbia and the European Union, which is absolutely impossible to imagine.” Nikishina made it clear that until Serbia joins the EU, “we are trading with it in a regime we consider appropriate, and we will upgrade this regime.” As for Serbia entering the EU (which is a matter of remote future), in this case “all agreements of this kind, including our agreement, naturally, will have to be terminated,” – Veronika Nikishina says.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that pressure on Belgrade, both in terms of recognizing Kosovo and in connection with relations with Russia and the EAEU, will boost considerably in the coming weeks. In these conditions, the Serbian authorities will obviously have to assume a more determined position with regard to the country’s list of national priorities. 

From our partner International Affairs

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EU politicians turn to “ball of snakes” to make own careers

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Some of EU politicians are very successful in making their careers using the weak points of the European Union member states.

Current tensions between Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and NATO (including EU countries) lead to the development of many expensive programs and projects that European taxpayers have to pay for.

Current security situation provides a huge space for ambitious politicians. Those, in turn, involve the population of European countries in an arms race, trying to achieve personal goals at the expense of frightened citizens.

Thus, such statements as: “we’re at war”, “Russia and China threaten Europe and the Word”, “we need to increase defence spending” are populist in nature and distract attention of people from more pressing social issues. The more so, loud statements let such experts be in the centre of attention in European politics.

Thus, new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has flagged her ambition for political weight to take more responsibility for defence programs and projects.

“That’s likely to trigger turf wars with EU national governments, NATO and the United States over who should be in charge of European military cooperation and the West’s lucrative defence industry,” writes Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO and a senior fellow at the think-tank Friends of Europe.

Franco-German efforts to press EU countries to buy European military equipment rather than U.S. vehicles and weapons have not been successful yet. But taking into account the pertinacity of French and German politicians in the EU governing bodies it could become a reality. Though the Baltic countries, the Netherlands, and Poland, are suspicious of such plans.

“They simply want the best value for money and quality for their limited defence budgets. The Poles and Balts believe they get an unspoken extra level of bilateral defence insurance if they buy U.S. equipment beyond NATO’s mutual defence clause.” explains Paul Taylor.

This is one of the few cases when small Baltic States oppose European influencers – France and Germany. On October, 2 in his interview to Europäische Sicherheit & Technik, Raimundas Karoblis, the Minister of Defence of the Republic of Lithuania said that he hates even the subject of European military autonomy. He totally relies on NATO.

So, in this fight for decision making in the European Union only one side will loose – people of the countries who will pay for NATO or European defence projects.

People are only the tools of satisfaction of political ambitions. In case of peace in Europe they will pay for excessive amount of military equipment and foreign personnel deployment. In case of war they will be the targets of missiles.

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Sovereignty versus nature: Central and Eastern Europe not ready to fight for environment at all costs

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While attending the UN Climate Summit in New York, French President Emmanuel Macron urged European environmental activists to look in the direction of some countries of Eastern Europe, in the first place, those that this summer came up against the “EU initiative to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050”.

The 2050 deadline was first voiced in a report prepared last year by the UN Intergovernmental Commission on Climate Change. According to the authors of the Report, humanity will be able to avoid the worst effects of climate change if it reduces greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the middle of the century. The proposal in support of the United Nations initiative by EU countries  put forward by the European Commission in November last year  envisages a set of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions  next to zero; and to compensate for the residual emissions by taking agricultural and technological measures aimed at extracting carbon from the atmosphere. In March this year, as members of the European Council discussed the details of the initiative, the initial reaction, according to media reports, was “cautious”.  Only 8 EU member states  supported it unconditionally.

However, “the situation had changed a lot” by May: the G8 addressed the other EU members with a proposal to fundamentally step up efforts to avert climate change. The participants in the discussion suggested channelling for these purposes a quarter of the total EU budget for the period 2021-2027. In addition, they proposed to introduce a ban on EU subsidies for projects that could worsen greenhouse gas emissions into the environment. And they also called for supporting the Community’s commitment to the “zero emission” target by 2050 “as a deadline.” . According to observers, what led to a rapid change in the attitude of many EU countries to the issue was a wave of environmental protests that swept through a number of major European cities, including London, Brussels, Stockholm, Paris and Berlin. Also, the change in attitudes could be attributed to the success of the “green parties” in the elections to the European Parliament held in May.

In Eastern Europe, the new “super-ambitious” climate initiatives were met with outright mistrust. During a summit in Brussels at the end of June, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and, with certain reservations, Estonia, blocked a clause on the implementation of the “2050 Initiative” in the EU strategy for 2019–2024 . Instead of clearly defined obligations of the European Union, with a fixed deadline of 2050, vague wordings were added to the final document. Under the new agreement, only an “overwhelming majority of member states” intend to achieve a zero impact of their economies on the climate, the so-called “climate neutrality”, by 2050 . The refusal of EU members to unanimously support the new climate strategy has also cast doubt on the commitments undertaken by the EU under the Paris Climate Agreement. At the moment, all EU countries are obliged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent of the 1990 level by 2020. And  by 40 percent by 2030. However, many member states cannot meet  these requirements, some “significantly”. The decisions taken in Paris in 2015 require signatories to prevent a rise in global temperature by more than two degrees Celsius. And “ideally”, the temperatures should not increase by more than 1.5 degrees.

Countries of Eastern Europe came up against the new commitments even despite the “softening” of the original wording. Technically, the EU may soon get back to discussing the initiative: after the EU presidency goes to Finland, the issue can be added to the agenda again. Finland is one of the most ardent supporters of stepping up measures to address climate change. However, the recent failure means that, in practical terms, the EU will be able to return to the problem only after 2024. As they explain their position, the Polish authorities focus on preserving the country’s energy security, – up to 80 percent of the country’s electric power is still generated using coal. Warsaw also advocates a substantial increase in subsidies from the EU budget for upgrading the energy sector. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic has pointed out that it is impossible to predict what course the events will take in 30 years. Finally, a country’s formal endorsement of the “2050 Initiative” does not necessarily presuppose unconditional support for the EU climate policy in practice. According to the NGO Climate Action Network Europe, in addition to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia, a cautious position has been demonstrated by Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania and Croatia. Austria, Greece, Cyprus and Latvia have a number of  reservations.

What are countries of Central and Eastern Europe afraid of? First of all, they fear for the economy. Decades after they switched to market economy, their per capita income is 2 to 2.5 times less than in Germany or France. Less diversification of economies, technologically and infrastructurally outdated generating capacities – all this puts Eastern Europeans on the losing side against the background of the more developed members of the European Union. Meanwhile, many leaders of Central and Eastern Europe owe their popularity with voters to the high rates of economic growth. It is no accident then that the success of the “greens” in Eastern Europe was much more modest than in the west and in the center. Eastern European voters are literally frightened by the high cost of today’s “green” technologies, which promise far from clear prospects and only after decades. Politicians cannot but take into account public sentiments at home. In addiiton, the EU economy is slowing down. Even Germany, whose production chains attract many suppliers from the “east”, teeters on the brink of recession. Not surprisingly, environmental issues in such a situation are fading into the background.

In addition, the ambitious slogans about the forthcoming triumph of “green” technologies do not always have a leg to stand on. In February The Economist reported that the income level of traditional energy companies is still higher than the performance of renewable energy projects. The global demand for oil continues to grow by 1-2 percent yearly – just like in the previous fifty years. Most environmental activists are still driving cars and using airplanes. It would be premature to rely on breakthrough technologies, which are not available for mass production yet. The volume of investments in renewable energy sources around the world is about 300 billion dollars a year – a drop in the ocean compared to investments in the development of fossil fuels. And even though they talk much about the early arrival of electric cars, in 2030, up to 85 percent of cars will still be running on internal combustion engines.

Meanwhile, the “2050 Initiative” in its current form is too vague to sound convincing, does not contain any, at least preliminary, estimates of potential costs or possible damage to economic growth. Given the situation, it is very difficult to convince the majority of voters that measures aimed at reducing harmful emissions will not inflict a catastrophic blow to their personal well-being. What makes it all worse is not only by the “bad example” of the USA, which many CEE countries are looking to. After America withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017,  the Trump administration has been taking steps to revive the national coal industry. Even such environmentally advanced countries as France and Germany have yet to devise a policy that could convince wide sections of society of the benefits of higher prices for eco-friendly products and services. One of the motives behind mass protests of the “yellow vests” in France was fears that that the government would boost taxes under the pretext of the need to “spend more on “green “technologies.” As for tax cuts to stimulate the economy, the proposal is not popular with top-level officials in most EU countries. Meanwhile, fiscal incentives, which encourage public support for technological and cultural changes that come handy for combating climate change, are seen by specialists as one of the most reasonable measures that can alleviate the fears of skeptics.

Since most countries of the world are characterized by a “mixed” picture of the  “pluses” and “minuses” of global warming, many people in the east of the EU are questioning the point of introducing a fundamental change to the economic structure of several decades in an attempt to reverse the negative climatic phenomena in the environment. Should we focus instead on political, economic and social measures that would help individual countries and associations to adapt to the objective trends in nature? Or, could it be an attempt, under the guise of solving environmental problems, to restrict development opportunities for competitor countries, either present or potential.

In the conditions of ever-increasing rivalry between states, the environmental issue becomes a convenient and attractive tool to discredit the opponents. East Europeans point out that rich countries, including Great Britain and Germany, are still using coal in order to maintain their economic growth. In many cases, it means tax exemptions and even budget subsidies. A dramatic reduction in the use of coal for production purposes and heating needs may require extensive political efforts, including an increase in subsidies from EU funds, for which Western members of the alliance will not be ready for years to come. For some environmental groups, the struggle for the protection of the environment outweighs any objective needs for the development of both individual territories and entire states. At times, it is next to impossible to separate the recklessly sincere idealism from the “lobbying of new-type corporate interests”. As a result, criticism of the fuel-based development model turns out to be an instrument of competition that promotes the interests of the green economy — which is, as it has become clear in recent years, far from ecologically perfect.

The conflict over how to harmonize the environmental policy runs the risk of becoming yet another confirmation of an alarming trend for the EU of late. It turned out that “subsidies from the European Union are no longer part of its policy, which was designed to compensate for the internal imbalance in the EU, but rather a kind of gift for loyalty. We mean the well-known ‘divide-and-rule’ policy ”, a deliberate separation of countries and regions in the Community that are not ready to unconditionally follow the decisions which are passed by the leading countries and Brussels.

Is the EU able to “overcome the de facto economic, social and cultural inequalities” which are still visible among its members? Or will these inequalities be joined by ecological and climatic ones over time?

Finally, radicalism among the ecologists frightens even Western Europeans. Emmanuel Macron demonstrated skepticism over the statements made in the UN by Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish activist who became known throughout the world in 2018 thanks to the idea of a global environmental “strike of school students”. According to the French leader, Thunberg’s “radical” position is destructive because it could trigger antagonism in society. The day earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the activist’s speech in the UN, adding, however, that Thunberg had overlooked a number of key trends. The German leader spoke about new technologies and innovations that “play a significant role in energy and climate protection”.

The crises of the past decade have “revealed the ever-growing differences within the European Union”, and have significantly undermined the previously unquestionable authority of “old” Europe in the eyes of many residents of the East. Against the background of a continuing asymmetry in the socio-economic situation, many CEE countries have managed to overcome the effects of the global crisis better than their Western partners. A number of observers have even outlined the prospects of turning Central and Eastern Europe into a “new driver” of economic growth within the entire EU. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that East Europeans are set on preserving the freedom of socio-economic maneuver in climate change issues in order to avoid their unjustified politicization. Russia shares these kinds of aspirations. By ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement, Moscow declares its readiness by joint efforts to work out such a paradigm of relations with nature that would meet the interests of long-term development. Russia is striving to strike a balance between a clean and safe environment, on the one hand, and the preservation of national competitiveness, on the other. 

From our partner International Affairs

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