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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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Taking For Granted … Be Wary

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The title of these comments is inspired by my personal experience in important areas of public policy both as a politician beginning in the 1970s and more recently as Secretary General of the OECD from 1996 until 2006. That was a very important decade as it ushered in the period which some day we thought would be known as the beginning of globalization on a grand scale.

When I took up my responsibilities in Paris at the end of May 1996 it was a time brimming with  optimism about the great future ahead for our children and generations to follow! We were about to say goodbye to one of the most brutal and bloody centuries in human history. Physical human suffering was compounded by poverty and misery of hundreds of millions, especially in the developing world.

Many of us involved at the international level in public policy saw major opportunities to address challenges which had eluded us in the past. Indeed we took a great deal for granted and I must confess that I certainly did. Why? Here are a few examples and the reasons for taking so much for granted.

  1. We had just witnessed major geopolitical restructuring in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union had collapsed and we assumed that the threat of nuclear war had disappeared with it;
  2. With the replacement of the GATT the ( WTO) we took for granted the exciting prospect of global free trade and investment, which would bring economic growth and rising prosperity everywhere, but especially to the developing world. We expected “trade” not “aid” to be the route out of third world poverty;
  3.  The expansion of the proven Marshall Plan formula to regions fractured by division and conflict. We took for granted that such approaches could bring peace to the war torn Balkans and perhaps even to the Middle East and  the Arab World;
  4. We took for granted that with the publication  of the Brundtland Report “ Our Common Future” on Sustainable Development  followed by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, followed by the commitments in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the decades long stalemate of slowing green house gas emissions (GHGs) (and therefore global warming) had been broken  and that multilateral international commitments would ensure the protection of the biosphere and its natural capital;
  5. We took for granted that improvements to the stunning success of healthy capitalism through universal principles of good corporate governance, supported by an Anti Bribery Convention, would control the greed inherent in the undue exploitation of unfettered capitalism.  We took for granted that the wealth and wage disparities would narrow, especially in the United States;
  6. We witnessed the remarkable rise of the European Union (EU) uniting former enemies. We took its expansion and global role for granted. Regarding the EU,  I often quote a paragraph from the preface of A History of Europe by H. A. L Fisher, a warden at Oxford University in the 1930s. He wrote: “[No] question [would be] more pertinent to the future welfare of the world than how the nations of Europe … may best be combined into some stable organization for the pursuit of their common interests and the avoidance of strife“;
  7. We also took for granted the gradual spread of democracy and democratic institutions into the former countries of the Soviet Union and elsewhere in central Europe, South America and Asia;
  8. Early misgivings about the ideological bent of  Recep Erdogan as the Prime Minister, and then President of Turkey, were dispelled as he initially seemed supportive of good governance, freedom of the fourth estate, free speech  and democratic principles. We believed him and took for granted that the remarkable reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, would ensure the survival of a secular democratic Turkey;
  9. We took for granted the United States as a lone global superpower, magnanimous and fair, the first true united nation with people drawn from all corners of the planet to its robust democracy and unlimited opportunities.

As we look back over the past 25 years it is obvious that much too much was taken for granted. Given that so few of the opportunities we assumed would bring the world to a much better place were seized by my generation, what do you perceive as a better way forward? When we open that discussion in a few minutes, I hope I have convinced you to take little for granted. Be wary, if not skeptical, about those who foresee only a prosperous and peaceful future for this wonderful planet.

We need to remind ourselves of the following and address the questions I raise in our general discussion.

1. We failed to engage Russia with the West and as a result are now strengthening NATO in an effort to contain Putin’s aggressive behaviour. History may show this to be the most egregious of all Western public policy failures in the post-Soviet Union period because of its impact on other areas of global concern where Russia should have been a partner. Is it too late to recover from a failure to engage Russia despite the Russian adventures in Crimea and the Ukraine?

2. The EU is increasingly fragile, with concern about the future of the euro common currency and the EU’s capacity to deal with massive immigration from the war-torn areas of the Middle East. Do the weaknesses of the EU reflect a too rapid expansion without strengthening institutions which would move it toward a more federalist structure promoted by the Spinelli group?

3. Tensions have grown between China and its neighbours over territorial disputes, convincing the United States to pivot from its European focus and increase its military presence in Asia. Does this refocussing plus a strengthening alliance between China and Russia herald the reigniting of another Cold War like the one my generation grew up with?

4.Now many more nations( and possibly terrorist groups) have access to nuclear weapons. Does that greatly increase the possibility of a 21st century nuclear war?

5.The global free trade agenda is in the doldrums with the failure of the Doha Round and the concomitant rise of protectionist rhetoric, especially in the United States ,at the highest political levels. Does this mean that global free trade is now beyond reach?

 6. Is the prospect of eliminating poverty in the developing world through trade and investment  dying?

7.Reductions in GHG emissions, especially CO2, but also methane, continueto elude us after decades of effort, showing how ineffectual the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process has been and will be. The widely heralded but unenforceable Paris Agreement in the context of a history of failures is even dangerous because much of the public thinks our leaders have come to grips with this challenge (as we all did after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997). Do they do not realize that even if the agreed upon targets are achieved they are not sufficient to keep global temperatures below the level that the scientific community tells us is necessary to prevent dramatic and irreversible climate change?Is there resistance to developing a Plan B as a last resort to prevent unacceptable global warming? Solar radiation management , a form of geo engineering, seems to be broadly under consideration. Is that good or of concern? As areas of the world may become uninhabitable, will there be mass migration from areas of the developing word to more temperate climates?

8. For those who believe in democracy and perceived it as beginning to take root after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union do subsequent developments undermine the confidence that many democratic governments may be in retreat?  In some countries, such as Thailand, there has been a return to a military dictatorship. In others, such as Russia and other countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, there is only a pretense of democracy with rigged elections, as in Belarus. There also appears to be backsliding in Turkey, a very important global player and a bridge between Asia and its historic Western allies. The situation in Turkey, which held such promise only a decade ago, is very worrisome. President Erdogan seems increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism and dissent. Failure of this democracy could be a sad, even tragic, development. Turkey is a major regional and global power, and through the influence of Atatürk it became an emerging secular democracy with a majority Sunni population straddling Europe and Asia. Atatürk showed the world what individual leadership supported by ethical standards could accomplish in a short period of time.

9. Is the world faced with a growing number of autocratic strongmen who would prefer to destroy the important international infrastructure if it constrains their personal ambitions? It would appear that when one combines the far east, parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand etc, more than 50% of humanity is or will soon be governed by “strong men“. With few exceptions such as Ataturk, history shows that such people have only one interest “me”.

President Trump gives every indication that he is anxious to join the ranks of these strongmen, initially by withdrawing the United States from the central role it had played through visionary leadership by building and helping to maintain the post war international and institutional architecture. His slogan “America First” should be interpreted for what it really is, namely, “Donald Trump First”.

There is a disquieting commentary in the New York Times of 16 December 2016 entitled “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy” by Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University. Here is an excerpt:

“Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? … Past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival … Our research points to several warning signs.

The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. Drawing on a close study of democracy’s demise in 1930s Europe, the eminent political scientist Juan J. Linz designed a “litmus test” to identify anti-democratic politicians. His indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments. “

Mr. Trump tests positive on all counts. In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters and pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton;

He haspage213image41232512page213image41225792page213image41222912threatened legal action against unfriendly media, and continues to suggest that he might not accept the election results saying the election will be rigged. If he loses will he in some way resist leaving office?

Since his 2016 election he has not changed his attitude on any of these issues.

David Frum, a Conservative and traditional Republican and a senior editor at the Atlantic published a book two years ago “Trumpocacy- The Corruption of the American Republic”. It has recently been released in paperback with a new preface by Frum which reviews the appalling record of this individual to whom Americans have entrusted the leadership of the most powerful nation in history.

In a concluding paragraph of the book he writes….” President Trump is cruel, vengeful, ignorant, lazy, avaricious and treacherous…”

Later he adds: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can be your finest hour as a citizen and as an American”

Today I cast Frum’s challenge to each of you in a global perspective rather than just American.

Yes, democracy can be fragile everywhere.

 We who live in well-established democracies must never be complacent or smug about the success of our societies. The comments of the Harvard professors above echo that concern.

Our democratic societies and their political systems must adapt to a rapidly evolving world. We are increasingly in that global village through forces of globalization amplified by communication and transportation technologies.

In line with the work of Charles Darwin, it has been said that “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The same could be said of democratic governments and even empires.

What happens next to global free government is up to your generation of leadership. It is a humungous challenge, especially in countries where the seeds of democracy have never been planted or where they have enjoyed short life spans, Thailand and especially Turkey come to mind.

The future of democracy across the globe could be destroyed if the autocratic motives and moves of Donald Trump succeed, as they well might if I read the current political climate in the United States correctly. Despite shortcomings which need correction such as the unfortunate influence on elections through Super Pacs, the United States has been perceived for years as a remarkable democracy which others attempt to emulate. This may be about to change as it is increasingly viewed as government by the rich, of the rich and for the rich, and Trump does not appear to feel constrained by the institutional checks and balances of the constitution. He could put American democracy on the terrible path to an autocratic state which he seems to admire, especially in the Russia and Turkey of today.

In summary, what looked to be a promising future in all the major areas of concern in the 1990s has evolved into what could best be described as an economic, social, and geopolitical mess. But as bad as that story is, we have succeeded in making the future even more problematic with the arrival of global terrorism.

My generation must recognize the extraordinary failures of the past decades. Your generation must do better.

It seems that efforts to create consensus on major issues amongst many sovereign nations does not work. Is there not a better way forward in global governance? This is the last question I leave you with.

Have 190 counties not offered proof  of the impossibility of finalizing an international and binding free trade agreement known as the Doha Round, or as almost 200 countries have done in their efforts to find consensus on concrete solutions to address the challenges of climate change. Neither set of efforts, the first initiated through the WTO process and the second through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, has delivered the results sought and it is unlikely they ever will.

Is starting small and gradually broadening an international consensus a better option? The EU successfully evolved from a small base but has it expanded too rapidly to consolidate and build upon its remarkable and successful beginnings? Even the G20 may be ineffectual because of size and economic and social diversity.

Does the difficulty of building broad consensus on these issues suggests that a structure more resembling the UN Security Council would be more effective? Could the Security Council itself with a limited membership of powerful countries become a global steering group and replace the G-7 process?

Whether we like it or not, each major power has spheres of influence over smaller regional powers through shared history, culture (sometimes language), and trade and investment.

When we compare human and societal evolution to a relay race one generation must pass the baton on to the next. In a small way that is what I am saying to you today. I hope our discussion will touch upon a number of these important and often controversial issues.

We have fallen behind in many respects in the early years of this 21st century, perhaps even forfeiting many of the hard-earned benefits of good capitalism and democracy to an ever increasing number of corrupt strong men and autocratic regimes.

Is that the future?

Remember the words Shakespeare attributed to Brutus:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

I am persuaded that the latter may be our fate. We did not take the flood of opportunities at hand in the 1990s. Is it too late to recover through hard work, sacrifice and creativity in restructuring global governance for a better world.

What should we do? What can you do?

It will depend to a large extent on your personal values which I hope have not been irreversibly warped by admiration for the material success of greed and visible wealth of the famous 1% who dominate power and politics in the USA and increasingly elsewhere.

I have described the state of the world today as analogous to the fireplace at my country home. It is usually fully loaded with tinder, kindling and dry wood. All it awaits is a match. Unfortunately, in the world today there are many matches waiting to be lit and spread their deadly destruction to regions, if not the planet as a whole.

*This text is exclusively made as supplementary for a university lecture held on 28 OCT 2020. It is a part of the so-called ‘Geneva Lecture Series – Contemporary World of Geo-economics’, concepted and considered by prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic for the Swiss University in Geneva.

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Economic situation is EU citizens’ top concern in light of the coronavirus pandemic

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In a troubled period marked by the coronavirus pandemic, trust in the EU remains stable and Europeans trust the EU to make the right decisions in response to the pandemic in the future. In the new Standard Eurobarometer survey released today, European citizens identify the economic situation, the state of Member States’ public finances and immigration as the three top concerns at EU level. The economic situation is also the main concern at national level, followed by health and unemployment.

In the new Eurobarometer conducted in July and August, concern about the economic situation is reflected in the perception of the current state of the economy. 64% of Europeans think that the situation is ‘bad’ and 42% of Europeans think that their country’s economy will recover from the adverse effects of the coronavirus outbreak ‘in 2023 or later’.

Europeans are divided (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’) regarding the measures taken by the EU to fight the pandemic. However, 62% say they trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future, and 60% remain optimistic about the future of the EU.

Trust and image of the EU

Trust in the European Union has remained stable since autumn 2019 at 43%, despite variations of public perceptions during the pandemic. Trust in national governments and parliaments has increased (40%, +6 percentage points and 36%, +2 respectively).

In 15 Member States, a majority of respondents says they trust the EU, with the highest levels observed in Ireland (73%), Denmark (63%) and Lithuania (59%). The lowest levels of trust in the EU are observed in Italy (28%), France (30%) and Greece (32%).

The proportion of respondents with a positive image of the EU is the same as that with a neutral image (40%). 19% of respondents have a negative image of the EU (-1 percentage points).

In 13 EU Member States, a majority of respondents has a positive image of the EU, with the highest proportions observed in Ireland (71%), Poland and Portugal (both 55%). In 13 other Member States, the EU conjures up a predominantly neutral image for respondents, with the highest proportions observed in Malta (56%), Spain, Latvia and Slovenia (all 48%).

Main concerns at EU and national level

Citizens mentioned the economic situation as the most pressing issue facing the EU – over one-third (35%) of all respondents, a strong increase of 16 percentage points since autumn 2019, and rise from third to first concern. Concern about the economic situation has not been this high since spring 2014.

Europeans are also increasingly concerned about the state of Member States’ public finances (23%, +6 percentage points, the highest level since spring 2015), which moves from fifth to second place on a par with immigration (23%, -13 percentage points), the latter now being at the lowest level since autumn 2014.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, health (22%, new item) is the  fourth most mentioned concern at EU level. The issue of the environment and climate change has lost ground, down 8 percentage points to 20%, followed by unemployment (17%, +5 percentage points).

Similarly, the economic situation (33%, +17 percentage points) has overtaken health as the most important issue at national level, rising from seventh to first position. Although in second position, health has had a notable increase in mentions since autumn 2019 (31%, +9 percentage points), taking it to its highest ever level over the past six years.

Unemployment has also increased considerably in importance (28%, +8 percentage points), followed by rising prices/inflation/cost of living (18%, -2 percentage points), the environment and climate change (14%, -6 percentage points) and government debt (12%, +4 percentage points). Mentions of immigration (11%, -5 percentage points), are at their lowest level for the past six years.

The current economic situation

Since autumn 2019, the proportion of Europeans who think that the current situation of their national economy is ‘good’ (34%, -13 percentage points) has declined considerably, while the proportion of respondents who judge this situation to be ‘bad’ has increased sharply (64%, +14 percentage points).

At national level, a majority of respondents in 10 countries says that the national economic situation is good (down from 15 in autumn 2019). The proportion of respondents who say the situation of their national economy is good ranges from 83% in Luxembourg to 9% in Greece.

The coronavirus pandemic and public opinion in the EU

Europeans are divided on the measures taken by the EU institutions to fight the coronavirus outbreak (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’). However, a majority of respondents in 19 Member States is satisfied with the measures taken by the European Union institutions to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The highest positive figures are found in Ireland (71%); Hungary, Romania and Poland (all 60%). In seven countries, a majority of respondents is ‘not satisfied’, especially in Luxembourg (63%), Italy (58%), Greece and Czechia (both 55%) and Spain (52%). In Austria, equal proportions of respondents are satisfied, and not satisfied (both 47%).

However, more than six Europeans in ten trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future (62%). The most frequently mentioned priorities for the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are: establish a strategy for facing a similar crisis in the future and develop financial means to find a treatment or vaccine (each 37%). 30% think that developing a European health policy should be a priority.

Europeans’ personal experiences of confinement measures were very diverse. Overall, close to three Europeans in ten say that it was fairly easy to cope with (31%), while a quarter say it was fairly difficult to cope with (25%). Finally, 30% say that it was ‘both easy and difficult to cope with’.

Key policy areas

Asked about the objectives of the European Green Deal, Europeans continue identifying ‘developing renewable energy‘ and ‘fighting against plastic waste and leading on the issue of single-use of plastic’ as the top priorities. More than one third think the top priority should be supporting EU farmers (38%) or promoting the circular economy (36%). Just over three in ten think reducing energy consumption (31%) should be the top priority.

Support for the Economic and Monetary Union and for the euro remains high, with 75% of respondents in the Euro area in favour of the EU’s single currency. In the EU27 as a whole, support for the euro has increased to 67% (+5).

 EU citizenship and European democracy

A majority of people in 26 EU Member States (except Italy) and 70% across the EU feel that they are citizens of the EU. At a national level the highest scores are observed in Ireland and Luxembourg (both 89%), Poland (83%), Slovakia and Germany (both 82%), Lithuania (81%), Hungary, Portugal and Denmark (all 80%).

A majority of Europeans (53%) say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU. The proportion of respondents who are ‘not satisfied’ has increased, by 3 percentage points since autumn 2019 to 43%.

 Optimism for the future of the EU

Finally, in this troubled period, 60% of Europeans say they are optimistic about the future of the EU. The highest scores for optimism are observed in Ireland (81%), Lithuania and Poland (both 75%) and Croatia (74%). The lowest levels of optimism are seen in Greece (44%) and Italy (49%), where pessimism outweighs optimism, and France, where opinion is evenly divided (49% vs 49%).

Background

The ‘Summer 2020 – Standard Eurobarometer’ (EB 93) was conducted face-to-face and exceptionally completed with online interviews between 9 July and 26 August 2020, across the 27 EU Member States, in the United Kingdom and in the candidate countries 26,681 interviews were conducted in the 27 Member States.

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Could the EU Make its ASEAN Breakthrough with the Emerging Indo-Pacific Strategy?

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The Indo-Pacific policy guidelines that was announced by the German Federal Foreign Office last week, is a clear signal from Berlin in becoming a shaper for the international order in the volatile region. Entitled “Germany-Europe-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”, the policy guidelines is the second of such document in the European Union (EU) after the Macron administration released its own Indo-Pacific strategy back in August 2019. But considering that Germany is the current president of the EU Council, this policy guidelines has been ever more significant. For one, Berlin has made clear its intention to lead Europe into this new Indo-Pacific charge as the ‘third power’ after the US-led coalition and China ⸺ an aim that is highlighted not just by this German government’s policy guidelines but also, incisively described by the French as the ‘mediating power’.

The release of such document, of course, reverberates different responses from political observers outside of Europe. For instance, Sebastian Strangio sees the German latest move as part of Europe’s reassessment of its approach to China and boldly predicts that other EU nations are to follow suit with their new stand on China. Prominent Filipino expert, Richard Javad Heydarian, meanwhile, is of the view that Germany’s pursuit as the shaper of international order is deliberately focused on the key regions which bear strategic importance to Europe overall. On the other hand, Xin Hua, adopts a pessimistic view on the ability of Europe to influence the Indo-Pacific region. With Berlin’s policy guidelines, the Chinese scholar sees Europe’s reliance on soft power (such as norms diffusion)to influence the Indo-Pacific region, in contrast to the US that projects its hard power in the region through military prowess in the region, will make it less than what it aimed as the shaper of international order.

Be it applause or skepticism, the observers are in the same view that Berlin’s latest move is a drastic shift from its previous ambiguous position on the Indo-Pacific region which has become the hotbed for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision pushed by the US and its military allies such as Japan and Australia. With this policy guidelines in place, it signals the seriousness of the German government in joining the Indo-Pacific region with the rest of the EU, as a third power that is independent from the US camp and China. What is left is the forming of a full European-level Indo-Pacific strategy and its implementation in the years ahead.

The ASEAN Context

In the ASEAN context, Germany’s move has created two questions that are worthy to ponder. First, how will this emerging Indo-Pacific strategy be different to Europe’s current cooperation policy toward ASEAN as a whole? This is the foremost question to ask among ASEAN member states as the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy  guidelines singled out the Southeast Asian bloc as the country’s focused cooperation partner in different areas of cooperation: climate change, marine pollution, rule of law and human rights, culture, education, science, trade and technology. That said, this is not the first time ASEAN appeared as the important partner for the EU.As a matter of fact, two-way cooperation has been ongoing since the establishment of dialogue relations in 1977.

As of 2020, two EU-ASEAN Action Plans have been agreed upon, implemented and in the middle of enforcement. Within the Action Plan (2018-2022) that runs through the year 2022, a myriad of cooperation areas has been outlined, spanning across political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars. In particular, those areas of cooperation identified in Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines are within the trans-regional plan as well. What is new is that Berlin has set security policy as a special focus area for Indo-Pacific cooperation ⸺ a point that is emphasized by the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas in his press release following the announcement of the country’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines. In line with such niche orientation, Germany can readily lead the European initiative to assist ASEAN in the two sub-areas of non-traditional security that do not have substantial cooperation but chiefly important in the coming months and years: cybersecurity and public health security. These two sub-areas will be the best start for the EU’s Indo-Pacific push in the ASEAN region.

Second, how will the EU’s Indo-Pacific approach be different from its current dogmatic approach in its cooperation with ASEAN? By all means, it is no secret that dogmatic adherence to rules and norms remained to be the greatest obstacle for the EU’s full amelioration of ties with ASEAN in the past years. As of today, the EU’s ban of Indonesian and Malaysian imports as well as its unease on Filipino President Duterte and Burmese junta’s human rights records, are the contentious issues that prevented the European bloc to go past its finishing line in negotiating a full free trade pact with ASEAN. From such case alone, it is clear that the European bloc’s normative stance predicated upon Brussels’ strictly defined rules, norms and values on climate change and human rights issues, is in play when comes to international cooperation with ASEAN.

Having said that, Germany’s latest Indo-Pacific policy guidelines do not precisely highlight of its normative stance apart from maintaining the international rules-based order in the volatile region. But on the other hand, Germany’s aim for the EU to become the shaper of such order also sparks an open-ended question of whether its strict adherence to rules, norms and values (as in the present) will continue to be the defining feature of its cooperation with ASEAN. From the Indo-Pacific policy guidelines, this question is yet to be answered by the German government and perhaps, this dilemma is to betackled in the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy. Should a pragmatic approach is adopted by the EU ⸺ as has been recently demonstrated by the conclusion and enforcement of the EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement despite human rights concern in the ASEAN member state ⸺ it will definitely clear the normative obstacle for the eventual conclusion of a free trade pact with the Southeast Asian bloc. More than that, it stands to facilitate greater cooperation in all areas of partnership between the two regions.

All in all, the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy should need to address these two questions that have surfaced fromthe former’s past and current experiences with ASEAN. While the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines have set new tone to Europe’s engagement with the volatile region, such document has yet to tackle these two difficult questions. Only by tacklingthese two questions will the EU be able to make its much-needed ASEAN breakthroughwith the emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.

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