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

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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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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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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