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Vaclav Havel: the Authentically Humanistic Voice of a European Cultural Hero

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After Brexit and its related confusions in the EU political landscape, the time may have come to remember Václav Havel’s humanistic philosophy as a powerfully heroic voice of the post-cold War political landscape, advocating that Europe recover its own soul; urging a global revolution in human consciousness; reconnecting the story of man to a transcendent principle within the cosmos; nothing less than the voice of Hope.

With the possible exception of Franz Kafka, I know of no modern Czech writer whose political philosophy, within the Western Humanistic tradition, is more inspirational than Václav Havel’s. To my mind the best way to imagine him, is as one of Kafka’s “heroes for our time,” a powerful voice calling us back home to our humanity and urging that Europe know its cultural soul.

This is not to make Havel an esoteric thinker coming out of some Olympian cloud. To the contrary, he is the last arrival of a long line of Czech visionaries and political philosophers who were formed within the crucible of the Cold War. Like Emanuel Levinas, he also discerned that modern reason had become detached from the world of good and evil, had regressed to a Protagorean clever sophistry detached from the ethical.

Husserl had already conveyed a sense of the spiritual crisis of modern Europe by publishing his famous The Crisis of European Science (1936) where he affirms that in the Western World theoretical knowledge has somehow lost contact with living human experience, and that the morally ordered world of our pre-reflective lived experience is the life-world of humankind. All these ideas are perceivable in Havel’s own thinking.

Another strong influence on Havel’s thinking is the philosopher Jan Patocka (1907-1977) who had studied with Husserl and then taught Havel. He was instrumental in publishing Charter 77, the statement of resistance to Soviet occupation and communist ideology for which both Patocka and Havel were jailed by the Communist authorities. It was Patocka who had brought Husserl to Prague as a guest lecturer when Husserl was expelled by the Nazis from Freiburg University. In any case Patocka grouped his writings in a book titled Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. There, we find ample evidence that the subject which most captivated him was that of the human struggle.

In the last essay of this book titled Wars of the 20th century and the 20th century as War Patocka writes a brilliant commentary on fragment 26 of Heraclitus, and interprets his polemos as “struggle, fight, war,” a kind of adversarial relationship with reality, a struggle against the world which ontologically can be compared to realities such as love, compassion, happiness, justice. In fact, for Patocka, polemos, had priority over the other realities. Thus Patocha corrects Husserl’s assumption of an underlying harmony within reality.

These “heretical essays” became a sort of manifesto to rally the Czech citizenry against the Soviet forces of occupation. Those essays insisted that when the ontological supports of hope fail, then personal responsibility must be evoked, in order to establish a community of solidarity. Out of this solidarity arises what Patocka calls “the power of the powerless.”

The legal basis of this solidarity was the 1977 Helsinki Agreement on human rights which affirms that human beings are obliged to discover and protect a valid moral foundation, and one ought not to expect that it be provided by the state or social forces alone. As Patocka himself explains: “There must be a self-evident, non-circumstantial ethic, and unconditional morality. A moral system does not exist to help society function but simply so that man can be human… it is morality which defines man.” This concept of human rights is redolent of the concept of “inalienable rights” which accrue to being human and no state can give or take away, as proclaimed in the American Declaration of Independence.

Be that as it may, what Masaryk, Patocka and Havel have in common is a recognition that as a result of a disharmony which began with Cartesian rationalism, European life and thought were in profound crisis. This of course echoed Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences where the problems of modern philosophy are traced back to Descartes, the beginning of a crisis of self-alienation; something also noticed by Vico, but alas ignored, some two hundred years before in his New Science (1730).

Husserl insists that this profound alienation and dysfunction could not be resolved unless normative status was attributed to Lebenswelt (life-world), the basis of ethical autonomy. Mechanistic science had unfortunately substituted the old awareness that human life belongs to an ordered moral universe. This idea is especially evident in Masaryk’s Suicide as a Mass Phenomenon of Modern Civilization. Nineteenth-century science has, in fact, usurped the authority previously accorded to faith and reason. Masaryk is convinced that it is crucial that humans return to a world of primary experience in order to be reconnected to a vital sense of good and evil. This is also the vital concern of Dostoyevsky’s existential novels.

Havel is part of an ongoing Czech intellectual tradition which, in order to be able to “live in truth” has recourse to Husserl’s Lebenswelt to counter an oppressive Marxist ideology tending toward manipulative, rationalistic and mechanistic theoretical deductions. This is possible only by paying attention to “the flow of life.” Indeed, for Havel “time is a river into which one cannot step twice in the same place” (fragment 21 of Heraclitus).

When Havel in his “Politics and Conscience” (1984) makes reference to Husserl’s distinction of the natural world from “the world of lived experience” by which to approach the spiritual framework of modern Western Civilization and the source of its crisis, he is by implication also invoking Vico’s distinction between the world of nature made by God, and the world of culture made by man. In any case, Havel’s brilliant insight is this: there is a fundamental distinction between the world that can be constructed out of an ideological viewpoint and the world rooted in a trustworthy lived-experience.

Impersonal manipulative forces can be resisted only by the one true power we all possess: our own humanity. This is nothing less than Humanism at its very best. It all begs this question: Where does Havel locate the foundation for this humanity which he finds in the phenomenal experiential world?

The answer can be glimpsed in a letter written in 1989, from prison, to his wife Olga: “Behind all phenomena and discrete entities in the world, we may observe, intimate, or experience existentially in various ways something like a general “order of Being” The essence and order of this order are veiled in mystery; it is as much an enigma as the Sphinx, it always speaks to us differently and always, I suppose, in ways that we ourselves are open to, in ways, to put it simply, that we can hear.” (“Letters to Olga,” letter n. 76)

The reader should notice here that within this “order of Being,” the emphasis is not on sight, on clear and distinct Cartesian ideas, but on hearing, on the perception of the mysterious. In 1994, in a lecture at Stamford University Havel also makes reference to “unconscious experience,” as well as “archetypes and archetypal visions.” This echoes Jung’s collective unconscious and the archetypes, or the idea of fundamental experiences shared by the entire human race, found in all cultures, no matter how distant in space and time they may be from one another.

What is unique to Havel is that, like Vico, he sees the history of the cosmos recorded in the inner workings of all human beings: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. Moreover, the history of the cosmos is projected into man’s own creations, it is the story of man, and it joins us together. Even after thousands of years, people of different epochs and cultures feel that somehow they are parts and partakers of the same Being, which they carry part of the infinity of such a Being. As Havel aptly puts it: “all cultures assume the existence of something that might be called the ‘Memory of Being,’ in which everything is constantly recorded.” Which means that the guarantees of human freedom are not found in systems of thought, or ideologies, or programs of action but in “man’s relationship to that which transcends him, without which he would not be, and of which he is integral part.” (In “Democracy’s Forgotten Dimension,” April 1995, pp. 3-10)

One of the constant refrains in Havel’s political philosophy is that of the loss of respect, including self-respect, apparent in the modern and post-modern world: loss or respect for what Havel calls “the order of nature, the order of humanity, and for secular authority as well.” Gone is the sense of responsibility that inhabitants of the same planet ought to have towards one another. Havel sees the causes of this loss of respect in the loss of a “transcendental anchor” which he considers the source of responsibility and self-respect. He pleads that humankind must reconnect itself to “the mythologies and religions of all cultures.” Only thus they can engage in the common quest for the general good.

What exactly is the general good? Havel’s answer is that a “global civilization” is already in the process of preparing a place for a “planetary democracy.” But this planetary democracy here on Earth must be somehow linked with the Heaven above us, with the transcendent. Havel is convinced that only in this setting “can the mutuality and the commonality of the human race be newly created, with reverence and gratitude for that which transcends each of us, and all of us together. The authority of a world democratic order simply cannot be built on anything else but the revitalized authority of the universe.” (ibid. p. 9).

Havel does not assume that such an order has already arrived in Europe. To the contrary, his essay titled The Hope for Europe (The New York Review, June 20, 1996) stands as a provocative survey of Europe’s enormous influence on human civilization, but this influence is ambiguous; it can be constructive as well as destructive.

Let us examine more closely Havel’s views on ideology, European Civilization and the European Union which may be about to come apart up as we speak. In an essay by the title of “Politics and the World Itself” published in 1992, Havel critiques the Cartesian-Marxist assumption, which is the general assumption of philosophical rationalists, that reality is governed by a finite number of universal laws whose interrelationship can be grasped by the human mind and anticipated in systematic formulae. He insists that there are no laws and no theories that can comprehensively direct or explain human life within the context of an ideological fix-all.

Consequently, we need to abandon “the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

In 1990 Havel addressed the U.S. Congress on the subject of democratic ideals and the rebirth of the human spirit where he reflected on the end of the bipolarity of the Cold War and the beginning of “an era of multi-polarity in which all of us, large and small, former slaves and former masters will be able to create what your great President Lincoln called ‘the family of men.’” He also declared that: “consciousness precedes being,” by which he simply means that the salvation of the human world lies in the human heart, the human power to reflect, and in human responsibility. More specifically Havel proclaimed that: “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.” This echoes Martin Buber or C.P. Snow’s insight on the two cultures: the world of “I-it” of science concerned with manipulation and use of matter out there (what Descartes calls extension into space), and the world of “I-Thou,” the world of the humanities and the poetic characterized by dialogue and ethical concerns.

So, what is to be done? Havel answers not with another ideology or a program or a Platonic blueprint but by simply reminding people that the way out of the crisis is dedication to responsibility: “Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success—responsibility to the order of being where all of our actions are indelibly recorded and where they will be properly judged.”

In 1995 Havel gave a commencement address at Harvard University where he recognizes that the world has already entered a single technological civilization and in the spirit of Husserl, Masaryk and Patocka he sounded the alarm: there is also afoot a contrary movement which finds expression in dramatic revivals of ancient traditions, religions and cultures. In other words there is an attempt at the recovery of “archetypal spirituality,” a searching for “what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of Being or a moral order that stands above us…Our respect for other people, for other nations, and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of Being, where it is judged.”

The question inexorably arises: What about Europe? In 1996 in his address at Aachen which he called “The Hope for Europe” Havel surveys and analyzes Europe’s enormous influence in world civilization but articulates some provocative thoughts: this influence can be both constructive and destructive. The challenge is to discern the positive constructive influences on which to build. He identifies the best that Europe has to offer the world in “a place of shared values.” To talk of shared values is to talk about European spiritual and intellectual identity, solidarity, the European soul, if you will. His sincere hope is that Europe, for the first time in its history “might establish itself on democratic principles as a whole entity.” There is a caveat: this will happen only if the values that underlie the European tradition are supported by a philosophically anchored sense of responsibility. More precisely: “The only meaningful task for the Europe of the 21st century is to be the best it can possibly be—that is, to revivify its best spiritual and intellectual traditions and thus help to create a new global pattern of coexistence.”

In Havel’s “The Politics of Hope” one reads that “in my own life I am reaching for something that goes far beyond me and the horizon of the world that I know; in everything I do I touch eternity in a strange way.” With this grounding, politics becomes ‘the universal consultation on the reform of the affairs which render man human.” There is no doubt that in Havel we have today a rare strong voice of the post-Cold War “new Europe” advocating a sort of “conspiracy of hope.” A conspiracy this that insisting that politics must be accorded a transcendental source and foundation or it will be built on sand. In today’s nihilistic global world this “conspiracy of hope” will be like the proverbial canary in the cave. If we ignore or suffocate it, it will be a sign that our so called civilization is in the process of committing suicide.

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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Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

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The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.

Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government

Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.

Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.

In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.

Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy

The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.

The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.

At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.

In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.

Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum

Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.

Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.

The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.

In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.

Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.

The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy

Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.

First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.

Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.

In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.

Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid

In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.

Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.

At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.

Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.

Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.

Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power

The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.

P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.

Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.

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Is British Democracy in Danger?

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On Sunday 12th of December 2021 Boris Johnson went on national television to warn about a tidal wave that would threaten Britain. He was back then referring to the Omicron Covid-19 variant, little did he know back then that he could have been referring to his own political future. Johnson is facing increasing demands from his own party to step down after having admitted to attending a party in Downing Street on May 20th, 2020, during the UK’s first national lockdown.

Johnson has been facing increasing risks for quite a long time by now: from collapsing poll ratings, to violation of lockdown rules and an ill-managed pandemic that has continued to strain the National Health Service; among many others. These crises have compromised his moral authority both with the citizenry and with his own frontbenchers. Although in the UK confidence votes can happen relatively quick: the no confidence vote on Theresa May’s government was held on December 12th, 2018, just a day after she was informed that the minimum threshold had been reached, this is still not on the horizon for the current Prime Minister.

To trigger a leadership contest 15% of the Tory MPs need to submit a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee. There are currently 360 Tory MPs, 54 of them are needed to spark a confidence vote. As up to now, very few have publicly confirmed to either have submitted or to have the intention to submit a letter. If such threshold is reached, this would open the debate as to whether there is someone suitable enough to replace him. The frontrunners are Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss; neither have the proven record of vote-winning Boris Johnson has had ever since he was the Mayor of London. Such vote of confidence is also unlikely to happen as majority of the crises the government has faced are of their own making. Johnson is not the cause; it is the symptom of a deeper decay of the British State and their politicians.

While the Conservatives will not be able to escape the cumulative effects of current and past scandals, this latest turmoil us unlikely to trigger the collapse of Boris Johnson. The next British election is scheduled to happen in May 2024, giving both Johnson and the Tories enough time to move on from this crisis and work on rebuilding electoral support. Boris Johnson has long defied political gravity and has survived a long history of scandals and mismanagements that may have destroyed the electoral chances of many other politicians and their political parties. It is highly likely that in the coming local elections in May 2022 the Conservatives will suffer electoral defeats, this is still preferable than what the political and electoral consequences for the Conservatives would be if they were to get rid of Johnson. Sacking him now would be accepting losing the war rather than losing a battle in the coming local elections. The long-term aim of the Tories is to hold on power for as long as they can, and at least ensure their electoral base is secure coming the 2024 general elections. For this, Boris Johnson still may come in handy.

Although Boris Johnson’s record has been shockingly poor; the Tories will not give Labour a chance for a general election before the scheduled for 2024, especially not now that they are leading the polls on the question as to who would make a better prime minister. The reality is that although his ratings have plummeted dramatically over recent years, there is no real threat of a general election for at least 2 years if one considers the larger political landscape.

One of the major threats British democracy does not come from Boris Johnson but rather from a deterioration of what sustains democracy as a healthy system of government. The UK electorate is highly volatile. Unlike countries like the US whose electorate has become highly polarised, the British electorate has shown less party loyalty, and voters have switched more and more between political parties in each election. However, this volatility will not get Johnson out of office, that is something only the Conservatives can do. This is closely linked to trust in politicians and the government. Lack of trust in both is one of the major issues of contemporary democracies around the world. Trust, is, after all, the basic condition for a legitimate government. Lack of trust in politicians, institutions, political parties, and the government in general enables populist tendencies, polarisation, political extremism and impacts the voting preference of citizens. It also favours the support of more stringent stances towards minorities, opposition, immigration, and human rights violations. A second threat that should not be disregarded is the attitude towards democratic institutions and bodies that sustain the British political system. While it is true that Johnson’s behaviour does not push to extremes such as Donal Trump did, or many other highly divisive politicians around the world, he is drawn to the same unconventional styles to deal with political challenges.

Democracy around the world is facing a backlash that is organised and coming from within, from elected officials. Our democratic rights can either be taken away suddenly as a result of a revolution or a coup d’état, or gradually through the election of leaders who slowly erode rules, standards and institutions that help sustain democracy. This is potentially more dangerous for the overall prospects of democracy because gradual erosion of democratic values is harder to perceive. The state, under this progressive attack, becomes prone to the systematic corruption of interest groups that take over the processes and institutions in charge of making public policy. It is during this gradual democratic backsliding that elected officials disregard norms and institutions while, at the same time, trying to redesign the structure of the state. An informed and active citizenry is crucial to prevent further erosion of democracy. We need to be aware that it is not only democratic rules and institutions that are in danger, but also the respect of our fundamental civil, political, social and human rights.

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The French Dispatch: The Year 2022 and European Security

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2021 has been rich in negative events for European security: the world has witnessed the collapse of the Open Skies Treaty, American-French discord concerning AUKUS, the termination of the official dialogue between Russia and NATO, and the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Over the past year, the Western countries seem to have been searching for new strategies. Since the end of 2019, NATO has been developing a new concept, and in June 2021 at the summit in Brussels, to the displeasure of sceptics, it was possible to agree on its basis—the transatlantic agenda NATO 2030 (# NATO2030) . While the broad formulations and a direct hierarchy of threats still require clarification, new projects in the field of weapons development, combating climate change, and increasing interoperability have already been declared.

In parallel, since the end of 2020, work has continued on the EU European Parliamentary Research Service project—the Strategic Compass. The dialectic between Atlanticism and Europeanism softened after Joe Biden came to power in the United States, but the European interests and red lines retain their significance for transatlantic relations. In 2022, together with the rotating post of the President of the EU Council, the role of a potential newsmaker in this area has been transferred to Emmanuel Macron, who feels very comfortable in it.

On December 9, the provisions of the Paris programme were published under the motto “Recovery, power, belonging” France, as expected, is reiterating its call for strengthening European sovereignty. The rhetoric of the document and its author is genuine textbook-realism. But now for the entire European Union.

Objectives of the French Presidency, are not articulated directly but are quite visible—making the EU more manageable and accountable to its members, with new general rules to strengthen mobilisation potential, and improve the EU’s competitiveness and security in a world of growing challenges.

Paris proposes reforming the Schengen area and tightening immigration legislation—a painful point for the EU since 2015, which has become aggravated again in recent months. This ambitious task has become slightly more realistic since Angela Merkel’s retirement in Germany. At least a new crisis response mechanism on this issue can be successful, even if it is not fully implemented.

In addition, the Élysée Palace calls on colleagues to revise the budget deficit ceilings of the Maastricht era to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and finally introduce a carbon tax at the EU borders. The latter allows for a new source of income and provides additional accountability for the implementation of the “green” goals by member countries.

The planned acceleration of the adoption of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA), developed by the European Commission at the end of 2020, is also aimed at unifying the general legislation and consolidating the European position in the world. In other words, the French Foreign Ministry quite soberly assesses the priority areas and vulnerabilities of the European Union and focuses on them, but with one exception.

A special priority of the French presidency is to strengthen the defence capabilities of the EU. On the sidelines, the French diplomats note that the adoption of the Strategic Compass in the spring of 2022, as originally planned, is a fundamental task, since otherwise the process may be completely buried. With a high degree of probability, this is so: the first phase of the development of the Compass—the general list of threats—lasted a year, and consisted of dozens of sessions, meetings, round tables with the involvement of leading experts, but the document was never published. If Macron won’t do it, then who will?

As the main ideologist and staunchest supporter of the EU’s “strategic autonomy”, the French president has been trying for five years to mobilise others for self-sufficiency in the security sphere. With his direct participation, not only the Mechanism of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in the defence area was launched, where France is the leader in a number of projects, but also the so-far failed European Intervention Initiative. Even without focusing on French foreign policy traditions and ambitions, the country remains a major European arms exporter and a nuclear power, where the military-industrial complex is closely affiliated with the state.

Implementing the 2022 agenda is also a matter of immediate political gain as France enters a new electoral cycle. The EU Summit will take place on March 10-11, 2022, in Paris, a month before the elections, and in any case it will become part of the election campaign and a test for the reputation of the current leader. Macron has not yet officially announced his participation in the presidential race, but he is actively engaged in self-promotion, because right-wing politicians espousing different degrees of radicalism are ready to take advantage of his defeats to purchase extra points.

The search for allies seems to be of key importance for victory at the European level, and the French Foreign Ministry has already begun working on this matter. In 2016–2017 the launch of new initiatives was predetermined by the support of Germany and the Central and East European countries. The change of cabinet in Germany will undoubtedly have an impact on the nation’s policy. On the one hand, following the results of the first visit of the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Paris on December 10, the parties announced the closeness of their positions and a common desire to strengthen Europe. On the other hand, the coalition of Social Democrats (SDP) was made up with the Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) who are not at all supporters of excessive involvement in security issues. What “strategic autonomy” means for France, constitutes a more restrained “strategic sovereignty” for Germany Therefore, an intensification of dialogue with Italy and Spain, which are both respected and potentially sympathetic, is likely. The military cooperation agreement concluded in the autumn of 2021 with Greece, an active member of PESCO, can also help Paris.

Gaining support from smaller countries is more challenging. Although the European project is not an alternative to the transatlantic one, the formation of a common list of threats is a primary task and problem for NATO as well. As mentioned above, it is around it that controversy evolves, because the hierarchy determines the distribution of material resources. The countries of Eastern Europe, which assume that it is necessary to confront Russia but lack the resources to do so, will act as natural opponents of the French initiatives in the EU, while Paris, Rome and Madrid will oppose them and the United States in the transatlantic dialogue. The complexity of combining two conversations about the same thing with a slightly different composition of participants raises the bar for Emmanuel Macron. His stakes are high. The mobilisation of the Élysée Palace’s foreign policy is one of the most interesting subjects to watch in the year 2022.

From our partner RIAC

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